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

Professor Steve Katz

The Encounter Between Islam and the Jews
Part 2

Professor Steve Katz returned in March to continue his lecture series on Islam.

He began by revisiting a key facet of Muslim society: Moslems recognize three categories of peoples in the world. The first are pagans who cannot be tolerated in a Muslim state. They must be either converted or put to death. The second are “peoples of the book” – those that Mohammed recognized as having a true revelation. These include Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians. These groups and their religions are considered inferior but true and therefore are to be tolerated in a Muslim state. However, they must live in a continual state of subjugation. The third group are Muslims themselves.

Katz passed out maps showing the spread of Muslim society from North Africa to central Asia. Jews lived throughout this vast area except in Saudi Arabia which was forbidden to infidels (as it is today, hence the anger of Osama bin Laden towards America.) Jews had lived in Saudi Arabia up until the use of Islam.

Though Mohammed himself subdued Saudi Arabia, the person who would set the paradigm of a Muslim ruler was Omar 1. With passion and commitment, his armies conquered the Byzantines even though the Byzantine army was greater. They also conquered the Persian empire and Jerusalem.

Any historical ties of the Muslims to the land of Israel go back to Omar, not Mohammed. He conquered the land and made the Pact of Omar with the Jews and Christians of the Holy Land. Initially, the Jews were glad to see the Muslim victory as the Christians, who ruled under the Byzantine Empire, were hostile to the Jewish presence.

With the help of a Jew, Omar, on his arrival in Jerusalem, discovered where the Temple mount was. The Christians were using it as a garbage dump in order to show that the era of the Temple was at an end. Omar cleared the area and started to refer to the city as holy. There is no mention of Jerusalem in the Koran. There is, however, the famous story of Mohammed’s night journey. Muslim tradition says that Mohammed flew from Saudi Arabia to an unnamed location with the help of the angel Gabriel. He landed in one location, then walked over and touched a rock nearby. Omar identified the location as the Temple Mount as he wanted to create a link between Judaism and Christianity and Islam. He built a small mosque on the Temple Mount which was the precursor to the Al Aqsa mosque. During this period, a hagiographical tradition (hagiography = holy biography of Mohammed) was created that connected Mohammed to Jerusalem.

Living under Muslim law was a world changing experience for the Jewish people. At this time, Babylonia, with its thriving academies, was at the center of world Jewry. Here, the Muslims encountered a vital Jewish community. There were also significant Jewish communities in Egypt by this time, although Egypt would become even more important after 969 C.E. As the Muslim armies and empire spread from Alexandria to Tunisia, the Jews, always sensitive to new opportunities, followed. Soon, there were Jews all across North Africa.

Centers of Jewish Life Under Islam:

When the Muslims reached Spain in 711 C.E., they encountered a weakened Visigothic state and were able to conquer it. For the most part, the Jews were happy with this turn of events. Jewish life in Spain under the Christians in this early period was particularly awful. Anti-Jewish legislation was passed here earlier than elsewhere in Europe and much of the anti-Jewish actions that took place later in Europe had forerunners in Spain. When the Muslims came, they knew the Jews had fought the Visigoths and would now prefer to live under Muslim rule. Therefore, the Muslims offered to give space to the Jews in exchange for payment of a special tax. The Jews, seeing the Islamic conquerors as monotheists and preferable to the Christians, accepted the deal. Of course, later, this alliance was to color their relationship with Christian Spain.

With the Pact of Omar setting the conditions, the Jewish population of Spain grew. The Muslims were soldiers and conquerors, they had no skill at administration and bureaucracy. The Jews were already literate and learned. The proscription of Mohammed, that the Jews should not be part of the ruling bureaucracy was ignored. In many places the Jews took over bureaucratic and government functions. In some cities, like Granada, the Jews were in charge. (Granada is known in Muslim life as the Granada of the Jews). Soon Spain had a very significant Jewish community. And from 711 to 900, there was no significant anti-Jewish persecution in Spain by the Muslims.

For a time, there was also a concurrent migration of Jews into other parts of Europe, particularly Southern France under Charlemagne’s successors; yet the bulk of the Jewish population was under Muslim rule. Never before had the Jewish people been in so many places yet united under a single language and religion.

The 800s saw persecution in North Africa and Egypt which caused the Jewish population of Spain to grow still further. The Jews were loyal to the Caliphs and the Omayyid dynasty, but the political life was often unstable. There were always groups that wanted to replace the Caliphate and the Omayyids and take power.

The Spanish situation was complicated by the presence of Franks and Christians. They blunted the initial advance of Muslims in 732 C.E. and completed their reconquest in the fifteenth century. The Omayyids knew they could count on the Jews, which in turn, increased Jewish migration and Jewish cultural activity.

