History of the Jews under Muslim rule

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

Aside from the regions of Israel and Judea Jews have lived in the Middle East at least since the Babylonian Captivity (597 BCE), about 2,600 years ago.

After the expansion of Islam into the Middle East from the Arabian Peninsula, Jews, along with Christians and Zoroastrians, typically had the legal status of dhimmi.[1] As such, they were accorded certain rights and generally not persecuted for their religious beliefs, unlike many other parts of Medieval Europe.[2]

Muslim Conquest[edit]

There had been, for some long but uncertain period, a significant number of Jews in Arabia. Historians claim that very large numbers of Jews – as high as 80,000 – arrived after the destruction of the First Temple, to join others already long established in places such as the oasis of Khaybar as well as the trading colonies in Medina and Mecca (where they even had their own cemetery). Another theory posits that these Jews were refugees from Byzantine persecutions. Regardless, Arab historians mention some 20 Jewish tribes, including two tribes of Kohanim.[3]

The Constitution of Medina, written shortly after hijra, addressed some points regarding the civil and religious situation for the Jewish communities living within the city from an Islamic perspective. For example, the constitution stated that the Jews "will profess their religion, and the Muslims theirs", and they "shall be responsible for their expenditure, and the Muslims for theirs". After the Battle of Badr, the Jewish tribe of Banu Qaynuqa breached treaties and agreements with Muhammad. Muhammad regarded this as casus belli and besieged the Banu Qaynuqa. Upon surrender the tribe was expelled.[4] The following year saw the expulsion of the second tribe, the Banu Nadir, accused of planning to kill the prophet Muhammad. The third major Jewish tribe in Medina, Banu Qurayza was eliminated after allegedly betraying the Muslims during the Battle of the Trench. Although there were many Jewish tribes present in Medina who continued to live in Medina peacefully after these events such as Banu Awf, Banu Harith, Banu Jusham Banu Alfageer, Banu Najjar Banu Sa'ida, and Banu Shutayba.[5][6]

In year 20 of the Muslim era, or the year 641 AD, Muhammad's successor the Caliph 'Umar decreed that Jews and Christians should be removed from all but the southern and eastern fringes of Arabia—a decree based on the (sometimes disputed) uttering of the Prophet: "Let there not be two religions in Arabia". The two populations in question were the Jews of the Khaybar oasis in the north and the Christians of Najran.[7] [8] Only the Red Sea port of Jedda was permitted as a "religious quarantine area" and continued to have a small complement of Jewish merchants.

Middle Ages[edit]

During the Middle Ages, Jewish people under Muslim rule experienced tolerance and integration.[9] Some historians refer to this time period as the "Golden Age" for the Jews as more opportunities became available to them.[10] Abdel Fattah Ashour, a professor of medieval history at Cairo University, states that Jewish people found solace under Islamic rule during the Middle Ages.[11]Jews and Muslims regarded each other as brothers and were able to look past their religious differences. Author Merlin Swartz referred to this time period as a new era for the Jews, stating that the attitude of tolerance led to Jewish integration into Arab-Islamic society.[12]

Jewish integration allowed Jews to make great advances in new fields, such as mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, chemistry and philology.[13] Jewish people also experienced political achievements under Islamic rule.[14]Jews under Islam pursued many economic endeavors that helped integrate them into the Arab marketplace.[15] During early Islam, Leon Poliakov writes, Jews enjoyed great privileges, and their communities prospered. There was no legislation or social barriers preventing them from conducting commercial activities. Commercial and craft guilds did not exist like the ones in Europe. Jewish people under Islamic Rule were no longer excluded from any specific profession and this helped lessen their negative stigma.[16] Many Jews migrated to areas newly conquered by Muslims and established communities there. The vizier of Baghdad entrusted his capital with Jewish bankers. The Jews were put in charge of certain parts of maritime and slave trade. Siraf, the principal port of the caliphate in the 10th century, had a Jewish governor.[17]

