Jews Under Islamic Rule


You may wish to read my introduction first.


660 to 1000 C.E.

From "Diaspora Configuration and Jewish Occupation Patterns: Standards of Living"

The height of magnificence and luxury was reached by the wealthy Jews in the lands of Islam, particularly in Moslem Spain. We know that the court bankers of Baghdad in the tenth century kept open house for numerous guests and for the poor. Similarly, the ceremonies of the Jewish leaders in Babylonia [Iraq] and the patronage of the leading Jews in Moslem Spain (see page 452), indicate conditions of ease and plenty.

p. 401


From "The Protected People"

The need to maintain undisturbed relations with those on whom the existence of an economic structure and civilization depended gradually shaped the Moslem attitude towards those members of the 'peoples of the Book' who refused to accept Islam. The attitude toward these non-Moslems in the Islamic territories was shaped in principle in accordance with the concept of dhimma, meaning protection granted to them by agreement or treaty...

The major expressions of dhimmi status were the poll-tax or jizia, which all male non-believers above the age of fifteen had to pay, and the special land-tax, known as the kharaj. In return, their lives and property were protected and, in accordance with the general attitude of Islam to infidels, they were assured liberty of faith and worship. They were also permitted to organize themselves as they wished, and the Jews fully availed themselves of that permission. Naturally there were changes for the better or for the worse in various places and at various times; but the principles established in the early days of Islam continued to serve as the basis for the relations between Moslem and dhimmi throughout the ages.

pp. 404-5


From "The Status of the Jews"

From the Jewish viewpoint, this conglomerate of Moslem attitudes to infidels was easier to live with than the one that had been established by Christianity, particularly in the Byzantine Empire. As we have noted above, for hundreds of years the overwhelming majority of Jews lived in the Islamic territories. Although it is possible to perceive some Christian impact on the Moslem attitude towards non-believers and even towards the Christians themselves, the moderation with which the Moslems applied this influence proved to be of great importance to the majority of Jewry over a long period. Unlike the masses of Christians and pagans who joined the Moslems over the first half century or so, the overwhelming majority of the Jews under Moslem rule held firmly to their own faith

p. 405


From "The Flowering of Centralized Leadership and Rise of Local Leadership: Ceremonials Surrounding the Office of Exilarch"

The exilarch served as manifestation of the splendour of bygone days, which the Jews wished to preserve, to the extent that the Moslem government would permit a dhimmi people. He was 'like one of the lords of the king in his behaviour' - the reference being to the ministers of the Moslem caliph. The exilarch used to enter the royal court, speaking to the caliph 'with pleasant words until he granted his request'. Thus the resh galuta majestically represented the Jews and performed the diplomatic function of intercession at the caliph's court. He also appointed judges, as has been mentioned, and had an authoritative say in matters of Jewish law and the organization of the yeshivot. His office, though maintained in the shadow of the caliphate and interwoven with the leadership of the scholars and sages of the yeshivot, reflected on a small scale the ancient monarchy of Judah.

pp. 422-3


From "Jewish Social and Cultural Life Until the End of the Eleventh Century: Arabic Influence"

The Jews of the Middle Ages, as we have remarked, inherited from ancient times an entire range of viewpoints and ideals that were transmitted in an extensive literature and were preserved throughout the generations. Many of their guiding institutions were, or at least claimed to be, continuations of institutions of the ancient past. Naturally, however, the social and cultural circumstances and trends of the contemporary environment had their effect. Life in the Islamic countries, with its flow of commerce and bustling urban activity, exerted considerable influence. An equal and possibly even greater influence was the new Arabic culture, in wihch the Platonic, neo-Platonic and Aristotelian elements moulded much of the spectrum of thought. The Jewish literature of the period came to be dominated by Arabic, which gradually became the spoken and written language of the Jewish masses, as well as the language of study, even in matters pertaining to sacred Jewish tradition. Jewish religious philosophy, which made its appearance in the tenth century, was written mostly in Arabic. Admittedly, however, Arabic never fully displaced Hebrew and Aramaic. Furthermore, the Arabic of the Jewish scholars and merchants came to be written in Hebrew characters and acquired a style and grammar of its own, gradually becoming a Judeo-Arabic dialect.

From the eleventh century there is evidence of cultural ties within Jewry extending from Babylonia [Iraq] to Moslem Spain by way of the Mediterranean islands. In addition, there were communications between the geonim and other Jewish scholars, on the one hand, and with the surrounding Moslem and cultures, on the other...

