Jewish-Muslim relations are at a nadir today. But the mutual hatred and anti-Semitism on the Muslim side are relatively new phenomena, born of political, rather than religious factors. When the Islamic caliphs ruled large swaths of Asia and Africa, their Jewish subjects enjoyed a protected status their brethren in Christian Europe — victims of anti-Semitism — never thought possible.
Today, Muslim apologists have distorted this age of coexistence. They appropriate an old Jewish myth about an ‘inter-faith utopia’ in the Middle Ages and blame the Jews and Zionism for destroying the traditional harmony between the two peoples. In response, there is a new Jewish ‘counter-myth’ that claims that Islam has persecuted Jews from its origins and that anti-Semitism is endemic in the religion. This counter-myth has been propagated by Jewish writers since the 1970s. It parallels a similar conviction among some Oriental Jews in Israel. Seeking to find their place in a predominantly European Jewish world scarred by centuries of Christian persecutions culminating in the Holocaust, they claim that Islam has persecuted Jews from its origins. By implication, they have a past of suffering like the Ashkenazim, including dislocation from their ancient homelands, and are thus eligible for a larger piece of the Zionist pie than the mostly Ashkenazic founding fathers of Israel have granted them. The historic plight of Oriental Jewry falls somewhere between these two extremes. To discover it, one must move past the layers of propaganda and mutual recriminations that have obscured our view of history.
First of all, however, let us not make the mistake of thinking that Jews lived in the Middle Ages as the equals of Muslims. They were second-class citizens, at best. They were classed along with other religious minorities as unbelievers who did not recognise the prophethood of Mohammed and the truth of the Koran. But this kind of unbelief was not as threatening to Islam as Jewish unbelief was to Christians, for unbelief in Christianity means rejection of Jesus as Messiah and as God, a greater affront to the dominant faith than Jewish unbelief was to Islam because it challenged the theological basis of the whole religion.
Moreover, restrictions on Jewish (and Christian) life — they were not to build new houses of worship and were required to wear distinctive garb, avoid Muslim honorific titles, and so forth — were intended not so much to exclude them from society as they were meant to reinforce the necessary hierarchical distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims within a single social order.
Non-Muslims were to remain ‘in their place,’ avoiding any act, particularly any religious act, that might challenge the superior rank of Muslims or of Islam. Non-Muslims, however, occupied a definite rank in Islamic society — a low rank, but a rank nevertheless. They managed to co-exist more or less harmoniously with the higher-ranking dominant Muslim group because both sides recognised and accepted the place of the other — whether superior or inferior — and this facilitated interaction with a minimum of conflict.
The flip side of the discriminatory regulations imposed upon Jews is that they (as well as Christians) were a ‘protected people,’ ahl al-dhimma or dhimmis in Arabic, who enjoyed security of life and property, religious freedom, freedom from forced conversion, communal autonomy, and equality in the marketplace. For all its religious exclusivity and hostility towards the Jews, Islam contains a nucleus of pluralism that gave the Jews in Muslim lands greater security than Jews had in Christian Europe. For other important reasons, too, Jews in the Islamic orbit were spared the damaging stigma of ‘otherness’ and anti-Semitism suffered by Jews in Europe. They were indigenous to the Near East — not immigrants, as in many parts of the Christian West — and largely indistinguishable physically from their Arab Muslim neighbours.
Moreover, Jews were one of two and in some place three non-Muslim minority religions, which also diffused the natural hostility towards the ‘other’. (When the Muslims conquered India they added Hindus to the list of ‘protected people’.) The contrast with the Christian West is revealing. Although for a few centuries in the early Middle Ages (up to the 11th century), Jews enjoyed a more or less secure place in the hierarchical order of Christian society, as well as substantial economic rights, a combination of factors led to the expulsion of most of western Jewry by the end of the 15th century. These factors include the loss of the pluralism that had marked the Germanic, ‘barbarian’ early Middle Ages; the spread of Christianity to the masses by the 11th century; the commercial revolution that relegated Jews to a few, despised activities like money lending; the erosion of the old doctrine of St Augustine that Jews must be allowed to live in Christian society as witnesses to the triumph of Christianity; and, finally, the gradual political unification of European countries, especially England, France, and Spain, which left the Jew even more of an outsider than in the past.
