Muslim and Jew playing chess in Muslim-controlled Spain

Right after the Muslim-Arab conquest most Jews in the Muslim world were farmers. Over time they became urbanites, many specializing in crafts and trade and living primarily in Jewish quarters in major cities or market towns. The Jews generally prospered during the Umayyad and Abbasid periods and endured the invasions by Turks, Crusaders and Mongols. In the 15th and 16th centuries many Jews kicked out of Spain and Sicily found new homes in the Middle East. Under colonialism, Jews thrived as traders and intermediaries.

Under Muslim rule Jews were designated by Muslim law as “dhimmi” and tolerated and permitted to practice their own religion but liable to pay special taxes, denied political and legal rights granted to Muslims and control by Muslim “patrons,” who subjected Jews to special laws that kept them in a position inferior to Muslims. The fate of the Jews in the Middle East depended largely how they were treated by their Arab and Ottoman overlords.

Because the Jews were prohibited from owning land and feared being robbed and because there were no banks, Jews often engaged in moneylending as a way of disposing their excess cash. Many worked at jobs withing the Jewish community such as religion leaders, butchers and ritual slaughters. Others worked as masons, druggists, doctors and liquor and carpet merchants.

After the Arab-Muslim conquest a number of messianic movements arose in Jewish communities. These movements sometimes led to riots and persecution. Arab-Muslim rule was sometimes quite tolerant and this sometimes led to the sprouting of new sects such as the Karaites.

Websites and Resources: Judaism Judaism101 ; ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; ; Chabad,org ; Religious Tolerance ; BBC - Religion: Judaism ; Encyclopædia Britannica,; Virtual Jewish Library ; Yivo Institute of Jewish Research ;

Jewish History: Jewish History Timeline ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Jewish History Resource Center ; Center for Jewish History ; Jewish ; Holocaust Museum ; Jewish Museum London ; Internet Jewish History Sourcebook ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL)

Pact of Umar: 7th Century Muslim Document Granting Rights to “People of the Book”

This is a report of the agreement made by the Caliph Umar with conquered Christians. Similar toleration was permitted to other "people of the book". After the rapid expansion of the Muslim dominion in the 7th century, Muslims leaders were required to work out a way of dealing with Non-Muslims, who remained in the majority in many areas for centuries. The solution was to develop the notion of the "dhimma", or "protected person". The Dhimmi were required to pay an extra tax, but usually they were unmolested. This compares well with the treatment meted out to non-Christians in Christian Europe. The Pact of Umar is supposed to have been the peace accord offered by the Caliph Umar to the Christians of Syria, a "pact" which formed the patter of later interaction. [Source: Al-Turtushi, Siraj al-Muluk, pp. 229-230, hand out at an Islamic History Class at the University of Edinburgh in 1979, source of translation not given,]

The The Pact of Umar reads: “We heard from 'Abd al-Rahman ibn Ghanam [died 78/697] as follows: When Umar ibn al-Khattab, may God be pleased with him, accorded a peace to the Christians of Syria, we wrote to him as follows: In the name of God, the Merciful and Compassionate. This is a letter to the servant of God Umar [ibn al-Khattab], Commander of the Faithful, from the Christians of such-and-such a city. When you came against us, we asked you for safe-conduct (aman) for ourselves, our descendants, our property, and the people of our community, and we undertook the following obligations toward you:

Umar medallion in Haghia Sophia in Istanbul

“We shall not build, in our cities or in their neighborhood, new monasteries, Churches, convents, or monks' cells, nor shall we repair, by day or by night, such of them as fall in ruins or are situated in the quarters of the Muslims.
We shall keep our gates wide open for passersby and travelers. We shall give board and lodging to all Muslims who pass our way for three days.
We shall not give shelter in our churches or in our dwellings to any spy, nor bide him from the Muslims.
We shall not teach the Qur'an to our children.
We shall not manifest our religion publicly nor convert anyone to it. We shall not prevent any of our kin from entering Islam if they wish it.
We shall show respect toward the Muslims, and we shall rise from our seats when they wish to sit.

