Islam and Judaism

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Islam and Judaism: This article is part of a series on Jewish history and discusses the history of Islam and Judaism, as they have interacted with each other for 1200 years, from the seventh century up until the end of the 19th century. This article focuses on the varied experiences of Jewish communities living in Muslim lands during this period. It is organized by country, however, since many national borders have changed, a single community (such as that of the Jewish community of Cairo) may be covered under different states at different times.

For information on the ethnic groups of Jews that have historically lived in Muslim lands, especially North Africa, Iraq, Iran, and Yemen, please see Sephardi, Mizrahi, and Temani.


Early relationship between Islam and Judaism

The founder of Islam, Muhammad claimed to be heir to the Biblical tradition of prophets. As the next and final prophet of God, Muhammad preached that the pagan Arabs of his time should repent of their ways, and accept the belief in the one God, Allah. The Qur'an states that what Muhammad taught was the same as that written in the Tawrat (Torah), the Zubur, and the Injil (the Christian Gospels). By extension, this would be the same God as that celebrated in the Jewish prayer Shema Yisrael: "Hear, Oh Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One".

Muhammad felt that Jews and Christians must recognize that he was exactly such a prophet as those who had come before; that he fulfilled all the conditions called for in their sacred Scriptures.

Spain (711-1492)

Early Years (711-1112)

In 711 CE Muslim armies invaded and occupied most of the Iberian peninsula, which had until then been under Christian rule. At this time Jews made up about 8% of Spain's population. Under Christian rule , Jews had been subject to frequent and intense persecution, but this was alleviated under Muslim rule. This is widely considered to be the beginning of the Golden Age for Jews in Spain.

The reigns of Abd al-Rahman I (called Al-Nasir; 912-961) and his son were the golden era for the Spanish Jews and Jewish science. Abd al-Rahman's court physician and minister was Hasdai ben Isaac ibn Shaprut, the patron of a number of other Jewish scholars and poets. During his term of power the scholar Moses ben Enoch was appointed rabbi of Cordova, and as a consequence Spain became the center of Talmudic study, and Cordova the meeting-place of Jewish savants. After the downfall of Al-Hakim, who likewise favored the Jews, a struggle for the throne broke out between Sulaiman ibn al-Hakim and Mohammed ibn Hisham. Sulaiman solicited the assistance of Count Sancho of Castile, while Mohammed, through the agency of wealthy Jewish merchants in Cordova, obtained the aid of Count Ramon of Barcelona. For this Sulaiman took fearful revenge upon the Jews, expelling them mercilessly from city and country (1013). With this came the end of the Golden Age of Jews in Spain for many years.

Terrified by the conquests of King Alfonso VI of Castile, Al-Mu'tamid, heedless of the remonstrances of his son, called to his aid the ambitious Yusuf ibn Tashfin of North Africa. In the terrific battle of Zallaḳa (Oct., 1086), Yusuf won a victory and the sovereign power. The Almoravides now became the rulers of southern Spain; they did nothing to improve the welfare of the Jews. Yusuf ibn Tashfin endeavored to force the large and wealthy Jewish community of Lucena to embrace Islam.

Under the reign of his son Ali (1106-43) the position of the Jews was more favorable. Some were appointed "mushawirah" (collectors and custodians of the royal taxes). Others entered the service of the state, holding the title of "vizier" or "nasi"; among these may be mentioned the poet and physician Abu Ayyub Solomon ibn al-Mu'allam of Seville, Abraham ibn Meďr ibn Ḳamnial, Abu Isaac ibn Muhajar, and Solomon ibn Farusal (murdered May 2, 1108). The old communities of Seville, Granada, and Cordova prospered anew.

Under the Almohades (1112-1212)

The power of the Almoravides was of short duration. A North African religious leader, Abdallah ibn Tumart, appeared about 1112 as the upholder of Muhammad's original teachings concerning the unity of God, and became the founder of a new party called the Almohades, or Muzmotas. Upon the death of Abdallah, 'Abd al-Mu'min took the leadership and endeavored with sword and brand to exterminate the Almoravides as political and religious enemies. In North Africa he won victory after victory. In the same year in which the Second Crusade brought new distress to the German Jews, 'Abd al-'Mu'min passed over to southern Spain in order to wrest that country from the Almoravides. He conquered Cordova (1148), Seville, Lucena, Montilla, Aguilar, and Baena, and within a year the whole of Andalusia was in the possession of the Almohades. As in Africa, so in Spain, the Jews were forced to accept the Islamic faith; the conquerors confiscated their property and took their wives and children, many of whom were sold as slaves. The most famous Jewish educational institutions were closed, and beautiful synagogues were destroyed.

