Martin Gilbert book cover.
(photo credit: Book cover)
Martin Gilbert’s In Ishmael’s House is a good corrective to all the ink that has
been spilled to fabricate and deny history relating to the supposed coexistence
between Jews and Muslims under Muslim rule. British-born Gilbert, a biographer
of Winston Churchill and prolific writer on the Jews and the Holocaust, has only
rarely directed his lens on the Jews who lived under Islam.
has generally been left to Jewish Orientalists who, in the second half of the
19th and first half of the 20th century, wrote about the wondrous tolerance that
Islam showed Jews in contrast to the brutality meted out to them in Russia and
Europe.Since the 1980s the subject has been taken over by Western
apologists and Islamophiles at Middle East studies departments who have
fabricated a “golden age” of Jewish life under Islam where coexistence was said
to have been the norm.
The truth, although Gilbert does not say as much,
is that Jewish life under Islam resembled the life of African-Americans in the
American South before civil rights – a tolerated minority, politically
discriminated against, often oppressed, from time to time lynched and usually
humiliated and hated by their neighbors. The roots of the discrimination lie in
the Koran and Muhammad’s own relationship with Jews in Arabia. Muhammad and his
first followers slaughtered Jewish tribes and forcibly married Jewish women
taken as slaves.
Muhammad’s successors, primarily Caliph Omar (ruled
634-644) and the Umayyad Caliph Omar Abd al-Azziz (717-720) codified the
treatment of the Jews so that they became dhimmi, a “protected” group that would
be allowed to live so long as they paid a special tax, did not build new
synagogues, did not ride horses, did not employ Muslims and wore special clothes
that marked them as Jews. They could not be witnesses in court or carry weapons.
When they died, unless their heirs proved otherwise, their property passed to
Muslims. They could not marry Muslim women, but Muslim men were encouraged to
This “protected” status has been tragically praised by
Western academics as a model of “coexistence.” Its provisions became harsher
under certain rulers and its oddities can best be gleaned from what laws were
enacted to make the lives of the Jews better. As Gilbert tells it, in some
places it was apparently considered legal to rob Jews, for Rabbi Hai ben Sherira
claims in only certain towns was it illegal. The Almohad ruler Sultan Abu Yaqub
forced Jews to wear “a long blue tunic with absurdly long, wide sleeves that
reached to a person’s feet.”
In North Africa Jews were, at one time, not
even allowed to raise their own children and they were forcibly placed in the
hands of local Muslims. No wonder that community, which had been large at the
time of Rome and the Arab conquests, almost became extinct until it was revived
by refugees from Spain who came after 1492.
Jews were sometimes banned
from being public officials, as was the case with a 1290 law of the Mamelukes in
Egypt. Their great synagogues, such as the one at Aleppo, were converted into
mosques. Jewish converts to Islam, and there were many in the 14th-16th
centuries apparently, faced similar discriminations as their Marrano brothers in
Spain. The khan of Bukhara instituted an added insult alongside the special
tax; when it was paid each Jew also received a slap in the face.
Yemen they were forbidden to build their houses higher than Muslims’ and forced
to live outside the city. The Shi’ites in Iran, after 1502, regarded them as
“unclean,” and Christian travelers, who no doubt had seen hatred of Jews at
home, were surprised by the Persian “great hatred” for the Jews.
Ottomans are seen by many as the saviors of the Jews from all these
privations. When there had been chaos or particularly devout rulers in
North Africa, Yemen or Persia, the Jews suffered. The Ottoman Empire, from its
inception in the 14th century to the 20th, proved especially tolerant. Jews from
Baghdad to Sanaa and Libya cheered the arrival of the Ottomans and feared their
leaving much as they had once cheered the arrival of the Persian Zoroastrians
and Muslims in Jerusalem in the seventh century. But even this heyday, which
seems to rival Spain’s “golden age” of the 12th century, was marked by problems.
In Salonika, which other writers have tried to paint as a city of model
coexistence, the Jews were often subjected to “false claims of debt against”
Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher and another person who is
always picked out as an example of Muslim-Jewish bonding (he was Saladin’s
physician), wrote that “no nation has ever done more harm to Israel. None
has matched it in debasing and humiliating us” more than the Muslims. Maimonides
himself was expelled from Spain by the Muslims.
More than half of
Gilbert’s chronicle concentrates on the period after 1900 and he includes a
myriad of details relating to every community and its fate through the
A short section at the end examines the current Jewish
communities in places like Yemen, Turkey, Tunisia and Morocco.
doesn’t address the historiographic questions such as the manipulations of the
“coexistence” thesis, probably for the better, because his book would then have
been labeled as biased. In the final analysis Gilbert has done what he does
best, create a model reference work that is sure to remain a standard for years
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