Steven T. Katz on The Islamic Jewish Encounter, Part I

Professor Steve Katz lecture from Feb. 22-23, 2002

The Islamic Jewish Encounter

We know something about Christianity. We know very little about the Middle Ages or Islam or the Moguls of India, noted Steve Katz at the beginning of this year’s lecture series on the encounter between Islam and the Jews.

Today, the news colors our perception of the subject, and yet the history has never been written free of polemic. In particular, there was the idea of a “golden age” of Jewish and Muslim co-existence.

Yet this idea came about because when Jews started to write history in the modern world, in Germany, there was an agenda. In Germany, Jews thought they could create a kind of golden age. So it became useful to convey that a golden age was possible. Thus, the “golden age of Spain” became a kind of manufactured memory.

This so called golden age, the time of Maimonides, Yehudah ha Levi and others was a powerful image. It spoke of scholarship, scientific advancement and harmony.

Yet to a large extent, it wasn’t true.

The history of Islam and the Jews begins in the 7th century as Islam spread out from the Arabian peninsula. Eventually the Islamic world stretched from Spain and Morocco in the west, across North Africa and down through India. The Great Mogul Empire of India was Moslem. Jews lived in all these places.

We have to be careful when we say that this or that historical caliph was good to the Jews. Over the years, history has gotten distorted because, through lack of enough source material, history of one place has been applied to another. In truth, however, 7th century Yemen, 16th century Istanbul and 9th century Morocco are not the same place.

Until the 7th Century:
The Basis for a Sympathetic Reception of Islam

As background, Katz recounted that Islam began in the 7th century. Jews were dominant in the land of Israel until 70. After the Bar Kochba revolution, we don’t hear a lot about Jewish politics. In 614 the Persians (from the area that today is Iran and Iraq) conquered Jerusalem and Israel. As the Persians came west, they encountered the Byzantines. The Byzantine empire, centered in Constantinople, went into decline after Justinian and Constantine. This gave the Persians an opening.

The Persians conquered the land of Israel and made an alliance with the Jews. (The Persian Xerxes is equated with Ahasuerus in the Book of Esther). So from 6 to 614 the Jews controlled Jerusalem. Unfortunately, a Persian ruler then turned against the Jews. He made an alliance with the Christians in 617 and threw the Jews out of the city. Thus the stage was set. The Jews were betrayed by the Persians and persecuted by the Byzantine Christians.

So when Islam came into the world in the 620s and 630s, and when the Moslems came to conquer the Holy Land in 637-638, there was a Jewish community that was sympathetic to their cause.

This sympathy had religious as well as political underpinnings. The Jews had been defined by the Church as the other. The Jews in turn viewed Christianity as polytheistic and pagan. With Islam, monotheism was clear from the beginning. It was also true that both the Jews and the Moslems had Christians as their enemy.

(Parenthetically Katz explained that today we view Christians as monotheists, but that was a late development. The Jews redefined Christianity as monotheistic in the middle ages when the center of economic activity were fairs, usually held on holy days. The Jews wanted to participate in trade, but you can’t trade in religious settings with idolaters. So the halacha was changed into a view that Christians didn’t really worship more than one God, but associated something with God in a kind of partnership; a theological development based on economic necessity.)

The Life of Mohammed

Mohammed was born in 570 in what is now Saudi Arabia. He comes from a tribe called the Quraish, which could trace its history back generations in a society where that was valued. Unfortunately, his father died when he was a boy. He was raised by first one senior member of the family, then another. He received the classical education of the day, which was a pagan education. The land of Saudi Arabia then was a center of paganism; Mecca itself was a place of pagan pilgrimage, which Mohammed would take over.

As a young man, Mohammed began to do business in the caravan trade. Saudi Arabia is in the center of trade routes with Egypt and North Africa to the West; and Asia, Afghanistan, and India, the great trading partner, to the east. Saudi Arabia was a place you had to go through to get someplace else.

Even as a young person Mohammed was religiously sensitive. He would go off to meditate for a month at a time, and become involved in baths and other rituals. He found topics of interest at night as the caravans would stop, make camp, and gather round and tell stories. People would talk about their religious beliefs. Among those around the camp were Jews and Christians and Mohammed would have conversations with them. He would hear stories. These sessions fueled his inspiration to create some kind of religious reform among his pagan brothers. Eventually these oral tellings found their way into the Koran, albeit in a somewhat combined and compressed way. For example, he heard the stories of Purim and of Moses. In the Koran, in Sura 28 we hear about the wicked Pharaoh who had an advisor named Hamen who ordered the building of the Tower of Babel.

