Image of a cantor reading the Passover story in Al Andalus, from the 14th century Haggadah of Barcelona.

by Ed Swan, Research Intern, Quilliam Foundation

The phenomenon of antisemitism in Muslim-majority societies is usually explained in one of two ways. Either it is seen as something innate to Islam, constituting a core element of Islamic thought and scripture, and exemplified by centuries of persecution and conflict, or it is presented as a reaction to Zionism, and a break with a history of interfaith cooperation. The debate is influenced by absolutist viewpoints, which hold, for example, that the reaction to Israel in the Islamic world is purely antisemitic, or that pre-Zionist relations between Jews and Muslims constituted a utopian ideal of coexistence. The Islamic Caliphate of Al-Andalus, which existed in various forms in Iberia from the eighth to the fifteenth centuries, is often held up as the example par excellence of this coexistence. A closer look at the society of Al-Andalus helps to demonstrate that, while perhaps it was no utopia, the phenomenon of ‘Muslim antisemitism’ as we recognise it today does not have its roots in Islamic history.

Antisemitism in Muslim majority countries is well documented: a recent survey reports that large majorities of respondents in countries such as Egypt (95%), Turkey (76%) and Pakistan (76%) have an ‘unfavourable opinion of Jews’ (Pew Research Global Attitudes Project, 2008). Focusing specifically on the Arab World, where the largest majorities reported unfavourable opinions, there are a number of examples in local media that demonstrate the form of this antisemitism. European narratives play a prominent role, for example, Mein Kampf and the fabricated Protocols of the Elders of Zion continue to this day to be widely published and distributed in Arabic translation, and the latter formed the basis of a 2002 Egyptian television series syndicated across the Arab World.

These European-inspired antisemitic ideas can be seen employed as a response to the two overwhelming perceived threats to Islam: Western imperialism and Zionism. A number of antisemitic cartoons have appeared in Arab newspapers that visualise the way in which ‘traditional’ European antisemitism is combined with modern insecurities in the Islamic world. For example, cartoons show Jews caricatured in European antisemitic style murdering Palestinian children or whispering into the ear of the American President. This demonstrates a unique kind of modern antisemitism – it is specific to the Muslim world, but it is also inherently linked to modern day political circumstances rather than a valid representation of any part of Islamic culture.

Such antisemitism represents one extreme of the Arab media, not a general consensus. In most cases, even when criticising Israeli policy, the distinction between Zionism and Judaism is consistently applied. In everyday conversation, such a distinction is not always made, reflecting a general ambiguity about the extent to which the State of Israel represents the wider Jewish world.
The political circumstances that encourage this antisemitism are not simply the actions of the Israeli state and its Western supporters. One important consequence of the establishment of the State of Israel is that, since the exodus of Jews from Muslim lands, for the first time in history the vast majority of the Muslim world has no significant Jewish presence. Thus, in most cases, we are looking at an antisemitism without Jews, prone to fantastical imagination of an absent ‘other’ by those who have no relations with Jews. Alternatively, in the case of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, Jews are encountered in an almost exclusively negative context.

This antisemitism also occasionally invokes scriptural references, just as the same references are sometimes (mis)used by those trying to paint Islam as inherently antisemitic. The notion that the Qur’an depicts Jews as ‘apes and pigs’ is one which surfaces regularly – in fact this is a distortion of sura 5:60, in which the disobedient among the people of the book (both Jews and Christians) are transformed into apes, pigs and idolaters. There are also a number of verses, although less often invoked, in which Jews are portrayed positively. One example is sura 20:80, which describes how God delivered the children of Israel from their enemy, made a covenant with them, and gave them manna and quails.

In the context of the Islamic caliphates of Al-Andalus, supposed negative scriptural attitudes towards Jews had little effect on relations between Muslims and Jews. These relations were governed by the ahl al-dhimma contract, in which Christians and Jews were permitted to live unmolested in Muslim lands, protected by the law, exempt from some religious laws and subject to paying tax. This is based on sura 2:256 from the Qur’an: ‘There is no compulsion in religion’. Such guaranteed security and freedom could hardly be imagined in the contemporary Christian societies of the time, where Jews, with their denial of the Messiah, represented a theological thorn in the side of the ecclesiastical state. While in Christendom Jews were limited to specific marginal professions, such as moneylending, Jews in Al-Andalus played a prominent role in an environment of unparalleled intellectual and scientific discovery.

Jewish achievement in this time is exemplified by the prominence of such figures as Hasdai ibn Shaprut, Jewish physician and foreign minister to the Caliph Abd ar-Rahman III. Samuel ibn Naghrilla, a Talmudic Scholar born in Mérida, became vizier of Granada and a top general in its army. The Jewish poet and philosopher Moses ibn Ezra, who wrote in both Hebrew and Arabic, was influential in his use of metaphor and rhetoric to interpret the relationship between God and man. Jews were integral to the prolific translation from Greek and Latin to Arabic that built libraries on a legendary scale, building a collection of knowledge that fuelled the discoveries of the period.

A number of revisionist historians however, have rallied against the idealised image of peaceful coexistence; certainly there is ample evidence to suggest that oppression was not unknown to Andalusian Jews. In his ‘Epistle to Yemen’, written around 1172, the Jewish philosopher Maimonides described the life of Jews in the Islamic Caliphate, writing ‘on account of the vast number of our sins, God has hurled us in the midst of this people, the Arabs, who have persecuted us severely, and passed baneful and discriminatory legislation against us’. As Bernard Lewis writes on several occasions, the modern ideas of religious tolerance and equality in medieval religious societies had no currency; there was only belief or heresy. While Jews may have benefited from a lack of political tensions during the comparatively stable years of the Umayyad Caliphate, this deteriorated during the Almoravid and Almohad dynasties, as the province gradually succumbed to the Reconquista.
However, as Mark R Cohen notes, where oppression of Jews existed, it was fundamentally different to what we can recognise as antisemitism in Muslim-majority countries today. It was rather an expression of the dominant power over the subordinate, not aimed exclusively at Jews but rather at all those who did not belong to Islam, that is to say both Jews and Christians in the context of Al-Andalus. Moreover, some of the ugliest features of antisemitism found in the Christian European tradition and continuing in one form or another – conspiracy theories of world domination, blood libel or grotesque characterisation for example – have no counterpart in Islamic history.

While the idea of the ‘Golden Age’ may not be as utopian as some might suggest, there is no doubt that the current form of ‘Muslim antisemitism’ is something new and unprecedented in historical terms. While scriptural references that appear to support the idea of inherent antisemitism in Islam are now to be found mixed with a European form of the phenomenon, such references simply did not affect relations between Muslims and Jews throughout their long shared history. There is thus an imperative not to see antisemitism in Muslim-majority societies as a result of Islam, but to see it as an unacceptable result of the political realities of the modern world, a phenomenon which must be systematically challenged, rather than accepted as a cultural inevitability.

For further reading:
Mark R Cohen, Under Crescent and Cross – The Jews in the Middle Ages, Princeton University Press, 1994
Martin Gilbert, In Ishmael’s House – A History of Jews in Muslims Lands, McClelland & Stewart, 2011
Bernard Lewis, The Jews of Islam, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984
Maria Rosa Menocal, The Ornament of the World – How Muslims, Jews, and Christians created a culture of tolerance in Medieval Spain, Little, Brown, 2009