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Jews under Muslim rule

Updated December 14, 2014
Orthodox Jews strolling in the Arab Quarter of Jerusalem. — Photos by the writer
Orthodox Jews strolling in the Arab Quarter of Jerusalem. — Photos by the writer

Barring the Jewish kingdoms of old and the long interregnum of Roman rule, Jews have most recently lived either in Christian lands or under Muslim rule. Then in 1948, the Jewish state of Israel was carved out and a large population of Arab Muslims found themselves suddenly living under Jewish rule. Thus began the end of Palestinian identity, dignity and hope. With time, the saga of Arabs becomes more poignant and more violent.

The Arab Quarter of Jerusalem is where the simmering Arab versus Jew sentiments are on full display. I witnessed on the dusty and unkempt lanes of the Old City in Jerusalem, the seething hatred of Arabs against Jews, and the contempt of the Israelis, who heap indignities on the subjugated Palestinians.

Heavily armed young men and women from the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) lord over the Arab streets; they affably greet the Orthodox Jews strolling in the souks, but menacingly question young Palestinian men who happen to pass by. Palestinians under Israeli rule are virtually prisoners in their own homes; their towns suffocate behind massive walls and razor wire fences. There seems little hope for freedom, and they draw little sympathy from neighbouring Arabs, something that was only too evident during the recent assault on Gaza.

In this context the question is raised as to whether the ongoing conflict is merely a dispute over land, or if it is yet another conflagration of a long-simmering antagonism between Islam and Judaism?

Now when an Israeli bomb falls on a Palestinian home, it is difficult for an Arab to feel kindly towards Jews, for the centuries of tolerance and compassion between these communities are now but a footnote of history

If the abject brutality of the Israelis in Gaza and the invective of the Palestinians are any measures to go by, one would incline towards the latter explanation. But there remains the fact that for centuries Jews and Muslims lived together in relative peace and amity. Let us then look at history and see how Jews fared under Muslim rule.

Young Palestinians are routinely stopped for interrogation. — Photos by the writer
Young Palestinians are routinely stopped for interrogation. — Photos by the writer

Jews found their way into (pre-Islamic) Arab lands during the first Jewish Diaspora in the 5th century BCE when the Babylonians destroyed the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, and the Israelites, as the Jews were then called, dispersed to neighbouring lands. It is difficult to estimate the number of Jews who ultimately ended up in Hejaz and Mecca, but during the days of Prophet Muhammad (Pbuh) there were several Jewish tribes under the protection of Islam.

A Hadith confirms Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) abiding respect for believers of the Books; he even married a woman of Jewish origin. On one occasion, as a funeral cortege of a Jew approached, he stood up respectfully. When one of his companions remained seated saying that it was a funeral of “merely a Jew”, the Prophet admonished him and remained standing until the procession had passed.

During the Middle Ages, the majority of Jews lived under Muslim rule in Iberia (Spain), Mesopotamia (Iraq), Iran and Central Asia. Jews numbered only one per cent of the population but their contribution to science and literature was enormous. Bernard Lewis writes, “With few exceptions whatever was creative and significant in Jewish life, happened in Islamic lands”.

There were three distinct periods in history when Jews lived under Muslim rule.

The first epoch of 450 years began in 638 when Caliph Umar accepted the surrender of Jerusalem and was surprised when informed that there were no Jews in the city. Over the previous century the Byzantine emperors, in collusion with the local Christians, had forced the Jews to convert. Those who did not were expelled from Jerusalem and banned from praying at the sacred Temple Wall. Jews often came surreptitiously to the neighbouring hills overlooking the sacred site to pray and gaze at the Temple wall. To rectify this injustice, Hazrat Umar encouraged 70 Jewish families to resettle in their ancestral homes, and cleared a space for them around the Temple Wall. He then personally wrote a document, clearly defining the rights of the minorities (dhimmis) in conquered lands. This edict called Ehed Umaria is today enshrined in the Mosque of Umar in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem. To commemorate the magnanimity of the Caliph, a large area in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem is named Umar Ibn Khattab Square.

During the Middle Ages, the majority of Jews lived under Muslim rule in Iberia (Spain), Mesopotamia (Iraq), Iran and Central Asia. Jews numbered only one per cent of the population but their contribution to science and literature was enormous.

About 50 years later, Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik decided to build the Dome of the Rock over the site where the Temple of Solomon once stood. Surprisingly, the Jews did not protest. After centuries of oppression by the Christians, they perhaps viewed Muslims as comparatively just and sympathetic.