“We shall not seek to resemble the Muslims by imitating any of their garments, the qalansuwa, the turban, footwear, or the parting of the hair. We shall not speak as they do, nor shall we adopt their kunyas.
We shall not mount on saddles, nor shall we gird swords nor bear any kind of arms nor carry them on our- persons.
We shall not engrave Arabic inscriptions on our seals.
We shall not sell fermented drinks. Aw We shall clip the fronts of our heads.
We shall always dress in the same way wherever we may be, and we shall bind the zunar round our waists

“We shall not display our crosses or our books in the roads or markets of the Muslims. We shall use only clappers in our churches very softly. We shall not raise our voices when following our dead. We shall not show lights on any of the roads of the Muslims or in their markets. We shall not bury our dead near the Muslims.
We shall not take slaves who have beenallotted to Muslims.
We shall not build houses overtopping the houses of the Muslims. (When I brought the letter to Umar, may God be pleased with him, he added, "We shall not strike a Muslim.")

“We accept these conditions for ourselves and for the people of our community, and in return we receive safe-conduct.
If we in any way violate these undertakings for which we ourselves stand surety, we forfeit our covenant [dhimma], and we become liable to the penalties for contumacy and sedition.
Umar ibn al-Khittab replied: Sign what they ask, but add two clauses and impose them in addition to those which they have undertaken. They are: "They shall not buy anyone made prisoner by the Muslims," and "Whoever strikes a Muslim with deliberate intent shall forfeit the protection of this pact."”

Muslims and Jews in the Middle Ages

Muslims and Jews in the Middle Ages (A.D. 570-1258)
ca. 570-632: Muhammad ("the Prophet" of Islam).
ca. 610: Prophetic call and start of Quranic revelations.
614: Persian invasion, Jews allowed to controll Jerusalem.
617: Persians change policy toward Jews, forbid them from living within three miles of Jerusalem.
622: The hijra (emigration) from Mecca to Medina.
624-627: Muhammad attacks Jewish Arabian tribes for refusing to convert to Islam. Eventually the Southern Arabian tribes are destroyed.
626: While proselytizing Arabia, Muhammad captures the Banu Kurara tribe and forces the group of about 600 to chose between conversion and death. After spending all night praying, all but three or four Banu Kurarans are beheaded.
[Source: Fordham University,]

627-629: Emperor Heraclius breaks his promise of protection to Jews, massacring any he found and forbidding them from entering Jerusalem. Hundreds of Jews were killed and thousands exhiled to Egypt, ending the Jewish towns in the Galilee and Judea. Heraclius' decree remained in effect until the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem.
630: Capitulation of Mecca, rededication of Kaba.
632: The Jewish tribe Kaibar defends itself against Muslim forces, negotiating a settlement in which half of their crops would go to Mohammed in exchange for peace. Other Jewish tribes, including Fadattr, Tedma and Magna reached similar deals.
590-604: Pope Gregory the Great.
ca. 600-1300: Period of the Jewish Rabbinic Geonim.

632-661: Muhammad dies, creating the four "rightly guided caliphs" of Islam.
634: Gaza becomes the first city in Palestine to be captured by Muslims. Many Christians and Jews remained despite the Muslim takeover.
637: Muslim forces capture Caesarea, forcing the city's estimated 100,000 Jews to follow the Pact of Omar, which meant they had to pray quietly, not build new synagogues and not prevent Jews from converting to Islam. The Jews were also forbidden from riding horses and holding judicial or civil posts, and were forced to wear a yellow patch for identification.
638: Caliph Umar conquers Jerusalem and Jews are permitted to return to the city under Islam.
661: Assassination of Ali (last of the four).

661-750: Umayyad Dynasty of Islam in Damascus (Syria).
669, 674: Muslim Attacks on Christian Constantinople.
680: Massacre of Ali's son Husayn and Shiites (Iraq).
685: Muslims extend Jerusalem and rebuild walls and roads.
692: Dome of the Rock built on site of First and Second Temples by Caliph Abd el-Malik.
November 9, 694: The 17th Council of Toledo convenes, passing a wide-ranging array of restrictions on the local Jewish community.
711: Muslim Forces Attack Spain Successfully.
715: Al-Aqsa Mosque built, Jerusalem.
732: Islam repulsed at Tours (France), gateway to Europe.
750: Abbasid caliphate founded.
ca. 760: Karaism founded (Jewish reaction to Rabbinic Judaism).

