Jews, Muslims and the Myth of the Interfaith Utopia

According to Professor Mark R. Cohen of Princeton University, mutual resentment between Jews and Muslims is a rather new phenomenon. In this article, he investigates the status of Jewish minorities under both Christian and Muslim rule

photo: dpa
Symbol for peaceful religious coexistance: La Mezquita in Cordoba

​​In the nineteenth century, the experience of medieval Jewry under Islam was portrayed by Jewish historians in idyllic, almost mythic terms and in stark contrast to the sorrowful, oppressive, persecutory history of Jews living in medieval Christendom. The Jews of Arab lands, particularly those in Muslim Spain, were said to have lived in a "Golden Age," even an "interfaith utopia."

This antinomy served the political agenda of nineteenth-century European Jewish intellectuals. Though promised emancipation and full political and cultural integration into society following the French Revolution, they continued to experience discrimination, including exclusion from university teaching positions.

"Myth of an interfaith utopia"

By the second half of the nineteenth century, this prejudice took the new form of racial and political anti-Semitism. The "interfaith utopia" – better, the "myth of an interfaith utopia" – in Spain and under Islam, in general, challenged supposedly enlightened Christians to live up to the promise of emancipation and grant the Jews rights and privileges that were at least as "liberal" as the "tolerant" treatment Jews enjoyed under the rule of medieval Muslims.

photo: Princeton University
Marc R. Cohen

​​This rosy comparison between the "Golden Age" under Islam and the history of persecution under Christendom, sketched against the background of the political agenda of nineteenth century Central European Jewish intellectuals, carried forth into the twentieth century, reinforced by the brutal Nazi persecution of the Jews culminating in the Holocaust. On the other hand, the new Arab-Jewish dispute over Palestine generated a fresh political issue which impacted the historiography of medieval Jewry in the world of Islam.

Opposing sides in the conflict exploited or revised the "myth of the interfaith utopia" with their own political purposes in mind. Arabs, as well as partisans of Arab nationalism, waved the flag of Jewish-Muslim harmony in the past and blamed contemporary Zionism for Arab hostility in the present.

Zionist writers: Arab anti-Semitism as ancient heritage

In response, many Zionist writers replaced the "Golden Age Theory" with what I have called, interchangeably, the "counter-myth of Islamic persecution" or Biographical Data
Mark R. Cohen is Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University (USA) and was Fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg Berlin, 2002-2003. His book, "Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages", has been translated into Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish and German and and will appear in French in 2008.the "neo-lachrymose conception of Jewish-Arab history." The revisionists claimed that Jewish life under Islam, beginning with the time of the Prophet Muhammad (d. 632), was marked by hardship and persecution almost as bitter as the brutalizing ordeal of Jewish life under Christendom.

By implication, Arab anti-Semitism was not a new story, but rather an ancient pathology, not likely to go away even if Israel were to make major political concessions for peace to the emergent Palestinian nation.

The myth of the interfaith utopia stemmed from and at the same time contributed to a sympathetic Jewish view of Islam as a tolerant religion, quite different from the negative attitude toward Islam "exposed" in Edward Said's Orientalism. But constructing Jewish history around the idea of Islamic tolerance fails to take into consideration an important fact. Tolerance, at least as we know it in the West since the time of John Locke, was not considered a virtue in medieval monotheistic societies.

Exclusive by nature, monotheists declare all others (including other monotheists) to be infidels. If medieval Christianity "tolerated" Judaism, that is, permitted Jews to live and practice their religion, it was because Christians believed (especially since the time of St. Augustine, 354-430; see below) that God wished Jews to be preserved as witnesses to Christian triumphalism. If medieval Islam treated Jews better than did Christianity, it was for a variety of reasons.

