People of the Book

Muslim-Jewish relations in the Middle Ages.

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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 But, contrary to an outdated view, these Jewish merchant‑bankers did not pioneer their vocation nor did they constitute Jewish dominance in these related specialties.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.

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Mark R. Cohen

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