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Review of "A History of Jewish - Muslim Relations: From the Origins to the Present Day" edited by


13 August 2014

As illustrated by my role as Co-Chair of the Muslim Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester, the subject of Jewish-Muslim relations is very important to me. Accordingly, when my Jewish Co-Chair made me aware of this book, I immediately bought it.

The book was published in France in 2013 with the assistance of the French Ministry of Culture. An almost immediate English translation was also published in 2013. It is on a monumental scale with over 1,000 pages of text, not including the bibliography and indices.

Normally I only review a book once I have read it in its entirety. However I am unlikely to read this book with many independent chapters from beginning to end. Instead, I have created this review page and the table below will be occasionally updated as I read segments if I decide to comment upon them. (I am unlikely to comment on every section.)

Title of segment

Date of review

1.A.a The Middle Ages - Prologue: "The 'Golden Age' of Jewish-Muslim relations: myth and reality"

13 August 2014

1.B.b The Middle Ages – The Emergence of Islam: “Islamic policy toward Jews from the Prophet Muhammad to the Pact of Umar”

26 February 2016

Overview of the book and specific segments

Table of contents

There is a condensed table of contents in its normal position at the front of the book. However, perhaps to avoid intimidating the reader, the detailed table of contents is at the end of the book with four levels of hierarchy.

The book’s own numbering makes this hierarchy hard to follow so in the reproduction of the table of contents below I have used my own numbering which differs from the table of contents as published while preserving the sequence.

The chapters have many different authors. I have not given their names to avoid cluttering up the table of contents below.

