David J. Wasserstein: “Islam Saved Jewry”
David J. Wasserstein, professor of Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University penned an interesting and refreshing article that likely caused the heads of Islamophobes to explode, titled, So, What did the Muslims do for the Jews?
He argues that before the birth of the Prophet Muhammad, Judaism under the Byzantines was near extinction, and under Persian rule was endanger of being relegated to a cult.
Had Islam not come along, Jewry in the west would have declined to disappearance and Jewry in the east would have become just another oriental cult.
Wasserstein doesn’t fall into the trap of painting a too utopian, rosy picture of Jewish life under Muslim rule, but does highlight the fact that in many places Jewish life and culture flourished, (for example in Andalusia).
by David Wasserstein (The JC)
Islam saved Jewry. This is an unpopular, discomforting claim in the modern world. But it is a historical truth. The argument for it is double. First, in 570 CE, when the Prophet Mohammad was born, the Jews and Judaism were on the way to oblivion. And second, the coming of Islam saved them, providing a new context in which they not only survived, but flourished, laying foundations for subsequent Jewish cultural prosperity – also in Christendom – through the medieval period into the modern world.
By the fourth century, Christianity had become the dominant religion in the Roman empire. One aspect of this success was opposition to rival faiths, including Judaism, along with massive conversion of members of such faiths, sometimes by force, to Christianity. Much of our testimony about Jewish existence in the Roman empire from this time on consists of accounts of conversions.
Great and permanent reductions in numbers through conversion, between the fourth and the seventh centuries, brought with them a gradual but relentless whittling away of the status, rights, social and economic existence, and religious and cultural life of Jews all over the Roman empire.
A long series of enactments deprived Jewish people of their rights as citizens, prevented them from fulfilling their religious obligations, and excluded them from the society of their fellows.
This went along with the centuries-long military and political struggle with Persia. As a tiny element in the Christian world, the Jews should not have been affected much by this broad, political issue. Yet it affected them critically, because the Persian empire at this time included Babylon – now Iraq – at the time home to the world’s greatest concentration of Jews.
Here also were the greatest centres of Jewish intellectual life. The most important single work of Jewish cultural creativity in over 3,000 years, apart from the Bible itself – the Talmud – came into being in Babylon. The struggle between Persia and Byzantium, in our period, led increasingly to a separation between Jews under Byzantine, Christian rule and Jews under Persian rule.
Beyond all this, the Jews who lived under Christian rule seemed to have lost the knowledge of their own culturally specific languages – Hebrew and Aramaic – and to have taken on the use of Latin or Greek or other non-Jewish, local, languages. This in turn must have meant that they also lost access to the central literary works of Jewish culture – the Torah, Mishnah, poetry, midrash, even liturgy.
The loss of the unifying force represented by language – and of the associated literature – was a major step towards assimilation and disappearance. In these circumstances, with contact with the one place where Jewish cultural life continued to prosper – Babylon – cut off by conflict with Persia, Jewish life in the Christian world of late antiquity was not simply a pale shadow of what it had been three or four centuries earlier. It was doomed.
Had Islam not come along, the conflict with Persia would have continued. The separation between western Judaism, that of Christendom, and Babylonian Judaism, that of Mesopotamia, would have intensified. Jewry in the west would have declined to disappearance in many areas. And Jewry in the east would have become just another oriental cult.
But this was all prevented by the rise of Islam. The Islamic conquests of the seventh century changed the world, and did so with dramatic, wide-ranging and permanent effect for the Jews.
Within a century of the death of Mohammad, in 632, Muslim armies had conquered almost the whole of the world where Jews lived, from Spain eastward across North Africa and the Middle East as far as the eastern frontier of Iran and beyond. Almost all the Jews in the world were now ruled by Islam. This new situation transformed Jewish existence. Their fortunes changed in legal, demographic, social, religious, political, geographical, economic, linguistic and cultural terms – all for the better.
First, things improved politically. Almost everywhere in Christendom where Jews had lived now formed part of the same political space as Babylon – Cordoba and Basra lay in the same political world. The old frontier between the vital centre in Babylonia and the Jews of the Mediterranean basin was swept away, forever.
Political change was partnered by change in the legal status of the Jewish population: although it is not always clear what happened during the Muslim conquests, one thing is certain. The result of the conquests was, by and large, to make the Jews second-class citizens.
This should not be misunderstood: to be a second-class citizen was a far better thing to be than not to be a citizen at all. For most of these Jews, second-class citizenship represented a major advance. In Visigothic Spain, for example, shortly before the Muslim conquest in 711, the Jews had seen their children removed from them and forcibly converted to Christianity and had themselves been enslaved.
In the developing Islamic societies of the classical and medieval periods, being a Jew meant belonging to a category defined under law, enjoying certain rights and protections, alongside various obligations. These rights and protections were not as extensive or as generous as those enjoyed by Muslims, and the obligations were greater but, for the first few centuries, the Muslims themselves were a minority, and the practical differences were not all that great.
Along with legal near-equality came social and economic equality. Jews were not confined to ghettos, either literally or in terms of economic activity. The societies of Islam were, in effect, open societies. In religious terms, too, Jews enjoyed virtually full freedom. They might not build many new synagogues – in theory – and they might not make too public their profession of their faith, but there was no really significant restriction on the practice of their religion. Along with internal legal autonomy, they also enjoyed formal representation, through leaders of their own, before the authorities of the state. Imperfect and often not quite as rosy as this might sound, it was at least the broad norm.