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Peaceful Coexistence

The Jews of Islam

by Bernard Lewis
Princeton University Press, 245 pp., $17.50

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 and among many of its passionate supporters elsewhere. Marion Woolfson’s Prophets in Babylon and Bat Ye’or’s Le Dhimmi: Profil de l’opprimé are two of the more recent and more blatant examples of the respective extremes.

Lewis refuses such simplistic approaches and tries to explain the complex and often contradictory history of Jewish–Muslim relations over fourteen hundred years. He does this in prose that combines eloquence, dispassion, and wit. His book is not, as its title might seem to indicate, a chronological historical survey of the Jews in the Islamic world. Nor is it a survey of Jewish institutional or cultural development, although it does touch upon these matters in the last two chapters. It is essentially a conceptual study that examines the fundamental social and mental structures underlying Muslim attitudes toward the Jews and their treatment of them, as well as the Jews’ own responses from their side. There is an element of histoire des mentalités et des sensibilités in Lewis’s work but he is usually careful to set the structures and attitudes he discusses against the history of political, social, and economic change, so as not to create the false impression of timeless, static patterns. For example, he justly points out that with regard to the treatment of its non-Muslim subjects throughout much of the Middle Ages, “Islamic practice on the whole turned out to be gentler than Islamic precept—the reverse of the situation in Christendom.”

Lewis is impatient with moralizing stereotypes. He takes a certain pleasure, for example, in demolishing Gibbon’s account of the Arab warrior coming out of the desert to spread Islam with a sword in one hand and the Koran in the other. He mercilessly ridicules the debate regarding the tolerance or intolerance of Islam toward its Jewish, Christian, and Zoroastrian minorities, pointing out that for much of the history of both the Middle East and the West, tolerance was not a virtue to be prized, nor was intolerance a vice to be condemned, especially in the sphere of religion, whose place in human life generally was immeasurably more important than it is in many parts of the world today.

Like other traditional societies, Islam has historically been a religious polity whose citizens were the Muslim faithful. Like many other societies it made provisions for those living under its rule who were not fully fledged members of the body politic. In the Islamic world, these were the dhimmis, or protected peoples, members of the older scriptural faiths recognized as having a certain validity by the Koran itself and by the Muslim canonical tradition. (This is the main reason why the unfortunate Bahais in Khomeini’s Islamic republic are having such a terrible time. Since their faith was founded after Islam, it has no validity for the ruling Mullahs, and its adherents are not entitled to the status of dhimmis.)

Under the dhimmi system, the tolerated non-Muslims were entitled to the protection of the Islamic state, which guaranteed the safety of their lives and property, afforded them a considerable degree of freedom of economic enterprise, and gave them the right to worship according to their conscience unmolested—if they did so discreetly and tolerated a few minor restrictions. These rights were granted to the dhimmis in exchange for their accepting certain fiscal and social disadvantages that included, among others, special taxes, distinguishing clothes, and various tokens of social inferiority. This was a relatively small price to pay in a premodern society, where in any case nobody expected ecumenical equality—and would not grant it if his own position was reversed. Dominance and subordination, not egalitarianism, were accepted as the natural political order by the adherents of the three monotheistic faiths. This kind of dominance, Lewis maintains, permitted a generally peaceful pluralistic coexistence, one that for hundreds of years was accepted by Middle Eastern Christians with resignation and by Oriental Jews and Sephardi refugees with gratitude.

The system, in general, was at its best in times of prosperity and social stability, when its administration tended to be more liberal, and at its worst in times of stress and pressure from within and without, when its interpretation tended to be stricter. True, non-Muslims in the Islamic world were second-class citizens, but they did have “a kind of citizenship” and did have some rights. As Lewis notes with more than a touch of irony, this situation was preferable to that obtaining in many modern states “where the minorities, and for that matter even the majority, enjoy no real civil or human rights in spite of all the resplendent principles enshrined in the constitutions, but utterly without effect.”

