Vol. 3    Issue 08   01-15 September 2008
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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
The Holy Quran A Pictorial Gallery
Muslim Minorities in Non-Islamic Milieus
Virtual Museum of Islamic Arts and Culture

Jews in Islamic lands

The followers of Semitic religions, especially Jews and Christians, share some core beliefs with Muslims. The Quran describes them as “People of the Book” and says, “Lo! Those who believe (Muslims) and those who are Jews and Sabeans and Christians—whosoever believes in God and the Last Day and does right—they shall have no fear, neither shall they grieve” (5:69; 2:62). Islam accords a special status to Judaism and Christianity. A Muslim is required to believe not only in the prophecy of Muhammad and in the Quran as God’s word but in that of all other prophets sent down by God from time to time and in all divine revelations. In fact, Islam is the only religion in the world which makes a belief in the truth of other religions a necessary part of its confession.

The attitude and behaviour of the Prophet towards Jews and Christians exhibited remarkable tolerance, magnanimity and compassion. Some Jewish families lived in the Prophet’s neighbourhood in Madinah. If one of their children happened to be sick, the Prophet would pay a visit to the distressed family as a gesture of good will and concern. Shortly after his arrival in Madinah, the Prophet established a city-state and a constitution was drawn up at his instance. Three clauses of the constitution are of particular importance. First, Muslims, Jews and pagan Arabs would constitute a single community. Second, the Jews and the pagans would have the complete freedom to profess and practice their religion. Third, these three groups would render help to each other in times of need.

The Jewish diaspora

The term Jewish diaspora refers to those Jews who after the Babylonian Exiled lived outside Palestine. Some of the oldest and largest Jewish diaspora communities have existed in Islamic lands since the 8th century. In the early centuries of the Islamic era, Jewish communities could be found in almost every city of the Islamic world. In the early Islamic period, Jews emerged as an important trade diaspora. Significant numbers of Jews became associated with finance and long-distance commerce. Jewish merchants and financiers existed in most major commercial centres in the Mediterranean. They developed close linkages with Muslim rulers, lending money to them in times of need. In the Abbasid period, some Jews occupied important positions in the royal court.

In the Middle Ages, Jewish traders and financiers developed advanced financial techniques such as the use of bills of exchange and cheques (known as sakk in Arabic). They also financed Jewish and Muslim traders whose operations extended from Western Europe to the Middle East as well as to India and China. Jews also acted as intermediaries and agents for Muslim rulers who wanted to export or import luxury goods from different lands. The eminent French Orientalist Louis Massignon has observed that contemporary corporate international finance, which has a clear Jewish preponderance, dates back to the Abbasid caliphate of the 9th and 10th centuries.

Sizeable Jewish communities existed in cities which are now part of Iran and Afghanistan. The historian Ibn Jarir al-Tabari describes the presence of a Jewish community in Merv in the 8th century. Judaeo-Persian inscriptions relating to business transactions indicate established Jewish communities in Afghanistan and Chinese Turkestan from the 8th to the 12th centuries. These communities seem to be extensions of Persian-speaking Jews of eastern Persia. Historical records attest to the presence of Jewish communities in the 10th century in Naishapur, Heart, Kabul, Balkh, Qandahar and Ghazna. The Arab geographer Al-Muqaddisi, writing in the 10th century, describes the presence of Jews in Khurasan. Juzjani, in his Tabaqat-i-Nasiri, refers to the presence of Jewish traders in Ghur in Afghanistan. Ghazna had about 80,000 Jews in the 12th century. Al-Idrisi (d.1166) refers to the presence of Jews in Kabul.

Jews living in Khurasan maintained trade relations with Europe, India, China, the Islamic Middle East and North Africa. At that time, this trade diaspora was the largest in the world. From Khurasan and Afghanistan Jewish traders penetrated into India in pursuit of trade and commerce.

Jews in Iran

The history of Jewish presence in Iran goes back to biblical times. Some of the Old Testament books have references to the experiences of Jews in Persia. During the 6th century BC, Jews of the ancient Kingdom of Judah were exiled to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar. The Persian king Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire under the Achaemenid dynasty, ended the exile of the Jewish people and allowed them to return to their native lands in 537 BC and to practice their religion with freedom.

