Friday, January 10, 2003

I read The Dhimmi (Bat Ye'or) earlier, and am partway through Islam and Dhimmitude (also Bat Ye'or). She is not always easy to read, I'm afraid, and the latter book verges on the polemical from time to time. Her thesis is that the oppression inherent in dhimmitude tends to make dhimmis think of themselves as inferior, fear to challenge the oppressive state, support it for fear of worse oppression, and cheerfully try to encourage popular hatred of other dhimmi groups in the hopes of keeping the heat off themselves. I suspect she overstates the strength of these tendencies, but I have not closely observed people in such situations myself.

So, when I found Bernard Lewis' The Jews of Islam I dug into that to see what his take on the history was. He only briefly refers to Ye'or, which isn't too surprising given that the book is based on lectures from 1981. I'm curious what he thinks of her more recent work.

In any case, he asserts that Jews under Islam were generally treated better in the heartlands than in places like North Africa. Although laws about humiliating dhimmis were on the books in the early years of Islam, he doesn't see evidence that they were much enforced. I think he missed the reason, though. In the early years the Moslems were still a minority, and it isn't good policy to tick off large majorities too much.

In the Persian years there was famously a great deal of tolerance and opportunity. In the Ottoman heyday, especially after 1492, the Ottoman heartlands took in a great many Jews, and the government was generally glad to have the immigrants and their useful skills.

The rest of the time and in other places things were not always so good. Under the Umayyids rules restricting all dhimmis became more strictly codified (and stories invented to attribute this to the first Umar), and these restrictions then applied and relaxed periodically. When messianic movements appeared, all dhimmis were in trouble.

Lewis spends a long chapter on the Ottoman era (as he would be the first to admit, largely because it is the best-documented), when a Jew would get much better treatment in that Muslim country than in almost any place in Christian Europe. In that era and place Jews were fairly well off; but with the rise of the West the local Greeks became more influential, since they had contacts with the West which the immigrant Jews did not.

He raises interesting questions about mutual influences of Islam and Judaism. Jewish influences in religion were frowned on, of course; Jerusalem was not considered to be a especially holy city. Nevertheless, things like the Talmudic test for daylight (distinguish different colors of thread) were absorbed (without attribution) into Islam [or perhaps both borrowed from some lost source--he points out that we can't tell]. The position of rabbis and ulema are similar, and the categories for discussion of rabbinic law seem to owe something (including terminology) to those from Islam.

In Shi'ism Jews, regarded as ritually unclean (to the extent that sometimes Jews were banned from going outside in the rain lest rainwater polluted by their touch wash against Muslim feet), were treated much more harsly.

Lewis emphasizes that the current anti-semitism, and a good deal of the historic anti-semitic outbursts, largely has Christian rather than Muslim origins. The current official anti-semitism is a hybrid of east and central European work, Nazi propaganda, and the traditional contempt of Islam for Jews; salted with a heavy dose of "find somebody to blame." When the West turned back the Ottoman jihad at Vienna and in the growth of Russia; and as Western traders and governments became more influential, the impulse to find someone responsible for the decay and eventual calamity seized on the groups which had no foreign governments willing to stand up for them: the Jews. Bat Ye'or also spends a lot of ink illustrating the Christian contributions to anti-semitic doctrines in the Middle East. I suppose I need to bone up on that one of the days.

I haven't yet run across a book by Bernard Lewis I wouldn't recommend.

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