Jews in the Islamic Empire - Jewish History
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Jews in the Islamic Empire

Maimonides synagogue
The synagogue where Maimonides worked in Cairo, Egypt

When the Arabs first began to attack the Roman Empire, in the 630s AD, the Jews were quite enthusiastic about the idea of getting rid of their Christian persecutors. We don't really know whether the Jews actually helped the Arabs to conquer Israel and Syria, but many Roman Christians suspected that the Jews had helped the Arabs. This led to a new wave of Christian persecutions of Jews, not only in the Roman Empire in the Eastern Mediterranean, but also in the western kingdoms, especially by the Visigoths.

The Arabs, on the other hand, were fairly welcoming to the Jews, and many Jews moved from the Christian countries to the Islamic Empire at this time. I don't mean that the Jews never had any more trouble. The Arabs wanted the Jews to convert to Islam, and the Jews had to pay special taxes if they would not convert. But they were not killed, or made to live in special parts of town, or forced to convert, or at least not usually. Some Jews, like the doctor Al Tabari, did convert in order to work at the Abbasid court. Others did not, like the most famous Jewish person who lived at this time, Maimonides. Maimonides was a philosopher who tried to make the scientific work of Aristotle agree with the religious work of the Bible.

Cordoba synagogue
The synagogue in Cordoba, Spain, built under Arab rule in 1315 AD.
It is decorated in the Arab style. Maimonides studied in an earlier synagogue here as a child.

Later on, in 1492, when Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand decided to throw all of the Jews out of Spain, many thousands of Spanish Jews travelled to the Ottoman Empire, or to North Africa, where they were welcomed and lived in peace.

Medieval European Jews

Main Judaism page
Main religion page

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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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  • Carr, K.E. . Study Guides, . Web. 27 April, 2017