762: Baghdad founded by Abbasids.
767: Anan Ben David, organizer of the Karaite sect that only believed in the literal Biblical writings and not the Oral law.
742-814: Charlemagne, French Holy Roman Emperor, protected and helped develop Jewish culture in his kingdom, seeing Jews as an asset.
740-1259: Jewish Kingdom of Khazar lasts over 500 years, defending itself from the Muslims, Byzantines and Russians, finally subdued by Mongols under Genghis Khan.
750-1258: Abbasid Dynasty of Islam in Baghdad (Iraq)—the "golden age" of Islamic culture.
?-767: Abu Hanifa (Muslim theologian and jurist in Iraq).
710-795: Malik ibn Anas (jurist, collector of hadiths, Medina).
800: Caliph Harun al-Rashid rules in "1001 Nights" style.
ca. 800-950: Mutazilite rationalism developed and debated.
807: Harun Al Rashid, Caliph of the Abbasids forces Baghdad Jews to wear a yellow badge and Christians to wear a blue badge.
825: Caliph Mamun sponsors translations of Greek learning into Arabic (Arabic science flourishes).
814-840: Charlemagne's son, Louis the Pius, who succeeded his father as king, expanded his father's positive policies towards the Jews, like changing "market day" from Saturday (Shabbat) to Sunday.
855: Ibn Hanbal (jurist, collector of hadiths, Baghdad).

868: Palestine annexed to Egypt.
870, 875: Bukhari and Muslim (collectors of hadiths).
874: Shiite "twelvers" arise.
?-935: Al-Ashari (ex-Mutazilite Muslim scholar).
882-942: Saadia Gaon (Rabbinic Jewish sage).
942: Office of the Exilarch was abolished after seven centuries, primarily because of dissention with the Muslims. David ben-Zaccai held the postion.
922: Execution of Hallaj, radical Persian Muslim mystic/sufi.
ca. 950-1150: “Golden Age” in Spain (Islamic Umayyad dynasty).
969: Founding of Cairo (and soon thereafter Azhar University) by the Islamic Shiite Fatimid dynasty in Egypt.
969: Caliph al-Aziz defeated the Turkish princes at Ramleh, marking the beginning of Fatamid rule over Eretz-Israel.

Byzantine-Arab Wars

972: Al-Azhar University Founded, Cairo.
ca. 1000: Rabbi Gershon of Mainz, Germany, publishes a ban on bigamy. This marks the beginning of Ashkenazi (Franco-German) halachic creativity.
1001: Ibn al-Bawwab produces earliest exist Qur'an copy on paper, Baghdad.
990-1055: Diplomat and poet, as well as vizier to King Habus of Granada and author of a Biblical Hebrew dictionary, Samuel Ibn Nagrela.
1008: Egyptian Caliph Hakkim, who claimed to be divine, pressured all non-Muslims to convert and forced all Jews to wear a "golden calf" around their necks.
1009: Oldest existing text of full Hebrew Bible is written.
1016: Earthquake causes structrual damage on Temple Mount.
1021-1069: Messianic poet and philosopher, Solomon Ibn Gabirol.
1027: Samuel Hanagid becomes vizier of Granada. He is the first of the poets of the Golden Age of Spain, and symbolic of both the political power and literary creativity of Jews in Spain at the time.
1032: Rebel Abul Kamal Tumin conquered Fez and decimated the Jewish community, killing 6,000 Jews.