  1. The Middle Ages
    1. Prologue:
      1. The “Golden Age” of Jewish-Muslim relations: myth and reality
    2. The emergence of Islam
      1. The Jews of Arabia at the birth of Islam
        1. Counterpoint: the origin of the Jewish tribes of Arabia in the Kitab al-Aghani
        2. Nota bene: The Prophet and the Jewish tribes of Arabia according to Al-Sira
      2. Islamic policy toward Jews from the Prophet Muhammad to the Pact of Umar
        1. Counterpoint: the Pact of Umar: a controversial document
    3. In Islamic lands
      1. Jews and Muslims in the Eastern Islamic world
        1. Nota bene: the Cairo Geniza
        2. Nota bene: Baghdad
        3. Nota bene: persecutions under the reign of al-Hakim
        4. Nota bene: Jerusalem
      2. The Jews of al-Andalus
        1. Counterpoint: The Kuzari: defence of the despised religion
        2. Nota bene: Samuel ibn Naghrela
        3. Nota bene: Hasdai ibn Shaprut
      3. The conversion of Jews to Islam
    4. In Christendom
      1. The legal status of the Jews and Muslims in the Christian states
        1. Nota bene: Jews and Muslims in Sicily
        2. Counterpoint: Ramon Llull and the interfaith utopia
      2. Jews and Muslims in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem
  2. The modern world
    1. Prologue:
      1. Jews and Muslims in Ottoman territory before the expulsion from Spain
    2. In Ottoman territory, 15th to 19th centuries
      1. Jews and Muslims in the Ottoman Empire
        1. Nota bene: Salonika, “the Sefarad of the Balkans”
        2. Nota bene: Sabbatai Sevi, the “False Messiah” and Islam
        3. Nota bene: Eliyahu Capsali, Jewish Cantor of the Ottomans
      2. The Jews of Palestine
      3. The Jews of Jerusalem and Hebron during the Ottoman era
        1. Nota bene: myths and realities of Jerusalem for the Jews
        2. Nota bene: the Nasi family, or the dream of Tiberias
    3. Northern Africa
      1. In emergent Morocco
        1. Nota bene: Essaouira
        2. Nota bene: intermediaries between Christians and Muslims in Oran
        3. Nota bene: Jews in Libya
    4. Asia and the Middle East
      1. The Jews in Iran
        1. Counterpoint: A Judeo-Persian chronicle of forced conversions
      2. Jews of Yemen
      3. Jews and Muslims in Central Asia
    5. Relations with the European World
      1. Judaism and the religious denominational community in the Near East
        1. Nota bene: in Alexandria, the new cosmopolitan reality
  3. The present
    1. Prologues
      1. The Cremieux Decree
      2. The invention of the Holy Land
    2. The beginnings of the separation
      1. From coexistence to the rise of antagonisms
        1. Nota bene: Constantine: a Judeo-Muslim city
        2. Nota bene: the case of Tunisia
      2. The Balfour Declaration and its implications
      3. “The Arabs” as a category of British discourse in Palestine
      4. Zionism and the Arab question
        1. Counterpoint: Martin Buber: a spiritual Zionism
    3. Confronting Nazism
      1. The diverse reactions to Nazism by leaders in the Muslim countries
        1. Nota bene: the Mufti of Jerusalem: opportunism and anti-Semitism
        2. Nota bene: Mohammed V, protector of Moroccan Jews
        3. Nota bene: Messali Hadj, the refusal to collaborate
        4. Nota bene: the Tunisian Jews in the German occupation
        5. Counterpoint: Taha Hussein: an Arab writer denounces Nazi barbarism
        6. Nota bene: Muslim Righteous Among the Nations
    4. The great rupture in the Middle East
      1. Al-Nakba: a few keys to reading a catastrophe
      2. From the Judeo-Palestinian conflict to the Arab-Israeli wars
      3. Israel in the face of its victories
        1. Nota bene: Sadat and Begin: the men behind a historic peace treaty
      4. The mobilisation of religion in the Israeli-Arab conflict
        1. Nota bene: Jerusalem, a political and religious issue
      5. The emigration of the Jews from the Arab world
        1. Counterpoint: “They called us Blue Muslims”
      6. The case of Lebanon: contemporary issues of adversity
    5. Spaces of cohabitation
      1. Muslim-Jewish relations in Israel
      2. The Arabs in Israel
      3. Shari’a jurisdiction in Israel
        1. Nota bene: mixed (interreligious) marriages in Israel
      4. Judeo-Arab associations in Israel
      5. In the territories
      6. Survival of the Jewish community in Turkey
      7. Iranian paradoxes
      8. In the shadow of the Republic: a century of coexistence and conflict
        1. Nota bene: the Mosque of Paris and the saving of the Jews: an unresolved question
    6. Tense conversations
      1. Muslim Arab attitudes toward Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: variable and contingent
      2. Perceptions of the Holocaust in the Arab world: from denial to acknowledgement?
        1. Nota bene: Edward Said and Avraham Burg: two free voices
      3. Muslim anti-Semitism: old or new?
        1. Nota bene: the anti-Semitic obsession of Al Qa’ida
    7. Looking at the other
