By the late seventh century, and certainly by the eighth, Islamic ideas began to penetrate Europe, where they had a profound influence. European Christians, for example, began to think, for the first time, in terms of “Holy War,” an idea that would have been unthinkable in earlier centuries. There is strong circumstantial evidence that they began also to influence European thinking about the Jews.

Anti-Semitism of course preceded the rise of both Christianity and Islam; and Christianity itself had a long history of antagonism towards Jews well before the appearance of Islam. The antagonism was mutual, and Jewish leaders were in the early centuries as vociferous in their condemnation of Christianity as Christian leaders were of Judaism. Serious violence between the two groups was, however, uncommon; and the first real pogrom launched by Christians against the Jews in Europe did not happen until the beginning of the First Crusade, in 1096. But this was not the first pogrom against Jews in Europe; an event which occurred in Cordoba in Spain in 1011. This was followed by another outbreak of mass-murder in Granada in 1066. Neither massacre was carried out by Christians, however, but by Muslims.

If we look for the origin of violent anti-Semitism in Europe, we must look to Spain.

Europe’s largest Jewish community was located in Spain. Following the Islamic conquest of that land in 711, the Jews came under the domination of a faith that was from its inception virulently and violently anti-Jewish.

For Muslims, the lead was given by none other than their founder, the Prophet Muhammad. It would be superfluous to enumerate the anti-Jewish pronouncements in the Koran and the Haditha, where the Hebrews are portrayed as the craftiest, most persistent and most implacable enemies of Allah. In the Koran (2: 63-66) Allah transforms some Jews who profaned the Sabbath into apes: “Be as apes despicable!” In Koran 5: 59-60, He directs Muhammad to remind the “People of the Book” about “those who incurred the curse of Allah and His wrath, those whom some He transformed into apes and swine, those who worshipped evil.” Again, in 7: 166, we hear of the Sabbath-breaking Jews that “when in their insolence they transgressed (all) prohibitions,” Allah said to them, “Be ye apes, despised and rejected.”

From the same sources, we know that Muhammad’s first violent action against the Jews involved the Qaynuqa tribe, who dwelt at Medina, under the protection of the city. Muhammad “seized the occasion of an accidental tumult,” and ordered the Qaynuqa (or Kainoka) to embrace his religion or fight. In the words of Gibbon, “The unequal conflict was terminated in fifteen days; and it was with extreme reluctance that Mahomet yielded to the importunity of his allies and consented to spare the lives of the captives” (‘Decline and Fall’, Chapter 50). In later attacks on the Jews, the Hebrew captives were not so fortunate.

The most notorious of all Muhammad’s attacks against the Jews was directed at the Banu Quraiza tribe. This community, which dwelt near Medina, was attacked without warning by the Prophet and his men, and, after its defeat, all the males over the age of puberty were beheaded. Some Islamic authorities claim that Muhammad personally participated in the executions. The doomed men and boys, whose numbers are estimated at anything between 500 and 900, were ordered to dig the trench which was to be their communal grave. All of the women and children were enslaved, with Muhammad personally taking for himself one of the most beautiful of the prisoners. He also confiscated the property of the murdered Jews. These deeds are mentioned in the Koran as acts carried out by Allah himself and fully sanctioned by divine approval. Thus in Koran 33:26-27, we read:

And he brought those of the People of the Book [Jewish people of Banu Qurayza] who supported them from their fortresses and cast terror into their hearts, some of them you slew (beheaded) and some you took prisoners (captive). And he made you heirs of their lands, their houses, and their goods, and of a land which ye had not frequented (before). And Allah has power over all things.

The killing of the Jewish prisoners is sanctioned in Koran 8:67: “It is not fitting for an Apostle that he should have prisoners of war until He thoroughly subdued the land…”

The Massacre of Banu Quraiza was followed soon after by the attack on the Khaybar tribe. On this occasion, the Prophet ordered the torture of a Jewish chieftain to extract information about where he had hidden his treasures.

When the treasure was uncovered, the chieftain was beheaded. This chieftain was the husband of the most beautiful Jewish woman of Khaybar, the 17-year-old Safiyah. Safiyah’s family members had been annihilated by Muhammad at the Banu Qurayza massacre. Now having beheaded her husband, the Prophet took Safiyah as his slave. The story is told thus by Sahih al-Bukhari, whose compilation of the acts and deeds attributed to Muhammad was written in the ninth century, and forms one of the two pillars of Islamic jurisprudence. (Volume 5, Book 59, Number 512):

The Prophet offered the Fajr Prayer near Khaybar when it was still dark and then said, “Allahu-Akbar! Khaybar is destroyed, for whenever we approach a (hostile) nation (to fight), then evil will be the morning for those who have been warned.” Then the inhabitants of Khaybar came out running on the roads. The Prophet had their warriors killed, their offspring and woman taken as captives. Safiya was amongst the captives, she first came in the share of Dahya Alkali but later on she belonged to the Prophet. The Prophet made her manumission as her ‘Mahr’. Muhammad was sixty (60) when he married Safiyyahh, a young girl of seventeen. She became his eighth wife.

