Lecture 9: Islam and the Jews: Jerusalem in the Middle Ages - 2

By: Alick Isaacs

In 1187, at the head of the Ayubbid Dynasty, Saladin reconquered the city of Jerusalem from the Crusaders. Looking on from the 20th century one cannot help but notice the difference between Saladin and the Crusaders. In 1099 the city was ravaged. The synagogues were burnt down and the inhabitants, Jews and Moslems alike, were massacred. The Ayubbid conquest was conducted very differently. Saladin relieved the Christian inhabitants of a considerable amount of money and clearly asserted Moslem superiority in a fashion that was no doubt most humiliating. But there was no massacre. Saladin allowed free religious practice to both Christians and Jews who wished to remain in the city under Moslem rule and safe passage out to those who did not.

1. The People of the Book - The Dhimmi:
During the 12th and 13th centuries the Jewish community of Jerusalem began to prosper. Traditionally Saladin, despite his ruthlessness, is considered an enlightened leader. Much of this 'enlightenment' is a product of the policy of religious tolerance which governed the attitude of Moslems towards the "People of the Book" - The Christians and the Jews. Christians and Jews are granted a special privileged status in Islam known as the dhimmi. As believers in One God, their faith, though inferior, is legitimate.

The most important message of the Islamic faith is summarised in the belief that there is one God and that Mohammed is his prophet. The central role of monotheism in the Islamic system of faith is, of course, rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. However, unlike Christianity and Judaism, Islam does not sanctify the Bible. Moslems have a new holy book of law, the Quran. This distinction is essential for understanding the difference between the attitudes of Christian rulers towards the Jews in the Middle Ages and that of the Moslems.

When one considers the relationship between Christianity and Judaism in the Middle Ages one encounters a head on conflict between the two. Christians believed that they replaced the Jews in God's favour. The grace that was once bestowed upon the Jews was altered and given to those who accepted the truth of Christ. The foundations of Christianity and the New Testament implied a christological reinterpretation of the Old Testament and a direct confrontation with Judaism. The preference of the Christians by God meant the rejection of the Jews. This was not the case with Islam. While in the medieval world there is of course no room to talk of religious tolerance in the modern sense, the concept of ultimate Islamic truth did not necessitate the total rejection by God of the inferior faiths. While both Christianity and Judaism were misguided, they enjoyed a certain legitimisation. Belief in one God was a universal truth which transcended the barriers of Islam. Islam offered the truth about the one God and so the heathen who wished to embrace a monotheistic way of life must accept Islam. However, those misguided people who subscribed to either of the Jewish or Christian faiths, unlike heathens, were granted the freedom to do so. This however was conditional on their affirmation of their own humility and inferiority.

The ambivalence of the Islamic attitude towards the People of the Book stems from the Quran itself:

"Fight against those to whom the scriptures were given, who believe not in Allah nor in the Last Day, who forbid not what Allah and His Apostle have forbidden, and follow not the true faith, until they pay tribute out of hand and are humbled." (Surah 9,29)

The call to fight against those to whom the scriptures were given must be understood in the light of the Islamic policy of literally fighting and killing those heathens who will not accept the faith. The fight in the case of the dhimmi, is a struggle which does not end in death but in humiliation and paying tribute. The message of toleration is militant and so, somewhat ambivalent.

Jews and Christians were granted religious freedom if they agreed to the conditions. The conditions were variable. These involved paying taxes and submitting to public humiliations such as wearing a yellow turban, riding a horse with no saddle, wearing different colour shoes, hanging a skull at the door of the dwelling, restricting the height of synagogues or churches and so on. These humiliations were flexible and it was within the power of every leader to impose them as severely or leniently as he saw fit. It was within the power of a Moslem ruler to make life virtually intolerable for Jews and Christians living under his jurisdiction. Alternatively, and here is the big difference between Islam and Christianity, it was also within his power to allow Jews and Christians to prosper, flourish and rise to positions of influence. The status of the Jews was determined relative to Islam. Theologically, there was no necessity for Jews living under Moslem rule to languish in a state of perpetual humility.

2. 800 years of Moslem rule:
Saladin conquered the city and brought with him a beautiful wooden 'Minbar' from Aleppo with which he consecrated the Al Aksa Mosque. Thus he reinstated the Temple Mount as the focus of religious life in the city. This was an act of rededication and purification of the Holy Mount. Saladin became the military hero of Islam, the Moslem equivalent of Judah the Maccabee. The Ayubbid dynasty ruled the city till the end of the third decade of the thirteenth century. In 1229 there was yet another brief interval of Christian rule when Frederick II of Germany held the city till 1244. In 1260 the city came under Moslem Mamluk rule.

The Mamluks were mercenary slaves who rebelled against the Ayubbid dynasty and conquered the city in their own name. The Mamluks ruled the city till the last day of 1516 when the city was conquered by Saleem I the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans, outstanding among them Suleiman the Magnificent, developed and built up the city. Suleiman reconstructed the walls of the city and rebuilt the city's gates. He brought water through underground water pipes into the sabils (water fountains) which were readliy accessible to the population . The Ottomans ruled in Jerusalem till 1917 when 800 years of Moslem rule since the Crusades, came to an end.

