Islamic Anti-Semitism

Ibn Warraq

In Part 1, which appeared in the June/July 2007 issue of Free Inquiry, Ibn Warraq explored the history of Islamic anti-Semitism. In part 2, which ap peared in the August/September 2007 issue, he examined its underpinnings in religious texts and culture. Here, that analysis is concluded.—Eds.


By way of review, I distinguish three Islams. “Islam 1” connotes the Islam of the texts as found in the Qur’an, the Hadith (the sayings and deeds of the Prophet and his Companions), and the Sira (the biography of Muhammad). “Islam 2” connotes the Islam elaborated from those texts by early Qur’anic commentators and theologians then set in stone more than a millennium ago. “Islam 3” connotes Islamic civilization, that is, what Muslims actually did historically and do today.

As was shown in the previous installment, Islamic scripture and tradition are clear in their insistence that Islam is the only true religion and that Jews and Christians are devious, money-grubbing, and not to be trusted. They must even pay a tax in the most humiliating possible way, as these Qur’anic verses (Islam 1) illustrate:

II.61: Wretchedness and baseness were stamped upon them [the Jews], and they were visited with wrath from Allah. That was because they disbelieved in Allah’s revelations and slew the prophets wrongfully. That was for their disobedience and transgression.

IV.44–46: Have you not seen those who have received a portion of the Scripture? They purchase error, and they want you to go astray from the path.

But Allah knows best who your enemies are, and it is sufficient to have Allah as a friend. It is sufficient to have Allah as a helper.

Some of the Jews pervert words from their meanings, and say, “We hear and we disobey,” and “Hear without hearing,” and ‘”Heed us!” twisting with their tongues and slandering religion. If they had said, “We have heard and obey,” or “Hear and observe us” it would have been better for them and more upright. But Allah had cursed them for their disbelief, so they believe not, except for a few.

IV.160–161: And for the evildoing of the Jews, We have forbidden them some good things that were previously permitted them, and because of their barring many from Allah’s way.

And for their taking usury which was prohibited for them, and because of their consuming people’s wealth under false pretense. We have prepared for the unbelievers among them a painful punishment.

We turn now to the treatment of the Jews in Islam 2, the domain of the Qur’anic commentators.

Baydawi (died c. 1316), in Anwaar al-Tanziil wa-Asraar al-Ta’wiil, pro-vided this gloss on Qur’an II:61:

“humiliation and wretchedness” covered them like a dome, or stuck to them like wet clay to a wall—a metaphor for their denial of the bounty. The Jews are mostly humiliated and wretched either of their own accord, or out of coercion of the fear of having their jizya [a per-capita tax imposed on ablebodied, non-Muslim men of military age] doubled. . . . Either they became deserving of His wrath [or] . . . the affliction of “humiliation and wretchedness” and the deserving wrath which preceded this.

Ibn Kathir (died 1373) emphasized the Jews’ eternal humiliation in accord with Qur’an II:61:

This ayah indicates that the Children of Israel were plagued with humiliation, and this will continue, meaning it will never cease. They will continue to suffer humiliation at the hands of all who interact with them, along with the disgrace that they feel inwardly.

How did the Jews fare under Islam 3: Islamic civilization?

Here are examples of the persecution of Jews in Islamic lands: the massacre of more than six thousand Jews in Fez (Morocco) in 1033; the hundreds of Jews killed between 1010 and 1013 near Cordoba and in other parts of Muslim Spain; and the massacre of the entire Jewish community of roughly four thousand in Granada during the Muslim riots of 1066. Referring to the latter massacre, Robert Wistrich writes:

This was a disaster, as serious as that which overtook the Rhineland Jews thirty years later during the First Crusade, yet it has rarely received much scholarly attention. . . . In Kairouan [Tunisia] the Jews were persecuted and forced to leave in 1016, returning later only to be expelled again. In Tunis in 1145 they were forced to convert or to leave, and during the following decade there were fierce anti-Jewish persecutions throughout the country. A similar pattern of events occurred in Morocco after the massacre of Jews in Mar rakesh in 1232. Indeed, in the Islamic world from Spain to the Arabian peninsula the looting and killing of Jews, along with punitive taxation, confinement to ghettos, the enforced wearing of distinguishing marks on clothes (an innovation in which Islam preceded medieval Christen dom), and other humiliations were rife.

