The Position of Jews in Arab Lands

The following is excerpted from The Position of Jews in Arab Lands Following the Rise of Islam, The Muslim World, Volume 60, Issue 1, January 1970 by Merlin Swartz:

Though anti-Jewish sentiments in eastern Christendom can be traced back to the first century and are reflected in the New Testament, the discriminatory measures enacted by Constantine and Theodosius II gave a new impetus to these sentiments which, more and more, were openly endorsed and promoted by Church leaders themselves. St. Chrysostom, for example, the most powerful and influential Christian preacher of the fourth century, is known to have used his sermons to launch bitter verbal attacks against Jews. A little later Cyril, bishop of Alexandria, played a key role in the massacre and expulsion of the Jews from that city. Under the Byzantine emperor Justinian (483-565), and with strong ecclesiastical backing, a systematic attempt was made to stamp out organized Jewish life in North Africa. Synagogues were confiscated, public worship was proscribed, and at least one Jewish community – the one at Bonn – was completely destroyed.

In the Near East, life for Jews reached its lowest point during the reign of Heraclius (610-641). In the year 629, following the recapture of Palestine from the Persians, the Jewish residents of Jerusalem were massacred. Three years later, and just one year before the Arab armies were to appear en masse on the northern frontiers of Arabia, Heraclius issued a decree forbidding the public exercise of Judaism and ordered all Jews within his realm to submit to baptism.

The history of Spanish Jewry in those early centuries followed a pattern strikingly similar to the one we have just observed. For them, too, an important turning point came with the conversion of the royal house to Christianity. Under Recared (586-612), the first Catholic king of Spain, a series of discriminatory measures were enacted…In 613 King Sisebut (612-620) issued a decree requiring all those of Jewish faith to submit to baptism.

For the greater part of a century following Sisebut, the public practice of Judaism was virtually impossible. The legislation of Sisebut was further refined and reinforced by successive Church Councils meeting at Toledo. These reprehensible laws received their final formulation in 694 at the Seventeenth Council of Toledo. There all Jews were declared to be slaves of Christians. Jewish children seven years and older were to be removed from their parents and placed in the custody of Christian homes or monasteries where they could be brought up as ‘Christians.’ The property that remained in the hands of Jews was to be confiscated. Those Jews who did submit to baptism were asked to demonstrate the authenticity of their conversion by eating the flesh of swine. Thus by the opening decades of the seventh century, Jewish communities in the Near East, North Africa, and Spain had witnessed the progressive deterioration of their position both legally and materially…

For Jews in the Near East, North Africa, and Spain, the Arab conquest marked the dawn of a new era. Those forces that had led to the progressive isolation and disruption of Jewish life were not only checked, they were dramatically reversed. Few Jews, however, had any idea of the far-reaching forces of change that were about to be set in motion when the Arab-Muslim armies first broke out of Arabia in 633. Indeed, many Jewish communities were initially seized with fear, for they had heard of Muhammad’s expulsion of the Jews from Medina and the surrounding oases some years before. The course of events, however, very quickly demonstrated this initial apprehension to be without ground. And with their fears allayed, Jews in one region after the other began throwing their support behind the advancing Arab armies. The sources are replete with moving accounts of the assistance rendered by these Jewish communities. In many areas the Arab armies were openly and enthusiastically welcomed as ‘liberators’ from the oppressive rule of Christian overlords. And the Arabs, for their part, soon came to regard these Jewish communities as allies in a common cause. Though some of this support may have been dictated by considerations of expediency, there is, on the whole, no reason to doubt its well-intentioned, even spontaneous, character. R. Simon bar Yohai, writing during the period of the Arab conquest, described ‘Umar (the one primarily responsible for launching the conquest) as “a lover of Israel who repaired their breaches.” “The Holy One,” he went on to insist, “is only bringing the Kingdom of Ishmael in order to help you from the wicked one (Christians).” A Jewish document widely circulated during the first century of Arab rule described Islam as “an act of God‘s mercy.” Indeed, taken as a whole, the sources make it quite clear that the Arab conquest was widely hailed among contemporary Jews as a divine intervention by God on behalf of ‘His People’ and was regarded, therefore, as an event full of promise for the future. Contrary to what is popularly believed in the West, the indigenous Jewish communities in the conquered areas were not coerced into accepting Islam. The old image of Muslim armies forcing conversion at the point of the sword is a blatant distortion that has its roots in Crusader propaganda. Taking seriously the Qur’anic injunction, “There is to be no compulsion in matters of religion,” [2:256] the conquering armies permitted Jews and Christians to remain such…