Although Jewish life improved under Islamic rule, an interfaith utopia did not exist.[18] Jewish people still experienced persecution. Under Islamic Rule, the Pact of Umar was introduced, which protected the Jews but also established them as inferior.[19] Since the 11th century, there have been instances of pogroms against Jews.[20] Examples include the 1066 Granada massacre, the razing of the entire Jewish quarter in the Andalucian city of Granada.[21] In North Africa, there were cases of violence against Jews in the Middle Ages,[22] and in other Arab lands including Egypt,[23] Syria.[24] and Yemen[25] Jewish population was confined to segregated quarters, or mellahs, in Morocco beginning from the 15th century. In cities, a mellah was surrounded by a wall with a fortified gateway. In contrast, rural mellahs were separate villages inhabited solely by the Jews.[26] The Almohads, who had taken control of much of Islamic Iberia by 1172, were far more fundamentalist in outlook than the Almoravides, and they treated the dhimmis harshly. Jews and Christians were expelled from Morocco and Islamic Spain.[27] Faced with the choice of either death or conversion, some Jews, such as the family of Maimonides, fled south and east to the more tolerant Muslim lands, while others went northward to settle in the growing Christian kingdoms.[28][29] In 1465, Arab mobs in Fez slaughtered thousands of Jews, leaving only 11 alive, after a Jewish deputy vizier treated a Muslim woman in an offensive manner. The killings touched off a wave of similar massacres throughout Morocco.[30][31]

Historian Mark R. Cohen writes that conclusions about Jewish life under Islamic rule can only be derived through a comparative approach. Jews of Islam experienced less physical violence than Jews under Western Christendom.[32] Cohen believes a reason for this may be that Islam, unlike Christianity, did not need to establish a separate identity from Judaism.[33] He also states that Jewish people were less threatening to Muslims than Christians during the Middle Ages.[34] Isolated events of persecution did occur but this does not change the fact that Jewish people were treated adequately.[35] Cohen also notes that many people have used the myth that Jews were mistreated under Muslim rule to bolster their political standpoints in response to propaganda.[36]

Seljuk (1077-1307) and Ottoman Turkey (1299-1922)[edit]

Jews have lived in Asia Minor for more than 2,400 years. Originally settling in Asia Minor in its Hellenistic period, they were driven out in the period of Byzantine rule between the 5th and 11th centuries, resettling there only after the occupation of much of Anatolia by Muslim Seljuk forces after the Battle of Manzikert. Jewish civilization grew and thrived with the Seljuk and Ottoman rule. For much of the subsequent Seljuk and Ottoman period, Turkey was a safe haven for Jews fleeing persecution, and it continues to have a Jewish population today which, at 26,000 persons, is the second biggest in the Muslim world today, after Iran.

Early Modern Period[edit]

The Ottoman Empire had served as a refuge for Spanish Jews who had been expelled from the Kingdom of Spain and its territories and possessions, especially after the fall of Muslim Spain in 1492 and Edict of Expulsion. This was also the case for the Maghreb in North Africa, where a Jewish quarter (Mellah), was installed in most large Arabian cities. Later the Jewish converts were driven out of Spain fleeing the Roman Catholic Inquisition.

In 1656, all Jews were expelled from Isfahan because of the common belief of their impurity and forced to convert to Islam. However, as it became known that the converts continued to practice Judaism in secret and because the treasury suffered from the loss of jizya collected from the Jews, in 1661 they were allowed to revert to Judaism, but were still required to wear a distinctive patch on their clothing.[37]

Confined to city quarters, the Bukharan Jews were denied basic rights and many were forced to convert to Islam. They had to wear black and yellow dress to distinguish themselves from the Muslims.[38]

Under the Zaydi rule, the Yemenite Jews were considered to be impure, and therefore forbidden to touch a Muslim or a Muslim's food. They were obligated to humble themselves before a Muslim, to walk to the left side, and greet him first. They could not build houses higher than a Muslim's or ride a camel or horse, and when riding on a mule or a donkey, they had to sit sideways. Upon entering the Muslim quarter a Jew had to take off his foot-gear and walk barefoot. If attacked with stones or fists by Islamic youth, a Jew was not allowed to defend himself. In such situations he had the option of fleeing or seeking intervention by a merciful Muslim passerby.[39]

19th century[edit]

Photochrom of Jews in Jerusalem, in the 1890s.

