By Ejaz Naqvi
May 9, 2018
Was the Islamic golden age an interfaith
utopia or a prolonged period of subjugation for the Jews and Christians? Why is
this period also called the golden age of Jewish-Muslim relations? The truth is
probably in between the two extremes, as I will explain in a moment. And what
caused the Islamic golden age to fall, and specifically how did the
Jewish-Muslim relationship deteriorate near the end of this golden era?
Some of the best reviews on this topic come
from Mark Cohen, professor of Religion at Princeton University, and a good friend
of mine, Rabbi Reuven Firestone, professor of Medieval Judaism and Islam and
Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. (In the spirit of disclosure, I must
disclose that he has written testimonials for my two books, The Quran: With or
Against the Bible? and The Three Abrahamic Testaments. I consider him an
expert, so the references to his authority are based not just on mutual respect
and friendship but rather his extensive work and expertise in this area).
Mark Cohen in his prologue of the book,
The Golden Age of Jewish-Muslim Relationship: Myth and Reality, starts with a
Jewish perspective of the era.
In the nineteenth century there was nearly
universal consensus that Jews in the Islamic Middle Ages—taking al-Andalus
, or Muslim Spain , as the model—lived in a “Golden Age” of Jewish-Muslim
harmony, an interfaith utopia of tolerance and convivencia. It was thought that
Jews mingled freely and comfortably with Muslims, immersed in Arabic-Islamic
culture, including the language, poetry, philosophy, science, medicine, and the
study of Scripture—a society, furthermore, in which Jews could and many did
ascend to the pinnacles of political power in Muslim government. This idealized
picture went beyond Spain to encompass the entire Muslim world, from Baghdad to
Cordova , and extended over the long centuries, bracketed by the Islamic
conquests at one end and the era of Moses Maimonides (1138–1204) at the other.
The idea stemmed in the first instance from disappointment felt by central
European Jewish historians as Emancipation-era promises of political and
cultural equality remained unfulfilled. They exploited the tolerance they
ascribed to Islam to chastise their Christian neighbours for failing to rise to
the standards set by non-Christian society hundreds of years earlier.
After this introduction, he goes on to
give his own take on the era.
The interfaith utopia was to a certain
extent a myth; it ignored, or left unmentioned, the legal inferiority of the
Jews and periodic outbursts of violence. Yet, when compared to the gloomier
history of Jews in the medieval Ashkenazic world of Northern Europe and late
medieval Spain , and the far more frequent and severe persecution in those
regions, it contained a very large kernel of truth.
One of the criticisms of the Islamic golden
age is that the non Muslims were considered Dhimmi and were subject to an
annual poll tax, or Jizya. Like Jihad, Hijab and Shariah, these two words are
also rather misunderstood. Here is a definition of Dhimmi from Merriam-Webster
..a person living in a region overrun by
Muslim conquest who was accorded a protected status and allowed to retain his
or her original faith.
The truth is that the Jews, even in their
Dhimmi status enjoyed a lot of freedom and prospered in the golden age of
Islam. Professor Rabbi Firestone in his article that is part of the Oxford
Research Encyclopaedias goes on to explain this in more details.
The term used to define the status of
tolerated religions was Dhimma, which meant protection. The people
belonging to tolerated religions were called Ahl Al-Dhimma—“protected
people,” or in shortened form, Dhimmis. Dhimmis were obligated to pay an
annual tax and to abide by the sumptuary laws. Their “protection” meant that
they were legal citizens of the state and protected by the same basic laws that
protected Muslim citizens, though at a subordinate level. For example, they
could bring grievances to a Muslim court of law, but their witnessing was not
as powerful as that of Muslims so they were required to bring twice the number
to court. They could pray undisturbed in their houses of worship, but unlike
Muslims they were forbidden from public displays of religion. Dhimmis were
forbidden from building new houses of worship or repairing those already
established, except with permission of the ruler. Their status, though
certainly not equal and therefore unacceptable by today’s democratic standards,
was nevertheless a significant improvement over their position in the Christian
world where the “Jewry laws” identified Jews as an aberrant community and where
Jews eventually lost their protected status altogether. By the High Middle
Ages, Jews were able to survive in Christendom only through the largess of
noble families who personally protected them but only for as long as the nobility
wished, a far more unstable and dangerous situation than they experienced
generally under Muslim rule.
