Infidels with Benefits

Jews in the Medieval Islamic Empire

Print this page Print this page

This essay spotlights the "classical period” of Jewish life under Islam in the Middle Ages, from the seventh through the twelfth century. During this era, the Jews enjoyed substantial security, punctuated by infrequent aberrations of persecution, with far less violence than that experienced by their brethren living in Christendom. Against this background, the Jews of Islam realized a remarkable cultural florescence. Reprinted with permission from Medieval Jewish Civilization: An Encyclopedia (Routledge).

Jews Were Tolerated as “People of the Book”

Religiously, Jews were categorized by Islam as "infidels" (Arabic: kuffar). However, like Christians, they qualified as "people of the book," possessors of a prior revelation from God that was written down. People of the book acquired a tolerated status, that of “protected people" (ahlal-dhimma, or dhimmis), who were permitted to live among Muslims, undisturbed, and to observe their faith without interference.

jews in the islamic world

In return, they had to remit an annual tribute--a poll tax--and comply with other restrictions, some of which evolved over time during the first century or so of Islamic dominion. These limited the public exhibition of their religious rites and symbols (for instance, prohibition of construction of new houses of worship and repair to old ones; enticing Muslims to their religion). Other rules prescribed or proscribed special dress and other outward signs distinguishing the dhimmis from Muslims (Arabic honorific names, for instance, were disallowed, as were the carrying of weapons and riding animals of prestige, like horses). They were prohibited from serving in positions of authority in Islamic administration. And in general they had to confirm the superiority of Islam by assuming a low profile.

The Other “People of the Book” Were Good Company

The term most regularly used for this was saghar, meaning "humiliation," and, indeed, historically, the purpose of the laws was to keep Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, and other dhimmis humble. Most of the restrictions appear in the so‑called Pact of Umar. There was no special code, however, for the Jews per se in Islam: the dhimma "system," part of the holy law of Islam (the shari’a), applied equally to all non­-Muslim"people of the book."

As such, the discrimination that existed was somewhat diffused among several infidel groups and hence not perceived as being pointedly anti-Jewish. This "pluralism," characteristic of Islamic society as a whole, helped protect the Jews and their counterparts in the infidel category from the baneful effects of singular "otherness" that underlay the Jewish position in Christendom.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Mark R. Cohen

Mark R. Cohen is a Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University.