      1. Relations between Jews and Muslims in Hebrew literature
      2. Jewish figures in modern Arabic literature
      3. Figures of the Israeli in Palestinian literature
        1. Counterpoint: Darwish and Rita, the Jewish lover
      4. Writing difference in French-language Maghrebi literature
        1. Nota bene: Albert Memmi, or the reconciliation of identities
        2. Nota bene: Edmond Amran El Maleh and the Palestinian question
      5. Looking at the other: Israeli and Palestinian cinemas
  4. Transversalities
    1. Prologue
      1. Recapitulating the positives without giving in to myth
    2. Founding books, mirror images
      1. Qur’an and Torah: the foundations of intertextuality
        1. Nota bene: the Jews in the fifth sura, al-Ma’ida
        2. Nota bene: the Isra’iliyyat
      2. Arabic translations of the Hebrew Bible
        1. Counterpoint: Moshe ibn Ezra: the impossible task of the translator
        2. Nota bene: Judeo-Persian translations of the Hebrew Bible
      3. Hebrew translations and transcriptions of the Quran
        1. Nota bene: Jewish views on the birth of Islam
    3. Mirrored languages
      1. Hebrew, Arabic: a comparative view
        1. Nota bene: the Arab inspiration of the beginnings of Hebrew grammar
        2. Nota bene: Judeo-Arabic
        3. Nota bene: Judeo-Persian
      2. Semitism: from a linguistic concept to a racist argument
    4. Two religions of the law
      1. Comparison between the Halakha and Shari’a
        1. Counterpoint: Ibn Khaldun: the Jews and the political
        2. Nota bene: Ibn Hazm and Maimonides and the fiqh
      2. Rituals: similarities, influences, and processes of differentiation
        1. Counterpoint: Ibn Arabi and the Jew’s reply to the Muslim pilgrim
      3. Prayer in Judaism and Islam
      4. Shabbat and Friday in Judaism and Islam
      5. Jewish and Muslim charity in the Middle Ages: a comparative approach
        1. Nota bene: the names of Jerusalem
    5. Philosophy, science, and intellectual movements
      1. Jewish and Muslim philosophy: similarities and differences
        1. Nota bene: Saadia Gaon: the adaptation of traditional Jewish culture to the new Arab culture
        2. Counterpoint: Interfaith intellectual exchanges in 10th century Baghdad: rationality as common denominator
      2. The Andalusian philosophical milieu
      3. The Karaites and Mu’tazilism
      4. Judaism and Islam according to Ibn Kammuna
      5. From Arabic to Hebrew: the reception of the Greco-Arab sciences in Hebrew (12th - 15th centuries)
      6. Shi’ism and Judaism: a relation marked by Paradox
        1. Nota bene: Isma’ilism and mediaeval Jewish thought in Islamic territories
      7. European Judaism and Islam: the contribution of Jewish Orientalists
        1. Nota bene: present-day Iran and the Israeli Orientalists
    6. Mysticism
      1. Embodied letter: Sufi and Kabbalistic hermeneutics
        1. Nota bene: parallelism between Avicenna’s Hayy ibn Yaqzan and Ibn Ezra’s Hayben Meqitz
      2. Respectful rival: Abraham Maimonides on Islam
        1. Counterpoint: The Temple according to Jalal al-Din Rumi
      3. Jews, Islamic mysticism, and the Devil
    7. Art and literature
      1. Biblical prophets and their illustration in Islamic art
        1. Nota bene: Moses in Islamic painting
      2. Images of Jews in Ottoman court manuscripts
      3. Synagogues in the Islamic world
        1. Nota bene: the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo
        2. Nota bene: the synagogue known as El Transito in Toledo
        3. Nota bene: El Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, pilgrimage site
      4. The contribution of Jewish architects to Egypt’s architectural modernity
      5. James Sanua’s ideological contribution to pan-Islamism
        1. Nota bene: Al Samaw’al ibn Adiya, a pre-Islamic Jewish poet
      6. Arabic Ars Poetica in Biblical Hebrew: Hebrew poetry in Spain
        1. Nota bene: Ibn Sahl of Seville, a Jewish poet who converted to Islam
      7. The figure of the Jew in A Thousand and One Nights
      8. Judeo-Persian literature
        1. Nota bene: illuminated Judeo-Persian manuscripts
      9. The music of al-Andalus: meeting place of three cultures
        1. Nota bene: the Iranian Jewish musician Morteza Neydavoud
        2. Nota bene: Cheikh Raymond, the “Hseini” (1912 – 1961)
    8. Memory and history
      1. The Jews of the Maghreb: between memory and history
        1. Nota bene: memory and interconnected identities
        2. Nota bene: the Kahina: Jewish symbol, Islamic narrative
        3. Nota bene: the Jews of India
        4. Nota bene: Jewish communities in sub-Saharan Africa
      2. Jewish pilgrimages in Egypt
        1. Nota bene: the tomb of Esther in Iran
      3. Aspects of family life among Jews in Muslim societies
      4. Citizenship, gender, and feminism in the contemporary Arab Muslim and Jewish worlds
      5. “Muslim body” versus “Jewish body”: the invention of a division
      6. Flavours and memories of shared culinary spaces in the Maghreb

