Friday, 23 February 2018

The Church’s Doctrine of “Perpetual Servitude” and “Dhimmitude”

Claim: The idea that Jews fared better in Islamic lands than in Christian Europe is false.


Ahl al-Dhimma (dhimmi for short) translates to “the protected people” and was the historical word used to refer to non-Muslim peoples (such as Jews and Christians) living under Islamic rule.

Anti-Islam ideologues argue that not only did Muslims historically persecute dhimmis, but that nonbelievers in the Islamic Orient were treated much worse than their counterparts were in the contemporaneous Christian Europe of the Middle Ages. To bolster this claim, one anti-Islam “researcher” by the pseudonym of Bat Ye’or coined the concept of “dhimmitude.” A counter-myth is now propagated on various websites, blogs and forums, namely that Islamic rule over non-Muslims had been characterized by an unparalleled brutality and wickedness. The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies calls out Bat Ye’or by name:
[One must] explain acts of Islamic oppression that did occur, without exaggerating them selectively into a ‘countermyth of Islamic persecution,’ as recent revisionism has done (e.g. Bat Ye’or 1985).
The similarity of the words “dhimmitude” and “servitude” is no accident. Bat Ye’or, the anti-Islam ideologue who introduced the myth of dhimmitude to the West–and who is the god of “scholarship” for such demagogues –specifically uses the word “servitude” juxtaposed with “dhimmi”: “Dhimmitude,” as Ye’or makes clear, is a status that results in a profound psychosocial adjustment in some ways akin to servitude.
They, selectively quoting from various sources in order to “prove” their side. , the counter-myth is dishonest and fails to contextualize the situation of dhimmis in the Islamic Orient with that of their counterparts in Christian Europe. We are always reminded by anti-Islam ideologues of the dhimmitude, a catch-all phrase which has caught on very well in recent times; the term is used as a stick to beat Muslims over the head with, as well as one to incite feelings of paranoia and xenophobia. This article will however recount what they–perhaps in their ignorance and zeal–have neglected to mention: there was in fact a direct corollary to the dhimmitude in the Christian West. It too has a catchy name: the Christian belief in the Perpetual Servitude of infidels, a concept which was in fact much more oppressive than the so-called dhimmitude.

Mark R. Cohen, a professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, is arguably considered to be the world’s leading scholar of Jews living in the Middle Ages under Islamic rule. He decided to write a book that contrasted the treatment of Jews living in the Islamic Orient with their counterparts in the Christian West. This book, Under Crescent and Cross, is the first of its kind, as it analytically compares the treatment of Jewish dhimmis (pejoratively called dhimmitude by ideologues) with that of the Perpetua Servitudo (Perpetual Servitude) of Jewish infidels. Cohen’s magnum opus is remarkably balanced, neutral, and analytical: it concludes that while dhimmis were certainly not living under any sort of interfaith utopia, they did have better living conditions than nonbelievers in the Christian West. This article will use Professor Cohen’s book as a general template, but will cite other sources as well in order to cater to the online environment, taking into consideration the “internet chatter” and tailoring the arguments accordingly.


In Arab lands, the “minority communities” (so to speak) consisted primarily of Jews and Christians. In Europe, it was Jews alone. Hence, the Jewish population is the common denominator and remains the best population to study; how then did their lot differ in the Christian West and the Islamic East?

Professor Cohen opens his book by saying:
When I began studying medieval Jewish history thirty years ago, conventional wisdom held that Jews living “under the crescent” enjoyed substantially greater security and a higher level of political and cultural integration than did Jews living “under the cross.” This was especially true of the persecuted Ashkenazic Jews of northern Europe. The fruitful Jewish-Muslim interfaith “symbiosis”… contrasted sharply with the sorrowful record of Jewish-Christian conflict in the Ashkenazic lands…[There was a] lachrymose conception of [European] Jewish history…

Recent decades have witnessed an effort to alter this picture. Toward the end of the 1960s–or, or more precisely, following the Six-Day War of June 1967–factors stemming from the Arab-Israeli conflict gave birth in some quarters to a radical revision of Jewish-Arab history. The new notion first appeared mainly in the writings of nonspecialists publishing in popular forums…[5]

I interject just to point out the keywords “nonspecialists” and “forums.” This drive to radically revise history is clearly an ideologically driven endeavor, devoid of academic integrity. Going on, Cohen says:
According to this [revised] view, the “Golden Age” was actually an era of hardship and oppression… [characterized by] discrimination and persecution. Some went so far as to suggest that the fate of Jews of Islam was at times as doleful as the lot of the Jews in Europe. I have chosen to call this view “the neo-lachrymose conception of Jewish-Arab history.”[6]

Notice that Professor Cohen considers it a stretch to say that the Jews of Islam were treated as poorly as they were in Europe (hence his usage of the phrase “some went so far as to suggest…”). Imagine his surprise if Cohen were to read the works of populist nonspecialists who go even farther and argue that not only was it equally bad, but far worse. Such is the profound degree of revisionism inherent in the writings of these two anti-Islam ideologues, and those with similar ideological bents.

