Another mother poem: Weaning
God to Verse

The early history of Jews in Muslim lands

When you hear the name "Cordoba," what comes to mind? Maybe, in light of recent events, you think of Cordoba Initiative, the umbrella organization beneath which the much-bruited Park 51 is contained. When I first heard the name, I thought immediately of the so-called "Golden Age" of Jewish-Muslim relations in al-Andalus (medieval Spain). The Cordoba Initiative's FAQ page explains that they chose the name because "A thousand years ago Muslims, Jews, and Christians coexisted and created a prosperous center of intellectual, spiritual, cultural and commercial life in Cordoba, Spain." But I've learned, since Park 51 became a major subject of conversation in my corner of the blogosphere, that to some conservative commentors the name Cordoba implies an era of Muslim rule when Jews and Christians had second-class status and lived under a set of restrictive rules. Here's one fairly representative post which ascribes to the Cordoba Initiative the desire for Muslim rule in the west: "Cordoba House" suggests Muslim triumphalism. Here's another fairly representative post which reads the name as an indicator of the desire for religious coexistence: The Meaning of 'Cordoba.'

Which of these is the correct interpretation of "Cordoba?" The answer may depend on who's telling the story. So much depends on who's looking at that moment in history, what their agenda is, and what point they want to make about the politics and religion of that era -- or of this one.

In part because of recent conversations about Park 51, and in part because interfaith dialogue (and particularly Jewish-Muslim interaction) is a passion of mine, I've been wanting a more nuanced picture of that period in interreligious history. Fortunately for me, one of my fall courses is an independent study in medieval Jewish history. I'm following the syllabus for the class which Reb Leila Gal Berner offered last spring, when I was too wrapped-up in babycare to be able to participate. And I'm going to blog about what I'm learning, both because I find writing about ideas to be a great way to cement them in my memory and because the subject of Muslim-Jewish-Christian relations seems awfully timely this season.

This week I'm reading excerpts from Dr. Robert M. Seltzer's Jewish People, Jewish Thought, from Haim H. Ben-Sasson's A History of the Jewish People, and from Norman Stillman's The Jews of Arab Lands. (As a side note: in my past experiences with Reb Leila's history classes, she's intentionally assigned us texts which don't necessarily offer congruent interpretations of history. Caveat lector: different historians will inevitably offer different slices of the story! It's part of our job, as responsible students of history, to try to form a whole picture out of these different texts -- and also to discern each historian's stances and biases as we go.) Anyway, here's some of what Seltzer, Ben-Sasson, and Stillman have to say about how the relationship between Muslims and Jews evolved during the early centuries after the advent of Islam onto the political and religious scene.

At the beginning of the seventh century of the Common Era, Jews were largely in diaspora, scattered from Spain to Persia and from central Europe to the Sahara. Seltzer writes that although the institutions which had preserved Jewish unity in the past -- primarily Davidic kingship and the Temple -- no longer existed, they were preserved in the liturgy and as subjects for study. "Above all," writes Seltzer, "messianic hope for eventual ingathering and restoration served as an overarching bond between all the branches of the Jewish people." Onto this scene emerged Muhammad, and with him, the birth of Islam.

Muhammad was born in Mecca between 570 and 580 C.E. At that point in time, many Arab tribes were nomadic, though others had settled in urban centers. Though some had converted to Judaism or to Christianity, most Arabs of that era were polytheists. Muhammad encountered both Jews and Christians during his early years, and Stillman argues that the message both were preaching must have sounded surprisingly similar.

Those encounters made an impact. In his earliest prophetic messages, Muhammad denounced paganism from the standpoint of ethical monotheism. "Muhammad eventually came to the profound religious conclusion that just as God was one, so was His message, which He had revealed to different peoples at different times in their own language," Stillman writes. "He began to wonder why God in His infinite mercy had not yet bestowed His saving word upon the Arab people..." This was the context within which his revelations were received.

In 622, Muhammad left Mecca for Medina, arguably because the proselytizing for his new religious tradition wasn't going so well in Mecca at that point in time. In Medina, Muhammad encountered a large, organized Jewish community. "The encounter," writes Stillman," did not prove to be an auspicious one." Though many sources, including traditional Muslim ones, argue that the Medinese were conditioned to accept monotheism because of their longtime familiarity with Jews, the nascent Muslim community and the Jewish community ultimately clashed in Medina.

