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Two approaches characterize the study of Jewish-Muslim relations in the historical context, each being each other’s antithesis.
The first approach appeared in the 19nth century, promoting the idea of the tolerant Gold Age of al-Andalus – later expanded to the whole Islamic world – where Jews were allowed to live in equality with their Muslims masters. As such we see referrals to Jewish figures, such as Samuel ibn al-Naghrillah, who held high position at the Muslim courts.
The second approach is more recent, with Bat Ye’or as one of its most known proponents. This approach is mostly concerned with pointing out the rigorous rules found in Islamic law, when it comes to the treatment of the non-Muslim subjects, as well as focusing extensively on the worst cases of Muslim harassment of non-Muslims.
Both have elements of truth, but are not giving the correct picture, being too one-sided. The truth is found somewhere in the between. Just as we can find examples on Muslim persecutions, such as the Almohads in the Maghreb and al-Andalus – making forced conversions the rule, so we can find examples such as the Ottoman sultan’s, Beyazid II, invitation to the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, to come and live in his lands.
While it will be relatively easy to refuse the idyllic picture painted by the 19th century historians, the more dull approach can be somewhat harder to stay critical to. It is true that there have been many moments of subjugation of the Jews (and Christians), as well as it is hard to deny that there are many statutes in Islamic law, meant to humiliate and keep the Jews down. One such example is the law of the dhimma, where the non-Muslim has to accept Muslim superiority by paying a special tax, which was instructed to be paid in the most humiliating way possible for the Jew.
These examples can easily present the Muslim rule as a harsh and intolerant rule. That said it is important to keep in mind that there has never been one single Muslim rule, continuing from the death of Muhammad until the Modern period. On the contrary, the Muslim was separated under many different Muslim rulers, and the state of the non-Muslim citizens often depended either on the mood of the respective ruler, as well as the overall situation of his land and the Islam in general. As such there is a difference whether we talk 8th century Palestine, 12th century Maghreb or 15th century Persia.
In order to say anything about the degree of tolerance, we need to have something to compare it to. Obviously, if we compare 15th century Persia to the modern democracies of the West, the latter will make the former look intolerant and oppressing. However, that would be a wrong comparison. We should rather look at other places at the same time, both within the Muslim world, as well as the Christian world, being the only other place with a substantial Jewish minority. As such Islam often come out as the more tolerant, though there definitely are examples on Christian regimes being more beneficent to their Jewish minority than Muslim ditto.
On this blog my purpose is not so much to prove or disprove any of the two approaches mentioned, but rather to show the many nuanced encounters between the two religions, Judaism and Islam, and their mutual relations, as well as the ditto for their followers.
It is at the same time important to mention, that I differ between Muslim and Arab. While there definitely are a lot of Arabs who are Muslim, there are also those who are not, as well as Muslims who are not Arabs (most Muslims are not Arabs). As such I won’t be relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though there obvious will be mentioning of it in certain studies.
Finally, it is my hope that you, my readers, will participate constructively and positively in these studies. I welcome all input given in the right spirit, and look forward to any suggestions and feedback you might have.