Cohen concludes:
The polarization of views that has thus dominated discussion of medieval Islamic-Jewish relations in recent years has made it increasingly difficult to write on the subject without getting involved in apologetics and polemics. I remain convinced that the “myth of the Islamic-Jewish interfaith utopia” and the “countermyth of Islamic persecution of Jews” equally distort the past. How might we address the underlying historical question in a way that avoids both extremes and, at the same time, deepens understanding of why, as most reasonable observers will agree, the Islamic-Jewish relationship bred so much less violence and persecution than relations between Christians and Jews [in Europe]? The comparative approach has seemed the most useful one…

When all is said and done, however, the historical evidence indicates that the Jews of Islam, especially during the formative and classical centuries (up to the thirteenth century), experienced much less persecution than did the Jews of Christendom. [8]


The word “dhimmi” refers to non-Muslim citizens of an Islamic state. Dhimmi means “protected,” which is based on the idea that a Muslim state must guarantee the safety of non-Muslim citizens within its borders. Dhimmis were required to pay Jizya but were exempt from Zakat [charity tax] which Muslims are required to pay [2.5% of their savings, each year] as well as from military service. However, if Dhimmis agreed to serve in the armed forces, they were not required to pay Jizya, since Jizya was only taken from able-bodied men who could serve in the military.

Statements of Prophet Muhammad on Dhimmis:

1. “He who hurts a dhimmi [a member of a minority living in a Muslim state] I am his adversary, and I shall be an adversary to him on the Day of Judgement.”
2. “He who hurts a dhimmi hurts me, and he who hurts me annoys God.”
3. “On the Day of Resurrection I shall dispute with anyone who oppresses a person from among the People of the Covenant [Jews and Christians], or infringes on his right, or puts a responsibility on him which is beyond his strength, or takes something from him against his will.”

The rights of Christian minorities are well established in Islamic theology.

Muslim jurist Saha al-Deen al-Qarafi has stated:

“The covenant of protection imposes upon us certain obligations towards the “ahl al-dhimmah,” [members of Christian and Jewish minority]. They are our neighbors, under our shelter and protection upon the guarantee of Allah, His Messenger (peace be upon him), and the religion of Islam. Whoever violates these obligations against any one of them by so much as an abusive word, by slandering his reputation, or by doing him some injury or assisting in it, has breached the guarantee of Allah, His Messenger (peace be upon him), and the religion of Islam.” (from the book Al-furuq” by al-Qarafi.)

Another Muslim jurist Ibn Hazm has stated:

“If one is a dhimmi, and the enemy comes with his forces to take him, it is our obligation to fight the enemy with our soldiers and weapons and to give our lives for him, thus honoring the guarantee of Allah and His Messenger (peace be upon him). To hand him over to the enemy would mean to dishonor this guarantee.” (From the book, “Maratib al-jima” by Ibn Hazam.

What was the amount of Jizya paid bu Dhimmis?

Imam Abu Hanifa ‘s pupil Imam Abu Yousuf in his book “Kitab al-Kharaj” clarified that Jizya is to be paid by males only, and women and children were exempt from it. [See also al-Mawardi’s al-Ahkam as-Sultaniyah]. That makes sense because only men could serve in the army and they could avoid military service by paying Jizya (See Tarikh by Tabari). Abu Yousuf also exempted the poor, sick, crippled, the insane, monks, the blind, and the very old people from paying Jizya. His reasoning was this Hadith: “Whoever oppresses a non-Muslim subject or taxes him beyond his capacity, then I shall be the opposite party to him in the litigation.” {See Kitab al-Kharaj, pp. 69-72.)

As far as the amount of Jizya is concerned, during the time of Prophet Muhammad it amounted to 10 dirhams per year (which represented the expenses of an average family for ten days). Caliph Uthman fixed the amount to an equivalent of about 20 cents per month for the rich, 10 cents for the middle class, and about 5 cents for the ordinary people. Destitutes were exempted from the tax. Imam Shafi’I suggests one dinar per year but “adds that it would differ according to the time of ease or difficulty and the capacity of those on whom it is imposed.” (See Non-Muslims Under Shari’ah Law by A. Rahman I. Doi).

How Much Tax Muslims Paid?

Normally, 2.5% on surplus property and savings at the end of the year. Unlike Jizya, Muslim women, children were not excluded and they too paid taxes. Muslims were also required to pay taxes on farm animals such as cows, camels, sheep and goats. Non-Muslims were excluded from paying those taxes. (for reference see al-Sarakhsi’s Sharh Siyar al-Kabir, Vol. IV, p. 293). In addition, Muslims are required to pay ‘fitrah’ for each individual family member. So, in a way, non Muslims were much better off.

Was the Jazia tax a voluntary tax?

Jizya can be waived whenever it is necessary. Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w) himself expressed a wish that he would have waived Jizya on Copts had his son Ibrahim survived, who was born to Maria, a Copt. That means that Jizya is not mandatory under all circumstances. Muslims also returned Jizya when they were unable to protect non-Muslims. Khalid bin Walid returned all the taxes collected to Christians of Homs when he was not able to repel the attack of the Christian Byzantine Emperor Heraclous on Homs. He said to them : “We accepted (the Jizyah) as a token of your good will and in return for defending you, but (in this), we have failed (you.)” {See Abd al-Rahman Azzam’s “The Eternal Message of Muhammad” ; ‘Mabsut, Vol. 10, pp. 78-79; Fath al-Qadir, Vol. 4; and A. Rahman I. Doi’s “Non-Muslims Under Shariah Law.”} Saladin also returned the Jizya when he was compelled to withdraw from Syria. {See A. Rahman I. Doi’s “Non-Muslims Under Shariah Law.”)

Did any Christians join Muslim armies?