The terrible persecutions by the Almohades lasted for ten years. On account of these persecutions many Jews made a pretense of embracing Islam, but a great number fled to Castile, whose tolerant ruler, Alfonso VII, received them with hospitality, especially in Toledo. Others fled to northern Spain and to Provence, in which latter country the Ḳimḥis sought refuge. Various attempts on the part of the Jews to defend themselves against the Almohades were unsuccessful; Abu Ruiz ibn Dahri of Granada especially distinguished himself in such a conflict The part taken by the Jews in the struggle against the Almohades must not be underestimated; the latter's power was broken in the battle of Navas de Toledo on July 16, 1212.

Ottoman Empire (1326-1800)

Jews have lived in Turkey from very early times. Tradition says that there was a colony of them in Thessaly at the time of Alexander the Great; and later they are found scattered throughout the eastern Roman empire. The first Jewish colony in Turkey proper was at Brusa, the original Ottoman capital. According to one tradition, when Sultan Urkhan conquered the city (1326) he drove out its former inhabitants and repeopled it with Jews from Damascus and the Byzantine empire. These Jews received a firman permitting them to build a synagogue; and this edifice still exists, being the oldest in Turkey. The Jews lived in a separate quarter called "Yahudi Mahalessi." Outside of Brusa they were allowed to live in any part of the country; and on payment of the kharaj, the capitation-tax required of all non-Moslem subjects (see below), they might own land and houses in the city or country.


Under Sultan Murad I. (1360-89) the Turks crossed over into Europe, and the Jews of Thrace and Thessaly came under Ottoman dominion. The change was a welcome one to them, as their new Moslem rulers treated them with much more toleration and justice than they had received from the Christian Byzantines. The Jews even asked their cobelievers from Brusa to come over and teach them Turkish, that they might the quicker adapt themselves to the new conditions. The Jewish community of Adrianople began to flourish, and its yeshibah attracted pupils not only from all parts of Turkey, but also from Hungary, Poland, and Russia. The grand rabbi at Adrianople administered all the communities of Rumelia. About fifty years after the conquest of Adrianople a converted Jewish Moslem, Torlak Kiamal by name, took part in an insurrection of dervishes and preached communistic doctrines, for which he was hanged by Sultan Mohammed I. (1413-21).

Sultan Murad II. (1421-51) was favorably inclined toward the Jews; and with his reign began for them a period of prosperity which lasted for two centuries and which is unequaled in their history in any other country. Jews held influential positions at court; they engaged unrestrictedly in trade and commerce; they dressed and lived as they pleased; and they traveled at their pleasure in all parts of the country. Murad II. had a Jewish body-physician, Isḥaḳ Pasha, entitled "ḥakim bashi" (physician-in-chief), to whom the ruler granted a special firman exempting his family and descendants from all taxes. This was the beginning of a long line of Jewish physicians who obtained power and influence at court. The same sultan created also an army corps of non-Moslems called "gharibah" (= "strangers"); and to this Jews also were admitted when they were unable to pay the kharaj.

Murad's successor, Mohammed the Conqueror (1451-81), issued three days after the conquest of Constantinople a proclamation inviting all former inhabitants to return to the city without fear. Jews were allowed to live freely in the new capital as well as in the other cities of the empire. Permission was granted them to build synagogues and schools and to engage in trade and commerce without restrictions of any kind. The sultan invited Jews from the Morea to settle in Constantinople; and he employed Jewish soldiers. His minister of finance ("defter-dar") was a Jewish physician named Ya'ḳub, and his body-physician was also a Jew, Moses Hamon, of Portuguese origin. The latter likewise received a firman from the sultan exempting his family and descendants from taxes.