On the one hand, Mohammed developed a profound respect for Judaism and Christianity. Islam never had the Christian idea that Judaism was a place of death and that Jews were enemies of the Lord. And he wouldn’t have the Jewish idea that Christians were pagans. Instead, Mohammed developed a more progressive view, taking material from both arenas.

Mohammed and Revelation

As a teenager, Mohammed became the caravan manager of a wealthy widow, whom he married. By his 30s, he begins to see visions and hear voices. His wife tells him the visions are authentic and that he has a special spiritual charisma. Slowly, the visions take a more definite shape. He begins to have auditory encounters with the angel Gabriel who comes at night and teaches him truth. It starts with Sura 39 which has the word “recite” in it. The angel begins to teach him the Koran in perfect Arabic. According to tradition, Mohammed couldn’t read or write. That is taken as proof of the Koran’s legitimacy as an illiterate person couldn’t write the Koran without divine assistance.

As the encounters continue, one night, in a night vision, he flies to the farthermost mosque. Although Jerusalem is not mentioned in this story of the “night journey” or “night vision” (the origin of the word “mirage”), later tradition held that he flew to Jerusalem. He flew on his horse from Mecca to Jerusalem, tied his horse to the western wall (the basis for the Islamic claim on the Wall), walked over the Al Aqsa Mosque, then to the Dome of the Rock, to have additional conversations with Gabriel.

As Mohammed began to develop an interest in monotheism, he started to make enemies in Mecca. This was partly an economic enmity. As a place of pagan pilgrimage, Mecca would suffer if paganism was attacked. By 623, Mohammed, now a man in his 40s, leaves Mecca and goes to Medina. This is an important turning point. Medina is 150 miles away, a place with rival tribes and an affluent, influential Jewish community. When he arrives, he is confronted by the divisions and the Jews.

There are various interpretations as to why he goes to Medina. His reputation as a wise man, however, precedes him and he becomes the Judge or Kayyan of Medina .
Unfortunately, the political situation is not secure. In the 620s, there is war and conflict with Mecca. Mohammed becomes the undisputed leader of Medina, leads the battle, is victorious and from there he founds Islam. As the religions founder, everything he does becomes sacred. Mohammed is the perfect man.

He is also the “seal” of the prophets. This means that Islam recognizes that Moses, Jesus and others were prophets. Mohammed, is the “seal” or final prophet. Anything he did became the paragon of Islamic life.

So what did he do?

For one, he said that anyone could be a Muslim. It is not a matter of color, or age, or ethnicity. To be a member, though, you have to be a strict monotheist and have to accept the authority of Mohammed and the Koran.

There are also rules, such as a legal system and requirements for prayer 5 times a day as well as eating restrictions. And there is the claim that the Muslim world is the legitimate heir to Abraham, through the promise to Ishmael.

So we know that Mohammed has relationships with Jews from his youth and that the oral traditions made a positive impression on him. We know this because, when he begins to formulate his teachings, he tells people to pray in the direction of Jerusalem. There is also a day in early Muslim tradition that is similar to Yom Kippur.

Jews Transformed by Encounter with Islam

“I can’t stress enough”, said Katz, “what a transformative experience Islam has been for the Jews. It changed Jewish life economically, politically, and culturally.”

Much of what we think of as Jewish creativity and medieval Jewish philosophy is Arabic in origin. Much Jewish poetry has origins in Arab poetry. Jewish mysticism was deeply influenced by Sufism. Liturgical poetry, the piyut, has roots in Arabic forms. And there was no Hebrew grammar until Jews encountered the Moslem world. The idea that Hebrew is a language of roots and that a root has three letters was an Arabic idea. The first books that tell of this are written in Arabic.

There is no doubt that the Jews were transformed by Arabic culture. There was also a certain naturalness in the relationship. The relationship was different than the relationship to the Church. Relations with the early Church were so bad that Jews gave up things they loved, like Greek. The Jews had produced a monumental literature in Greek, such as that of Philo of Alexandria. But by medieval times, the Jews didn’t know Philo or Greek and Latin was even worse.