As far as I know Christian tribe of Bani Taghlib, the Christians of Najran, and Armenian chief Shahbaraz decided to fight alongside Muslims.

Why and when was the Jezia tax abolished?

It was abolished in the Ottoman Empire under European pressure but the fact is that Europeans never understood the principles behind “jizya.” And as I have stated above, there were many occasions in history when Muslims exempted non-Muslims from paying Jizya anyway. Muslims, on the other hand, continued to pay Zakat.

The Perpetual Servitude of Infidels

Professor Cohen notes that whereas the Islamic Orient was pluralistic (with many different minority faiths, including a large proportion of Jews and Christians), Christian Europe was more monolithic, with only one significant minority group: the Jews. (The pagans had largely been converted to Christianity.) The rules that dictated the lives of Jews were then applied to the few remaining pagans (which included Muslims) and heretics; indeed, the Christians considered it to be the Jewish-pagan-heretic axis. We will thus study how the rules came about for Jews, and then see how they were extended to other groups.

The position of the Jews in Christian society was based on the Doctrine of the Witness. This belief stipulated that Jews ought not to be killed but allowed to live in a state of “Perpetual Servitude” to Christians; their continued existence as dejected serfs served as a continual proof of the triumph of Christianity over those who rejected the Messiah:
Augustine and the other Church Fathers wrestled with this question of why Judaism continued if it had apparently lost its purpose? Augustine’s answer lay in the “Doctrine of the Witness.” This Doctrine suggested that the continuing physical presence of the Jews was desirable because the Jews themselves provided testimony to the truth of Christianity in two ways: First, the Jews possessed Scriptures, thereby proving that Scriptures were no means invented retrospectively by Christians to predict the coming of Jesus…

Secondly, the physical status of the Jews provided testimony to the truth of Christianity. The Jews existed in a subjugated, second-class status as a defeated people…The perpetual servitude of the Jews reminded the world that the Jews are being punished for their rejection of Jesus. Therefore it was desirable that the Jew remain in Christian society. As long as Jews retained their second-class status, they would remind the world of their crime in rejecting Jesus and their validity of Jesus’s teachings…

Although the Jews’ status would always be second-class, the Church Fathers decreed that the Jews must be protected and not eliminated. In this context medieval Christian anti-Semitism provided a protective mechanism against the elimination of the Jews. Or, as Duns Scotus, a thirteenth century Christian theologian, put it, the Jews could be persecuted and virtually eliminated, but some of them would have to be kept alive on a deserted island until the Second Coming.
This attitude towards Jews–of not slaying them but subjugating them to Perpetual Servitude–prevailed in Europe from the seventh century up until “the modern period”:

The official church position on the Jews guaranteed their existence, but as a pariah people…The concept of a “witness people” received its clearest and most influential expression in the writings of Augustine, one of Christianity’s foremost theologians. He wrote that the Jews were dispersed over the world to bear witness through their Scriptures, as proof “that we have not fabricated the prophecies about Christ…the Jews are our attendant slaves, who carry, as it were, our satchels…” The Augustinian witness-people formula, which prevailed in Christendom up until the modern period, allowed the Jews to survive but never to thrive, since their misery was to serve as proof of the truth of Christianity. Like Cain, they were to carry a sign signifying their damnation, but they were not to be killed.

Over the centuries, the teaching of contempt of the Jews as a reprobate people knew no pause, and continued to be taught and preached in mainland Christendom, in Catholic as well as Protestant churches. Leading theologians continued to castigate the Jews…The principal Catholic theologian of the medieval period, Thomas Aquinas, wrote that it was permissible “to hold the Jews in perpetual servitude because of their crime…with the sole proviso that they do not deprive them of all that is necessary to sustain life.” …The French Catholic theologian Jacques Bossuet allowed the Jews to continue to exist, but denounced them as “stamped by their reprobation…slaves everywhere they are, without honor, without freedom…” [49]
The belief of Perpetual Servitude was not limited to the Catholic Church, but was adopted by the Protestant movement from the very beginning of its existence. Martin Luther, whose antisemitic work was touted by the Nazis centuries later, was an ardent believer in this degrading position for Jews; indeed, Lutheran Germany outdid their Catholic brethren in their institutionalized oppression of the Jews.

Jewry laws (discriminatory rules) were applied in such a way as to reduce Jews to a life of Perpetual Servitude in order that they may be a Witness People to the triumph of Christ:

The Jews, said the popes, were to live in a state of Perpetual Servitude (Perpetua servitudo), a term first enunciated in the bull Etsi iudaeos.[50]

The Jews were to be punished with a life of misery in order that they confess Christianity:
St. Jerome warned, “Jews are congenital liars who lure Christians to heresy. They should therefore be punished until they confess.” [51]

The concept of Perpetual Servitude led the state to claim ownership of the Jews, taking away their freedom and declaring them servi camerae nostrae (serfs of our royal chamber):
[The] monarchy took the final–in a sense, regressive–step. It declared Jews servi camerae nostrae, terminology which was inspired by the recently revived papal Doctrine of servitus Judeorum (servitude of the Jews). Kisch believes that this church-inspired idea marked the beginning of Jewish unfreedom. From then on, he says, Jews were no longer part of the organic legal structure…Henceforth, the legal status of Jews was governed by special legislation designed specifically for them, a jus singulare…The honor of the Jews fell to a new low…reflected in the large-scale persecution of the Jews…Jewish “serfdom of the chamber” constituted an abasement of the legal status of the Jews. [52]

