Maimonides on Jewish humiliation under Islamic rule

The myth that historians have propagated is that Jewish life under the Muslims was safer and more successful than the life of Jews in Christendom.

The Rambam (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Rambam
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In the words of Maimonides, who is seen as the most successful synthesizer of medieval Judaism and the Islamic world, “God has entangled us with this people, the nation of Ishmael, who treat us so prejudicially and who legislate our harm and hatred…. No nation has ever arisen more harmful than they, nor has anyone done more to humiliate us, degrade us, and consolidate hatred against us.”
The myth that historians have propagated is that Jewish life under the Muslims was safer and more successful than the life of Jews in Christendom. Perhaps there is a kernel of truth in this proposition; “Golden Ages” in Baghdad, Andalusia, and the Ottoman Empire highlight periods of tolerance and the powerful status of court Jews.
Maimonides was a court physician under the Fatimids and Saladin’s Ayyubids in Old Cairo and was not the subject of persecution in this period of his life. But he would never forget the Berber Almohades and their invasion of southern Spain in 1145. Maimonides, then a boy, faced death under the Almohades if he did not embrace Islam. Not long after the invasion of the fanatics, the great philosopher and legal mind settled in North Africa. But it was controlled by the same Almohades Muslims, and it is likely that his family was forced to convert to Islam but practiced Judaism in secret.
This offers insights into Maimonides’s later responsa in which he was sympathetic to Jews forced to convert to Islam to rejoin the Jewish community. This was despite the rejection of rabbis in Fez who refused to take back into the Jewish fold those Jews who converted.
Maimonides had more to say about Jewish life under Islamic rule: “We bear the inhumane burden of their humiliation, lies and absurdities, being as the prophet said, ‘like a deaf man who does not hear or a dumb man who does not open his mouth’.... Our sages disciplined us to bear Ishmael’s lies and absurdities, listening in silence, and we have trained ourselves, old and young, to endure their humiliation, as Isaiah said, ‘I have given my back to the smiters, and my cheek to the beard pullers.’”
The institutional humiliation of Jews under Islam was enshrined in the Pact of Umar, dating back to the ninth century. The Muslims forbade Jews converting Muslims to Judaism, building new synagogues, making a display of their rituals, living in houses higher than those of Muslims, carrying weapons, and they were forbidden to ride horses. Jews under these dhimmi rules had to wear distinctive clothing and pay a substantial poll tax and a land tax.
While these restrictions were not always enforced - Samuel Hanagid, the Jewish Prime Minister of Berber Granada in the 11th century, obviously did not lead his Muslim troops into battle riding a donkey - the dhimmi rules of a dependent people were enforced for both Jew and Christian. Massacres of Jews were a reality in Muhammad’s lifetime, and the Arabs and Berbers carried out a pogrom against the Jewish Quarter of Granada in December 1066.
Treatment of Jews under Islam depended on the agenda of a particular caliph or sultan. Most of the time, the dhimmi rules were in full force. There were some exceptions. But we should not idealize Jewish life under the Muslims which, in some cases, was just as bad as life in Christian lands.
Maimonides’ harsh criticisms of Islamn quoted above are to be found in The Epistle to Yemen (1172).
The Muslims in Yemen forced the Jews to convert to Islam. This was compounded by a Jewish messianic pretender who arose, providing the Jewish community with false hope. In the words of Maimonides biographer Joel L. Kraemer: “The acerbity of Maimonides’ condemnation is startling, and historians have been puzzled by its bitterness. We have seen him living among Muslims, within the embrace of Islamic civilization, assimilating its cultural legacy.” However, the situation of forced conversion in Yemen must have brought back memories of the Almohades forced conversion in Muslim Spain that Maimonides had to endure.
There is no need to expunge from the historical record the cooperation between Muslims and Jews. The Golden Age of Andalusia was a reality and Jewish life was good. But apologists for Islam focus on the positive, and negate much that was negative for Jews living under Muslim authority. The dhimmi humiliation was in force most of the time and the Muslims despised Judaism as a false faith.
Once Jews sought independence and sovereignty in the Land of Israel in the modern period, a dependent people became an independent people. That was the end of Jewish life in Muslim lands. Maimonides’s harsh censure of Islam should come as no surprise for those who have studied the history of Jews under Islam since the epoch of Muhammad.
The writer is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.