A great influx of Jews into Turkey, however, occurred during the reign of Mohammed's successor, Bayazid II. (1481-1512), after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal. That ruler recognized the advantage to his country of this accession of wealth and industry, and made the Spanish fugitives welcome, issuing orders to his provincial governors to receive them hospitably. The sultan is said to have exclaimed thus at the Spanish monarch's stupidity: "Ye call Ferdinand a wise king—he who makes his land poor and ours rich!" The Jews supplied a want in the Turkish empire. The Turks were good soldiers, but were unsuccessful as business men; and accordingly they left commercial occupations to other nationalities. They distrusted their Christian subjects, however, on account of their sympathies with foreign powers; hence the Jews, who had no such sympathies, soon became the business agents of the country. Coming as they did from the persecutions of Europe, Muslim Turkey seemed to them a haven of refuge. The poet Samuel Usque compared it to the Red Sea, which the Lord divided for His people, and in the broad waters of which He drowned their troubles. The native Turkish Jews helped their persecuted brethren; and Moses Capsali levied a tax on the community of Constantinople, the proceeds of which were applied toward freeing Spanish prisoners.


The Spanish Jews settled chiefly in Constantinople, Salonica, Adrianople, Nicopolis, Jerusalem, Safed, Damascus, and Egypt, and in Brusa, Tokat, and Amasia in Asia Minor. Smyrna was not settled by them until later. The Jewish population at Jerusalem increased from 70 families in 1488 to 1,500 at the beginning of the sixteenth century. That of Safed increased from 300 to 2,000 families and almost surpassed Jerusalem in importance. Damascus had a Sephardic congregation of 500 families. Constantinople had a Jewish community of 30,000 individuals with forty-four synagogues. Bayazid allowed the Jews to live on the banks of the Golden Horn. Egypt, especially Cairo, received a large number of the exiles, who soon out-numbered the native Jews (see Egypt). The chief center of the Sephardic Jews, however, was Salonica, which became almost a Spanish-Jewish city owing to the fact that the Spanish Jews soon outnumbered their coreligionists of other nationalities and even the original native inhabitants. Spanish became the ruling tongue; and its purity was maintained for about a century.

The Jews introduced various arts and industries into the country. They instructed the Turks in the art of making powder, cannon, and other implements of war, and thus became instruments of destruction directed against their former persecutors. They distinguished themselves also as physicians and were used as interpreters and diplomatic agents. Salim I. (1512-20), the successor of Bayazid II., employed a Jewish physician, Joseph Hamon. This ruler also was kind to the Jews; and after the conquest of Egypt (1517) he appointed Abraham de Castro to the position of master of the mint in that country. Salim changed the administrative system of the Jews in Egypt, and abolished the office of nagid. It is interesting to note that the Turkish Jews were in favor of the conquest of Egypt, whereas the orthodox Moslems opposed it.

Sulaiman the Magnificent (1520-66), like his predecessor Salim I., had a Jewish body-physician, Moses Hamon II., who accompanied his royal master on his campaigns. Turkey at this time was at the high-water mark of its power and influence and was feared and respected by the great powers ofEurope. Its Jews were correspondingly prosperous. They held positions of trust and honor, took part in diplomatic negotiations, and had so much influence at court that foreign Christian ambassadors were frequently compelled to obtain favors through them. Commerce was largely in their hands; and they rivaled Venice in maritime trade. In Constantinople they owned beautiful houses and gardens on the shores of the Bosporus.


The prosperous condition of the Jews in Turkey during this period was not a deep-rooted one. It did not rest on fixed laws or conditions, but depended wholly on the caprice of individual rulers. Furthermore, the standard of civilization throughout Turkey was very low, and the masses were illiterate. In addition there was no unity among the Jews themselves. They had come to Turkey from many lands, bringing with them their own customs and opinions, to which they clung tenaciously, and had founded separate congregations. And with the waning of Turkish power even their superficial prosperity vanished. Ahmad I., who came to the throne in the early years of the seventeenth century, was, it is true, favorably disposedtoward the Jews, having been cured of smallpox by a Jewess (see above); and he imprisoned certain Jesuits for trying to convert them. But under Murad IV. (1623-40) the Jews of Jerusalem were persecuted by an Arab who had purchased the governorship of that city from the governor of the province; and in the time of Ibrahim I. (1640-49) there was a massacre of Ashkenazic Jews who were expecting the Messiah in the year 1648, and who had probably provoked the Moslems by their demonstrations and meetings. The war with Venice in the first year of this sultan's reign interrupted commerce and caused many Jews to remove to Smyrna, where they could carry on their trade undisturbed. In 1660, under Mohammed IV. (1649-1687), Safed was destroyed by the Arabs; and in the same year there was a fire in Constantinople in which the Jews suffered severe loss. Under the same sultan Jews from Frankfort-on-the-Main settled in Constantinople; but the colony did not prosper. It was also during this reign that the pseudo-Messiah Shabbethai Zebi caused such an upheaval in Judaism. It is characteristic of the Turkish attitude toward the Jews, and in striking contrast with the attitude of European powers, that no steps were taken to punish the Jews who took part in the agitation. Shabbethai Ẓebi was one of the few pseudo-Messiahs who have left sects behind them. Eighteenth Century.