Jews became the property of the Church and/or the state:
The Siete Partidas offers the best glimpse we have of consolidated Jewry law as it was envisioned by a learned Christian monarch at the height of the Middle Ages…Jews are permitted by church and state to live among Christians, but only “that they might live forever as in captivity and serve as a reminder to mankind that they are descended from those who Crucified Our Lord Jesus Christ.” [53]
In the words of the “influential abbot of the time, [the] Venerable Peter of Cluny,” the Jews should be punished but not killed:
They should not be killed, but “like Cain, the fratricide, they should be made to suffer fearful torments and prepared for greater ignominy, for an existence worse than death.”[54]

The Church and state competed with each other over ownership of the Jews:
This happened, for instance, when the papacy exerted its own “ownership” of the Jews, under the cover of the old church Doctrine of the “Perpetual servitude of the Jews” and in competition with secular rulers, who asserted that the Jews were “serfs of the royal chamber.”[55]

Jews were traded as chattel:
The crown laid claim to them as serfs of “the imperial chamber,” servi camerae…The attachment to the imperial chamber reduced Jews to the status of pieces of property that could be–and were–bought, loaned, and sold as any other merchandise. Kings paid off barons and barons paid off creditors with Jews. Kings would, for a consideration, transfer to nobles or townships the right to possess “his” Jews. [56]
The concept of the Perpetual Servitude of Jews was extended to other religious groups. Following the Crusades, the number of Muslims (called “Saracens”) under Christian rule increased, thereby prompting jurists to pass legislation specific to them. Despite being considered “worse than Jews,” the Saracens were placed in the same legal category:
The doctrine, therefore, was one of long standing: if Saracens living among us conform as do the Jews, they are to be treated in the same way…There were large numbers of Muslims in the West–in Sicily, for example, where despite mass emigration and slaughter there were many sunk in a life of servitude…In brief, the Muslim who accepted the position of the Jew, who gave no trouble, caused no scandal, and was “prepared to serve everywhere,” could enjoy the same legal protection. [57]
Muslims, as Jews, were subject to the same discriminatory legislation:
Accompanying the polemical association between Jews and Muslims was an increasing judicial association. There was indeed, from the thirteenth century onward, a growing volume of law restricting the legal status of Jews and Muslims and limiting the “polluting” contacts between Catholics and infidels. Over the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Church legislation and legal commentaries tended to confirm this trend: for judicial purposes, Muslims were treated as Jews (rather than as pagans or heretics). The principle aim of this legislation was to prevent “contamination” of Christendom through contact with the infidel: sexual contact, social ties, religious contamination…and so on. The Muslim or Jew, like the leper, needed to be marked, isolated, quarantined, in order to protect the Christian. [58]
David Abulafia’s The Servitude of Jews and Muslims in the Medieval Mediterranean: Origins and Diffusion describes how the Muslims, like the Jews, became “serfs of the royal chamber,” owned as chattel by the Christian monarchs.

Muslims, like Jews, were royal property:

The [Muslim] Lucerine colonists, like other Muslims and Jews living in Christendom, had a protected status under canon laws long as they did not pose a threat to Christians, they were to be allowed to live in peace. Defining them as servi camerae [serfs of the royal chamber], [Christian] rulers considered the Muslims of Lucera to be royal property. [59]


The Muslims were in certain important respects in a similar position [to the Jews]. Their status as royal servi [serfs] was ruthlessly exploited by a government anxious to possess their goods. Islam was suppressed, in the sense that those who survived in southern Italy were denied the use of mosques; but forcible conversion seems not to have occurred. The crown sought the conversion of the Muslim leaders, and generally did not release from slavery those who converted after their capture…Enslavement was a punishment for generations of obstinate commitment to Islam, just as expulsion and the threat of massacre was a punishment against Jews who for centuries had supposedly maligned Christ…The royal court harnessed Roman law to argue the state had the power and right to enslave its Muslim subjects. Indeed, they were already slaves before they were sent into slavery. The importance of the literal interpretation of the term servus, in servus camere regie, to mean “slave” in the sense understood by Roman law, cannot be underestimated. [60]

in 1452, the Pope gave a carte blanche to Christians to conquer the infidels of the world and reduce them to Perpetual Servitude:

The papal grants of the fifteenth century…bestow[ed] upon the named Christian monarchs the right to conquer non-Christian lands…[as] is reflected in the language of the Bull of Nicholas V, issued in 1452…which accorded to Alphonse of Portugal the right to ‘invade, conquer, storm, attack and subjugate’ and ‘reduce into perpetual servitude [perpetuam servitute] the Saracens [Muslims], pagans, and other enemies of Christ.’ [61]

This infallible papal bull gave the King

the full and free capacity to invade, conquer, take by storm, defeat, and subjugate any Saracens and other Pagans as well as whatever dominions, possessions, movable and immovable property are detained or possessed by them: and to seize and appropriate for himself and for his successors their own persons in perpetual servitude, as well as their kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and property, and to convert these to his own use and utility and to that of his successors. [62]

In contrast to the unfree Perpetual Servitude operative in the Christian West, the dhimmis were considered free citizens. According to Islamic law, it was forbidden to enslave them or to reduce them to servitude of any kind. Professor Cohen cites a hadith from the Prophet Muhammad, who said:

If you take the poll tax from them, you have no claim on them or rights over them…[D]o not enslave them and do not let the Muslims oppress them or harm them or devour their property except as permitted [kharaj, i.e. land tax], but faithfully observe the conditions which you have accorded to them and all that you have allowed to them. 

