In Ishmael's House: A History of Jews in Muslim Lands

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The relationship between Jews and Muslims has been a flashpoint that affects stability in the Middle East and has consequences around the globe. In this absorbing and eloquent book Martin Gilbert challenges the standard media portrayal and presents a fascinating account of hope, opportunity, fear, and terror that have characterized these two peoples through the 1,400 years of their intertwined history.

Harking back to the Biblical story of Ishmael and Isaac, Gilbert takes the reader from the origins of the fraught relationship—the refusal of Medina’s Jews to accept Mohammed as a prophet—through the ages of the Crusader reconquest of the Holy Land and the great Muslim sultanates to the present day. He explores the impact of Zionism in the first half of the twentieth century, the clash of nationalisms during the Second World War, the mass expulsions and exodus of 800,000 Jews from Muslim lands following the birth of Israel, the Six-Day War and its aftermath, and the political sensitivities of the current Middle East.

In Ishmael’s House sheds light on a time of prosperity and opportunity for Jews in Muslim lands stretching from Morocco to Afghanistan, with many instances of Muslim openness, support, and courage. Drawing on Jewish, Christian, and Muslim sources, Gilbert uses archived material, poems, letters, memoirs, and personal testimony to uncover the human voice of this centuries-old conflict. Ultimately Gilbert’s moving account of mutual tolerance between Muslims and Jews provides a perspective on current events and a template for the future.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this epic examination, celebrated historian Gilbert (the six-volume biography of Winston Churchill) explores the evolution of Judaism and Islam through a lens of Middle Eastern stability. Islam upholds some of Judaism's practices, like strict dietary laws, circumcision, and multiple prayers daily, and followers of both religions have historically banded together during holy wars in opposition to Christianity. Yet early relations between Jews and Muslims were often precarious, and the treatment Jews received was often dependent on the manner in which the Islamic leader at the time interpreted "the two extremes of protection and intolerance," a conflict that Gilbert believes "has defined the Muslim-Jewish relationship to this day." Indeed, under the rule of the second Caliph, Jews volunteered as soldiers and guides and offered provisions for their Muslim allies, whereas under the eighth Caliph, Jews and Christians were equally segregated and oppressed. With a comprehensive yet accessible approach, Gilbert scrutinizes the roles that Muslims and Jews have played and continue to play in the Middle East, and the impact of this on the world, unearthing the ongoing struggles these religions have faced over their 1400 years of shared history.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Christian Century

"Gilbert has written a useful and relatively popular addition to a growing body of scholarly and legal literature on the plight of the Arab Jews who were displaced in the mid-20th century. This is a must read for those who are interested in an intelligent study of a little-known facet of the refugee problems that have beset Jewish societies in the past three generations."—Steven Bowman, Christian Century

— Steven Bowman

Jerusalem Post

"Gilbert has done what he does best, create a model reference work that is sure to remain a standard for years to come."—Seth J. Frantzman, Jerusalem Post

— Seth J. Frantzman

Christian Century - Steven Bowman
"Gilbert has written a useful and relatively popular addition to a growing body of scholarly and legal literature on the plight of the Arab Jews who were displaced in the mid-20th century. This is a must read for those who are interested in an intelligent study of a little-known facet of the refugee problems that have beset Jewish societies in the past three generations."—Steven Bowman, Christian Century
Jerusalem Post - Seth J. Frantzman
"Gilbert has done what he does best, create a model reference work that is sure to remain a standard for years to come."—Seth J. Frantzman, Jerusalem Post
From the Publisher
"This is a book for those who want on their shelf, ready to hand, the facts on the Jews in Muslim lands, from the days of Mohammad himself, a vivid chapter as related here, to the Arab-Israel conflict of the present day. With Sir Martin Gilbert's excellent maps and clear readable prose, this saga is both a reliable source and a pleasure to read."
— Herman Wouk

"In this epic examination, celebrated historian Gilbert (the six-volume biography of Winston Churchill) explores the evolution of Judaism and Islam. . . . .with a comprehensive yet accessible approach." 
— Publishers Weekly

"Sir Martin Gilbert's In Ishmael's House, perhaps for the first time, makes accessible to a mass readership the neglected history of Jews in Muslim lands, from Afghanistan to Morocco." 
— The

