In This Article Jews under Medieval Islam

  • Introduction
  • Biographies
  • Primary Sources
  • Broad Syntheses
  • The Early Period
  • The Jews’ Status
  • Economic Activity
  • Women and Family Life

Jewish Studies Jews under Medieval Islam
Arnold Franklin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 June 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0076


The history of Jews in the Islamic world can be traced back to early 7th-century Arabia, where a number of Jewish tribes thrived and had dealings with Muhammad. But it is only with the Islamic conquests and the extension of Islamic dominion beyond the borders of the peninsula over the course of the following century that the most concentrated centers of Jewish settlement were brought into direct contact with the new religious and political regime. While the impact of Islamic civilization did not set in overnight, and while it did not affect all strata of the community in the same way, Jewish society was unquestionably transformed in the wake of Islam’s expansion across the Near East and North Africa. In Islamic legal theory, Jews, like Christians and Zoroastrians, were now designated a “protected people,” a status that entailed official recognition of their religious traditions as well as various forms of legislated discrimination, including the imposition of a special tax. As is to be expected, enforcement of these restrictions varied greatly at different times and in different regions. The new cultural and religious milieu introduced changes as well: the Jews embraced Arabic for all types of writing, came under the sway of new literary models and aesthetics, and responded in diverse ways to prevailing religious ideas and intellectual currents. No less significant were the transformations in Jewish communal organization and economic activity in the centuries after the Islamic conquests. With the rise of the Abbasid caliphate and the establishment of its capital at Baghdad in the middle of the 8th century, the old and populous Babylonian Jewish community—the largest center of rabbinic Judaism—found itself at the hub of an Islamic empire that extended from Spain and Morocco in the west to India and Afghanistan in the east. Under these conditions, rabbinic authority, as embodied in the yeshivot (talmudic academies), assumed unprecedented prestige and influence over the far-flung local Jewish communities of the Islamic world. The heads of the yeshivot oversaw the operations of local institutions, appointed local officials and collected internal taxes from the communities. At the same time, a vibrant tradition of local autonomy thrived, and many of the functions entrusted to the yeshivot and their heads eventually were assumed by local leaders. The consolidation of rabbinic authority was offset by, and perhaps partially responsible for the concurrent appearance of, nonrabbinic forms of Judaism, the most famous and enduring of which was Karaism. This bibliography focuses on Jewish society in the Islamic world from the 7th century to the emergence of the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 16th century. Primary concern is given to political, economic, and cultural developments, with a particular focus on exploring the Jews’ encounter with Islam and Islamic civilization.

Reference Tools

The last decades have witnessed a tremendous growth in scholarly interest in the history of Jews and Judaism in the Islamic world. Evidence of this development is the fact that there are now a sizeable number of reference works devoted either in part or entirely to these subjects. This section identifies basic bibliographic tools and guides to scholarly research.

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