1.A.a The Middle Ages - Prologue: "The 'Golden Age' of Jewish-Muslim relations: myth and reality" by Mark R Cohen

The author is Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University.

This segment looks at the near universal consensus in the 19th century that the Jews in the Islamic Middle Ages lived in a golden age of Muslim-Jewish harmony. Muslim Spain was taken as the model but the idealised picture went beyond Spain to the entire Muslim world from Baghdad to Cordoba and from the early Islamic conquests to the era of Moses Maimonides.

The author explains that this idea originated with Central Eastern European Jewish historians disappointed by emancipation era promises of equality. The tolerance ascribed to Islam was used to chastise their Christian neighbours for failing to live up to the Muslim standards of many centuries earlier. The author reminds us that to some extent this was a myth which ignored the legal inferiority of the Jews and periodic outbursts of violence but at the same time, comparing with the treatment of Jews in northern Europe and late mediaeval Spain, it also contained a very large kernel of truth.

In the 20th century, Muslims appropriated this Jewish myth as a weapon against Zionism contrasting Islamic tolerance with Christian persecution. In turn there was a Jewish response rejecting the idea of the golden age utopia with the revisionists insisting that the Prophet Muhammad was intent upon exterminating the Jews from the very beginning and contending that Islam persecuted Jews as relentlessly as mediaeval Christendom.

The author is clear that although there was no golden age as mythologised, medieval Islam was more tolerant than Christianity and he looks at this in some detail.

1.B.b The Middle Ages – The Emergence of Islam: “Islamic policy toward Jews from the Prophet Muhammad to the Pact of Umar” by Mark R Cohen

The author is Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University.

The author begins by asking the question of where Muhammad learned about Judaism.

Why the academic study of religion ignores God

Religious people often find it difficult to understand that divine intervention has no role in academic scholarship.

My piece “Why science ignores God” explains this in the context of science.

Exactly the same principles apply in the academic study of religions. Once one excludes God as a source of knowledge for Muhammad (peace be upon him), one is required to find human sources for any knowledge that Muhammad (pbuh) had about Jews and Judaism.

He considers that the isolated Jews residing in Mecca during his youth would not have served as a significant source of knowledge about Judaism. However, Muhammad may have met with Jewish trading merchants in Mecca or during his own commercial troubles, as well as meeting with Christians.

Conversely, in Medina he encountered no Christians but large settlements of Jews. “While attitudes towards the Jews expressed in the Quran were doubtless formed already in Muhammad’s Meccan period, his Jewish policies were a product of his experience in Medina.”

Different messages about Jews in the Quran

The author points out that the Quran contains mixed messages about Jews and Christians.

“At the outset, most scholars agree, Muhammad assumed the Jews would flock to his preaching and recognise him as their own prophet – indeed, the final, or “seal” of the prophets. Fred M. Donner argues, in fact, that originally the new religion – the “community of believers,” he called them – was meant as an ecumenical community open to Jews and Christians. And so the Prophet’s attitude was at first largely conciliatory.… He also adopted or adapted several Jewish practices in hopes of drawing Jews near.… All these efforts were aimed at winning Jewish acknowledgement of his prophetic mission. Apart from religious motives, there was a more mundane reason for reaching out to the Jews. He needed the militarily powerful and wealthy Jewish tribes of Medina as allies against his enemies in Mecca. Most of the Jews rejected his preaching. His disappointment and frustration are reflected in many unfriendly verses in the Quran.”

The author goes on to outline the many ways in which Muhammad’s policy was tolerant.

The pragmatic Constitution of Medina

The author writes:

“Apart from the Quran, the most important source regarding Muhammad’s attitude and policy toward the Jews is the so-called Constitution of Medina. The text of this important document is preserved in two full versions, the better known of the two being the biography of the Prophet by Ibn Ishaq/Ibn Hisham.”