Israeli security is omnipresent in the Arab Quarter of Jerusalem. — Photos by the writer
Israeli security is omnipresent in the Arab Quarter of Jerusalem. — Photos by the writer

Four hundred years later Muslims and Jews found themselves facing a common enemy — the Christian Crusaders, who upon sacking Jerusalem massacred both communities. Muslims hid Jews in mosques, and some Muslims hid in synagogues, but both were ultimately annihilated. Significantly, Salahuddin Ayyubi, the liberator of Jerusalem had a trusted Jewish physician, whose name was Ibn Maymun, in his employ.

The second epoch of 800 years was in al–Andalus, which was Muslim Spain. Arab and Berber Muslims, who came across from Morocco, were outnumbered by Christians, and owed much to the local Jews for their logistical support in occupying the Iberian Peninsula. For centuries Jews were being persecuted by the Catholic Visigoths, and were eager to help Muslims against their tormentors. Without Jewish support, Muslims would have encountered serious resistance from the Visigoth Christians, especially in Cordoba and Toledo.

In al-Andalus, during the first century of Muslim rule, large numbers of Jews converted to Islam, and in time, the lives of Jews became inextricably intertwined with Muslim culture.

Significantly, Hebrew imperceptibly blended with Arabic. Jews gradually Arabised in their behaviour; indeed, it was considered haute couture to dress in Arab fashion and speak Arabic. The Jewish poet Yahuda ha-Levi only wrote in Arabic, and Moses Maimonides, the Jewish philosopher-physician expressed his views in his adopted language, reserving Hebrew only for his liturgical work like Mishneh Torah. In the 11th century, the Muslim governor of Granada felt no hesitation in appointing the Jewish statesman Samuel ibn Nagrella to a key position in his government. This symbiotic relationship described as Judeo-Islamic tradition by Western historians, flourished for centuries. Jews felt secure and in peace under Muslims. They called al –Andalus, Sefared — the Jewish homeland. After the Muslim rule ended in 1492, Jews were singled out by the Christians for the Great Inquisition, which ultimately resulted in expulsion of all Jews from Spain. Convivencia, the age of tri-religious harmony in al-Andaus, is nostalgically remembered by Jewish historians.

The third epoch of Jews under Muslim rule began when Jews fled the Spanish Inquisition by the thousands, and settled first in Morocco and finally in the Ottoman Empire — both Muslim territories. For over four centuries, the Sephardic Jews (of Spanish origin) lived with dignity under the Sultans. On their part, the European Jews in Ottoman society left indelible impressions in medicine and in art. A notable contribution was the introduction of the printing press in the Muslim world. The Ottomans, however, would not permit printing of Arabic material, believing that it would be irreverent to use machines to reproduce Allah’s words; calligraphy was considered more appropriate. Nevertheless, printing machines disseminated the message of sciences and that greatly increased scholarship and learning among Muslims.

The Ottomans were fair and equitable in their attitude towards the Jews. For centuries Jews had not been permitted near the Wailing Wall, obliging them to pray from afar. Muslims ordered all obstructions blocking access to the Jews to be removed, and declared the area an exclusive Jewish enclave. It was only after this move that the Jews could once again pray at the remains of their Temple.

Jews regarded their lives in al– Andalus and in the Ottoman Empire as the Golden Periods of Jewish history. Centuries of religious harmony between the two faiths in the Ottoman Empire was, however, severely tested in the 20th century. The Christians in Europe, who traditionally blamed the Jews for killing the Christ, became overt anti-Semites under Hitler. The carnage of the holocaust forced the Jews to seek a new home outside Europe, and Britain offered to settle them in Palestine, which was then under the British Mandate.

The Jews termed their migration to Palestine the Aliyah — return to the Promised Land. They came in droves from Europe and Russia, and with vigorous support from the West, forcibly occupied Arab lands. With vengeance, they ruthlessly displaced the Palestinians from their ancestral homes; their interminable history of persecution and suffering emboldened them to become brutal and vicious against the Muslims. They did not see the Palestinians as a people. The Zionist mantra at that time was: Palestine, a land without people for people without land.

Now, when an Israeli bomb flattens an Arab home and innocent children lose their lives, it is difficult for an Arab to look back to history and feel kindly towards Jews. The centuries of tolerance and compassion between them will only remain in the pages of history. The convivencia now seems a past aberration, the present interminable, and the future uncertain.

The writer is the author of the book ‘Jerusalem — A journey Back in Time’.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, December 14th, 2014