Katz made a distinction between this Spanish Jewish culture and what we think of as Sephardic customs today, based on the culture that eventually grew up in Jewish North Africa. The Spanish Jews of this period saw themselves as a continuation of the very traditional community of Babylonia. They followed the customs of Babylonia rather than the customs of the land of Israel. For example, the custom of adding a second day of observance to holidays because of uncertainty of timing, is a Babylonian custom, in keeping with the idea of building a fence around the Torah. So even though we call the Jews of Spain Sephardim, their culture was more Babylonian than Palestinian.


The largest population was centered in Babylonia. There are estimates of over 2 million Jews in Babylonia and a tradition of over 90,000 Jews appearing on a single occasion. Babylonia was the center of Jewish economic life, wealth, and prosperity. A new capital city, Baghdad, (the name means “God’s Gift) was built in the 8th century and the plan was laid out by a Jewish astronomer. The city became a great center and was the location of the Babylonian Jewish academies.

There were two great Jewish institutions in Babylonia. The first was the exilarchate. This was an office that by tradition was held by someone who was also descended from the House of David. Given the importance of Babylonia, the person who held this office was the leader of the Jews throughout the world.

The second institution was the talmudic academies located at Sura and Pumbedita. These were places where the discussion of the Mishnah continued and the Babylonian Talmud was redacted. This book, the Talmud, becomes the book of Jewish tradition.

There are many records showing how, every week, the Exhilarch would greet the Caliph at his court. In Babylonia, the Gaonic tradition also began. People began to send questions to the Gaonim (the rabbis who led the academies) and various responsa, i.e. replies dealing with matters of Jewish law (halacha) were generated.

The Land of Israel

Meanwhile, in Israel, events took a different turn. Katz pointed out that, until the beginning of the Common Era, Jews lived in the land of Israel and had political leadership like everyone else, for example the Hasmonean kings. When they revolted against Rome (in 66-70 C.E. and again in 132-135 C.E.) they lost their state and the ability to rule themselves.

However, even after 70 C.E. there was still a political leader in the land of Israel called the Patriarch. The most famous Patriarch was Judah ha Nasi, (Judah the Prince) who compiled the Mishnah in Tiberias. The Patriarchate existed until 425 C.E. and the person who held this office was always chosen from the line of King David. In 425 C.E. the Byzantine state ended the Patriarchate.

Syria and Lebanon

In Syria and Lebanon, the Syrian Christians were important. They had kept classical Greek and Latin learning alive and passed it to the Jews. Damascus became a capital of Jewry. It was so important that it had a Jewish leader who was now known as the Nasi and the leader of its rabbinical school was called a Gaon. Damascus would become the center of one of the caliphates.

Other centers included Palmyra near Syria and Lebanon, and Aleppo, which is in Syria. This was an important town for Jews. It had a great synagogue that predated the Muslim arrival. Aleppo is also important in the story of Sabtai Zvi.


The Jews came to Egypt in large numbers. In 969 C.E., Egypt was conquered by the Fatamids. The Fatimids claim to be descended from Mohammed through Fatima. Some of their practices were a little unorthodox. As a result they were suspect by other Muslims. In addition, the Muslims to the East were fearful they’d conquer Syria and Persia. As a result, the Fatimids were looking for allies and found loyalty among the Jews who saw their self interest as connected to the ruling families. Under the Fatamids the great flowering of Muslim culture in Egypt occurred. We still have remnants of this age, the books and documents found in the geniza in the old synagogue of Cairo. The geniza is the storeroom where old books are kept. These date from the 11th and 12th centuries and remained untouched for about a 1000 years. Eventually, an Arab found the documents and, not knowing what they were, began to sell them in the market. Two Christian sisters found them in the Cairo market and took them to Cambridge where they were shown to Solomon Schecter. With the aid of Sir James Frazier, (author of the Golden Bough) Schecter found and bought the documents and took them back for study. This is the greatest repository of Jewish materials from the Middle ages and is the reason why we know more about Egypt than anywhere else. For a couple of hundred years under the Fatimids, Jewish life was relatively good.

By the 12th century, there were a few cases in which important Jewish Egyptian communities ran into anti-Jewish prejudice, usually by people jealous of their affluence and wealth. The most famous incident took place in the beginning of the 11th century under a ruler called Hakkim who was ruthless in his persecution of Egyptian Jews.

North Africa

Using the map, Katz showed how new trading routes, particularly across North Africa, meant new cities would grow and flourish. It was more likely that a Jew who wanted to go from Spain to Babylonia would travel through Kairouan in Tunisia, rather than Europe for example. In Tunisia we find great rabbinic figures of the tenth, eleventh and twelfth centuries.

