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  • Beyond the "Jews of Islam"
  • Matthias B. Lehmann
Yaron Ben-Naeh . Jews in the Realm of the Sultans: Ottoman Jewish Society in the Seventeenth Century. Trans. Yohai Goell. Texts and Studies in Medieval and Early Modern Judaism 22. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008. Pp. xiv + 503.
Daniel Tsadik , Between Foreigners and Shi'is: Nineteenth-Century Iran and its Jewish Minority. Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2007. Pp. xxi + 295.

In 1866, the Jews of Barfurush in northern Iran were attacked, their quarter looted, and some converted to Islam in order to escape persecution after a Jew had been accused of causing the death of a Muslim woman. Learning about the anti-Jewish incidents, several foreign powers became involved in the affair, calling for the protection of the Jews and demanding that those who had converted be allowed to return to their religion. Among the diplomats who appealed to the Iranian authorities was the Ottoman envoy Khayrallah Efendi, who told the Iranian minister of foreign affairs that "what we raise our voices against is the open persecution of helpless communities." This incident discussed in Daniel Tsadik's book Between Foreigners and Shi'is: Nineteenth Century Iran and its Jewish Minority illustrates the inadequacy of a common tendency to offer excessively broad generalizations on the life of "the Jews" under "Islam." It is the merit of the two books discussed in this essay—Yaron Ben-Naeh's work on Ottoman Jewry in the seventeenth century, Jews in the Realm of the Sultans, and Tsadik's book on Iran—that they contribute to the historiography on Jews in Muslim lands without falling prey to the politicized and distorting tendency of either celebrating "Muslim tolerance" or discovering "Muslim intolerance." In fact, both books address Jewish-Muslim relations and Jewish life in two different parts of the Islamic world without painting a distorted picture of an interfaith utopia that was disturbed only by the advent of Western colonialism and Zionism, and [End Page 133] they do not succumb to what Mark R. Cohen has dubbed the "countermyth" of a "neo-lachrymose conception" of Jewish history under Islamic rule colored by contemporary conflicts in the Middle East.1

Both authors provide a nuanced and, indeed, ambiguous portrait of Jewish-Muslim relations between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. It clearly emerges that the conditions of being dhimmis, or "protected people," according to the stipulations of the shari'a and in particular the so-called Pact of Umar, determined both legal practice and sociocultural expectations as to the proper place of Jews in the social order. At the same time, many other, often local, factors likewise determined the nature of Jewish-Muslim interaction. It is further important to note that, while the condition of dhimma continued to shape the place of Jews in their Ottoman and Iranian environments, both studies suggest that the oft-repeated assumption that Muslim societies did not single out Jews as Jews but saw them primarily as dhimmis—that is, unlike Christian Europe, where the Jews allegedly were always seen primarily as Jews—is not borne out in practice. Ben-Naeh notes, for example, that in seventeenth-century Ottoman documents the terms dhimmi as well as kafir (unbeliever) were used in reference to Christians, whereas Jews are usually referred to as a distinct group (p. 102). While this did not necessarily imply any legal distinction, it certainly shaped cultural perceptions of Jews. In nineteenth-century Iran, though probably due in part to various forms of foreign intervention, the legal treatment of Jews, Nestorian Christians, and Zoroastrians was not always the same, and often improvements of the Jewish situation lagged behind changes adopted vis-à-vis other minorities. Again, the local conditions—for example, struggles over power and legitimacy between religious scholars (ulama), local governors, and the central authorities, or popular unrest versus the authorities' desire to maintain order and stability—often determined the situation of the Jews as much as the more abstract notions of dhimma.

Ben-Naeh's book is the English version of his Hebrew Yehudim be-mam-lekhet ha-sultanim published in 2007, which in turn was based on his doctoral dissertation from 2000; it...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1553-0604
Print ISSN
0021-6682
Pages
pp. 133-142
Launched on MUSE
2011-02-10
Open Access
No
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