By August 6, 2015 Read More →

The Jews Under Islam, Part One, Shelom Dov Goitein, The Jewish World: History and Culture of the Jewish People

Mishneh Torah, MaimonidesJews and Judaism stood at the cradle of Islam. This fateful conjunction had a lasting impact on the character of the new religion and greatly affected the destinies of the Jews who were to live under its shadow.

The Prophet Muhammad created a religion — Islam; a unique book — the Qur’ān; and a state with a powerful army. His greatest creation, however, and the precondition of all the others, was his belief in himself as the Messenger of God, called upon ‘to bring’ a book that would save the Arabs from Hell. To be sure, this is the way we put things. For the true believer it was God who wrought all this, not the man, who said of himself: ‘I am only flesh like you’ (Sūra XVIII: 110).

The greatness of the new faith may be gauged from its achievements. Politically, it changed the map of the world. Spiritually, through fourteen centuries, it provided countless millions with the tranquillity of religious certitude, stirred the elected few to mystical elation and served all as a safe guide to moral conduct.

The Companions of the Prophet felt that with him a new world had come into being. Soon after Muhammad’s death they established a new era of chronology. As its beginning they chose the year 622, in which Muhammad and his followers left their native city of Mecca for the oasis of Medina, whose inhabitants had become receptive to monotheism by the presence in their midst of several flourishing Jewish settlements.

No one doubts today the originality of the Arab Prophet. This does not imply, however, a creation out of nothing. Quite the reverse. Muhammad never tired of emphasizing — in his earlier period — that he brought to the Arabs what others had received before, and — after his stunning successes — that he accomplished what others had begun.
The Arab character of the new religion expressed itself in the language of its holy scripture, in the adoption of Mecca, and the holy sites around, as its central sanctuary and in numerous Arab social notions and laws incorporated in its system. It is, therefore, all the more remarkable how thoroughly Islam absorbed elements of the Judaic heritage. From beginning to end, the Qur’ān is replete with biblical ideas, stories and phraseology. Telling references to post-biblical, specifically Jewish teachings, are included. The belief in the redeeming power of the book and in Moses as his predecessor in transmitting a heavenly scripture dominated the Arab Prophet in his initial, formative period. He remained ‘Judaic’ throughout his career.

Islam shares with Judaism its stern monotheism, which abhors the ‘association’ with God of any other supernatural being. Muslims, like Jews, misunderstood the nature of the Trinity, regarding it as polytheistic, and abhorred its figurative representation as idolatry. The word Islam means exclusive and complete dedication. As the second sūra of the Qur’ān shows, the term originated in the story of Abraham, who is described in the Jewish tradition as a completely devoted servant of God. (The same Semitic root slm is used to express the idea of total dedication.) As in Judaism, the service of God consists of the fulfilment of his commandments, moral and, especially, ritual, which have to be carried out in an exactly prescribed manner. The study of these commandments, as laid down in the holy law, is worship. Islam, like Judaism, is a religion of deeds and study.

The Jews living under Islam were not unaware of this affinity. One can point to Abraham, the son and worthy successor of Moses Maimonides, who speaks of the Muslims as ‘those who have adopted our type of religion’ (literally: who walk in our ways), and notes with regret that some of the pious of Islam were worthier successors of the prophets of Israel than many Jewish contemporaries. Such attitudes found their expression in deeds. An 11th-century Hebrew family chronicle tells of a learned and well-to-do member who used to make donations for the illumination of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Such gifts were nothing exceptional: Muslim law books discussed the question whether it was permissible to accept such donations and answered it in the affirmative.

The fateful encounter

Such close affinity presupposes considerable personal contacts between the fledgling Prophet and representatives of the earlier religions. Although the Meccan opponents of Muhammad made repeated allusions to his mentors, we have no detailed information about such relations. ‘The disbelievers say: “This is nothing but a fraud which he has devised: other people have helped him with it.” They have also said: “These are stories of the ancients, which he has written down for himself; they are recited to him every morning and evening”’ (Sūra XXV:4–5). ‘It is only a human being who teaches him.’ To this Muhammad retorts with the naïve, but most [179] significant, refutation: ‘The language of him they hint at is foreign, but this is clear Arabic speech’ (Sūra XVI:103). The language-minded Arabs would lend their ear only to pure Arabic, not, for instance, to the ratāna, or specific dialect spoken by the Jews. ‘Verily this is a revelation by the Lord of the Worlds … in clear Arabic speech. Is it not a sign [a proof] to them that the learned of the children of Israel know it? If We [God is speaking] had sent it down through one of the foreigners and he had recited it to them, they would not have believed it’ (Sūra XXVI:192–9).

