Jewish Life under Muslim Rule

No one should speak of Muslim life under Jewish rule, especially in the land that was promised to the Jews and then denied; for such speech (or writing in this case) is simply not allowed in the ‘civilised’ world. The ‘civilised’ world is only interested in Muslim ‘terrorists’ whose lives can be taken out any time, for example, by a drone flying over Pakistan–a sovereign country that cannot protect its sovereignty. No one in our ‘civilised’ world is interested in knowing that a drone has no way of distinguishing between a little baby sleeping peacefully by her mother’s side and a real terrorist sitting thousands of miles away in an office from where the drones are controlled. No, such matters require hearts that can feel pain and anguish. Pain and anguish over human suffering is not allowed across the length and breadth of this vast continent, which the writer of the Heart of Darkness could have easily used as his locale.

Thus any speech or writing about Muslim life under Jewish rule will never find its way into the ‘free’ media of this land; it would immediately be labelled anti-Semitic, pushed under the rug, swallowed. But, mercifully, one can still talk about Jewish life under Muslim rule, even though that opens a window onto a past that no one wants to remember. And those who should remember that time, mostly Muslims, are unable to, simply because of their long sleep of four centuries–the siesta during which the entire world around them has been transformed.

So, it is no surprise that this window onto an enchanting past is being opened by Amnon Cohen, a Jew, who spent years in deciphering documents of the Ottoman Court at Jerusalem and published several articles on the subject in various journals. It is, however, his two volume work, A World Within: Jewish Life as Reflected in Muslim Court Documents from the Sijill of Jerusalem that is our key to the window we wish to open to a bygone past in this column. Even the story of finding this sixteenth-century document is fascinating.

Cohen’s research interests led him to the office of the waqf administration and the Higher Muslim Council in East Jerusalem, where he was granted access to the archives of the Ottoman times: 420 leather-bound volumes hardly touched by foreign or local scholars. These documents were kept in the court building for centuries but during the World War II they were moved to the newly established offices of the administration of the waqf on East Jerusalem’s main street named after the man whom every Muslim now wants to return to rescue their brethren from their degrading situation: Salah al-Din.

The documents Cohen discovered are actually drafts of the court cases describing the daily proceedings. Each volume contains approximately 450 pages. Each page includes several cases. These daily proceedings of a Muslim court at Jerusalem during the Ottoman times contain a variety of cases, but an interesting part of this archive is those cases which involve Jewish litigants. These are part of the daily court records, without any distinguishing mark. That is, they were treated as normal court cases even though they pertained to a religious minority living under Islamic laws.

These documents provide a wealth of information about the daily life of Jews of Jerusalem. They slaughtered their own meat, followed their own religious laws in all matters. As money changers, they were the fiscal pillars of the local economy, and they lived under complete freedom. There was a very active guild system encompassing butchers, money changers, millers, grain merchants, jewellers, and other trades.

Cohen provides some insights into the Jewish life. Noteworthy among these are the reasons due to which the Jews went to the Shariah court, rather than their own courts, as these court cases do not only involve conflicts between Jews and Muslims or Jews and Christians; they are also replete with cases involving Jews only. So, why would Jews go to a Shariah court?

“They turned to the Shairah authorities,” Cohen concludes, “to seek redress with respect to internal differences, and even in matters within their immediate family (intimate relations between husband and wife, nafaqa maintenance payments to divorcees, support of infants, etc.). Other matters of purely religious nature were also introduced into the Muslim court; Jewish prayer shawls and phylacteries, Jewish traditional and communal institutions, Jewish holidays and even Jewish dreams…”

Some examples would suffice: Volume 58, for the Gregorian year 1578-1579, contains a document (no. 122c), dated 7 Rabi al-Awwal, 986, which states: “The Jew Yaqub b. Yusif declared in the court that from now on he would not contradict his father and will involve himself deeply in the study of reading and writing. The father undertook to marry him to a Jewish woman from Safed since he formally declared himself unattached to a certain other Jewish woman.”

On the 17th of Shawwal, 986, the same Yaqub b. Yusif was again in the court. On that day he declared in the court that he was divorcing his wife Sara bint Ibrahim from Safed, who was identified by two Jewish witnesses. Both parties, i.e. Yaqub and his father on the one hand, and Sara and her mother on the other hand, absolved one another from any obligation or debt whatsoever.

Less than a month later, the same Yaqub b. Yusif appeared in the court on 9 Dhu’l-Qa`da, “alleging that another Jew, Shmuil b. Khalifa, had promised him his minor daughter, Mazaltuf, in marriage for 25 gold coins as bride-money. Shmuil denied it and referred the court to an earlier deposition by the same plaintiff in which Yaqub specifically referred to his daughter as totally unrelated to him.”

Fascinating accounts. Another time, another era. Yet, so much to learn from. Only if Muslims would wake up and start learning from their own history.
Dr Muzaffar Iqbal, The News, Friday, March 19, 2010. The writer is a freelance columnist

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