The Holy Quran figuratively refers to a person called Dhul-qarnayn, meaning “he of the two horns”, and describes him as a great and virtuous ruler (18:83-98). Some contemporary Muslim scholars and commentators of the Quran, notably Mawlana Abul Kalam Azad, Sayyid Abul ‘Ala Maududi, Maulana Abdur-Rashid Nu’mani and the Iranian scholar Tabatabai, are of the view that Dhul-qarnayn refers to the Persian king Cyrus the Great.

The current Jewish population of Iran is about 25,000, one of the largest in the Islamic world. All of them speak Persian and most of them live in Tehran, Isfahan and Shiraz. They enjoy religious, educational and cultural freedom in the country and are allowed to visit Israel to meet relatives. There are 11 functioning synagogues, some with Jewish schools, and a few kosher shops and restaurants in the cities where the Jewish community is concentrated. Jews are allocated one seat in the Iranian Parliament. Tehran’s Jewish Hospital is one of the four Jewish charity hospitals in the world. President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s office recently donated money for the hospital.

When Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile in Paris in 1980, he met with Tehran’s Jewish community and assured them of state protection and religious and cultural freedom. In 2003 the former Iranian president, Mohammad Khatami, visited the Yusef Abad synagogue in Tehran.

The Jews of Iran are deeply attached to their country where their ancestors have lived for the past 3,000 years. At the same time, they have scrupulously maintained their ethnic and religious identity. In 2007 they were offered financial incentives by Israel and the US to migrate to Israel or the US but they spurned the offer. Ciamak Morsathegh, the director of Tehran’s Jewish hospital, says, “Anti-Semitism is not an eastern phenomenon; it is not an Islamic or Iranian phenomenon. Anti-Semitism is a European phenomenon”. He said Jews in Iran, even in their worst days, never suffered as much as they did in Europe. “We are Iranian and we have been living in Iran for more than 3,000 years”, he added.

Jews in Egypt

The history of Jewish presence in Egypt goes back to antiquity. Jews suffered great hardships under the Egyptian pharaohs, particularly under Rameses II and his son Merneptah. Prophet Moses was born and brought up in Egypt and ultimately led the Jews out of bondage.

One of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in the world, the Bassatine Jewish cemetery, is located in Old Cairo. The land on which the cemetery is located was donated in the 9th century by Sultan Ahmad ibn Tulun. Cairo became an increasingly important centre of Jewish mercantile and financial activity in the 10th and 11th centuries. Some Jews attained high positions in the royal court. The celebrated Spanish philosopher Musa ibn Maymun (known as Maimonides in the West) found refuge in Egypt where Emperor Salahuddin Ayyubi (d. 1193)--known as Saladin in the West--appointed him as his personal physician.

Jews who migrated to European countries after the destruction of the Temple and the sack of Jerusalem in the first century AD experienced humiliation and persecution. In the Iberian Peninsula, where they had migrated in the 2nd century AD, they were persecuted by the Visigoth rulers. Many European countries began expelling Jewish communities from the 13th century onwards. England expelled the Jews in 1290, France in 1394, Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1497. After 1497, most parts of Europe ceased to have a Jewish population. Most of these expelled Jews took refuge in Islamic lands, including Ottoman Turkey, Egypt and the Balkans.

One of the most important sources of Jewish history and a testament to the tolerance of Muslim rulers towards the Jewish community is the Cairo Geniza. The Cairo Geniza is an invaluable collection of some 200,000 Jewish manuscripts that were preserved in the store room of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Fustat or Old Cairo and in the Bassatine cemetery. The Geniza was never disturbed by the Muslim rulers. The Geniza manuscripts were written from about 870 AD to 1880. Many of them were written in the Arabic language using the Hebrew alphabet.

The Geniza collection includes an 8th century scroll which contains the oldest known text of the Talmud. There are more than 25,000 fragments of the Hebrew Bible in the Geniza. The collection also includes large amounts of Arabic, Aramaic, Persian and Coptic manuscripts.

