In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Jews Under Classical Islam

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Historiography
  • Law
  • Scripture: Text, Translation, and Exegesis
  • Culture
  • Religious Thought and Philosophy

Jewish Studies Jews Under Classical Islam
Ross Brann
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0097


This bibliographic essay surveys research on the historical and cultural experience of the Jews of Islamic lands during the classical age of Islam, that is, from the 7th century to the turn of the 13th. The field of study is categorically modern, less than two hundred years old. In its earliest phase 19th-century German Jewish scholars pioneered the writing of modern Jewish historiography and utilized the tools of philology to set about recovering the literary-religious and literary-intellectual heritage of the Jews of Islam. They were drawn to this area of research in part on account of their romantic attraction to the idea of a Jewish community intellectually and culturally integrated within the majority society, a situation they believed was at complete variance with the Jews’ condition under medieval Christendom. So too, these scholars were curious to probe the observed similarity and historical relationship between Judaism and Islam. While their textual work retained its importance for subsequent research, many if not most of their historical conclusions now appear quaint and naive. The authority of philology and careful attention to text dominated the field of study through the 20th century. Eventually this field of inquiry began to mirror developments in the wider humanities, witnessing greater disciplinary variety with linguists, social historians, legal historians, religionists, and literary historians contributing their expertise to the production of more sophisticated scholarship. The discovery of the Cairo Geniza and the expert study of its assorted texts of diverse provenance was the single most important development within the field and it fundamentally reshaped every aspect of historical and literary research. Previously unknown details of the professional and personal lives of important historical figures and unknown personalities emerged from the Geniza’s documentary sources, including autograph letters; otherwise un-transmitted texts and additional versions of extant texts of every literary and religious genre were discovered, deciphered and published; documents emerged pertaining to every feature of Jewish communal and socioeconomic life in southern and eastern Mediterranean lands reflecting the movement of people, goods, and ideas from the Atlantic to India. The Geniza’s treasures thus yielded immense detail to the study of the Jews under classical Islam and enabled scholars to draw increasingly nuanced pictures of the Jews’ communal, social, religious, intellectual, and cultural life with careful attention to period, place, and social class. At the same time the turbulent history of the 20th century and the early 21st left their indelible ideological mark on scholarship. Many scholars have endeavored mightily to keep to their medievalist enterprise or to medievalism; whether conditioned by the nationalist struggle between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs or by the events of 11 September 2001, other scholars wittingly or unwittingly have been lured into utilizing the present in interpreting the past.

General Overviews

Two reference works, Gallego, et al. 2010 and Stillman, et al. 2010, establish the Jews of Islamic as a discrete, rich and multi-disciplinary field of study by offering a comprehensive bibliography and excellent introductory articles respectively devoted to the subject from the classical period of Islam to the present.

  • Cohen, Mark R. “The Jews under Islam from the Rise of Islam to Sabbatai Zevi.” In Sephardic Studies in the University. Edited by Jane Gerber, 43–119. Madison, NJ: Farleigh Dickenson University Press, 1995.

    Now largely superseded by more recent work but nevertheless still useful for its concentration on the premodern period. Cohen’s essay offers the first thorough bibliographical essay on the subject.

  • Cohen, Mark R. “Medieval Jewry in the World of Islam.” In The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies. Edited by Martin Goodman, 193–218. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    One of Goitein’s followers, Cohen contributes a keenly astute synthetic essay of the field of study with an excellent bibliography of suggested readings for nonspecialists. Focused primarily on social history Cohen also stresses the Jews’ “cultural embeddedness” under classical Islam as a reframing of Goitein’s notion of “cultural symbiosis.”

  • Cohen, Mark R. “The Origins of Sephardic Jewry in the Medieval Arab World.” In Sephardic & Mizrahi Jewry: From the Golden Age of Spain to Modern Times. Edited by Zion Zohar, 23–39. New York: New York University Press, 2005.

    In this brief contribution Cohen situates the origins of Sephardic Jewry squarely within the orbit of Mediterranean Islam. The essay reproduces aspects of Cohen’s approach to the Jews of Islam as opposed to the Jews of Christendom in Cohen 2008 (cited under Historiography).

  • Gallego, Marîa Angeles, Heather Bleaney, and Pablo Garcîa Suárez. Bibliography of Jews in the Islamic World. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010.

    Extremely well indexed according to themes and subjects including religion, science, law, and geography as well as history, literature, language, and manuscripts, this supplement to the Index Islamicus references articles and books from the entire gamut of the Jews’ experiences in the Islamic world from late antiquity to the modern period.

  • Goitein, S. D. Jews and Arabs: Their Contacts Through the Ages. 3d rev. ed. New York: Schocken, 1974.

    Now somewhat dated but still a worthwhile undergraduate-accessible introduction to the subject, Jews and Arabs famously was written entirely from memory without benefit of his professional library. Goitein’s course book manages to convey his deep learning and historically sensitive approach to Islam and Jewish life and culture under its orbit. Republished: Mineola, NY: Dover, 2005, with the subtitle A Concise History of Their Social and Cultural Relations.

  • Lewis, Bernard. The Jews of Islam. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.

    Offers a more sophisticated, historically minded yet accessible introduction for the undergraduate/reading public audience. Besides defining the social, political, and religious relationship of Islam to the Jews, Lewis assays the significance of the “Judeo-Islamic tradition.”

  • Stillman, Norman A., Philip I. Ackerman-Lieberman, Yaron Ayalon, et al., ed. Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World. 5 vols. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010.

    Serves as an indispensible reference complement to Gallego, et al. 2010, which likewise covers the entire historical sweep of the Jews in the Islamic world. Includes up-to-date contributions by an international team of specialists on ideas, major figures, thematic topics, and regions, lands, and countries. The articles conclude with brief bibliographies on their respective subjects.

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