At long last, Sir Martin Gilbert's new book In Ishmael's House: A history of Jews in Muslim lands puts the history of Jews in Arab countries, Iran and Turkey, within reach of the ordinary man and woman in the street. But in this review, The Economist is underwhelmed, accusing the celebrated historian of not tackling the question of Muslim anti-semitism head-on. The reviewer is more impressed by Gilbert Achcar's new work ( a sentiment not shared by this blog, here and here).
FROM 624 to 628AD, several Jewish clans in the Arabian peninsula joined forces with an Arab tribe, the Quraysh, to make war on a renegade Qurayshi named Muhammad who had had the chutzpah to claim he was a prophet of God. They lost. Piqued at the Jews for rejecting a creed that—with its dietary laws, ritual circumcision and daily prayers towards (at first) Jerusalem—was so closely modelled on their own, the Prophet Muhammad decreed that they, along with Christians, would henceforth be considered dhimmiyeen under Islam; “protected” as fellow monotheists, but subject to a heavy tax and various other indignities.
Dhimma status was later extended to other religions, then abolished by the Ottoman Turks in the 19th century. It is often still invoked by Islamophobes today as proof that Islam is inherently intolerant and, specifically, anti-Semitic. Martin Gilbert, a British Jew who was knighted in 1995, and Gilbert Achcar, a Lebanese-French Christian, have both written books in which this question looms large. It would be hard to find two more different treatments.
For Sir Martin the dhimma restrictions form the conceptual framework, such as it is, of “In Ishmael’s House”, his history of Jewish life under Muslim rule. He relates how, although they often lived in peace and wealth and sometimes reached the very top posts in Muslim administrations, as dhimmiyeen the Jews remained second-class citizens who never knew when prosperity might give way to pogroms.
Sir Martin is no Islamophobe, and his is a solid and balanced, if unexciting, chronicle of both ups and downs in Jewish fortunes. But it is nothing more. Although he gives a clear-eyed account of the conflict that prompted Muhammad to impose dhimma status on the Jews, he offers virtually no political or social context for the actions of any Muslim leader thereafter. This makes for a monotonous and ahistorical narrative: under more tolerant caliphs the Jews prospered, yet still suffered isolated attacks; under crueller ones they were oppressed, yet individual Muslims still performed acts of kindness, and so on for 12 centuries. Moreover, Christians and other dhimmiyeen are absent from the tale, so there is no sense of whether Jews were being singled out.
Things improve a little in the 20th century, the second half of the book. Here Sir Martin, best known as Winston Churchill’s official biographer, is on home turf, and he writes about the obvious effects of world wars, colonialism and the rise of Israel on the decline of Jewish-Muslim relations. There are some gripping moments in the eyewitness accounts of anti-Jewish riots in Cairo or Baghdad, but here again he remains largely silent on Muslim thinking and perceptions.
It is not clear whether the author was trying to avoid controversy or is just uninterested in anything but what Jews experienced. Either way, the extraordinary result is that not once does this book about Jews under Islam tackle the question of Muslim anti-Semitism head-on. (The phrase does not even appear in the index.)By contrast, Mr Achcar’s “The Arabs and the Holocaust” looks at it in considerable detail.
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