The Life of Jews Under Muslim Rule

Jewish communities have existed across the Middle East and North Africa since Antiquity before the time of the Muslim conquests of the 7th century.

Jews and Christians under Islamic rule were given the status of dhimmi which literally means second-class citizens. The “people of the book” were given some rights and protection. During waves of persecution in Medieval Europe, many Jews found refuge in Muslim lands. For instance, Jews expelled from the Iberian Peninsula were invited to settle in various parts of the Ottoman Empire, where they would often form a prosperous model minority of merchants acting as intermediaries for their Muslim rulers.

In the year 641 AD, Muhammad’s successor the Caliph Umar decreed that Jews and Christians should be removed from all but the southern and eastern fringes of Arabia—a decree based on the uttering of the Prophet: “Let there not be two religions in Arabia”.

What is Dhimmi?

Peoples subjected to Muslim rule usually had a choice between death and conversion, but Jews and Christians, who adhered to the Scriptures, were allowed as dhimmis (protected persons) to practice their faith. This “protection” did little, however, to insure that Jews and Christians were treated well by the Muslims. On the contrary, an integral aspect of the dhimma was that, being an infidel, he had to openly acknowledge the superiority of the true believer–the Muslim.

In the early years of the Islamic conquest, the “tribute” (or jizya), paid as a yearly poll tax, symbolized the subordination of the dhimmi. Later, the inferior status of Jews and Christians was reinforced through a series of regulations that governed the behavior of the dhimmi. Dhimmis, on pain of death, were forbidden to mock or criticize the Koran, Islam or Muhammad, to proselytize among Muslims or to touch a Muslim woman (though a Muslim man could take a non­Muslim as a wife).

Dhimmis were excluded from public office and armed service, and were forbidden to bear arms. They were not allowed to ride horses or camels, to build synagogues or churches taller than mosques, to construct houses higher than those of Muslims or to drink wine in public. They were not allowed to pray or mourn in loud voices-as that might offend the Muslims. The dhimmi had to show public deference toward Muslims-always yielding them the center of the road. The dhimmi was not allowed to give evidence in court against a Muslim, and his oath was unacceptable in an Islamic court. To defend himself, the dhimmi would have to purchase Muslim witnesses at great expense. This left the dhimmi with little legal recourse when harmed by a Muslim.(

Dhimmis were also forced to wear distinctive clothing. In the ninth century, for example, Baghdad’s Caliph al-Mutawakkil designated a yellow badge for Jews, setting a precedent that would be followed centuries later in Nazi Germany.

During the Middle Ages, Jewish people under Muslim rule experienced tolerance and integration. Some historians refer to this time period as the “Golden Age” for the Jews, as more opportunities became available to them. The Muslim rule at times didn’t fully enforce the traditional Dhimmi status of Jews. Author Merlin Swartz referred to this time period as a new era for the Jews, stating that the attitude of tolerance led to Jewish integration into Arab-Islamic society.

Social integration allowed Jews to make great advances in new fields, including mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, chemistry and philology, with some even gaining political power under Islamic rule.

Although Jewish life improved under Islamic rule, an interfaith utopia did not exist. Jews still experienced persecution.

At various times, Jews in Muslim lands were able to live in relative peace and thrive culturally and economically. The position of the Jews was never secure, however, and changes in the political or social climate would often lead to persecution, violence and death. Jews were generally viewed with contempt by their Muslim neighbors; peaceful coexistence between the two groups involved the subordination and degradation of the Jews.

When Jews were perceived as having achieved too comfortable a position in Islamic society, anti-Jewish sentiments would surface, often with devastating results.

Since the 11th century, there have been instances of pogroms against Jews.
On December 30, 1066, Joseph HaNagid, the Jewish vizier of Granada, Spain, was crucified by an Arab mob that proceeded to raze the Jewish quarter of the city and slaughter its 5,000 inhabitants. The riot was incited by Muslim preachers who had angrily objected to what they saw as inordinate Jewish political power.

In North Africa, there were cases of violence against Jews in the Middle Ages, and in other Arab lands including Egypt, Syria and Yemen. Beginning in the 15th century, the Moroccan Jewish population was confined to segregated quarters known as mellahs. In cities, these were surrounded by walls and a fortified gateway. Rural mellahs, however, were separate villages inhabited solely by Jews.


In the mid‑1100s, Led by Abd al‑Mu’min al‑Mohade, scion of a fundamentalist North African Berber dynasty that has traditionally been called the Almohades, a new wave of Islamic warriors swept down from Algeria’s Atlas Mountains. Engulfing the North African littoral popula­tion, the invaders pressed across the Strait of Gibraltar to overrun central and southern Iberia. The Almohads, who had taken control of much of Islamic Iberia by 1172, were far more fundamentalist in outlook than the Almoravides, and they treated the dhimmis harshly.

