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Aside the regions of Israel and Judea Jews have lived in the Middle East at least since the Babylonian Captivity (597 BCE), about 2,600 years ago.

After the expansion of Arab and other Muslims into the Middle East from the Arabian Peninsula, Jews, along with Christians and Zoroastrians, typically had the legal status of dhimmi.[1] As such, they were entitled to limited rights but fewer than those of Muslims.[2]


Muslim Conquest

There had been, for some long but uncertain period, a significant number of Jews in Arabia. Some Arab historians claim that very large numbers of Jews – as high as 80,000 – arrived after the destruction of the First Temple, to join others already long established in places such as the oasis of Khaybar as well as the trading colonies in Medina and Mecca (where they even had their own cemetery). Another theory posits that these Jews were refugees from Byzantine persecutions. Regardless, Arab historians mention some 20 Jewish tribes, including two tribes of Kohanim. [3]

The Constitution of Medina, written shortly after hijra, addressed some points regarding the civil and religious situation for the Jewish communities living within the city from an Islamic perspective. For example, 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". Rarely did Jews live with such freedom. 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.[4] 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.[5]

In year 20 of the Muslim era, or the year 641 AD, Muhammad's successor the Caliph 'Umar decreed that Jews and Christians should be removed from all but the southern and eastern fringes of Arabia—a decree based on the (sometimes disputed) uttering of the Prophet: "Let there not be two religions in Arabia". The two populations in question were the Jews of the Khaybar oasis in the north and the Christians of Najran.[6] Other sources report the forced deportation of Jews and Christians occurring in 634 AD, with the last remnants of these two monotheistic religions being removed from the Arabian peninsula by the year 650.[7] From this point onwards the Holy Land of the Hijaz was forbidden to non-Muslims.[8] Only the Red Sea port of Jedda was permitted as a "religious quarantine area" and continued to have a small complement of Jewish merchants.

Middle Ages

In the Iberian Peninsula, under Muslim rule, Jews were able to make great advances in mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, chemistry and philology.[9] This era is sometimes referred to as the Golden age of Jewish culture in the Iberian Peninsula.[10]

During early Islam, Leon Poliakov writes, Jews enjoyed great privileges, and their communities prospered. There was no legislation or social barriers preventing them from conducting commercial activities. Many Jews migrated to areas newly conquered by Muslims and established communities there. The vizier of Baghdad entrusted his capital with Jewish bankers. The Jews were put in charge of certain parts of maritime and slave trade. Siraf, the principal port of the caliphate in the 10th century CE, had a Jewish governor.[11]

Since the 11th century, there have been instances of pogroms against Jews.[12] Examples include the 1066 Granada massacre, the razing of the entire Jewish quarter in the Andalucian city of Granada.[13] In North Africa, there were cases of violence against Jews in the Middle Ages[14], and in other Arab lands including Egypt[15], Syria.[16] and Yemen[17] Jewish population was confined to segregated quarters, or mellahs, in Morocco beginning from the 15th century. In cities, a mellah was surrounded by a wall with a fortified gateway. In contrast, rural mellahs were separate villages inhabited solely by the Jews.[18]

The Almohads, who had taken control of much of Islamic Iberia by 1172, were far more fundamentalist in outlook than the Almoravides, and they treated the dhimmis harshly. Jews and Christians were expelled from Morocco and Islamic Spain.[19] Faced with the choice of either death or conversion, some Jews, such as the family of Maimonides, fled south and east to the more tolerant Muslim lands, while others went northward to settle in the growing Christian kingdoms.[20][21]

In 1400, the Jews of Aleppo were herded into their synagogues and slaughtered to the last man by soldiers of Central Asian Islamic conqueror Tamerlane; the young women were raped.[22] These actions taken by Timur's army do not necessarily exemplify a hatred towards Jews by Timur though, but rather an unfortunate casualty of war. Despite Timur's ill reputation as a brutal conqueror, there is evidence which asserts that Timur exhibited tolerance towards Jews residing within his empire. [23] In 1465, Arab mobs in Fez slaughtered thousands of Jews, leaving only 11 alive, after a Jewish deputy vizier treated a Muslim woman in "an offensive manner." The killings touched off a wave of similar massacres throughout Morocco.[24][25]

