When Jews wore Turbans: A Surprising History of Jewish/Muslim Mutual Respect

Heliport Gallery
Symposium, Heliport Gallery, Silver Spring, MD, March 8, 2007

An activist artist friend of mine in San Francisco, Richard Kamler, said to me recently: "We all know what war looks like; there's no reason to create any more art that picks at the scab of that wound.  But what does


look like?  How can we, as artists, present the imagination of peaceful coexistence?"

My project, Shalom/Salaam: The Untold Story of a Mystical Entanglement, and my work with Tunisian Muslim artist Karim Chaibi are two responses to that question: how can we imagine peace between Jews and Muslims?  In going beyond simple platitudes or wishful thinking, I imagine peace and respect between these two peoples by going back to a specific historical time and place: to the Mediterranean Basin, where for nearly a millennia during medieval times, these very things existed between Jews and Muslims.  And by inserting this story into the contemporary conversation, both political and religious, between Muslims and Jews, I hope to provide the specific imagination of a better way, something that those who want peace but don't know where to look for it can grasp onto, and expand upon.

In contemporary times, Muslim/Jewish relations have indeed become defined by an incendiary cultural and political climate on both sides.  A flashpoint for geopolitical tensions worldwide, the area of Israel/Palestine represents for most people the personification of a horrible shared history, a conjoined twin attached at the hips, whose two heads have vowed a fight to the death.  The two peoples seem to share a revulsion so intense that non-implicated individuals from all over the world feel compelled to take sides and to pass judgment. 

While a great deal of this friction is clearly based in the current political situation, much of the justification for the acts of war is based on traditions, legends and historically-based memories that have grown up on both sides of the conflict.  One can go as far back as the Biblical story of Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael to find the seeds of discontent between Jews and Muslims.  After all, Abraham's initial heritor, Ishmael, who was born of his barren wife's maidservant, was replaced in the lineage by his younger half-brother, Isaac, born (with the help of God) from out of his wife's once infertile womb.  Ishmael was sent into the wilderness to found a "great people," who tradition decided were the Arabs, and then Muslims.

This "habit" of hatred has seeped into contemporary education, the media and the general culture on both sides of that combustible border between contemporary Israel and the Palestinian Territories.   Nowadays, hatred is an equal opportunity political tool, fomented by the political class, taught in schools and expanded upon in the media,.

However, there is much positive history in this relationship, and it is in the deep, spiritual and cultural chronicle buried in plain sight, in the history between Jews and Muslims, that we can find a reality with stronger roots and a positive resonance, and which can help provide not only the imagination of peace between these two peoples, but also a specific, positive light that can help illuminate the path towards a Jewish/Muslim renewal.

The relationship between Jews and Muslims had strong positive resonance, even from the very beginnings of Islam. For instance, the preeminent historical figure in the body of the Koran was Moses — his name being cited more than 100 times.  Stories about Moses, some recognizable to Jewish readers and others seemingly more obscure, pervaded the Holy Book.[i]  Additionally, the Koran contained so many legends and theological ideas found in Talmudic literature that a reading of the Muslim Holy Book offered a fairly comprehensive view of the spiritual life of the Jews with whom Muhammad certainly had contact.[ii]

Far from simply becoming subsumed in the burgeoning Muslim religion, these initial positive inflections helped color the early relationship between these two peoples.  When Muslim armies swept across the straights of Gibraltar in 711 and began their conquest of Visigoth Spain, the invaders trusted the thankful Jews so immediately that during the subjugation of Iberia, the Jews in newly conquered territories were used as garrison forces to secure and guard conquered cities, as the Arab armies pushed north[iii]  After hundreds of years under the oppressive Christian rulers, the Muslims were viewed as an army of liberation.

The early willingness on the part of the majority Muslims to entrust the most important facets of their government to Jews hardly flagged after these initial incidents.  And it was good that it didn't, since by the turn of the first millennia of the Christian era, 90% of the world's Jews lived under Islamic rule![iv]

One major factor for this surprisingly easy interaction between the two cultures was the open-minded rule of the early Muslim caliphs.   The Abbasids allowed for a tremendous amount of autonomy for non-Islamic groups — and during this era, Jews were held in such esteem that the head of the Jewish community enjoyed an official position within the Arab Caliphate.  Recognized by the Muslim leader as spokesman for all of the Jews in the realm, he was given the title of "Exilarch,[v] which signified the leader of the "exiled" peoples of Israel.  Said to be descended from the House of David, the Babylonian Exilarch attained a position of splendor within the Muslim Court.  Part of the reason for the respect paid by the Muslim leaders to the Exilarch was that they, like the Jews, regarded David as one of the great Prophets, and with their respect for lineage, ranked very highly the scions of such an ancient and noble line.[vi]