Forced Ghettoization and Freedom of Movement

Another fundamental difference between Christendom and the Islamic realm was the residential status of the infidels. In Europe, the Jews of Europe were forced to live in ghettos, with laws emerging that forbade Jews from living in certain towns and cities, or placing quotas on the number of Jews allowed.

Meanwhile, Jews of Islam (and dhimmis in general) were free to live wherever they wished. They lived in the same apartment buildings as Muslims and in Muslim dominated areas. Admittedly, there were distinctly Jewish, Christian, and Muslim dominated neighborhoods (key word here being “dominated” and not “exclusive”), but this were based on the normal tendency for people of similar backgrounds to congregate, not unlike the preponderance of Jews in New York, of Afghans in Fremont (”Little Kabul”), of Arabs in Detroit, etc. Indeed, this self-segregation in medieval Islamic lands was not only upon religious grounds, but on ethnic and tribal divisions, as well as occupational vocations.

Naturally, the forced ghettoization of the Jews of Europe–and the freedom to live anywhere in the realm of Islam–created a dramatic difference between the two respective sets of infidels:

By and large, Jews in European cities lived separate from Christians, usually in a street or section called a “Jewry,” “Judengasse,” or “rue des Juifs.” …Residential seclusion began to impinge on Christian-Jewish relations, when the church, wishing to prevent contact between Christians and Jews, especially after the thirteenth century, legislated restrictions on where Jews were allowed to live. Especially during the later Middle Ages, when popular fear and hatred of the Jews grew in intensity and popular antisemitic stereotypes proliferated, the Jewish quarter became a mysterious, frightful place, increasingly the target of terrified, antisemitic Christian mobs. As a sign of the estrangement of Jews from Christian burghers, some towns in the High and later Middle Ages sought from their overlords–and were granted–the privilege of not tolerating Jews. In short, Christian townspeople were allowed to exclude or expel Jews…

[In contrast, there was a] relatively more comfortable pattern of Muslim-Jewish relations…Quite the antithesis of the northern European city, the topography of residence in a Muslim town lent the Jew an aura of inclusion, of normalcy. As a matter of course, residential patterns in a Muslim town set religious and ethnic groups apart. This had already begun with the garrison towns, in which tribal constituents of the Arab armies lived in separate quarters…

Almost universally, Muslim cities contained socially homogeneous quarters. Such quarters were found in cities created by a coalescence of villagers, by the settlement of different tribes, or by the founding of new ethnic or governmental districts. Quarters based on the clienteles of important political or religious leaders, religious sects, Muslim and non-Muslim ethnic minorities, and specialized crafts, were also found in cities throughout the Muslim world.

It was no aberration then, if a town in the Arab world of the Middle Ages had a separate street or quarter inhabited primarily by Jews. In that world, residential separation of ethnic and religious groups was normal–voluntary and generalized throughout society. Thus, no stigma attached to to neighborhoods housing predominantly Jews. This contrasts with the Christian town of the north. There, segregation of Jews into separate streets, or “Jewries,” accorded with theological and social concerns expressed with renewed vigor during the thirteenth century by instilling suspicion and dread in the popular imagination.

The Geniza provides an even more impressive indicator of Jewish inclusion in Islamic society. In most cities of the Islamic Mediterranean represented in the Geniza, Jewish quarters, in the sense of exclusive Jewish districts, hardly existed. Rather, as Goitein has discovered, most Jews lived in their towns in noncontiguous clusters, such that “there were many neighborhoods predominantly Jewish, but hardly any that were exclusively so.” Christians or Muslims often dwelled in apartments in the same compound as Jews, and Jews, Muslims, and Christians sometimes held properties in partnership. Islamic law, for its part, permits dhimmis to dwell among Muslims, the rationale being that the latter might thereby reveal the beauties of Islam to their non-Muslim neighbors. [135]

Along with the forced ghettoization, Europeans enacted strict travel restrictions upon Jews, lest the latter try to evade apartheid. Jews found guilty of “illegal movement” were heavily punished. It was argued that their status as perpetual serfs made them the property of the royals; hence, they could not simply up and walk away. This too contrasted with the Islamic world, where Jews were free to travel wherever they wished:

The liberal Jewish privileges of the Carolingian era began to give way in the twelfth century to restriction on movement, to tightening of control over the Jews (the beginnings of “Jewish serfdom”), to unprecedented violence, and to incipient expulsions. The Christian polemical theme of divine rejection and Jewish inferiority assumed new momentum…[leading to] the deterioration in Jewish status, [and] the restriction on movement…

The Jews of Islam in the classical period seem not to have felt the need to protest oppression in the same way…After all, they mingled more freely than their Ashkenazic brethren with merchants, courtiers, scholars, and physicians from the dominant religious group. They did not suffer restrictions on their freedom of movement. And they did not experience a degradation in legal status similar to the Jewish serfdom of Latin Europe. [136]

Although this forced ghettoization took place throughout much of Europe, we see particularly harsh implementations in Central Europe and Russia. In Russia, for example, Jews were expelled and forced to live in “the Pale”:

The government apparently took steps to maintain Jewish (target) visibility–that is, enabling them to maintain a certain autonomy in practing their religion while systematically pauperizing them by discriminatory laws and severely limiting their freedom fo movement within the country.

