Jewish Attempts to Survive and Thrive in Muslim Societies from 750-1500 and from 1850-1948

Categories: History

From 750 -1948 Jews and Muslims were together in some way. For the most part, Jews and Muslims had a direct relationship with one another that allowed Jews to flourish under an Islamic Empire. For the most part, Muslims allowed them to flourish in the economy, culturally, and intellectually. Overall, Jews were treated well in Muslim societies during 750-1500, and during the 1850-1948 period, Jews started flourishing without the help of the Muslims in the Muslim world. Living under the Islamic rule enabled Jews to be strong and flourish all throughout the Muslim empires from the Iberian peninsula to Khorasan (modern day Central Asia) around the year 750.

With the help of the Umayyad Caliphate ruled under Abd Al-Rahman I, Muslims were able to build new infrastructure and other transportation infrastructure. This helped the Jews to be able to build communities and strengthen their old communities. This allowed Jews to be mobile and move to other communities as they please (Rustow 78).

Jews had the ability to thrive during this time because they had a lot of leeway to live as they please.

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Being restricted to certain boundaries will not help any group living under a separate empire to thrive. Improving the infrastructure of this area allowed Jews to be mobile and help improve their cultural identity. In between the Iberian Peninsula and Khorasan, Iraq played a major role in helping Jews at the time with their cultural identity. In Iraq, the rise of the geonim allowed more rabbinical academies for Jews to learn their religion.

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Without the help of the Muslim rulers, Jews would’ve never had a rise in geonim in this region. They donated generously to the rabbinical academies and were able to bring students from abroad to Iraq (Rustow 79). Without the help of the Umayyad Caliphate and their infrastructures, Jews would’ve never had students from abroad.

The streets that the Muslims made for the Jews helped make mobility easy for the Jews and allowed commuting to not be an issue for the rabbinical academies. The improvements of the infrastructure in Iraq from the Umayyad Caliphate helped Jews to thrive in improved communities and the creation of rabbinical academies to help Jews find their cultural identity. Another place that Jews were able to thrive and survive was in Cordoba, Spain. Abd-Al Rahman III, same family of as Abd Al-Rahman I, took power of Cordoba in 912 and claimed he was also a caliphate. Not only did the Muslims under the Umayyad Caliphate helped them to thrive culturally, Jews were able to be business owners and travel as commercial agents in both the Christian and Muslim markets in Cordoba (Sepharad 34). Having access to a universal market allowed Jews to be able to pick and choose which markets they need to invest in to be able to make profit. Muslims weren’t able to have access to Christian European markets, and Christians weren’t able to have access to the Muslim waters, yet both religious communities were still able to flourish with the restrictions put on the other community.

Another survival technique that Jews used in a Muslim community was the fact that they were multilingual. Having access to Christian European markets and Muslim markets, Jews were able to fit in with any market. They were able to speak, Arabic, Persian, Hebrew, Spanish, and Greek (Sepharad 36). The fact that Jews were able to have a presence in the Iberian Peninsula to modern day Central Asia, allowed them to learn many languages. Using these languages allowed Jews to fit into both the Christian and Muslim markets. It was a huge economic advantage that Jews had over the Muslims and Christians. Jews having the ability to speak the language of the market gave them the better advantage than Christians trying to do business in a Muslim market and vise versa. Abd Al-Rahman III was known as the ruler that helped spark Jews’ Golden Age.

Many respected Jews named, Hasday Ibn Shaprut, a court physician, Samuel Ibn Naghrela, in charge of the Muslim army in Cordoba, both used their positions of authority to help their fellow Jews. Them and many other people used their popularity and wealth to help improve Jewish life in the Muslim communities and allowed them to gain intellectual and economic intelligence. In particular, Cordoba was the center of 70 huge libraries containing 400000 volumes of books and was recognized as the center for medicine and Technology (Sepharad 29). These Jews used their wealth to patronize Jewish literature. The Spanish inquisition in the year 1478 was a time when the Muslim power in Spain fell and the Christians took over Spain. During this time, we see a rise in Christians forcing Muslims and Jews to convert, or they would have to leave Spain. This was a period when Jews weren’t able to survive and thrive under a Muslim society because there was no Muslim society.