The distribution of the booty is described thus in al-Bukhari Hadiths (No.143, page-700):

Sulaiman Ibne Harb…Aannas Ibne Malek (ra) narrated, “in the war of Khayber after the inhabitants of Banu Nadir were surrendered, Allah’s apostle killed all the able/adult men, and he (prophet) took all women and children as captives (Ghani mateer maal).. Among the captives Safiyya Bint Huyy Akhtab was taken by Allah’s Apostle as booty whom He married after freeing her and her freedom was her Mahr.”

It is said that at first Dihyah al-Kalbi, one of Muhammad’s followers, asked for Safiyah. But when Muhammad saw her exquisite beauty, he chose her for himself and gave her two cousins to Dihyah.

In the massacre of the Jewish Settlement of Bani Mustaliq, Muhammad captured their women and took twenty-year-old Jewish girl, Juwairiya as his personal slave. [Al-Bukhari, p431-432]. Sahih Muslim (2.2349, p.520) says that Mohammed attacked the Banu Mustaliq tribe without any warning while they were heedlessly grazing their cattle.

Juwairiya was a daughter of the chief. Sahih Muslim 3.4292, p.942 and Abu Dawud 2.227, p728 and al-Tabari 39, p.182-183 also say Juwairiya was captured in a raid on the Banu Mustaliq tribe. She had been married to Musafi’ bin Safwan, who was killed in battle.

We need go no further into the horrific details of these events, as they have already been examined by numerous writers and their veracity denied by no one. What we need to emphasize is the attitude these atrocities betray, as well as the fact that they became the model for the behavior of all future followers of the Prophet.

What caused Muhammad’s seemingly implacable hatred of the Jews? According to Gibbon, it was their refusal to recognize him as their long-awaited Messiah that “converted his friendship into an implacable hatred, with which he pursued that unfortunate people to the last moment of his life; and, in the double character of apostle and conqueror, his persecution was extended into both worlds” (‘Decline and Fall’, Ch. 50).

It is a widely-held fiction that, aside from the Prophet’s persecution of the Jews of Arabia, Muslims in general and Islam as a rule was historically tolerant to this People of the Book, who were generally granted ‘dhimmi’ (“protected”) status in the Islamic ‘Umma’, or community. But ‘dhimmi’ status, also accorded to Christians, did not, as Bat Ye’or has demonstrated at great length, imply equal rights with Muslims. On the contrary, dhimmis were subject, even at the best of times, to a whole series of discriminatory and humiliating laws and to relentless exploitation. At the worst of times, they could be slaughtered in the streets without any hope of legal redress. One of the most noxious measures directed against them was the requirement to wear an item or color of clothing by which they could be easily identified: identified for easy exploitation and abuse. The latter law was copied, significantly enough, by the Nazis. Bat Ye’or has shown that this law was enforced in Islam right from the beginning. The violence was not continuous, but the exploitation was, and the pattern of abuse initiated by Muhammad in Arabia in the seventh century was to be repeated throughout history. The first massacres of Jews in Europe, carried out by Muslim mobs in Spain, were preceded by other massacres carried out in North Africa, and clearly formed a continuum with Muhammad’s massacres of that people in Arabia.

Nonetheless, there was, at times, a semblance of tolerance for both Jews and Christians. It could not have been otherwise. When the Arabs conquered the vast territories of Mesopotamia, Syria, and North Africa during the seventh century, they found themselves a small minority ruling over enormous populations comprising mainly Christians and, to a lesser degree, Jews. As such, they needed to proceed with caution. Like all conquerors, the Arabs were quick to exploit any internal conflicts; and it was in their interests, above all, to divide the Christians from the Jews.