In Morocco, the Jews encountered the Berbers, the ancient people of the region who had fought both the Christians and the Muslims. They allied themselves for a time with the Jews, then eventually converted to Islam. The Jews were also welcomed by the Caliph of Morocco in the 8th and beginning of the 9th centuries. In Morocco, the key city was Fez, a center of traditional religious life as well as a very beautiful city. The wisdom of the Arab world poured into Fez and it became a cultural centure. The Jews came to Fez especially in the 10th and 11th centuries. As was to be the case again and again under Muslim rule, the period of prosperity was followed by a disaster – there were pogroms in 1042 and 1043 and in the next century as well.

Sub-Saharan Africa

For the most part, the Jews settled in Egypt and North Africa. The Muslim state had a natural border in the Sahara Desert. They pushed to its edges and stopped. We find Jewish links farther south than the Sahara, however, on the shoreline south of Egypt, for example in Ethiopia (traditionally known as Abyssinia) and Sudan. Hailie Selasie, the last emperor of Ethiopia called himself the Lion of Judah and claimed to be the descendent of Solomon and Sheba. The Falashas (Ethiopian Jews) make paintings of Menelich, the son of that union. Alhough the Falasha tradition regarding Solomon and the Queen of Sheba claims to go back to the 10th century BCE, there is little hard evidence that supports this claim, but there is evidence that Jews came down to Ethiopia from Muslim Egypt. They were traders in ivory and spices and the mineral wealth of Africa, such as gold and silver. As the Jews traded in Africa below Egypt they came across tribesmen with whom they lived and settled. While some have argued that the Falashas are a group that only converted to Judaism in the 19th century, there is evidence of groups called Falashas in the 7th century.

In the 9th century, a figure called Eldad the Danite emerged from Ethiopia, claiming that he was Eldad from the tribe of Dan. Dan was one of the tribes supposedly lost in the breakup of the Northern Kingdom in 721 BCE during the Assyrian conquest. The Assyrians had a policy of exporting the leaders of conquered peoples. They shipped some of the Israelite tribes (or its leaders) to the north and left only two around Jerusalem, and supposedly shipped others to Ethiopia and the area near Yemen. Eldad claimed he was from a tribe that still existed, and wrote stories of his travels and his search for the other lost tribes. He fades from view after leaving this record. His writings, however, have been translated into English.

India and China

There have been Jews in India from 700 on, often involved in the spice trade. There is evidence that several of the rajahs gave Jews contracts which allowed them to settle there. We know that Maimonides’ brother was killed in a shipwreck while going to India to trade.

Jews also pushed on to China and were present there for a long time, about a 1000 years. China is one of the places that Jews were never persecuted. In India, there would be persecutions under the Moguls, the Muslim rulers. But in China, there is no evidence of persecution. Jews intermarried with local women and became Chinese in their features. There was a Jewish community in Kaifong and there is a tradition that Chou en Lai came from the Jewish community there. Jews were prominent, but about 1900 the Jewish community disappeared as a distinct community. In this case it was not from persecution. Intermarriage ended the community and it totally assimilated.

There are reports of Jews in Tibet from the 10th century. Katz noted that today young Israelis tend to travel in Nepal after their army service and the world’s biggest seder is held by the Lubavich chasidim every year in Katmandu.


At the same time as the Jews lived in the Muslim regions, a large Jewish population emerged in Khazaria (in today’s Russia). The Khazars were a group of pagans who converted to Judaism in the 9th century. There is famous correspondence between the Khazars and a Spanish Jewish courtier.


In addition to North Africa, the Muslims conquered both Sicily and Sardinia and from about 800-1100 there was a sizable Jewish community in Sicily. There was still a large Jewish community in southern Italy in the Renaissance, the largest outside Rome.

Essential Components of Religious Creativity

There are two frms of Jewish religious and intellectual activity that are important if we are to understand Jewish life in the middle ages.

One is connected with the value placed on Talmudic erudition-the Gemara (Talmud) commentaries and all types of Halachic study. In the forefront were the Babylonian academies, which were akin to thinktanks, or today’s Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies.

The centers were for advanced students and the heads of the academies were the greatest scholars in the world. Their function was to answer questions of Jewish law. Collections of these opinions from the Gaonim were published and became the next great layer of Jewish law built on top of the Talmud.

Alternatively, the culture in Palestine was a culture that gave rise to midrash and religious poetry rather than talmudic commentary.