During the 1850-1948 period, we see a dramatic change in history. In the first half of the century Jews and Muslims had a direct success. When Muslims were thriving in their communities, Jews were also thriving in their communities. Similar to the last 7 centuries, Jews and Muslims mostly had a symbiotic relationship with one another. However, the last 50 years of the 1900’s to 1948, we see that dramatic shift in Jews not needing the help of Muslims in the east, and have become more and more independent during this time. Thriving in a society requires people to also be entertained and open to other opportunities to have fun as a community.

In Murat C. Yildiz presentation Creating Strong Bodies and a Modern Community: The Emergence and Development of a Jewish Voluntary association in the Late Ottoman Empire, he talked about the Jewish Gymanstics Club of Constantinople in 1865 and many other clubs allowed the players to enjoy a time together as one Jewish community without Muslim influence to play sports and compete in them. This not only helped Jewish athletes to have fun but also allowed other non-athletes to watch their fellow Jewish athletes to compete in games in Istanbul. This was the period of Olympics which was a trend from the West to have judges and people gathering together and watching the games. This helped Jews to think that regardless of their situation, they still have an influence of modernity in the east. From the mid-1500’s when Dona Gracia Mendes, a Jew from the Spanish inquisition, moved to Istanbul and encouraged other Jews in Spain to come to practice their religion there, to the 1900’s; Jews were still considered unequal with the Turks.

One of the similarities to the 1850 and the 750-1500’s was that Jews had the ability to flourish regardless of their situation. Whether or not they were treated equally with the other higher positions of authority did not affect them. In response to the unequal treatment, the Jewish communities in Europe created an organization called the Alliance Israelite Universelle (AIU), founded in 1860, European Jews had the idea of creating an organization that defends the rights of Jews. The AIU aims to 1) work everywhere for the emancipation and moral progress of the Jews 2) lend effectual support to those who suffer through being Jews 3) encourage every publication intended to bring about the this result (Bigart 46). The AIU wants Jews to be treated equally and have French and other European publications to support this organization. This helped raise awareness that if Jews really are being treated unequally, Europeans should publicize it and make people knowledgeable about Jewish life in eastern Muslim communities. Certain acts were taken place in the Ottoman Empire by the AIU to help improve Jewish life. The major developments done by the AIU were in Baghdad, Basra and Mosul.

AIU originated a presence in the East first in Baghdad. The first AIU school opened in 1865. Basra had an all girls school that opened in 1903 and Mosul opened a school in 1908. One of the things that the AIU organization did in the East was to focus on the future Jews. The Jewish youngsters was a major goal for the AIU. As a result the students gained intellectual and economic abilities that helped them to be more independent from the Muslim communities, in particular the Ottoman Empire. In response to the unequal treatment, the Ottomans also did many reformations to treat Jews equally. They reformed their Ottoman constitution. The Young Turk Revolution created the Tanzimat reforms that allowed Jews and Christians to be equally treated in a Muslim society. This was a lot different than what we have looked at so far because this did not abide by the Sharia law at the time. In Sharia law, communities that weren’t Muslims were permanently restricted to the level of freedom they have in the place they are living.

The Tanzimat reform allowed Jews and Christians to call themselves as Ottoman nationalists and now they could call themselves Ottoman Jews and Ottoman Christians. With a lot of support from Baghdadi secular and religious leaders like Sassoon Heskel and Yosef Hayyim, the Ottoman Empire was able to continue these reforms on Jews. Some of the other major reforms the Ottomans made was that the Military exemption tax to be abolished that Jews and Christians were required to be a part of the Muslim army or they have to pay a tax if they don’t abide by this law. Similar to the Muslims, Jews and Christians were now not required to join the army if they don’t want to. This allowed the non-Muslims to save the money or spend that money that they would have to pay for the military tax. Another thing was that the Young Turk revolution allowed Jews to be a part of the Ottoman parliament again and have high positions of authority in a Muslim government.

