The Jews of Islam

The Jews of Islam

by Bernard Lewis

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Against a vivid background of Jewish and Islamic history, Bernard Lewis portrays the Judaeo-Islamic tradition – a cultural relationship parallel to the Judaeo-Christian heritage. He traces its origins in the early Middle Ages, its flowering, and its ending, followed by the incorporation of most of the Jews of Islamic countries into the state of Israel. The


Against a vivid background of Jewish and Islamic history, Bernard Lewis portrays the Judaeo-Islamic tradition – a cultural relationship parallel to the Judaeo-Christian heritage. He traces its origins in the early Middle Ages, its flowering, and its ending, followed by the incorporation of most of the Jews of Islamic countries into the state of Israel. The book examines the relations of Islam and other religions; the formative and classical periods of the Judaeo-Islamic tradition in medieval Islam; the development of the Ottoman Empire; and its eventual demise in the twentieth century. This book was originally published in 1984.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"An elegant and masterly survey. It is a measure of Mr. Lewis's gift for synthesis that all the many findings of recent sholarship, including his own in the Turkish archives, are made to fit into a coherent and plausible pattern."New York Times Book Review

"Lewis refuses . . . simplistic approaches and tries to explain the complex and often contradictory history of Jewish-Muslim relations over fourteen hundred years. He does this in prose that combines eloquence, dispassion, and wit."—Norman A. Stillman, New York Review of Books

"[A] pioneering and masterful primer."—Jacob Neusner, Boston Globe

The New York Times Book Review
An elegant and masterly survey. It is a measure of Mr. Lewis's gift for synthesis that all the many findings of recent sholarship, including his own in the Turkish archives, are made to fit into a coherent and plausible pattern.
New York Times Book Review
An elegant and masterly survey. It is a measure of Mr. Lewis's gift for synthesis that all the many findings of recent sholarship, including his own in the Turkish archives, are made to fit into a coherent and plausible pattern.
New York Review of Books
Lewis refuses . . . simplistic approaches and tries to explain the complex and often contradictory history of Jewish-Muslim relations over fourteen hundred years. He does this in prose that combines eloquence, dispassion, and wit.
— Norman A. Stillman
Boston Globe
[A] pioneering and masterful primer.
— Jacob Neusner
New York Review of Books - Norman A. Stillman
Lewis refuses . . . simplistic approaches and tries to explain the complex and often contradictory history of Jewish-Muslim relations over fourteen hundred years. He does this in prose that combines eloquence, dispassion, and wit.
Boston Globe - Jacob Neusner
[A] pioneering and masterful primer.

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The Jews of Islam

By Bernard Lewis


Copyright © 1984 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-5222-2


Islam and Other Religions

Two stereotypes dominate most of what has been written on tolerance and intolerance in the Islamic world. The first depicts a fanatical warrior, an Arab horseman riding out of the desert with a sword in one hand and the Qur'an in the other, offering his victims the choice between the two. This picture, made famous by Edward Gibbon in his Decline and Fall o f the Roman Empire, is not only false but impossible—unless we are to assume a race of left-handed swordsmen. In Muslim practice, the left hand is reserved for unclean purposes, and no self-respecting Muslim, then or now, would use it to raise the Qur'an. The other image, almost equally preposterous, is that of an interfaith, interracial utopia, in which men and women belonging to different races, professing different creeds, lived side by side in a golden age of unbroken harmony, enjoying equality of rights and of opportunities, and toiling together for the advancement of civilization. To put the two stereotypes in Jewish terms, in one version classical Islam was like modern America, only better; in the other it was like Hitler's Germany, only worse, if such can be imagined.

