Author Archives: Mark R. Cohen

Mark R. Cohen

About Mark R. Cohen

Mark R. Cohen is a Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University.

People of the Book

Reprinted with permission from
Medieval Jewish Civilization: An Encyclopedia
(Routledge).

Official Infidels

Religiously, Jews were categorized by Islam as “in­fidels” (Arabic: kuffar). However, like Christians, they qualified as “people of the book,” possessors of a prior revelation from God that was written down. People of the book acquired a tolerated status, that of “protected people” (ahlal‑dhimma, or dhimmis), who were permitted to live among Muslims, undisturbed, and to observe their faith without interference. 

In re­turn, they had to remit an annual tribute‑-a poll tax (Arabic: jizya)–and comply with other restrictions, some of which evolved over time during the first cen­tury or so of Islamic dominion. These limited the public exhibition of their religious rites and symbols (for instance, prohibition of construction of new houses of worship and repair to old ones; enticing Muslims to their religion). Other rules prescribed or proscribed special dress and other outward signs dis­tinguishing the dhimmisfrom Muslims (Arabic honorific names, for instance, were disallowed, as were the carrying of weapons and riding animals of pres­tige, like horses). They were prohibited from serving in positions of authority in Islamic administration. And in general they had to confirm the superiority of Islam by assuming a low profile.

spanish mosqueThe term most regularly used for this was saghar, meaning “humiliation,” and, indeed, historically, the purpose of the laws was to keep Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, and other dhimmishumble. Most of the restrictions appear in the so‑called Pact of Umar. There was no special code, however, for the Jews per se in Islam: the dhimma”system,” part of the holy law of Islam (the shari’a),applied equally to all non­-Muslim”people of the book.” As such, the discrimi­nation that existed was somewhat diffused among several infidel groups and hence not perceived as being pointedly anti‑Jewish. This “pluralism,” characteristic of Islamic society as a whole, helped protect the Jews and their counterparts in the infidel category from the baneful effects of singular “otherness” that underlay the Jewish position in Christendom.

Jewish Language and Poetry

The following article is reprinted with permission from Medieval Jewish Civilization: An Encyclopedia (Routledge).

Language as Cultural Gateway

Jews in the Fertile Crescent had spoken Aramaic for centuries, using Hebrew and Hebrew‑Aramaic as their literary languages. By the tenth century, Arabic had superseded both of these as the unified spoken and written tongue of the Jews. This contrasts revealingly with Europe. There, Jews adopted local dialects (French, German, etc.) for speaking purposes. But they did not use Latin, the language of most written culture, for literary pur­poses. Rather, they continued to employ rabbinic Hebrew for their writings. 

Jews in the East were less uncomfortable with Islam as a religion, and anti‑Jewish polemics in Ara­bic were far less prevalent and less inimical than Latin polemics against the Jews and Judaism. More­over, Arabic represented the means of acquiring secular culture (medicine, science, historiography, belles lettres, secular poetry, etc.), to which Jews were powerfully attracted. One should add that Arabic is so close to Hebrew linguistically that its adoption for everyday as well as formal literary purposes must have seemed relatively effortless.

Jews mostly wrote Arabic in Hebrew characters, which they apparently found easier than Arabic script and perhaps more “Jewish,” in that it allowed them readily to punctuate their writing with Hebrew words, phrases, or classical Jewish citations, as was so common and often necessary. But Jewish comfort with the Arabic language stretched to a certain liberty with the religious vocabulary of Islam. Such a prominent paragon of rabbinic leadership as Sa’adyah, for instance, could refer unselfconsciously to Torah as shari’a (the Islamic term for the holy law), to the Jerusalem‑oriented direction of prayer as Kibla (Muslims use this word for Mecca), and to the Jewish hazzan as imam.

Proficient knowledge of Arabic eased Jewish ac­cess to the innumerable volumes of Hellenistic writ­ings that were being translated into Arabic during the ‘Abbasid period, thanks to the efforts of Oriental Christians. It similarly made it possible for the Jewish intelligentsia to become part of the multi-denomina­tional cultural elite of the Arab world. Jewish intel­lectuals frequented the courts of Muslim rulers, forming a veritable Jewish courtier class, best known in Muslim Spain but also existing elsewhere. Jews sat alongside Muslims and Christians in erudite “ses­sions” (called majlises), wherematters of the intellect, including religion, were discussed and debated in a fairly impartial manner.

Infidels with Benefits

Reprinted with permission from
Medieval Jewish Civilization: An Encyclopedia
(Routledge).

Jews Were Tolerated as “People of the Book”

Religiously, Jews were categorized by Islam as “infidels” (Arabic: kuffar). However, like Christians, they qualified as “people of the book,” possessors of a prior revelation from God that was written down. People of the book acquired a tolerated status, that of “protected people” (ahlal-dhimma, or dhimmis), who were permitted to live among Muslims, undisturbed, and to observe their faith without interference.

In return, they had to remit an annual tribute–a poll tax–and comply with other restrictions, some of which evolved over time during the first century or so of Islamic dominion. These limited the public exhibition of their religious rites and symbols (for instance, prohibition of construction of new houses of worship and repair to old ones; enticing Muslims to their religion). Other rules prescribed or proscribed special dress and other outward signs distinguishing the dhimmis from Muslims (Arabic honorific names, for instance, were disallowed, as were the carrying of weapons and riding animals of prestige, like horses). They were prohibited from serving in positions of authority in Islamic administration. And in general they had to confirm the superiority of Islam by assuming a low profile.

jews in the islamic world

The Other “People of the Book” Were Good Company

The term most regularly used for this was saghar, meaning “humiliation,” and, indeed, historically, the purpose of the laws was to keep Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, and other dhimmis humble. Most of the restrictions appear in the so‑called Pact of Umar. There was no special code, however, for the Jews per se in Islam: the dhimma “system,” part of the holy law of Islam (the shari’a), applied equally to all non­-Muslim”people of the book.”

As such, the discrimination that existed was somewhat diffused among several infidel groups and hence not perceived as being pointedly anti-Jewish. This “pluralism,” characteristic of Islamic society as a whole, helped protect the Jews and their counterparts in the infidel category from the baneful effects of singular “otherness” that underlay the Jewish position in Christendom.