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Review of "In Ishmael’s House – A History of Jews in Muslim Lands" by


2 January 2013

Sir Martin Gilbert is an eminent historian and the official biographer of Sir Winston Churchill. By background he is Jewish and has written a number of books on Jewish history.

In this book he covers the history of Jews in Muslim majority regions from the beginning of Islam to the present day. I first learned about the book through reading a slightly critical review in the 12 August 2010 issue of the Economist newspaper. I bought the book the following week and recall reading it almost immediately although it has taken me a couple of years to get round to writing this review.

Overview of the book

Ignoring the preamble and the references at the end, the book comprises 354 pages of text. The page allocation is noteworthy since only 127 pages are used to cover the period from the beginning of Islam until about 1900 while 227 pages are used for the 20th century. Given the cataclysmic changes that took place during the 20th century that allocation seems reasonable.

The book begins with dedication that I found quite moving. I have reproduced it below with the same line breaks as in the book:

This book is dedicated
to the 13 million Jews and the 1,300 million Muslims in the world
in the hope that they may renew
in the Twenty-First Century
the mutual tolerance, respect and partnership
that marked many periods in their history.

I have reproduced below the chapter headings to give an overall impression of the book. For some chapters I have commented only very briefly while in other cases I comment on the chapter in greater detail.

Before Islam

The author begins by pointing out how widely dispersed Jews were in the ancient world before the time of Mohammed. (In this review I have used the author’s spelling of the name of the Prophet (pbuh). He seems unaware that the preferred modern spelling is Muhammad.) For example he mentions Jewish gravestone inscriptions in the city of Carthage in Tunisia which have been dated to 813 BC.

The Prophet Mohammed and the Jews

The author reminds us how widely dispersed Jews were in the Arabian Peninsula, with 20 Jewish tribes living there, three of them in Medina. He explains the great commonality between the beliefs of Islam and the beliefs of Judaism.

The author recounts the history of Mohammed in Medina, his pact with the Jewish tribes and the way that the Jewish tribes breached the pact by allying with Mohammed’s Meccan enemies.

Protection or persecution?

The author reminds us that under Byzantine rule Jews were not allowed to live in Jerusalem but that Caliph Omar permitted 70 Jewish families to return to Jerusalem after conquest by the Muslims.

He points out the important roles that some Jews attained under the caliphs. For example under Caliph Abd al-Malik, a Jew was in charge of minting the caliph’s coins in Damascus while another Jew was the administrator of the North African city of Bizerta.

The author recounts the rules applicable to dhimmi (“protected people”, basically Christians and Jews living under Muslim rule) laid down by Caliph Omar Abd al-Azziz, the eighth Umayyad Caliph. The chapter contains an extended discussion of these rules and their impact upon Jews but does not mention that unlike Muslims, Christians and Jews were exempted from compulsory military service applicable to Muslims and also exempt from paying Zakat, the compulsory religious contribution into the central treasury.

The first 400 years under Islam

The author points out that in many cases, as the Muslim empire spread, Muslim conquerors were welcomed by the Jews since such conquest brought freedom from Christian persecution.

While Muslim rule in Spain was initially beneficial to the Jews, problems developed later on with a major pogrom in Granada shortly after 1066 when an estimated 5,000 Jews were killed. The author considers that this may have exceeded the number of Jews killed by Christian soldiers in the Rhineland 30 years later at the start of the first Crusade.

Jews and Muslims in the age of the Crusades

The author points out how in 1099 Jews and Muslims fought side-by-side against the invading Christian crusaders besieging Jerusalem. Once the city fell, the Crusaders massacred Muslims and Jews alike.

He goes into some detail about the travails of Maimonides who fled Spain to get away from the persecution of Jews by Almohads, settling in Fez for five years but being forced to convert to Islam. Although arrested in Fez and accused of having relapsed into Judaism, he was released because a Muslim friend attested to his good Muslim character. Moving to Egypt he found more tolerant rulers and was able to practice Judaism again.