One of the most important documents in the Cairo Geniza is a letter written by the leader of the Sephardic Jews in Cordoba in the 10th century, Hasdai ibn Shaprut, to the Empress Helena of Byzantium, praising the kind treatment of the Jewish community by the caliph of Cordoba. There are many fragments in the handwriting of Maimonides.

In 1896, Dr Solomon Schechter, a professor of Talmudic studies at the University of Cambridge, travelled to Cairo and returned home with over 140,000 fragments from the Geniza. This collection is preserved at the Cambridge University Library. The remaining materials were acquired by various other European institutions.

Thousands of Hebrew manuscripts are preserved in universities and libraries in Europe and the US. Many Arabic texts on science and philosophy were copied by Jewish writers in Hebrew characters, a common practice among Arabic-speaking Jews. A number of copies of Arabic texts in Hebrew characters written in Yemen have been found. Medieval Jewish scholars and scientists in many countries, both in Europe and in the Islamic world, drew on Arabic science in the original Arabic as well as in Hebrew translations. These include over a hundred copies of various Hebrew versions of Ibn Sina’s Canon of Medicine as well as numerous copies of Ptolemy’s Almagest, translated from Arabic. Some of these manuscripts are an important source of information on the early development of Islamic science, especially astronomy, in the late 8th and early 9th centuries.

Jews in Islamic Spain

Under the Visigoth rulers the Jews were pushed to the margins of society. Islamic rule provided them with an honourable place in society, guaranteed the protection of their religious and cultural identity, and afforded them opportunities for material and cultural prosperity. They were thus readily drawn into the orbit of mainstream Andalusian society. Hasdai ibn Shaprut, a prominent Jewish scholar who wrote and spoke Arabic with elegance and eloquence and possessed a profound knowledge of Islamic culture and politics in Andalusia, became a vizier in the court of Abd al-Rahman III, who ruled Cordoba from 912 to 961. Hasdai described the beauty and grandeur of his cherished homeland in the following words:

It is a land of grains, wines and purest oils, rich in plants, a paradise of every sort of sweet. And with gardens and orchards where every kind of fruit tree blossoms, and those with silkworms in their leaves…..Our land also has its own sources of silver and gold and in her mountains we mine copper and iron, tin and lead, kohl and marble and crystal…..The king ruling over the land has amassed silver, gold and other treasures, along with an army the likes of which has never been amassed before.

Spanish Jews were appreciated for their sincerity, capability and hard work and suitably rewarded for their contributions. In 949, Hasdai ibn Shaprut was at the head of a delegation sent by the caliph of Cordoba to the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople to engage in delicate foreign negotiations. Samuel ibn Nagrid, the head of the Jewish community of Granada who was well-versed in Islamic learning, became prime minister in the kingdom of Cordoba.

The Jews assimilated into Islamic Spain’s Arabic culture but at the same time retained their religious and cultural identity. They not only preserved their Judaic and Hebrew heritage but also enriched it and, at the same time, made a significant contribution to the cultural, intellectual and literary life of Andalusia. They contributed to the enrichment of Arabic language and literature, science and philosophy. The Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII gifted a valuable illustrated Greek medical manuscript, Dioscorides’ On Medicine, to King Abd al-Rahman al-Nasir. A group of Christian, Muslim and Jewish scholars and men of letters, including the Christian bishop Rabi ibn Zayd, Hasdai ibn Shaprut and the Muslim scholar Ibn al-Kattani, were assembled in the royal palace to study the book. Hasdai ibn Shaprut took a personal interest in having it translated into Arabic.

It is significant to note that the entire corpus of the writings of the famous Andalusian philosopher Moses Maimonides (Musa ibn Maymun, d. 1204) was in Arabic, with the sole exception of his Second Law or Mishneh Torah, his encyclopaedic compendium of Jewish law. Maimonides was greatly influenced by Arabic philosophy, especially by the views of Al-Farabi and Ibn Sina. His philosophical works, in turn, had a profound iimpact on medieval scholasticism.

In Islamic Spain, Arabic exerted a profound influence on Hebrew as well as on local Romance dialects. Andalusian Jews, who had mastered Arabic rhetoric, grammar and style, reinvented Hebrew. Under the influence of Arabic a new style of Hebrew poetry took shape in the 11th century. Judah Halevi was in the forefront of this movement. Samuel Nagrid wrote poems in the new Hebrew style with its Arabic accents and prosody.

