Author Archives: Menachem Ben-Sasson

Menachem Ben-Sasson

About Menachem Ben-Sasson

Menachem Ben-Sasson is a Professor of History at Hebrew University's Institute of Jewish Studies.

Jews and Arabs: First Contacts

The following article is reprinted with permission from A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People,published by Schocken Books.

Jews in Ancient Arabia

Jews had lived in Arabia since very ancient times. In the fifth century, they were concentrated mostly in two regions: Himyar in the south and Hijaz in the north. Several sedentary tribes professing Judaism engaged in farming and crafts. They lived peacefully alongside tribes who had become the predominant population in the peninsula shortly before the birth of Muhammad. Judaism, combined with Christianity of the oriental sects, must have had a certain influence on the Arab elites.

In the following century, this influence was clearly evident in the self‑perception of the Himyarite aristocracy. During the reign of Yusuf As’ar Yath’ar–known by his epithet Dhu Nuwas–the Himyarites conducted an independent foreign policy in relation to the Byzantine Persian Empires, and fought against the Christians of Najran in the name of a single god, referred to as “The Merciful One.” Inscriptions on rocks in Arabia have preserved traces of this triple phenomenon: religious separatism, embryonic monotheism, and war against the Christians. Some Christians regarded this as part of a Jewish attempt to dominate the world. Yet the kingdom was not Jewish, and its monotheism was but an expression of Himyarite independence.

Abandoned by his supporters, Dhu Nuwas was killed in battle against a Christian Ethiopian army in 525, Himyar then came under Ethiopian rule, which lasted until the Persian conquest of southern Arabia in 575. Nevertheless, long after Dhu Nuwas’ death, the inscriptions continue to mention the single “merciful” god of the Himyarites.

Muhammad’s Monotheistic Revelations

From about 610 Muhammad ibn Abdallah began proclaiming his monotheistic revelations. Analysis of their content clearly exposes ties between the new faith and the old traditions of local Jews and Christians. To the people of Mecca, Muhammad spoke of his revelation concerning the last day of judgment, of the necessity for man to be humble and grateful to the Merciful One and to worship Him alone, and of the obligation of generosity to the poor and the defenseless. The children of Israel, he insisted, could testify to the authenticity of his message. All these were elements directly influenced by the traditions and customs of the Jewish tribes of Medina. Like Jesus before him, Muhammad also claimed that he did not wish to abolish the tradition of Israel, but to update and adjust it in compliance with the new divine commandments.

Jews in North Africa and Egypt

Reprinted with permission from Eli Barnavi’s A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People, published by Schocken Books.

The golden age of the Jewish communities in Muslim lands ended between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries—first in North Africa and later in the Levant. Their situations deteriorated as a result of major political upheavals in these regions: new regimes, which valued Islam well above other beliefs inherited from Greek antiquity, came into being. Intolerance towards religious minorities, Jewish and Christian, was one of the more bitter consequences.

Taliban-like Dynasty Took Over North Africa and Spain

In the Maghreb (which in contemporary Arab geography included Spain as well as North Africa), a new dynasty, the Almohad, came to power in the mid-twelfth century. Originating in the High Atlas mountains among the Berbers, adhering to a fundamentalist and fanatic form of Islam, the Almohads imposed their puritanical religious concepts on all Muslims who came under their rule. The protection traditionally accorded to the “Peoples of the Book” was severely restricted. Muhammad had given these nations, the Almohads claimed, five hundred years for their Messiah to come forth; since the period of grace had elapsed, the whole world was now obliged to embrace Islam.

Numerous Jews in Morocco refused to convert and chose martyrdom instead; others found refuge in Ayyubid Egypt; but the majority stayed on, hoping that the persecution would soon subside. The Almohads, however, remained in power until 1269. North African Jewry was crushed under this brutal rule, and survived only by virtue of religious dissimulation [insincere conversion]. This crypto-Judaism, however, could preserve none of the creative energies which had characterized the Jewish community prior to the Almohad conquest.

Many of those who converted to Islam did not return to Judaism even when the persecutions abated. Yet the converts did not fare very much better than those who maintained the religion of their ancestors. Suspected of “Judaizing,” they were humiliated, spied upon, marked by distinctive clothes, prohibited from trading, and restricted to base occupations. Often their children were taken away by order of the authorities to be brought up in an orthodox Muslim environment. It was during this period that Maimon ben Joseph and his son Moses (the famous Maimonides), refugees themselves, wrote letters of advice and consolation from Egypt to the Maghreb Jews.

Mongols and Mamluks change Babylonia and Egypt

In the Orient, two major developments, both related to the Mongol invasion, transformed the conditions of Jewish existence. In Iraq, the Mongols put an end to the Abbasid caliphate (Baghdad was captured and sacked in 1258); and in Egypt the Mamluks, after defeating the Mongols, formed their own kingdom.

Urban Life is Ruined in Mesopotamia

The Mongol wave destroyed the texture of urban life in Mesopotamia and ruined its trade. Although Jews attained important positions in the administration at the beginning of the conquest, their situation was gravely affected when the Mongols adopted Islam. Delivered in to the hands of the vindictive mob, the Jewish communities paid dearly for their ephemeral success.

Mamluks Harass Near Eastern Merchants and Minorities

The Near East—Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Lebanon—was under Mamluk domination for almost three centuries. A military aristocracy of slave origin, the Mamluks–mostly Turks or Balkan Christians taken from their families at a young age–were all the more devoutly Muslim since they were foreigners and recent converts. They formed an extremely centralized state. Its cadres were raised in religious schools (madrasa), and they made every effort to curry favor with the Muslim theologians.

The Mamluk order was particularly resented by two strata of Muslim society: the urban middle classes which were excluded from government, and the city merchants who suffered from state intervention in the economy. Naturally, frustrations were vented against minority groups, mostly against Christians and the Coptic rite, still numerous in the high echelons of government and in commerce. However, in a period when the Covenant of Omar was increasingly interpreted in a narrower sense, and when the confrontation with the Crusaders intensified suspicion of non-Muslims, the Jews too had their share of tribulations.

Thus, it was a new era for the Jews throughout the Muslim world. They found themselves economically restricted, ill at ease in a civilization which had adopted a new spiritual direction, and ill-treated by the rulers who had once been their main source of security, but were now intent on alienating the minorities.