In 1492, Askia Mohammad I came to power in the previously tolerant region of Timbuktu and decreed that Jews must convert to Islam or leave; Judaism became illegal in Mali, as it did in Catholic Spain that same year.[26]

Early Modern Period

The Ottoman Empire had served as a refuge for Spanish Jews who had been expelled from the Kingdom of Spain and its territories and possessions, especially after the fall of Muslim Spain in 1492 and Edict of Expulsion. This was also the case for the Maghreb in North Africa, where a Jewish quarter (Mellah), was installed in most large Arabian cities. Later the Jewish converts were driven out of Spain fleeing the Roman Catholic Inquisition.

In 1656, all Jews were expelled from Isfahan because of the common belief of their impurity and forced to convert to Islam. However, as it became known that the converts continued to practice Judaism in secret and because the treasury suffered from the loss of jizya collected from the Jews, in 1661 they were allowed to revert to Judaism, but were still required to wear a distinctive patch upon their clothings.

Confined to city quarters, the Bukharan Jews were denied basic rights and many were forced to convert to Islam. They had to wear black and yellow dress to distinguish themselves from the Muslims. Since the Bukharian Jews were dhimmis, during their annual tax, the heads of the dhimmi households had to be slapped in the face by Muslims.[27]

Under the Zaydi rule, the Yemenite Jews were considered to be impure, and therefore forbidden to touch a Muslim or a Muslim's food. They were obligated to humble themselves before a Muslim, to walk to the left side, and greet him first. They could not build houses higher than a Muslim's or ride a camel or horse, and when riding on a mule or a donkey, they had to sit sideways. Upon entering the Muslim quarter a Jew had to take off his foot-gear and walk barefoot. If attacked with stones or fists by Islamic youth, a Jew was not allowed to defend himself. In such situations he had the option of fleeing or seeking intervention by a merciful Muslim passerby.[28]

19th Century

Photochrom of Jews in Jerusalem, in the 1890's.

There was a massacre of Jews in Baghdad in 1828.[29] In 1839, in the eastern Persian city of Meshed, a mob burst into the Jewish Quarter, burned the synagogue, and destroyed the Torah scrolls. It was only by forcible conversion that a massacre was averted.[30] There was another massacre in Barfurush in 1867.[31][32] In 1839, the Allahdad incident, the Jews of Mashhad, Iran, now known as the Mashhadi Jews, were coerced into converting to Islam.[33]

In the middle of the 19th century, J. J. Benjamin wrote about the life of Persian Jews:

"…they are obliged to live in a separate part of town…; for they are considered as unclean creatures… Under the pretext of their being unclean, they are treated with the greatest severity and should they enter a street, inhabited by Mussulmans, they are pelted by the boys and mobs with stones and dirt… For the same reason, they are prohibited to go out when it rains; for it is said the rain would wash dirt off them, which would sully the feet of the Mussulmans… If a Jew is recognized as such in the streets, he is subjected to the greatest insults. The passers-by spit in his face, and sometimes beat him… unmercifully… If a Jew enters a shop for anything, he is forbidden to inspect the goods… Should his hand incautiously touch the goods, he must take them at any price the seller chooses to ask for them... Sometimes the Persians intrude into the dwellings of the Jews and take possession of whatever please them. Should the owner make the least opposition in defense of his property, he incurs the danger of atoning for it with his life... If... a Jew shows himself in the street during the three days of the Katel (Muharram)…, he is sure to be murdered."[34]

In 1840, the Jews of Damascus were falsely accused of having murdered a Christian monk and his Muslim servant and of having used their blood to bake Passover bread.[35] A Jewish barber was tortured until he "confessed"; two other Jews who were arrested died under torture, while a third converted to Islam to save his life. Throughout the 1860s, the Jews of Libya were subjected to what Gilbert calls punitive taxation. In 1864, around 500 Jews were killed in Marrakech and Fez in Morocco. In 1869, 18 Jews were killed in Tunis, and an Arab mob looted Jewish homes and stores, and burned synagogues, on Jerba Island. In 1875, 20 Jews were killed by a mob in Demnat, Morocco; elsewhere in Morocco, Jews were attacked and killed in the streets in broad daylight. In 1897, synagogues were ransacked and Jews were murdered in Tripolitania.[30]