Islamic influences on Jewish culture continued long after Muslim rule over the Iberian Peninsula came to an end. In 1360, Samuel Halevi Abulafia, a prominent Andalusian Jew, built a synagogue in the Christian city of Toledo. On the walls there are inscriptions in Hebrew and Arabic, including some verses of the Quran.

The architectural legacy of Islamic Spain was taken by the descendants of Sephardic Jews to distant lands such as the United States, where a synagogue built by German Jews in the 19th century distinctly reflected the architectural style and ornamentation of their ancestors’ homeland.

Jews in Turkey

The estimates of the number of Jews who were driven out of Spain after 1495 vary between 800,000 and 165,000. Nearly 90,000 Jews took shelter in Ottoman Turkey. Sultan Bayezid II sarcastically thanked King Ferdinand for sending him some of his best subjects, thus “impoverishing his own lands while enriching his (Bayezid’s).” The Jews who settled in the Ottoman territories were treated with honour and their religious and cultural identity was protected by the state.

After the conquest of Constantinople, Sultan Mehmet allowed the chief rabbi of the Jews to retain his position and granted complete religious, judicial, educational and cultural autonomy to the community. As a result of the protection and freedom provided by the Ottoman rulers, the Jews prospered and thrived. Sultan Murad III’s wife, Safiye Sultan, had a Jewish confidante, Esther Kira. Jewish engineers and artisans helped the Ottomans manufacture advanced artillery and complicated siege engines. Ladino or Judeo-Spanish, a dialect spoken by Sephardic Jews, survived only in the Ottoman lands.

A substantial population of Sephardic Jews who were expelled from Spain migrated to Salonica in the Balkans. Salonica was seized in 1430 by Ottoman Turks from Byzantine rulers and remained under their control for nearly five centuries. Salonica’s multiethnic population, comprising Jews (who formed the majority), Christians and Muslims, lived in an atmosphere of tolerance and peaceful coexistence for centuries. In 1921 when the Greeks took control of the city, they drove away the Muslim residents to Turkey. In 1944 the Germans exterminated virtually all the Jews.

The Ottoman Empire proved to be a haven for the Jews of Mediterranean Europe and the Middle East. In addition to the Sephardic Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, Ashkenazi Jews from Germany, France and Hungary and Italian Jews from Sicily settled in Ottoman lands. Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror invited Jews from Anatolia, Salonica and Edirne to settle in Istanbul and offered them special privileges.

According to the “millet system” introduced by the Ottoman rulers, the Muslim population as well as the “protected” (dhimmi) non-Muslim groups were organised into communities under the leadership of their religious heads and were given religious, judicial, educational and cultural autonomy. The Jews had a chief rabbi and the major Christian groups had a patriarch or bishop. The security, freedom and honour accorded to the Jews encouraged them to make significant contributions to the development of the Ottoman Empire, especially in agriculture, industry and trade. There were extensive commercial, diplomatic and cultural relations between the Ottoman Empire and the Venetian republic. Jews, along with Armenians and Greeks, acted as intermediaries in the Ottoman-Venetian trade. Even in times of conflict, Venetians maintained a level of trade with the Ottoman by using Jewish front men. Occasionally, Jews in the Ottoman Empire served as intermediaries to European powers, especially when diplomatic relations between the Ottoman rulers and the prices of Western Europe came under strain.

Thousands of Jews fleeing persecution in Russia and Central Europe in the last decades of the 19th century were encouraged to settle in various Ottoman cities. At the beginning of the 19th century, there were nearly 100,000 Jewish in various Turkish cities. During World War II, some 15,000 Turkish Jews living in France were rescued by Turkey from Nazi persecution. Turkish diplomats in France organised train caravans to take Turkish Jews back to their homeland. In 1944, when France’s Vichy government was on the verge of deporting all 10,000 Turkish Jews living in France to Nazi Germany for extermination, the Turkish foreign minister intervened with the French government, warning that such an act on the part of the French government would lead to the snapping of diplomatic relations between France and Turkey. Vichy was forced to abandon his sinister move.