The Ottoman sultans and other Muslim rulers, 1324 – 1699

Under Ottoman rule Jews were subjected to the dhimmi regulations but in a relatively tolerant way. For example they were allowed to engage in commerce, to build synagogues, to own property and to establish their own religious courts. This was much better treatment than they experienced in Christian lands and accordingly as the Ottomans conquered Byzantine cities they always found support from the Jewish communities.

Consequently, the Ottoman Empire became a place of refuge for Jews. For example the author mentions that in 1470 a large community of Jewish refugees arrived in Salonika (conquered by the Ottomans 40 years earlier) after fleeing Christian persecution in Bavaria. They formed an Ashkenazi community alongside the city’s ancient Greek speaking Jewish community which dated back to pre-Roman times.

The most important instance of refuge came after 1492 when Christian Spain and later Christian Portugal expelled at least 100,000 Jews, many of whom moved to Morocco and to the Ottoman Empire.

The author points out how Jews were always at risk of capricious Muslim rulers turning against them. For example Sultan Murad III succeeded to the Ottoman throne in 1574 and employed many Jews in positions of influence at his royal court. However in 1579 Murad III turned against the Jews and is reported to have ordered, in a fit of rage, that all Jews living under his rule should be exterminated. His Jewish physician, Solomon Ashkenazi persuaded the Sultan’s mother to intervene.

The 18th and 19th centuries

The author gives a number of examples of the changeability of Muslim rulers. For example, he mentions in Morocco a Jewish businessman, Jacob Attali who received great favour as a protégé of the Moroccan Sultan Mohammad. However the Sultan’s successor, Moulay Yazid punished Jacob Attali for supporting the previous Sultan by having him beheaded.

In 1839 the Jews of Meshed faced massacred by a Muslim mob; most of them were saved by Muslim notables declaring that the Jewish community would convert to Islam. Many of them then fled to the Central Asian city of Merv, 150 miles to the north-east, where the local sheik allowed them to practice Judaism while others went to Afghanistan.

Progress and peril: towards the 20th century

The author recounts the great progress made under the Ottoman Empire. In 1849 Sultan Abdul Mejid granted official status to all Jewish and Christian communities under his rule, allowing them to establish organisations to regulate their communal life. In 1856 he ordered an end to dhimmi status. In 1875 his successor issued a decree that circumvented the refusal of Islamic religious courts to accept evidence from Jews and Christians. Henceforth all legal cases between Muslims and dhimmis were to be moved out of the religious Sharia courts into civil courts.

These changes enabled Jewish communities to grow and thrive within the Ottoman Empire. For example by 1884 the Jewish population of Baghdad was estimated at 30,000.

Unfortunately this progress went alongside recurrent bouts of antisemitism including the dissemination of European antisemitic literature into the Ottoman Empire.

The author mentions the support that Jewish communities outside Palestine tried to give to the Jews of Palestine and to religious institutions in the four Jewish Holy Cities (Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed and Tiberias). Some Jews moved to Palestine; for example Yemeni Jews started emigrating to Palestine in 1882. The following year, the Ottoman ruler of Yemen banned such emigration and for the next 20 years Yemeni Jews could only go to Palestine clandestinely.

As an example of persecution, the author points out that Jews in the Persian city of Hamadan were given a written set of rules to ensure that they understood and obeyed the restrictions imposed on them under their dhimmi status. There were 22 rules in all and while some were part of the long-standing dhimmi regulations, others were newly invented and some of them look very peculia. For example rule 22 stated “Jews must not consume good fruit.”

The first years of the 20th century and the emergence of Zionism

The author explains that in the early years of the 20th century in many cases constitutional liberalisation took place while antisemitic sentiments remained.

For example the Young Turk Revolution of 1908 granted Jews within the Ottoman Empire equal rights and Parliamentary representation. Jews became eligible for conscription although some left the Empire to avoid such conscription. Similarly, in 1906 in Persia under a new constitution Persian Jews received equal rights to all other citizens, Muslim and non-Muslim. However anti-Jewish persecution also continued and the author details antisemitic incidents from Shiraz in 1910.

The French established colonial rule in Morocco in 1912. Local Muslims were unable to challenge the French militarily and instead turned upon the Jews, rampaging through the Jewish quarter of Fez with over 60 Jews being killed.