This was particularly the case in Spain, where the Jewish population was very large. A united Jewish and Christian front could have proved extremely dangerous, and it was entirely in the interest of the conquerors to sow mistrust and suspicion between these communities. In the words of Bat Ye’or, “The [Arab] invaders knew how to take advantage of the dissensions between local groups in order to impose their own authority, favoring first one and then another, with the intention of weakening and ruining them all through a policy of ‘divide and rule.’” (‘The Dhimmi’, p. 87)

Now, Jewish communities, both in Spain and elsewhere, tended to be both educated and prosperous. Jewish doctors, scientists and merchants could be usefully employed by any ruling group. And employed they were by the Arabs. Some, such as Ibn Naghrela, rose to positions of great prominence. The international connections of the Jews and their mastery of languages proved invaluable to the new rulers. The Jews frequently found themselves in the role of intermediaries between Muslims and Christians. And we cannot pass over the role of Jewish merchants in supplying Muslim Spain with all its essentials – including slaves from northern and north-eastern Europe. (See eg. Hugh Trevor-Roper, ‘The Rise of Christian Europe’, p. 143)

Yet such favors, as the Jews enjoyed, was transitory and uncertain. There was never any real security, as the massacres of 1011 and 1066 illustrate only too well. On the other hand, it was entirely in the interests of the Muslims that the Christians believed the Jews were favored.

And part of that myth was the notion that “the Jews” had actually assisted the Muslims in their conquest of the country.

The likelihood that this story was true is vanishingly small, especially when we consider the massacres of Jews carried out in Arabia by Muhammad himself just a few decades earlier. No people had better international links than the Jews, a nation of merchants ‘par excellence’, and those of Spain would have been very much aware of Muhammad’s behavior long before the first Muslim armies landed on Spanish soil. Nonetheless, the story got out that the Jews had helped the Muslims. There can be little doubt that this story was fostered by the Muslims themselves, as part of the policy of divide and conquer; of sowing mistrust between the two vanquished communities.

All during the tenth and eleventh centuries, the war for possession of the Iberian Peninsula raged between Christians and Muslims. This conflict was to grow into a real clash of civilizations, as Christians and Muslims called in the assistance of co-religionists from far and wide. The Shrine of Santiago de Compostela became a rallying symbol for the Christians of the north and for those of France and Germany, who crossed the Pyrenees to join the struggle against Islam. Their Christian allies in Spain already had the conviction that the Jews were secret allies of the Muslims –a belief, as we said, encouraged by the Muslims. They were convinced that the Jews had assisted the Muslims in their conquest of the country; and they came into contact with Muslim anti-Semitic attitudes – attitudes which the Christians began to imbibe. This latter point needs to be emphasized, because it has never I feel been given the weight it deserves. As the dominant power of the time, Islam was hugely influential. Christian kings, both in Spain and southern Italy, began to adopt Islamic ideas and norms on a whole range of things. Some began to keep harems, attended by eunuchs; others became enthusiastic slave-traders. In view of the widely-accepted influence of Islam, it seems unlikely that that faith’s view of the Jews would not have found resonance among Christians.

Now, it is an acknowledged fact that it was in Spain that the warriors who later joined the First Crusade learnt to persecute the Jews. In Runciman’s words, “Already in the Spanish wars there had been some inclination on the part of Christian armies to maltreat the Jews” (‘The History of the Crusades’, p. 135). Runciman notes that at the time of the expedition to Barbastro, in the mid-eleventh century, Pope Alexander II had written to the bishops of Spain to remind them that there was all the difference in the world between Muslims and Jews. The former were irreconcilable enemies of the Christians, but the latter were ready to work for them. However, in Spain “the Jews had enjoyed such favour from the hands of the Moslems that the Christian conquerors could not bring themselves to trust them.” (‘The History of the Crusades’, p. 135) This lack of trust is confirmed by more than one document of the period, several of which are listed by Runciman.

Just over a decade after the Christian knights of France and Germany had helped their co-religionists in Spain to retake the city of Toledo from the Muslims, some of them prepared to set out on the First (official) Crusade. Before they did so, a few of them took part in the mass murder of several thousand Jews in Germany and Bohemia – an atrocity unprecedented in European history.

In view of the fact that these pogroms were committed by warriors some of whom had learned their trade in Spain, and in view of the fact that such atrocities were hitherto unknown in Europe, we may state that there is strong circumstantial evidence to suggest that the Christians had been influenced by the Muslims. This is all the more probable in view of Islam’s history of virulent and violent anti-Semitism.

To conclude, I am not trying to argue that anti-Semitism did not exist among Christians before the rise of Islam. Obviously it did. Yet the influence of Islam, and the terrible struggle between the two intolerant ideologies of Christianity and Islam which began in the seventh century, had a profoundly detrimental effect upon the Jews; and it was then, and only then, that the virulent and murderous anti-Semitism so characteristic of the Middle Ages entered European life.


John O’Neill is the author of Holy Warriors: Islam and the Demise of Classical Civilization.

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