Both images are of course wildly distorted; yet both contain, as stereotypes often do, some elements of truth. Two features they have in common are that they are relatively recent, and that they are of Western and not Islamic origin. For Christians and Muslims alike, tolerance is a new virtue, intolerance a new crime. For the greater part of the history of both communities, tolerance was not valued nor was intolerance condemned. Until comparatively modern times, Christian Europe neither prized nor practiced tolerance itself, and was not greatly offended by its absence in others. The charge that was always brought against Islam was not that its doctrines were imposed by force—something seen as normal and natural—but that its doctrines were false. Similarly on the Muslim side, the claim to tolerance, now much heard from Muslim apologists and more especially from apologists for Islam, is also new and of alien origin. It is only very recently that some defenders of Islam have begun to assert that their society in the past accorded equal status to non-Muslims. No such claim is made by spokesmen for resurgent Islam, and historically there is no doubt that they are right. Traditional Islamic societies neither accorded such equality nor pretended that they were so doing. Indeed, in the old order, this would have been regarded not as a merit but as a dereliction of duty. How could one accord the same treatment to those who follow the true faith and those who willfully reject it? This would be a theological as well as a logical absurdity.

The truth, as usual, is somewhere between the opposing and contrasting stereotypes, and is more complex, more varied, more shaded than either of them.

How tolerant has Islam been in the past? The answers we may give to this question depend very much on the definitions we assign to its terms. What do we mean by Islam? This is neither as easy nor as obvious as might at first sight appear. What do we mean by tolerance? This again has many different definitions and raises many questions, not least of which is our standard of comparison.

The definition of Islam raises problems that are by now familiar. As has often been pointed out, the word "Islam" is commonly used in several different senses. In the first instance it denotes what Muslims conceive as the definitive revelation vouchsafed by God to the Prophet Muhammad and contained in the holy book called the Qur'an. This is what might be called the original Islam, a set of doctrines and commandments that is the basis and also the starting point of the religion known by that name.

But the word "Islam," like the word "Christianity," is also used in a second and broader sense to indicate the historical development of that religion after the death of its founder. In this sense the term "Islam" embraces theology and mysticism, worship and ritual, law and statecraft, and the whole complex of what countless Muslims thought, said, and did in the name of their faith. Islam in this sense may be as different from the Islam of the Prophet as, shall we say, the Christianity of the Emperor Constantine and the bishops from the Christianity of Christ—or, we might add, as different as the Judaism of the Talmud from that of the Torah, or the Judaism of today from that of the Talmud.

On the whole, however, the difference was probably less radical in Islam than in either Judaism or Christianity, because of the very different experiences of the founders of the three religions. Moses died before he entered the promised land; Christ died on the cross. Muhammad attained not martyrdom but power. During his lifetime he became a head of state, commanding armies, collecting taxes, administering justice, and promulgating laws. The resulting interpenetration of faith and power, of religion and authority, has remained characteristic of Islam throughout most of its history. Even so, a great deal happened after the death of the Prophet, and Islam in the empire of the caliphs, like Christianity in the empires of Rome and its successors, evolved into something vastly more complex and more extensive than the original dispensation.

Finally, there is a third meaning in which the term "Islam" is the counterpart not of Christianity but of Christendom. In this sense it denotes not just a religion but a whole civilization, including many things that, as we in the Western world classify them, would not be regarded as religious in any sense. The term "Islamic art," for example, denotes virtually any kind of art produced within the Islamic world and marked by certain cultural and not merely religious characteristics. The term "Christian art" is limited to devotional and ecclesiastical art and would certainly not be extended to include art produced by Christians, still less by non-Christians living within the world of Christendom. Similarly, "Islamic science" means mathematics, physics, chemistry, and the rest, produced within this Islamic civilization and expressed normally in Arabic, occasionally in one of the other languages of Islam. Much of this science, as of this art, is the work not of Muslims but of Christians and Jews living in Islamic lands and constituting a part of the Islamic civilization in which they were formed. In contrast, the term "Christian science" is not used to designate the scientific achievements of Christians and others in Christendom. Indeed, until comparatively recently the term was not used at all, and when it first made its appearance, it was with an entirely different meaning.

Given the centrality and pervasiveness of religion in Islamic life and culture, even in this third sense of the word, the religious element in Islam is greater and more significant than in Christendom. But in this sense the term "Islam" denotes not precept but practice, not the doctrines and commandments of Islam, but the record of Muslim history—a record, that is, of the activities of human beings, their successes and failures, their weaknesses and achievements. And Muslims, like the rest of mankind, sometimes fall short of their own ideals, and sometimes relax their own strict rules. If we look for tolerance or intolerance in both the theory and practice of Islam, the answers may differ according to the definition of Islam that we adopt. They may also differ according to our standard and measure of tolerance.

