The historical position of Jews in Arab Lands

An introduction and source documents

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This survey introduces a collection of brief readings from sources that illuminate the condition of Jews living under Muslim rule. It is not intended to provide an exhaustive  picture. It is intended to counter the false impression that has been created, and furthered in recent years by certain groups, that there was no anti-Semitism in Muslim ruled lands, and that Jewish life in those countries was an unalloyed paradise of coexistence. In fact, Jews always led a precarious existence in Muslim ruled lands. This was not due only to the Dhimmi regulations that applied to both Christians and Jews, but to hatred of Jews that may have predated Islam.

Understanding of the historical position of Jews in Muslim society has fallen victim to tendentious polemics of different kinds. It should not be used as a platform to promote intolerance against Muslims. It is misleading to cite Qur'an passages and hadiths that inveigh against the Jews or Christians and to conclude from them that Islam is inherently anti-Semitic or anti-Christian. Enough justification could be found, and was found in scriptures to justify policies of leniency as well as persecutions, forced conversions and even pogroms. Equally, the existence of endemic anti-Semitism in Arab countries, whatever its causes, must not be ignored by those who wish to understand the history of the Jews under Islam, in the name of spurious "political correctness" or in order to create a mythical "narrative" that advances a political agenda.  

The social position of Jews in Muslim and Arab countries was generally better than it was under Christian rule. From this undoubted fact, various propagandists have fashioned a mythical paradise of coexistence. The myth grew up for many reasons, not the least of which was the marked contrast between the relative well being of Jews in Arab lands, and their usually far more miserable existence in Europe. Early Zionists contributed to the myth because they wanted to attract European Jews to live among the Arabs of "Palestina" (as it was called in most European languages). They were not going to dwell on pogroms or discrimination in Palestine under Muslim rule. Arabs and anti-Zionists, including the self-styled "Arab Jews," have contributed to the myth in order to blame current Jew hate in modern Arab society on "Zionism" or Christian influence.

Persecution of Jews in Arab lands was not limited in time or space

The persecutions of the Jews under Islam cannot be dismissed as "aberrations." They were not limited to any specific time or place. Muslim rule stretches and stretched over many thousands of square miles and over thirteen centuries.  The actual treatment of Jews and Christians varied from time to time and place to place, but our sources reveal that anti-Jewish feeling and persecution was present from the earliest times and manifested themselves in every corner of the Muslim empire, beginning with ninth century Iraq. Conditions were undoubtedly calamitous under the Spanish Muslim Almohad dynasty, but anti-Jewish feeling existed in Muslim Spain even at the height of the so-called Jewish "Golden Age," and resulted in a pogrom in Granada in 1066.

The Pact of Umar and Dhimmi laws

Jews were never granted equality in Muslim lands. Both Christians and Jews lived under conditions of official inferiority, but there was specific anti-Jewish feeling that went beyond the formal discrimination against non-Muslims.  Formally, the legal and social position of Jews and Christians in Muslim lands was defined by the Quran and the Pact of Umar. They were protected second class citizens - Dhimmi, subject to various indignities and abridgement of rights, special dress, restrictions on occupations and other humiliating regulations. The "protection" existed only if they "knew their place" as second class citizens.

The Pact of Umar stipulated that Jews and Christians could not hold office or ride horses or serve in the army or wear a sword, as well as being subject to many other restrictions. In the folk belief of Muslims, the Pact of Umar was ancient and unchangeable, and had been set down by the Caliph Umar bin al Khatib in the seventh century, close to the inception of Islam. In fact however, there are several versions of the Pact of Umar and all of them, at least all those that contain the restrictive and humiliating regulations, are probably no older that then the ninth century.

These formal restrictions stated in the Pact of Umar were raised time and again in later years (for example see Decree against the Dhimmi ) when reactions set in to liberal administrations that had, despite the pact of Umar, allowed Jews and Christians to serve in high office or ignore dress regulations or other humiliating conditions.

The payment of the Jizya tax is often depicted as a fair exchange for the fact that Jews and Christians did not pay the Muslim charitable tithes or serve in the army. In fact, implementation of this tax varied greatly. Some Christians did not have to pay it. The rate was set in an arbitrary way and as it was a poll tax, it could be made into a great burden on the poor. On at least one occasion, and probably many others, Jews who could not pay the Jizya were forced to convert. At least one such incident took place not in the darkness of the Middle Ages, but in the 19th century (See Collecting the Jizya tax in Mogadore). 

Jews in Arab Lands - Not just Dhimmi

Beyond the restrictions of Dhimmi status, that applied to both Christians and Jews, there was evidently a strong strain of folk anti-Semitism - specifically anti-Jewish sentiment, that put Jews at the bottom of the ladder, beyond the contempt reserved for Christians. This seems to have been endemic to Muslim civilization from the earliest times, and is discussed frankly in a ninth century treatise of al Jahiz, that cannot hide the prejudices of the author despite its relatively "objective" tone (see Why Muslims hate Jews more than Christians). The Qasida, a  polemic poem against the Jews by Abu Ishaq of Elvira, is far more bitter and outspoken against the Jews, not because they were poor, ignorant and unintelligent, as al-Jahiz had averred, but because in Granada, Spain,  they had grown too powerful and wealthy and were too "clever."

The hatred had a name - a secret name used by Jews in Arab lands. Jews whose ancestors came from these lands should all be familiar with it.  The Jews called it "sinnut" - a Hebrew word that means approximately, hatredism. Long before the Germans had invented the term anti-Semitism, the Jews of Arab lands were acquainted with it, and had given it a name. Maimonides wrote to the Jews of Yemen that the rule of the "Ishmaelites" was the most harmful and damaging to the Jewish people.