In any case, during the centuries preceding the advent of Islam, there were many Jews in Arabia, and their influence was felt. Mention has already been made of Medina (where, according to his Muslim biographers, the Prophet passed his childhood). This Hebrew-Aramaic word is derived from dīn, law, and designates the place where lawsuits were settled, that is, the capital. From there the Wādī al-Qurā, the Valley of the Villages, stretched northward, and was also inhabited by Jews. Another great oasis was Khaybar, where, as in Medina, the Jews were date-palm growers and lived in fortress-like tower-houses. There were other Jewish settlements in and near northern Arabia, like the fishing villages of Maqna and Elat, which, of course, is the gate to Palestine.

Not only did Medina harbour the two ‘priestly’ tribes of Qurayza and Nadīr (called al-Kahīnān, Kohens, by the Arabs), who were farmers, but also a landless community of goldsmiths and silversmiths, the Qaynuqā‘. In the days of Muhammad we hardly hear anything about Jewish merchants. In a rabbinic source of the 3rd century, the Jews of Arabia are described as possessing camels and incense, but no land. This means that they were engaged in great international trade at the time, which was later taken out of their hands by such local people as the enterprising citizens of Mecca.

In pre-Islamic South Arabia, which was generally referred to then as the land of the Sabeans (the biblical Sheba) or the Himyars, the Jews were particularly influential. Muslim and Christian sources speak about Himyarite kings who had converted to Judaism, and there are Sabean inscriptions that seemingly confirm this assumption. While in pagan inscriptions a multitude of gods is addressed, there are others dedicated to Rahmān, ‘the All-merciful’, alone, and some describe him as the ‘God of the Jews’. Rahmān was a local deity, but in the Talmud it is the regular word for God, and it is to be understood as such in these monotheistic inscriptions.

A thorough examination of these inscriptions reveals, however, that the Himyar kings and nobility did not embrace Judaism. They cultivated a Judaizing monotheism, deeply concerned with life after death and centred around a local sanctuary, similar to the new religion subsequently propagated in Mecca. Had the famous last ‘Jewish’ king of Himyar, Dhu Nuwās, ‘the man with the side locks’ (in the inscriptions his name is As’ar), remained victorious, the Jews probably would have fared neither better nor worse under his Judaizing monotheism than they did, later, under Islam.

Fortunately, a bilingual Himyarite-Hebrew inscription by a professing Jew came to light in South Arabia recently (1969), enabling us to form an idea about the religious world of the pre-Islamic Arabian Jews. It describes the dedication of a house, which also served as a synagogue, to which other Jews (‘Israel’) had made a contribution.
‘Judah YKF [family name] built, founded and completed his house YKRB [name of the house, possibly meaning “May it be blessed”] … through the power and grace of his Lord, who has created his soul, the Lord of the living and the dead, the Lord of heaven and earth, who has created everything, and with the aid of his [Judah’s] people Israel, and with the authorization of his lord … the King of Sheba …, and the authorization of … and his tribes …. ’
The Hebrew addition is short: ‘Written by Judah, may he be remembered with blessings, Shalom [Peace], Amen.’
This concern with the soul and life after death and the awe before God, who effects everything, characterizes the spiritual atmosphere in which Muhammad perceived his call.

Recent scholarly work on the religious and political biography of Muhammad should be reassessed. It seems to be commonly assumed that it was the refusal of the Jews of Medina to recognize him as Prophet that forced Muhammad to give up his universalistic approach to monotheism and to form a militant religion of specific Arab character. Montgomery Watt, a modern biographer of Muhammad, goes so far as to argue that, had the Jews of Medina not been so proud, but a little bit more obliging, Islam would have become a Jewish sect and world history would have taken a different course.

A closer study of the Qur’ān and the trustworthy historical tradition of the Muslims provides another picture of Muhammad’s development as Prophet and national leader. His original approach was indeed universalistic; that is, he believed that the one God had only one book to give; the different religions were versions of the same book, and he, as a language-minded Arab, saw himself called upon to bring a version in pure, easily understandable Arabic. Moreover, as a God-fearing man he had a natural attachment to the Ka‘ba, the ancient sanctuary of his native city of Mecca. However, when he attacked the polytheism of his compatriots, the religion of their fathers, and began to argue with them, he was forced to make a closer study of monotheism, which he himself professed. To his dismay, he discovered that not only Jews and Christians, but the various Christian denominations, too, did not regard the other faiths as valid versions of their own; each claimed to be the exclusive possessor of God’s message, and, consequently, also refused to accept Muhammad’s claim to be a prophet sent to the Arabs. This discovery caused him great anguish; he wrestled with the problem for years: how could God’s revelation cause discord and hatred among his believers instead of unity and co-operation? Muhammad’s qualms were resolved thus: it was God’s inscrutable will that his revelations would entail disunity. But if so, Muhammad’s own message, as the last one, was final. The other monotheistic religions were legitimate, but they had to recognize the superiority of Islam. This religious reorientation of Muhammad happened in his native city of Mecca, long before he and his followers were forced to emigrate to Medina.