These rules were based on a pact that is
widely known as the pact of Umer. Historians also go on to state that even
though Jews were not supposed to build new synagogues and be part of the ruling
Caliphate, many Jews worked side by side with their Muslim counterparts in
various areas such as science, art, music, trade and even achieved the stats of
vizier and personal physician of Caliph. The main criteria used to achieve the
high status were whether they were skilled and qualified. Jews also went
through a period of religious reformation of sorts and were free to explore
Jewish theology. In his Oxford University Press article, Professor Rabbi
Firestone goes on to state:
The Jews who lived in the early Muslim
world were also busy consolidating Rabbinic Judaism and its core texts of
Talmud and the legal literature that was just beginning to emerge from it. For
example, two primitive attempts to codify Jewish law from Rabbinic literature
that emerged in the Muslim world in the 8th century are the Sh?iltot
(“Questions”) and the Halakhot Pesuqot (“Law as Decided”). While Jews and
Muslims were interfacing at all levels, we have little concrete information about
it. Certainly, given the Jewish historical penchant for recording disasters
that affected them, if relations were very bad we would know about it, so it
must be presumed that Jews and Muslims lived together reasonably well under the
conditions established in the Muslim world during the early period. …..
The Jews of Islam were profoundly and
enduringly influenced by the development among their Muslim compatriots of “the
sciences of the Qur?an” (?ulum al-qur?an). These include lexicography and
etymology, the study of Arabic grammar (word morphology, syntax, etc.),
rhetoric of the Qur?an and ancient Arabic literatures,……
Jewish thinkers were profoundly influenced
by other popular sciences in the Muslim world, such as philosophy, astronomy,
optics, medicine, and others. In fact, although Jews were exposed to systematic
thinking in philosophy and theology under the Hellenistic influence of late
antique Palestine, it was rejected by Rabbinic Jews and became of interest only
after it had been effectively endorsed by Muslims who engaged with it.
Developments in all of these fields in the Muslim world were paralleled among
Jews in the same environments.
That the Jews and Muslims worked side by
side during the golden age was not a myth. Professor Firestone refers to this
relationship based on a discovery of documents found in a Cairo synagogue.
The documents include public and private
records, personal letters, and much other information not only about Cairo but
about many other Mediterranean lands, and they also contain much information
about Muslims and the relations between the two communities. These include
information about business partnerships between Jews and Muslims such as
silversmiths and glassworkers, who shared partnership in their shops with each
taking off on his own weekly holiday, the Muslims on Friday and Jews on
Al-Andulus, the Muslim Spain was close to
an interfaith utopia, at least in its early and middle parts. Towards the end,
the situation worsened when the fundamentalist Almohads took over in 1148 CE
and abolished the Dhimmi status, forcing many Non Muslims (and Muslims who did
not comply with their extreme brand- sounds familiar?). Those who fled included
famous Jewish theologian and physician, Moses Maimonides. He became personal
physician of the Caliph, and a leader in Jewish thought.
Bernard Lewis also took a jab at the
Generally, the Jewish people were allowed
to practice their religion and live according to the laws and scriptures of
their community. Furthermore, the restrictions to which they were subject were
social and symbolic rather than tangible and practical in character. That is to
say, these regulations served to define the relationship between the two
communities, and not to oppress the Jewish population.
During the golden age, Jews prospered in
many areas, gaining access to the Caliph’s courts and palaces in high
Especially after 912, during the reign of
Abd-ar-Rahman III and his son, Al-Hakam II, the Jews prospered culturally, and
some notable figures held high posts in the Caliphate of Cordoba. Jewish
philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers, poets, and rabbinical scholars
composed highly rich cultural and scientific work. Many devoted themselves to
the study of the sciences and philosophy, composing many of the most valuable
texts of Jewish Philosophy. Jews took part in the overall prosperity of Muslim
Al-Andalus. Jewish economic expansion was unparalleled.