1066: Final split ("schism") between Latin (Roman) and Greek (Byzantine) Classical Christian Churches: 1053/54 William the Conqueror (Norman) takes England.
1056: Abraham Ibn Daud: On Saumuel Ha-Nagid, Vizier of Granada.
1040-1105: Rashi (Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac; Jewish sage): .
1058-1111: Ghazali (Persian Muslim scholar and mystic): .
1065-1173: Benjamin of Tudela, Jewish traveller and historian, who wrote a famous journal called Sefer Hamassa'ot (Book of Travels).
1070: Rashi, a French-Jewish thinker, completes his commentaries on most parts of the Bible.
1070-1139: Poet and philiospher Moses Ibn Ezra.
1071: Seljuk occupation of Jerusalem.

1099: First Crusade Begins rule in Jerusalem.
1100: The Crusaders seize Gaza from the Fatimid Caliphs, returning it to Christian rule.
1181: Philip expels Jews from France.
1187: Salah al-Din returns Jerusalem to Muslim rule.
1192: Philip expands his kingdom and allows Jews to return, for a fee and under strict conditions.

Muslim Violence against Spanish Jews in the 11th Century

Cairo slave market

On Samuel Ha-Nagid, Vizier of Granada by Abraham ibn Daud includes an account of first Muslim violence against Spanish Jews. This section of the account reads: “Of all the good traits of his father, Joseph lacked but one. He was not humble like his father because he grew up in riches, and he never had to bear the yoke [of poverty and discipline] in his youth. He was proud to his own hurt, and the Berber princes were jealous of him, with the result that on the Sabbath, on the 9th of Tebet in the year 4827 [Saturday, December 30, 1066], he and the Community of Granada were murdered. [About 150 families were killed. This is the first known massacre of Jews in Spain by Moslems.]

All those who had come from distant lands to see his learning and his greatness mourned for him, and the lament for him spread to all lands and to all cities. Since the days of the ancient rabbis - of blessed memory-who wrote the Scroll of Fasts and decreed that the 9th of Tebet should be a fast, the reason for the decree was never known. But from this incident we know that they were directed by the Holy Spirit to fix this day. After his death his books and treasures were scattered and dispersed throughout the world So also were the disciples whom he had raised up. After his death they became the rabbis of Spain and the leaders of the generation.”

Golden Age: The Jews in Spain

The years either side of 1000 CE were the golden age of the Jews in Spain. Co-existing happily with the country’s Islamic rulers the Jews developed a flourishing study of Science, Hebrew literature and the Talmud. Despite an attempt to forcibly convert all Jews to Islam in 1086 CE, this golden age continued. At around this time the first Jews are recorded in Britain. [Source: BBC]

The Sephardic Jews associated with Spain came mostly from Spain (Sephardic is Hebrew for "of Spain") but also came from Portugal and North Africa. They spoke Ladino, a mixture of medieval Spanish and Hebrew. The arrived in Roman times after the were expelled from Jerusalem for rebelling and flourished in the Middle Ages until they were expelled in 1492.

20120504-Jewsih area SegoviaPSAndres_21-4-03.JPG
Jewish area in Segovia, Spain
Muslims and Jews lived together in Muslim Spain in relative harmony. Jews had their own legal system and social services but were relatively powerless. They were required to pay special taxes that Muslims didn't pay, forced to wear identifying clothing and were not allowed to open new synagogues. Jews had a strong sense of alienation and were reminded everyday in numerous ways that they were different. There was also the fear of potent waves of persecution. An anti-Jewish riot in Granada claimed 1,500 Jewish families.

Still Jews managed to prosper as craftsmen and traders. They prospered so much in fact that period between 900 and 1200 in Spain and North Africa is known as the Hebrew "golden age," when Jews inspired in part by their Arab counterparts made advances in astronomy, philosophy, science and poetry.