Arabic was different. The relationship to Arabic was the same as ours to English. Business contracts, poetry, everything but the most central Halachic issues was in Arabic. The Jews started to think in Arabic and began to use its forms and logic. Even our religious life was influenced.

The Arabs set up caliphates. They paid people to translate the world’s great cultures. They took math and science from the Greeks and created the worlds great depository of learning. They began to work out ways of creating a synthesis between this knowledge and the Koran.

The Jews had the same problem. And they adapted what the Moslems did. All of medieval Jewish philosophy is the effort of reconciling the Bible with Aristotle.

So the encounter with Islam is very consequential.

Urbanization, Commerce, Language

One factor of enormous consequence was that, in the Islamic world, Jews became more involved in cities. In the medieval period, Europeans continued to live on the land. Under Islam, however something dramatic happened that had enormous consequences for the world and for the Jews.

Mohammed came from a trading family. From the beginning, the leadership of the Muslim world were the economic and trading elites. They took a positive view of economic life, unlike the church. This economic life took place in cities. And so, under Islam, Jews became city dwellers and merchants. That transformation is, more than anything else, the result of Islam. Overwhelmingly, Jews stopped being farmers in the Moslem world and became commercial agents.

Islam didn’t push the Jews out. They would be found all over the Muslim world economically. They will work in the dying of clothes, be silver and goldsmiths, physicans, bankers, and merchants. Money didn’t have a stigma under Islam. Jews were capitalists, they were wealthy traders in spices, and they did it in cities. Life went on in cities.

When we think of the medieval Muslim world, there were already great cities. If we think of Christian Europe there were no great cities. Rome was leveled by the Huns in the seventh-ninth centuries. Paris will become a great center later. London doesn’t yet exist and neither does Eastern Europe. But Baghdad is a great city, the greatest in the early middle ages. The Caliphs were there, the fantasies of Ali Baba and other tales of magic and mystery came from there. That is where there was wealth and culture and translation. People came from all over to trade there and Jews became bankers to the court. Damascus and Cairo became great centers as well, as did Kairouan in Tunisia; and Grenada, Cordoba and Seville in Spain. Everywhere the Muslims went, great cities were created. All of these became great centers for the Jews. Adding to this was the fact that the Muslims eventually started to tax farm produce heavily. They also decided only Muslims could live in Saudi Arabia. So the Jews who had been farmers in Saudi Arabia went elsewhere.

The encounter with Islam also changed the Jews linguistically, as Arabic replaced. Aramaic and Greek. It also influenced social customs. Jews started to marry like Muslims and take many wives. 2000 years ago the rabbis had an enlightened attitude toward wife beating. In Muslim culture, however, it is quite common. So we find that Maimonides permits it. His European colleague, on the other hand, says of course not.

Relationship between Mohammed and Jews Became the Model

How Mohammed treated the Jews would become the model of how Jews would be treated in Moslem culture. All of this is well documented. The Arabs discover paper, from India and with paper books can be written; more than can be written on skins or papyrus. With large collections of writings, we can correlate the history with Jewish, Persian and Christian sources. For example, there are Jewish, Christian and Muslim sources on the conquest of Jerusalem; as well as Jewish and Muslim sources on the expulsion of the Jews from Saudi Arabia. Because of these multiple sources, we are fairly clear on dates; although religious hagiography, as it is with Christian, can get murkier.

Mohammed did consider Christianity a true religion, that is a religion revealed by God. His interpretation of Christianity was influenced by the dominant form of Christianity in Saudi Arabia which was the monoficites, from mono-or one God. These Christians believed that Jesus was divine and his human appearance was an illusion. Unlike Catholic doctrine, which said Jesus was both perfect man and perfect God, might have been, this was not as puzzling to him. Later, when the Muslims encounter Catholics in Europe, they were puzzled and more inclined to consider the Catholics idolatrous because of the doctrine of the trinity. For the most part, Mohammed’s concern was in the value of their revelation. There was also involvement with books and being impressed that the Christians had a book.

There are about a hundred references to Moses in the Koran. He is the great figure for Mohammed—Moses as the general became a great influence.