The Abbasids allowed their Jewish citizenry to participate in the intellectual life of their lands on more or less equal terms with their fellow Muslim citizens[vii]  As part and parcel of the Islamic quest for knowledge, from whatever quarter, the Muslim leaders encouraged Jewish scholars to play a major role in the scholarly life of Islam.  "Jews were prominent among the scientists, mathematicians and physicians encountered in (Muslim) biographical and literary encyclopedias.  In addition, Jewish scholars drew heavily upon their contemporary Muslim colleagues for their knowledge in such fields as astronomy, mathematics, physics and medicine.  The greatest Muslim scientists and philosophers had Jewish students."[viii]

Jews were involved with even the most important Muslim activities.  For example, the first biographer of the Prophet Muhammad, Muhammad Ibn Ishaq, collected many Isra'ilyat, or Jewish stories, and included them with his other Islamic material.  His contemporaries roundly criticized him for emphasizing the Jewish inspirations on the Prophet![ix]  Additionally, specific Jews gave much back to the Muslim crown.  The Jews Ibn Athan (745-815), Shu'aib (late eighth, early ninth century) and Sahl ibn Bishr (first quarter of the ninth century) all worked as court astrologers, delving into such important court intricacies as the occult sciences and the making of talismans.[x]  In addition, the Jewish liturgical poet Yosef ibn Abitur (d. 1024) interpreted the Talmud for the Muslim Caliph al-Hakim II.[xi]

This positive interaction was hardly accidental — it was woven into the upbringing of Jews and Muslims alike.  Young Jewish boys were trained from the outset to appreciate and excel in the Arab culture.  In addition to studying Hebrew, the Bible and the Talmud, Jewish children attended Muslim madrassas, examining everything from the Arabic language and grammar to the Koran and Muslim law.[xii]   Of course, by attending these Muslim schools, Jewish children operated on an equal social and scholarly plane with the Muslim boys, and the seeds of later collaboration were planted in both societies.

It was not just a small sliver of the Jewish literati that profited from the new cultural influences.  A sizable population of Jews avidly ingested the new literature and science in Arabic, including the Koran and Muslim poetry, philology, biography and history.  This influx of new stimuli, the likes of which hadn't been seen in Jewish culture in nearly a thousand years, became a scrim through which all of Jewish thought and writing passed.[xiii]  Jewish society, so long walled off from the cultures within which it had existed, opened and flowered. 

The cream of Jewish society could hope to rise to important positions within the Muslim government.  In fact, Jews frequently attained positions of influence disproportionate to their numbers within the greater community.  Jews even participated as members of the Muslim police force, giving them sway over Muslim malefactors, as well as enlisting in the army.[xiv]     

The Jews of Islam also became the Muslim's business partners.  Oftentimes, Jews would act as agents for the Muslims, and vice versa.  The best-known form of shared enterprise was called a commenda, which signified that one party would provide the capital and the other would execute the work.  While it might seem like the Jews were most likely providing the work, due to their inferior status as minorities, in fact, a commenda functioned both ways, with sometimes the Jews and sometimes Muslims supplying the capital.  Many such connections were formed between the two religions.[xv]

Business relations, of this sort and others, between the two communities were so common that Moses Maimonides himself was asked to rule on the specifics of commercial relations between Muslim and Jew.  In response to a question concerning joint ownership in a store, Maimonides wrote that in places where Muslims and Jews shared commerce, the profits should be divided equally.  He added: "They may agree that the profits of sales on Friday (the Muslim holy day) go only to the Jew and that those of Saturday (the Jewish Sabbath) go only to the Muslim.[xvi]

They cooked and ate the same kinds of foods, allowing for the minor differences in Jewish and Muslim dietary restrictions.  In clothing, as well, there was very little difference between the Jews and the Muslim majority.[xvii]  Jews even extended invitations to their Muslim neighbors to attend drinking parties, which caused problems for both, as wine was forbidden to Muslims, and sacramental for the Jews.  This hardly stopped the two from imbibing together, however: Jews dealt with the sacramental character of the wine by dropping honey into it, thereby turning the mixture into a "regular" soft drink.  The issue was of such pressing concern that Moses Maimonides himself issued a ruling on the matter, assuring his minions that the admixture was not to be regarded as wine, and thus the Muslims and Jews could imbibe together in peace.[xviii]

Religious norms also developed along parallel lines.  One of the most important manners of interpreting Jewish law was called a responsa, which was the interpretive reply of an authoritative Rabbi on a religious or legal matter.  It was through these edicts that Jewish law was kept up to date with contemporary concerns — and responsa from such great men as Moses Maimonides would enter into the canon of Jewish law, enlightening Jews for generations to come.

