The myth of Muslim tolerance toward Jews

In response to a commenter in my previous post, I thought it wise to put this where it will be more widely read.

Facts about Jews in Islamic countries

While Jewish communities in Islamic countries fared better overall than those in Christian lands in Europe, Jews were no strangers to persecution and humiliation among the Arabs. As Princeton University historian Bernard Lewis has written: “The Golden Age of equal rights was a myth, and belief in it was a result, more than a cause, of Jewish sympathy for Islam.”22

Muhammad, the founder of Islam, traveled to Medina in 622 A.D. to attract followers to his new faith. When the Jews of Medina refused to recognize Muhammad as their Prophet, two of the major Jewish tribes were expelled. In 627, Muhammad’s followers killed between 600 and 900 of the men, and divided the surviving Jewish women and children amongst themselves.23

The Muslim attitude toward Jews is reflected in various verses throughout the Koran, the holy book of the Islamic faith. “They [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 and kill His Prophets unjustly and because they disobeyed and were transgressors” (Sura 2:61). According to the Koran, the Jews try to introduce corruption (5:64), have always been disobedient (5:78), and are enemies of Allah, the Prophet and the angels (2:97-98).

Jews were generally viewed with contempt by their Muslim neighbors; peaceful coexistence between the two groups involved the subordination and degradation of the Jews. In the ninth century, Baghdad’s Caliph al-Mutawakkil designated a yellow badge for Jews, setting a precedent that would be followed centuries later in Nazi Germany.24

At various times, Jews in Muslim lands lived in relative peace and thrived culturally and economically. The position of the Jews was never secure, however, and changes in the political or social climate would often lead to persecution, violence and death.

When Jews were perceived as having achieved too comfortable a position in Islamic society, anti-Semitism would surface, often with devastating results. On December 30, 1066, Joseph HaNagid, the Jewish vizier of Granada, Spain, was crucified by an Arab mob that proceeded to raze the Jewish quarter of the city and slaughter its 5,000 inhabitants. The riot was incited by Muslim preachers who had angrily objected to what they saw as inordinate Jewish political power.

Similarly, in 1465, Arab mobs in Fez slaughtered thousands of Jews, leaving only 11 alive, after a Jewish deputy vizier treated a Muslim woman in “an offensive manner.” The killings touched off a wave of similar massacres throughout Morocco.25

Other mass murders of Jews in Arab lands occurred in Morocco in the 8th century, where whole communities were wiped out by the Muslim ruler Idris I; North Africa in the 12th century, where the Almohads either forcibly converted or decimated several communities; Libya in 1785, where Ali Burzi Pasha murdered hundreds of Jews; Algiers, where Jews were massacred in 1805, 1815 and 1830; and Marrakesh, Morocco, where more than 300 hundred Jews were murdered between 1864 and 1880.26

Read it all. Because it puts paid to the myth that Muslims were tolerant of Jews.

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17 Responses to The myth of Muslim tolerance toward Jews

  1. Chris says:

    Would you rather have been a Jew living in Europe, or the Mid-East during those times? From what I’ve heard (and you can correct me if I’m wrong) it was far worse in Europe.

    I think the comparison had less to do with Arab lands being all that great, so much as that in comparison to Europe it was a shining example.

    Its like how we can criticize the US for not living up to its ideals. For the intolerance and bigotry that still exists – but the US is still a far better place to live as a minority than many other countries.

    Christians went through many bloody years of religious warfare and intolerance before the Reformation, Protestant movements, and a generally accepted consensus that violence in the name of God is not the way to go.

    Islam needs a similar Reformation, and Blair’s speech is in part trying to encourage that.

  2. Anon says:

    So Jews should be thankful that Arab/Muslims treated them less horribly than Christain Europe?

  3. cond0010 says:

    Chris – you are far too familiar with European Historical Stereotypes than with actual history of both the Caliphate and Europe.

    Here’s is a very good example using the Spanish Inquistion:

    “This was a time, after all, when damaging shrubs in a public garden in London carried the death penalty. Across Europe, executions were everyday events. But not so with the Spanish Inquisition. In its 350-year lifespan only about 4,000 people were put to the stake. … In 1492 the Jewish population of Spain numbered about 80,000. ”

    Now lets look at the Armenian Genocide by the Muslims against the Christians:

    It is estimated that one and a half million Armenians perished between 1915 and 1923. There were an estimated two million Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire on the eve of W.W.I.