This was crystallized in a series of “Jewish statutes” under Tsar Alexander I and the establishment of the Pale of Settlement, a region of 286,000 square miles and twenty-five provinces which encompassed the western flank of European Russia…During th ereigns of subsequent tsars, the Pale became a significant means of dealing with the “Jewish problem,” a term which has reverbated with chilling significance to the present day. However, it should be noted that tsars, church, and aristocracy attempted to solve this so-called problem by the triune method of progressive assimilation of the Jews into Russian culture, expulsion, and blaming them for almost every conceivable problem…Jewish freedom of movement became even more restricted and was strictly limited to the Pale, although there was a slight relaxation of these laws toward the end fo the nineteenth century under Nicholas II.

The Russian census of 1897…shows that there were almost 5,000,000 Jews living in the Pale, comprising approximately 94 percent of the total Jewish population of the Russian Empire. [137]

Expulsion, Forced Conversions, and Massacres

Professor Cohen makes an important differentiation between discrimination and persecution. Although it could be argued that discrimination leads to persecution and there is overlap, it suffices for our understanding here. Christian realm was affected by not only a higher degree of discrimination but outright persecution. The persecution of the infidels under Christendom–in terms of expulsions, forced conversions, and massacres–far outsurpassed that of those under the Islamic sphere.

This is not to say that such persecution was alien to the Islamic world; anti-Islam ideologues point to a handful of instances in which this indeed did happen, but it must be understood that this was the exception, not the rule–unlike in Christendom where persecution was widespread in scale. Professor Cohen writes:

Finally, it is important to state what is meant by persecution. As employed in the following discussion, the word means unwarranted violence against persons or property, including individual and mass murder. It means unlawful compulsion in matters of religion, such as forced conversion, and it includes physical expulsion. Other forms of mistreatment–what we would call discrimination, be it bias, sumptuary laws, negative attitudes, or false statements–may and do lead to persecution. In and of itself, however, such intolerance was considered “normal” by medieval socities in which Jews lived.

Not even Salo Baron’s anti-lachrymose revision of Jewish history in the Middle Ages managed to gloss over the fact that the Jews in Christendom suffered greatly, especially from the twelfth century on. Well known are instances of large-scale massacre that began during the Cursades. Jews charged with killing Christian children were tortured and, in many cases, executed. Others were persecuted for allegedly poisoning wells or stealing and “torturing” the eucharist wafer (the “host desecration libel”). Jews experienced economic persecution (for instance, through official limitation of occupational opportunities and assaults on their property). The Talmud was burned, and Jews were forced to attend conversionary sermons–measures intended to weaken the hold of Judaism on its adherents. And Jews were expelled from towns, counties, and kingdoms…

Whether their persecution is measured in terms of expulsion, murder, assault on property, or forced conversion, the Jews of Islam did not experience physical violence on a scale remotely approaching Jewish suffering in Western Christendom. By and large, even when dhimmis as a group experienced growing oppression and persecution in the postclassical period, the grim conditions found in Europe were not matched…”Compared with the contemporary massacres in Christian Europe,” Baron writes of the Mamluk empire in the period 1250-1517, “anti-Jewish riots were both less frequent and less bloody. As a rule they were limited to certain localities and did not assume the epidemic proportions of the assaults by Crusaders or by the frenzied European mobs of 1348-1349 or 1391.” His pinpointing a distinction that applies even more sharply to earlier centuries, the period that is the focus of my book.

How can one explain this difference? The historian R. I. Moore has called medieval Christianity, especially as of the twelfth century, a “persecuting society.” The characteristics and historical circumstances that this scholar evidences in support of his conclusion help explain the relatively better condition of the Jews of Islam. According to Moore, beginning in the twelfth century, European Christendom showed increasing hostility to three groups–Jews, heretics, and lepers. The assumed connection between the Devil and both Jews and heretics (linkage between Jews and heretics, of course, went back to early Christian times), and the ascription to Jews and lepers alike of filth, stench, and putrefaction and of menace to Christian wives and children numbered among the factors that led to the deadly interchangeability of the three groups, particularly in popular thinking. “The assimilation of Jews, heretics and lepers into a single rhetoric … depicted them as a single though many-headed threat to the security of the Christian order…”

Nothing comparable to the invective and hatred characteristic of the Ashkenazic literary treatment of Christianity exists in the writings of the Jews of Islam…The dissimilarity between East and West was even greater during the classical period. Seen from the perspective presented in this book, the embeddedness of the Jews of Islam, the product of intertwining religious, legal, economic, and social factors, constitutes the most important reason for the relative freedom from violent persecution, and hence for a collective historical memory that was fundamentally different from that of the Jews of Christendom. [138]

During the Crusades alone, it is estimated that over a 100,000 European Jews were slaughtered. [139]


One recalls the infallible Papal Bull that gave permission to Christians to “invade, conquer, storm, attack, and subjugate” to “reduce into perpetual servitude [perpetuam servitute] the Saracens [Muslims], pagans, and other enemies of Christ.” It is a truism that bigots often–in their haste to hate–end up throwing stones from glass houses. The sheer irony–of the self-proclaimed defenders of the Judeo-Christian tradition using the term “perpetual servitude” to beat the Muslims over the head with–should not be lost on the perceptive reader.