Some may argue that the Tanzimat reforms didn’t do much good because the reforms mostly got faster reforms in areas closer to Baghdad and not Mosul and Basra. As a result, they were not a huge supporter of the Tanzimat reforms. Another reason why some may argue that the Tanzimat reform didn’t do much to the Jewish communities was that the major Jewish communities, Salonica and Rhodes were lost. However, what we do see is that Zionism made no inroads into this community that would influence them in any way to migrate to Europe. One major difference we see in Jewish history throughout this whole period was the dramatic shift in identity from the early 1900’s-1948. There were two different types of Jews, Zionist Jews and Arab Nationalist Jews. This was a lot different from before because there was the Sephardic, Ashkenazi, and Romaniote Jews before Zionism even existed.

However, the vast majority of the Iraqi Jews moved to Israel not because they liked the idea of Zionism but because Jews started not being welcome in areas like Iraq and elsewhere. Although there was the Tanzimat reform, it didn’t do much to Jews anymore. However, there was still Jews in the Arab world that still supported Muslims and took a role in a non-Zionist movement. As a result, the Europeans thought of this as something negative and wanted to fix this issue, and resulted in a threat to the Muslim government (Lewis). They wanted to have a dual loyalty relationship but with the European Jews trying to attract all Jews to come to Europe it was hard for Arab nationalist Jews to thrive in the Muslim communities. Therefore, the 1900’s was a time when the Jewish population in the east went down tremendously. Jews were now spreading out across the world in places like the United States, Russia, Germany, Poland, and many more countries. Over time, even the Jewish population in those places downgraded to just two countries, the United States and Israel.

We have to keep in mind that Jews were considered the minority in an Islamic empire; compared to the other minorities around the world like African Americans and Mexicans in the US, the Jews in the Islamic world were, quite shockingly, able to thrive culturally, intellectually, politically, and economically in a Muslim society. In this paper we examined two different periods where Jews were able to thrive in a Muslim society. The first period we examined extended over 7 and half centuries from the year 750-1500. This period was a time when Jewish community was always right beside The Muslim empires. Whether it was the Umayyad Caliphate starting in the early gth century all the way to the Ottoman Empire to the 20th century, Muslims intentions were not to destroy the lives of Jews in the Islamic world. Jews were the minority but they were given several opportunities all throughout the several empires to be successful and thrive to have powerful positions in the Muslim courts. Not only did the Jews in the Islamic world have government positions but they were also able to own business that helped gain additional power in the Islamic world.

The 1% of Jews in the Islamic world was able to patronize their Hebrew language and donate a lot of their money to their fellow Jews. Even though there was a high population of low income/peasant Jews, Jews were very united with one another and were able to help their fellow Jews that were going through hardship and instability. I know this for a fact because the Jewish upper class donated a lot of money to the libraries in Cordoba and elsewhere to help the unprivileged get the education they need to be just as successful as them. The period 1850 – 1948 we saw a dramatic change in just less than 100 years. During this time we see the creation of the Alliance Israelite Universelle (AIU) that aimed to give Jews equal rights wherever they are, creation of schools, and publicize the treatment of Jews in the Islamic world.

We then saw a shift in Ottoman reforms called the Tanzimat reforms that gave Jews and other non-Muslims the right to be equally as treated as Muslims in the Ottoman Empire. Because the Tanzimat reform was only practiced in Baghdad, all the other cities owned by the Muslims and Jews as the minority were upset that they weren’t treated the same. Therefore, we see a shift in identity. Jews started calling them either Zionists or Arab Nationalists. Over time, the Arab-nationalist Jews were shifting themselves to Zionism and towards 1948 Jews had little to no presence in the Arab world and a lot of their presence was in Israel and the United States. With the help of the unified relationship with each other, Jews are now flourishing in the US and Israel.

Works Cited List

  1. Bernard Lewis, The Jews of Islam (1984) Jacques Bigart, The Alliance Israelite Universelle (The American Jewish Committee, 1900) 45-65.
  2. Jane Gerber The Jews of Spain:A History of Sephardic Jews, (Free Press, 1994) 29-57 Marina Rustow In Islamic Lands: Jews and Muslims in the Eastern Islamic World, 75-97

Cite this page

Jewish Attempts to Survive and Thrive in Muslim Societies from 750-1500 and from 1850-1948. (2021, Oct 10). Retrieved from

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