Encounter with Islam Different than with Christianity
Jews Reject Islam-Mohammed Angered by Jews

The relationship of Judaism to Islam was different than the relationship of Islam to Christianity.
The theological conditions of the Jewish Christian relationship are altogether different than the conditions of the Jewish Muslim relationship. Jews did not become metaphysical “others” under Islam as they did under Christianity, forced into shopping at the end of the day because their “touch” would spoil the fruit.

Much of the relationship between Muslims and Jews had to with the life of Mohammed, just as the relationship of Christianity had to do with the life of Jesus. For example, in Christianity, Matthew called for the blood of Christ to be on the hands of the Jews.
In Islam, Mohammed talked to the Jews. At first, they found it interesting that paganism and idolatry should be under attack. In the end—citing ways in which Mohammed was mis-remembering and stating biblical stories, such as by placing Haman at the side of Pharoah– they decided that he was not a true prophet, and rejected Islam. In some cases, they laughed at him.

Doctrine of Falsification

Mohammed did not take kindly to this. He felt he was preaching a message to which they should be sympathetic. He even incorporated dietary rituals. Eventually, this antagonism led Mohammed to a fundamental doctrine that the Jews falsified their own scriptures to make fun of the Koran and to make Mohammed look bad. This leads to a fundamental difficulty; as well as a different “factual” basis of each religion.

Katz remembered a meeting he’d attended in Istanbul. He met a Muslim cleric and the cleric’s parting words were to ask Katz how many books were in the Torah. When Katz said five, the cleric said that was incorrect. They don’t include Deuteronomy. The point, said Katz, is that they think we falsify our own scriptures in order to denigrate the vision of Mohammed.

Mohammed Turns Against Groups of Jews

After Mohammed established himself with some security in Medina he turned back towards Mecca and his enemies. Among those enemies were the Jews of Medinah. According to his view, the Jews who he had protected had not accepted his call, and had been disloyal. This was a consequential moment in the history of Muslim-Jewish relations. Mohammed forced the a group of Jews out of Medinah. By tradition, they went to Syria or Israel. He took their possessions for his war effort.

A year later, in 625, he attacked a separate group in Mecca, accusing them of not lending him money when he needed it and being disloyal. Again, he expropriates their wealth and forces them to leave. They go to an Oasis of Kaibor.

Then comes a decisive moment in the history of Jewish Muslim relations.

Mohammed is attacked by a group of soldiers from Mecca, which has sent soldiers to capture Medinah. There is one Jewish group left, the Quriza. According to Muslim sources, they were neutral, seeing the conflict as between the pagans and the Muslims. But secretly, they entered into discussions with the Meccan forces. They went no farther then talk.

Mohammed wins the war and decides to turn against those who he feels were disloyal. They try to capitulate, but he turns it over to a negotiator who provides a dramatic ruling: all of the men will be slaughtered, the women and children will be sold as slaves, and their possessions will be taken. So in 727 about 900 Jewish men were decapitated and about 1000 Jewish women and children were sold into slavery. This made Mohammed and his followers wealthy.

This was not the end of the story. In a final act in 628, he goes to the Oasis of Kaibor and assaults the Jews who fled there. They ask to negotiate, he takes a group under a white flag, and then turned on the Jews and murdered them. There is a famous saying of Mohammed that war is deception and that there is no honor that requires you to recognize a white flag. Here, too, the women, children, and possessions were taken and divided up.

This is a powerful story, but is little known. It was not told by the Jews who wanted to believe there was a Golden Age or the Muslims who recognized the immorality.

Living with Conditions
Constitution of Medina

Mohammed does something more He creates a deal with the Jews who were in Medinah before, and with the Christians, called the Constitution of Medina. This is the original agreement that Mohammed would allow Jews to continue in their religious beliefs–albeit with certain conditions.

The Jews and Christians would be dhimmies. This is a legal definition. According to the Koran, there are three kinds of people. There are the Muslims, who have an obligation to be faithful; pagans, who are given a choice to convert or be put to death; and an intermediate category that includes the Christians, the Jews and the Zoroastrians. These are people who have a true revelation—for the Jews the Torah, for the Christians, the New Testament; for the Zoroastrians, their teachings. Mohammed said these are true religions, that is, God truly revealed himself in these cases. So according to Mohammed, these people did not need to be forced to become Muslims.