Dhimmis were not reduced to perpetual servitude, and it is thus incorrect to use this neologism of dhimmitude, which is a purposeful amalgamation of the two words. Infidels in Islamic lands were free men; in fact, it was considered illegal by law–both secular and religious–to take away their freedom or to enslave them. Neither were they serfs owned by monarchs, barons, and other royals–nor of the the church–as they were in Christendom. Under the iron fist of Christian rule, infidels were traded as chattel by the Church and state, rented out and even mortgaged as if property.

Dhimmis on the other hand were not unfree serfs but free citizens, second class though they were. As discriminatory as it was to be a second class citizen, it was certainly worlds better than being an unfree serf or slave. Bernard Lewis commented on the status of the second-class dhimmi vis-a-vis the perpetual serf:

Second-class citizenship, though second-class, is a kind of citizenship. [140]

Professor Cohen opines:

According to the Islamic “law of the land,” the shari’a [holy law], the dhimmi enjoyed a kind of citizenship, second class and unequal though it was…[in contrast to] Jews living in Latin Christian lands, where competing legal systems complicated their status and where the “law of utility” inexorably led to arbitrariness and eventually to isolation of the Jews into a special category of persons, legally possessed by this or that ruling authority. [141]

Dhimmis were to pay the jizya once yearly; the rate was usually reasonable. On the other hand, the Christian authorities taxed infidels in their realm multiple times throughout the year, burdening them with hefty tallages beyond their abilities. The jizya guaranteed the state’s protection. On the other hand, Christendom forced the infidels to engage in shohad (bribery) in order to obtain protection, which was much more arbitrary than the jizya, oftentimes not enough to save them from persecution. After their economic capacity had been subsequently diminished, the Jews of Europe were expelled due to their insolvency and lack of utility. Their remaining property was seized by the state.

The concept of Perpetual Servitude established the idea that infidels were the property of the church or state; hence, all what they owned did not belong to them, but to the Christian authorities. Church leaders argued that all Jewish property could be seized except the absolute bare minimum necessary for their survival (as it was argued that they ought not to be allowed to die for fear that they would then not serve as Witness to the triumph of Christianity). Meanwhile, infidels in Islamic lands owned all their wealth and property–with the only requirement being that they pay a tax on it.

Islamic authorities allowed dhimmis to practice their religion freely in private, without interference. Meanwhile, Christian laws impeded even the personal religious practices of the Jews. The Church attacked the Talmud, censoring it, banning it and even burning tens of thousands of copies. The Jews perceived this as an unprecedented “catastrophe.” Both Islamic and Christian authorities forbade infidels from proselytism, but the Church went even further by forcing infidels to attend compulsory Christian sermons, where intimidating Christian mobs would seek to force Jews to see the light of Christianity.

The Islamic and Christian worlds alike punished those infidels guilty of abusing the Prophet Muhammad and Jesus Christ respectively. Here too, however, major differences existed; the Christians resorted to collective punishment whereas the Muslims generally did not as a matter of law. Also distinctive to the Christian world were the irrational ritual murder libel, Black Death accusation, and the eucharist wafer scare. These witch hunts led to masscres of tens of thousands of Jews, and elimination of entire communities.

The Jews of Europe were barred from most professions, and thereby restricted to the hated and hateful occupation of money-lending–something which only increased their vulnerability to angry Christian mobs. Even this singular means of survival often came under attack by the Church, further reducing the Jews to a state of unemployment and abject poverty. Meanwhile, Jews of the Islamic Orient were permitted to–and did–join virtually any profession. This gave them great occupational diversification which made them much more financially secure than their counterparts in Europe.

Infidels in the Christian West, as perpetual serfs, were forbidden to own land. Dhimmis, on the other hand, were considered free persons and had the right to own property.

Most importantly, the Jews of Europe were faced with much more persecution than their counterparts in the East. Under Christian rule, the Jews were faced with recurrent expulsions, forced conversions, and massacres.

The Jews were exceedingly oppressed during the middle ages throughout Christendom. In France, a Jew was a serf, and his person and goods belonged to the baron on whose demesnes he lived. He could not change his domicile without permission of the baron, who could pursue him as a fugitive…Like an article of commerce, he might be lent or hired for a time, or mortgaged. If he became a Christian, his conversion was considered a larceny of the lord, and his property and goods were confiscated. They were allowed to utter their prayers only in a low voice and without chanting. They were not allowed to appear in public without some badge or mark of distinction. Christians were forbidden to employ Jews of either sex as domestics, physicians, or surgeons…It was deemed disgraceful to an advocate to undertake the cause of a Jew. If a Jew appeared in court against a Christian, he was obliged to swear by the ten names of God and invoke a thousand imprecations against himself if he spoke not the truth. Sexual intercourse between a Christian man and a Jewess was deemed a crime against nature, and was punishable with death by burning…

Under the Roman law the Jews were the subject of severe restrictive laws and were classed in the enactments of the Christian emperors with apostates, heretics, and and heathens…Marriage with them was forbidden…and a Jew could not be the tutor of a Christian…

In the fifth book of the Decretals it is provided that if a Jew have a servant that desireth to be a Christian, the Jew shall be compelled to sell him to a Christian for twelve-pence; that it shall not be lawful for them to take any Christian to be their servant; that they may repair their old synagogues, but not build new; that it shall not be lawful for them to open their doors or windows on Good Friday; that their wives shall neither have Christian nurses, nor themselves be nurses to Christian women; that they wear different apparel from the Christians, whereby they may be known…