Islam developed a strikingly similar system, called fatwahs.  Like the responsa, these authoritative interpretations of Islamic law were collected in books and preserved for the edification of future generations.  In both religions, these edicts fulfilled a function similar to the system of civil courts in secular societies.[xix]

This virtually unprecedented interaction between the Jews and their "host" culture led to a rapid expansion of Jewish law, religion and the arts.  Jewish jurisprudence, which before and after this Golden Age was strictly rooted in the rabbinical interpretation of the Bible, became a bit more porous during this period, allowing for a lively interchange with this other religious force.  For instance, although strictly prohibited by Jewish law, Jews with legal complaints turned to Muslim courts.  This behavior became so widespread that it became codified by various religious edicts.  "A tenth century Muslim juridical decision stated that if one (Jewish) party appealed to a Muslim justice and the other to a Jewish (justice), the case must be decided by the Jewish judges.  Another judge decided that if the case involved injustices not dealt with by Jewish law, it should be decided by Muslim law."[xx]

Additionally, it was not unusual for Jews to turn to the Muslim authorities even in matters pertaining strictly to religion.  It turned out that the Jewish traditionalists of the time period shared one thing, at least, with the Muslim authorities: A respect for strict orthodoxy in religious practice.  The Muslim sultan could be asked to rule on such religious issues as poetical insertions in the synagogue liturgy, matters pertaining to Jewish prayer on workdays and the Sabbath and other topics concerning religious "innovations."  The Muslim authorities were called upon when the Egyptian Jewish/Sufis were changing the synagogue rites to be more Sufic.  In that case, Abraham Maimonides, Moses Maimonides' son and the head of the Egyptian Jewish community, successfully defended his reforms to the Jewish liturgy by using a Sufi style of religious apologia, squelching the charge of heresy.[xxi]

Jews were not shy about turning to the Koran to help clarify Jewish religious issues.  Moses Ibn Ezra noted that he took no issue with citing the Koran in his exposition of Jewish law:  "I paid no attention to the hatred of some of the hypocrites of the sages of our community," he avowed, since earlier (Jewish) scholars like Sa'adi Gaon (d. 942) and others had used the Koran to clarify obscure prophecies in the Bible.  Ibn Ezra also quotes another phrase that would be oft repeated by Sufi leaning Jews: "Everyone who says a wise thing, even among the nations of the world, is called wise (Megilah, 16a), for that which is kept of the words is the heart of the wisdom and not the shell of what is faulty.[xxii]  It would be hard to overstate the importance of Ibn Ezra's quote here, as so many of the important Jewish/Sufis would make just this point, as they determinedly and irrevocably turned Jewish mysticism towards the Sufi model.

Jewish practitioners could go too far, however, even in this open-minded Golden Age.  For instance, during this period a responsum was issued to the effect that "a leader of prayers in a synagogue who dared to sing prayers to popular Muslim tunes must be silenced (indicating, perhaps, that the practice of doing so was not uncommon.)."[xxiii]  While we have no record of the specific Muslim "tunes" that were sung in the medieval synagogue, it is certainly not out of the question that Jewish practitioners today sing the occasional medieval Muslim top 40 hit, only with words more appropriate to Jewish religious worship!

It is important to note, however, that Jewish denizens in Islamic lands never enjoyed completely equal status with the majority.  In addition to safeguarding certain minority rights, Muslim law sometimes demanded segregation and subservience, conditions that were often bearable, but, under a weak or cruel government, could and did lead to situations bordering on lawlessness and even to outright persecution.[xxiv]  While this type of behavior wasn't the norm, neither was it unheard of. 

Despite the occasional episodes of oppressive behavior emanating from the political class, Arab scholars and theologians were not shy about lavishing praise on their Jewish colleagues.  Early Muslim adherents seemed quite aware of the debt that their religion owed to their Jewish forbearers.  For instance, an 11th century Muslim biographer, Abu Qasim ibn Sa'id (d. 1070), a judge in the integrated city of Toledo, Spain wrote treatises on the history of sciences and religions.  In addition to concerning himself with the history of the sciences among the Jews, Sa'id said of the Jewish people, "And this nation, to the exclusion of all other nations, is the house of prophecy and source of apostleship.  The majority of the prophets — may God's blessings and peace rest upon them — came from there."[xxv]

Jews under Islamic rule returned the favor.  Whenever Muslim rulers were mentioned in letters — even private ones, between two Jews — they were fondly remembered for acts of kindness, generosity, justice and with wishes for success.  The respect for the temporal Muslim leaders was such that "the person of the ruler was regarded as sacrosanct; (a Jewish supplicant) might even mention the Torah and the ruler in the same breath while making a public declaration in the synagogue."[xxvi]

This brief recitation can do little but give a flavor of the long-standing and specific intermingling of the two cultures that set the stage for Sufism to help renovate and change the direction of Jewish mysticism.  In this easy and open-minded milieu, Sufi ideas, prayer methods and imagery threaded themselves into much of post-11th century Jewish thought, deeply and specifically influencing the Kabbalah, Hasidism and even Jewish prayer gatherings to this day. 