Muhammad’s religious reappraisal had political consequences. Islam must rule; all other faiths must be subdued. The first to be affected by this new concept [180] were the Jews of northern Arabia, for there were no compact Christian settlements nearby. When the emissaries of the few newly converted Arabs of Medina came to Muhammad to discuss with him the prospective emigration of his followers to their oasis, they were shocked to learn that he intended to liquidate their Jewish neighbours. ‘You will come to Medina,’ said one of them, ‘annihilate the Jews and, after having succeeded with your plans, return to Mecca and leave us unprotected by our confederates.’ Muhammad assured them that, once settled among them, he would never give up Medina and return to his native city. He kept his word, but the fate of the Jews of Medina was sealed long before Muhammad put his foot on the soil of that oasis.
If this was the true course of events, why then are the Medinese sections of the Qur’ān, by far the major part of the book, replete with orations addressed to the children of Israel, meaning the Jews, often also Jews and Christians together? The answer is that these orations were destined for the ears of the Arabs of Medina. For them it was no easy matter to betray their confederates of old and to see a number of them robbed and expelled and others liquidated. Many passages in the Qur’ān and in the writings of Muslim historians show how difficult it was for Muhammad to obtain the acquiescence of the local Arabs. Naturally, materialistic aspects were also involved. The houses, fields, date-palm groves and other possessions of the Jews were coveted spoils, especially for the landless émigrés from Mecca.

However, this revised approach to the biography of the Prophet does not change the fact that the Qur’ān, the holy book of Islam, which is read and memorized day in day out by millions of Muslims, contains, in addition to many approving passages about the ‘children of Israel’, derogatory and hostile remarks about the Jews. Naturally, in subsequent centuries, such remarks were used to justify attitudes towards the Jews.
When Muhammad’s realm expanded beyond Medina to far away places, another approach to the treatment of non-Muslims was required. They were left where they were, granted security for their lives and possessions, but had to hand over their weapons, armour and horses, and pay heavy annual tributes. For instance, the Jews of Khaybar had to deliver half of the crop from their palm groves, and those of Maqna a quarter of their dates, their fishing and the fine cloth woven by their women. These arrangements created a precedent, but, as will be immediately seen, by no means a strict model, for the treatment of non-Muslims under Islam.

The price of protection

Although the Qur’ān contains numerous passages unfavourable to Jews, the Muslim law books do not discriminate between Jews and Christians. The reason for this might be found in the situation during the early formative period of Islam, when Jews actively supported the Muslim armies while the Christians were regarded as hostile or, at least, suspect.

As the examples of Khaybar and Maqna show, legally binding agreements, or, rather, concessions granted by the victors, were made immediately after the conquest. Indeed, regulations with regard to the position of non-Muslims belong to the most ancient parts of Islamic law. Because the situation differed from one place to another and constantly changed during the 150 years or so of Muslim expansion, it is almost impossible to trace the development of these regulations until they first appear in the law books around 800. This was not the end, but rather the beginning of discriminatory legislation. The Muslim rulers promulgated ordinances from time to time that further aggravated the lot of the non-Muslims, but, favoured by propitious socio-economic circumstances, they often succeeded in evading the harshness of the law. By the late Middle Ages, however, the Muslim state prevailed. By making the life of its non-Muslim subjects intolerable, it succeeded in reducing their once flourishing communities to powerless minorities, whose miserable existence served to remind the Muslims that their religion was superior, or, rather, was the only true religion.

This was indeed the intention of the original law concerning ‘those who have been given the Book’ (Jews and Christians), as laid down by Muhammad at the end of his life, when, at the height of his success, he spoke of God and himself in one breath: ‘Fight those who do not believe in God and not in the Last Day, and do not prohibit what God and his Messenger have prohibited, and do not embrace the true religion, namely those who have been given the Book, until they pay the [poll] tax … while they are in a state of humiliation’ (Sūra IX:29). The endless vexations described here and in the section on the late Middle Ages are only variations of the theme broached in this verse. On the other hand, the humiliated state of the Christians and Jews was considered the price for their protection and for the toleration of their religion.

In practice, laws against non-Muslims were created from time to time as the physical and spiritual needs of the Muslim community dictated. In the early phase of the wars of conquest, the local population was requested not to wear arms and to deliver all war materials; it was made defenceless. In return, the conqueror promised protection. This protection was called dhimma, meaning responsibility; consequently, Jews and Christians and their like were described as ahl al-dhimma or dhimmīs, people enjoying this privilege. Good Muslim rulers and upright jurists took this ‘responsibility’ seriously and protected the minorities against the outbursts of the mob or the fanaticism of less enlightened scholars.