What indeed do we mean by tolerance? In dealing with such subjects there is an inevitable tendency to assess and evaluate by comparison. If we speak of tolerance in Islam, we shall soon find ourselves measuring tolerance in Islam against tolerance in other societies—in Christendom, in India, in the Far East, or perhaps in the modern West. This is a form of comparison much cultivated by polemicists of various factions. The polemicist can of course make his task much easier by choosing the terms of comparison that suit him best. It is, for example, always easy to demonstrate the superiority of one religion to another by contrasting the precept of the one with the practice of the other. I recall reading a delightful little pamphlet proving that the Islamic caliphate was superior to the American presidency. This was done by the simple device of defining the caliphate in terms of theological and juridical treatises and the presidency in terms of the latest scandals from Washington. It would of course be equally easy, if anyone thought it worth the trouble, to demonstrate the reverse by the same method—by defining the presidency in terms of the constitution, and the caliphate in terms of gossip from medieval Baghdad, which is not lacking in the sources at our disposal.

This kind of comparison, however common, is not very helpful. It may be emotionally satisfying, but it is intellectually dishonest to compare one's theory with the other's practice. It is equally misleading to compare one's best with the other's worst. If, as the term of comparison for Christendom, we take the Spanish Inquisition or the German death camps, then it is easy to prove almost any society tolerant. There is nothing like Auschwitz in Islamic history, but it would not be difficult to name Muslim rulers or leaders worthy to rank with Cotton Mather or Torquemada and thus demonstrate Christian tolerance.

Other, more subtle, forms of loaded comparisons can be achieved by comparing discrepant times, places, and situations. For example, we can compare a medieval society with a modern one, or a believing society in which religion is profoundly important and religious tolerance is a searching test with a secular society in which religion is of minor interest. Tolerance is easy in matters of indifference; it is much more difficult in those that deeply concern us. A glance at the effective limits on freedom of expression in academic life even in the most advanced present-day democracies will illustrate this point.

Though other disparities have displaced religion as the main source of conflict and therefore of repression in our modern society, the term "tolerance" is still most commonly used to indicate acceptance by a dominant religion of the presence of others. Our present inquiry is limited to one question: How did Islam in power treat other religions? Or, to put it more precisely, how did those who, in different times and places, saw themselves as the upholders of Muslim authority and law, treat their non-Muslim subjects?

Whether this treatment deserves the name of tolerance depends, as already noted, on the definition of terms. If by tolerance we mean the absence of discrimination, there is one answer; if the absence of persecution, quite another. Discrimination was always there, permanent and indeed necessary, inherent in the system and institutionalized in law and practice. Persecution, that is to say, violent and active repression, was rare and atypical. Jews and Christians under Muslim rule were not normally called upon to suffer martyrdom for their faith. They were not often obliged to make the choice, which confronted Muslims and Jews in reconquered Spain, between exile, apostasy, and death. They were not subject to any major territorial or occupational restrictions, such as were the common lot of Jews in premodern Europe. There are some exceptions to these statements, but they do not affect the broad pattern until comparatively modern times and even then only in special areas, periods, and cases.

Islam has often been described as an egalitarian religion, and in many senses it is indeed such. If we look at the changes made by Islam at the time of its advent in seventh century Arabia; still more, if we compare the Muslim world in medieval times with caste in India to the east or with the entrenched aristocratic privilege of Christian Europe to the west, then Islam does indeed appear as an egalitarian religion in an egalitarian society. In principle and in law, it recognizes neither caste nor aristocracy. Human nature being what it is, both tend to obtrude themselves on occasion; but when this happens, it is in spite of Islam and not as part of it, and such departures from equality have repeatedly been condemned by both traditionalists and radicals as non-Islamic or anti-Islamic innovations.