During the early centuries of Arab rule, there were few Jewish converts to Islam. Only at the end of the medieval period did they go over to Islam in significant numbers and then it was in response to the magnetic pull of Islamic mysticism (tasawwuf), and not to external pressures of any sort.

But if Jews were shown tolerance in the new Arab-Islamic empire, this tolerance was not a matter of temporary sufferance, not the result of a willingness to co-exist for the present with no real guarantees for the future. Onthe contrary, Jews both individually and collectively were granted a positive legal status in the new state. Based in part on precedents established by Muhammad in the constitution of Medina and in part also on pre-Islamic tradition, the right of Jews to life, property, protection, and the free exercise of their faith (so long as it did not prove offensive to Muslims) was guaranteed by Islamic law. In the spheres of religious practice and personal life, Jews were to be governed by their own law. Only in their relations with the larger non-Jewish community were they to come under the jurisdiction of the law of the state. On the other hand, individual Jews could always have recourse to Islamic law if they preferred. And from the sources we know that occasionally, at least, they did avail themselves of this privilege.

Furthermore, Islamic law made no distinction between Jews and other minority faiths. Together with Christians and Zoroastrians, Jews formed part of a much larger class of ‘protected persons’ (ahl al-dhimma; dhimmis). All members of this class, irrespective of creedal, ethnic, or other differences, were recognized by and enjoyed the same standing before Islamic law. In return for protection and the other rights guaranteed by that law, dhimmis were to pay a poll tax (jizya). [This] was a tax paid in return for certain benefits, and when those benefits could not be guaranteed, Islamic law stipulated that the tax was to be returned. In order to prevent it from becoming a burden to dhimmis, the law further stipulated that it could only be collected from those who were capable of paying it. Women, children, the elderly, the blind and crippled, the poor and unemployed were exempted. One early Jewish writer referred to it as a “slender poll tax” in return for what he described as “an almost boundless toleration…”

It is also highly significant that dhimmis were granted the right to travel and reside where they chose. There were no laws of any sort restricting the residence of dhimmis to special quarters in the cities or towns…

There can be little doubt, then, that for Jews the Arab conquest meant a marked improvement in their legal condition. From a previously degraded class of aliens, almost always resented by the Christian majority and frequently the object of open persecution, they were now elevated to a new position and granted a positive legal status with clearly defined rights guaranteed by law. And what is equally important, they were no longer regarded as a separate entity, legally or otherwise, but were thought of as part of a larger class of protected persons in relation to whom they enjoyed full equality. No longer were Jews as Jews the object of special laws or a special minority status.

If the Arab conquest brought immediate release from conditions of a most degrading sort, it also had long-term implications that were not less important. The new conditions resulting from the conquest (including the legal changes just noted) made it possible for Jews to gradually break out of the isolation in which they had previously lived and paved the way for their eventual integration into the mainstream of life in Arab-Islamic society. This process of integration, representing as it did a dramatic reversal of past trends, constitutes, in many ways, the most prominent, most characteristic feature of Jewish history during the early centuries of Arab rule. And in its wake, this process brought changes unprecedented in the history of the Jewish people.

With the mass penetration of Jews into the main sectors of Arab- Islamic society and their intimate involvement in this non-Jewish milieu, both the outward form and inner essence of traditional Jewish life were deeply affected and, in some cases, fundamentally transformed…

In the economic sphere, integration began early and resulted in a gradual, but marked improvement in the material well-being of Jewish communities. These communities, many of which had lived for long periods under conditions of privation and stagnation, quickly came to life and entered a new period of economic growth and prosperity. This was not, furthermore, an isolated phenomenon, confined to this or that region. From the borders of Persia in the east to Spain in the west, it formed a clearly observable, new pattern and provides a striking contrast to the conditions of poverty that had generally prevailed among Jews in those areas prior to the rise of Islam…

