Dissecting the lie that Christianity was more oppressive than Islam

The conventional view that Jews were treated much more harshly under medieval Christendom than under Islam was re-stated by Mark R. Cohen in his book, Under Crescent and Cross. Daniel Pipes praised Cohen’s work in a readers’s comment posted at Amazon.com. In turn, Andrew Bostom posted a contrary comment that in a few paragraphs (and summarizing points made previously by Bat Ye’or) revealed the stunning falsities of Cohen’s thesis, amounting to the construction of a vast historical lie. Bostom is a brilliant student of Islam whose insights transcend the shallow platitudes of Pipes. If you want to understand the difference between the conventional, philo-Islamic, and anti-Christian view of Islam, in which medieval Islam is sophisticated and tolerant while medieval Christianity is evil, and a true view of Islam, this is an excellent place to start.

I’ve copied the Pipes and Bostom comments below.

Daniel Pipes’s review

July 24, 2001
By Daniel Pipes, Middle East Forum, Philadelphia (Philadelphia, PA)

This review is from: Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages (Hardcover)

It has often been asserted that in medieval times, Jews living in the Muslim lands had it better than their co-religionists in Christendom. Is that assessment accurate? Cohen, professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, attempts an answer in this first-ever book on the comparative history of Jewish life in the two civilizations.

Yes, he concludes, Jews were better off in the Muslim world. In part, this was a matter of physical security. “The Jews of Islam, especially during the formative and classical centuries (up to the thirteenth century), experienced much less persecution than did the Jews of Christendom.” Living among Sunni Muslims brought other benefits as well, which Cohen meticulously and convincingly documents: in Dar al-Islam, Jews enjoyed a more regular legal status, they participated far more in the mainstream cultural life, and they had more social interaction with the majority community. In all, Jews living among Muslims were less excluded, making them less vulnerable to assault. Of particular interest, while Christians had a horror of intermarriage, Muslims allowed it on condition that the man was a Muslim. Indeed, Islamic law requires the Muslim husband to permit his Jewish wife to observe her religious rituals, to pray within the family house, to keep the Sabbath, and to maintain the kosher requirements. She may also read her Scriptures, on the important condition that she not do so out loud.

Cohen’s study ends with the thirteenth century; we would be much in his debt were he to follow this pathbreaking and excellent study with another on the subsequent deterioration of the Jewish position in the Muslim world.

Middle East Quarterly, September 1995

Andrew Bostom’s review

Intractably flawed, meaningless analysis, July 8, 2002
By Andrew G. Bostom

Admirably, Professor Cohen proposes “..a broad investigation of Medieval Islamic-Jewish and Christian-Jewish relations that builds on comparative insights..”. A serious, objective comparison of these, or any other similar historical relationships requires, at minimum (1) a valid research design; (2) inclusion of ALL the relevant data. Unfortunately, Professor Cohen’s scholarship fails to satisfy either of these basic criteria, rendering his analyses completely invalid.

There are intractable flaws in both the basic design and (arbitrarily limited) scope of Professor Cohen’s analyses. Cohen acknowledges deliberately choosing northern European Christendom to make “..contrasts..more vivid..”, as opposed to southern Europe, where the Jews had an enduring, indigenous presence. Cohen further confesses to omitting discussion of the northern European “..Polish-Jewish experience during the late Middle Ages..” precisely because these Jews enjoyed a status “..so seemingly the inverse of their ..beleaguered brethren in western Latin Christendom..”. Cohen’s highly arbitrary, selective categorization of an alleged northern European Christian “heartland”, should at least in fairness have been compared to its Islamic “equivalent”, i.e., Arabia, North Africa, and the Sahara, as opposed to the Islamized regions of the conquered Byzantine Empire with their inherent religious and ethnic pluralism. This geographical arbitrariness is matched by Cohen’s highly selective periodization (i.e., 640-1240 C.E.). Clearly, comparing the fate of Jews under Islam and Christendom during the combined historical period covering the Ages of European Enlightenment and Emancipation would result in a completely different view.

