Jews under Islam

A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza. Volume II: The Community.
by S. D. Goitein.
University of California Press. 633 pp. $20.00.

The entire field of Arabic and Islamic studies is studded with ironies. To begin with, there is the fact that the science was pioneered by Occidental Jewish scholars who, until recently, very nearly dominated the field; one of the mainsprings of their interest was the myth of a medieval “Golden Age” of Muslim-Jewish coexistence and mutual fructification (a myth not quite shared by Jews who had actually lived under Islam). A further irony stems from the fact that the Jewish manuscripts preserved in the Cairo “Geniza”—a storage room for discarded documents unearthed in the late 19th century in a synagogue in Old Cairo—should have become the most significant source for the general study of Islamic civilization in Mediterranean lands, as well as the most important source for our linguistic knowledge of medieval Arabic. A final irony, and surely not the least, is the recent appearance of the monumental researches of S. D. Goitein, formerly director of the School of Oriental Studies at the Hebrew University, on the Jewish communities of the Arab world, based on his study of the Geniza documents, precisely at a time when Jewish life in these lands has drawn to a bitter close.

Ultimately, Goitein's work comes to us because of the traditional Jewish belief that Hebrew, as the language of revelation, must be treated with reverence. By a process of religious infection, this attitude also encompassed Jewish writings in whatever language—Greek, Aramaic, Spanish, Arabic, German, etc.—so long as their script was in Hebrew (a common practice). The belief that script in and of itself is sacred is also to be found among Muslims and medieval Christians, but nowhere was this carried to such lengths as among Jews, who would not destroy a single document, no matter how secular the contents, if it were written in Hebrew letters. Such documents, of the most various sort, were consigned to a Geniza, and when the room became overcrowded, its accumulated deposits were given burial, with the same respect as that shown toward a deceased human life. Fortunately, the Geniza of the Palestinian synagogue of Old Cairo (Fustat) escaped this fate and continued to function until well into the 19th century, when travelers, scholars, clerics, and assorted collectors became aware of its existence and began to raid its contents. The greatest credit for salvaging this treasure trove belongs to Solomon Schechter, who in 1896 induced the authorities at Cambridge University, where he was then teaching, to acquire the entire store of Geniza documents before they were further dispersed. It was a scholarly coup of the first order and, as a result, Cambridge today possesses an enormous hoard of Geniza manuscripts, at least three times the size of all other collections combined. (The other Geniza materials are to be found in collections in Leningrad, Budapest, Philadelphia, New York, Washington, Oxford, Paris, and Jerusalem, to name only the most important centers.)

Professor Goitein's work has involved the prodigious task of examining all extant Geniza papers. It is his distinctive contribution to have recognized that the Geniza's non-literary materials, from shipping bills to court records to shopping lists, constitute a veritable gold mine for scholars. For over three decades he has worked to shape these materials, to offer an entirely new and comprehensive perspective on a unique section of the medieval world. Thus far his efforts have produced two volumes in a projected series which, when completed, will surely stand among the major historical accomplishments of the century.


In the present volume, Professor Goitein offers as complete a picture as possible of Jewish communal life in the Arab High Middle Ages (ca. 969-1250), a period of great Jewish flowering. Whereas the first volume dealt with economic matters, the succeeding work focuses on communal institutions, ramifications of the social structure, and the relationship between communal autonomy and external social control. It opens, fittingly, with a detailed description of the civic form of communal organization which imparted to Jewish (and Christian) communities of the 10th through 13th centuries a strength greater than that of the amorphous Muslim masses among whom they lived. Goitein's account indirectly supports what other writers have occasionally observed about Islam in other places and at other times, namely, the overall weakness and incoherence of its civic institutions. The essentially religious democracy of the Jews, reinforced by Greek and Roman corporate forms adopted in pre-Islamic times and by the special status afforded minorities under Islam, extended beyond the territorial jurisdictions of local rulers, constituting a distinct, though not entirely autonomous, social and political system. (To what extent there may have been institutional borrowings from the Muslim middle classes cannot as yet be determined.) Goitein's wide-ranging discussion here includes such topics as the distribution of authority between the Jewish ecumenical leaders (the Gaon, Head of the Academies, and the Exilarch, Head of the Dispersion) and the local powers; the development of different rites and legal usages which, unlike those of the churches, were not based on dogmatic schism; and the interaction of Rabbinic Judaism with such sects as the Karaites and the Samaritans.