Yehudah ha-Levi was one of the greatest Spanish Jewish poets. He was born circa 1080 in Toledo, Spain, while it was under Islamic rule. He was a prolific writer of both Arabic and Hebrew poetry. From 1120 to 1140, ha-Levi wrote the famous 5-chapter book known as The Kuzari, which bases its storyline upon the Khazars' conversion to Judaism. [Source: Kevin Alan Brook,]

Politically-Powerful Jew in 11th Century Spain

Mid 20th century Jewish historian Jacob Marcus wrote: One of the most famous of the Jewish notables of Moslem Spain was Samuel Ha―Levi [born 993, died after 1056] , who is also known as Samuel Ha―Nagid. Beginning life as a shopkeeper, Samuel Ha―Levi ultimately became the chief minister at the court of Granada. By virtue of this office he became the political head of the Jews in Granada and probably thus received the title Nagid ("Prince"), his name becoming Samuel Ha―Nagid. He served his community as rabbi and did a great deal to further Jewish learning throughout the world. Samuel was a fine linguist, a scholar, a diplomat, and a distinguished soldier. His reputation in the Middle Ages was based mainly on his excellent poetry, some of which was written even on the battlefield. The following account of his life is taken from Sefer Seder ha-Kabbalah ("The Line of Tradition"), a Hebrew historical work written by Abraham ibn Daud of Toledo in 1161. [Source: Jacob Marcus, The Jew in the Medieval World: A Sourcebook, 315-1791, (New York: JPS, 1938), 297-300, later printed Atheneum, 1969, 1972, 1978,]

On Samuel Ha-Nagid, Vizier of Granada by by Abraham ibn Daud reads. “One of the great disciples of Rabbi Enoch [d. 1014], was Rabbi Samuel Ha―Levi, the Prince, the son of Joseph, who was known as Ibn Nagrela, of the community of Cordova. He was an unusually fine Talmudic scholar and was also well versed in Arabic literature and language. He was of the type that could occupy a high position in the royal palace.

main door at the Cordoba synagogue

“Samuel was a merchant, supporting himself with great difficulty until the devastating days in Spain which followed the fall of the Amirid kingdom when the Berbers secured the power. [The civil war, which began in Spain in 1009, reached its climax in 1012 in the sack of Cordova by the Berbers.] It was then that the land of Cordova began to decline and its inhabitants fled. Some of them ran away to Saragossa, where their descendants are even now; some fled to Toledo and their descendants are known there even to this day.

“This Rabbi Samuel Ha―Levi fled to Malaga. There he had a shop and was a petty merchant. His shop happened to be near the palace of Ibn al―Arif, the vizier of King Habbus [1019―1038], the son of Maksan, the King of the Berbers, in Granada. At the request of a maid servant of the vizier, Samuel used to write letters for her to her master the vizier, Abu al―Kasim ibn al―Arif. This latter saw his letters and was amazed at his wisdom.

“Some time later this vizier, Ibn al―Arif, got permission of his king, Habbus, to return to his home in Malaga. There he asked the people of his house: "Who used to write those letters that came to me from you?" "A certain Jew," they answered, "who comes from the community of Cordova and lives near your palace-he used to write them for us." Immediately the secretary issued a command and they rushed Rabbi Samuel Ha―Levi to him. "It is unbecoming for you to sit in a shop," he said to him. "Stay here with me." He did so and became his secretary and adviser.

“The vizier used to advise the King according to the advice given by Rabbi Samuel Ha―Levi, of blessed memory. All his advice was as though it came from God, and the King Habbus prospered through it very much. After some time the vizier, Ibn al―Arif, became mortally ill, and King Habbus, who came to visit him, said to him: "What shall I do? Who will advise me in the wars which encompass me?" "I have never advised you," he answered him, "out of my own mind, but at the suggestion of this Jew, my secretary. Take care of him, and he will be as a father and a minister to you. Do whatever he advises you, and God will help you." So after the death of the vizier, King Habbus took Rabbi Samuel Ha―Levi and brought him to his palace and he became his vizier and councillor.”

