A few weeks ago, Mark R. Cohen, a professor at Princeton University who wrote the book Under Crescent and Cross, came to ICCI to give a lecture about Jews living under medieval Islamic rule. I wrote up a brief summary of his lecture, and that’s to be included in ICCI’s January newsletter update. Click on the ‘read more’ link to see what I’ve written.
On December 17, ICCI hosted Professor Mark R. Cohen, author of Under Crescent and Cross: Jews of the Middle Ages, for a discussion about Islamic-Jewish relations during the Middle Ages.
Cohen is a Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. He completed an M.A. in history at Columbia University, followed by four years of training in classical Judaica as well as doctoral work at the Jewish Theological Seminary. His publications include nearly 100 articles and reviews as well as several books, including Under Crescent and Cross, which has been translated into Hebrew, Turkish, Arabic, German, and French. His most recent works include Poverty and Charity in the Jewish Community of Medieval Egypt and The Voice of the Poor in the Middle Ages: An Anthology of Documents from the Cairo Geniza.
As Cohen’s talk outlined, while medieval Islamic rule was not characterized by full equality and complete tranquility for the Jews, it represented a period of acceptance, where Jews occupied a safeguarded niche within the social hierarchy and could attain political and economic power. In contrast, Jews in Christian lands were subject, by the twelfth century, to deep-seated anti-Semitism and were excluded from most aspects of Christian society, which Cohen terms ‘religious exclusivity.’ The Jews didn’t necessarily live in a utopia, as indicated by occasional outbreaks of Muslim violence towards Jews, but Jews certainly felt safer under Islamic rule than under Christendom.
Because of their higher status and greater access to societal benefits under Islamic rule, Jews were much more willing to accept elements of Arab culture, such as language, than their Jewish counterparts in Northern Europe. Not only did Jews use Arabic in conducting business and political dealings, but also enthusiastically incorporated the language into secular and religious texts. The Bible was translated into Arabic, and Hebrew poetry, both secular (completely new) and religious, copied the structure and form of Arabic poetry and also imitated that of the Arabs by choosing the language of Scripture as its medium. Jews wholeheartedly embraced the new Arabic philosophy, science, and medicine, translated into Arabic from their Greco-Roman sources.
Cohen devoted the second half of his lecture to discussing the implications for today, and particularly whether Islam is an anti-Semitic religion. As his findings indicate, anti-Semitism did not exist in Islam in the Middle Ages and only took root during the nineteenth-century, when European Christian missionaries in the Middle East imported Christian forms of irrational Jew-hatred in the Arab world, and some Arab Christians exploited this in order to gain acceptance in a pan-Arab nationalism. Thus, much of modern anti-Semitism in the Muslim world is a recycling and “Islamization” of old Christian beliefs and superstitions. While relations between Jews and Muslims have noticeably disintegrated over the last century, the period of coexistence during Middle Ages indicates that Islam is not inherently anti-Semitic.