"[This book's] account of the slow-burning tragedy of the extinction of Jewish communities in the Arab world is moving and important. It should be read." 
— The Independent

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300167153
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 9/21/2010
  • Pages: 448
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Sir Martin Gilbert is the author of more than eighty books, including the six-volume authorized biography of Winston Churchill, the twin histories First World War and Second World War, Israel: A History, The Holocaust, A History of the Twentieth Century in three volumes, and nine pioneering historical atlases, including Atlas of Jewish History and Atlas of the Arab-Israeli Conflict. In 1995, he was knighted for services to British history and international relations, and in 2009 he was appointed to the British Government’s Iraq War Inquiry. He lives in London.

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Read an Excerpt


‘A prince of Himyar’

For more than a thousand years before Mohammed’s birth in the year 570, Jews lived in what were to become – with Mohammed and his followers’ conquests – Muslim lands. These lands stretched from Spain to Afghanistan, and were inhabited by Arabs, Persians, Turks, Berbers and Jews. They included the great Jewish religious academies of Sura and Pumbeditha (now Faluja in present-day Iraq), two cities that were at the centre of Jewish religious thought and ethics, and where the Babylonian Talmud was compiled more than two thousand years ago.
Across this wide swathe of land, Jewish graves of great antiquity have been found. In the Tunisian city of Carthage, Jewish gravestone inscriptions date from 813 BCE (Before the Common Era). Yemeni tradition also holds that a group of prosperous Jews arrived in Yemen from Jerusalem as early as 629 BCE, after they heard the Prophet Jeremiah predict the destruction of the Jewish Temple. It is possible that the migration of Jews to Yemen began even earlier. When Yemen was ruled by the Queen of Sheba in 900 BCE, the trading and naval networks established by King Solomon brought Jews from Judaea to Yemen, a journey of 1,400 miles.
Jerusalem, which came under Muslim rule for the first time in the year 638 CE, had formed a focal point of Jewish life for more than a millennium before the dawn of Islam. It had been the Jewish capital for more than six hundred years when it was conquered by the Babylonians in 587 BCE. The city also became the centre of a Jewish kingdom, ruled by Jewish kings, for seventy-eight years from 141 BCE to 63 BCE. Some of Jerusalem’s rulers at other times, including the Romans and the Seleucid Greek Antiochus IV, turned against the Jews; others, including Alexander the Great and the Ptolemys of Egypt, allowed Jewish life to flourish.
When the King of Persia, Cyrus the Great, defeated the Babylonians in 539 BCE, he liberated the Jews of Jerusalem. Some of the ‘freed slaves’ – who were no longer forced to worship idols – began to rebuild their Temple, which had been destroyed forty-two years after the Prophet Jeremiah’s prediction. Others went eastward to settle in Persia. Among their descendants a hundred years later were Esther and her cousin Mordecai, who forestalled an attempt by the Grand Vizier, Haman, to exterminate the entire Persian Jewish community.1
Similar migrations and resettlements occurred elsewhere, sending Jews to far-flung corners of those lands later conquered by Islam in the Seventh and Eighth Centuries. The Babylonian King Nabonidus brought Jewish exiles to Tayma, an oasis in modern-day Saudi Arabia, when he established his capital there a thousand years before the rise of Islam.2 Tomb inscriptions also confirm that Jews lived in the Arabian towns of al-Hijr (Mada’in Salih) and al-Ula five hundred years before Mohammed’s birth.3 Likewise, in 312 BCE, the ruler of Egypt, Ptolemy Lagos, settled Jews in Cyrenaica – present-day Libya – as a way of strengthening his kingdom. Inscriptions in Benghazi and in other places across Libya show a wealthy, well-established, well-organised Jewish community living there in 146 BCE, at the start of Roman rule.4
In those parts of the Roman Empire that were later conquered by Arabs and brought under Muslim rule, including the whole of North Africa, as well as Syria and Egypt, Jews lived and often flourished as farmers and traders. But living as part of the Pax Romana did not preclude further migrations for the Jews. In 25 BCE, King Herod was installed by the Romans as the ruler of the province of Judaea, which had its capital in Jerusalem. Herod, the son of a convert to Judaism, sent a Jewish military force to establish Roman control in Yemen. The expedition was a failure, but some of the soldiers remained and settled there to form the southernmost Jewish community of Roman times.