Islam and Judaism had (and continue to have) much more in common than Judaism has with Christianity. This mutual recognition of religious similarities includes monotheism, which made Islam more tolerant of Jews than of Christians, whose Trinity smacked of polytheism, the greatest sin in Islam, and made Jews more tolerant of Islam for much the same reason. Another well known commonality are laws concerning animal ritual slaughter and other kashrut/halal practices. Partly because of shared religious beliefs, Islamic polemics against Judaism and the Jews in the Middle Ages were minimal and banal compared to the large body of anti-Jewish polemics in the Christian world in the 13th century.
In the Muslim world, Jews retained for centuries their substantial security as well as their recognised place in the hierarchical social order. They did so by acknowledging the superiority of Islam, by adhering to the prescribed restrictions of Islamic law, by paying jizya (annual head tax), and by refraining from serving in government offices, where they might be in a position of superiority over Muslims. To be sure, there were periodic outbursts of violence, though they were almost always directed against dhimmis as a category, and not against Jews per se. These excesses occurred when the dhimmis were seen to be violating the terms of the dhimma arrangement; or when a particular ruler was pressured by Muslim clerics to crack down on the violators; or when Islam as a polity came under attack from the out ide, as happened in the late 11th and 13th century. Jews were, however, rarely forced to convert to Islam and, with two major exceptions proving the rule, they were not expelled from Muslim lands. One expulsion took place in the Hijaz, the holy sanctuary of Arabia that includes Mecca and Medina, shortly after the death of the Prophet, and the other, in Yemen in the 17th century.
Again to understand the relatively decent Jewish-Muslim relations in the medieval period, one needs to contrast them with the Christian world, where, from about the 12th century on, Jews were subject to a shaky adherence to an older commitment to protect the Jews and to guarantee their freedom of religion, as well as their liberty to practice any economic walk of life they wished — all of these things, of course, a function of time and place and the policies of particular secular rulers or the Church.
In Christian society, moreover, hostility was focused on one, ‘evil’ non-Christian group, the Jews, paving the way for what was to become — beginning in the 12th century — anti-Semitism, understood as a religiously-based complex of irrational, mythical, and stereotypical beliefs about the diabolical, malevolent, and all-powerful Jew, later on infused, in its modern, secular form, with racism and the belief that there is a Jewish conspiracy against mankind. This kind of anti-Semitism did not exist in the medieval Muslim world until the 19th century, when it was fostered by European Christian missionaries living in the Middle East.
All this adds up to one thing: Jews and Muslims got along better in the Middle Ages than they do today. But this co-existence could not easily be maintained in the modern era. Colonial disruption of Muslim society, conflicting nationalisms, Arab belief that Zionism is just another form of European colonialism robbing them of their own right to self-determination in a modern state, and Jewish fear that Arab and Muslim enmity — and more recently, terrorism — might lead to something akin to another Holocaust, have dramatically degraded Muslim-Jewish relations. This has manifested itself in a new Muslim anti-Semitism, which is not, however, indigenous. It represents an Islamised version of its Christian roots. Muslim anti-Semitism has also provoked amnesia in Jews from Arab countries.
They (or most of them) no longer remember the friendships with Muslims that Arab Jews knew in the ‘old country’. They no longer remember the exemption from Muslim violence that the Jews of the Islamic world enjoyed in most places until the events of the 20th century. And they have forgotten that until the 20th century, in some cases right up until the 1940s, many in the Arabic-speaking Jewish middle class were embedded in Arab society and culture, much like their ancestors in the medieval world, who wholeheartedly embraced Arabic and the Islamic culture of philosophy, science, medicine, scriptural study, and poetry in what was not an interfaith utopia, but an era of co-existence that can stand as a distant mirror of what might yet be possible in our own time.
Mark Cohen is Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. He is the author of Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages. This is an edited version of an article that appeared in The Jerusalem Post.