Jewish Commerce in Muslim Lands

The learned merchant was the standard bearer of medieval Islamic civilization--and this was good for the Jews.

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The following article examines medieval Jewish commercial activities in the context of both Jewish and Islamic politics and culture. In addition to the factors that helped Jews in international trade, like their multilingualism and lingua franca (Hebrew), Islamic attitudes toward commerce allowed for freedom of movement and commercial vitality for the Jews. It is important to note that the position of the merchant in Islamic society contrasted with Christian notions, where an agricultural ideal reigned. Consequently, Jewish merchants and moneylenders in Christian Europe gained an altogether different—highly negative--reputation. Reprinted with permission from The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience (Free Press).

Muhammad (Like Ishmael, Arguably) Was a Merchant

Trade was fundamental to Islamic life from the outset, in large part because Muhammad had been a merchant. According to Muslim (but not Jewish) tradition, Abraham’s son Ishmael, the forefather of Islam, was a textile merchant. The quasi-global economy of Islam eventually stretched from Iberia to the Indian Ocean, as ideas and men, goods and armies, moved freely between East and West. Mobility was facilitated by early oral Islamic tradition, which regarded travel for the sake of knowledge as a venerable and pious activity that might even assure entry into Paradise. According to one source, the Prophet himself said, “Those who go out in search of knowledge will be in the path of God until they return” Or, as the traditional phrase put it, “In mobility there is blessing” (In the Talmud too, travel for the sake of learning was commanded…)

muslims and jewsJewish Merchants Moved Freely Throughout the Mediterranean Region

Medieval Jewish documents spanning almost a thousand years, preserved in the treasure trove known as the Cairo Genizah, show how natural it was for Jews to be on the move. Their religious persuasion was no barrier to travel, and the surrounding culture helped revive and reinforce the ancient Talmudic custom of traveling in order to learn. The Genizah documents note quite casually the frequency with which Jews also moved between Spain and Sicily, Aden and the Indian Ocean, for the sake of contracting marriages for their offspring or establishing new branches of business. Evidently it was not even unusual to make several journeys from Spain to India during one’s lifetime.

Jews preferred to travel by sea, because one does not desecrate the Sabbath by gaining mileage on the water; the requirement of halting a land caravan for a day could be extremely expensive. Moreover, the Muslims had made the sea routes eminently safe, by constructing lighthouses along the shores and introducing new, improved naval vessels; even so, ships in this era stayed fairly close to shore, and in winter, when the tides were tricky, traders took the land routes. A medieval Jewish merchant might well own a home in Iberia and another elsewhere, perhaps in Morocco or in the Near East. Thus was fashioned an overarching culture and cosmopolitan community that shared many features, exchanging new tastes and technologies along with goods and services.

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Jane S. Gerber

Jane S. Gerber is a Professor of History at City University of New York. Her book, The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience, won the 1993 National Jewish Book Award for Sephardic Studies.