Islam’s Attitude Towards the Jews
by HaRav Elizer Melamed, Rabbi of Har Bracha
As a continuation of what I wrote last week about the culture of Islam, it is fitting in these days to add and reflect on the roots of the attitude of Muslims towards Jews. Inspired by the Tanach (Bible), the prophet of Islam Muhammad was revealed the tremendous power that lies in belief in one God who has no corporeal manifestation besides His creative and commanding word. Based on simple acceptance of the fundamentals of belief, reward and punishment in the Tanach, Muhammad harshly criticized the Jews and claimed against them that they are ungrateful – after God chose them from all peoples, took them out of Egypt with signs and wonders, split the sea for them, gave them the Torah, and bequeathed to them the good land – they sinned, and rebelled against Him. Thus, they deserved to be punished with all the punishments written in the Torah.
Muhammad’s hope was that the Jews would accept his tidings and crown Islam as the religion continuing the Torah, and thereby also correct their sins and merit to be the nobility of Islam. But when they refused to do so, he accused them of continuing to sin against God, and claimed it is Allah’s will that they be severely punished and degraded for rebelling against him. Subsequently, he accused the Jews of being led by their inclination, and in order to make things easier for themselves, falsified parts of Scripture, while Islam must correct this by means of absolute acceptance of the commandment on its highest level.
The Attitude of Islam and Christianity towards the Tanach
In terms of idolatry, Christianity is worse than Islam, because in Christianity they believe that oto ha’ish (lit. ‘That man’, a euphemism for Jesus) is God, which is considered avodah zara b’shituf (belief in G-d combined with other idolatrous and alien beliefs). However, regarding attitude towards the Tanach, Christians have an advantage. Because the Muslims accuse the Jews that among all their sins against God they also falsified the Tanach according to their needs, while the Christians believe the Tanach is holy, and therefore, are more inspired by it.
Therefore, Rambam (Maimonides) ruled (Rambam, Responsa 149) that it is permitted to teach Torah and mitzvot to Christians, since they believe in the sanctity of the Torah given from Heaven. And even though they interpret the Torah incorrectly, since they believe in its sanctity, there is a possibility that through studying it, they will progress to pure faith, good deeds and love of Israel, and at least, no stumbling block will result.
However, it is prohibited to teach Torah and mitzvot to Muslims, since they do not believe in the truth of the Torah, and there is concern that they will use what they learn for bad purposes and against Israel, as they used all the verses of rebuke in the Torah to increase hatred of Israel. The prohibition of teaching Torah applies to them, and others like them (Chagigah 11a, Sanhedrin 59a).
The Negative Attitude of Islam Towards Jews
In general, Muslim law differentiates between idolaters, who if they do not convert to Islam must be killed, and the Jews and Christians, who are people of the book and have holy scriptures given from the mouth of Allah, who do not have to be killed if they do not convert to Islam. However, since they did not accept Islam – they must be punished and degraded. This includes paying a high annual head-tax, and this payment must be done in a demeaning manner, such as the Jew standing while the Muslim receiving the tax sits, and the Jew bows down, prostrating himself, while the Muslim holds him by the nape of the neck, shakes him, and says “Pay the jizya“, and when he pays, strikes him there. Jews were also prohibited from riding horses, bearing swords, building houses higher than those of Muslims, and manifesting their faith and religion.
Although in principle Christians and Jews have equal status, the attitude towards Jews is harsher, since according to Islam the Jews were originally chosen to be God’s people, and after repeatedly rebelling against Him, it is His will that they be punished.
Persecutions Under Islam
Some people depict the life of Jews under Islam as good and peaceful; however, in practice, the Jews suffered humiliation and oppression under Islam, and often were victims of violent riots including murder, forced conversion, kidnapping of women and children, and looting of property. It is possible that the Jewish trait of ayin tova (looking well upon others), which is an inherited trait of Israel from our forefather Abraham, causes many of us to prefer remembering the good and forgetting the bad; but the truth is, we suffered greatly under Islam, and when we ignore the truth, it leads to mistakes, that lead to disaster. Therefore, we must examine the history of the Jews under Muslim rule objectively.
According to Muslim law, as long as the Jews pay their taxes and accept their lowly status, they should not be killed or have their property looted; however, in practice, from time to time, following outbursts of religious zealotry, in the entire Muslim domain, there were many cases of severe persecutions against the Jews, including murder, forced conversion, kidnapping of women and children, and looting of property.
Persecutions in Islam
I will mention some of the persecutions that occurred under Islam: Already in the days of Muhammad, following the Jews’ refusal to join Islam, the Muslims plundered and murdered many Jews.
In 1033, over 6,000 Jews in Fez, Morocco were murdered.
On the 9th of Tevet 1066, over 4,000 Jews of the community of Granada, including Rabbi Joseph HaNagid, advisor to the king, were murdered.