Jews as "People of the Book" enjoyed legal toleration

Jews (and Christians) in the world of Islam benefited from legal toleration as "protected people" (ahl al-dhimma), a status awarded to the so-called People of the Book (ahl al-kitab), who had received a scripture revealed by God. As one of two, sometimes three or more dhimmi groups (Islam assimilated Persian Zoroastrians and Indian Hindus into the dhimmi category), Jews were not singled out for special consideration

This meant that the natural Islamic (monotheistic) discrimination against infidels was diffused. No special law for the Jews developed in Islam, as it did in Christendom, where by the high Middle Ages Jews were considered "serfs of the royal chamber," the special "property" of monarchs or barons or towns. Sometimes the Church asserted exclusive power over the Jews, invoking an old Patristic doctrine about the "perpetual servitude of the Jews."

Islamic legal prescriptions governing Jewish life were embodied mostly in the so-called "Pact of 'Umar," itself incorporated into the Islamic holy law (the shari'a). As such, these regulations were preserved, with stability, over time, and rarely given to arbitrary deviations. The law of the dhimma included restrictions that originally seem to have been meant more to protect the fragile identity of the minority of conquering Muslims than to oppress the infidel.

Islam as colonial culture

But with the passage of time, certainly by the end of the first Islamic century, these came to be discriminatory in a negative sense. Non-Muslims could not erect new houses of worship nor repair old ones; they had to observe their religious rites indoors and quietly, so as not to insult the superiority of Islam; they could not take Arabic honorific names (Abu 'Imran, for instance); they were required to dress in distinctive garb, notably a belt called the zunnar; they could not own captive slaves designated for Muslims; they had to show loyalty to Muslims; they could not sell pork or alcoholic beverages in Muslim quarters (since these were forbidden in Islam).

In return for observance of these restrictions, and also for payment of an annual poll tax (jizya), dhimmis were granted freedom of religion, protection by the state of their persons and property, and also communal autonomy – the freedom to live according to their ancestral religious laws. Dhimmis were also forbidden from holding public office, but this expressed itself mainly as a restriction directed at their Muslim employers and as the object of complaints poised at complicit Arab rulers who violated the proper hierarchy underlying the dhimma system.

From the earliest period of Islam and throughout most of the Middle Ages, restrictive laws were enforced irregularly and sporadically, with the exception of the poll tax, which brought income into the treasury of the Islamic ruler. Jews and Christians encountered little opposition, for example, constructing new synagogues and churches both in the newly founded Muslim cities and in older settlements which grew with migration.

Moreover, as Islam spread and Jews migrated to far-reaching parts of the empire, they established or enlarged communities and erected new houses of worship without opposition. When questions arose, Islamic jurists generally accepted testimony about the old age of buildings as sufficient excuse to exempt them from destruction or confiscation. Repairs were condoned when they met a juridical requirement that previously existing ("old") materials be employed for the refurbishment.

Jews less affected by Islamic law than Christians

Unlike Christianity, Judaism is not a religion of public spectacle, so Jews were far less affected by that restriction of Islamic law than their Oriental Christian neighbors. An exception was funeral processions, which took Jews outside, and were sometimes vulnerable to Muslim mob attacks.

Jews assumed Arabic honorific names – Abu 'Imran is the name of Moses Maimonides – and, as the Jewish documents from the Cairo Geniza show, dressed like everybody else. Jews held slaves, mainly household domestics, but also as financial agents, and both Jews and Christians continued to hold government posts long after Arabs mastered the art of bureaucracy, and even during the late Middle Ages, when anti-dhimmi sentiment increased.

Jews in the economy of Europe and Islam

Jews in northern Europe occupied mainly niches in the economy that were spurned by Christians. In the early Middle Ages, for instance, they were disproportionately represented in international trade. At a time when most of society was agrarian and sedentary and when Christian disdain for commerce and feudal resentment of urban life still prevailed, Jewish traders carried a stigma.

At the same time, Germanic rulers and other members of the elite encouraged the presence of Jewish long-distance merchants because they brought precious commodities like spices from the East. Kings even offered Jewish traders favorable terms of travel and settlement in order to foster their activities. Later, however, in the Latin West, Jews moved into money-lending, earning Christian hatred (and Church denunciation) and (especially in the North) experiencing mob violence for their preponderance in this despised walk of life.

