So, what did the Muslims do for the Jews?

By David J Wasserstein Created 05/24/2012 - 15:56 • Comment • Islam Islam saved Jewry. This is an unpopular, discomforting claim in the modern world. But it is a historical truth. The argument for it is dou le. !irst, in "#$ C%, when the &rophet Mohammad was orn, the Jews and Judaism were on the way to o livion. 'nd second, the coming of Islam saved them, providing a new conte(t in which they not only survived, ut flourished, laying foundations for su se)uent Jewish cultural prosperity * also in Christendom * through the medieval period into the modern world. By the fourth century, Christianity had ecome the dominant religion in the +oman empire. ,ne aspect of this success was opposition to rival faiths, including Judaism, along with massive conversion of mem ers of such faiths, sometimes y force, to Christianity. Much of our testimony a out Jewish e(istence in the +oman empire from this time on consists of accounts of conversions. -reat and permanent reductions in num ers through conversion, etween the fourth and the seventh centuries, rought with them a gradual ut relentless whittling away of the status, rights, social and economic e(istence, and religious and cultural life of Jews all over the +oman empire. ' long series of enactments deprived Jewish people of their rights as citi.ens, prevented them from fulfilling their religious o ligations, and e(cluded them from the society of their fellows. This went along with the centuries*long military and political struggle with &ersia. 's a tiny element in the Christian world, the Jews should not have een affected much y this road, political issue. /et it affected them critically, ecause the &ersian empire at this time included Ba ylon * now Ira) * at the time home to the world0s greatest concentration of Jews. 1ere also were the greatest centres of Jewish intellectual life. The most important single wor2 of Jewish cultural creativity in over 3,$$$ years, apart from the Bi le itself * the Talmud * came into eing in Ba ylon. The struggle etween &ersia and By.antium, in our period, led increasingly to a separation etween Jews under By.antine, Christian rule and Jews under &ersian rule. Beyond all this, the Jews who lived under Christian rule seemed to have lost the 2nowledge of their own culturally specific languages * 1e rew and 'ramaic * and to have ta2en on the use of 4atin or -ree2 or other non*Jewish, local, languages. This in turn must have meant that they also lost access to the central literary wor2s of Jewish culture * the Torah, Mishnah, poetry, midrash, even liturgy. The loss of the unifying force represented y language * and of the associated literature * was a ma5or step towards assimilation and disappearance. In these circumstances, with contact with the one place where Jewish cultural life continued to prosper * Ba ylon * cut off y

Jewish life in the Christian world of late anti)uity was not simply a pale shadow of what it had een three or four centuries earlier. to ma2e the Jews second*class citi. and the o ligations were greater ut. things improved politically. religious.enship represented a ma5or advance. But this was all prevented y the rise of Islam. shortly efore the Muslim con)uest in #<<. political. demographic. 1ad Islam not come along. ut there was no really significant restriction on the practice of their religion.conflict with &ersia. Muslim armies had con)uered almost the whole of the world where Jews lived. linguistic and cultural terms * all for the etter. Imperfect and often not )uite as rosy as this might sound. This should not e misunderstood: to e a second*class citi. too. In . either literally or in terms of economic activity. 'lmost all the Jews in the world were now ruled y Islam. would have intensified. alongside various o ligations.ens. it was at least the road norm. !irst. This new situation transformed Jewish e(istence. They might not uild many new synagogues * in theory * and they might not ma2e too pu lic their profession of their faith. the Jews had seen their children removed from them and forci ly converted to Christianity and had themselves een enslaved. economic. These rights and protections were not as e(tensive or as generous as those en5oyed y Muslims. Their fortunes changed in legal. wide*ranging and permanent effect for the Jews. in effect. &olitical change was partnered y change in the legal status of the Jewish population: although it is not always clear what happened during the Muslim con)uests.en at all.en was a far etter thing to e than not to e a citi. The old frontier etween the vital centre in Ba ylonia and the Jews of the Mediterranean asin was swept away. in 738. It was doomed. 6ithin a century of the death of Mohammad. !or most of these Jews. The separation etween western Judaism. In the developing Islamic societies of the classical and medieval periods. forever. The Islamic con)uests of the seventh century changed the world. that of Mesopotamia. for e(ample. y and large. second*class citi. social. efore the authorities of the state. The societies of Islam were. they also en5oyed formal representation. open societies. . In religious terms. the conflict with &ersia would have continued. the Muslims themselves were a minority. and the practical differences were not all that great. one thing is certain. for the first few centuries. 'lmost everywhere in Christendom where Jews had lived now formed part of the same political space as Ba ylon * Cordo a and Basra lay in the same political world. The result of the con)uests was. en5oying certain rights and protections. and did so with dramatic. geographical. through leaders of their own. Jews en5oyed virtually full freedom. and Ba ylonian Judaism. from Spain eastward across 9orth 'frica and the Middle %ast as far as the eastern frontier of Iran and eyond. 'nd Jewry in the east would have ecome 5ust another oriental cult. Jewry in the west would have declined to disappearance in many areas. eing a Jew meant elonging to a category defined under law. that of Christendom.isigothic Spain. 'long with legal near*e)uality came social and economic e)uality. 'long with internal legal autonomy. Jews were not confined to ghettos.