War materials included horses. The dhimmīs were prohibited from riding horses at all or at least with the saddles used by Arabs. In later times, and for reasons other than providing safety for the invading Muslims, a plethora of vexatious regulations concerning riding grew out of this prohibition.

Another safety measure was the injunction that no dhimmī should array himself or dress his hair like an Arab. He should be easily recognizable by wearing a belt, so that no treacherous attack on stray Muslims might occur. This was the beginning of a periodic reiteration of laws specifically designed to discriminate against the infidels.

In order to control the masses of Christians and Jews, a poll-tax was imposed on each of them. This, like numerous other impositions, was inherited from the preceding empires. In South Arabia, Muhammad himself taxed each adult, male or female, one dinar (a gold coin) or its equivalent. This was probably the practice of the Persians, who had ruled the Yemen before him. When [181] the Arabs conquered Syria, they found that the Jews, male only, paid the Byzantine government a staggering poll-tax of one, two, or four dinars in accordance with their means. The victors preferred this system, which became standard in the law books, though not always in reality.

One or two gold pieces a year appears to be a modest imposition. It was not. A large section of the population, townspeople included, lived at starvation level. A schoolmaster often would not earn more than five dirhems (a silver coin) a week, the equivalent of about six dinars a year. If he had only two sons of the age of, say, eleven and thirteen, all regarded as adults by the tax collector, his poll-tax amounted to three dinars. The ancient law books prescribe that the poor should be exempted from the obligation to pay the tax. As the letters and documents of the Cairo Geniza (see below) prove, this humane ruling was not observed even during the ‘liberal’ Fatimid period (969–1171). The poor went begging for their poll-tax more frequently than for food. If they did not pay, they were thrown into prison, where they suffered maltreatment and even death.

When the Muslims came out of Arabia into the great cities of the Fertile Crescent they were overawed by the splendour of the cathedrals and the solemnity of religious functions, and even funeral processions, that they witnessed. Moreover, the thoughtful among them began ‘to ask the People of the Book’. In view of the form the biblical stories took in the Qur’ān, it is easy to imagine that the answers received aroused new questions. Finally, out of necessity, the administration of the newly conquered provinces remained for a long time in the hands of the officials who had previously run it; a Muslim could find himself bowing to the authority of a non-Muslim. It was not the physical safety, now, but the inner security of the true believer that was threatened. The situation was quickly remedied by a long series of provisions in Muslim law, designed to limit contact with non-Muslims.

Following Byzantine legislation concerning synagogues, the erection of new houses of worship was prohibited; about the repairs of old ones, opinions were divided. Public display of religion, such as processions or blowing the shofar in a Muslim environment, were forbidden. In the new cities founded by the Muslims, churches and synagogues were built, of course, since the Christians and Jews living there could not do without them. But they were inconspicuous and concealed by huddles of surrounding buildings. Apostasy from Islam was punished by death, and non-Muslims trying to propagate their faith among Muslims were liable to incur the same fate. As soon as it appeared feasible, the employment of dhimmīs as government officials was prohibited, an ordinance that had to be renewed again and again over the centuries.

The more the power of the caliphs declined, the more did they try to make themselves conspicuous by harassing all the non-Muslims. The wretched al-Mutawakkil decreed that Christians and Jews should wear yellow badges on their garments (c. 850). Clearly this decree was not generally observed, for the wearing of badges had to be reintroduced by another caliph half a century later. Under the Fatimids of Egypt, the discriminatory laws on clothing seem to have fallen into desuetude. However, during the great persecution of non-Muslims by the eccentric caliph, al-Hākim (996–1121), these laws were renewed and aggravated. For instance, because women were known to be concerned with their appearance, they were singled out for particularly offensive humiliation, such as being forced to wear shoes of different colours. Al-Hākim himself soon called off the persecution, but the ingenious invention concerning women’s shoes was taken up again by a caliph of Baghdad about a hundred years later. The Ayyubid rule of Egypt and Syria (c. 1171–1250) was a period of transition. In the late Middle Ages, the occupation with the mistreatment of non-Muslims became an obsession of rulers, jurisconsults and the population at large.

Socio-economic conditions

Oppressive as it was, the position of the Jews under medieval Islam cannot be compared to their position in Western Europe. Massacres and mass expulsions, so common there, were practically unknown in Islamic countries. The reason for this difference can be found in the totally different socio-economic conditions of the Jews in the two areas. In Europe, the Jews formed tiny colonies of foreigners, separated from the bulk of the population not only by religion and culture (they used Hebrew, not Latin, as their language of literary expression), but by their confinement to a few hateful occupations, which put them outside of and in opposition to the population at large. Under Islam, the Jews were not the only minority; the presence of far more numerous Christian communities preserved them from excessive isolation. Moreover, in the countries of Islam the Jews were indigenous old-timers, and active almost in all walks of life. The Cairo Geniza, a treasure-trove of letters and documents mainly from the 10th to the 11th century, mentions about 450 occupations in which Jews were engaged — of which about 250 were manual — that is, jobs for craftsmen and artisans of all types. The division of labour in those days was phenomenal. This explains why we find Jews in so many different occupations.