The degree of economic freedom enjoyed by Jews can in part be seen from the wide variety of professions and crafts which they practiced. There was scarcely an occupation (from the humblest to the most lucrative and prestigious) in which they were not to be found. They did, at times, tend to predominate in certain crafts such as dyeing; there is, however, no evidence to suggest that this was the result of pressure or exclusion from other occupations. Contrary to what is commonly believed, they were not prohibited from owning and cultivating land. What they were deprived of was the right to purchase and develop virgin lands, for these were regarded as the common property of the Muslim community. The degree to which Jews succeeded in penetrating the mainstream of economic life is shown most strikingly in the extent to which the outward form and material base of their economic life was transformed during this period of their history. From a nation of peasants, traditionally tied to the soil, they were gradually transformed into a nation of international traders, manufacturers, and financiers. This was a change hitherto unparalleled in the previous experience of Jewry. Never before in their history had such a large segment of the Jewish people turned to mercantile occupations. More significant, however, is the fact that this transformation was part of a much larger transformation which involved the economy of the empire as a whole.

Through the development of trade made possible by the political and administrative unification of large areas and the growth of industry in the urban centres, the old agricultural economy gradually gave way to one based primarily on commerce, manufacturing, and banking. That Jews as a whole not only profited materially from this ‘bourgeois revolution,’ but participated in it and were themselves transformed by it, indicates to what extent the old economic barriers had indeed been broken down. From the evidence available, it seems clear that already by the end of the fourth century of Arab rule, the process of economic integration had gone far. In the economic sphere, the record of medieval Islam’s treatment of Jews stands in sharp contrast to that of medieval Europe where they were progressively and systematically excluded from one sector of the economy after the other, so that by late medieval times only the most degrading and menial occupations were open to them.

In the political sphere, the effects of integration were equally impressive and far-reaching. The relative absence of Jews in public office during the first century of Arab rule is explained largely by the fact that Jews had traditionally been excluded from this sphere of community life and, therefore, had not been given the opportunity to acquire the necessary skills or experience. This state of affairs, however, was not to continue for long. With the growing involvement of Jews in the larger economy and their pursuit of bourgeois occupations, the requisite fiscal and administrative skills were gradually acquired. By early ᶜAbbasid times the services of Jews were being increasingly sought by Muslim rulers. Particularly in Iraq, Egypt, and Spain (the three major political centres of the Arab world), Jews rose to positions of power and influence. Not a few were called to serve as advisors and counsellors to caliphs and their chief ministers. Despite their elevation to positions of prominence within the government, Jews in general appear to have remained aloof from partisan politics and most of #the perpetual intriguing that went on in political circles. They chose rather to concentrate on the mastery of technical skills and on the development of a bureaucratic tradition within their own ranks. This two-fold policy proved to be a wise one. First, it made them less vulnerable to reprisal during periods of political upheaval and, secondly, it rendered them increasingly indispensable as public servants. It was not without reason, then, that Jews frequently found it easier to survive changes of government -than did their fellow Arabs…

Here again, the record of medieval Islam contrasts sharply with that of Europe where, already at this early date, anti-Jewish feeling was widespread and persecution of Jews part of an emerging pattern. Even in ,those areas of the Arab world that were temporarily occupied by European powers, the consequence for the local Jewish population was one of unmitigated disaster. During the Crusader occupation of Palestine the Jewish population of that region was cruelly reduced. The massacre of the Jewish residents of Jerusalem in 1097 was but one episode in a tragic series which virtually put an end to organized Jewish life in that land. The same story was repeated in North Africa when re-Christianized Spain captured Oran in 1509, Tunis in 1535, and Bougie in 1541, and ruthlessly reduced the local Jewish communities in eachof these cities.