    Like I said, i could go on and on about the brutality that I have read of the Caliphate. But then you could site Christian examples of atricities. But if we want to keep ‘score’, i think the Caliphate has done a much better job in the brutality department – hands down.

  4. Muhammad turned against the Jews when al-Husayn (Abdullah ben Salam), one of the rabbis of Medina, told him that Gabriel, among the angels is the enemy of the Jews (since Gabriel announced the arrival of Christ), and that led Muhammad to invent Surah 2:97-98 “Say (O Muhammad, to mankind): Who is an enemy to Gabriel! For he it is who hath revealed (this Scripture) to thy heart by Allah’s leave, confirming that which was (revealed) before it, and a guidance and glad tidings to believers; Who is an enemy to Allah, and His angels and His messengers, and Gabriel and Michael! Then, lo! Allah (Himself) is an enemy to the disbelievers.” That rabbi converted to Islam, to avoid being killed, but shortly thereafter he gave up on the idea of converting Jews to Islam, changed the Qibla (direction for prayer) from Jerusalem to Mecca, and begain killing Jews, such as the Jews of Khaybar and the Qaynuka Jews (from the Truth about Muhammad by Robert Spencer)

  5. Anon: No, people should stop lying about how the Muslims were so “tolerant” of “the people of the book.”

    It’s not true.

  6. Ari says:

    You quoted as follows:

    “While Jewish communities in Islamic countries fared better overall than those in Christian lands…”

    I beg your freaking pardon. It was just as lousy, perhaps lousier to be a Jew in Moslem countries than in Christian countries. See: One True G-d by Rodney Stark.

    (Leftist) Historians have been covering for the Moslems and accusing the Christians since the 1600s. I’m not saying that life was great in christian Europe. Just that historical Moslem atrocities have been extensively underreported by biased historians.

  7. Ari, take it up with the Jewish Virtual Library. That’s where I got the quote.

  8. Ari says:


    You really should take a look at Stark’s “One True G-d.” It’s a classic. If you’re interested in antisemitism, you should take a look at the chapter entitled “G-d’s Wrath.” It’s very enlightening.

  9. Yankev says:


    Are we really to believe that a rabbi told Muhammed — or anyone else — that an angel proclaimed the birth of someone that Judaism considers at best an ordinary human being? This story seems highly suspect to me.

    Muhammed, like the Catholic Churvch, Luther, and so many others who think they have “improved” on Judaism turned on the Jews because they did not adopt his new religion and clung to the Law that G-d gave to their fathers and mothers instead.

  10. Actually, I think I will.

  11. Anon says:

    I know that Meryl; I was responding to Chris.

  12. Yankev, read Robert Spencer’s The Truth About Muhammad about al-Husayn. Are you saying Jews like the Angel Gabriel? The referenced Surah 2:97-98 certainly says that anyone that does not like him is an enemy.

    I am not sure I understand your second point. I am a Christian, but as I indicated here Jews, Protestants, Catholics, and Mormons can disagree on specific points of theology, yet can ban together in support of Judeo-Christian moral issues, because they stem from what God said in the Torah.

  13. post-batmitzvah_dad says:

    Well there’s a reason the period of Muslim control over Spain is referred to as a “Golden Age”. It MAINLY refers to the enormous developments in JEWISH thinking authored primarily by leading Jewish intellectuals living in Moorish-controlled Spain. This may have been as much due to relative economic prosperity (even for a 2nd-class community) enabling the Jewish community to support such thinkers as Maimonedes. There’s also a long tradition of keeping talented members of minority groups around as advisors – MUCH easier for the rulers to get rid of them when they thought it necessary.

    Note that conditions never stayed great for the Jews in Moorish Spain – Maimonedes may have got his start in Spain but he spent much of his career in Egypt – he and his family had to leave due to persecution. Egypt was relatively better at that time.

    When the Christians completed their reconquest of the Iberian penninsula in the 1490s, one of their 1st moves was expulsion of the Jews – after all, they’d worked with the Moors, so they must be enemies.

  14. Ari says:

    Hey, Post Bat Mitzvah Dad,

    (Congrats on Bat Mitzvah).

    The “Golden Age of Spain” had nothing to do with moslem control. When the moslems took over, such individuals as Maimonides had to leave and flee for their lives. It was not christian persecution that caused Maimonides to leave, but moslem.