From 1132, the Almohad movement began conquering North Africa and Muslim Spain, and ruling them for close to one hundred years. They gave the Jews a choice between death, conversion to Islam, or expulsion. As a result of their decrees, the Jewish communities under their rule were destroyed, including large communities. Many Jews were murdered within this framework, and not a few, converted to Islam.
In 1465, thousands of Jews in Fez, Morocco were murdered, only 11 survived.
In 1576, the Jews of Marrakesh were murdered, their property looted, and finally, all were expelled. There were many more riots and expulsions in the communities of Morocco.
In later periods, it was known that when the rulers of Morocco or army commanders needed money to pay their soldiers, they would organize riots against the Jews, and pay the soldiers from the looting. These riots continued until modern times, the most famous being the Tetouan in 1912, in Fez. After that, the French began ruling Morocco, and the murderous riots decreased to local riots that were suppressed by the French.
In Yemen as well, there were many terrible instances of persecution. The worst was in 1680, the Mawza exile, when the government gave the Jews of Yemen the choice between conversion to Islam or exile, and when the vast majority refused to convert, they were exiled from their cities to a desolate region. It is held that as a result of this exile, about two-thirds of the Jews of Yemen perished.
In modern times there were two periods when a law was enacted in Yemen that orphan boys and girls would be transferred to government custody and forcefully converted to Islam, and many children were kidnapped in this manner. Sometimes, they succeeded in being saved from this decree by being married off when they were still small children.
In Persia, amidst persecutions and murder, the Jews of Isfahan were forced to convert to Islam between 1622-1629, and had to live as forced converts. In order to influence the Jews to convert, the community’s rabbis were accused of using the evil eye and other additional nefarious deeds, and sentenced to death by throwing them to predatory dogs, if they did not convert to Islam.
Three or four rabbis were led to the square opposite the dogs. Rabbi Abba refused to convert, and was torn apart by the dogs. As a result, the other two rabbis converted to Islam, along with 75 others. Subsequently, the rest of the community converted, and they threw their holy books into the river. After about seven years, the decree was cancelled, and they returned to Judaism. In general, all the riots, in all of the countries, were accompanied by cruel and shocking events of this type.
Once again, in 1655, the Jews of Isfahan, and afterwards those of Kashan and Hamadan, were forced to convert to Islam, amidst the destruction of their synagogues. At the same time, the Jews of Shiraz were expelled from their city to the desert. The riots were accompanied by murder and torture, and many stories of martyrdom ensued.
In 1839, amidst riots of murder, the Jews of Meshed were forced to convert – some of them fled, but most lived as forced converts for several generations.
In general, about five hundred years ago, the Persians became Shiite, and since then, the Jews of Persia suffered persecution and degradation. In parallel, throughout the Middle East under Ottoman rule, laws were kept, and thus, riots greatly diminished.
The Difference between Life under Christians and Under Muslims
It is commonly said that life under Islam was less bad than life under the Christians. Indeed, despite the many riots and murders under Islam, relatively, there were fewer violent outbreaks under Islam than under Christian rule. The reason for this apparently lies in the attitude towards law. In Islam, law has supreme status, and therefore on one hand, they were stricter about degrading and oppressing the Jews, while on the other hand, there were fewer instances of violent outbreaks.
By contrast, in Christian society, despite Christian law stating that Jews should not be killed or coerced to convert their religion, since the law is less important, on one hand, there were many more instances of severe outbreaks of murder and looting, while on the other hand, there were also many more times when Jews were allowed to establish themselves and contribute decisively to the economic and scientific development of the continent of Europe.
Thus, although in Christian countries there were more persecutions and riots, overall, the Jews living there multiplied and became richer than the Jews living under the oppression and degradation in Muslim countries.
Ultimately, in Muslim countries for many generations, the Jews suffered oppression and degradation, and sometimes riots and murder. Usually, the oppression and degradation were fixed and stable, and as long as the Jews accepted their lowly status, they could feel secure in their degraded situation.
However, the establishment of the State of Israel, and the rise in the status of Jews, was a shocking fact for many Muslims. This is because according to their view, proof of the truth of Islam depends to a large extent on the degradation of the Jews, and when Jews return to rule over the Land of Israel, which was conquered in the past by Muslims, it is like heresy of a fundamental tenet. Therefore, according to many Islamic scholars, every Muslim is obligated to fight for the destruction of the State of Israel, whether overtly, or in stages.
However, a glimmer of hope can perhaps be found: in the Quran, there are expressions of respect for the Children of Israel who are destined to return to the Land of Israel, and there are Muslim interpreters who believe this will be so when Israel returns to honoring God, who granted them the land, and gave them the Torah.
The stronger we become in holding fast to our land, and fighting our Muslim enemies, the more we will reduce our enemies’ desire to fight us, and conversely, strengthen the positive forces in Islam, so that they will be able, by the power of faith in God, to respect Israel, and add blessing to their nations, and the entire world.
This article appeared in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.