Turkey also helped thousands of East European Jews living in countries such as Greece, Lithuania, Romania, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria to escape Nazi persecution. After the war, the Turkish consul in Greece intervened with the Germans to spare the Turkish Jews living in the country and organised boats to carry them to safety in Turkey. The Turkish guards at the Greek-Turkish border allowed Jews coming from Greece and Bulgaria to enter Turkish territory. Camps were set up for the Jewish refugees at Edirne.

Today, Turkey’s Jewish population is around 26,000. Most of them live in the capital Istanbul. There 16 functioning synagogues and a few kosher restaurants in the city. In 1992 the Jewish community celebrated the 500th anniversary of its advent in Turkey.

The Sarajevo Haggadah

On August 25, 1992, in the course of the Bosnian civil war, the Serbian army began shelling Sarajevo’s National Library, in which over a million books and more than a hundred thousand manuscripts were destroyed. Three months earlier, the Serbian army had launched a ferocious attack on the Oriental Institute in that city (which had a valuable collection of Islamic and Jewish manuscripts), in which over five thousand manuscripts were destroyed.

A handful of precious manuscripts mercifully survived the vandalism of 1992, including an extremely valuable and richly illustrated Hebrew manuscript known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. The Haggadah is a Jewish book of prayers, rites, biblical stories and psalms. The Sarajevo Haggadah is the oldest Sephardic Haggadah in the world, which was written in Andalusia around 1350. It is written on bleached calfskin and illuminated in gold and copper. In 1991 its value was estimated at US$700 million.

The Sarajevo Haggadah was taken out of Spain by Sephardic Jews in the exodus of 1495 and carried to Ottoman lands where they had taken shelter. The Sarajevo Haggadah was protected and cherished for more than five hundred years.

During World War II nearly 80% of Sarajevo’s 12,000 Jews were killed by the Nazis. The Nazis were aware of the existence of the Sarajevo Haggadah, which was kept in the Sarajevo Museum, and were in search of it so as to destroy it. But it was hidden from them by the Sarajevo Museum’s Muslim curator, Dervish Korkut, at great risk to his life. The curator had also saved the lives of a group of Yugoslavian Jews from the Nazis. He had received a certificate of commendation from the Israeli government for saving the Sarajevo Haggadah.

An Albanian Muslim woman, like thousands of ethnic Albanians, was driven out of Kosovo in April 1999. She was able to take with her only a handful of her belongings, including a document which her father had preserved and relished. On the other side of the Macedonian border, the woman showed the document—not knowing what it was all about—to some members of the local Jewish community who were involved in relief work for the Kosovars. They immediately realised the value of the document, which was the certificate of commendation her father—the Sarajevo Museum’s curator—had received from the Israeli government for saving the Sarajevo Haggadah.

The woman was immediately taken out of the refugee camp and out of the war zone in eastern Europe to Israel. She was welcomed at the Tel Aviv airport by a man who took her to his house and told her that he was the son of a Jewish woman saved by her father. She could hardly hold her tears and said, “My father did what he did with all his heart; not to get any thing in return. Fifty years later, it returns somehow. It’s a kind of circle”.

The Sarajevo Haggadah is now at the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Jews in other Islamic countries

Jewish communities are to be found in other Muslim countries, including Azerbaijan, Syria and Yemen. Azerbaijan had a substantial Jewish population until the last decades of the 20th century. In 1990 about 40,000 Jews left for Israel. Now there are about 10,000 Jews in Azerbaijan, most of them living in the capital Baku. There are a few synagogues and Jewish schools in Baku.

In the late 19th century, about 50,000 Jews lived in Syria. Most of them migrated to the US and Mexico City before World War I. Tunis has a small Jewish community of about 2,000 people. There are some synagogues and a few kosher restaurants in the city.

Until the communist takeover in 1944, Albania was noted for its religious tolerance, where Muslims, Jews and Christians lived in an atmosphere of harmonious coexistence. During the Fascist and Nazi occupation of the country in the war period, Albania refused to turn over its 300-member Jewish community to the Nazis. Because of the protection provided by their Muslim and Christian neighbours, only five Albanian Jews were killed during World War II.

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