3. The Jewish Quarter Comes to Life:
During the late Middle Ages the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem began to prosper. Significant figures such as Judah Halevi, the renowned poet and philosopher, and the Ramban, the outstanding Talmud scholar, came to Jerusalem. The Ramban established a community of Spanish Jews in 1267 built around the synagogue which still carries his name in the Old City today. During the early 15th century the Ashkenazi (German) community of the 'Perushim' established a community aswell. And during the period of Turkish rule more communities were established within Jerusalem by Jews who flocked to the city from all over the Ottoman Empire. This gradual process of reawakening was wrapped in Messianic fervour. Each community which built a synagogue in Jerusalem was enacting the symbolic laying of the foundations for the rebuilding of the Temple. The synagogue had, during the years of Jewish exile come to symbolise the Temple in microcosm, and was thus known as the miniature sanctuary (Mikdash Me'at). The symbolism attached to the synagogues of Jerusalem was closer still to the Temple, as these were not only miniature sanctuaries but they were built on the hallowed ground of the holy city. Jews sought to reaffirm the Jewishness of the city, a process which would ultimately lead to the triumphant entrance of the Messiah through the Jaffa gate.

The Four Sephardi Synagogues in the Jewish Quarter today still carry with them Messianic traditions which stem from their foundations in the 16th century. The Synagogue of Yohanan Ben Zakkai is built on the site where the community members believe that the great Sage was accustomed to pray. In pride of place on a high glass shelf, they treasure a shofar (ram's horn) and a jar of oil which are believed to have been discovered by the founders of the synagogue on the site. The shofar and the oil are considered holy objects, remnants from the Temple itself which were stored in the ground waiting to be rediscovered by the Jews who would one day return to the city. Similarly, the Elija's synagogue which is next to the Yohanan Ben Zakkai synagogue carries a tradition that Elija the prophet, whose ultimate task it is to usher the Messiah into the city of Jerusalem, appeared and participated in their prayers. The folk story which is told by the members of this community tells of the appearance of a stranger who completed the quorum of ten men necessary for communal prayer one Yom Kippur. The nine men who gathered to pray in the synagogue were most grateful to the mysterious stranger. But, when the prayers were completed and they searched for the man to offer him hospitality in the comfort of their homes, he was nowhere to be seen.

They immediately concluded that they must have received a visit from the prophet Elijah. His presence was necessary to ensure that the prayers in their synagogue may proceed. This act of miraculous intervention was necessary since the prayers on Yom Kippur in the synagogue in Jerusalem were almost akin to the rituals of the Temple. It would be intolerable to imagine that they were not carried in full. In this synagogue a replica of the chair where the stranger sat still holds pride of place in a special chamber, the original having been destroyed by the Jordanians after the war of Independence in 1948.

The Messianic traditions which were associated with the building of synagogues in Jerusalem during this period were prevalent amongst Ashkenazi (European) Jews aswell. In 1700 Judah the pious established an Ashkenazi community in the city and built the synagogue which became known as the Hurva. The original structure of this synagogue carried a great dome and looked something like a mini version of the Dome of the Rock. The building stood on the opposite hill facing the Temple mount (The Western Hill) and was positioned near the Cardo in a parallel position to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This structure was in effect a reaffirmation of Jewish presence in the landscape of the city. And the architectural design, within the limitations afforded by the Turkish rule, alluded to the implication that this synagogue was a representation of the Jewish claim on the Temple Mount. The domed building, reminiscent of the two "temples" already standing in the city and significantly positioned, was a statement of the imminence of the Messianic redemption.

4. The Old Yishuv and the New Yishuv: By the 19th century, the communities which we have just described constituted the body of the Old Yishuv. These were traditional Jews whose families had settled in the holy city during the course of the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. These Jews settled in Jerusalem in anticipation of redemption and change. They established traditional Jewish institutions and awaited the signs which according to the promises of old would herald in a new era. But the new era was to bring to the city a very different form of redemption from the one which they so eagerly anticipated. Jerusalem in the 19th century was on the brink of modernisation. This process totally changed the face of the city. Along with the many changes the new era brought in Jews who came to the city with a very different Messianic dream. These were the Jews of the New Yishuv.

The Jews of the new Yishuv were part of a general influx of Western European interest in the city. During the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire began to collapse. Land was sold in Jerusalem to British, French, German, Russian and American interests. The western colonial powers built railways and post offices, churches and hospitals, bringing with them modern values and standards. European explorers such as Robinson, Wilson and Warren began archeological excevations in the city. Jerusalem was once again being gradually invaded by the Christian West. This time, however, it was a cultural invasion. The influx of western, modern, industrial culture changed the face of the city. With it came secular modernised Jews who were as strange and distant from the Jews of the Old Yishuv as any of the non Jewish westerners who now wandered the streets of Jerusalem.



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23 Aug 2005 / 18 Av 5765 0