replaced y 'ra ic. e(cluding almost all the rest: -ree2 and Syriac. The most outstanding of these was Islamic Spain. Sa0adya -aon. and in a Jewish form of that language. 1uge num ers of people in the new world of Islam adopted the language of the Muslim 'ra s. mi(ed the religious and the secular to a high degree. oth with the past and with medieval Christian %urope. 'long with its use for poetry and artistic prose. 'ra ic gradually ecame the principal language of this vast area. parallel to the use among the Muslims of a high form of 'ra ic for similar purposes. 4i2e their neigh ours. The Jews of the Islamic world developed an entirely new culture. &ersian. The Jews moved over to 'ra ic very rapidly. Jews lived and en5oyed roadly similar status and rights everywhere. 6 here did these Jews produce all this? 6hen did they and their neigh ours achieve this sym iosis. The su 5ects that Jews wrote a out. orrowed from the Muslims and developed in tandem with developments in 'ra ic Islam. Instead of eing concerned primarily with religion. where there was a true Jewish -olden 'ge.The political unity rought y the new Islamic world*empire did not last. They could move around. only 3$$ years after the con)uests. elong in the first ran2 of Jewish literary and cultural endeavour.ra >Moses and ' raham?. were largely new ones. Much of the greatest poetry in 1e rew written since the Bi le comes from this period. and uses. By a out the year =$$. secular writing of all forms in 1e rew and in >Judeo*?'ra ic came into eing. 1e rew was revived as a language of high literature. some of it of high )uality. well 2nown today. The contrast. Bi le translation is a massive tas2 * it is not underta2en unless there is a need for it. the new Jewish culture of the Islamic world. li2e that of its neigh ours. and many more * all of these names. influences. . cultural forms. which differed from their culture efore Islam in terms of language. the Jews had largely a andoned other languages and ta2en on 'ra ic. alongside a wave of cultural achievement among the Muslim population. went into a long retreat. these Jews wrote in 'ra ic in part. By the early <$th century. The change of language in its turn rought the Jews into direct contact with roader cultural developments. The Spanish case illustrates a more general pattern. too. too. /ehudah al*1ari. maintain contacts. But the use of a specific Jewish form of that language maintained the arriers etween Jew and Muslim. The result from the <$th century on was a stri2ing pairing of two cultures. I n %. /ehuda 1alevi. critical development. was enormous.i. Maimonides. ut it created a vast Islamic world civilisation. this mode of living together? The Jews did it in a num er of centres of e(cellence. 6ithin this huge area. to reappear later heavily influenced y 'ra ic. ' great new e(pansion of trade from the ninth century onwards rought the Spanish Jews * li2e the Muslims * into touch with the Jews and the Muslims even of India. similar to the older Christian civilisation that it replaced. 'ramaic and Coptic and 4atin all died out. The use of 'ra ic rought them close to the 'ra s. ' ll this was encouraged y a further. Sa0adya -aon was translating the Bi le into 'ra ic. Solomon I n -a irol. and the literary forms in which they wrote a out them. and develop their identity as Jews. 'lso at this time. Samuel ha*9agid.

In Baghdad. The Islamic world was not the only source of inspiration for the Jewish cultural revival that came later in Christian %urope. linguistic and political. so did that of the Jews. however. Its significance cannot e overestimated. In reality. etween the <$th and the <8th centuries. so did that of the Jews@ when Muslim 'ra ic culture declined.comBcomment*and*de ateBcommentB7C$C8Bso*what*did* muslims*do*5ews . social and cultural. This did not last for ever@ the period of culturally successful sym iosis etween Jew and 'ra Muslim in the middle ages came to a close y a out <3$$. oth in relation to western %uropean cultures and in relation to other cultural forms within Islam itself@ &ersian and Tur2ish. which together ena led and indeed encouraged the Jews of the Islamic world to create a novel su *culture within the high civilisation of the time.6hat happened in Islamic Spain * waves of Jewish cultural prosperity paralleling waves of cultural prosperity among the Muslims * e(emplifies a larger pattern in 'ra Islam. This was not coincidence. 'ra ic cultural >and to some degree political? prosperity: when Muslim 'ra ic culture thrived. Source URL: http:BBwww. ut it certainly was a ma5or contri utor to that development. Jewish cultural prosperity in the middle ages operated in large part as a function of Muslim. In the case of the Jews. with the overall relative decline in the importance and vitality of 'ra ic culture. etween the ninth and the <<th centuries@ in Cairo. the rise and fall of cultural centres of Islam tended to e reflected in the rise and fall of Jewish cultural activity in the same places.the5c. and nor was it the product of particularly enlightened li eral patronage y Muslim rulers. legal and economic. and elsewhere. the cultural capital thus created also served as the seed* ed of further growth elsewhere * in Christian Spain and in the Christian world more generally. It was the product of a num er of deeper features of these societies. it had reached this point even earlier. etween the ninth and the twelfth centuries@ in Aayrawan >in north 'frica?.

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