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Success and Slaughter: Jewish and Muslim Relations From the Middle Ages On


Moses Maimonides, a Jewish physician and scholar, rose to the top of the Islamic world.

During the Middle Ages, Jews often rose to the very top of government and society in the Muslim world. Less often, their Muslim masters massacred or expelled them.

Mehmed the Great, the Ottoman sultan and conqueror of Constantinople, appointed Hekim Pasha, a Jews, his minister of finance and employed a Portuguese Jew as his personal physician.

An Italian-Jewish physician who had converted to Islam, Jacob Pasha, was accused of slowly poisoning the psychopathic Mehmed and was executed. Mehmed’s father, Murad II, also employed a Jewish physician and named another Jew head of Egypt’s mint.

Other Jews held positions of authority and prestige throughout the Ottoman Empire, which comprised modern-day Turkey, the Middle East, North Africa, and elsewhere in the Muslim world.

A Medieval Egyptian poet described the success of Jewish immigrants and their descendants in his country: “Today, the Jews have reached the summit of their hopes and have become aristocrats. Power and riches have they and from them councilors and princes are chosen.”

Jewish scholars and physicians like Moses Maimonides enjoyed an international reputation as the Einsteins and Freuds of their day. Maimonides’ treatises on diabetes, asthma, hepatitis, and pneumonia became standard medical texts for centuries.

His life and career embody both the worst and best treatment Jews received in the Islamic world. In the 12th century, a tribe of Moors (Muslim invaders from Morocco which gave the Moors their name) conquered Córdoba in Spain and ordered the Jews to convert or leave. A resident of Córdoba, Maimonides and his family chose exile over conversion to Islam.

Maimonides eventually settled in Egypt, where he became physician to the Sultan Saladin, Richard the Lionheart’s chivalric nemesis during the Third Crusade in the 12th century.

Richard’s treatment of Jews in England was the opposite of Saladin’s.

Although myth and legend have portrayed Richard as the ideal of a Medieval knight, he was a psychopath who forbade Jews to attend his coronation. They showed up anyway with gifts, which were taken from them by Richard’s followers, who stripped and flogged the uninvited guests.

A mob believed a false rumor that the king had ordered the extermination of the Jews, and rioters acted on the rumor. They beat their victims to death or burned them alive.

In order to maintain stability while he was away on Crusade, Richard ordered the ringleaders hanged and issued a writ placing the Jews of England under his protection.

In 1290, a bankrupt Edward I expelled Jews from England for their own protection from Christian mobs and to confiscate their wealth.

England wasn’t the only Christian nation to expel its Jews. Philip Augustus of France banished the Jews in 1182 only to recall them 16 years later after he realized they could be a source of revenue through taxation.

However, while Christian serfs were gradually being liberated in Europe at the time, all French Jews became serfs of the king.


Oliver Cromwell

For similar economic benefits, Oliver Cromwell welcomed the wealthy Jews of Amsterdam back to mid-17th century England, where they made substantial contributions to the nation’s wealth.

In 1492, another major historical event occurred in the Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella. After the king and queen expelled Muslims and Jews who refused to convert to Christianity, the royal couple turned their attention and funds over to a Genoan adventurer with delusions of reaching the riches of the east by sailing west.

Before their expulsion by the Moors, Jews flourished and practiced their faith unmolested The good times ended when the Almohads of Córdoba, a fundamentalist Muslim sect, reversed centuries of toleration and ordered the Jews to convert or leave.

For centuries Jewish and Muslim scholars preserved the learning of ancient Greece, which was translated into Arabic. From Muslim Spain, ancient Greek texts trickled back into a Europe mired in the Dark Ages. The mathematical concept of zero entered the Christian West from India via the Moors of Spain.

Spanish Jews who abandoned their faith were called conversos, but the conversion of many of them was insincere. Crypto-Jews continued to live in Spain after their coreligionists crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and relocated to Morocco and elsewhere in the Muslim world.

Within a century of the expulsion of their coreligionists from Spain in 1492, Jewish conversos had risen to the top of government and society. Many were high-ranking ecclesiastics.

Old Christians envied the “new Christians,” and conversos, sincere or not, were burned at the stake as heretics, although their real “crime” seems to have been commercial success.

Unlike Medieval Europe, the Islamic world practiced a rare toleration of all religions, as well as atheists.

Until the 11th century, when Muslim Saracens fought Crusaders for possession of the Holy Land and poisoned relations between the two faiths, Christians were also tolerated in the Islamic world.

Like Jews, Christians were honored as “People of the Book,” the Old and New Testament. Like Mohammed, Jesus was honored as a prophet but not as God.

The Crusades were often financed by Jewish moneylenders because Christians heeded the Biblical injunction against loaning money at interest, called usury.

Before setting out for the Holy Land, Crusaders often employed a unique form of debt liquidation. Holy warriors first stopped off at the Jewish ghetto and slaughtered their creditors.

Long before Columbus’ royal patrons ethnically cleansed Spain of its Jews, England and France expelled their Jewish inhabitants. Many settled in Poland, whose king, Casimir the Great, welcomed the refugees from pogroms in Germany at the beginning of the 14th century.

According to legend but not the historical record, the king rolled out the welcome mat out of love for his Jewish mistress, Esther, which was also the name of the Jewish queen of Persia who rescued her coreligionists from her husband’s wrath.

In reality, Casimir had welcomed the Jews two decades earlier and not out of love. Poland was under populated, and Jewish immigrants contributed to the Polish economy.