20th Century

By the late 1940s, conditions of the Arab Jews in many Muslim countries were rapidly worsening through a combination of growing Arab nationalism due to European occupation; Nazi influence in the Axis controlled parts of North Africa; and the conflict in the British Mandate of Palestine. The situation came to a head after 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Many Arab states instituted formal discriminatory laws against their Jewish populations. Within a few decades, most Jews fled Muslim lands, most for the newly created Jewish state, but others went to France, the United States, Great Britain and other Commonwealth nations. In 1945 there were between 758,000 and 866,000 Jews living in communities throughout the Arab world. Today, there are fewer than 8,000. In some Arab states, such as Libya which was once around 3 percent Jewish, the Jewish community no longer exists; in other Arab countries, only a few hundred Jews remain. The largest communities of Jews in a Muslim land exist in the non-Arab countries of Iran and Turkey; both, however, are much smaller than they historically have been.

Jewish ethnic groups that have lived in the majority-Muslim world include Sephardi, Mizrahi, and Temani.

Seljuk (1077-1307) and Ottoman Turkey (1299-1922)

Jews have lived in Asia Minor for more than 2,400 years. Originally settling in Asia Minor in its Hellenistic period, there were driven out in the period of Byzantine rule between the 5th and 11th centuries, resettling there only after the occupation of much of Anatolia by Muslim Seljuk forces after the Battle of Manzikert. Jewish civilization grew and thrived with the Seljuk and Ottoman rule. For much of the subsequent Seljuk and Ottoman period, Turkey was a safe haven for Jews fleeing persecution, and it continues to have a Jewish population today which, at 26,000 persons, is the second biggest in the Muslim world today, after Iran.

Persia and Iran (711-1900)

Judaism is the second-oldest religion still existing in Iran (after Zoroastrianism). Today, the largest groups of Persian Jews are found in Israel (75,000 in 1993, including second-generation Israelis) and the United States (45,000, especially in the Los Angeles area, home to a large concentration of expatriate Iranians). By various estimates, between 11,000 and 30,000 Jews remain in Iran, mostly in Tehran and Hamedan. There are also smaller communities in Western Europe. A number of groups of Persian Jews have split off since ancient times, to the extent that they are now recognized as separate communities, such as the Bukharian Jews and Mountain Jews.


Jews have lived in Kurdistan hundreds of years, before the final and mass migration in 1951-1952 to Israel. The Jews lived under the Ottoman Empire and under the Persian Empire for many years and following World War I, they lived mainly in Iraq, Iran and Turkey, some lived in Syria. Jews lived in many Kurdish urban centers such as Aqra, Dohuk, Arbil, Zakho, Sulaimaniya, Amadia, in Iraqi Kurdistan, in Saqiz, Bana and Ushno, in Persian Kurdistan, in Jezira, Nisebin, Mardin and Diyarbakr in Turkish Kurdistan and in Qamishle in Syrian Kurdistan. Jews lived as well in hundreds of villages in the rural and tribal area of Kurdistan, usually one or two famulies in a village, where they worked as weavers of traditional Kurdish clothing or as tenants of the agha, landlord, the head of the village. Recently, an important book came out, by Mordechai Zaken, describing the unique relationship between Jews in urban and rural Kurdistan and the tribal society under whose patronage the Jews lived for hundreds of years. Tribal chieftains, or aghas, granted patronage to the Jews who needed protection in the wild tribal region of Kurdistan; the Jews gave their chieftains dues, gifts and services. The text provides numerous tales and examples about the skills, maneuvers and innovations used by kurdistani Jews in their daily life to confront abuse, extortion and of greedy chieftains and tribesmen. The text also tells the stories of Kurdish chieftains who saved and protected the Jews unconditionally. [36]