A notable Jew who also travelled out of Judaea was Rabbi Akiva,the Jewish scholar and leader, who journeyed with others from Jerusalem to Carthage in order to teach there among the many renowned rabbis. The Jews did not always migrate from Judaea by choice in Roman times. When the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 CE – following a failed Jewish revolt – they expelled an estimated thirty thousand Jews from their ancient homeland. These deportees were sent to North Africa.
The Roman-Jewish historian Josephus recounted that a similar fate was handed to Jews held captive after Bar Kokhba’s failed Jewish revolt in 136 CE. According to Josephus, twelve boatloads of Jewish captives were deported from Judaea to Cyrenaica, where half a million Jews were already living at that time. He wrote that most of the Cyrenaican Jews lived in farming villages, while those living by the sea were often sailors, and many others were potters, stonemasons, weavers and merchants.5 The new arrivals in Cyrenaica were among as many as a million Jews who were forced to leave Judaea, renamed  ‘Syria Palaestina’ by the Romans in 132 CE – its coins engraved with the words ‘Judaea Capta.’
In 115 CE the Jews of Cyrenaica had revolted against the Romans, with similar results. Josephus recalled that, after the revolt was crushed, the Roman Governor Catullus murdered ‘all the wealthier Jews to the number of three thousand, and confiscated all their possessions.’6 It was in response to this violent repression that many Cyrenaican Jews fled deep into the Sahara and lived there among the Berber tribes, some of whom they later converted to Judaism. Ironically, it was a Cyrenaican Jew, Mark – the St. Mark of the Gospels – who converted to Christianity and founded the Coptic Church, introducing Christianity to Africa.
Among the many new homelands for Jews who migrated in this period, Persia, known today as Iran, was one of the most significant. In 226 CE, King Shahpur I founded the Sasanian Empire there. Jews are reported to have held high-ranking positions in the empire’s society and government. During the four hundred years of Sasanian rule, Persian Jews were among those who wrote the Babylonian Talmud, a crucial repository of Jewish theology and law to this day.7
Displaced Jews also enlarged the Yemeni Jewish community, particularly after Bar Kokhba’s revolt prompted the first significant Jewish migration from Judaea to Yemen. Jews were consummate traders, and Yemen was then famous throughout the Graeco-Roman world for its prosperous trade, especially in spices.8 Dominating the southern end of the Red Sea, Yemen was a focal point for both seaborne trade and the overland routes from southwestern Arabia. The first written evidence of a Jewish presence in Yemen dates to the Third Century CE. The Jews’ proficiency in trade had led them to the northern extremity of the Red Sea as well – to the twin islands of Tiran and Sanapir in the Straits of Tiran, which were for many years Jewish islands.9
In the Fifth Century, Yemen adopted Judaism as its religion. King Ab Karib As‘ad, the ruler of the Himyarite kingdom, introduced the change after converting to Judaism himself under the influence of Jews at his court. Many south Arabian converts to Judaism followed; Jewish rule in Yemen lasted almost a hundred years.
The most famous Hebrew King of Yemen, Yusuf Asar, came to the throne in 515 CE. He was a religious man known to the Arabs as Dhu Nuwas (‘the man with the hanging locks’), and his rule in Yemen has been described as heralding a ‘Golden Age’ for local Jews and Arabs alike.10 But his reign was not lacking in outward violence and conflict. Citing the persecution of Jews in Christian Byzantium, Dhu Nuwas attacked the Christian stronghold of Najran and massacred all those who would not renounce Christianity. Then, only ten years after ascending to the throne, Dhu Nuwas was defeated by Christians from Ethiopia, allies of the Christian empire of Byzantium. Yemen, along with the Jewish islands of Tiran and Sanapir, fell under Byzantine rule.
