History of the Jews under Muslim rule

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The dramatic entry of Islam on the international stage, between 622 and 732 AD, transformed the world. In a period of a hundred years, the Arabs conquered vast territories stretching from Iran to Spain and Morocco and from northern Syria to the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula.

The dominance of Islam in areas with significant Jewish population continued without interruption until the modern era. Where the regime and the traditional way of life were preserved, relations between Muslims and Jews remained similar to those introduced by the first generations after the Muslim conquest.

There had been, for some long but uncertain period, a significant number of Jews in Arabia. In the fifth century, Jews lived primarily in two regions: south and north Himyar and the Hijaz. In daily contact with the Arab society, the Jews were organized in nomadic tribes living on agriculture and crafts.

Around 610, the prophet of Islam, Muhammad ibn Abdullah, began to disseminate his monotheistic prophecy. Shortly after Prophet Mohammed's move from Mecca to Media (al-Hijra), the newly-established Muslim community drew up the Constitution of Medina, which addressed some points regarding the civil and religious situation for the Jewish communities living within the city from an Islamic perspective. The constitution stated that the Jews "will profess their religion, and the Muslims theirs", and they "shall be responsible for their expenditure, and the Muslims for theirs".

After the Battle of Badr, the Jewish tribe of Banu Qaynuqa allegedly breached treaties and agreements with Muhammad. Islam's Prophet regarded this as casus belli and besieged the Banu Qaynuqa. Upon surrender the tribe was expelled. The following year saw the expulsion of the second tribe, the Banu Nadir, accused of planning to kill The Prophet Muhammad. The third major Jewish tribe in Medina, Banu Qurayza was eliminated when the Muslims besieged their fortifications not long after the fall of the Banu Nadir, an event reported in Surah 33:25-27 of the Qur'an.

In year 20 of the Muslim era, or the year 641 AD, Muhammad's successor, the Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab, decreed that Jews and Christians should be removed from all but the southern and eastern fringes of Arabia. From this point onwards the Holy Land of the Hijaz was forbidden to non-Muslims. Only the Red Sea port of Jedda was permitted as a "religious quarantine area" and continued to have a small complement of Jewish merchants.

Islam maintained the legal status and community of Jews and their conditions of security and, despite the clashes between Jewish tribes and the army of the prophet Muhammad, the Quran recognized Judaism.

The formal and structural changes brought about by the prophet Muhammad and his successors greatly influenced the existence of the Jewish population. It was the first time since a thousand years that more than 90% of the Jewish people lived under the same tutelage. This reality had an immediate impact on the legal situation of the Jews, their homes and their livelihoods.


The first to grant a special status to minorities was the caliph Umar, who laid down the conditions for granting protected status to Jews and Christians. According to the "Pact of Umar", the "People of the Book" were allowed to own property, to practice their religious rites, and to engage in commerce. Manifesting their religion publicly or converting anyone to it was prohibited, as was building houses of worship or repairing such as fell into ruins. To secure their rights, dhimmi (the non-Jewish monotheists enjoying a "protected status" under Muslim rule) would pledge loyalty to their Muslim rulers, pay a special poll-tax (the jizya) for adult males, and in general show deference and humility to Muslims in social interactions.

While the conditions of the Pact were authoritative, the level of enforcement varied, as shown by the existence of churches constructed long after the Muslim conquests. It is generally true that the Jews lived more freely under Muslim rule than under Christian rule. Under Muslim rule, the Jews were heavily taxed but were given the freedom to worship, to own property, and to operate schools.

The social situation of the Jews stemmed from their legal status, their economic activity and the religious tradition of their neighbours. While in most Muslim societies the dhimmi were seen as alien and generally shunned, this did not prevent the existence of good working relationships and even friendships among Muslims and Jews.

Whatever the basic principles of the protected status accorded to minorities in Islam, their social status, security and religious autonomy were determined by local factors: the tendencies of the rulers and the population in all its diversity.


The Jews had no independent political entity and did not constitute a nation controlling a defined territory, and they therefore benefited from a presumption of loyalty to the authorities. As individuals, Jews reached high positions under various Muslim regimes, in spite of restrictions in principle on a non-Muslim assuming a situation superior to that of a Muslim. Jewish leaders were recognized as representatives of the Jewish community in Muslim countries. The rabbinical courts recognized by the Muslim authorities were responsible for judging the Jews at various levels.

During the early years of Muslim conquest, the differences between the third caliph, Othman, and Ali ibn Abi Taleb, the son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet Mohammed, gave birth to a conflict causing the first schism in the history of Islam between Sunnis and Shiites. When Othman was assassinated by opponents and Ali became the fourth caliph, those who were associated with Othman cried vengeance, especially Muawiya, who was then governor of Syria. After a few inconclusive battles, Ali was removed from power in Syria through arbitration, and Muawiya was declared caliph by the Syrians.

The assassination of Ali in 661 removed the last barrier before the reign of Muawiya over the entire Muslim empire. He managed to restore order and established his own dynasty, the Umayyads. Thus began a new era in the history of the Muslim world.

The Umayyads were unseated in 750 by the Abbasids in a bloody revolt in which almost all the members of the ruling family were massacred. A sole survivor, Prince Abd al-Rahman, fled to Spain and established a new dynasty at Córdoba. One of his descendents, Abd al-Rahman III, proclaimed himself the new caliph in 929, thus affirming the independence of the Caliphate of Cordoba from the Abbasids.


The Abbasids transferred the seat of power to Iraq, where they built a new capital city: Baghdad. The political, cultural and economic epicentre of the Muslim empire, Baghdad became a thriving metropolis and a centre of learning, where the caliph and his court patronized the arts and sciences, attracting poets, philosophers, musicians and architects from around the world.

In the history of the Jewish people, it was definitely a turning point. The Jews adopted Arabic as a written language in science and philosophy: they wrote in Hebrew characters and transcribed major treatises and philosophical works in Arabic or translated from the Greek.

Following the pioneering works of Saadya Ga'on, Arabic became a legitimate tool of creation: words, concepts and ideas borrowed from the world of Islam entered the realm of Jewish thought. Arabic greatly influenced Medieval Hebrew. Some of the greatest Jewish classics by Saadyah, Ibn Pakudah, Maimonides, and Halevi were written in Arabic.

The adoption of the Arabic language opened up to educated Jews not only the cultural and intellectual achievements of the Muslim world, but also much of the scientific and philosophical speculation of Greek culture, which had been best preserved by Muslim scholars. The meticulous regard which the Arabs had for grammar and style also had the effect of stimulating an interest among Jews in philological matters in general. From the second half of the ninth century, most Jewish prose, including many non-halakhic religious works, was in Arabic. The thorough adoption of Arabic greatly facilitated the assimilation of Jews into Arabic culture.

The emergence of the Judeo-Arab culture was linked to another aspect of Jewish life in the countries of the caliphate: the role played by Jews in international trade. In caravans linking East and West, on all channels of international trade, the Jewish presence was constant from the late eighth and early ninth century.

If for Muslims all roads led to Baghdad, so did they for the Jews. A class of wealthy Jewish bankers emerged in the courts of Arab potentates. Through their taxes, they funded Muslim military campaigns and the lavish spending of the rulers. Through their newly required power, they were also able to look after the interests of their community, within which their authority was unsurpassed.