In his chapter on “The Judaeo-Islamic Tradition,” Lewis touches upon a broad range of topics including Jewish development within the medieval Islamic world, the mutual influences of Judaism and Islam on each other, and the similar sentiments and perspectives within the two religious cultures that cannot necessarily be attributed to borrowing in either direction. Like other historians such as Salo Baron and Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson, Lewis makes much of the polarity, or dynamic tension, between the tendencies of Jews both to assimilate and to be exclusive. With respect to language, and to culture generally, Lewis finds that a “symbiosis” of Jews and Arabs took place in the Middle Ages and that it was “far closer to the pattern of modern Western Europe and America and very different from the situation in the Roman, Ottoman, and Russian empires,” in which the Jews maintained a separate culture and spoke a different language. Following S. D. Goitein, whose work he fully acknowledges, Lewis sees this symbiotic relationship producing something entirely new—“not merely a Jewish culture in Arabic…[but] a Judaeo-Arabic, or one might even say a Judaeo-Islamic culture.” The intimacy of the two cultures leads Lewis to an interesting discussion of conversion to Islam and the role of famous converts from Judaism, from such legendary characters as Ka’b al-Ahbar and Wahb ibn Munabbih to the Persian statesman, physician, and historian, Rashid al-Din.

The image of Jewish converts as subversives who introduced all sorts of heresies and schisms into Islam is a very old one, well documented among Muslims, and is familiar to students of Arabic writings on heresy and other literary genres. Nearly a century ago, the great scholar I. Goldziher, the father of modern Islamic studies, showed that this accusation had its origins in pre-Islamic Arabia, where imputations of Jewish origin were employed to discredit or belittle opponents. Lewis, for his part, demonstrates the persistence of this motif into modern times when it was transferred from the religious to the political sphere.

Like many other scholars today, Lewis questions the validity of applying Western historical periodization to the Islamic world. He suggests that Islamic history should instead be viewed as demarcated by waves of invasion—first by Arabs during the seventh and eighth centuries, later by Asian steppe peoples such as the Turks and the Mongols, between the tenth and fourteenth centuries, and finally by Europeans. The relation of the Jews to each invading group was quite different, and Lewis argues that the place of Jews under the Ottoman Empire has been particularly neglected. With strong justification, to my mind, he criticizes much of the Jewish scholarship that has dealt with the Ottoman period. Because of its parochialism in both sources and scope, this traditional scholarship has produced, in Lewis’s words, “a serious distortion of perspective.” This distortion, he argues, can be corrected by greater use of Ottoman archival sources, of which he gives an enlightening account, and by comparisons with the Christian minorities in the empire who in many ways were members of the same class.

Why did Ottoman Jews attain the highest place in the Jewish world after they were expelled from Spain and Portugal at the end of the fifteenth century? This, Lewis shows, was not merely a matter of the sultan’s giving his gracious consent to their immigration, but a result of Ottoman imperial policy which encouraged the settlement of Sephardi Jews within its boundaries. Indeed, Jews, like other groups, were sometimes forced to settle in particular places considered vital by the authorities—not only Istanbul itself but also Cyprus, Rhodes, Salonika, and Izmir, to name only a few. The sultans in Istanbul viewed the Sephardi immigrants as a complementary and not a competitive element, since they had skills the Turks did not, while posing no threat in matters in which the Turks enjoyed a monopoly. Furthermore, in the eyes of the Turks, the Jews had the advantage over the Christian communities “of being, so to speak, the only Ottoman subjects by their own free choice”; they were less likely to be a potential fifth column.

For almost two centuries, the Sephardi Jews had an important part in the cultural, political, and economic life of the empire, whether as doctors, actors, printers, traders, manufacturers, tax officials, or experts in such fields as gunnery and navigation. Eventually, they were to lose their competitive edge and be nudged out by Greeks, Syrian Christians, and, above all, Armenians, who acquired new Western skills when those of the Jews had become obsolete, and who because of their Christian faith found themselves more favored by European mercantile interests. Lewis points up other factors that contributed to Ottoman Jewish decline. Most notable among these was the debacle during the seventeenth century following the collapse of the messianic movement of Shabbatai Sevi, which not only left the Jews in despair, but strengthened rabbinical authority over them in what appears to Lewis as a kind of theocratic dictatorship.