Kernel of truth behind stereotypes

Recent research by the Israeli historian, Michael Toch, challenging the thesis of Jewish predominance in commerce (and the slave trade) in early medieval Europe, if upheld, will still not overturn the kernel of truth behind the medieval (and modern) stereotype of the Jewish long-distance trader, whether it be based on anti-Jewish prejudice or exaggerated claims about the Jewish role in commerce in the scholarly literature.

Most importantly, from a comparative perspective, this revisionism does not affect the crucial contrast with the Muslim world, where the Jewish economic role supported rather than undermined Jewish security. Attempts by others to find economic causes for Muslim "anti-Semitism" in the Middle Ages have not been convincing.

Jews were well integrated into economic life of society

This is because, unlike their coreligionists in Latin Christendom, the Jews of Islam were well integrated into the economic life of society at large. The relative absence of economic discrimination, especially during the classical centuries, makes a vivid impression, begging explanation.

To begin with, Islamic scripture and traditions (unlike most early Christian writings) favor commercial activity, and this positive attitude carried over into Islamic law as it gradually took shape during the early centuries following the rise of the new religion. The compatibility of Islamic law and theology with profitable economic activity both resulted from and contributed to what S. D. Goitein called "the rise of the Near Eastern bourgeoisie in early Islamic times."

Vast, unified empire with a huge demand for goods

This occurred centuries before its counterpart in Europe. The brisk and enterprising trade of early Islam resulted in large measure from the rapid creation of a vast, unified empire with great resources and a huge demand for goods.

By the ninth century, the Islamic world – innately an urban civilization (only in a town, for instance, can one discharge some of the most basic Islamic religious requirements, like weekly congregational prayer) – was reaping the benefits of flourishing trade and employing sophisticated instruments of credit for converting capital into profit that the medieval West did not acquire until the high Middle Ages.

For the largely urban Jews, the significance of Islam's positive attitude to both urban life and trade cannot be overstated. It gave them, by association, more status and a higher degree of integration than they could achieve in northern Europe, where the prejudice against merchants, and against the towns in which they lived, relegated the urbanized, Jewish trader, already scorned on religious grounds, to the status of an alien, marginal character.

Jews and Arabs could hardly be distinguished from one another

For other important reasons, too, itinerant Jewish merchants in the Islamic orbit were spared the stigma of "otherness" suffered by Jews in Europe. They were indigenous to the Near East – not immigrants, as in the Latin West – and largely indistinguishable physically from their Arab-Muslim neighbors (originally, one of the main reasons behind the dress regulations and other symbols of separation in Islamic dhimmi law).

Furthermore, their geographical movement was part and parcel of a general phenomenon in which Muslim (and Oriental Christian) merchants moved goods and themselves over vast distances in search of financial gain, often in partnership with Jews.

The traversibility of boundaries between Jew and non-Jew in daily economic affairs echoes throughout Jewish sources for our period. The relatively relaxed ambience of interfaith relations in the Islamic marketplace created trust and bonds, which diminished the ever-present religious disdain for Jews as members of an infidel religion.

The place of the Jews in the social order

With the rise of the crusading spirit and the deepening of Christian consciousness and piety in the population at large beginning in the eleventh century, Jews gradually began to lose the benefits of the circumstances that had supported their security and prosperity in the early Middle Ages and came slowly but decisively to be excluded from the hierarchy of the Christian social order.

By the thirteenth century, Christians had come to feel that Jews threatened to enfeeble Christian society. The universalism of the encompassing whole, with its place, however lowly, for the Jews, had by that time, as Jacques Le Goff observes, been tempered by a "Christian particularism, the primitive solidarity of the group and the policy of apartheid with regard to outside groups."

None of the complex models of subdividing Christendom into socio-professional "estates" which increasingly came to characterize the social order from the beginning of the thirteenth century had any place for the Jews. Exclusion was, so-to-speak, the "final solution" for the Jews in medieval Catholicism, and it was carried out in one of three violent ways: forced conversion, massacre, and, most effectively, the expulsion of most of western European Jewry from Christian lands by the end of the fifteenth century.

It is possible to read the Pact of 'Umar as a document imposing exclusion on the dhimmis, since it requires that they distinguish themselves from Muslims by special garb and by certain other behavior.

