Baghdad Jews in the Eleventh Century

c 1090(?)

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Here is a report on the condition of Jews under Muslim rule in Baghdad, about 1090 CE, from the Norman proselyte Obadaiah, found in the Cairo Geniza. The Caliph al Muqtadi ruled in Baghdad from 1075 to 1094.

There is a widespread impression that Jews led a sheltered existence in Muslim lands and suffered no persecution. The "golden age" of Jewish culture and society under Muslim rule has been glorified and fictionalized for political reasons. The position of the Jews was in fact good in Muslim lands only relative to the horrors of European persecution of Jews. Though Jews were relatively safer in Muslim lands, there were numerous instances of?Pogroms, forced conversions and other manifestations of violent Anti-Semitism and intolerance, as well as a few? blood libels. While the blood libel accusation was? a late phenomenon due to Christian influence, and in some cases the accusations were encouraged by Western consuls. The other types of persecution were experienced throughout history under Muslim rule. While it may be sterile to argue whether Muslims are inherently anti-Jewish, it is inevitable that any group living as a subject minority and not in control of its own destiny would be exposed to these persecutions. It is therefore foolish to insist that Jewish life under Muslim rule was a perpetual idyll or that return to that state is desirable. The story of??Diaspora life in Muslim lands as in Europe was always the same in the long run, and had to be the same. Jews would move to a place of relative comfort, where they were subject only to sporadic persecutions and perhaps Jewish cultural life would flourish for a time. Eventually however, the Jews were often expelled, converted or killed en masse. In the best of times they were subject to the "dhimmi laws" that prescribed humiliating conditions of dress and other restrictions.?

The report below was made by one Obadiah, a Norman proselyte, and found in the Cairo Geniza. He was reporting events that had taken place about 30 years before his visit to Baghdad.

Ami Isseroff

January 6, 2010

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...Prior to this, the ruler of Baghdad, whose name was al-Muqtadi, had given full authority to his vizier, Abu Shuja, to make a change in policy regarding the Jews living in Baghdad. Now he (Abu Shuja) had already sought on many occasions to destroy them, but the God of Israel had thwarted his intention, and on this occasion too, he protected them from his fury.

He (Abu Shuja) directed that yellow badges should be affixed to the headgear of every Jewish male. In addition to the badge on the head, another of lead, the weight of a silver coin, was to hang round the neck of every Jew. The lead pendant was to be inscribed with the word "dhimmi" indicating that the Jews were tribute bearers. He also imposed that every Jew should wear a distinguishing belt around the waist. 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 law regarding the tribute which was collected annually by the servants of the ruler of Baghdad is as follows: From every wealthy Jew, they would collect four and a half dinars, from every Jew of the middle class, two and a half, and from the poorest Jews, one and a half. If a Jew died, not having paid the tribute in full, the Muslims would not let him be buried until the remainder is paid, be the amount large or small. If the deceased left nothing of value, the Muslims demanded it from the Jewish community, and they must redeem their dead by paying the outstanding tribute money out of their own funds. If not, the Muslims would seek to burn the body.

Geniza Document, Kaufmann XV in Alexander Scheiber, Fragment from the Chronicle of Obadiah, the Norman Proselyte," Acta Orientalia Hungarica, vol. 4 (1954), pp 278-78. Norman Stillman, The Jews of Arab Lands (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1979), p 251.

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