He goes on to outline the provisions in detail.

“Two important clauses at the very beginning, whose meaning is disputed, form the crux. The first is usually rendered as follows (following Ibn Ishaq’s recension): ‘the Jews share expenditure with the believers as long as they are at war. The Jews of Banu Awf are umma al-muminin,’ ‘an umma (community) with the believers.’ Almost every scholar takes this to mean that the Jews were initially part of the Muslim community. [See the earlier reference to the views of Fred M. Donner.] The second phrase is translated, ‘the Jews have their religion (din) and the Muslims have theirs.’ This correlates with the statement in Ibn Ishaq’s introduction, aquarrahum ala dinihim wa-amwalihim, [Translated earlier on the page as ‘allowed them to keep their religion and property’.] and should not be understood otherwise. It gives expression to the religious pluralism in Islam mentioned before.”

The author goes on to discuss the alternative reading of Lecker.

“With some textual support from outside the constitution, Lecker emends umma to amana and translates: ‘the Jews of Banu Awf are secure (amana) from (min) the muminun’ (he leaves the last word untranslated). This emendation is orthographically plausible. Combined with a careful logical argument, Lecker’s revisionist interpretation constitutes a bold suggestion. The constitution, he argues, is consistent with separate non-belligerency compacts concluded with the three large Jewish tribes shortly after the hijra (thus incidentally explaining their omission from the document), part of a pragmatic policy to assure Jewish loyalty and support in return for their own security and religious freedom.

While Donner’s theory would strengthen the case that the Prophet meant to be inclusive, incorporating the Jews into the umma of monotheistic believers, in Lecker’s interpretation, it is not necessary to conclude that the Jews were part of the community of Islam. Hence, determining the date of the treaty or whether or not the Prophet had at first a ‘pro-Jewish’ policy is asking the wrong question. If Lecker’s view is upheld, we would be entitled to conclude that Muhammad’s policy in Medina – as distinct from his attitude – did not change from tolerant (in the Constitution of Medina) to intolerant, culminating in the oft-mentioned ‘break with the Jews.’ His policy, as represented already in the Constitution, was consistent, stemming from a pragmatic decision to achieve mutual non-belligerency with the Jews and to attain their cooperation in the struggle against Mecca. As part of this policy he granted the Jews security (aman) and religious freedom, which then became standard in subsequent conquest treaties made with native populations. As we shall see, this set the stage for the full-blown dhimma system governing Muslim and non-Muslim relations throughout the Middle Ages (indeed, until it was abolished in the nineteenth century in the Ottoman Empire and the early twentieth century in Morocco; in Yemen it ended only with the mass exodus of Yemeni Jews to Israel in 1950).”

The dhimma policy

The author goes on to discuss the dhimma policy in some detail.

While this policy is often criticised by modern commentators who contend that the equal citizenship we see in 21st century societies should have applied, in my view the policy should be compared with the alternative approach that prevailed in contemporary Christian Europe where Christian heretics were often slaughtered and Jews were very badly treated if they were tolerated at all within the kingdoms and empires concerned.

As the author writes:

“A pragmatic policy of live and let live thus governed relations between the conquered and the conquerors, a prudent alternative to stretching their relatively small forces thin in fights to the bitter end. This pragmatism was later applied to people who were not monotheists or People of the Book, such as Hindus, in some parts of India. The grant of considerable autonomy to the non-Muslim communities, alongside religious freedom, allow them to maintain their separate identity.

An exception that proves the rule is the notorious ‘pogrom’ against the Jewish community of Granada, Spain, in 1066, in which the males of the community were killed and the women and children enslaved, as punishment for the haughty behaviour of the Jewish vizier Joseph Ibn Naghrela. The tragic episode, exceptional as it was in targeting the Jews per se, in reality represents an extreme instance where Muslims retaliated against dhimmis for exceeding the accepted norms of the hierocratic Muslim-dhimmi relationship.”