Despite later anti-Semitism in Poland, Jews flourished in their adopted homeland. By 1939, before Germany exterminated most Polish Jews, they made up as much as 33 percent of the urban population.

The success of Jews in the Muslim world does not represent Arab propaganda or revisionist history. Austrian historian and Arabist Gustave von Grunebaum described the schizoid world of success and slaughter the Jews experienced under Islamic rule:

“It would not be difficult to put together the names of a very sizeable number of Jewish subjects or citizens of the Islamic area who have attained high rank, power, great financial influence and intellectual accomplishment.

“But it would again not be difficult to compile a lengthy list of persecutions or pogroms.”

However, if there is such a concept as relative evil, Christians throughout history have trumped Muslims in the contest for which faith has persecuted Jews more viciously and pervasively.

Violence against Islam’s Jewish population was sporadic and often instigated by mobs, not by the authorities. In Europe until the mid-20th century, anti-Semitism was systemic, endemic and officially sanctioned, climaxing with Hitler’s Solution to his perceived Jewish Problem.

Eleanor Herman notes in Mistress of the Vatican that Italy was the only country in the Christian West that did not slaughter its Jews. Even so, there was a humiliating annual ritual, called the “Running of the Jews,” in which Rome’s most respected Jews were forced to perform like racehorses as they sprinted around the perimeter of the Eternal City.

Despite official toleration, Muslim rulers tried to tax Christians and Jews out of existence. The partial failure of this financial cleansing survives today in Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Christian community and among Maronite Catholics in Lebanon.

Despite de facto discrimination, Christians in the Middle East continue to enjoy official toleration and respect. Egyptian Copts occupy prominent positions in the professions and government. One of the richest men in the world is a Copt.

Before becoming the United Nations Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, also a Copt, served as Egyptian foreign minister twice in the late 1970s. Despite official toleration, radical Islamists in Egypt have committed hate crimes, including physical assault, against Copts.

In Lebanon, although Maronites comprise only 22 percent of the population, the president since 1946 has been a Maronite by law, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the head of parliament a Shia Muslim.

Most of Europe’s unwanted Jews ended up in the Ottoman Empire, the successor state of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine empire, where their learning and business acumen enriched their Muslim hosts.

What went wrong with a modus vivendi that allowed Jews and Muslims to coexist peacefully for a millennium?

Except for those who haven’t read a newspaper in years, most know the answer which explains the current blood feud between Palestinians and Israelis.

After the modern Zionist movement began at the end of the 19th century in reaction to the Dreyfus Affair, Jewish immigrants to Palestine were persecuted and slaughtered by once tolerant Muslims who resented Jews seeking a homeland and sanctuary from European anti-Semitism within the boundaries of Eretz or Biblical Israel.

Arab-American scholar Khalid Siddiqi believes the current unrest in Israel is a temporary aberration that has interrupted centuries of friendly relations.

“While this reaction results in anti-Jewish feeling, it must be seen in its proper historical context. It must be remembered that anti-Jewish sentiments in so far as it is to be found in the contemporary Arab world is strictly a modern phenomenon and one that runs counter to the time-honored Islamic tradition of fraternity and tolerance.

“The very widespread popular notion that present-day Arab-Jewish hostility is but another chapter in a long history of mutual animosity is totally false. If there is one thing the past makes clear, it is precisely that Arabs and Jews can live together peacefully and in a mutually beneficial relationship. History also makes it very clear that they are the heirs to the Islamic tradition of openness and tolerance.”

According to Siddiqi, both the Koran (Qur’an) and the Old Testament preach justice for all. The Koran says that non-Muslims should be treated with “Birr (kindness) and Qist (justice).” (Sura or chapter 60:8)

But just as the Old and New Testaments contain contradictory statements and laws, other passages in the Koran quoted by Jewish-American scholar Mitchell Bard display something less than kindness and justice toward the Jews:

“The Children of Israel were consigned to humiliation and wretchedness. They brought the wrath of God upon themselves, and this because they used to deny God’s signs, kill His Prophets unjustly and because they were transgressors.” (Sura 2:61)

Bard does concede, “Jewish communities in Arab and Islamic countries fared better overall than those in Christian lands in Europe.”

Radicals on both sides of the conflict in the Middle East ignore their religious tenets when they deny their perceived enemies justice.

From the distant past, the voice of Maimonides disputes Siddiqi’s rosy view of Arab-Jewish relations:

“Remember, my co-religionists, 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. Never did a nation molest, degrade, debase and hate us as much as they.”

It’s not known when Maimonides denounced his Muslim hosts. Probably after his expulsion by the Moors from Spain.

It’s unlikely that Maimonides continued to hold the same opinion after relocating to Egypt, where he became physician to Saladin, hardly a case of “discrimination, molestation, degradation, debasement, and hatred,” as Maimonides claimed.

If the insoluble problems in the Middle East are ever solved, probably only after generations of conflict leads to a weary peace or truce, Jews and Muslims may again live together in harmony as their coreligionists in the Western world already do after centuries of pogroms and expulsions.


Bard, Mitchell. “The Treatment of Jews in Arab Islamic Countries.” Jewish Virtual Library, 2011.

Herman, Eleanor. Mistress of the Vatican: The True Story of Olimpia Maidalchini: The Secret Female Pope, 2009.

Sanello, Frank. The Knights Templars: God’s Warriors, the Devil’s Bankers, 2003.

Von Grunebaum, G.E. “Eastern Jewry Under Islam,” Viator, 1971.

Treece, Henry. The Crusades, 1994.