Decades of brutal Almohade persecution followed—of forced conversions equally of Jews, Christians, and “backsliding” Muslims. Thousands of Andalusian Jews accordingly fled to the Spanish Christian kingdoms of the north. The grim interregnum continued for six decades, until 1212, when an alliance of Christian armies finally destroyed the Almohade minions at Las Navas de Tolosa, and with it Almohade rule in the Iberian Peninsula altogether.

In ensuing years, as local Muslim governments began reviving in Andalusia, large numbers of Jews returned to the south. Once again, Muslim rulers began enforcing the old sumptuary laws  [regulating Jewish dress and life style] and this time with a new rigor. Jews were obliged to wear badges or distinctively colored turbans. Jewish courtiers, physicians, and commu­nal officials faced new vocational restrictions. Jewish families were ex­posed to new refinements of social isolation. Jewish merchants were held responsible for bad harvests or food shortages, and often endured a gaunt­let of insults and petty humiliations in street and marketplace.

Jews and Christians were expelled from Morocco and Islamic Spain. Faced with the choice of either death or conversion, some Jews, such as the family of Maimonides, fled south and east to more tolerant Muslim lands, while others went northward to settle in the growing Christian kingdoms. In 1465, Arab mobs in Fez slaughtered thousands of Jews, leaving only 11 alive. The killings touched off a wave of similar massacres throughout Morocco.

Other mass murders of Jews in Arab lands occurred in Morocco in the 8th century, where whole communities were wiped out by Muslim ruler Idris I; North Africa in the 12th century, where the Almohads either forcibly converted or decimated several communities; Libya in 1785, where Ali Burzi Pasha murdered hundreds of Jews; Algiers, where Jews were massacred in 1805, 1815 and 1830 and Marrakesh, Morocco, where more than 300 hundred Jews were murdered between 1864 and 1880.(

Decrees ordering the destruction of synagogues were enacted in Egypt and Syria (1014, 1293-4, 1301-2), Iraq (854-859, 1344) and Yemen (1676). Despite the Koran’s prohibition, Jews were forced to convert to Islam or face death in Yemen (1165 and 1678), Morocco (1275, 1465 and 1790-92) and Baghdad (1333 and 1344).(

As distinguished Orientalist G.E. von Grunebaum has written:

It would not be difficult to put together the names of a very sizeable number of Jewish subjects or citizens of the Islamic area who have attained to high rank, to power, to great financial influence, to significant and recognized intellectual attainment; and the same could be done for Christians. But it would again not be difficult to compile a lengthy list of persecutions, arbitrary confiscations, attempted forced conversions, or pogroms.(

The situation of Jews in Arab lands reached a low point in the 19th century. Jews in most of North Africa (including Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Morocco) were forced to live in ghettos. In Morocco, which contained the largest Jewish community in the Islamic Diaspora, Jews were made to walk barefoot or wear shoes of straw when outside the ghetto. Even Muslim children participated in the degradation of Jews, by throwing stones at them or harassing them in other ways. The frequency of anti-Jewish violence increased, and many Jews were executed on charges of apostasy. Ritual murder accusations against the Jews became commonplace in the Ottoman Empire.

In 1834, in Safed, Ottoman Syria, local Muslim Arabs carried out a massacre of the Jewish population known as the Safed Plunder.[

In 1840, the Jews of Damascus were falsely accused of having murdered a Christian monk and his Muslim servant and of having used their blood to bake Passover bread. Jewish were tortured two of them died under torture, while a third converted to Islam to save his life. Throughout the 1860s, the Jews of Libya were subjected to punitive taxation. In 1864, around 500 Jews were killed in Marrakech and Fez in Morocco. In 1869, 18 Jews were killed in Tunis, and an Arab mob on Jerba Island looted and burned Jewish homes, stores, and synagogues. In 1875, 20 Jews were killed by a mob in Demnat, Morocco; elsewhere in Morocco, Jews were attacked and killed in the streets in broad daylight. In 1897, synagogues were ransacked and Jews were murdered in Tripolitania.

By the twentieth century, the status of the dhimmi in Muslim lands had not significantly improved. H.E.W. Young, British Vice Consul in Mosul, wrote in 1909:

The attitude of the Muslims toward the Christians and the Jews is that of a master towards slaves, whom he treats with a certain lordly tolerance so long as they keep their place. Any sign of pretension to equality is promptly repressed.(

The danger for Jews became even greater as a showdown approached in the UN over partition in 1947.

More than a thousand Jews were killed in anti-Jewish rioting during the 1940’s in Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Syria and Yemen. This helped trigger the mass exodus of Jews from Arab countries.

Via Jewish Virtual Library

One thought on “The Life of Jews Under Muslim Rule

  1. This would never be allowed to happen again, there is need to fortify the modern state of Israel, make it more secure for the Jewish people. This would also be made open to all Jewish nation across the world. The rising tide of anti-Semitism in the guise of anti Zionism is a pointer that those who hate the Jews would also use any opportunity they have to strke again. God forbid and we must not succumbed to their antics and blackmail.

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