Jews Under Islam

Posted By on December 4, 2019


Following the death of Muhammad and
under his successors known as Caliphs, the Islamic religion spread throughout
the Middle East, North Africa, and the Iberian Peninsula. It was also during
this time that the Islamic world diverged into two main branches – the
Sunna and Shi’a, a division originated in a dispute regarding Muhammad’s rightful
successor. The Muslim Empire lasted in different forms up until the beginning
of the 20th century, when it ended with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
Over the centuries several imperial centers arose, each viewing itself as a
leader of the entire Muslim community. During the years of expansion, in early
medieval times, the derogatory characterizations and descriptions of
the Jews found in the Quran were expanded and amplified in Islamic sacred
texts, such as the Hadith, a collection of traditions containing sayings of the
Prophet Muhammad, as well as in literature dealing with the life of the
Prophet. At the same time however, the traditions and policies stemming from
the more tolerant attitudes were present as well. The vast territories that came
under Islamic rule brought with them large numbers of non-Muslim groups and
peoples. This diversity demanded a practical policy that would regulate the
activities of non-Muslims and would ascribe a clear place to them.
Members of monotheistic religions gained the status of Dhimmi, non-Muslims under
protection of Muslim law. On the one hand, this status meant they had to exist under
restrictions and limitations, but on the other, it allowed them a certain level of
religious and social autonomy. As part of this status, Jews who were living in
various areas throughout Islamic ruled North Africa, Iberia, and the Middle East,
were able to exist in relative peace, especially compared to Jews in Christian
Europe. However this relatively peaceful existence depended on their acceptance
of their inferior status in society. Islam, again, regards Judaism and
Christianity as divine religions. The Jews and the Christians are what is
called “People of the Book”, that is they have a divine book given to them by God.
Therefore Jews and Christians, although they are inferior to Muslims and
although they should always be subordinate to Muslims,
under Islam, or under Islamic law and Islamic culture, they enjoy tolerance.
They are allowed to practice their religion, they enjoy internal
autonomy. However it should be essential that their inferiority toward
Islam, vis-à-vis Islam, should always be emphasized. Now if we look at
the attitude of Muslims or Islam toward Jews and Christians we have to distinguish between texts and historical conduct. Texts as I mentioned – Jews
enjoyed tolerance, they are “People of the Book”, but there ara also a series of restrictions
imposed upon the Jews. For instance Jews were not allowed, ideally, to build
synagogues, they were not allowed to ride horses, they were supposed to wear
special dress, or signs on their dress, they had to pay a special tax called
Jizya, which is a poll tax, and here the Quran says that they had to do it in a
humiliating way. So textually there is a very clear discrimination against
Jews. In reality we can see changing periods, and it depends on
the place and time, and historical circumstances. We can say clearly that
Jews enjoyed much greater tolerance under Islam than under Christianity.
until the modern period. More than that, except for few cases, there waere no forced
conversions of Jews, except for Iran and in Morocco in the 11th century, and we
hardly saw any physical attacks on Jews. In this regard Islam as a religion, or
the Muslim world, was much better toward Jews than Christianity. In fact Jews
historically regarded Islam or the Muslim kingdoms as what they called “Malkhut Khesed”, that is “righteous kingdom”. Jews emigrated from Christian countries
to Islam. For instance if we look at the 15th century, when there was the mass
expulsion of Jews from Spain, the Ottoman Empire, the largest Muslim empire at the
time, opened its gates toward the Jews, welcomed the Jews, and tens of
thousands of Jews moved to the Ottoman Empire where they enjoyed
great tolerance and autonomy, and Jews were very grateful to the
Ottomans. On the other hand as I said, Jews are always subordinate, inferior to
Muslims. Here we should say that the Muslims were very anxious lest the
non-Muslims do not understand their place. That is whenever a minority tried
to change its allotted place of inferiority, here you can say
Muslim tolerance disappeared, and then we see signs of
great intolerance. For instance in Spain, when we had a Jew, Shmuel HaNagid,
fulfilling a very high position in the Muslim Kingdom,
this created anger when he died and his son succeeded him, there were anti-Jewish
riots which ended in a mass pogrom. That is Jews should know their place. In the 19th
century for instance we see much greater intolerance toward Christians, because
Christians violated their allotted [place], or tried to challenge their rightful
place in the Muslim hierarchy. The Jews in fact were not touched.

Posted by Lewis Heart

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