Myth of the Golden Age for Jews in Arab countries

The relatively early date of both Al Jahiz and abu Ishaq's works casts some doubt on the generalization that there was a "golden age" in the early Middle Ages in Baghdad or a bit later in Spain, that typified the best of the Muslim attitude and suggesting that the later persecution of Jews was due only to deterioration of Muslim civilization. Al Jahiz, in the ninth century, points out the lowly occupations and social status of the Jews during what was supposedly the "golden age" of Islam in Iraq. At the height of Jewish power and wealth in Spain, the Qasida of Abu Ishaq asserts that the normal - and rightful - occupations of Jews are as rag pickers and the like, a claim that is hardly consistent with the supposedly exalted life of Jews in Muslim Spain. 

Being a Dhimmi, Being a Jew

A manuscript of the 13th century by Ghazi al Wasiti provides an egregious example of vehement anti-Semitism and anti-Christian sentiment (see Treatise against Dhimmi - anti-Semitic anecdotes).

The anti-Semitism was not just theoretical. The writings were the handmaidens not only of civil service purges of Jews and Christians and repeated enforcement of the Dhimmi laws (see Decree against the Dhimmi ) but of violent acts directed specifically against Jews. The poem of Abu Ishaq was written in Granada, shortly before the pogrom that destroyed the Jewish community, consequent to the fall of the ruling dynasty and the Jewish vizier, Joseph ibn Naghrela. Despite the strictures of the Pact of Umar, Jews often rose to high positions in government, especially in Muslim Spain and in Morocco. This was not due necessarily to love of Jews. Because of their vulnerability to the hatred of the masses, the loyalty of Jewish ministers to the regime which appointed them, which was often a regime of Berber outsiders, was beyond question. And indeed, when the dynasty or ruler who had appointed them fell, it was an occasion not only to murder the Jewish vizier, but also for ferocious pogroms such as those that took place in Granada, in Tetouan and elsewhere (see Tetouan Pogrom). These cannot be ascribed only to the vagaries of politics, since they were fueled, as our documents witness, by anti-Semitism, and since they were due to the peculiar position of the Jews in Muslim society.

The Dhimmi laws in practice were always humiliating and were supported by the anti-Jewish sentiments of the populace, as noted in the  Report on the condition of the Jews of Baghdad  in the 11th century:

...Abu Shuja imposed two distinguishing signs upon Jewish women. Each woman had to wear one red shoe and one black shoe. Furthermore, each woman had to have a small copper bell on her neck or on her shoe which would tinkle so that all would know and differentiate between the women of the Jews and of the Muslims. he assigned cruel Muslim men to watch over the Jewish men and cruel Muslim women to oversee the Jewish women, in order to oppress them with every sort of insult, humiliation, and contempt. The Muslims would mock them, and the common rabble, together with their children, would beat Jews throughout all the streets of Baghdad.  

The protection offered by the Dhimmi laws was not always honored, and on more than one occasion there were forced conversions, though these were sometimes rescinded (see  Forced conversion of the Jews of Aden). Muslims could always invoke as justification, and they often did, the claim that the Jews had violated the pact of Umar by their behavior and were no longer deserving of protection. In addition to major catastrophes and constant intimidations, there were a thousand ways in which the wheels of justice turned against the Jews. A Jew, especially a rabbi, could be accused of blaspheming or slandering the prophet. The penalty for this offense was death. Such "blasphemy" trials took place on countless occasions.

Jew hate in Palestine

Jews were permitted on occasion to settle in the towns of their ancient homeland, which the Arabs called "Palestine" for a brief period, but which was generally a nameless part of Syria or Lebanon. They settled in Jerusalem, Tiberias and Safed in the main, subject to the whims of rulers and the vicissitudes of local sentiment. In the land of Israel, or "Palestine" as the Arabs now call it (it was not called that at the time), the Jews did not usually fare much better, and often worse, than in the remainder of the Muslim lands. In Jerusalem, their condition was usually miserable ( See Jews in Medieval Jerusalem) rather than being a model of respectful coexistence with Muslims, as Arab apologists might have you believe. In Safed and other towns the Jews could be subject to pogroms and whims of the government such as an attempt at forced mass deportation (see Safed Deportation Order), as well as subject to violence and plunder in a situation were they were helpless to obtain redress (see Safed Plunder of 1834).   

Anti-Semitism in the Colonial Era

As we approach the modern age, the incidents of Jew hate did not necessarily abate, but rather took on new forms, now inspired more or less directly by Christian anti-Semitism. This anti-Semitism was not necessarily newly imported from the West. It was probably present in the Christian community before the 19th century, but it was only then that Christians felt sufficiently confident, and had the backing of certain European consuls, so that they were able to carry forward their accusations against the Jews. This was the origin of the Damascus blood libel of 1840, and a string of blood libels that followed (See  Letter concerning the Damascus blood libel and Blood libels in Damanhur, Egypt )   

What the sources tell us about Jews in Arab lands

These documents should not be taken as representative of the entire spectrum of Jewish life in Arab lands by any means. Nor would it be fair to state that Islam is somehow intrinsically worse than Christianity or other religions. Worse sentiments against Jews can be found in the writings of Martin Luther, and the worst pogroms of the Arab world were not as bad as the murderous orgies of the Crusades or worse than the persecutions of the Spanish Inquisition. But here are Arabs, from the earliest period in Islam, explaining and expounding their anti-Semitism in their own words, here are the records of outside observers regarding the miserable condition of the Jews and the evils that befell them. It is not possible to explain away all of this evidence, and there is much more of it, as temporary "aberrations". to insist that there was no anti-Semitism in the Muslim world before the modern era, to dismiss anti-Semitism as due to deterioration of Arab civilization, or to claim that there was no violent persecution of Jews under Arab and Muslim rule. 

Ami Isseroff

Revised January 15, 2010

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