See also

External links


  1. ^ Bat Ye'or (1985), p. 45
  2. ^ Lewis 1984 p. 62
  3. ^ Bernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam (London, 2003), p. XXVII
  4. ^ Ibn Kathir p. 2
  5. ^ Irvin and Sunquist, History of the World Christian Movement, Vol. 1 (Edinburgh, 2001), p. 268
  6. ^ Bernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam (London, 2003) p. XXVII
  7. ^ Irvin and Sunquist, History of the World Christian Movement, Vol. I (Edinburgh, 2001), p. 270
  8. ^ Bernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam (London, 2003), p. XXVIII
  9. ^ Cowling (2005), p. 265
  10. ^ Poliakov (1974), pg.91-6
  11. ^ Poliakov (1974), pg.68-71
  12. ^ The Treatment of Jews in Arab/Islamic Countries
  13. ^ Granada by Richard Gottheil, Meyer Kayserling, Jewish Encyclopedia. 1906 ed.
  14. ^ "The Jews of Morocco".  
  15. ^ "The Jews of Egypt".  
  16. ^ "The Jews of Syria".  
  17. ^ "The Jews of Yemen".  
  18. ^ The Jews of Morocco, by Ralph G. Bennett
  19. ^ The Forgotten Refugees
  20. ^ Sephardim
  21. ^ Kraemer, Joel L., Moses Maimonides: An Intellectual Portrait in The Cambridge Companion to Maimonides pp. 16-17 (2005)
  22. ^ Battle of Allepo
  23. ^ Mic Shterenshis (2002), p. 114 "Tamerlane and the Jews"
  24. ^ Gerber (1986), p. 84
  25. ^ The Persecution of Jews prior to 1948
  26. ^ The Jewish Virtual History Tour - Mali
  27. ^ Bukharan Jews
  28. ^ Jewish Communities in Exotic Places," by Ken Blady, Jason Aronson Inc., 2000, page 10
  29. ^ The Jews of Oman
  30. ^ a b Gilbert, Martin. Dearest Auntie Fori. The Story of the Jewish People. HarperCollins, 2002, pp. 179-182.
  31. ^ Littman (1979), p. 4.
  32. ^ Lewis (1984), p. 168..
  33. ^ ""Mashhadi Jews in New-York"". 2003.  
  34. ^ Lewis (1984), pp. 181–183
  35. ^ Americans React to Damascus Blood Libel
  36. ^ Mordechai Zaken , Jewish Subjects and Their Tribal Chieftains in Kurdistan: A Study in Survival, Brill: Boston and Leiden, 2007. This book is Based on new oral sources, carefully analyzed, and explores the relationships between Jewish subjects and their tribal chieftains in Kurdistan, focusing on the patronage and justice provided by the chieftains and the financial support provided by the Jews to endure troubles and caprices of chieftains. New reports and vivid tales unveil the status of Jews in the tribal setting; the slavery of rural Jews; the conversion to Islam and the defense mechanisms adopted by Jewish leaders to annul conversion of abducted women. Other topics are the trade and occupations of the Jews and their financial exploitation by chieftains. The last part explores the experience of Jewish communities in Iraqi Kurdistan between World War I and the mass-migration to Israel (1951-52). The author, Mordechai Zaken, Ph.D. (2004) in Near Eastern Studies, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, specializes in the history of the Kurds, the oriental Jewry, and the minorities in the region. He served as the Adviser on Arab Affairs to the Prime Minister of Israel (1997-99).


  • Cowling, Geoffrey (2005). Introduction to World Religions. Singapore: First Fortress Press. ISBN 0-8006-3714-3.  
  • Lewis, Bernard (1984). The Jews of Islam. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-00807-8
  • Poliakov, Leon (1974). The History of Anti-semitism. New York: The Vanguard Press.
  • Bat Ye'or (1985). The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians under Islam. Madison/Teaneck, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. ISBN 0-8386-3262-9.  
  • A Golden Age
  • Littman, David (1979). "Jews Under Muslim Rule: The Case Of Persia". The Wiener Library Bulletin XXXII (New series 49/50).  
  • Lewis, Bernard (1984). The Jews of Islam. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-00807-8.  
  • Mordechai Zaken , Jewish Subjects and Their Tribal Chieftains in Kurdistan: A Study in Survival, Brill: Boston and Leiden, 2007.

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