The author also recounts the history of Zionism with the first Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897 and the spread of the Zionist associations through towns across Morocco. As Jews began moving to Palestine, concern mounted amongst the Arab majority with difficulties as early as the first decade of the 20th century.

Jewish and Arab nationalism: The First World War and after

In the First World War Ottoman Turkey was allied with Germany. The British invaded Iraq, landing in the South in November 1915 and occupying Basra. By March 1917 British troops were drawing near to Baghdad and this led to the Turks arresting large numbers of Jews on charges of secretly supporting the British, with many being tortured and killed. Paradoxically at the same time, 18,000 Jews were serving in the Ottoman army fighting and dying for the Ottoman Empire. The author tells us that 1,000 Jewish Ottoman soldiers were killed in action.

The Balfour Declaration was issued by the British government on 2 November 1917, promising British support for a Jewish National Home in Palestine. Emir Feisal, the son of Emir Hussein, Grand Sharif of Mecca and leader of the Arabs of Hejaz had led the Arab armies fighting against Ottoman rule. He welcomed Zionism as beneficial to the region and on 4 June 1918 signed an agreement with the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann welcoming Jews to their National Home in Palestine. However he was very much the exception and most Palestinian leaders were bitterly opposed to Jewish immigration, Jewish land purchases and Zionism as a concept.

The author points out that regardless of developments elsewhere, in some Muslim countries the life of Jews was never better than the 1920s. In Persia, freedom and tolerance for Jews increased after Reza Khan Pahlavi became Shah with British support in 1925. In Iraq following the establishment of the British mandate, Jewish community leaders played an important role in government. This was evidenced by the celebrations after Emir Feisal was proclaimed King of Iraq on 11 July 1921.

Support for Zionism spread amongst Iraqi Jews in that decade. The author quotes a senator in the Iraqi parliament, Menahem Saleh Daniel warning the Zionist Organisation in London of the danger for Jews in Arab countries of the promotion of Zionism as this was seen by Arabs as a betrayal of the Arab cause. He also pointed out the dangers arising from the success of Iraqi Jews in commerce and within government, and the risk of this provoking Arab hostility.

As the author says: “Two nationalisms, Arab and Jewish, were on a collision course.”

In 1929 the situation of Jews everywhere under Muslim rule took a turn for the worse when Palestinian Arabs claimed that Jews had designs on the Muslim Holy Places in Jerusalem. There was a sustained Arab attack on Jewish suburbs in Jerusalem with 40 Jews being killed and 4,000 fleeing their homes. In another attack, more than 60 Jews were killed in the Jewish quarter of Hebron, many of them women and children, while 10 Jews were killed in Safed.

The 1930s

The author recounts how for the Jews of Egypt the 1930s were a particularly benign period. However at that time the persecution of Jews in Germany was increasing with the rise to power of Adolf Hitler in 1933.

Unlike Egypt, in Iraq there was growing pro-German and pro-Nazi sympathy from the government of King Ghazi I, who ruled from 1933 to 1939. By then the Iraqi Jewish community was 120,000, two thirds of whom lived in Baghdad. A Christian owned newspaper published daily extracts from the Arabic edition of Mein Kampf with its virulent antisemitism. Anti-Jewish measures proliferated:

  • A quota restricting the participation of Jews in the national school system.
  • Banning the study of Hebrew and Jewish history in Jewish schools.
  • Closure of the three Jewish daily newspapers.
  • Attacks against and murder of Jews.

The author also recounts the growing problems in Mandate Palestine with attacks upon Jews by Arabs.

The Second World War: a time of danger

The author gives examples of rioting and violence against Jews in North African countries governed by Vichy France. However he also mentions the many Muslims who stood by and assisted their Jewish neighbours.

The author details the Iraqi revolt against the British that began on 31 March 1941, spurred on by the Germans and Italians. The leader of the revolt, former Iraqi Prime Minister Rashid Ali al-Gaylani restored relations between Iraq and Nazi Germany. The British, with troops from India, were able to retake control but afterwards the defeated Iraqi troops launched a pogrom with support from pro-Nazi students, disloyal elements of the police etc.

