The Jews of Islam
Barely a generation ago, large, important Jewish communities could be found across the Islamic world from Morocco to Afghanistan. Today, except for a few remnants, they have largely vanished as the result of mass emigration, and there is no reason to expect the demographic trend among those who stayed behind to go anywhere but down. Many of these Jewish communities had their roots in antiquity going back long before the Islamic conquests, before most of what today are called the Arab countries had any Arabs, before Turkey had any Turks. The Islamic conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries and the subsequent Arabization and Islamization of the Middle East, North Africa, and for a time. Spain as well, provided the political and—no less important—the cultural environment in which these jews developed their distinctive forms of diaspora Judaism. Indeed, during certain periods, such as the high period of medieval Islamic civilization between the ninth and the thirteenth centuries, and the Ottoman revival of the Middle East during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Jewish creative centers were to be found in the Muslim lands rather than in Christendom.
In his latest book, The Jews of Islam, Bernard Lewis sets out to examine the origins, development, and ultimate decline of what he calls “the Judaeo-Islamic tradition,” a historical concept parallel to and no less real—perhaps even more real—than that of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Lewis, formerly director of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, now a professor at Princeton as well as a member of the Institute for Advanced Study, is one of the world’s most eminent Arabists and Turkologists. He is also an accomplished Hebraist. He is therefore well equipped to undertake a synthesis and assessment of the fourteen-hundred-year relationship between the Jews and Islam.
Such a task is made all the more thorny by the intensity of feeling aroused by the very topic of Judaeo-Islamic relations. The Arab-Israeli conflict with all its ramifications has made the historical encounter between Jews and Moslems a favorite theme for partisan apologists on both sides and romanticists and ecumenists from all quarters. The Jewish experience under Islam has been subject to widely (one might also say wildly) varying assessments ranging from the popular argument that the Jews had a “golden age” under Islam to the revisionist approach emphasizing “persecution and pogroms,” also known as “the lachrymose school of Jewish history.”
Although the idea of a golden age has its origins in nineteenth-century Orientalist romanticism (pace Edward Said) and in the German Jewish scholarship of the Wissenschaft des Judentums movement, it has for obvious reasons been taken up by many anti-Zionist writers not only to highlight the ironic injustice done to the Palestinians and the ingratitude of Jews toward their former protectors, but also as proof of the possibility for co-existence in a future state under the aegis of Islam. The school emphasizing persecution and pogroms—again for obvious reasons—has been enjoying vogue in Israel …