The history of the Jews in Turkey in the eighteenth century is principally a very brief chronicle of misfortunes. One name stands out against the dark background—that of Daniel de Fonseca, who was chief court physician and played a certain political rôle. He is mentioned by Voltaire, who speaks of him as an acquaintance whom he esteemed highly. Fonseca was concerned in the negotiations with Charles XII. of Sweden.

In 1702 a law was passed forbidding Jews to wear yellow slippers and ordaining that in future they should wear only black coverings for the feet and head. In 1728 the Jews living near the Baluk Bazar, or fish-market, were obliged to sell their houses to Moslems and to move away so as not to defile the neighboring mosque by their presence. In 1756 one of the most terrible fires that Constantinople has ever experienced broke out in the Jewish quarter and devastated the city; in the following year the sumptuary laws against the Jews were renewed; and in the next year an earthquake destroyed 2,000 Jewish houses in Safed.

Restrictions and Persecution

All the favor shown to individual Jews, however, did not affect the lot of the community as a whole, whose fate depended on the caprice of a despotic ruler. Sultan Murad III., for instance, on one occasion ordered the execution of all the Jews in the empire merely because he was annoyed by the luxury which they displayed in their clothing. It was only after the intervention of Solomon Ashkenazi and other influential Jews with the grand vizier, seconded by the payment of a large sum of money, that the order was changed into a law restricting dress. Thereafter Jews were required to wear a kind of cap instead of a turban, and to refrain from using silk in making their garments.

Persia and Iran (711-1900)

See main article Persian Jews

North Africa


See main article History of the Jews in Tunisia


See main article History of the Jews in Morocco


See main article History of the Jews in Egypt


See main article History of the Jews in Algeria

In Central Asia and the Mongol Khanates

Dar ul-Islam was considered the golden medinah for the Medieval Jew because of the considerable ease to observe kashrut the halacha in a land where halal and the shari'a were maintained, unlike in Christian countries.

The Mongols, being Shamanists, Buddhists, Nestorian Christians and Muslims at different stages of the Mongol domination of Turan, greatly enhanced Jewish status, partly due to the Mongols' strategic interests with commercial ethnic groups like Jews and Armenians. It is conjectured that the Yiddish word for the kippa, "yarmulke", derived from the Turkic work "yarmuk", meaning "rain cover". There are also accounts of special Mongol charters protecting Jews all over the Golden Horde in the events when the Khans' Muslim or Christian subjects directed their hostilities towards the Jews. The Yiddish culture of Eastern Europe in modern times had extensive affinities to the Muslim Tatar cultures of Crimea, Russia, Poland-Lithuania and the North Caucasus. Jewish Kletzmer bands often celebrate the themes of "Bulgarsky", revealing the origin of Kletzmer music in Eurasian Bulgaria (not the Balkans). It is safe to say that the culture of the Eastern European shtetls had the same soul as the Tatar cultures of Russia and Ukraine.

However, in the rather fervently Sunni Mongol khanate of the Timurids and the Uzbeks, heavy Jiziyya was imposed on the Jews of Central Asia, especially Bukhara, which was collected yearly, accompanied by a humiliating slap on the taxpayers' face (Central Asian Muslims also developed this myth scapegoating the existence of Jews in their cities for the devastating onslaughts of Genghis Khan and Timurlenk, casting their Mongol overlords in a noble "scourge of God" mold).

Interplay between Jewish and Muslim Thought

Main article Joint Jewish and Islamic Philosophies

There was a great deal of intellectual cross-fertilization between the Muslim and Jewish rationalist philosophers of the medieval era. See also the articles on Jewish philosophy and Early Muslim philosophy.