Jewish Scholarship and Politics in 11th Century Spain

20120504-Maimonides house.JPG
Maimonides house
in Cordoba Spain
On Samuel Ha-Nagid, Vizier of Granada by Abraham ibn Daud continues: “In the year 4780 [l020] he was in the palace of the King Habbus. [Samuel was already an important official before 1020.] The king had two sons: the name of the elder was Badis, and the younger, Bulukkin. All the Berber princes favored Bulukkin, the younger son, as the successor, but all the rest of the people favored Badis. The Jews, too, and among them Rabbi Joseph ibn Migas, Rabbi Isaac ben Leon, and Rabbi Nehemiah, who was called Escafa, three Granada notables, favored Bulukkin, but Rabbi Samuel Ha―Levi favored Badis. On the day that King Habbus died, the Berber princes and their distinguished men rose in the morning to crown his son Bulukkin. Bulukkin, however, immediately went and kissed the hand of his elder brother Badis. Thus Badis was crowned in the year 4787 [1027] and the face of his enemies turned black like the bottom of a pot; and against their will they had to crown Badis. [Badis was really crowned in 1038 and died in 1073.] [Source: Jacob Marcus, The Jew in the Medieval World: A Sourcebook, 315-1791, (New York: JPS, 1938), 297-300, later printed Atheneum, 1969, 1972, 1978,]

“After this Bulukkin regretted that he had made his brother king and kept on getting the upper hand over his brother Badis, with the result that King Badis was unable to do a thing, big or small, without his brother's interference. But after this his brother Bulukkin became sick, and the King gave orders to the physician not to cure him. The physician obeyed, and Bulukkin died. Thus was the kingdom established in the hands of Badis. These three distinguished Jews of the city, whom we have mentioned, fled to the land of Seville [then hostile to Granada].

“Rabbi Samuel Ha―Levi was appointed Prince in the year 4787 [1027], and he conferred great benefits on Israel in Spain, in north-eastern and north―central Africa, in the land of Egypt, in Sicily, well as far as the Babylonian academy, and the Holy City, Jerusalem. All the students who lived in those lands benefited by his generosity, for he bought numerous copies of the Holy Scriptures, the Mishnah, and the Talmud-these, too, being holy writings. [Ibn Daud here refutes the Karaites who denied the authority of the Mishnah and the Talmud.]

“To every one-in all the land of Spain and in all the lands that we have mentioned-who wanted to make the study of the Torah his profession, he would give of his money. He had scribes who used to copy Mishnahs and Talmuds, and he would give them as a gift to students, in the academies of Spain or in the lands we have mentioned, who were not able to buy them with their own means. [Printing was not yet invented. Manuscripts were very expensive.] Besides this, he furnished olive oil every year for the lamps of the synagogues in Jerusalem. He spread the knowledge of the Torah [Jewish learning] very widely and died an old man, at a ripe age, after having acquired the four crowns: the crown of the Torah, the crown of high station, the crown of Levitical descent, and what is more than all these, the crown of a good name merited by good deeds. He died in the year 4815 [1055] and his son, Rabbi Joseph Ha―Levi, the Prince, succeeded him. [It is more probable that Samuel died in 1056 or later when Joseph (b. 1035), succeeded him as vizier.]

Jews Under Ottoman Rule

Greek Jewish Rabbi
Under the Ottomans, Jews, Christians and other “protected” minorities were obliged to follow Ottoman law and keep a low profile. They had to pay special taxes and could not build conspicuous places of worship and were required to show deference to Muslims. In return minority communities were given considerable autonomy. For internal matters they were under the authority of religious leaders.

People of different religions and ethnic groups lived peacefully for centuries under the Ottoman rule. The historian Karen Armstrong wrote: “The sultan did not impose uniformity on his subjects nor did he try to force the disparate elements of his empire into one huge party. The government merely enabled the the different groups — Christians, Jews, Arabs, Turks, Berbers, merchants...and trade guilds — to live together peacefully, each making its own contribution, and following its own beliefs and customs. The empire was thus a collection of communities, each which claimed the immediate loyalty of its members.”

Muslim leaders have traditionally tolerated people from other faiths living in their territories. Under Islamic rule and Islamic law, Jews and Christians lived with Muslims in relative harmony, and were allowed to practice their religion and run their own affairs as long as they met certain obligations, namely paying a poll tax, which Muslims did not have to meet. In some places many, Jews had their own legal system and social services and Christians had their own religious authorities. From 1839, the Ottoman government maintained a hierarchy of “chief rabbis.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons, Schnorr von Carolsfeld Bible in Bildern, 1860

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue, King James Version of the Bible,, New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, , Metropolitan Museum of Art “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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