Towards liberation, and an uncertain future

The author mentions numerous instances of the persecution of Jews in Muslim countries and also growing Jewish efforts to immigrate to Palestine. On 22 March 1945 the Arab League was formed in Cairo. Its first resolutions included restrictions on Egyptian Muslim contact with “supporters of Zionism” which the author regards as meaning all Egyptian Jews. Later that year anti-Jewish riots broke out in Egypt. Over the next few years there was increasing legislation against Jews.

There was also anti-Jewish rioting in Tripoli and other towns in Libya.

The United Nations Palestine partition resolution

On 29 November 1947 The United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 181 to establish two states in a partitioned Palestine, one Jewish and the other Arab. Jerusalem, Bethlehem and a corridor to the sea were to be excluded from both states and administered by the United Nations under a special international regime.

The author gives many examples of the Arab violence against Jews which followed, both in Palestine and elsewhere, for example attacks on Jews in Aden (Yemen), Aleppo (Syria) and Cairo (Egypt) in December 1947. Nowhere in Muslim majority countries was safe for Jews according to the author.

The creation of the state of Israel, 14 May 1948

Sentiment against Jews in the Arab world increased further after the establishment of the State of Israel.

The Egyptian Prime Minister proclaimed a state of emergency with all Communists ordered to be arrested. He declared that all Jews were potential Zionists and that all Zionists were in fact Communists. By the end of 1948 more than 600 Jews had been arrested in Egypt with their property being sequestered by the government.

There was similar hostility in Iraq with Jews being removed from many areas of public life. On 19 October 1948 the Cairo daily newspaper al-Ahram reported that the Iraqi government had ordered the wholesale dismissal of all Jewish officials and employees in government offices. Within a year, 95% of all Jews in official positions in Iraq had been dismissed.

The author also mentions those Muslim rulers such as Sultan Muhammad V of Morocco, Sheikh Sulman of Bahrain and the Shah of Iran who protected their Jewish citizens and tolerated Zionism to varying extents. For example Bahrain allowed Jews to leave for Israel but without their property or belongings and with no right of return to Bahrain.

Iraq, 1948 – 1952

Some Iraqi Jews hoped that once the Israeli War of Independence ended, tensions within Iraq and anti-Jewish attacks would diminish. This proved not to be the case and there were frequent incidents of arrest and torture. Initially the Iraqi government required Jews to have permission to leave Iraq although many left illegally crossing the border into Iran; from there most went on to Israel.

In March 1950 the Iraqi parliament passed the “Revocation of Citizenship Bill” which would allow Jews to leave Iraq on condition that they gave up their Iraqi citizenship in perpetuity. There was then organised emigration from Iraq although difficulties arose because Israel wanted to control the rate at which Jewish immigrants arrived in the country from Iraq. This caused difficulty for Iraqi Jews who had given up their citizenship and had their property confiscated but who were not yet able to leave the country.

The author reports that by the end of 1951 a total of 113,545 Jews had left Iraq legally, with another 20,000 having left illegally while 6,000 remained within the country.

Egypt, 1951 – 1961

The author states that by 1951 approximately 70,000 Jews remained in Egypt, suffering anti-Jewish violence in part because of the continuing presence of British troops in the Suez Canal Zone which increased Egyptian nationalism often directed against Jews. While the 23 July 1952, coup led by Colonel Gamal Abdul Nasser was marked by anti-Jewish rioting, afterwards conditions improved as the new government was less anti-Jewish than the previous one. The author explains that both General Neguib and Colonel Nasser had no personal animosity towards Jews. However in July 1954 the Lavon Affair (an attempt by the Israeli secret service Mossad to explode bombs against Egyptian, American and British targets while making it look as if the bombings had been carried out by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood) dramatically worsened relations between Israel and Egypt and between the Egyptian government and Egyptian Jews.

The situation for Egyptian Jews became much worse after the 1956 Suez War when Israel, Britain and France all attacked Egypt under a secret agreement. On 22 November 1956 a new Egyptian Nationality Code barred all so-called Zionists from Egyptian nationality. 3,000 Jews were arrested and detained without trial while more than 24,000 were served with deportation orders and forced to leave Egypt within a few days, losing their homes and their property.