Even during the period of their eclipse, however, the lot of Ottoman Jews was much more enviable than that of Jews in Morocco and Iran, where a highly ritualized form of degradation had evolved that had no real parallel in Turkey. In Morocco this was caused by the siege mentality of a frontier state defending the faith against the onslaughts of its militant Catholic neighbors to the North, as well as by the rigorous nature of the Maliki school of Islamic law which gained supremacy in the Maghreb. In Iran the position of the Jews was made more difficult partly by Shi’ite sectarian notions of impurity but also in reaction to Jewish collaboration with the invaders during the period of Mongol domination.

At the end of his book, Lewis considers the progressive disintegration of the Judaeo-Islamic tradition during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when deep changes undermined the traditional foundations of much of the social and political order within the Muslim world. No group emerged unaffected, and the widespread social disorder and free-floating hostility that continue to plague the region make it clear that the old political and social relations that provided social equilibrium have not yet been successfully replaced by new ones.

Still, the situation of the Jews in the Islamic world during the modern period has not been sufficiently studied; perhaps this is one reason why Lewis’s discussion of more recent events was for me less satisfying than the earlier parts of his book. With his unerring sense of what is essential, he does not fail to highlight the principal factors that have brought about changes in the Middle East: European interference from without, reform and reaction from within, the rivalry of half-emancipated, emerging minorities, with their “totally incompatible objectives of equal citizenship, foreign protection, and national independence.” Western influence, he writes, “prepared the downfall of the Islamic Jewries in more ways than one—not only by violating the dhimma and thus exposing them to the hostility of the Muslim majorities, but also by providing new theories and forms of expression for this hostility”—among them the themes of European anti-Semitism. Finally the dispute over Palestine led, in the Arab world at least, to large-scale Jewish emigration to Israel and brought an end to the Judaeo-Islamic tradition.

What then is missing in this chapter that is not missing in the other chapters? It is a clear picture of the Jewish side of the equation. Lewis skillfully describes the strains on Muslim society, the transformation of attitudes of Muslims and dhimmis in general toward each other. But the image of the evolution within the Jewish communities themselves remains somewhat blurred, except for the case of the Istanbul community. Some of his general observations on Islamic Jews elsewhere seem to be based on this community and on other Sephardi communities of Turkey. But I wonder whether the Jews in many of the Arabic-speaking countries were really as “impervious to the movements that were transforming the outlook of European Jews” as Lewis claims. The rabbis of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Egypt, for example, were in touch with the religious debates going on elsewhere in Judaism and showed an amazing openness to reconciling halakha, the orthodox law, and modernity.

There were Jews in the major towns and cities, from Baghdad to Damascus to Cairo and from Tunis to Fez, who read the Hebrew newspapers of the European Jewish Enlightenment—the Haskala—and even contributed to them. It was through these journals that some of them first became acquainted with Zionism and its immediate precursors. Although three or four years ago I would certainly have agreed with Lewis that “Jews in Arab countries had, for the most part, been either indifferent or hostile to Zionism, which was seen as a predominantly European movement,” I would now qualify this judgment in the light of recently published research by some young Israeli scholars—Michel Abitbol, Zvi Yahuda, and Yehuda Nini. It is true that Zionist organizational activity was relatively limited in the Arab countries for a variety of reasons; but the movement enjoyed widespread sympathy among Oriental Jews at all levels, including the rabbinical leadership—in contrast to the position of most rabbis during the years before the Holocaust.

If the last chapter is at all wanting, it is only in comparison with the others, and then only to a small degree. In reconstructing the Judaeo-Islamic tradition from its beginnings Lewis has revealed a central and neglected theme of Middle Eastern history; his concluding view of the causes of the breakdown of this tradition has much to suggest for understanding the turmoil in which Jews and Muslims live today.

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