In 1834, in Safed local Muslim Arabs carried out a massacre of the indigenous (Old Yishuv) Jewish population of that city in the Safed Plunder.[citation needed]

In 1839, in the eastern Persian city of Meshed, a mob burst into the Jewish Quarter, burned the synagogue, and destroyed the Torah scrolls. It was only by forcible conversion that a massacre was averted.[40] There was another massacre in Barfurush in 1867.[41][42] In 1839, the Allahdad incident, the Jews of Mashhad, Iran, now known as the Mashhadi Jews, were coerced into converting to Islam.[43]

In the middle of the 19th century, J. J. Benjamin wrote about the life of Persian Jews:

"…they are obliged to live in a separate part of town…; for they are considered as unclean creatures… Under the pretext of their being unclean, they are treated with the greatest severity and should they enter a street, inhabited by Mussulmans, they are pelted by the boys and mobs with stones and dirt… For the same reason, they are prohibited to go out when it rains; for it is said the rain would wash dirt off them, which would sully the feet of the Mussulmans… If a Jew is recognized as such in the streets, he is subjected to the greatest insults. The passers-by spit in his face, and sometimes beat him… unmercifully… If a Jew enters a shop for anything, he is forbidden to inspect the goods… Should his hand incautiously touch the goods, he must take them at any price the seller chooses to ask for them... Sometimes the Persians intrude into the dwellings of the Jews and take possession of whatever please them. Should the owner make the least opposition in defense of his property, he incurs the danger of atoning for it with his life... If... a Jew shows himself in the street during the three days of the Katel (Muharram)…, he is sure to be murdered."[44]

In 1840, the Jews of Damascus were falsely accused of having murdered a Christian monk and his Muslim servant and of having used their blood to bake Passover bread.[45] A Jewish barber was tortured until he "confessed"; two other Jews who were arrested died under torture, while a third converted to Islam to save his life. Throughout the 1860s, the Jews of Libya were subjected to what Gilbert calls punitive taxation. In 1864, around 500 Jews were killed in Marrakech and Fez in Morocco. In 1869, 18 Jews were killed in Tunis, and an Arab mob looted Jewish homes and stores, and burned synagogues, on Jerba Island. In 1875, 20 Jews were killed by a mob in Demnat, Morocco; elsewhere in Morocco, Jews were attacked and killed in the streets in broad daylight. In 1897, synagogues were ransacked and Jews were murdered in Tripolitania.[40]

Twentieth century[edit]

By the late 1930s, even before the establishment of the state of Israel, conditions of Jews in many Muslim countries were rapidly worsening through a combination of growing Arab nationalism due to European occupation; Nazi influence in the Axis controlled parts of North Africa; and the conflict in the British Mandate of Palestine. The situation came to a head after 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Many Arab states instituted formal discriminatory laws against their Jewish populations. Within a few decades, most Jews fled Muslim lands, most for the newly created Jewish state, but others went to France, the United States, Great Britain and other Commonwealth nations. In 1945 there were between 758,000 and 866,000 Jews living in communities throughout the Arab world. Today, there are fewer than 8,000. In some Arab states, such as Libya which was once around 3 percent Jewish, the Jewish community no longer exists; in other Arab countries, only a few hundred Jews remain. The largest communities of Jews in a Muslim land exist in the non-Arab countries of Iran and Turkey; both, however, are much smaller than they historically have been. Among Arab countries, the largest Jewish community exists in Morocco.

Jewish ethnic groups that have lived in the majority-Muslim world include Sephardi, Mizrahi, and Temani.

Persia and Iran (711-1900)[edit]

Judaism is the second-oldest religion still existing in Iran (after Zoroastrianism). Today, the largest groups of Persian Jews are found in Israel (75,000 in 1993, including second-generation Israelis) and the United States (45,000, especially in the Los Angeles area, home to a large concentration of expatriate Iranians). By various estimates, between 11,000 and 30,000 Jews remain in Iran, mostly in Tehran and Hamedan. There are also smaller communities in Western Europe. A number of groups of Persian Jews have split off since ancient times, to the extent that they are now recognized as separate communities, such as the Bukharian Jews and Mountain Jews.