The author reports that between 1956 and 1958, 35,000 Egyptian Jews went to Israel, 15,000 to Brazil, 10,000 to France, 9,000 to the USA, 9,000 to Argentina and 4,000 to Britain.

The Exodus continues, 1950 – 1967

The author states that in 1948 Syria had 10,000 Jews, of whom 4,000 had left their homes and moved to Israel by 1953. This emigration was all carried out illegally as Syria had a national ban on emigration to Israel. Many passed through Lebanon, the only Arab country whose Jewish population increased after the Israeli War of Independence from 5,200 to 9,000. In 1954 the Syrian government lifted its ban on emigration to Israel but departing Jews had to abandon their property without selling it.

In Iraq the situation of Jews worsened further after the coup of 14 July 1958 and worsened yet further after the February 1963 coup which brought the Baath Party to power. Jews were made to carry special yellow identity cards, and almost no Jews were allowed to study in universities. Baghdad’s ancient Jewish cemetery, which had existed for over 1,000 years, was destroyed.

Iran was different from the Arab countries. The author informs us that in 1948 approximately 95,000 Jews lived in Iran without facing government rhetoric against Jews. 25,000 Iranians Jews emigrated voluntarily to Israel in 1950 and 1951 without any Iranian impediments.

Libya became independent from post-war British administration on 24 December 1951. The author mentions that at the United Nations Israel had voted in support of Libyan Independence, making Libya the first Muslim nation established after the creation of the state of Israel. At this time, only 4,000 Jews remained in Libya but the new sovereign state proceeded to persecute them.

The author recounts the departure of Jews from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia with varying levels of oppression and discrimination. For example in 1963, one year after Algeria became independent from France, the Algerian Nationality Code reserved the right of Algerian citizenship for those people living in Algeria whose fathers and paternal grandfathers had “Muslim personal status”. This automatically deprived Algerian Jews of their nationality.

The Six-Day War of 1967 and its aftermath

The crushing defeat suffered by Egypt, Jordan and Syria in the Six-Day War led to attacks on Jews in many Arab countries. The author recounts the riots in Libya which culminated in the expulsion of over 4,000 Libyan Jews, with their property being confiscated by the government, leaving only 200 Jews within Libya.

The persecution of Jews increased further in Iraq. Law 64 of 1967 gave the state the right to seize Jewish property. University education was refused to all Jewish schoolchildren. A law enacted on 3 March 1968 prohibited Jews from selling their cars or furniture, and cancelled all licences given to Jewish pharmacists ordering them to close down within 15 days. All commercial offices in Baghdad had to dismiss their Jewish employees.

Syria also proceeded to impose new restrictions on its remaining Jewish community of about 3,500 with 12 new laws against Jews. For example Law 2 forbad Jews from moving more than 3 km from their place of residence without obtaining a special permit. Jews were barred from jobs in the public service, public institutions and banks. They were forbidden to own radios or telephones.

A new life in new lands

The author reminds us that between 1948 and 1951 a total of 687,739 Jewish refugees reached Israel. About one quarter came from Europe while about three quarters came from Arab and Muslim lands. This influx doubled the 1947 Jewish population of Mandate Palestine.

As well as recounting the efforts that Israel made to absorb its new citizens, the author explains the loss suffered by the Arab states which had lost many of their most successful and highly educated citizens. For example he states that all of Iraq’s famous musicians and composers were Jewish, as were a large proportion of its other artists and many of its professionals and businessmen. Many countries in Europe and North America which received Jewish emigrants similarly benefited from the influx of skilled and talented immigrants.

The search for recognition

The author points out that the plight of Palestinian Arab refugees is highly visible and perpetuated by the United Nations annual renewal of their status as refugees.

While the United Nations and other governments have from time to time recognised the refugee status of Jews who fled from Arab countries, those people have been absorbed by the receiving countries as citizens and integrated into their societies. Accordingly, their refugee status is less commented on although interest in their history has increased in recent years.