The author goes on to discuss the Pact of Umar.

The Pact of Umar

“There are many questions concerning the text of the document. Who wrote it? Was it really Umar ibn al-Khattab (r. 634-644), the second caliph and companion of the Prophet, or perhaps Caliph Umar Ibn Abd al-Aziz, who reigned from 717 – 720 and was known for his piety and rigorous enforcement of Islamic law? What is the provenance and purpose of the stipulations? Why does the document have the strange form of a letter written by the conquered non-Muslim people themselves and listing in such detail the harsh conditions of their subordination, rather than the form of an agreement composed by the conquering caliph or general, in the normal manner of conquest treaties? Why are there different versions of the text, in some cases representing an appeal to the conquering general rather than to the caliph?

Most scholars have been sceptical about the pact’s authenticity. Perhaps best known among the doubters is Arthur Stanley Tritton. In his book, The Caliphs and Their Non-Muslim Subjects: A Critical Study of the Pact of Umar, published in 1930, he compared the text of the pact and its restrictive stipulations with historical evidence of treatment of non-Muslims in the early conquest period and afterward. He showed that these sources show no awareness of the document prior to the beginning of the ninth century. The fact that the pact presents the non-Muslims (Christians, in fact) dictating their own harsh terms of surrender to the caliph Umar, rather than the reverse, seemed an additional reason for doubting its genuineness.

The first text Tritton could find containing the elements of the Pact was a formulary for a conquest treaty in the law book Kitab al-umm, of the jurist al-Shafi (767 – 820), who compiled that collection apparently between ca. 814 and his death. Tritton concluded that the versions of the Pact of Umar represented pattern treaties drawn up as an exercise by students in Islamic schools. It was attributed pseudepigraphically to Caliph Umar, a companion of the Prophet and one of the ‘founding fathers’ of the Islamic state, and caliph during the earliest phase of the Islamic conquests. Tritton was followed in his scepticism by Antoine Fattal, whose book in French, Le statut legal des non-Musulmans en pays d’Islam, is still a standard work on the Pact of Umar and on the legal status of non-Muslims in general.”

The author goes on to give the full text of the Pact. He reminds us that while the many versions of the Pact not feature the Jews as petitioners (it is usually Christians), the Jews were nonetheless subject to the same rules.

"In an important article, Albrecht Noth persuasively argued that many of the clauses in the pact reflect the early conquest period and that, in its original context, it was not devised to humiliate, let alone persecute, non-Muslims. It was meant to erect boundaries differentiating between the tiny Muslim minority and the vast majority of conquered non-Muslim peoples. In order to strengthen their own identity, the Muslims needed to distinguish themselves from the local populations, to put the non-Muslims in their place, to keep them in a humble position and ensure they remained in the low rank to which they had been assigned by the hierarchical religion.

This makes sense. I have argued, further, in answer to the sceptics who dismissed the document as a forgery, that the pact as we know it, though placed in the mouth of the conquered people, actually imitates the form of a petition requesting a decree, a normal procedure in Islamic society, with the non-Muslims suing for peace and stipulating their own restrictions – in return for various guarantees of security.)"

The author goes on to discuss the views of Milka Levy-Rubin who contends in her book “Non-Muslims in the Early Islamic Empire” that many of the provisions in the pact are not based upon Byzantine laws regarding the Jews but upon Sasanian models from Zoroastrian Iran. The author himself considers that the pact was often honoured in the breach with somewhat laissez-faire attitudes from local and even the central authorities. However, the pact itself eventually achieved canonical status and became part of the "holy law of Islam" and as such a fixed guide to policy and not subject to arbitrary manipulation by rulers.

The overall discussion is illuminating.

Concluding comments

The table of contents shows just how wide-ranging the book is. It promises to be a veritable treasure trove of material, all written by experts in the field.

I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the relationship between these two religious groups, which is of such importance in today’s world.




Kindle edition above


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