People of the Book

Muslim-Jewish relations in the Middle Ages.

Print this page Print this page

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.

Boundaries Often Breached

Moreover, in actual practice during this era, the dhimmarestrictions 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. [A genizah is a place where unusable sacred writings were stored in order to preserve them from desecration.] So do frequent com­plaints in Muslim sources that dhimmishad 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.

Perks for Professionals

Unlike the Christian West (particularly, north­western Europe), where the Jews' concentration in professions associated with disreputable profit seek­ing underscored their outsider status, the Islamic world encouraged profit seeking and the mercantile life, and Jews were well integrated into the economic life of society at large. Jewish merchants in the Mus­lim world were representatives of their economic profession rather than of their religion. Their eco­nomic role imparted to them more status and a higher degree of embeddedness in society at large than in the West.

One finds evidence of this, for instance, in the Abbasid empire at the beginning of the tenth cen­tury. A consortium of Jewish merchant‑bankers be­came attached to the caliphal court at Baghdad as a provider of loans and other banking and mercantile services. But, contrary to an outdated view, these Jewish merchant‑bankers did not pioneer their vocation nor did they constitute Jewish dominance in these related specialties. On the one hand, Muslims engaged in the very same economic activities. On the other, Jews exhibited substantial economic differenti­ation.

The genizah documents show that Jews made a living from industrial crafts, like metalwork and pro­duction of cheese, raised crops on land they owned, were physicians, served in the bureaucracy, and more. They formed partnerships for profit in trade and in crafts with other Jewish and with Muslims. Thus di­versified, and benefiting from the guild‑free Islamic marketplace, the Jews appeared very much like their Muslim neighbors, and this militated against the so­cial abuse that Jews in Christian lands had to endure in part on account of their identification with a lim­ited and problematic set of occupations.

The situation of the Jews in medieval Islam as re­flected in the sources from that time resonates with the findings of several anthropologists who have ob­served the nondiscriminatory interaction between Jews and Muslims in the traditional Arab market­place in our own era. In fact, actual social interaction in the medieval period between Jews and Muslims, even beyond the economic realm, exhibits signs of decent human relations, despite the fact that Jews (and Christians) occupied the lowest rank in the hierarchy of the social order and always ran the risk of incurring the wrath of strict religious scholars and/or the populace when they pursued behavior that con­travened the code of differentiation and discrimina­tion.

Separate and Unequal and Okay with it

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.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Mark R. Cohen

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