But since these dhimmies are not part of Islam, they have to be aware that they are there under suffrage. They have to pay a special tax, called the jizya. Originally this was a percentage of agricultural produce, then a special monetary amount of 1 golden dinar. In the larger scope of things, this establishes Jews as tribute bearers, subject not only to the jizya but other taxes as well.

The Koranic verse that establishes this goes on to say that Muslims should fight the people of the book until they recognize their subordination, pay the tax and have been humbled. In other words, the relationship in the public space has to remind Jews that they are inferior and are under the protection of the Muslims.

Nonetheless, the constitution of Medinah is the fundamental legal document between the Jews and the Muslims. And the Jews are protected until they do something that causes offense.

So the situation is a kind of double edged sword. One, the Jews have a right to be Jews. They don’t have to be the subject of proselytizing. The payment of tax meant they had bought protection. It was a workable arrangement with something for each side. A probably unintended result was that the Caliphs actually preferred that the Jews stayed Jewish. They had a lot of subjects, but never enough taxpapers. As long as the Jews were Jewish, they would pay the tax. The other side of the sword had to do with the fact that it was not enough to pay the tax—Jews had to be humiliated as well

There was a similar occurrence under Christianity. When the Temple was destroyed in 70, the Romans instituted the Fiscus (tax) Judaicus. In other words, the money the Jews had sent to the Temple would now be sent to Rome. This was not onerous, but it was a symbol of subjugation and, again, the beginning of the Jews as special taxpayers. It happened in Rome and in Byzantium.

The Muslim Empire

Mohammed died in 632 or 633. His death was followed by a war in Arabia called the War of Apostasy. There was a group that did not want to be Muslim. They wanted to retain their pagan beliefs, but they were defeated and the first great Muslim general, Omar, was elected.

Omar set out on an extraordinary effort of conquest, including Persia then Israel in 637-638. By tradition it is Omar who discovered the site of Al Aqsa. It is where he first built a mosque. The Dome of the Rock is called the Mosque of Omar. It was Omar who created the idea that this was the place to which Mohammed flew.

Between Omar and his successors, Morocco and Egypt were conquered, then Spain—and in the other direction Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and India. The Great Moghul empire in India, which built monuments like the Taj Mahal, was Moslem.

The Pact of Omar

The legal status of dhimmies was laid out in an agreement with Omar, called the Pact of Omar, which set out the conditions between Muslims and Christians and Jews. It picks up where Mohammed’s original legislation leaves off and sets the conditions for Jewish Muslim relations for the next 1400 years, up to and including today. It included these conditions:

1—Jews and Christians are not allowed to build new houses of worship. Synagogues that exist can continue to exist, but new ones can’t be built and old ones can’t be repaired. How this practice was carried out varied over the years. We do find new synagogues in cities where Jews had never lived before. In other places, if they tried to repair a synagogue it was knocked down entirely. In some places, it was dealt with with bribery. It was always a source of contention.

2—Jews and Christians could not have public displays of religion. This affected Jews more than Christians. For example, during funerals, the funeral has to travel from the home of the deceased to the burial ground. This caused many problems and raised halachic issues; for example, should the funerals be held at night?

3—Jews and Christians were not allowed to seek converts. This was a capital crime. And if someone converted, that was a capital crime as well. You also couldn’t stop someone else from converting. There were few converts from Jews to Islam. There were more converts in the Christian community. For example, in North Africa, the Muslims arrive and the Christians for some reason break ranks and convert in large numbers.

The Jews just said, this is more exile. It didn’t force any change. And the rabbinic culture, which was deep by then, was the bulwark against conversion.

4—Jews had to debase themselves. They had to stand in the presence of Muslims and couldn’t ride horses. In a letter from Maimonides describing his day, we hear about how he rides a donkey. He could not have a regular saddle.

5–Jews could not take any titles. They could not use ben or abu in a name.

6—Jews and Christians could not build a house taller than the Muslim houses.

7—Jews had to dress differently. For the most part, this meant yellow or honey colored clothing. Islam was the first to force Jews to wear special clothes. Later, this was picked up in Christianity.

8–There were restrictions on Jews and Christians owning slaves.

9—Jews could not hold public office. Here, too, in many cases, this was not observed.

