Persecution and prosperity

Under Muslim rule, Jews have been a ‘protected’ group, but have nonetheless endured intolerable suffering.

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.
The subject 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 marry them.
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 jizya tax; when it was paid each Jew also received a slap in the face.
In 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.
The 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” them.
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 present.
 A short section at the end examines the current Jewish communities in places like Yemen, Turkey, Tunisia and Morocco.
Gilbert 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 to come.