The Pact to assure Muslims superior rank

In reality, however, the regulations of the Pact were intended not so much to exclude as to reinforce the hierarchical distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims within a single, encompassing social order. Non-Muslims were to remain "in their place," avoiding any act, particularly any religious act, that might challenge the superior rank of Muslims or of Islam.

The dhimmi, however, occupied a definite rank in Islamic society – a low rank, but a rank nevertheless. Marginal though they were, the Jewish (and Christian) dhimmis occupied a recognized, fixed, and safeguarded niche within the hierarchy of the Islamic social order. In Bernard Lewis' words, they held a kind of "citizenship," though as second class citizens to be sure.

Additional explanations for the relatively more favorable position of the Jewish minority in medieval Islam compared to their brethren in medieval northern Christendom emerge when viewing the Jewish-Muslim relationship through the lens of ethnicity.

Ethnic heterogeneity typical of medieval Orient

Historically, ethnic heterogeneity has been much more characteristic of the medieval Orient than the medieval Occident. Arabs, Iranians, Turks, Kurds, Berbers, Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, and others populated the social landscape, composing a "mosaic" that gave society a richly hued human and cultural texture. Further, as noted already, the dhimmi group exhibited heterogeneity within its own ranks, with two (in some places three) nonconforming religions coexisting in the same space.

These anthropological and sociological insights help explain what in the medieval Middle East appears to be a "tolerant" relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims (though, of course, we do not mean "tolerant" in our modern sense). By contrast, it better explains the absence of tolerance and the growth of anti-Jewish violence in medieval Christendom. As of the twelfth century, Europe experienced an exclusivism growing from religious and proto-national homogeneity in medieval Catholicism. This aggravated existing anti-Jewish feeling and begot a mounting level of anti-Jewish violence.

Christendom in northern Europe from this period on lacked the ethnic differentiation which in Islam worked, along with religious, legal, and economic factors, to preserve the Jews' niche in the hierarchy of the social order and to nurture the social, economic, and cultural embeddedness of the Jewish minority in Arab society. These factors kept the Jews from being totally excluded from the Islamic social order, mitigated the perception of them as aliens, and safeguarded them from the type and severity of violence that plagued Jews especially in the northern Christian lands for the better part of the high and later Middle Ages.

Very few acts of Muslim violence against Jews

Not surprisingly, and in stark contrast with their brethren in Christian lands, who constructed their history as a long chain of suffering, the Jews of the Islamic Middle Ages preserved very little collective memory of Muslim acts of violence, let alone anti-Semitism. Only one episode comes in for substantial memorialization. That is the massacres and forced conversions in North Africa and Spain in the twelfth century perpetrated against Jews, Christians and even nonconforming Muslims by the fanatic sect of the Almohads. This was the persecution that forced the Maimonides family into exile from Spain.

Especially following the massacres of Jews in the Rhineland and elsewhere in Europe during the First Crusade, Jews in Ashkenazic lands composed myriads of poems, elegies and chronicles in the wake of persecution and martyrdom, many of which entered the liturgy and are still recited in synagogues today. By contrast, among the thousands of Hebrew poems written during the classical Islamic centuries, the only medieval Hebrew poem bemoaning persecution in an Arab land known to me is a lament on the extirpation of several Jewish communities in North Africa and Spain during the Almohad terror.

Christians acts of violence against Jews in Muslim Spain

The only other examples of Hebrew elegies about persecution written by poets in Muslim Spain refer to acts of violence perpetrated by Christians, not Muslims. In 1066, a Jewish vizier was assassinated in the Berber kingdom of Granada, Spain, and afterwards the entire Jewish community was wiped out by the Muslim mob.

This episode is regularly trotted out to prove the anti-Semitic nature of medieval Islamic society. But it was an exception that proves the rule. Indicatively, two elegies on the death of this vizier by a contemporary Hebrew poet lack the faintest allusion to the fact that he was the victim of anti-Jewish political assassination or to the pogrom that followed.

Was Muslim Spain an interfaith utopia after all?