The existence of centers of religious and legal authority in more than one place throughout the far-flung Diaspora gave rise, as Professor Goitein shows, to complications which were sometimes resolved by a derivation of authority from them all. Thus the local authorities in communities made up of members originating from several countries were able to devise formulas whose powers were asserted to derive from the Jewish authorities in the home countries. (For instance, in 1132, a Jewish court in Mangalore on the Malabar coast of India issued a bill of manumission to a local girl in the name of both the Exilarch of Baghdad and the Palestinian Gaon who at the time resided in Cairo.) This practice helped forestall local dissent, although I suspect that a certain geo-psychological process was also at work: it is common for exiled or emigré communities, living together in areas distant from their points of origin, to play down their differences and fuse their common interests. It is for this reason, no doubt, that in Yemen, “from Aden in the south to Sa'da in the north, public prayers used to be said over the Exilarch of Baghdad and Gaon Masliah of Cairo.” On the other hand, as Professor Goitein has ample opportunity to demonstrate, where local factionalism developed, the home authorities did not hesitate to come to the support of the respective quarreling parties.

Professor Goitein is also able to clarify much of the historical confusion surrounding our knowledge of the functions of such high offices as Nagid (Prince of the Diaspora) and Ra'is al Yahud (Head of the Jews). In addition, he establishes a convincing rank-classification of communities and draws up a surprisingly detailed description of even minor centers. The nature of the Geniza records is such that, given Goitein's painstaking attentions, even the social services provided by the communities in question can be reconstructed in minute detail. These encompass, as might be expected, the provision of food, shelter, medical care, and clothing for the needy, and support for the education of orphans and the children of the poor. Beyond that, the documents reveal the vagaries of Jewish life—the swelling of the relief rolls by European survivors of the Crusader massacres, special assistance given to high-born European proselytes, aid to the needy to pay the onerous poll tax imposed by the Muslim rulers. Moreover, there were the nearly continuous and pressing demands for the ransoming of captives, to say nothing of the extraordinary efforts called forth by such major disasters as Bedouin, Seljuk, or Crusader depradations in Palestine. The experience of modern Jewish charities—that small communities contribute in greater proportion than do large centers—may have its medieval parallels. Professor Goitein cites a statement from a small Egyptian Delta town where eighteen persons raised a very considerable sum and “extracted strength from weakness and joined Israel in its tribulation despite . . . our poverty and indigence.”

Professor Goitein's account also includes a systematic discussion of the synagogue, ranging from its architecture to its function in communal life. He describes the various levels of education and gives an astoundingly complete picture of individual professions, supplemented as always by his sophisticated perception of the materials. But perhaps his most important sections are those dealing with interdenominational relationships, specifically Jewish-Muslim relations at both the communal and government levels. Cooperation did indeed exist; nonetheless, Jews also suffered from the overall discrimination practiced by Islam against all non-Muslims and sporadically from a specifically anti-Jewish “anti-Semitism.” (Goitein, incidentally, argues that the latter term is both useful and legitimate in describing Islamic anti-Jewish animus and behavior. He effectively disposes of the modern anti-Jewish Arab apologists who contend that Arabs cannot be anti-Semitic since they, too, are Semites.) For all that, conversion to Judaism occurred among Muslims (as also among Byzantine and Western Christians) who found havens in Jewish communities. But coexistence had its price, and there were converts out of Judaism as well, including some who became leading Islamic thinkers, and others (like Isaac b. Abraham Ibn Ezra, son of a great Jewish author and son-in-law of Judah Halevi) who later returned to Judaism.


Reading Professor Goitein's fascinating recounting, one comes away with the overall impression that the Jewish experience under Islam was most evidently successful in the cultural and social spheres. For instance, major institutions, like the yeshiva, which were essentially indigenous and bore no resemblance to their Islamic counterparts, were permitted to develop in their own natural way. Islamic influences were felt most strongly in the legal and economic areas, but here the interaction was complex and difficult to determine. Where the pressures were clearly perceived they were often successfully deflected, even when they came with all the force of a despotic and arbitrary officialdom. Through Professor Goitein's exceedingly thorough assimilation and presentation of all the relevant material there emerges a solid portrait of how these tendencies and counter-tendencies affected the religious, social, and economic lives of Jews at an important period in their long and variegated history.

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