In England, the Jew could have nothing that was his own, for whatever he acquired he acquired not for himself but for the king..They were so heavily taxed by the sovereigns or governments of Christendom, and at the same time debarred from almost every other trade or occupation–partly by special decrees, partly by vulgar prejudice–that they could not afford to prosecute ordinary vocations. In 1253, the Jews–no longer able to withstand the constant hardships to which they were subjected in person and property–begged of their own accord to be allowed to leave the country. Richard of Cornwall, however, persuaded them to stay. Ultimately, in 1290 A.D. they were driven from the shores of England, pursued by the execrations of the infuriated rabble, and leaving in the hands of the kings all their property, debts, obligations, and mortgages. [142]

The Jewish Israeli historian Nissim Rejwan [143] sums it up best:

Under Ottoman Empire, which by the beginning of the sixteenth century dominated Syria [including Palestine] and Eygpt, the conditions under which the Jews were permitted to live contrasted so strikingly with those imposed on their coreligionists in various parts of Christendom that the fifteenth century witnessed a large influx of European Jews into the [Ottoman] Sultan’s dominions. During the first half of that century, persecutions had occurred in Bohemia, Austria, and Poland, and, at about this time, two German rabbis who sought and secured refuge in the Ottoman Empire wrote a letter to their community extolling the beauties and advantages of their new home.

But it was the measures taken against the Jews in Spain, culminating in their expulsion in 1492, that gave the greatest momentum to this migration. The Jews who chose to settle in various parts of the [Ottoman] empire found their surroundings rather congenial, and they, in turn contributed greatly to the flowering of Ottoman civilization…Marranos, who in Christian Spain had embraced Christianity to escape persecution and death, abandoned their disguise and returned to Judaism. Istanbul soon came to harbor the largest Jewish community in the whole of Europe, while Salonika became a predominantly Jewish city. The degree of the Jews’ integration into the life of Ottoman Islam was such, indeed, that two notable non-Jewish students of modern Islam found that there has been, in their words, “something sympathetic to the Jewish nature in the culture of Islam,” since “from the rise of the Caliphate till the abolition of the ghettos in Europe the most flourishing centers of Jewish life were to be found in Muslim countries: in Iraq during the Abbassid period, in Spain throughout the period of Moorish domination, and thereafter in the Ottoman Empire.”

…At the turn of the eighteenth century, the Jewish community in Jerusalem experienced a growth in numbers at an inordinate rate…According to a recent study by Tudor Parfitt, however, the startling increase in Jewish immigration to Jerusalem in the nineteenth century took place “not because the attraction of Jerusalem as the holy city grew, but because political and other factors made such immigration increasingly possible.”

…In nineteenth-century Palestine, he adds, such tolerance was “a consistent part of the relationship between the Ottoman authorities and the Jews.” He quotes European travelers as remarking on “the perfect religious freedom” that prevailed…One of these travelers, J. Wilson, is quoted as saying that “entire freedom of worship…is now accorded to [the Jews] and they are left to manage their own internal affairs without interference from any other quarter.” …

By way of conclusion, a word of caution is in order…It must be pointed out that the picture has not been uniformly so rosy and that instances of religious intolerance toward and discriminatory treatment of Jews under Islam are by no means difficult to find. This point is of special relevance at a time in which, following a reawakening of interest in the history of Arab-Jewish relations among Jewish writers and intellectuals, certain interested circles have been trying to… Judeo-Arabic tradition or symbiosis by digging up scattered pieces of evidence to show that Islam is essentially intolerant…and that Muslims’ contempt for Jews was even greater and more deep-seated than that manifested by Christians…

Such caricatures of the history of Jews under Islam continue to be disseminated by scholars as well as by interested publicists and ideologues. Indeed, all discussion of relations between Jews and Muslims…is beset by the most burning emotions and by highly charged sensitivities. In their eagerness to repudiate the generally accepted version of these relations (a version which, it is worthwhile pointing out, originates not in Muslim books of history but with Jewish historians and Orientalists in nineteenth-century Europe), certain partisan students of the Middle East conflict today seem to go out of their way to show that, far from being the record of harmonious coexistence it is often claimed to be, the story of Jewish-Muslim relations since the time of Muhammad was “a sorry array of conquest, massacre, subjection, spoilation in goods and women and children, contempt, expulsion–[and] even the yellow badge…”

Informed by a fervor seldom encountered in scholarly discourse, some of these latter-day historians have gone so far as to question even the motives of those European-Jewish scholars of the past century who virtually founded modern Oriental and Arabic studies and managed to unearth the impressive legacy of Judeo-Arabic culture, a culture that was undeniably an outcome of a long and symbiotic encounter between Muslims and Jews.

…[But] by the standards then prevailing–and they are plainly the only ones by which a historian is entitled to pass judgment–Spanish Islamic tolerance was no myth but a reality of which present-day Muslim Arabs are fully justified in reminding their contemporaries…Tolerance, then, is a highly relative concept, and the only sensible way of gauging the extent of tolerance in a given society or culture in a given age is to compare it with that prevailing in other societies and cultures in the same period…

The only plausible conclusion one could draw from the whole debate is that, while Jewish life in Muslim Spain–and under Islam generally–was not exactly the idyllic paradise some would want us to believe, it was far from the veritable hell that was the Jews’ consistent lot under Christendom. [144]

Edited from Danios article @ 

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