    Good times allowed maimonides to compose his works? Hardly. In his grand commentary to the Mishnah, Maimonides apologizes for any potential errors. You see, he wrote it in a cave (while hiding from moslems terrorists) and he didn’t have access to any reference materials. (There weren’t any errors).

  15. Alex Bensky says:

    This is part of Moslem propaganda, that everything was copacetic between Jews and Moslems until those Zionists (“outside agitators” as some US Southerners used to call similar people) barged in and ruined everything. If only the Zionist Entity would go away everything would be fine once more.

    One of the Arab talking points is that they’re being oppressed because of European guilt over the Holocaust. Hasbara has so far failed to emphasize that about half the Israeli population is from Arab countries; they were forced out after 1948. They have tended to be more hardline with respect to Israel’s Arab policies, mostly because they understand Arabs better than the Ashkenazim do. And I guess the Europeans have now managed to deal with whatever guilt they ever felt over the Holocaust.

    The Arabs were also not exactly anti-Nazi, but that’s another story.

    All in all, I guess it was better in the Middle Ages to be a Jew in Arab lands than in Europe but in neither case was it good.

  16. Yankev says:


    Are you saying Jews like the Angel Gabriel?

    Your question has no meaning in the Jewish religion — it’s like asking if one plus one would equal three if it’s midnight Tuesday in Portugal and Friday in Paris while the sun is shining at night in London. The question itself is a contradiction. Here’s why.

    Jews worship G-d and only G-d. In the Jewish religion, Gavriel (sorry, I’m being deliberately uppity here by refusing to translate Gavriel’s name from the original Hebrew into Greek)and the other angels have no free will and do only what G-d instructs them. As such, there is no reason for Jews to like or dislike Gavriel — Gavriel is no more than a vehicle for the will of G-d.

    Ergo, no rabbi would attribute independent will to Gavriel so as to be angry at Gavriel for announcing or not announcing anything.

    FWIW, as to “liking” Gavriel, the bed time prayer recited by observant Jews includes a request to G-d that [while I sleep] “Michael be at my right hand, Gavriel at my left hand, Uriel before me, Raphael behind me, and the Presence of G-d above my head.” Michael, Gavriel, Uriel and Rapahel are all angels, whose names mean, respectively, “Who [i.e. no one] is like G-d?,”, “G-d is my strength”, “G-d is my light” and “G-d’s healing.” [And here non-Jews think that all those quaint names in their Bible were just sing song.]
    That’s the first problem with the supposed reason Muhammad turned against Jews. The second is that no Jew would believe there to be any more reason for an angel to announce JC’s birth than to announce anyone else’s. Many non-Jews have this delusion that Jews secretly agree that JC was the son G-d (as if), or the messiah, or a prophet, or great teacher, or some other such nonsense, and that we are just too stubborn and wicked to admit it. (Cf. the last stanza of Robt. Browning’s Holy Cross Day). If we did, I suppose it might make sense for a Rabbi to say that Gavriel announced JC’s birth as a great event, and to be upset at that fact. But no one who believes in the Jewish religion sees the birth of JC as a great event, or sees JC as a great man, let alone as somehow divine.

    Do I believe that the Muslims claim some Rabbi made that remark? They may have; the same as Browning claimed that the Jews “know” that JC is what the Christians claim he was. Do I believe that a Rabbi actually DID make that remark? Again, I can’t picture any knowledgable Jew being angry at an angel or calling Gavriel the enemy of the Jews, or believing that JC’s birth was significant enough for Gavriel to announce — unless the announcement was along the lines of “A man is born whose followers will set hims up as an idol to be worshipped, and for centuries Jews will be murdered, raped, robbed, kidnapped, exiled and oppressed in his name.”

  17. LynnB says:


    In addition to Yankev’s comprehensive explanation of why that story is highly unlikely, I’d point out that the account you’re referring to isn’t claimed by Robert Spencer to be historical (to the contrary) but rather to represent the world view of a believing Muslim (Ibn Ishaq)who was Muhammed’s first biographer. To quote Spencer (p.28):

    “However, Ibn Ishaq’s life of Muhammad is so unashamedly hagiographical that its accuracy is questionable.”

    So by Ibn Ishaq’s account, this rabbi (who of course subsequently converted to Islam) instantly “knew by his [Muhammad’s] description, name and the time at which he appeared that he was the one we were waiting for…” Uh huh. Can you say “apocryphal?” I knew you could.

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