Undoubtedly, as more and more scholars devote themselves to the subject of specific Sufi influence on medieval Jews, and earlier, cultural resistance to the idea of this intermingling wanes, further concurrences will come to light, which will only make clearer just how deeply intertwined are the Jewish and Muslim faiths.  And as this story unfolds, it will provide us — all of us — with the necessary imagination of a very real peace, not one that exists only in the hopes of peace-oriented Jews and Muslims, but also in the very real shared history that has linked these two peoples for hundreds of years.

[i]  Jews and Arabs, Goitein, pg. 55

[ii]  Ibid. pg. 50

[iii] Jews, Visigoths and Muslims in Medieval Spain, Roth, pg. 73

[iv]  The Jews of Medieval Islam, Ben-Sasson, pg. 17

[v]  The Rise and Fall of Paradise, Bendiner, pg. 69  "The government of Babylonian Jewry for the first 12 centuries C.E. lay in the hands of the exilarch. Rabbinic traditions incorporated in the Seder Olam Zuta, trace the origin of the institution to the last years of the exile of Jehoiachin, on the basis of II Kings 25:27." Encyclopedia Judaica, Eliezer Bashan (Sternberg)

[vi] A Mediterranean Society, Goitein, pg. 82 "The family of the Exilarchs, which had been prominent for so long a time, was large and ramified; it is not surprising that some of its more ambitious members tried to make capital of their dignity as princes of the House of David.  We find them everywhere, often trying to assume authority, even in faraway Yemen." Ibid. pg. 82-83

[vii]  Guide for the Perplexed (Introduction), Friedlander, xv-xvi

[viii]  Jews, Visigoths and Muslims in Medieval Spain, Roth, pg. 170

[ix]  Approaches to Judaism in Medieval Times II, Ariel, pg. 152

[x]  Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy III, Wasserstrom, pg. 15-16

[xi]  Selected Poems of Solomon ibn Gabirol (Introduction), Cole, pg. 8

[xii]  Jews, Visigoths and Muslims in Medieval Spain, Roth, pg. 163

[xiii]  Great Ages and Ideas of the Jewish People, Halkin, pg. 219

[xiv] A Mediterranean Society, Goitein, pg. 89

[xv]A Mediterranean Society, Goitein, pg. 299

[xvi] Jews, Visigoths and Muslims in Medieval Spain, Roth, pg. 183

[xvii]  Jews, Visigoths and Muslims in Medieval Spain, Roth, pg. 166

[xviii] A Mediterranean Society, Goitein, pg. 215

[xix] A Mediterranean Society, Goitein, pg. 17 "A considerable number of the responsa cover theoretical issues: usually one or more of ancient texts are quoted by the questioner with the aim of obtaining an explanation of obscure or apparently contradictory passages."

[xx]  Jews, Visigoths and Muslims in Medieval Spain, Roth, pg. 184

[xxi] A Mediterranean Society, Goitein, pg. 195-196

[xxii]  Jews, Visigoths and Muslims in Medieval Spain, Roth, pg. 178

[xxiii]  Ibid. pg. 182

[xxiv] A Mediterranean Society, Goitein, pg. 297

[xxv]  Jewish Quarterly Review 18, Finkel, pg. 49

[xxvi] A Mediterranean Society, Goitein, pg. 164



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Bendiner, Elmer, The Rise and Fall of Paradise, Putnam Publishing Group, New York, NY, 1983

Finkel, Joshua, "An Eleventh Century Source for the History of Jewish Scientists in Mohammedan Land (Ibn Sa'id)," Jewish Quarterly Review 18, 1927

Frank, Daniel (ed.), The Jews of Medieval Islam: Community, Society and Identity, E.J. Brill, New York, NY, 1995

Gabirol, Solomon Ibn, (trans. by Peter Cole).  Selected Poems of Solomon Ibn Gabirol, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2001

Goitein, S.D., A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1967

-- Jews and Arabs, Schocken Books, New York, NY, 1964

Maimonides, Moses (Friedlander, M. Ed.), The Guide for the Perplexed, Dover, New York, NY, 1956

Roth, Norman, Jews, Visigoths and Muslims in Medieval Spain, E.J. Brill, New York, NY, 1994

Schwarz, Leo W. (ed.), Great Ages and Ideas of the Jewish Peoples, Random House, New York, 1956

Wasserstrom, Steven, "Sefer Yesira and Early Islam: A Reappraisal," Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy III, 1993