Fouad Ajami, in his review of Amartya Sen’s book Identity and Violence, spoke of “the culture of con-vivencia,” what others have called the Golden Age of Tolerance in Spain before it was destroyed by the intoler-ance of the Almohads, an oppressive Berber Muslim dynasty. Unfortunately, the “Golden Age” also turns out to be a myth—one invented, ironically, by the Jews themselves. The myth may well have originated as early as the twelfth century, when Abraham Ibn Daud in his Sefer ha-Qabbalah contrasted an ideal-ized period of tolerance of the salons of Toledo in contrast to the contemporary barbarism of the Berber dynasty. But the myth took a firm grip on the imagination of the Jews in the nineteenth cen-tury, thanks to the bibliographer Moritz Steinschneider and historian Heinrich Graetz, and perhaps the influence of Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Coningsby, published in 1844. Here is a passage from the latter novel giving a romantic picture of Muslim Spain:

. . . that fair and unrivaled civilization in which the children of Ishmael rewarded the children of Israel with equal rights and privileges with themselves. During these halcyon centuries, it is difficult to distinguish the follower of Moses from the votary of Mohammed. Both alike built palaces, gardens and fountains; filled equally the highest offices of state, competed in an extensive and enlightened commerce, rivaled each other in renowned universities.

Since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Western intellectuals from Pierre Bayle to Voltaire and Montesquieu had used the putative tolerance of Islam to belabor Christianity for its relative intolerance. Against a background of rising pseudo-scientific racism during the nineteenth century, Jewish historians looked to Islam “for support, seeking real or imagined allies and models of tolerance in the East. The cult of a powerful, dazzling and brilliant Andalusia in the midst of an ignorant and intolerant Europe formed an important component in these contemporary intellectual currents.” But Jane Gerber concludes her sober assessment of the Golden Age myth with these reflections:

The aristocratic bearing of a select class of courtiers and poets, however, should not blind us to the reality that this tightly knit circle of leaders and aspirants to power was neither the whole of Spanish Jewish history nor of Spanish Jewish society. Their gilded moments of the tenth and eleventh century are but a brief chapter in a longer saga. No doubt, Ibn Daud’s polemic provided consolation and inspiration to a crisis-ridden twelfth century elite, just as the golden age imagery could comfort dejected exiles after 1492. It suited the needs of nineteenth century advocates of Jewish emancipation in Europe or the twentieth century contestants in the ongoing debate over Palestine. . . . The history of the Jews in Muslim lands, especially Muslim Spain, needs to be studied on its own terms, without myth or countermyth.

That is exactly what Andrew G. Bostom has done in his book The Legacy of Islamic Anti-Semitism: he provides a history of the Jews in Muslim lands without myth, the necessary corrective to the idealized portraits of the so-called Golden Age or the absolute tolerance of Ottoman Turkey. Patiently and method-ically, Bostom shows the real situation of Jews against a background of the institution of dhimmitude, which relentlessly persecuted all non-Muslims and reduced their lives to misery—lives which were further punctuated with massacres and pogroms—all grimly recorded by him. Bostom also takes into account the discoveries of the Cairo Geniza, which forced even the great historian Shelomo Dov Goitein (died 1985) to revise his ideas about the situ-ation of Jews in Islamic lands. While the West has recognized its own shameful part in the slave trade and anti-Semitic persecution and has taken steps to make amends where possible, the Islamic lands are in constant denial. Until Islamic countries acknowledge the realities of anti-Jewish persecution in their history, there is no hope of combat-ing the continuing hatred of Jews in modern to Indonesia.


Further Reading

Baydawi (Fleischer, H.O., ed.), Commen-tarius in Coranu: Anwaar al-Tanziil Wa-Asraar al-Ta’wiil, 1846–1848 (reprint: Osnabrück, 1968), p. 63. English transla-tion by Michael Schub.

Jane Gerber, “Towards an Understanding of the Term: ‘The Golden Age’ as an Historical Reality,” in Aviva Doron, ed., The Heritage of the Jews of Spain (Tel Aviv, Levinsky College of Education Publishing House, 1994).

Benjamin Israel, Coningsby, Book IV, Ch. X, quoted in Bernard Lewis, Islam in History New York, 1973).

Ibn Kathir. Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Riyadh, Vol. 1, 2000.

Robert Wistrich, Antisemitism: The Long-est Hatred (Schocken Books, New York, 1991).

Ibn Warraq

Ibn Warraq, Islamic scholar and a leading figure in Qur’anic criticism, was a senior research fellow at the Center for Inquiry. He is the author of many books, including What the Qur’an Really Says (Prometheus Books, 2002) and Which Koran? Variants, Manuscripts, Linguistics.


In Part 1, which appeared in the June/July 2007 issue of Free Inquiry, Ibn Warraq explored the history of Islamic anti-Semitism. In part 2, which ap peared in the August/September 2007 issue, he examined its underpinnings in religious texts and culture. Here, that analysis is concluded.—Eds. By way of review, I distinguish three Islams. “Islam …

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