The notion that Jews were confined under Islam to ‘despised’ manual professions, such as tanners, dyers, butchers, or cobblers, or to work connected with precious metals, such as goldsmiths and moneychangers, is unfounded, as far as the high Middle Ages are concerned. Muslims, even from scholarly families, were engaged in all these occupations as well. Dyeing was a different matter. Colour (and not the cut) was the pride of the medieval costume, and, with the primitive (mostly natural) dyeing materials then available, dyeing was an art, of which Jews were reputed to possess certain secrets. The Geniza shows, indeed, that they specialized in various dyeing processes such as purple-making, and that there were dyers of high socio-economic standing, The most common ‘learned manual professions’ of Jews were those of the pharmacists and the makers of medical potions.

The pronounced professional and economic diversity of the Jewish community had the effect that the Jews did not represent a distinct social class but were fairly well distributed among the various layers of the population. A statistical examination of the family papers preserved in the Geniza reveals that about 15 per cent of the people [182] represented in them were destitute, 45 per cent lived in modest circumstances, 20 per cent belonged to the lower middle class, and about 16 per cent to the upper middle class, while the real rich comprised about 4 per cent of the total.

This stratification of Jewish society created close contact with the Muslim population. A Jewish baker would get a loan from a Muslim miller; Jewish and Muslim merchants co-operated and even concluded partnerships (although this was disapproved by most of the religious codes); physicians of the two creeds worked together as colleagues in the same hospital; and even the official representatives of the two religions, the judges and their like, respected one another (unless they had reason not to do so). Geniza letters of Jewish divines, referring to cadis, and the famous poem in honour of Moses Maimonides written by the chief cadi of Cairo, Ibn Sanā’ al-Mulk, are cases in point.
It was fortunate for Jewish history that Babylonia (Iraq) and the neighbouring countries, which harboured the main stock of the Jewish people, as well as its central institutions, became the political, economic and cultural core of the Islamic world. Unfortunately, however, our information about this period, the 8th and 9th centuries, is extremely scanty. The terrible upheavals and persecutions during the last century of the Persian Empire, the horrors of the conquest by Bedouin hordes and the subsequent oppressive administration must have had dire consequences for the dhimmīs. It was during this period, the 6th and 7th centuries, that the last remnants of the Jewish farming population were dispossessed, and, like others, fled to the cities, where they formed a proletariat. In any case, not long after the advent of Islam the Jews had become a purely urban society.

On the other hand the Jewish merchant class, which had come into prominence around 200, made good use of the opportunities offered by the conquests and, later, the economic efflorescence of the Muslim Empire. When the Arabs raided the island of Rhodes in 672/3 and carried away from there its famous Colossus (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world), they sold its metal to a Jewish merchant. It weighed 880 camel loads (about 44,000 pounds). Only a very wealthy man could have been able to make such a deal. The most stupendous example of Jewish enterprise was the company of the Radhanites, whose undertakings, by sea and by land, encompassed almost the entire world known at the time — from France, Spain and North Africa in the West, to Iraq, Iran, India and China in the East. They also visited Constantinople, the capital of Byzantium, and the land of the Khazars, a Turkish people occupying south-eastern Russia at the time. The acceptance of Judaism by the rulers and nobles of the Khazars was certainly due to the influence of those great Jewish merchants. A recent study on them has shown it likely that their base was Iraq.

Under the Umayyads of Damascus a Jew was already in charge of the caliphal mint (c. 695). Throughout Islamic history, Jews remained connected with the mints (mostly as entrepreneurs, not as officials). As the weakest of the communities under Islam they could be trusted. They knew well that no one would protect them in the case of any misdeed. The loans provided to the caliphal treasury by the famous Ibn Phineas family of Baghdad (early 10th century) should not induce us to believe that the Jews were the Rothschilds of the Islamic world. In general, we hear more about loans taken by Jews from Muslims than vice versa.

In the course of the 10th century, Iraq and Iran became devastated as a result of internecine wars and bad administration. The well-to-do Muslims and Jews moved westward. Soon we find ‘Easterners’ being the leading Jewish families in North Africa, Egypt and, later, in Aden, South Arabia. Owing to their capital and business experience a flourishing Jewish trade developed in the Muslim countries of the Mediterranean, By the end of the 13th century, however, the Italian maritime cities had driven the Muslim navies, and with them their merchant-men, off the sea. The enterprising Jews turned to the route to India, importing spices, medical herbs, dyeing materials, iron and other Oriental goods. The 12th century was the great time of the Jewish India trade. By the 13th century this trade became more or less monopolized by the Muslim India ‘Hanse’ of the Kārim. In general, the range of Jewish occupations and enterprises became very much narrowed in the late Middle Ages, a fact which had an adverse effect on their social position.

