Palestine during the "Golden Age of Islam"
By: Andrew G. Bostom
Thursday, December 05, 2002

How did the Arab Muslim conquerers of Palestine treat non-Muslims?

Palestinian Authority (PA) Undersecretary for Awqaf [Religious Endowment], Sheik Yussef Salamah, representing the PA at a May 1999 "Inter-Cultural Conference," in Tehran, praised the 7th century system of Ahl Al-Dhimma (i.e, the system of dhimmitude, applied [primarily] to Christians and Jews conquered by jihad wars), as the proper paradigm for relations between Muslims and Christians today. He maintained, "Islam respected people of (other) religions and did not hurt them."

Palestinian Authority employee, Sheik Muhammad Ibrahim Al-Madhi reiterated these sentiments with regard to Jews during a Friday sermon broadcasted live on June 6, 2001 on PA TV, from the Sheik 'Ijlin Mosque in Gaza:

"We welcome, as we did in the past, any Jew who wants to live in this land as a Dhimmi, just as the Jews have lived in our countries, as Dhimmis, and have earned appreciation, and some of them have even reached the positions of counselor or minister here and there. We welcome the Jews to live as Dhimmis, but the rule in this land and in all the Muslim countries must be the rule of Allah”

Are these contemporary Muslim pronouncements of the dhimmis existence in Palestine under Islamic rule, even during the early, so-called “Golden Age” of Islam, consistent with historical reality?

This question is addressed by the widely acclaimed, comprehensive historiography of the scholar Bat Ye’or, in The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam, and by Professor Moshe Gil in A History of Palestine, 634-1099.

Bat Ye’or summarizes the Arab Muslim conquest of Palestine as follows: “…the whole Gaza region up to Cesarea was sacked and devastated in the campaign of 634. Four thousand Jewish, Christian, and Samaritan peasants who defended their land were massacred. The villages of the Negev were pillaged…Towns such as Jerusalem, Gaza, Jaffa, Cesarea, Nablus, and Beth Shean were isolated and closed their gates. In his sermon on Christmas day 634, the patriarch of Jerusalem, Sophronius, lamented…that the Christians were being forcibly kept in Jerusalem: ‘…chained and nailed by fear of the Saracens,’ whose ‘savage, barbarous and bloody sword’ kept them locked up in the town…Sophronius, in his sermon on the Day of the Epiphany 636, bewailed the destruction of the churches and monasteries, the sacked towns, the fields laid waste, the villages burned down by the nomads who were overrunning the country. In a letter the same year to Sergius, the patriarch of Constantinople, he mentions the ravages wrought by the Arabs. Thousands of people perished in 639, victims of the famine and plague that resulted from these destructions.”

Professor Gil emphasizes the singular centrality that Palestine occupied in the mind of its pre-Islamic Jewish inhabitants, who referred to the land as "al-Sham". Indeed, as Gil observes, the sizable Jewish population in Palestine (who formed a majority of its inhabitants, when grouped with the Samaritans) at the dawn of the Arab Muslim conquest were "..the direct descendants of the generations of Jews who had lived there since the days of Joshua bin Nun, in other words for some 2000 years..". Through the clear, dispassionate presentation of a rich profusion of data from Muslim, Christian, and Jewish sources, he captures the stark, unromantic reality of Muslim ruled Palestine during these 465-years. Of the nearly 5 centuries carefully surveyed by Professor Gil, the "Golden Age" period coincides, primarily, with the Abbasid-Baghdadian Caliphate, which began in 750 C.E., and ended in 878 C.E. The Abbasids moved the capital city from Damascus to Baghdad, absorbed much of the Syrian and Persian culture, as well as Persian methods of governance, and ushered in the "Golden Age."

Gil and Bat Ye’or  offer revealing assessments of “Golden Age” dhimmitude (i.e., the regulations imposed on the non-Muslim dhimmis vanquished by jihad “holy war”), and its adverse impact on these conquered, indigenous Jews and Christians. The clearest outward manifestations of this imposed inferiority and humiliation were the prohibitions regarding dhimmi dress "codes", and the demands that distinguishing signs be placed on the entrances of dhimmi houses. Specifically, during the Abbasid caliphates (i.e., the “Golden Age”) of Harun al-Rashid (786-809) and al-Mutawwakil (847-861), specifically, Jews and Christians were required to wear yellow (as patches attached to their garments, or hats). Later, to differentiate further between Christians and Jews, the Christians were required to wear blue.

In 850, consistent with Koranic verses and hadith (sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad) associating them with Satan and Hell, al-Mutawwakil decreed that Jews and Christians attach wooden images of devils to the doors of their homes to distinguish them from the homes of Muslims. Bat Ye’or summarizes the oppression of the dhimmis throughout the Abbasid empire under al- Mutawwakil as “..a wave of religious persecution, forced conversions, and the elimination of churches and synagogues..”. Bat Ye’or also elucidates the fiscal oppression inherent in eighth century (i.e., including “Golden Age”) Palestine which devastated the dhimmi Jewish and Christian peasantry: “Over-taxed and tortured by the tax collectors, the villagers fled into hiding or emigrated into towns.” She quotes from a detailed chronicle of an eighth century monk, completed in 774: ‘The men scattered, they became wanderers everywhere; the fields were laid waste, the countryside pillaged; the people went from one land to another’.

Gil offers this sobering assessment near the end of his extensive, scrupulously documented presentation of the initial period of Muslim rule of Palestine from 634-1099 C.E., "..These facts do not call for much interpretation; together they simply form a picture of almost unceasing insecurity, of endless rebellions and wars, of upheavals and instability..".

The eminent historian of Islam, Bernard Lewis, observed 35 years ago that nineteenth-century “Pro-Islamic” Jews promoted a utopian view of the egalitarian nature of Muslim rule.  Not surprisingly, Muslims eventually also picked up on this romantic Jewish myth about Islam, which became a standard part of their own self-image. However, Lewis concludes [in "The Pro-Islamic Jews," Judaism, (Fall 1968), p. 401.], "The Golden Age of equal rights was a myth, and belief in it was a result, more than a cause, of Jewish sympathy for Islam.". Moreover, even if deemed “tolerant” for its time, dhimmitude is completely incompatible with modern notions of equality between individuals, regardless of religious faith.

It is chilling that the official, contemporary Palestinian Authority religious intelligentsia as represented by Sheikh Salamah and Sheikh Al-Madhi openly support restoration of this oppressive system. Finally, a sober assessment of such anachronistic Islamic views was provided by The Catholic Archbishop of the Galilee, Butrus Al-Mu'alem, who, in a June 1999 statement dismissed the notion of modern Christian “dhimmis” submitting to Muslims: “It is strange to me that there remains such backwardness in our society; while humans have already reached space, the stars, and the moon... there are still those who amuse themselves with fossilized notions.”

Andrew G. Bostom, MD, MS, is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Brown University Medical School.

Andrew G. Bostom is a frequent contributor to Frontpage Magazine.com, and the author of The Legacy of Jihad, and the forthcoming The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism.