By Mark R. Cohen
The hostile relations between Israel and the Muslim world make one wonder if Jewish-Muslim relations were ever amicable. The idea of a so-called Golden Age, a Jewish-Muslim interfaith utopia in Islamic Spain and elsewhere in the Middle Ages, has rightly been called a myth: it overlooks the inferior legal status of Jews during that time and glosses over episodes of conflict and hardship. But to say that Muslims have always persecuted the Jews, and that anti-Semitism in the Arab-Muslim world today represents a continuation of fourteen centuries of oppression, would be just as wrong--indeed, a counter-myth.
In the pre-modern Muslim world Jews, like all non-Muslims, were second-class subjects, but they enjoyed a considerable amount of toleration, if we understand toleration in the context of the times. They were a "protected people," in Arabic, dhimmis, a status that guaranteed free practice of religion, untrammeled pursuit of livelihood, protection for houses of worship and schools, and recognition of communal institutions--provided that able, adult males paid an annual head-tax, accepted the hegemony of Islam, remained loyal to the regime, and acknowledged the superiority of the Muslims.
There were deficits to being a dhimmi. The head-tax was often collected in a humiliating manner to symbolize the superiority of Islam, and it was burdensome for the poor. Special sartorial rules, originally intended to distinguish the majority non-Muslims from the minority of Muslim conquerors, could spell danger when exploited by hostile Muslims to identify and mistreat them. Protection, moreover, could be rescinded if dhimmis exceeded their humble position. This could happen, for instance, when a dhimmi rose to high office in Muslim government, violating the hierarchy that placed Muslims on top.
On the plus side, Islamic society was a pluralistic mosaic of different religions and ethnic groups and Jews were not the only marginal group. Moreover, as the smallest of the minority groups, Jews were rarely singled out for special attention. In Latin Europe, by contrast, Jews constituted the only non-conforming religion (heretics were considered bad Christians), and accordingly suffered more frequent and severe persecutions.
Jews enjoyed a vibrant cultural exchange with Islam. At its beginnings, Islam drew some of its inspiration from Judaism. Later on, Judaism was creatively enriched by contact with Islam, notably in the fields of law, medicine, science, poetry, and philosophy. Jewish intellectuals, of whom the illustrious Maimonides is but one example out of many, imbibed Arabic and Islamic cultural values and exchanged knowledge with Muslims in friendly, interdenominational settings.
Where we have evidence of everyday life in the Middle Ages, most famously, the first-hand documents discovered in a medieval synagogue in Old Cairo known as the Cairo Geniza, we are able to observe the Jewish population-at-large going about their daily lives, just as deeply embedded in Arab society as the great intellectuals. Apart from the dhimmi tax, they suffered little of the discrimination prescribed by Islamic legal theory. They bore Arabic honorific names (forbidden in Islamic law) dressed any way they liked with impunity. In violation of Islamic prohibition they read the Qur'an (in Hebrew transcription). They owned and enjoyed reading other books from the Arabic literary bookshelf (we have inventories of the books Jews owned). They maintained synagogues that were obviously constructed after the rise of Islam (in contravention of Islamic law). And, with rare exception, their communal institutions functioned without unwanted government interference.
Jews often had recourse to Muslim religious courts to register contracts and litigate business disputes, and even for matters of personal and family status. They received fair treatment before Muslim judges, who honored their testimony under oath (though Islamic legal theory disallowed it). Jews' confidence in the Muslim judicial system continued down to modern times.
Jewish merchants operated freely in the Islamic marketplace, traveling between places as far from each other as Spain and India, enduring no greater risk or danger than the average Muslim trader. They formed bonds of trust and friendship with Muslim colleagues and even established business partnerships with Muslims, circumventing restrictions on mixed partnerships inscribed in Islamic law.
The infamous massacres and forced conversions in North Africa and Spain in the mid-twelfth century by the Muslim Berber dynasty of the Almohads, regularly cited by counter-mythologists as an example of Muslim anti-Semitism, were directed not at Jews, but at dhimmis as a group--including Christians--and even nonconforming Muslims.
Anti-Semitism, understood properly as an irrational belief in the inferiority and even nefariousness of Jews, arose in medieval Europe in the twelfth century in the form of the myth of the diabolical, all-powerful Jew who murders Christian children to reenact the crucifixion and uses the victim's blood for ritual or medicinal purposes. This myth was embellished with racist hatred in modern times (when it first came to be called "anti-Semitism").
Such irrational, anti-Semitic beliefs are not found in classical Islam. They were imported into the Middle East in the nineteenth century on the heels of European colonialism. An early example is the famous blood libel in Damascus in 1840, regularly, though wrongly, cited as proof of homegrown Muslim-Arab anti-Semitism.
Anti-Semitism increased in the Muslim world as Arab nationalism (itself imported from the West) came into conflict with Jewish nationalism. Today, it uses Islamic sources, from the Qur’an and the Hadith, but this is only an "Islamized" version of its western, Christian model, giving the erroneous impression that it is rooted in classical Islam. This, in turn, helps fuel the historical counter-myth of Islam as an intolerant, violent, anti-Jewish religion.
The great French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs wrote that collective memory is fashioned by the social frameworks of human experience. Changing social frameworks, especially the intensification of Arab-Israeli animosity, have caused many Jews to reject the more favorable interpretation of Jewish-Muslim relations and caused many Jews from Arab lands to replace memories of friendships with Muslims with a selective, bitter memory of enmity, exclusion, and persecution. In many ways this is a transplanted version of the bitter memory of Christian Jew-hatred and of the Holocaust that haunts Israelis and diaspora Jews when faced with the prospect of having to trust Muslims. Muslims need to be aware of this; anti-Semitism in an Islamic mode is, simply stated, politically unproductive.
An awareness by both Muslims and Jews that they were not born to hate one another, and that there once was a time when Jews and Muslims actually coexisted in a creative and mutually enriching manner, might promote confidence on both sides of the seemingly unbridgeable gulf.
Mark R. Cohen is an emeritus professor of Jewish history in the Islamic world at Princeton University and contributing editor of A History of Jewish-Muslim Relations.