Communal organization

The high Middle Ages also witnessed far reaching changes in the communal organization of the Jews under Islam. At the beginning, the central institutions of the Jews in Babylonia that developed during late Antiquity, the exilarchate and yeshivas (for higher learning), were still in operation. The exilarch, the resh galutha, should not be described, as he frequently is, as the secular head of the Jews, because the Jews were a religious, not a political, community. He was a kind of monarch, claiming to be a descendant of King David, a claim recognized by the Muslim authorities. He appointed, or, rather, confirmed the appointment of the gaons, the heads of the two yesbivas. These were not educational institutions (no ‘student’ was ever admitted), but rather corporations of learned members, who studied texts assigned to them and discussed and decided questions submitted to the gaons. Both the resh galutha and the gaons, after having received the approval of the Jewish community, were installed by the caliphs, which was done by the delivery of an appropriate document and the investiture with a robe specific to each office. By the 10th century, the exilarch and the two gaons had their seats in Baghdad. The Jewish population of Iraq and adjacent countries was divided into regions, each of which made contributions to one of the three dignitaries.

A third yeshiva was in Jerusalem. After the conquest of Egypt and Palestine by the Fatimids (969), its gaon was recognized by the Fatimid caliphs as the head of the Jews in their empire with the right to appoint the judges and lower officials and to supervise the religious and communal affairs of the Jews within their realm. Both he and the judges needed a new letter of installation whenever a new caliph ascended the throne.

In the countries once belonging to the Byzantine Empire, such as Syria, Palestine and Egypt, the local communities were under the authority of the Jerusalem yeshiva. In addition, because of the influx of Jews from [183] Iraq and Iran, ‘Iraqian’ synagogues were founded everywhere. In communal affairs, such as the care of the poor and the education of their children, the two local communities mostly co-operated. In many places there existed a third congregation, namely that of the Karaites (see below).

The local congregation, the kehilla, like the yeshiva, was a pre-Islamic institution. It was a corporation headed by a Council of Elders, who took care of the financial affairs and social services. They assisted the spiritual leader, called dayan, judge, or, when he was learned, havēr, that is, member of the yeshiva, in his juridical and other duties. Those rabbinical courts, mostly composed of experienced merchants, often with overseas relations, were effectual and contributed much to Jewish autonomy and interterritorial cohesion.

In the course of the 11th century, that is, long before the advent of the Crusaders, Palestine became completely devastated through the incessant wars between the Fatimids and various insurgents, and, finally, between them and the Seljuks and Turkomans. The yeshiva was forced to leave Jerusalem (c. 1072) for Tyre, Lebanon, and, later, Damascus, a blow from which it never recovered. At the same time, approximately, Mevorakh ben Saadya ha-Rofe, an honorary member of both the yeshivas of Baghdad and also that of Jerusalem, himself a physician in attendance at the Fatimid court, became the official and spiritual head of the Jews of Egypt and the adjacent countries. He and his successors appointed the local judges and other officials, made all the decisions on religious and public affairs and intervened for Jews wherever needed. From the time of Abraham, the son of Moses Maimonides (early 13th century), this dignity, called nagid, or prince, became hereditary in the family of Maimonides, an unhealthy practice based on Islamic models.

A similar development can be observed at the local level. The dayan became like a cadi, replacing, with his functionaries, the laymen leaders by taking care of the financial affairs and the social services of the community. The ancient Jewish ‘religious democracy’ gave way to Islamic authoritarianism.

The Babylonian yeshivas, too, participated in the general decline of the country in which they had their seat. As their incessant letters requesting help indicate, they were often reduced to utmost poverty. However, from the reports of the Muslim historians it is evident that, during the first half of the 13th century, gaons were still regularly installed in their office by the ‘Abbasid caliphs, the last one known to us in 1250. With the conquest of Baghdad by the Mongols, in 1258, and the murder of the last ‘Abbasid caliph this relationship, naturally, came to an end.

Cultural transformation

As in the case of communal organization, the cultural development of the Jews under Islam was a combination of indigenous Jewish elements, continuing and even nourishing, and Islamic models, which were followed and assimilated. This Judaeo-Islamic symbiosis had a decisive impact on the formation of classical Jewish thought and practice.

