Medieval Jewish History, 632 to 1650

Jews living under Islamic and Christian rule.


Medieval Jews lived from Spain to the Sahara, under the rule of either the Muslims or Christians. (From the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD until the founding of Israel in 1948, there was no autonomous Jewish state.) While some commonality of experience existed for Jews living in the domain of the crescent, where there was no separation of church and state; life for Jews under the cross varied as the separation of church and state, coupled with the absence of unified religious law regarding Jews, led to arbitrary application of policy and punishment.

Under Islam, Jews were governed by the Pact of Omar. This contract, established in the seventh century, required non-Muslims living under Muslim rule to abide by a host of discriminatory regulations, such as rising in the presence of a Muslim, dressing in distinctive garb, and (re) building synagogues only when absolutely necessary, and then constructing humble structures.

The Islamic Empire

The Islamic empire expanded and contracted during the Middle Ages to include significant Jewish communities, like Toledo, Grenada, Seville, Constantinople, Salonika, Baghdad, Cairo, and Jerusalem. Generally speaking, the Jews enjoyed security in these places, although occasional instances of persecution and violence erupted.

Spain serves as a useful, though by no means typical, example. Muslims invaded and conquered Andalusia (Spain) in 711. By the mid 8th century they had installed the Persian tradition of statecraft and social life, a strong army and centralized bureaucracy under the leadership of Abd al Rahman. Rahman and the opulent, tolerant rulers that followed him offered to elite Jews the opportunity for social and cultural achievement unprecedented in the medieval world. This was the “Golden Age” for Spanish, North African, and Egyptian Jews.

However, the Golden Age began to crumble in 976 when Andalusia became engulfed in political stability over the question of succession; this disorder lead to Christian attempts to reconquer Spain. Tensions erupted in Grenada, where Samuel ibn Nagrela (993-1055/6) was a Jewish vizier to the court. A Hebrew poet and biblical commentator, he lead Grenada’s armies while wearing robes adorned with inscriptions from the Koran. Muslim leaders accused Jews like Nagrela of breaking the Pact of Omar by seizing excessive power. In 1066, Jewish prominence in many petty kingdoms was squashed and thousands of Jews were slaughtered in Grenada.

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