Seltzer writes that Judaism and Christianity had a profound impact on Muhammad's message, though the exact form of the influence of the two previous "Peoples of the Book" on Muhammad is a matter of debate among modern scholars. It seems pretty clear that Muhammad initially expected the Jews of Medina to accept him as a true prophet, and in anticipation he instructed his followers to observe the fast of Yom Kippur and to face Jerusalem in prayer. But his overtures were rebuffed, probably because of the teaching that no one could supercede Moses and Torah, which led him to castigate the Jews as enemies of God.

"Muhammad's confrontation with the Jews in Medina left an ambiguous historical legacy," Seltzer says. "For Muslims, Judaism was indeed a legitimate religion, but the Jews were a blind and dangerous people who refused the more complete truth offered them by Islam." Gradually, Seltzer writes, the Muslim principle evolved that as "People of the Book" the Jews had the right to practice their own traditions, though it was presumed that Islam would inevitably triumph in history. (It strikes me that at that point in time, every religious tradition presumed that they alone would ultimately triumph. The emergence of a post-triumphal religious understanding which presumes that there are many legitimate paths to God is pretty new, all things considered.)

Anyway, after fighting (and defeating) the Jews of Medina and winning the allegiance of many Bedouin tribes, Muhammad and his supporters re-entered Mecca in triumph in 630. By the time he died in 632, the shrine of the kaaba in Mecca had become the chief holy place of the new religious tradition.

Seltzer writes:

In origin and structure Islam bears many similarities to Judaism. In both Judaism and Islam salvation is attained thrugh obedience to divine commandments revealed by a supreme prophet, rather than, as in Christianity, through the atoning death of the Messiah. Both Islam and Judaism pride themselves on being religions of uncompromising monotheism that reject the Christian doctrines of Trinity and Incarnation. Unlike the sacramental system and the priesthood of traditional Christianity, Judaism and Islam emphasize a religious jurisprudence interpreted by scholars and judges. Like Judaism, Islam originated among one people; like Christianity, but much more rapidly, Islam becam the state religion of a vast empire. Eventually the Muslim religion was adopted by other peoples, some of whom (Persians, Turks) retained their sociopolitical distinctiveness from the Arabs. Philosophical and mystical streams frequently crossed the boundaries between the three religious faiths in the Middle Ages, but these boundaries themselves remained primary in the geography of religious identity.

Haim H. Ben-Sasson adds that "The contact and struggle between Judaism and Islam lacked the intimacy and bitterness that had characterized the early relations between Jews and Christians when the latter had broken away from Judaism." The dispute between Judaism and Christianity focused on the validity of the Law and on the question of whether or not the Messiah had already come; the dispute between Judaism and Islam centered around the question of whether or not prophecy had ended before Muhammad, and on the tension between the two traditions' legal codes.

Initially, Seltzer says, the Arab conquerors did not encourage widespread conversion to Islam. Although Jews and Christians were regarded as dhimmi ("dependent peoples"), they were also regarded as People of the Book, which meant that their scriptures were understood to have some claim to divine inspiration. Around the year 800, Seltzer says, the Pact of Omar became normative. Through that pact, dhimmi "were guaranteed religious toleration, judicial autonomy, exemption from military service, and security of life and property." In return, they had to pay taxes and acknowledge the political supremacy of the Islamic state.

(It's worth noting that other scholars question whether or not the Pact was ever signed. But as Ben-Sasson writes, "From our point of view, it is not important whether any agreement or treaty was actually signed, or whether it was a legal fiction that served as a religious instrument for crystallizing the dependent status of the infidels." In other words: whether or not the actual Pact ever happened, people behaved as though it were law.)

According to the terms of the Pact of Omar, Jews and Christians were not permitted to proselytize for converts, build new houses of worship, or make public display of rituals. They were not allowed to have houses higher than those of Muslims, carry weapons, or ride horses (only donkeys); they were supposed to wear distinctive clothing. "On the whole," Seltzer says, "these restrictions were not enforced in the early Muslim centuries[.]" In return, writes Ben-Sasson, "[dhimmis'] lives and property were protected, and...they were assured liberty of faith and worship. They were also permitted to organize themselves as they wished, and the Jews fully availed themselves of that permission."