In Jewish historiography, this period, because of the overwhelming authority enjoyed by the Babylonian yeshivas and their leaders, is called the ‘Gaonic’ period. Everywhere in the Diaspora, Jews wished to live in accordance with the Law of God; but all the time problems arose, either created by new situations or by incomplete or controversial interpretation of the sacred texts. Questions of individual scholars or communities, sifted by the highest religious authority in each country, and accompanied by donations, were sent to Baghdad, and, after having been discussed in the yeshivas, were returned by the gaons together with their ‘opinions’. Thousands of pieces of correspondence with such Muslim countries as Spain, Morocco, Tunisia and the Yemen have been preserved. Together with collections of legal opinions (responsa), written by several gaons in Aramaic and Hebrew, they form the corpus of traditional Jewish learning created in that period.

Meanwhile, however, Islam had developed its own law. The Jewish judiciary formed a part of the juridical system of the Islamic state, and some co-ordination was necessary. Saadya al-Fayyūmī (882–942) and other gaons wrote systematic treatises on Jewish law (civil as well as ritual) in Arabic, using, of course, Islamic legal terms and principles of arrangement. Moses Maimonides’s great and ‘definite’ Code of Jewish Law and Belief, written in Hebrew, is a synthesis of traditional Jewish learning and Islamic systematization.

The text of the Hebrew Bible, its vocalization and cantillation, was finally established during the 8th and 9th centuries, through the efforts of the Masoretes, the bearers of Jewish tradition. It was, however, the example [184] of the language-minded Arabs that induced the Jews to study the grammatical structure and vocabulary of biblical and, soon, also post-biblical Hebrew. This activity started in the East, again with Saadya Gaon, but reached its perfection in the Muslim West, especially in Spain, that ‘border province’ of Islam with its passionate dedication to pure, classical Arabic. The occupation with Hebrew became a major concern for the Jewish intellectuals of that country. The work of the Jewish linguists there, mainly during the 10th century, remained unsurpassed until modern times.
Hebrew traditional poetry, the piyyut, reached its zenith in Palestine in late Byzantine times and continued to flourish during the early centuries of Islam. It was the zeal for the holy language that motivated pious Jews to introduce secular, sometimes even frivolous, topics into Hebrew poetry while using Arabic forms of versification and modes of expression. This new poetry was created almost entirely in Spain. The real acme of Judaeo-Arabic symbiosis, however, was attained in Spanish Hebrew religious poetry, in which Jewish tradition, belief and emotion were fused with Arabic form and rhetoric in a superb way.

Judaism never constituted a solid block of beliefs. It was, however, the example of Islam with its multitude of sects and heresies that brought those divisions within Judaism into full light. The most important Jewish heresy was that of the Karaites, who rejected the authority of the talmudic sages, the rabbis, and claimed to accept that of the Bible alone. The Karaites, many of whom were well educated (and also rich and powerful), were the first to make prolific use of argumentation as found in Islamic theological literature. They contributed much to the intellectual assimilation of the Jewish intelligentsia.

In late Antiquity and early Islamic times, Jewish thought was expressed in the form of the Midrash, comments on a great variety of topics based on verses of the Bible, and connected with one another in a purely associative way (a characteristic word, etc.). Systematic, logical thinking, such as that of Philo Judaeus of Alexandria, who wrote in Greek, did not reach the Aramaic speaking Jewish populace. Christian theology, however, absorbed Greek philosophy, and Islam followed suit. Arabic became the depository for logical thinking. Muslim, Christian and Jewish intellectuals in Baghdad of the 10th century convened to discuss purely philosophical topics. If the Jewish populace was not to lose its intelligentsia, Judaism had to be presented in a form acceptable to it. This was done, in the course of three hundred years, from Saadya Gaon to Abraham Maimonides, in a series of works on Jewish thought, differing widely in character, scope and quality. They had, however, one thing in common: they were all written in Arabic. The abundant quotations found in them presupposed complete familiarity with biblical and post-biblical Hebrew literature; Moses Maimonides had shown in the sections on belief in his great Code that it was perfectly possible to express abstract thought in the Hebrew language. But, by the fifth century of Islam, Arabic had become the means of literary expression for most Jews living under its shadow. This deep-rooted assimilation of the Jewish intelligentsia to its Arabic environment was not without consequences.

The disastrous late Middle Ages

In the late Middle Ages the pagan Mongols overran large parts of the Muslim and Christian worlds; the ancient Muslim system of the rule of soldier castes, consisting of imported slaves, reached its zenith in the domination of Egypt, Palestine and Syria by the Mamluks (1250–1517); epidemics, beginning with the catastrophic Great Plague of Egypt in 1201–2, culminated in the Black Death of 1348–50; finally, a new world power, Ottoman Turkey, comprising most of the Arab world and much of Europe, came into being. Powerful rulers displayed great splendour, but large sections of the population experienced incredible misery; the Jews, the most vulnerable section, were particularly hard hit.