Jews have lived in Kurdistan for hundreds of years, before the final and mass migration in 1951-1952 to Israel. The Jews lived under the Ottoman Empire and under the Persian Empire for many years and following World War I, they lived mainly in Iraq, Iran and Turkey, some lived in Syria. Jews lived in many Kurdish urban centers such as Aqra, Dohuk, Arbil, Zakho, Sulaimaniya, Amadia, in Iraqi Kurdistan, in Saqiz, Bana and Ushno, in Persian Kurdistan, in Jezira, Nisebin, Mardin and Diyarbakr in Turkish Kurdistan and in Qamishle in Syria. Jews lived as well in hundreds of villages in the rural and tribal area of Kurdistan, usually one or two families in a village, where they worked as weavers of traditional Kurdish clothing or as tenants of the agha, landlord, the head of the village.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Bat Ye'or (1985), p. 45
  2. ^ Lewis 1984 p. 62
  3. ^ Bernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam (London, 2003), p. XXVII
  4. ^ Ibn Kathir p. 2
  5. ^ Stillman passim.
  6. ^ Irvin and Sunquist, History of the World Christian Movement, Vol. 1 (Edinburgh, 2001), p. 268
  7. ^ Bernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam (London, 2003) p. XXVII
  8. ^ Bernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam (London, 2003), p. XXVIII
  9. ^ Cohen, Mark R. "The Neo-Lachrymose Conception of Jewish-Arab History." Tikkun 6.3 (1991), 55
  10. ^ Cohen, Mark R. "The Neo-Lachrymose Conception of Jewish-Arab History." Tikkun 6.3 (1991), 55
  11. ^ Cohen, Mark R. "The Neo-Lachrymose Conception of Jewish-Arab History." Tikkun 6.3 (1991), 56
  12. ^ Cohen, Mark R. "The Neo-Lachrymose Conception of Jewish-Arab History." Tikkun 6.3 (1991), 56
  13. ^ Cowling (2005), p. 265
  14. ^ Cohen, Mark R. "The Neo-Lachrymose Conception of Jewish-Arab History." Tikkun 6.3 (1991), 55
  15. ^ Cohen, Mark R. "The Neo-Lachrymose Conception of Jewish-Arab History." Tikkun 6.3 (1991), 58
  16. ^ Cohen, Mark R. "The Neo-Lachrymose Conception of Jewish-Arab History." Tikkun 6.3 (1991), 58
  17. ^ Poliakov (1974), pg.68-71
  18. ^ Cohen, Mark R. "The Neo-Lachrymose Conception of Jewish-Arab History." Tikkun 6.3 (1991), 58
  19. ^ Cohen, Mark R. "The Neo-Lachrymose Conception of Jewish-Arab History." Tikkun 6.3 (1991), 59
  20. ^ The Treatment of Jews in Arab/Islamic Countries
  21. ^ Granada by Richard Gottheil, Meyer Kayserling, Jewish Encyclopedia. 1906 ed.
  22. ^ "The Jews of Morocco". 
  23. ^ "The Jews of Egypt". Jewish Virtual Library. 
  24. ^ "The Jews of Syria". Jewish Virtual Library. 
  25. ^ "The Jews of Yemen". Jewish Virtual Library. 
  26. ^ The Jews of Morocco, by Ralph G. Bennett
  27. ^ The Forgotten Refugees
  28. ^ Sephardim, Jewish Virtual Library, Rebecca Weiner
  29. ^ Kraemer, Joel L., Moses Maimonides: An Intellectual Portrait in The Cambridge Companion to Maimonides pp. 16-17 (2005)
  30. ^ Gerber (1986), p. 84
  31. ^ Jews kicked out of Arab Countries Part 2: The Persecution of Jews prior to 1948, Historical Society of Jews from Egypt
  32. ^ Cohen, Mark R. "The Neo-Lachrymose Conception of Jewish-Arab History." Tikkun 6.3 (1991), 58
  33. ^ Cohen, Mark R. "The Neo-Lachrymose Conception of Jewish-Arab History." Tikkun 6.3 (1991),58
  34. ^ Cohen, Mark R. "The Neo-Lachrymose Conception of Jewish-Arab History." Tikkun 6.3 (1991), 58
  35. ^ Cohen, Mark R. "The Neo-Lachrymose Conception of Jewish-Arab History." Tikkun 6.3 (1991), 59
  36. ^ Cohen, Mark R. "The Neo-Lachrymose Conception of Jewish-Arab History." Tikkun 6.3 (1991), 56
  37. ^ Littman (1979), p. 3
  38. ^ Bukharan Jews, Jewish Virtual Library
  39. ^ Jewish Communities in Exotic Places," by Ken Blady, Jason Aronson Inc., 2000, page 10
  40. ^ a b Gilbert, Martin. Dearest Auntie Fori. The Story of the Jewish People. HarperCollins, 2002, pp. 179-182.
  41. ^ Littman (1979), p. 4.
  42. ^ Lewis (1984), p. 168..
  43. ^ "Mashhadi Jews in New-York". 2003. 
  44. ^ Lewis (1984), pp. 181–183
  45. ^ Americans React to Damascus Blood Libel

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]