The integration of Jews into the economic and political life of the Arab world could hardly have advanced as far or as rapidly as it did had it not been for a larger, more encompassing form of integration best designated, perhaps, by the term ‘social’. In treating the matter of socialintegration, I shall relate it more specifically to the process of arabization, i.e., that process whereby Jews as a whole assimilated Arabic-Islamic culture. It was this process, in the final analysis, that made possible the entrance of Jews on a large scale into the central stream of Arab social life and enabled them, in turn, to participate in both the material and non-material spheres of that life in a most amazing way. Through this process of assimilation and integration, Arabic-Islamic culture, and all that was bound up with that culture, made an indelible impression on the deepest levels of Jewish being. One of the earliest and most crucial aspects of this process of arabization was the adoption by Jews of the Arabic language as their primary vehicle of communication. The assimilation of Arabic, which began during the period of the conquest, proceeded rapidly and affected a wide area 50 that by the end of the third century of Arab rule, Arabic had almost entirely replaced Hebrew and Aramaic as the language of daily life for Jews. Even among themselves Jews gradually came to employ Arabic almost exclusively. Hebrew did, of course, continue to be used but it was mainly for liturgical purposes and, to a limited extent, also as the language of religious scholarship…

On the most elemental level, the assimilation of Arabic-Islamic culture led to an extensive re-shaping in the outward forms of Jewish social life. Those external features of Jewish social life that had traditionally symbolized their ethnic distinctiveness vis-à-vis the non- Jewish world were gradually lost. Arab Jewry, for all practical purposes, ceased to be a separate ethnic entity. (This meant that Arab Jewry’s identity became more exclusively a function of religion.) Whatever else the loss of their external, ethnic separation may have meant, from the point of view of social integration, it marked an important advance. No longer was the identity of Jews as Jews revealed directly and immediately through the outward forms of their life in the way that it traditionally had been. By decreasing their visibility, both individually and collectively, arabization made possible a much larger measure of anonymity in the public sphere. This meant, in turn, greater freedom of movement, both socially and physically. The trend toward increased physical mobility, in part, explains why the Jewish ghetto never made its appearance in the medieval Arab world. It is true that in the larger cities such as Baghdad, Jews tended to congregate in certain quarters. There is no evidence, however, to suggest that they did so under pressure. Large numbers of Jews were always to be found scatted throughout the city as were their synagogues. The trend toward greater social mobility is seen in the growing ease with which Jews were able to find their way into the various social classes, occupations, and public offices…

Onthe religious plane, the encounter between Islam and Judaism led to deep mutual sharing, with important consequences for both. But on this plane, too, it was Judaism that was most profoundly affected by the meeting. Under the influence of Islam, Jewish theology and law underwent important modification and took on ,their final forms. It was in the sphere of religious piety, however, that Islam was to make its most important contribution to Judaism. Under the impact of Islamic asceticism (zuhd) and mysticism (tasawwuf) , there developed within Judaism new Jewish forms of asceticism and mysticism bearing the clear marks of their Islamic origins.

The ascetic ideas of Islam appear to have found their way into Judaism for the first time through the writings of Bahya, a Jewish scholar-saint of the eleventh century. It was in his The Duties of the Heart, written originally in Arabic, that Bahya made his greatest contribution to this development. Throughout the work, Bahya based himself almost exclusively on Muslim sources, and even at those points where he could very well have drawn on Talmudic materials he chose to rely consistently on Islamic texts. Within a relatively short time, Bahya’s work became one of the most widely used books of devotion in medieval Jewish circles, and eventually was translated into Hebrew. Out of the inspiration provided by Bahya and his disciples, there rapidly came into being a vibrant Jewish literature devoted ,to ascetic themes and concerns, and giving evidence of its Islamic affinities.

Sufi ideas and practices made their appearance in Jewish circles in the twelfth century, the same century that witnessed the rise of the great Muslim Sufi brotherhoods. The first significant Sufi influences are to be found in the writings of Maimonides, perhaps the most impressive religious thinker to appear in the world of medieval Arab Jewry. It was not until the following century, however, and particularly in the writings of his son Maimuni, that the mystical teachings of Islam were to become an all-consuming passion in Jewish circles. In his most important work, The Complete Guide for Servants of God, Maimuni repeatedly insisted that the great Sufi masters of Islam had followed the Hebrew prophets of old more faithfully than had the Jewish people themselves. Sufism in its Judaized form attracted large numbers of Jews and very quickly became a vigorous movement. The size and power of this new movement clearly indicates that it corresponded to a deeply-felt need among Arab Jewry at the time. Moreover, Jewish Sufism did not fade out of the picture with the passing of the medieval age, but continued to play an important role in the religious life of Arab Jewry down to the modem period…