Basically, the wrath of the Muslims was turned against the Christians. It was the end of the Crusader period in the Levant; in the critical half century prior to the conversion of the western Mongols to Islam (c. 1295), they co-operated with the Christians; the Muslims were driven out of Spain; and European rulers attacked North Africa. However, Muslim law and popular attitudes made no distinction between the Jewish and Christian dhimmīs. Whenever heavy fines or new harassing restrictions were imposed on Christians, when their houses of worship were temporarily closed or destroyed, or when they were attacked by the mob, Jews suffered together with them. Moreover, Christian kings who had diplomatic relations with Islamic rulers intervened with them for their co-religionists. Jews did not enjoy such protection.

The rise of religious fanaticism during the late Middle Ages, to be observed in Islam and in Christian Europe, induced the rulers to take the lead in the persecution of the infidels. The Muslim historians provide us with an unending list of edicts, promulgated by governments, destined to humiliate the dhimmīs and to make their lives unbearable. In 1301, the yellow colour was reserved for Jews, while dark-blue was made obligatory for Christians. Already around 1250 a Geniza letter reports from Cairo that, on a Sabbath, a government town-crier proclaimed in the morning and evening that any Jew or Christian walking in the street without his distinctive badge or a belt had forfeited his possessions and his life. Dhimmīs were forbidden to ride, not only on horses or mules, but even on donkeys worth more than ten dirhems. Soon they were prohibited from riding altogether (except when travelling overland), an extreme humiliation, especially for a man of standing. For the year 1247, a Muslim historian reports that a gaon in Baghdad, after having received his investiture from the vizier and chief cadi, went home with his retinue on foot, but when the mob attacked them with stone throwing the culprits were imprisoned and punished. Stone throwing on such occasions was accepted practice, but, clearly, the historian reports this detail because the protective measures of the government were exceptional and therefore noteworthy.

A visitor to Egypt around the middle of the 11th century reports that most of the Jews there were either government clerks or physicians. A hundred years later: ‘Every customs official is a Jew.’ These statements are exaggerated, but they demonstrate the vulnerability of those professions; on the one hand they carried with them a certain measure of authority, on the other, they [184] brought those who were engaged in them into daily contact with the population at large. Muslim religious writers fulminated against the employment of dhimmīs as government clerks or physicians, and the rulers promulgated ordinances from time to time, leaving their officials the choice only between dismissal or conversion. Edicts prohibiting Jewish physicians from treating Muslims were less frequent, but the propaganda against them was poisonous and widespread, and without attending Muslim patients a Jewish doctor could not make a livelihood.

The outcome of all this was that a very large section of the Jewish (and the Christian) intelligentsia, and not only physicians, converted to Islam. The late Middle Ages produced voluminous Muslim biographical dictionaries containing thousands of life stories, and not a few of them tell the story of a Jewish convert. This was a multifaceted phenomenon, which deserves a special study. Firstly, the Jewish intellectual had a somewhat sceptical view of the absolute truth of revealed religion. The Jew Sa‘d ibn Kammūna, in his brilliant Examination of the Three Faiths, published in Baghdad in 1280, collected all the ‘proofs’ for and against the truth of Judaism, Christianity and Islam — and demonstrated that both the pros and cons were futile. Secondly, some intellectuals were disgusted with certain aspects of Jewish life, such as the bickerings about the shehīta (the ritual killing of animals), and developed a self-hatred not unknown in other quarters. Thirdly, conversion to Islam was, from the theological point of view, less heartbreaking than to Christianity with its Trinity. Finally, as demonstrated by both the Cairo Geniza and Muslim sources, Islamic pietism and mysticism attracted religiously minded people. Abraham Maimonides had tried to reform Judaism in that direction, but failed. In the main, however, the sarcastic Sa‘d ibn Kammūna might have been right in asserting; ‘We never see anyone converting to Islam except when in fear, or out of quest for power, or to avoid heavy taxation, or to escape humiliation, or because of infatuation with a Muslim woman.’
In 1335 and 1344 (a period of the rise of a new dynasty), the Jews of Baghdad were exposed to brutal persecutions: their property and personal safety were in jeopardy, the synagogues were demolished, precious libraries destroyed and anyone who counted was forced to convert to the ruling religion. A comment on Hebrew elegies written in those days states: ‘No Jew in Baghdad could keep his religion, except those who were not conspicuous by money, knowledge or rank.’

The defection of a large part of its intelligentsia (which was certainly duplicated by the lower classes) emasculated the Jewish community under Islam. By no means did scientific and literary activities cease, but they were largely of an epigonic character. The situation was remedied when, from the 14th century onwards, refugees and emigrants from Spain and other Christian regions settled in the countries of Islam. North Africa was the first area to benefit from this inner Jewish migration. Around 1100 this had become a mass movement. The 16th century witnessed a general revival of the Jewish community under Islam.

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