People of the Book

Muslim-Jewish relations in the Middle Ages.

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Reprinted with permission from Medieval Jewish Civilization: An Encyclopedia (Routledge).

Official Infidels

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. 

In re­turn, they had to remit an annual tribute‑-a poll tax (Arabic: jizya)--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 dhimmisfrom 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.

spanish mosqueThe 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 dhimmishumble. 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.

Boundaries Often Breached

Moreover, in actual practice during this era, the dhimmarestrictions were commonly observed in the breach. Jews--and more so the far more numer­ous Christians--regularly evaded the sartorial con­straints, constructed new houses of worship, and, most conspicuously, abounded in the Muslim bu­reaucracy. Documents from daily life in the Cairo genizah testify to this evasion. [A genizah is a place where unusable sacred writings were stored in order to preserve them from desecration.] So do frequent com­plaints in Muslim sources that dhimmishad over­stepped the boundaries imposed upon them by the holy law--whence the restrictions would be enforced with sudden vigor, thus being perceived by the dhimmis as persecution.

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Mark R. Cohen

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