For almost 2,000 years, the Jewish people have been a race without a home, frequently persecuted for their faith and allowed to settle in other lands only on the suffrage of whatever rulers allowed them to live there—a privilege that all too often was revoked without warning, a revocation that often led to Jews being robbed, beaten, and even murdered without any recourse, having no choice but to again emigrate elsewhere and hope for a better result. However, there was one period in history during which many Jews found a surprising refuge, under the aegis of various Muslim rulers in the Middle East and in Europe. Islamic conquerors, despite their well–deserved reputation for battlefield ferocity, were often surprisingly enlightened rulers of those they subjugated, and many Jewish communities reaped the benefits of this tolerance, enjoying enhanced legal standing and an opportunity for their culture to flourish.
At one time, of course, the Jews had their own land—Israel or Judea as it was known to many. However, like many other races, the Jews were conquered by the Romans, the most efficient fighting force in the ancient world. Conquered and occupied for decades, the Jews had little choice but to bend their necks beneath the Roman yoke. However, unlike many others whom the Romans vanquished, the Jews were not willing to become imitation Romans. They were especially resistant to their overlords’ insistence that they follow the state religion, which made the Emperor Augustus and his successors into gods who expected to be formally worshipped. This insistence was one of the causes of the First Jewish Revolt, which led to the destruction of the Great Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. (Britannica.com). Continued Jewish resistance finally culminated in their exile from Judea by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in 135 C.E. (Meddeb and Stora 82).
Over the next several hundred years, Rome finally lost its grip on its provinces, and a new state religion took the place of emperor-worship. However, despite the fact that its founder was himself a Jew, the established of Christianity as the dominant power did not benefit the Jews in exile, who were often harassed, unfairly taxed, fined for not attending church, and persecuted, used as scapegoats whenever something went wrong and a local ruler needed someone to blame. What did help the Jews was the spread of Islam.
As the heirs to Muhammad conquered much of the Middle East and parts of Africa and Europe, they imposed laws which, while granting supreme power to Muslims, also offered rights and protections to both Christians and Jews, whom were regarded under the law as dhimmi—protected minorities. While both Jews and Christians did have to pay the jizya—a poll tax levied on non-Muslims (Stillman 159)—they were otherwise allowed to live on an equal footing with the Muslims. Living under a stable regime that did not persecute them for their faith meant that the Jews were able to participate in and contribute to a financial and cultural boom. From Cairo to Baghdad and beyond, Jewish traders were able to move goods, quickly and most importantly, safely from one marketplace to another. They were able to take advantage of three great benefits of the new Islamic culture—paper, brought from China, an efficient postal system, and the codex, the bound book (Meddeb and Stora 88). These inventions, along with the trade routes that helped wealthy Jews move both money and knowledge, gave an enormous boost to Jewish cultures. Jews settled in great cities such as Baghdad. Peace and prosperity allowed for the development of a new Jewish culture, fueled by majalis, literary salons. “These gatherings served as forums for the patronage of poets and other writers, and for philosophical and theological debates on every conceivable question (Meddeb and Stora 81).” The fruits of these intellectual opportunities would benefit Jewish culture for hundreds of years to come. One of the most notable results occurred in the city of Tiberias in Palestine, home to a yeshiva, a Jewish center of learning where Jewish, Muslim, and Christian scholars worked on translating ad interpreting Hebrew Bible and other sacred texts, contributing significantly to the body of knowledge for all three faiths (Meddeb and Stora 82).” Without the official policy of tolerance mandated by the Islamic rulers, this would not have happened, and much knowledge might have been lost forever.
Since many of the Jews settling in the metropolitan areas were both wealthy and well-educated, it is not surprising that numerous well-placed Jewish residents became bureaucrats, courtiers to local Muslims rulers, and administrators at various levels of government (Meddeb and Stora 82). Under the guidelines established by the Islamic conquerors, competence mattered far more than orthodoxy. As Jews increasingly obtained positions of authority and influence, they used that as a system of patronage to help their compatriots whenever they could. In return, those they helped also moved up the social ladder and were able to establish themselves and their families more securely (Meddeb and Stora 83).
Perhaps best of all, under Muslim rule, Jews were allowed to return and take up residence in Jerusalem, their holy city. While Jerusalem had by this time also become associated with both Islam and Christianity, the Muslims did not forbid Christians or Jews to settle there. In addition, for the Jews, the law allowed the jizya tax to be paid as a lump sum instead of by each individual resident. This meant that wealthy Jews could pay the tax for their poorer brethren, and therefore, Jews who would not otherwise have been able to afford to “come home” could do so (Meddeb and Stora 83).
Initially, the caliph Umar allowed seventy Jewish families to move to Jerusalem (Stillman 155), but many more followed, and for more than 300 years, the city flourished with Christian, Jewish, and Muslims residents. During this time, both the Dome of the Rock mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher were built (Stilliman 155).
For the Jewish people, the Muslim conquest of the Middle East was a largely positive era in their history, one in which they enjoyed legal protections, financial prosperity, and cultural advances. Sadly, all of that would change with such tragedies as the Crusades and the Spanish campaign of Isabella and Ferdinand, who were determined to make their country a “pure” Christian nation. After some years of respite, the Jewish people would be persecuted and scattered, many searching desperately for a land they could call their own.
- Encyclopedia Britannica. “The First Jewish Revolt. Brittancia.com, 2017. https://www.britannica.com/event/First-Jewish-Revolt
- Meddeb, Abdelwahab and Benjamin Stora, eds. A History of Jewish-Muslim Relations: From the Origins to the Present Day. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
- Stillman, Norman. The Jews of Arab Lands: A History and Source Book. Philadelphia, 1979. The Jewish Publication Society of America.