All in all there was far greater social mobility in Islam than was permitted either in Christian Europe or Hindu India. But this equality of status and opportunity was limited in certain important respects. The rank of a full member of society was restricted to free male Muslims. Those who lacked any of these three essential qualifications—that is, the slave, the woman, or the unbeliever—were not equal. The three basic inequalities of master and slave, man and woman, believer and unbeliever, were not merely admitted; they were established and regulated by holy law. All three groups of inferiors were seen as necessary, or at least as useful, and all had their places and functions, even if occasional doubts were expressed about the third. Though there was general agreement on the need for slaves and women, there was at times some question about the need for unbelievers. The common view, however, was that they served a variety of useful purposes, mostly economic.

A major difference between the three is the element of choice. A woman cannot choose to become a man. A slave can be freed, but by the choice of his master, not his own. Both the woman and the slave are thus in a position of involuntary—for the woman also immutable—inferiority. The inferiority of the unbeliever, however, is entirely optional, and he can end it at any time by a simple act of will. By adopting Islam he becomes a member of the dominant community, and his status of legal inferiority is at an end. True, in the earliest Islamic period there was some social differentiation between the Arab Muslims who founded the Empire and the non-Arab converts who appeared among their subjects, and traces of these differences remained in the formulations of the law. But in general, these early distinctions were forgotten, and in most times and places the perceived differences between old Muslims and new converts did not go beyond the bounds of familiar social snobbery. The status of inferiority to which the unbeliever was subject was thus entirely voluntary; from a Muslim point of view it might indeed be described as willful. For the Muslim, Jews and Christians were people who had been offered God's truth in its final and perfect form, of which their own religions were earlier, imperfect, and abrogated forms, and yet had willfully and foolishly rejected it.

Of the three victims of social inferiority, therefore, the unbeliever was the only one who remained inferior by his own choice. He was also the one whose disabilities were on the whole the least onerous of the three. Other things being equal, it was more comfortable to be a free male unbeliever than a woman or a slave in Muslim society. Perhaps for this very reason it was felt to be more necessary with an unbeliever than with a woman or a slave to enforce or at least visibly to symbolize the status of inferiority. Of this more in a moment.

The history of the relations between the Muslim state on the one hand and its non-Muslim subjects and, later, neighbors on the other begins wit the career of the Prophet. The Qur'an and the Muslim tradition tell us about Muhammad's dealings with the Jews of Medina and of the northern Hijaz, with the Christians of Najran in the south and some other Christians in the north, and with the pagans who constituted the majority of the Arabian population. For pagans the choice was clear: Islam or death. For Jews and Christians, possessors of what were recognized as revealed religions, based on authentic though superseded revelations, the choice included a third term: Islam, death, or submission. Submission involved the payment of tribute and the acceptance of Muslim supremacy. Death might be commuted to slavery.

At an early stage in his career as ruler of Medina, the Prophet came into conflict with the three resident Jewish tribes. All three were overcome and, according to the Muslim tradition, two were given the choice between conversion and exile, and the third, the Banu Qurayza, between conversion and death. The bitterness generated by the opposition of the Jewish tribes to Muhammad is reflected in the mostly negative references to Jews in the Qur'an and in the biography and traditions of the Prophet.

A different situation arose with the capture in the year 7 of the Hijra (corresponding to A.D. 629) of the oasis of Khaybar, about ninety-five miles from Medina. This oasis, inhabited by Jews, including some who h ad settled there after being driven out of Medina, was the first territory conquered by the Muslim state and brought under its rule. The Jews of Khaybar capitulated to the Prophet after about a month and a half of hostilities, and were granted terms by which they were allowed to remain in the oasis and to cultivate their lands; but they were to hand over one-half of the produce to the Muslims. This agreement became a locus classicus for later legal discussions of the status of conquered non-Muslim subjects of the Muslim state. Its force as a leading case was not affected by the subsequent expulsion of the Jews of Khaybar in the time of the caliph 'Umar I (634-644).


Excerpted from The Jews of Islam by Bernard Lewis. Copyright © 1984 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Bernard Lewis is the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, a long-term member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and the author of numerous works on the Middle East. Mark R. Cohen is the Khedouri A. Zilkha Professor Emeritus of Jewish Civilization in the Near East at Princeton.

Brief Biography

Princeton, New Jersey
Date of Birth:
May 31, 1916
Place of Birth:
London, England
B.A., University of London, 1936; Diplome des Etudes Semitiques, University of Paris, 1937; Ph.D., University of London,

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