Within the Roman Empire in the years before Islam, hundreds of thousands of Jews made their way, by ship and overland, to new homes as far west as Spain and North Africa, as far north as the Swiss Alps, as far east as the shores of the Black and Caspian Seas, and as far south as Yemen. In their new homelands – known as the Diaspora or galut (exile) – these Jews built up communities where, during the three hundred years before the spread of Christianity, and the five hundred years before the rise of Islam, they maintained their faith, customs and traditions. Although they adopted local languages in their daily life and work, they preserved Hebrew as the language of literacy and prayer. They settled across a vast geographic region, and yet they retained a strong bond of connection through their religion: the belief in one God, the laws and ethical code of the Torah, and the devotion to prayer, self-help, family and community.
Jews also maintained strong ties to their ancient Judaean homeland. Yemeni Jews made great efforts to return to Judaea when burying their dead, sometimes embarking on a journey across the deserts of Arabia that would take at least sixty days by caravan. In the Jewish cemetery at Beth Shearim, in the Jezreel Valley, four burial chambers were discovered in 1936 with wooden, stone and lead sarcophagi that had been brought there from Yemen. The cemetery had been in use until the late Fourth Century. On one sarcophagus was an inscription in the southern Arabian alphabet that read: ‘A prince of Himyar.’11
Starting in 325, Judaea – as part of ‘Palaestina’ – was ruled for nearly three hundred years by the Christian emperors of Byzantium, whose capital was eight hundred miles away in Constantinople. The Jews of Jerusalem decided to join forces with the Persians in 614 to besiege Jerusalem and free it from Christian rule. When the Persian Army defeated the Byzantines they handed Jerusalem back to the Jews. It remained under Jewish rule for fifteen years. But in 629, Jerusalem was retaken by the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius, an Armenian Christian, and again the Jews were banished.
During his nine-year rule over Jerusalem, Heraclius carried out a campaign of vengeance against the Jews. He decreed the forcible conversion of Jews to Christianity in all the European and Asian territories of the Byzantine Empire, and in 632 – the year of Mohammed’s death – he extended that conversion decree to North Africa. It was not until Arab Muslims conquered Jerusalem in 638 that the Jews were allowed to return to the city and to practise their faith. At that time, Heraclius was about to begin the Jews’ forcible conversion in North Africa. But as the historian H.Z. Hirschberg writes, it was precisely at this moment that ‘Arab tribes sallied forth from the desert with the slogan “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is the Messenger of Allah,” which welded them into one people and a militant religious community.’ This formidable military force ‘swept Heraclius and his army from most of the areas in Asia, invaded Egypt and set their eyes on the fertile places of North Africa and Spain.’12
Help was at hand for the Jews persecuted in Christian lands.
1 Esther’s tomb in the Iranian city of Hamdan is surrounded by Jewish graves, as Jews considered the area around her tomb to be holier than the main Jewish cemetery. The tomb’s majestic brick dome dates back to 1602. Houman Sarshar (editor), Esther’s Children: A Portrait of Iranian Jews, pages xviii, 23 and 25.
2 The historian Charles C. Torrey believes that even before Nabonidus, who ruled from 555 to 539 BCE, Jewish traders had settled in the oasis towns of the Hedjaz, including the city of Yathrib (Medina). Charles C. Torrey, The Jewish Foundation of Islam, pages 10 and 17-18.
3 An inscription on a sundial at al-Hijr mentions a Jew, Menasha bar Nathan Shelam, who may have been the astronomer who owned the sundial or the craftsman who carved it. The Roman general Aelius Gallus also found Jews living at al-Hijr on his way to conquer Yemen in 25 BCE. The Babylonian Talmud (late Fourth, early Fifth Century) mentions a certain Anan ben Hiyya of Hijra (Tractate Yevamot: 116a), who appears with regard to a discussion of a bill of divorce found in the Babylonian city of Sura.
4 Maurice M. Roumani, The Jews of Libya, page 2.
5 Josephus, quoted in Maurice M. Roumani, The Jews of Libya, page 2. Yosef Ben Matityahu – Joseph, son of Matthias – was known as Titus Flavius Josephus after he became a Roman citizen.
6 Josephus, The Jewish War (Penguin Books edition), page 408.
7 Houman Sarshar (editor), Esther’s Children: A Portrait of Iranian Jews, pages xviii-xix.
8 Itzhak Ben-Zvi, The Exiled and the Redeemed, page 23.
9 Bernard Lewis, The Middle East, pages 44-45.
10 David Levering Lewis, God’s Crucible, page 25.
11 Itzhak Ben-Zvi, The Exiled and the Redeemed, page 24.
12 H.Z. (J.W.) Hirschberg, A History of the Jews in North Africa, page 59.

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