‘Abd al-Rahman’s court physician and
minister was Hasdai ibn Shaprut, the patron of Menahem ben Saruq, Dunash ben
Labrat, and other Jewish scholars and poets. In following centuries, Jewish
thought flourished under famous figures such as Samuel Ha-Nagid, Moses ibn
Ezra, Solomon ibn Gabirol and Judah Halevi. During ‘Abd al-Rahman’s term of
power, the scholar Moses ben Enoch was appointed rabbi of Córdoba, and as a
consequence al-Andalus became the center of Talmudic study, and Córdoba the
meeting-place of Jewish savants.
These views are supported by other Jewish
authorities and societies. Rebecca Weiner on the subject of Judaism: Sephardim
on Jewish Virtual Library confirms the writings of other experts.
The era of Muslim rule in Spain (8th-11th
century) was considered the “Golden Age” for Spanish Jewry. Jewish intellectual
and spiritual life flourished and many Jews served in Spanish courts. Jewish
economic expansion was unparalleled. In Toledo, Jews were involved in
translating Arabic texts to the romance languages, as well as translating Greek
and Hebrew texts into Arabic. Jews also contributed to botany, geography,
medicine, mathematics, poetry and philosophy.
A number of well-known Jewish physicians
practiced during this period, including Hasdai Ibn Shaprut (915-970), who was
the doctor for the Caliph (leader of Spain). Many famous Jewish figures lived
during the Golden Age and contributed to making this a flourishing period for
Jewish thought. These included Samuel Ha-Nagid, Moses ibn Ezra, Solomon ibn
Gabirol Judah Halevi and Moses Maimonides.
It is important to remember that the
Islamic golden age was not limited to one area or even a few generations. It
expanded from Cairo, to Baghdad, to North Africa and the Andalusia (Muslim
Spain with Cordoba at the heart of civilization). It went through ups and downs
in interfaith relations, tolerance and inclusiveness within the golden age,
with Baghdad and Cordoba perhaps the two most shining examples of advances in
knowledge, learning, science and art, as well as interfaith relationships. And
in the 15th to 17th century, Ottoman Empire also attracted many Jews who were
expelled or those who fled from the Spanish peninsula under Christian rule and
As a rule, when the economic and political
situation in the Muslim world was stable, so was the position of its Jews.
Relations between Jews and Muslims improved through business and commerce, and
that positively impacted social relations as well. During periods of
destabilization, however, the general relations between Muslims and Jews
deteriorated, though always with exceptions.
Violence against the Jews and other
minorities did erupt from time to time, most notably after the Almohads took
over in the mid 12th century in Morocco and later Andalusia. Many Jews and
Christians were forced to convert, flee or got killed. Maimonides urged his
followers to superficially convert, as he preferred that over martyrdom. He
himself fled to more tolerant part of the Islamic empire, and settled in Cairo.
So the golden question is: what happened
that brought the fall of the golden age?
The answer is not that simple. Many
articles and books have been written. The Mongol invasion in 1258 was partly
responsible. They burned hundreds of thousands of books and the libraries. The
crusades caused further loss of power. Europe went through renaissance after
the discovery of the new world-America beginning in the 15th century. There
were infightings. The power probably got to their heads. The fundamentalists
Almohads take over in the thirteenth century caused exodus of the Jews and
other minorities as well as Muslims who did not identify with the extreme brand
played a role. Some even blame Imam Al Ghazali, an Asharite, for his views that
allegedly opposed the critical thinking, though there are counter arguments as
I will repeat the questions I posed on my
first article in this series.
The Islamic golden age is long gone. We the
Muslims need to engage in a collective introspection to figure out what made
the past Muslim societies the centre of wisdom and knowledge, and why we are no
longer the top performers. Have we become exclusivists in our societies? Have
we stopped pondering? Have we not misused the Qur’an for our selfish
interpretations to suit our needs and pre-set beliefs? Have we not rendered the
Qur’an a book to stay in the book shelves to bring ‘Barakah’? Have we
stopped learning about the great thought leaders of the yesteryears, and
instead have latched on to the self-proclaimed “religious scholars”? Is
critical thinking part of the discourse and the educational system?
The Qur’an Considers
Jews and Christians, As Well As Pre-Muhammad Prophets, As Muslims