Jewish Life Under Islam

Muslim life was centered in cities and Jews flourished in cities. They understood the politics of hierarchical societies and how it was important to be in the right position vis a vis the Caliph and imperial houses. While Jews did live as dhimmies and were therefore, by definition, 3rd class citizens, they were protected, but were not protected as equals to Muslims.

Overall, the usual pattern under Islam was that there would be centers where Jews flourished and achieved great accomplishment and unprecedented economic influence. After a short time of accomplishment, however, there was often violence and the need to rebuild.

We see the flourishing of cities such as Damascus, Cairo, Baghdad and Kairouan.
So even though Jews made it to the top of Muslim society in many instances — and, unlike in Europe, they could rise through the bureaucracy — their place was very fragile. Overall, there is a pattern of rise and fall. Certain city states would become violent and the Jews and their influence would have to move to another community.

Jews were particularly appreciated in two roles — that of tax collector and that of physician. In the middle ages, almost every Jew of prominence began their public careers in one of these two roles.

The role of tax collector made sense as Jews were singled out to pay a special tax. This, in fact, often made them economically valuable parts of the social order. The Muslims were wise in that, since the Jews paid most of the taxes, they put Jews in charge of collections. And the role of tax collector always had some kind of benefit financially.

From tax collecting, many Jews went on to various types of businesses. The Geniza records from the Cairo synagogue show that Jews were often silent partners with Muslims in various trading arrangements. The Muslims knew their way around and Jews would put up the money. Also, the Jews were regularly bankers to the Caliphs — a job that usually paid off, but sometimes didn’t. In the 990s, a Jewish banker refused to lend money and there was a pogrom, underscoring once again how the situation was always complicated.

Jews were also drawn to being physicians. Medicine was a field for the educated and Jews were literate. In addition, Jews have a high religious obligation to heal and save people. In the middle ages, Jews became renowned for their medical traditions. For hundreds of years in Italy, for example, the Pope’s physicians (and bankers) were Jews.

Being a court physician meant great prominence. Maimonides was the physician to the vizier of Saladin the Great in Egypt. At that time, physicians made their own compounds and were famous for their pharmacologies and knowledge of natural and other medications. In Granada, there was a young man who made his mark figuring out chemical compounds that would work against poisons. Since this was a world in which snake bites were common and food often went bad, this was an important contribution.

This pattern of prominent Jews with influence at court would later be copied in Europe; with the influence coming through wealth or knowledge of science.

Chasdai ibn Shaprut-the Model of the Courtier

The most famous of the early courtiers, who set the model was named Chasdai ibn Shaprut from Cordoba. He came from a learned family and received a classic Jewish education as well as an Arabic and Latin education from a Christian. He starts out as a physician with different ways of treating poison and becomes known to the wider community. He is invited to be the court physician and the Caliph appoints him the head of the Jewish community. He becomes valuable to the Caliph especially as, given his knowledge of Latin, he is able to deal with the Christians in the north, the Byzantines, the Germans and the Carolingians. He becomes the foreign minister dealing with the German Emperor, Otto 1, and the Italian state of Navarre, and in all of these encounters he advances the interests of Cordoba and the Caliph. He is also a great figure in Jewish life and defends Jews in Italy from persecution. He funds the early stages of Jewish culture in Spain. But as he rises to power, he also creates enemies.

He becomes the model of Jewish leadership — wordly, influential, active in Jewish life. This model comes from Shaprut.

And yet there is a certain pathos to his position. As his fame spreads, he begins to hear from travelers about the Jewish kingdom of the Khazars. He writes to them saying he is a great man in his own country of Spain. I have wealth and influence, he tells them, but if it is true that there is a state where Jews are masters then he would gladly give up his wealth and position to come and settle there.

Jewish Internal Life

The Jews were willing to live under the conditions set by the Muslim states, which made them relatively passive. Moreover, by the time of the Muslim empire, the Jews already had hundreds of years of experience living in exile. In the Jewish world, the rabbis had already provided a way of dealing with the exile. For the Christians there had been no such experience and they found it difficult to live in exile. They had no way of coping with an inferior minority status — they felt that political power represented theological truth.

Within the Jewish world, however, halacha was important and Jewish life had its own rhythm. The culture centered around the portable Torah, which didn’t depend on land or buildings. This was given classic expression by Saadya Gaon who said that, “the Jews are a people by virtue of the Torah.”