Many of the restrictions placed on dhimmi by the Pact of Omar, Stillman writes, were "probably inspired by the discriminatory legislation against Jews that was already in force in the Byzantine lands conquered by the Arabs." Let me unpack that a little bit: as restrictive as these laws may appear to us, they were an improvement over what Jews had been forced to deal with under Byzantine Christian rule. Stillman adds that

The Jews were psychologically better able to adapt to the new facts of life created by the Arabs' conquest than were either the Christians or the Zoroastrians. They already been a subject people for over five centuries. The rabbis had given them a concept of Jewishness that was independent of physical territory or physical sovereignty. Their God was still the God of history, and they were still His chosen people. They were still in galut (exile), and it was simply not yet over. The victories of the Arabs over the empires of Byzantium and Iran only proved how ephemeral were the kingdoms of men.

I get the sense that this shift wasn't entirely painless, but it was manageable. Although land taxes were fairly punitive for those who might have chosen to remain farmers, becoming urbanized was a workable alternative, and during the first two centuries of Muslim rule Jews largely became urbanized and became artisans. The Jewish upper classes, Seltzer writes, participated in large-scale interregional trade. Ben-Sasson notes that "Every city had Jewish shop-keepers, who dealt in everything that came to market. Jews are reported as having been among the great merchants; some sold Persian rugs to distant lands, others exported pearls from the Persian Gulf..." Over time, Ben-Sasson adds, Jews became a group whose main occupations were commerce and finance, and Jews began to supply funds to needy rulers.

The Jewish middle class in what Seltzer calls "medieval Islam" grew to an unprecedented size and stature. Jews migrated from Iraq and Persia to Syria, Palestine, Egypt and North Africa, and Spain. Because most conquered peoples during these early centuries of Muslim expansion took on Arabic as their new spoken language, Jews too adopted Arabic as a spoken language in many places, which led to contact between Jews and Muslims which fostered a new phase of Jewish intellectual creativity. (Maimonides, for instance, wrote in Arabic, and read widely in Arabic, including Arabic translations of Greek philosophical works.) Seltzer writes that

For Jews in the former Byzantine provinces, the Arab conquests brought relief from the persecution they had experienced in late antiquity -- and a significant change in their position. Instead of being the only non-Christian religion, theoretically tolerated but usually oppressed, they now had a defined legal standing as second-class but protected citizens of the state, alongside Christians... The political status of Jews under Islam resembled the Jewry of Sassanian Persia before the Muslim conquest, when the rabbis had adapted talmudic law to persistent diaspora conditions. The Muslim conquests unified the Jewish world even more than it had been under Roman rule, inasmuch as Iraq and Persia were brought together into the same empire with the Mediterranean provinces. And it was the ancient Jewish institutions of Sassanian Babylonia that became the recognized leadership of the Jewish diaspora in the first few centuries of Islamic rule.

In those days, the Jewish community in Babylonia was ruled by the exilarch, who "represented the Jews in the caliphal court, supervised the dispensation of justice and charitable support among his people, and collected the poll tax for the Muslim government." By the early Abbasid period, the exilarch shared power with the heads of the great rabbinic academies of Babylonia, and it's possible that the power accorded to Jewish scholars influenced the emergence of a parallel class of jurists responsible for creating a systemic groundwork for Islamic law. (I think that is fascinating!) In the eighth century, the exilarch and the heads of the academy cooperated in establishing Babylonian interpretation of halakha as binding throughout the diaspora, superceding the alternative interpretations offered by the academy in Jerusalem. (The two branches of tradition are visible today in the two versions of the Talmud, the Bavli or Babylonian Talmud and the Yerushalmi or Palestinian Talmud.)

In the eighth century, the unified Muslim empire began to break apart. The Abbasid caliphs overthrew the Ummayads in 750, and then the Abbasids began to lose control of outlying territories. In 909 the Fatimids, a Shiite dynasty, took control of North Africa. By the end of the tenth century of the Common Era, the Islamic realm was divided into a number of smaller states. As a result, there was a decentralization of rabbinic Judaism, too. The geonic yeshivot of Iraq lost their large-scale significance and became primarily local institutions. The Talmud began to be available outside of the Babylonian yeshivot, which made it possible for the text to be studied and analyzed locally along with rabbinic responsa and other halakhic sources. Meanwhile, the interests of the Jewish intellectual world were broadening to include science, philosophy, and poetry.