In the light of the portrayal of Jewish life under medieval Islam undertaken here, why, the reader may ask, not "call a rose a rose," and retain the term "interfaith utopia?" It is not only because the Jews of Islam suffered periodic persecution. In fact, in that respect, they lived with fewer fears and anxieties than their European Jewish brethren, who believed that Christianity wanted to destroy or expel them, or at least severely limit their religious and material freedoms.

It is because the Jews of Islam, even in the classical centuries, the period of greatest security and economic and cultural efflorescence, felt they were living in Exile, in galut. They may have blamed themselves, as Jews have done since Biblical times – understanding galut as God's punishment for their sins. But they felt the agony of exile, and this reality came home anew with each episode of persecution.

Nonetheless, persecutions were few and far between. And the galut of Ishmael, unlike the galut of Edom, the eponymous ancestor of Christianity in the midrash, stopped short of exclusion, which rendered it somewhat more bearable. This is not to say that the Jews of Islam abided oppression or that they accepted it with equanimity. Quite the contrary. But they did not expect to be treated as equals (as nineteenth century German Jews thought they were). They believed that, as long as they adhered to the restrictions imposed upon them by Muslim law, they would be protected.

This conviction was proved true when Jews exceeded the restrictions – violated them – for instance by dressing lavishly or serving in government positions having authority over Muslims, and were punished by Islamic authorities, in effect, for breaking the bilateral agreement known as the Pact of 'Umar.

Paradoxically, however, those sporadic instances of government oppression confirmed the essential stability of the dhimma system, and made Jews less anxious about arbitrary persecution of an irrational nature. And, when all is said and done, this, along with the economic integration that Jews enjoyed in the classical centuries, is what made them open to sharing the culture of their Arab-Muslim neighbors in the most remarkable period of Jewish history from this point of view prior to the European Renaissance.


It is regrettable that today, Islam has adopted many of the traits of European anti-Semitism. The first to make anti-Semitism of the Christian variety popular in the Middle East were actually Christian Arabs in the nineteenth century. Later, this Jew-hatred was Islamized with a thick admixture of passages from Islamic sources unfriendly toward the Jews, but which had had little effect on Islamic treatment on Jews in earlier centuries.

It is doubly regrettable that so-called Islamic "fundamentalism" has chosen as one of its prime targets the State of Israel. In its origins in the eighteenth century, what we today call "Islamism" or "radical Islam" – better terms for the phenomenon of return to the fundamentals of Islam – focused its anger on secular, even seemingly infidel, westernizing Muslim regimes and rulers, not on the Jews.

To Jews, of course, it seems like a carbon copy of traditional, medieval European Jew-hatred. Unfortunately, this has clouded a more balanced understanding of the authentic Islam of the past and of its more indulgent attitude and policy towards the Jews and other non-Muslim minorities.

Islam is not congenitally anti-Semitic

Many Jews, both in Israel and in the Diaspora, now believe that Islam is congenitally anti-Semitic – that Muslims have hated and persecuted the Jews since the time of Muhammad – and that Islam is the eternal enemy of the Jewish people. Many (though not all) of the Jews from Arab lands living in Israel have replaced the memory of Islamic acceptance of Jews and of an era of greater harmony in the past with a vehement, anti-Islamic antipathy of the present.

Efforts throughout the world, whether in the Middle East, Europe, or America, to promote a more balanced understanding of Jewish-Muslim relations in the Middle Ages by bringing Muslims and Jews (including Israelis) together to explore the shared culture of the past, are to be welcomed. Germany can play an important role in this regard, whether it be through programs already in existence, such as those at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin and in other institutions, or in projects yet to come into existence, such as the one recently proposed by Wolf Lepenies and Navid Kermani.

Hopefully, once the conflict between Jews and Arabs has truly ended, it will be possible to visualize the past once again, not, of course, as an interfaith utopia, but as a time when Jews lived an embedded existence in Islamic society, largely free of the anti-Semitic excesses that afflicted their brethren in Christian lands, sharing a creative coexistence with Muslims in so many realms.

© Mark R. Cohen 2003

Unabridged English version of the article published in the German daily, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, October 25, 2003.