Infidels with Benefits

Jews in the Medieval Islamic Empire

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Egyptian Jewry was geographically closer to the pre-Islamic centers of Jewish leadership in Palestine and in Babylon than Spain or North Africa. For this and other reasons, the process of breaking away in Egypt was delayed until the latter part of the eleventh century.

Later Is Not Better, Anywhere 

This essay has highlighted the classical period of Jewish life under Islam. In the later Islamic Middle Ages, from the 12th and 13th centuries on, society at large experienced stress, and, proportionately, so did the Jews. External threats from Christian Europe (the Crusades, the Christian reconquest in Spain) and from central Asia (the Mongols), a loss of commercial precedence to non-Muslims in both the Mediterranean and the India trades, and the rise of military regimes like the Mamluks of Egypt (who also controlled Palestine and Syria), contributed to the decline.

Jews felt the effects. Their economic prosperity waned. Muslim authorities, jittery about possible collusion between their external enemies and dhimmis, increasingly enforced the restrictive laws of the Pact of Umar. The bent for philosophy in Islam, which the Jews had shared, receded…

The most difficult places for Jews in the late Middle Ages were two: Iran, where the establishment of Shi'ism as the "state religion" in the 16th century brought the harsher attitude toward non-Muslims of this form of Islam to bear heavily on Jews and other dhimmis, and North Africa, where, as the only dhimmis on the scene since the Almohad persecutions had subsided (Jews had returned to Judaism, but Christian converts had not returned to Christianity), they absorbed singularly the brunt of Muslim contempt.

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Mark R. Cohen

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