During the era when the Fatimids ruled Palestine, Seltzer says, the Jerusalem rabbinic academy gained some primacy again. Egyptian Jewry was also restored to "an intellectual and economic vitality it had not enjoyed for almost a thousand years" -- Saadia ben Joseph al-Fayyumi became the first gaon of a Babylonian yeshiva who came from outside of Babylon (he was Egyptian in origin). Intriguingly, Ben-Sasson paints a slightly different picture. He notes that on the whole, the Shia (followers of Ali) were generally less tolerant of Jews than were Sunni rulers, and points out that in the year 1008, the Fatimid ruler Al-Hakim B'amr Allah (who was Shia) imposed savage and degrading laws on the Jews of Egypt. (Then again, when he disappeared in 1021, Ben-Sasson says, those laws disappeared with him.)

In any event, that period of relative peace and prosperity came to an end thanks to Turkish and Christian invasions of Palestine during the eleventh century. (Think First Crusade.) Possibly as a result of Palestine becoming less hospitable to Jews,  Muslim Spain became a major center of Jewish culture during the eleventh century. The Jews were well-regarded in Muslim Spain, and were considered a useful and loyal sector of the population, a population which included Berbers, Arabs, and Christians alongside Muslims and Jews. Seltzer writes that

Cordoba, the capital of the Ummayad caliphate, became a thriving and sophisticated center of Muslim and Jewish civilizations, one of the great urban centers of the Western world at that time. An important yeshivah was established there, and Hebrew grammarians and poets were attracted to Cordoba, where they set the stage for what has been called the Golden Age of medieval Jewish literature.

In the early 11th century, the Ummayad caliphate in Spain began to show signs of strain. In 1086, the Almoravides -- who Seltzer describes as fanatics from North Africa -- were invited to Spain to lead a counteroffensive against the Christian kingdoms of the north, and the Almoravide leader purged the Jews from the state administration and extorted heavy fines from Jews who dared to remain Jewish. That downturn seemed to be a temporary blip; things improved again pretty quickly, and the next generation produced "other outstanding Sephardic poets, philosophers, biblical commentators, theologians, and talmudic scholars." This, Seltzer writes, was the climax of the Golden Age of Andalusian Jewry. (It's worth noting that both the great Jewish scholar Maimonides, and the great Muslim scholar Ibn Rushd, were born in Cordoba in the early 12th century, and they were surely each influenced by the other's work. I've written about them and their philosophical interconnections before.)

But that Golden Age came to an end in 1146, when the renewed threat of Christian conquest brought zealous Muslim troops from North Africa back into Spain. The Almohades, a Berber dynasty, "launched one of the most uncompromising persecutions of Christians and Jews in the history of medieval Islam." (That's Seltzer again.)

Reading this history, what strikes me most is the way things oscillate. It seems to me that any blanket statement about how Jews and Muslims related during the medieval era is inevitably incomplete. There were times and places where Jews and Muslims interacted peacefully, comfortably, and in a way which benefited both communities; and there were times and places when the opposite was true. I'm also struck by the extent to which different historians inevitably focus on slightly different pieces of the story. Stillman offers a much more detailed picture of how Muhammad and his early followers clashed with the Jews of Medina than do the other scholars I'm reading this week; Seltzer has more to say about Spain; Ben-Sasson offers more details about commerce and trade.

I'm also fascinated by the extent to which Judaism and Christianity, and Judaism and Islam, had very different relationships in that era. It seems to me, from what I've read so far, as though the incursion of Christianity as a proselytizing force often crystallized the situation in Muslim lands in a way which turned things not-so-good for the Jews who had been living there already.

So there you have it: three thousand words about Jewish life under the Caliphate. More to come, I hope! I've just started reading Mark R. Cohen's Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages, which begins:

This study seeks to explain why Islamic-Jewish and Christian-Jewish relations followed such different courses in the Middle Ages. Its purpose is to go beyond the facile assertion that Jews lived more securely in the medieval Arab-Islamic world than under Christendom. They did. My goal is to explain how and why and thereby foster deeper understanding of Jewish-gentile relations in the medieval diaspora.

-- I'm really looking forward to reading more, and will surely post more as I go.

For now, I welcome questions and conversation, with the caveat that I am a student of this period in history and by no means an expert.