A History of the Jews

by Paul Johnson

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Student Question

Compare the Jewish experience in Christian Europe with that in the Muslim Empire.

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During the Middle Ages, Jews were treated with far greater tolerance in Muslim-controlled areas than they were in Christian Europe. During the Middle Ages in Europe, Jews were tarnished with the idea of the blood libel--the false idea that Christian blood, particularly that of children, was used in Jewish religious rituals.

Anti-Jewish feeling increased after the beginning of the Crusades in the 11th century, as Christians often attacked Jews in Germany and France on their way to attack Muslim infidels in the Holy Land. As Jews were restricted from holding certain professions and could not own land, they often became moneylenders. This profession increased the anti-Semitic sentiment in Europe, and Jews were the targets of anti-Jewish brutality. In the Third Lateran Council of 1179, led by Pope Alexander III, Jews and Muslims were declared unable to have Christian servants, and the word of a Christian became regarded as always superior to that of a Jew. Finally, Jews were expelled from several countries, including from England in 1290 and from Spain in 1492.

In contrast, Jews in Muslim lands were given state protection. They were often given the status of dhimma--a group of second-class people who had to pay a tax but who were protected by the state. Jews and members of monotheistic religions were given these protections, while polytheistic people were not (see the source below). Often, Jews were not restricted from entering professions as they were in Europe.

The era from 9th to the 14th centuries is regarded as a "Golden Age" for Jewish-Muslim relations. While the source below notes that at times this was more of a myth than reality, historians also believe that Jews lived with far greater freedom during this time in the Muslim Empire than they did in Medieval Europe (see the source below). Jews benefited from the Muslim scholarship during this time and experienced their own scholarship, both religious and secular. Following this time, the Ottoman Empire also served as a refuge for Jews who had been expelled from Spain. Therefore, Jews fared far better in Muslim than in Christian lands in the Middle Ages and for some period of time afterward.

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