Major Thinkers in Jewish and Muslim Philosophy

One of the most important early Jewish philosophers influenced by Islamic philosophy is Saadia Gaon (892-942). His most imporant work is Emunoth ve-Deoth (Book of Beliefs and Opinions). In this work Saadia treats of the questions that interested the Motekallamin so deeply—such as the creation of matter, the unity of God, the divine attributes, the soul, etc. — and he criticizes the philosophers severely. Main article: Saadia Gaon

The twelfth century saw the apotheosis of pure philosophy. This supreme exaltation of philosophy was due, in great measure, to Gazzali (1005-1111) among the Arabs, and to Judah ha-Levi (1140) among the Jews. Since no idea and no literary or philosophical movement ever germinated on Arabian soil without leaving its impress on the Jews, Gazzali found an imitator in the person of Judah ha-Levi. This illustrious poet took upon himself to free religion from the shackles of speculative philosophy, and to this end wrote the "Cuzari," in which he sought to discredit all schools of philosophy alike.

Maimonides, who endeavored to harmonize the philosophy of Aristotle with Judaism; and to this end he composed his immortal work, "Dalalat al-Ḥairin" (Guide of the Perplexed)—known better under its Hebrew title "Moreh Nebukim"—which served for many centuries as the subject of discussion and comment by Jewish thinkers. In this work, Maimonides considers Creation, the Unity of God, the Attributes of God, the Soul, etc., and treats them in accordance with the theories of Aristotle to the extent in which these latter do not conflict with religion. For example, while accepting the teachings of Aristotle upon matter and form, he pronounces against the eternity of matter. Nor does he accept Aristotle's theory that God can have a knowledge of universals only, and not of particulars. If He had no knowledge of particulars, He would be subject to constant change. Maimonides argues: "God perceives future events before they happen, and this perception never fails Him. Therefore there are no new ideas to present themselves to Him. He knows that such and such an individual does not yet exist, but that he will be born at such a time, exist for such a period, and then return into non-existence. When then this individual comes into being, God does not learn any new fact; nothing has happened that He knew not of, for He knew this individual, such as he is now, before his birth" ("Moreh," i. 20). While seeking thus to avoid the troublesome consequences certain Aristotelian theories would entail upon religion, Maimonides could not altogether escape those involved in Aristotle's idea of the unity of souls; and herein he laid himself open to the attacks of the orthodox.

Ibn Roshd (Averroes), the contemporary of Maimonides, closes the philosophical era of the Arabs. The boldness of this great commentator of Aristotle aroused the full fury of the orthodox, who, in their zeal, attacked all philosophers indiscriminately, and had all philosophical writings committed to the flames.

Driven from the Arabian schools, Arabic philosophy found a refuge with the Jews, to whom belongs the honor of having transmitted it to the Christian world. A series of eminent men—such as the Tibbons, Narboni, Gersonides—joined in translating the Arabic philosophical works into Hebrew and commenting upon them. The works of Ibn Roshd especially became the subject of their study, due in great measure to Maimonides, who, in a letter addressed to his pupil Joseph ibn Aknin, spoke in the highest terms of Ibn Roshd's commentary.

Influence on exegesis

The influence which the Arabic intellect exercised over Jewish thought was not confined to philosophy; it left an indelible impress on the field of Biblical exegesis also. Saadia Gaon's commentary on the Bible bears the stamp of the Motazilites; and its author, while not admitting any positive attributes of God, except these of essence, endeavors to interpret Biblical passages in such a way as to rid them of anthropomorphism. The Jewish commentator, Abraham ibn Ezra, explains the Biblical account of Creation and other Scriptural passages in a philosophical sense. Nahmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman), too, and other commentators, show the influence of the philosophical ideas current in their respective epochs. This salutary inspiration, which lasted for five consecutive centuries, yielded to that other influence alone that came from the neglected depths of Jewish and of Neoplatonic mysticism, and which took the name of Kabbalah.

Influences on Worship

The Zohar, a work of Kabbalah, permits travelling Jews, under the circumstance where the number of Jews are insufficient to form a minyan, to pray alongside Muslims in a salaat, provided that Jewish prayers be uttered by the Jews.

Modern History

For information on 20th century interaction between Judaism and Islam, please see the following articles:

See also

External links



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