As a result of these restrictions, Jews would be protected; members of a larger community with certain protected rights. In return, there was a lower class status, a status of subjugation. As Katz notes, however, we can’t just look at legal and political documents, we have to look beneath to the social relationships. The reality was more oppressive than it appears.

For example, we have records, some by Christian authors, that Jews would come to pay the tax and have to debase themselves before the tax collector. Then the tax collector would hit the Jew three times on the face or neck, for no reason other than the idea of being debased. In addition, there was awareness throughout the Muslim world, that the pact of Medinah could be revoked.

Jews Followed the Muslim Armies
90% of World Jewry in Muslim World

From the beginning of the expansion of Islam, from the 7th to the 12th centuries, the Jews followed the Muslim armies. For the first time in the world, all the Jews except in Christian Europe, were connected in a common empire with a common language, from Spain to the East.

In the middle ages, until the first crusade, about 90% of the Jews in the world lived under Muslim control. They followed the Muslim armies across northern Africa and major Jewish settlements grew up wherever they went. This may seem strange today as we so associate Jewish life with Christian life, but only a small percentage lived in Christian Europe. This remained true until the modern period. It is also true that under the Moslems, the Jews were not persecuted. Indeed, the Jewish population grew. We were able to go back to Jerusalem, which the Christians had expelled us from in 617. And no place, other then Saudi Arabia, was out of bounds.

When the Muslims conquered Spain, the Jews were happy to help them. The Visigoths and Spanish Catholics were merciless to the Jews. The Jews were delighted to have Muslim hegemony over the Iberian peninsula.

In addition, this became a time when Jews were interconnected. There was international trade, in which Jews participated; that ws enabled by the Islamic conquests. Just as under Alexander or in the Golden Age of Augustus, there was security and protection from brigands, pirates and murderers. The Muslims also built roads like the Romans and secured shipping, like the Greeks.

This stability allowed the growth of capital and economic markets. Jews became wealthy in a number of places, including Spain. The Alhambra, in Grenada, was built by Shmuel Hanagid, a wealthy Jew. There is a place for a mezuza on the door and a poem from Solomon.

And yet, the well being was not permanent and, from time to time, Muslims would turn on the Jews. When Hanagid’s son, Josef Ha Nasi succeeded him, he was murdered under a pogrum and in 1166 the Jews had to go elsewhere.

Jewish Internal Life Allowed to Thrive

Despite setbacks, for the most part the internal life of the Jewish community was permitted. Jews were allowed their own internal government, their own education, their own religious calendar, rights of burial and other internal elements of Jewish life. This was, perhaps, the defining condition of Jewish survival in the medieval world.

This was symbolized by a series of Jewish leadership roles.

First of all, beginning in the early Caliphate, centered in Baghdad (Iraq), the Jews were allowed to have an Exilarch, or head of the exile, called the Rosh Galuta. He was the head of world Jewry and it ws he who maintained connection between Jews and the political elites. He was a man of power, prestige and and wealth. And the institution gav Jews some possibility of controlling their own destiny.

The Exilarch appointed gaonim. The word in this case is not known to mean genius, as we refer to the Vilna Gaon; instead the original term was associated with a political, religious office.

In ancient Persia, there were two very famous, ancient academies, famous from pre-Muslim times. These were the academies of Sura and Pumbedita, where the Talmud was redacted. Jewish life is now centered in these academies and the Gaonim were at their heads. When the Talmudic period is defined, we usually say it ended about the 6th century in Babylonia, and earlier in Jerusalem. However, Jews continued to have a religious life and new issues, for example issues between Jews and Muslims or about intermarriage and economic partnerships, continued to occur. Questions were submitted to the heads of academies and they would debate those issues. The head of the academy would write the opinion and send it back. A new literature, the responsa, was born of this. The most famous of the Gaonim was Sadya Gaon, originally from Egypt; who came to head the academy in Iraq.

In addition, communities had local authorities. There was an office called a Nagid (sometimes translated chief or prince). For example, we hear of Shumel Hanagid in Spain. Maimonides was a Nagid in Egypt. There were also local rabbis.

So the Muslims allowed Jews internal authority and allowed us to proceed with our internal life, even if it was within a form that was humiliated.

With these arrangements, the Jewish community was able to grow and spread and create remarkable things.