Under the impact of Arab culture and language, contemporary Arabic literary and verse forms were adopted by Jews, together with verse metres and genres. These were widely and successfully used in Hebrew and proved to be fruitful elements in the emergence of new literary styles.

pp. 439-40


1000 C.E. to present

From "Changes in the Legal Status and the Security of the Jews: Islamic Lands"

Throughout this period the earlier conditions continued to prevail in the Islamic countries. But the collapse that followed the Mongol invasion, together with the general decline of and the conflicts between the Moslem kindgoms, had their effect. Maimonides's comments in the twelfth century about the Moslems indicate that within the uppermost circles of Jewish society, particularly those that were closest to the Moslems, the degradations imposed by the rulers were very keenly felt.

p. 489


From "Social Life and Cultural Achievement: The Cultural Climate in the Orient"

The level of education was considerably high even among the less wealthy groups and in Moslem countries besides Spain. From a question addressed to Maimonides we learn of the situation of a girl who was married off at the age of nine. The description makes it clear that the couple was poor and that the wife led a harsh life with her husband. Yet the woman was educated... We hear much about the education of girls in Islamic countries... Here is an instance of a Jewish family that was certainly not well-to-do in which the women of two generations were educated and saw to the education of their daughters. The works of the great Jewish poets of this epoch, the philosophy and the type of leadership bear witness to a high level of culture and education. It seems that this cultural creativity was shared by Jews of every class in Moslem Spain and the lands of the East, though there is, in the nature of such things, little information available about this.

pp. 520-1


From "The Collapse of Old Settlements and the Establishment of New Ones: The Economic Basis of the Communities in the Oriental Countries"

Jewish documents, external sources and descriptions left by travellers present a picture of communities containing large Jewish populations engaged in every branch of urban economic activity. This picture pertained to North Africa, of which we are informed in some detail by the Spanish Jews who fled there, and as far as the Island of Rhodes, which was still in Christian hands in the fifteenth century. Differences did exist between one place or region and another. However, apart from the very poor situation of the Jews in Rhodes and Bynzantium, the Jewish communities in these lands included wealthy social circles that were in close contact with the authorities and directed the affairs of large communities, whose members included shopkeepers, pedlars, and every kind of craftsman.

p. 573


From "Settlement and Economic Activity in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries: The Establishment of the Sephardi Diaspora in the Ottoman Empire"

A considerable stream of exiles from Spain overflowed into the Ottoman Empire. Once the latter had annexed Erez Yisrael, it became a lodestone for Marranos who wished to repent and return to their former faith...

The sultan at the time of the expulsion, Bayezid, welcomed the refugees fleeing from the fanatical Christians. As recorded by a Jewish contemporary 'the Sultan sent men ahead, and spread the word through his kingdom in writing as well, declaring that none of his officers in any of his cities dare to drive the Jews out or expel them, but all of them were to welcome the Jews cordially.' It can be assumed that this imperial protection and the order granting right of domicile were issued through the influence of the leaders of the long-established Jewish community in the Ottoman Empire...

Success was not restricted exclusively to medical and court circles. It seems that in the Ottoman Empire it was felt that the absorption of the exiles from the West provided social, cultural and even military advantages...

The exiles gradually dispersed throughout the main cities of the Empire. Many synagogues were to be found in Constantinople during the sixteenth century. In this city they settled in quarters where Jews had not formerly resided. Salonika also became one of their main centres, and similarly Adrianople and Smyrna (Izmir). The exiles also established themselves in smaller cities. Expulsions from southern Italy helped to diversify the Jewish community and increase the various congregations in the Empire.

pp. 631-3


From "Legal Status in Absolutist States: The Status of the Jew in a Disintegrating Poland and a Weakened Turkey"

The situation was similar in the Ottoman Empire. In the second half of the seventeenth century there was a change for the worse in the status of the Jews. They continued to hold important positions in economic life, but the weakening of the rule of the sultans meant that the latter could not guarantee efficient protection. Like all other subjects, or perhaps more so, the Jews were at the mercy of the arbitrary will of ministers and local officials. In the eighteenth century the situation worsened. The rapid deterioration of the great empire constituted a gloomy chapter in the history of the Jews in the East.

p. 753


Followup: What happened to the Jews in Muslim lands?

From "The Consolidation of the State of Israel"

Immediately afterwards came the immigration of the Jews from Arab lands. By the end of 1950, some 45,000 Yemenite Jews had arrived - gathered from their places of residence to Aden whence they were flown to Israel... In 1950-1, some 122,000 (out of a total of 130,000) Iraqi Jews immigrated. Several of the more ancient communities were almost emptied - 30,000 (out of 35,000) immigrated from Libya...

A new wave of immigration arrived in the years 1955-7, consisting of more than 160,000 people. Because of the intensification of Arab nationalism in North Africa, some 70,000 Jews immigrated from Morocco and 15,000 from Tunisia.

pp. 1076-7

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