The well-known Jewish economic historian of the medieval Mediterranean world, S. D. Goitein, observes in one of his works that a Jewish document circulating in the Middle Ages described Islam as “an act of God’s mercy.” Having been bombarded by the term “Islamic anti-Semitism” in the Western popular media, many will do a double-take on reading this today.
Yet, significant historical evidence can be harnessed to support this assessment made by the very people that Islam supposedly regards with disdain. Jews, like their Christian counterparts, in the Middle East, North Africa, and medieval Spain under Islamic rule, enjoyed considerable autonomy within their communities, being governed by their own religious leaders and laws. Although their circumstances were far from idyllic, Jews in the Islamic world on the whole led far less restricted lives than their brethren in medieval Europe. As Bernard Lewis, another Jewish author, pointed out in his book The Jews of Islam, there is no theological basis in Islam for prejudice against Jews as such. After all, Jews are portrayed in the Qur’an (2:62, etc.) as constituting a salvific community, just as Muslims and Christians do.
However, like religious and ethnic minorities in practically all societies throughout time, Jews were occasionally subjected to repressive and discriminatory measures. These measures tended to be primarily contingent on specific political circumstances and the whims of local rulers in various historical settings, sometimes justified on the basis of exclusivist (mis)interpretations of religious texts. To say this is not to exonerate such acts but to point to their historically contingent and ad-hoc nature, as opposed to consistent and institutionalized policies of discrimination.
The historical record taken as a whole fails to support the claim made in some circles today that persecution of Jews in the medieval Islamic world was endemic and systematic and that it helps explain current tempers in the Middle East. In fact, the existence of relative toleration and acceptance of religious minorities in various Islamic societies are regarded by many historians as rather unique by the standards of the pre-modern period. While medieval Europe routinely associated Jews with the devil and attributed murderous attitudes to them, “classical Islam did not display such irrational thinking about the Jews,” affirms Mark Cohen, who teaches Jewish history at Princeton University.
Christians and Jews actively contributed, for example, to the overall economic and intellectual life in these societies. What has been described as a Judeo-Arabic or Judeo-Islamic civilization reached its apogee in Muslim Spain. Jews, like Christians, occasionally attained high positions in various Islamic administrations. In the fifteenth century, the Muslim sultan of Fez ‘Abd al-Haq named the Jewish Aaron Ben Battas as his prime minister. When the celebrated Jewish philosopher Moses ben Maimonides, who had served as Saladdin’s court physician, died in 1204, his death was officially mourned by Jews and Muslims alike for three days in Cairo. Maimonides, after all, was not an outsider. Called in Arabic Musa ibn Maymun, he wrote most of his works in Arabic and moved easily in Muslim and Jewish circles. During the Crusades, King Richard the First tried to lure Ibn Maymun away to his court in Europe but the latter declined, preferring to stay with his Muslim patrons.
Evidence of Jewish-Muslim solidarity may be found throughout the pre-modern and early modern periods. Medieval Jews and Muslims had joint custodianship of religious shrines, like that of Ezekiel in Iraq. Through the early modern period, Muslims and Jews sometimes made common political cause against injustice. For instance, during the Dreyfus affair of the late nineteenth century in France when a French Jewish soldier was unfairly accused of espionage there, public opinion in Arab countries was critical of the bigotry against Jews prevalent in French society at that time. Some Jewish scholars of Islam in the early twentieth century, like the Hungarian Ignaz Goldziher, who studied at the famous al-Azhar university in Cairo, condemned in his writings the bias displayed by some European Orientalists towards Muslims and Semites in general.
The testimony of medieval Jews to Islam’s merciful nature, as mentioned by Goitein, stands today in stark contrast to the charges of anti-Semitism now being hurled liberally at Muslims and their societies. These charges imply that innate prejudice towards Jews was and remains a hallmark of the Islamic tradition and practices. This is an unfair, monolithic characterization of a variegated religious tradition which has enshrined tolerance in its foundational texts but whose practitioners, admittedly, have not consistently practiced it. Convenient amnesia of an earlier period of Muslim-Jewish coexistence and even symbiosis, which left a lasting contribution to human civilization as we now know it to be, permits the formulation of such totalizing statements. Those who have a better sense of history will point rather to the role of specific factors, such as the current Middle East crisis and a perceived Western tilt towards Israel at the expense of Arab nations, in provoking expressions of hostile sentiments towards specifically Israelis, and by extension sometimes, Jews in a number of Islamic societies today.
Goitein’s observation should serve to remind us that manifestation of anti-Jewish sentiment in parts of the contemporary Islamic world, indefensible as it is, should be seen in their proper historical and political contexts. His observation should also prod Muslims into pondering why the merciful nature of their religion seems less than evident today in the view of a considerable cross-section of people. The Qur’an (5:8) warns us, “Stand up firmly for God, as witnesses to fair dealing, and let not the hatred of others towards you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice.” Even in the face of immense wrong-doing, believers are counseled by the Qur’an to hold fast to the requirements of justice and fairness in their dealings with others. There are no ifs or buts involved in this verse. This is an absolute commandment that cannot be contravened under any circumstance. This divine counsel has never been more relevant in our lives today than at the present time and it should serve to mobilize us into stamping out bigotry among ourselves, whatever its cause may be.