Leadership Roles:
Exilarch, Gaon, and Nagid

The model communal organization and leadership was supplied by the Jewish community of Babylonia where two kinds of leadership emerged. The Exilarch, or “head of the exile” was an official agent of the crown. His office was created by the Caliph and predated Islam. The royal family recognized the leader of the Jews as a state functionary, the minister in charge of Jewish affairs. His role was to represent the Court to the Jews and the Jews to the Court and to oversee what the Jews should do as dhimmies. By tradition, the Exhilarch is from the House of David, chosen from candidates by the Caliph. He is also a person who can draw on considerable resources made available by the state. For example, there was a tax on ritual slaughtering, a tax on marriage licenses, and on inheritance. So the Exilarch was in charge of tremendous wealth and affluence.

He was also in a position to make important appointments, for example people loyal to him would be the heads of the academies. He also had the power to choose the Gaonim and other officials and was diplomatically important.

The second great office was the Gaon. “Gaon” today is a term which means genius. But it had to do with leadership. Originally, it meant the head of one of the Babylonian academies, then it spread to others.

The function of the Gaon is best seen in historical context. The Babylonian Talmud was redacted (edited) in Babylonia around 550. After that date it was the responsa of the Gaonim that formed the living tradition of Jewish law (Halacha). That is to say, when Jews went from a Christian Byzantine environment to living among Muslims new questions arose under Muslim law. A key question, for example, was polygamy. By this time the rabbis had established that it was appropriate to be monogamous, but men in Muslim culture had four wives and innumerable concubines. This raised fundamental religious questions yet the Talmud had been closed.

So a brilliant strategy was devised by which questions were sent to the most learned people in the academies. Twice a year, there would be a Kallah, where scholars would get together, the letters would come in, and the Gaon would gather the scholars and put the questions to them. They would answer based on Talmudic principles. For any question the writer was only allowed to write to one Gaon, either the Gaon of Sura or Pumbidita, so different opinions that would put the law in disrepute would not be issued.

Katz noted that in other cultures times are named by dynasties or rulers. We have a period of 400 years called the Gaonic era defined by rabbinic debate in which these scholars defined Jewish life in collections of case law.

The third office important in Jewish life was called the Nagid. This was also a political office. The Nagid was the head of Jewish communities in countries other than Babylonia. Maimonides was offered the title but didn’t take it. His son did, and for about five generations the family headed the Jewish community of Egypt.

Later Presence in Israel

There has always been a Jewish presence in the land of Israel. Despite the lack of industry or infrastructure in Jerusalem, it remained the holy center. The Muslims made it holy as well, although, as Katz noted, they had other places to live. Jews lived in Israel continuously before 1100 C.E..

The most famous institution was the Academy of Tiberias, which ran Jewish life in Israel.

From 969 C.E. on, Jerusalem becomes significant again. This was the year the Fatamids took control of Egypt. They were sympathetic to Jews and saw Christians as their enemies. By tradition, they gave gifts to the Tiberias academy.

While Babylonia excelled in Talmudic scholarship, Israel was the home to other creativity, such as the creation of religious poetry, much of which remains in our High Holiday prayer books.

The Jews of Israel also constantly wrestled with the Bible to produce midrashim.

Finally, it is in Israel that there is the continuation of rabbinic mysticism. This mysticism is developed until about 1100, then another mystical tradition of a very different type, what we now call Kabbalah, enters from north Africa and Spain. There is also a magical tradition. There are references to Israel being the place of merkava and secrets.

So life in Israel was not the same as in Babylonia, but it was halachic.

The land of Israel was also reinforced in this period by a sectarian group that arose in Jewish life. The Karaites were a group that broke from the rabbinic tradition. They said, “we base our practice not on the rabbis, but only on the Bible.” They came to live in the land of Israel and there are still Karaites in Israel today.

Mainstream rabbis did not encourage aliyah. They said “send money” while the Karaites said “send people”.

Court Power is Key

One of the key factors that kept Jews as Jews was a near absolute ban on Jews going to secular courts to settle fights. For example, Spinoza was excommunicated in the 1650s, when he went to a secular court to settle an inheritance. Courts, i.e., recourse to Jewish courts governed by Jewish law, were how Jews defined themselves. When there was a question of marriage, inheritance, ownership, partnership or other matters, the Jewish courts made the decisions for Jews. This made Judaism a real community. All of life was defined in a religious way by the courts which also had the power to annul marriages and carry out divorces. They oversaw religious behavior and could excommunicate people who disagreed with them. They did not, however, have physical power. The couldn’t flog and they did not have capital authority. They could only excommunicate and fine. The heads of the courts also appointed the officials in the community.

Overall, from the death of Mohammed to 1099, when the crusaders conquered Jerusalem, Jewish life is dynamic and interesting under the Muslims. Jews were able to create culture, literature, poetry and mysticism and generally retain their identity in an alien and fundamentally hostile civilization.