Jews who remain in Muslim lands

In this chapter the author covers the small number of Jews who remain in Arab countries and the much larger community of about 25,000 that remains in Iran and reviews the differing circumstances that they face.


There are 29 photographs. The early ones reproduce items of art while the later ones include scenes from the 20'th century. Some of these are particularly interesting. For example photograph 6 shows a Jewish official in the Ottoman Empire resplendent in his imperial uniform.

A number capture Jewish life in Arab countries before the expulsions; for example photograph 12 dated 15 March 1935 shows Egyptian Prince Abdel Moneim congratulating the Maccabiah sports team in Cairo. Others are harrowing such as photograph 14 showing the destruction in the Jewish quarter in Zawia, Libya after the pogrom of 1945.


There are 20 maps showing the extent of the territories conquered by the Arabs and the Ottomans and the distribution of Jewish communities.

Map 2 shows the Jewish communities in the Arabian Peninsula at the time of the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh). This caught my eye because of the way it contradicts the view expressed by John Wansbrough in “Quranic Studies” who doubted the presence of Jews in the Arabian Peninsula at that time.

Map 5 shows the large number of European countries and cities from which Jews were expelled by Christian persecution in the years 1012 – 1540; many of these expelled Jews sought refuge in lands governed by Muslims.

There are many maps detailing towns in Arab countries which had significant Jewish populations before those countries expelled their Jewish citizens.

The final map, number 20, summarises the Jewish exodus that took place between 1947 and 1957 with the numbers of Jews from each Middle Eastern country who went to Israel in that period.















Yemen and Aden











The organisation "JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa) has a signficant amount of material on its website about the former Jewish communities of these countries, including country specific sub-websites.

Concluding comments

The book covers a very long time period. In my view it helps to think of this period in two parts.

From the rise of Islam to the end of the 19th century

While there were occasional periods of severe oppression and intolerance such as Spain under the Almohad dynasty, by and large the treatment of Jews and Christians under Muslim rulers was far better than the treatment of Jews (let alone the treatment of Muslims) by Christian rulers.

The European Enlightenment significantly improved the status of Jews in Western Europe, although oppression and anti-Jewish violence actually increased in Russia towards the end of this period. This was mirrored by legal changes in the Ottoman Empire that gradually eliminated the dhimmi status of Christians and Jews in Ottoman Turkey by introducing equality.

The 20th century

The 20th century saw the most terrible crime imaginable being committed against Jews in Europe, allegedly the most civilised continent, in the form of the Holocaust. This crime was perpetrated not only by German Nazis but also by some of the citizens of Eastern Europe acting in support of their German overlords.

Nothing remotely comparable took place in Muslim majority countries. Sadly, as the author details, what we did see in the Arab countries was increasing oppression of Jews as a response to Zionism in Palestine.

In my view the moral principle is straightforward. Regardless of one’s views about Palestine, the conduct of Jews in Palestine cannot provide any justification for oppressing Jews in any other country.

Assessment of the book

As one would expect from Sir Martin Gilbert’s reputation as a historian, the book is meticulously researched and documented. It is very well written and as soon as one starts reading it, one wants to keep going to find out what happens next, which is a vital requirement for any good book.

I recommend the book to everyone, but in particular to fellow Muslims.

Muslims need to know about, and remember with pride, the tolerance Islamic rulers throughout history have shown to their Jewish and Christian subjects. While there were occasional periods of intolerance, they were much less significant than the general tolerance. The treatment of Jews (and Christians) by Muslims was far better than Europe's treatment of religious minorities.

In the twentieth century, sadly, most Middle Eastern countries became increasingly intolerant of their Jewish populations. While the stated reason was Zionist immigration into Palestine, oppressing Jews in other countries did nothing to help Arabs in Palestine. Indeed by forcing out their Jewish populations, the expelling countries simply added to the Jewish population of Israel; an action which also did nothing to aid Palestinians. Indeed it seriously harmed Palestinian interests.

This is an aspect of modern history that all Muslims need to be aware of. We cannot change the past but we must know it, and use that knowledge to guide our behaviour in the future.


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