Infidels with Benefits

Jews in the Medieval Islamic Empire

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Moreover, in actual practice during this era, the dhimma restrictions were commonly observed in the breach. Jews--and more so the far more numerous Christians--regularly evaded the sartorial con­straints, constructed new houses of worship, and, most conspicuously, abounded in the Muslim bureaucracy. Documents from daily life in the Cairo genizah testify to this evasion. So do frequent complaints in Muslim sources that dhimmis had overstepped the boundaries imposed upon them by the holy law--whence the restrictions would be enforced with sudden vigor, thus being perceived by the dhimmis as persecution…

It should be added that Jews shared with Muslims the desire for separation and distinctive religious identity. Egalitarian assimilation was neither a possibility nor a desired goal. But it seems that so long as both parties recognized the hierarchical gap between them (even if the lowly Jews were frequently capable of crossing barriers between them and their Muslim superiors), and so long as general economic and social conditions in the Muslim world maintained a certain level of prosperity and freedom from external threat, Jews and their neighbors got along tolerably well, and both the incidence and the fear of persecu­tion were minimal.

Spain: A Golden Age, Then Not

In Spain, an independent Jewish center emerged in the ninth century, around the same time that the Islamic province itself broke away from Baghdad's hegemony to become the thriving and intellectually vibrant Umayyad caliphate, with its capital in Cordoba. A Jewish yeshivah, many illustrious rabbis, and a courtier class (from among the rabbis themselves) with close ties to the government formed the backbone of a self-sufficient Jewish community no longer subordinate to the Babylonian geonim.

The Jewry of Muslim Spain flourished during this period, which 19th-century European Jewish scholars looked back upon as a golden age of political and cultural distinction (with short-term setbacks), until the Berber Almohad conquest and persecutions of the 1140s. In that decade, many thousands of Jews were killed or forced to convert to Islam; others fled to safer Islamic lands or to the steadily advancing Christian sector of Spain or to southern France.

North Africa: Rivaling the Ga'onim

North Africa, notably Fez in Morocco, and Qayrawan in what is modern Tunisia, developed creative centers of Jewish learning. Qayrawan, in particular, flourished. It was a bustling node in the Mediterranean trade, and the Jews among the mer­chant community there imparted to the community the material well-being to support institutions oflearning that, by the beginning of the 11th century, rivaled those of the ga'onim.

The Tunisian center ended its heyday in the middle of that century due to the destruction of Qayrawan by Berber tribesmen, sent on an expedition from Egypt by the Fatimids to punish the rebellious vassal province of the Zirids.

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Mark R. Cohen

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