Even when one ignores these serious basic flaws, multiple other problems with Cohen’s analyses persist. Accepting Cohen’s arbitrary periodization, for example, the expulsions of Jews from Christian Europe to which he makes reference, actually occurred AFTER 1240 C.E. (i.e., in 1290, 1306, 1394, and 1492-97, C.E.). Moreover, the first three centuries of Islam in the in the East overlapped the Carolingian rule in Christian Europe (747-987 C.E.), a period recognized by scholars as one when European Jewry experienced a considerable degree of security and prosperity. Muslim chroniclers themselves, in contrast, have described the ongoing jihad conquests during the same period involving the massacre of large numbers of indigenous Jewish populations, the enslavement of women and children, and the confiscation of vast territories. Indeed, the period between 640 and 1240 C.E. witnessed the total and definitive destruction of Judaism in the Hijaz (modern Saudi Arabia), and the decline of once flourishing Jewish communities in Palestine (particularly Galilee), Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, and Persia. Finally, by 1240 C.E. the Jewish communities in North Africa had been decimated by Almohad persecutions.

As documented by the scholar of Islamic history Bat Ye’or, numerous Koranic verses and hadith (sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad) associate the Jews with hell and Satan. She notes three compelling examples of this association. First, that Ibn Abdun (d. 1134) a Muslim jurist from Spain, quoted from the Koran (58:20) to this effect in a legal treatise, “..Satan has gained the mastery over them, and caused them to forget God’s Remembrance. Those are Satan’s party; why Satan’s party are surely the losers!”. Second, a decree by the Caliph al-Mutawakkil (850), directing “..wooden images of devils be nailed to the doors of their homes to distinguish them from the homes of Muslims..”. Finally, Jewish cemeteries were considered a part of Hell, to which the dhimmis were destined. Professor Robert Wistrich, a scholar of anti-Semitism, summarizes the overall Koranic image of the Jews as justifying their “..abasement and poverty..”. He further notes how the oral tradition (hadith) maintains that the Jews had a “perfidious” and “conspiratorial” nature, being responsible for Muhammads’s painful death from poisoning, as well as “…to blame for the sectarian strife in early Islam, for heresies and deviations that undermined or endangered the unity of the umma (the Muslim nations)..”

Jihad conquests, and the imposition of dhimmitude on the vanquished Jewish populations, institutionalized these Koranic and hadith conceptions of the Jews as a people meriting humiliation. Thus Cohen errors when he contends that the Jews were somehow degraded “uniquely” under Christendom by being forced to practice usury, which was reviled by Christians. Cohen appears oblivious to the fact that under the yoke of dhimmitude in Muslim countries, the most degrading vocations were set aside for the Jews, including: executioners, grave-diggers, salters of the decapitated heads of rebels, and cleaners of latrines (in Yemen, in particular, this was demanded of Jews on Saturdays, their holy sabbath). Islamic societies also exhibited their own unique forms of severe oppression of Jews, NOT found in Christian Europe, such as: abduction of Jewish girls for Muslim harems; enslavement (including women and children) during warfare, revolts, or for economic reasons (for example, impossibility of paying the jizya, a blood ransom “poll tax” demanded of non-Muslims); the obligation for a Jew to dismount from his donkey on sight of a Muslim; the obligation in some regions (like the Maghreb) for Jews to walk barefoot outside their quarters; prohibiting Persian Jews from remaining outdoors when it rained for fear of polluting Muslims. With regard to enslavement, specifically, from the Middle Ages, right up until their mass exodus in 1948, rural Yemenite Jews were literally Muslim chattel. For example, in her essay, “The Dhimmi Factor in the Exodus of Jews from Arab Countries” (from: Shulewitz, M [editor], “The Forgotten Millions”, Continuum, [2000, New York], pages 33-51), Bat Ye’or observes :

“Thus, if a Jew belonging to tribe A, is killed by a Muslim from tribe B, then a Jew from tribe B would be killed by a Muslim from tribe A. So two Jews are killed without the Muslim being arrested, a game that could go on for generations as a form of retaliation. In this legal system, a Jew like an object or a camel is excluded from human justice.”

Finally, it is particularly important to note that there has NEVER been in Islam (including up until present times) a current analogous to the movement initiated after the 16th century Protestant Reformation in Europe that lead to Jewish emancipation, equal rights, human rights, and secularization of Christian societies.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at January 29, 2005 09:03 AM | Send

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