There canbe no doubt that the Arab-Muslim conquest struck a massive blow at the vicious spiral of anti-Jewish sentiment in the Near East, North Africa, and Spain. It put an end to the intolerable conditions of oppression under which Jews had previously lived in those areas, and ushered in a new age of tolerance enshrined in, and guaranteed by, law-a tolerance that was not, therefore, at the mercy of the unpredictable, fluctuating moods of the non-Jewish majority. These, moreover, were not isolated changes, but formed part of a general condition that prevailed throughout the empire… The new conditions created by the Arab conquest paved the way for the progressive integration of Jews into the mainstream of Arab- Islamic society and, in so doing, subjected them to sweeping changes affecting the outward forms a well as the inner core of Jewish existence. From a poor peasant class, excluded from public life, they were transformed into an urban, bourgeois people possessing considerable economic power and playing an important role in the political life of the Arab world. Under the impact of the powerful forces of culture assimilation, ,they lost most of their separate ethnic identity and, in the process, absorbed much of the Arab-Islamic ethos itself. These changes left their mark on the deepest levels of Jewish being; they permeated the very depths of the Jewish psyche creating, in turn, a new self-image which, though not totally discontinuous with the old self-image, was sufficiently different to warrant being called new. The arabicized Jew was a new kind of Jew – an Arab Jew – and he viewed himself as such…

The history of Arab Jewry demonstrates in a rather remarkable way the extent of Islam’s commitment to the ideal of openness and tolerance. It was this, it seems to me, that ultimately made possible Islam’s enormous impact upon the Jewish people and their faith. Because Islam, on the whole, never posed a threat to Judaism, the latter never found it necessary to assume a defensive, apologetic stance vis-à-vis Islam. Arab Jewry, thus, never had to develop a rationale for their existence in the way that European Jewry had to do. Under Islam Judaism was able to recover much of its long-lost sense of self-respect and dignity. With this new sense of worth and self-confidence, it was possible for Judaism to enter into a dialogue with Islam with a sense of openness and receptivity that would not otherwise have been possible…

The only real exceptions to this last generalization have occurred in the present century and are to be seen almost entirely, I think, as Arab reaction to the Zionist movement and the establishment of the State of Israel. They are an expression of Arab outrage at the displacement of the indigenous Arab population of Palestine through the organized efforts of Zionism and the establishment of an alien state in a land that had been theirs for thirteen centuries. While this reaction, with its resultant anti-Jewish feelings, is not to be excused, it must be seen in its proper historical context. It must be remembered that anti- Jewish sentiment, insofar as it is to be found in the contemporary Arab world, is strictly a modem phenomenon, and one that runs counter to the time-honoured Islamic tradition of fraternity and tolerance. The very widespread popular notion that present day Arab- Jewish hostility is but another chapter in a long history of mutual animosity is totally false. If there is one thing that the past makes clear, it is precisely that Arabs and Jews can live together peacefully and in a mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationship. History also makes it clear that as heir to the Islamic tradition of openness and tolerance the Arab people have at hand the moral resources adequate for the forging of any such fraternal relationship. Will they choose to fall back on that heritage appropriating its resources, or must they go down the devious paths of narrow, self-centred nationalism charted for them by the modem West? Israel for its part, however, will be called upon to renounce its present form as an outpost of Western political influence, its quasi-racist character, and its blind and arrogant faith in military supremacy as the answer to its problems. As long as Israel retains its present form it will inevitably remain isolated not only from the larger human community in the Near East, but also from the moral resources of its own heritage – a heritage as rich and humane as that to which the Arab world stands heir. We in the West must remember, however, that we have little right to stand over either the Arabs or the Jews in superior, patronizing judgment, for the root of the current dilemma is precisely that both Arabs and Jews have learned too much and too well from the West.

Published by caliphatefoundation

The Caliphate Foundation seeks to promote Orthodox Muslim views regarding Islamic governance and systems of life and engage with those who oppose the normative views of Islam. Whatever your opinions on the Caliphate are, your contributions to the discussion are most welcome.

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