The Forgotten Oppression of Jews under Islam and in the Land of Israel

By Green, Elliott A. | Midstream, September-October 2008 | Go to article overview

The Forgotten Oppression of Jews under Islam and in the Land of Israel


Green, Elliott A., Midstream


Jews and Zionists are generally and deplorably unaware of conditions for Jews in the Land of Israel after the Arab Conquest [634-640 CE]. Many believe that Arab-Muslim rule was benign for the Jews, not merely compared with conditions in Christian lands. Further, many used to believe even a few decades ago that the conflict with the Arabs over the Land of Israel was strictly a matter of competing nationalisms. However, since the relatively unsuccessful first bombing of the World Trade Center in New York in 1993 by jihad fanatics, the informed public in the West has become more aware of the powerful Muslim religious dimension in Arab politics.

This understanding has been reinforced by the Hamas' rise among Palestinian Arabs. Hamas is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Its charter is clearly a Judeophobic document, drawing on medieval Judeophobic Muslim sources. It is not merely anti-Israel. Article 7 of the Hamas charter repeats the medieval Muslim fable about the Jews at the End of Days, which I summarize as follows:

   At Judgement Day, the Muslims will fight the Jews who will
   hide behind rocks and trees. The rocks and trees will cry
   out: O Muslim, a Jew is hiding behind me. Come kill him.

This article aims to sketch the status of non-Muslims--called dhimmis--in Islamic society, trying to define the nature of Muslim tolerance. Then we will cite an account by a medieval Jew of the Jews' condition in medieval Islamic society. We will also give a famous medieval Jew's opinion comparing the Jews' status in Islam with that in Christendom. Lastly, we will show that within the context of dhimmitude, of dhimmi status, which Jews shared with Christians and other non-Muslims, the Jews were, in fact, at the bottom of the social barrel, low man on Arab-Islamic society's totem pole, (to mix metaphors) in Jerusalem as elsewhere.

Books, articles and document collections by Bat Ye'or, Norman Stillman, and others, have done much since the early 1970s to demonstrate the nature of the dhimmi status, the dhimma, for the reading public, and have highlighted the position of the Jews under Islam. In addition, recent decades have seen a broad stream of information about Islam become more available to the general public, although Muslim apologetics have flourished as well, perhaps even more so. Christians, Jews (including Samaritans), and Zoroastrians were subject to the dhimma in Middle Eastern countries, and this status was later extended to Hindus farther east.

Tolerated non-Muslims in lands conquered by Islam--dhimmis--were required to pay tribute, the jizya, either personally or through their religious-ethnic community. The grounds for this in Islamic law are found in the Quran [sum 9:29 (1)]. The jizya can be considered a license to live for another year until the time comes for the next payment. Qur'an 9:29 and 2:61 also require that non-Muslims, specifically Jews and Christians, People of the Book, are to be "brought low," that is, humiliated. Islamic society developed and refined these rules of dhimma over the centuries. These regulations stipulated that dhimmis could not bear arms. Their garments must differ from Muslim garments. They had always to show respect and deference for Muslims, such as dismounting from their donkeys when encountering a Muslim on the road. A dhimmi's testimony in court was worth half of a Muslim's testimony.

This list is incomplete and, of course, the body of rules varied somewhat with time and place. Further, when Muslim states were weak, not all of the rules could be enforced. For instance, dhimmi mountaineers could often ignore many of the humiliations as long as they stayed away from Muslim cities. It is significant that the dhimmis' status tended to worsen over time as their proportion of the population decreased.

Here's an illustration of one of the dhimma humiliations as viewed by the Danish traveler, Carsten Niebuhr (1761-1762):

   In Cairo, no Christian and no Jew can show himself
   mounted on a horse. … 

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