Pathways of Faith, Connected Histories

'Judaism and Islam' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online

About This Resource

This article on Judaism and Islam provides background for F. E. Peters' The Children of Abraham and Maria Rosa Menocal's Ornament of the World. The article by Ronald L. Nettler is reprinted from The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World in the Oxford Islamic Studies Online.


From Islam's inception, it has had a varied and profound relationship with Judaism. In scripture and thought, in society and politics, in culture and intellectual life, the two religious civilizations have exemplified their relations. In modern times, these relations have reflected major historical dislocations. This article selectively surveys the history and range of contacts between Islam and Judaism, while emphasizing the modern period.

The Judaic Dimension in Islam and Early Islamic Conceptions of the Jews.

Islam's formation, seen mainly through internal sources, revealed a prominent “Judaic dimension.” Some of the content of Islam's revelations and the tradition emerging from this, as well as the actual relations between Muslims and Jews in Medina, constituted the beginning of the Muslim-Jewish encounter.

Muḥammad's revelations evinced ideas and stories, enjoined practices, and established institutions that had Judaic resonances and forms, including a profile of the Jews themselves. Notions of monotheism, revelation, prophecy, scripture, the next world, and God 's relationship with his creatures are, among others, central here. Institutions such as ritual worship and its directional orientation (ṣalāt, qiblah), as well as fasting (ṣawm), seem to have had quasi-Judaic forms in Mecca before their later Islamization in Medina. Prophet figures, such as Joseph (sūrah12), Noah (sūrah7:59FF, 10:72FF.), Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (sūrah27:15FF.), and Moses (sūrah28:3FF.), to name but a few, though often somewhat different from their Judaic and biblical counterparts, prove in their very Qurʿānic presence the hovering influence of that model.

Although there was a Judaic and biblical presence in Muḥammad 's revelations, it did not always represent canonical Judaism and the Bible, as much earlier Western scholarship presumed. It is likely that a mélange of ancient Near Eastern traditions, which, though in part Judaic, represent a synthesis of many related cultural strands (including, obviously, the Christian), was reflected in early Islam. These cultural interactions are highly complex and are amenable to many interpretations.

One main Qurʿānic conception of the Jews does have a Torah and biblical form close to a canonical Jewish depiction, but it also deviates from that biblical form in a way that indicates the early Islamic self-definition in regard to the (Jewish) other: the Jews (Banū Isrāʿīl, or “Israelites”) are portrayed as in covenant with God, repeatedly violating the covenant and Torah, and opposing the prophets and thereby incurring divine wrath. This coincides with the original biblical conception. The Bible also foresaw ultimate redemption of the Jewish people (Deuteronomy 30:1FF.). The Qurʿān omits Jewish redemption with an implicit supercessionist view of Islam in regard to Judaism (Qurʿān 2:83ff.).

The Qurʿānic and other early Islamic portrayals of the Jews also reflect the situation in contemporary Medina. A complex relationship between the Prophet and the Jewish tribes there (al-Yahūd, or “the Jews”) is revealed in (sometimes oblique) references to Jewish machinations against Muslims and alliances with the munāfiqūn (hypocrites; opponents of Muḥammad). This gave substance to the Qurʿān's more abstract depictions of the historical Banū Isrāʿīl rebellion against prophecy. Reported Jewish rejection of Muḥammad's teachings in Medina seemed to provide a living example of the ancient problem.

Contrary to—and perhaps in dialectical tension with—this rather polemical (and political) portrayal is a Qurʿānic respect for the Jews and Judaism. This is shown in the notion of the ahl al-kitāb (“People of the Book”), which, while referring also to Christians (and Sabaeans), seems often to incorporate the Jews as its main example. The “book,” so revered as an ideal type, is here firmly attached to the Jews and their tradition. This is in spite of the Qurʿānic claim of the corruption of the Jewish book and other wrongdoing of the ahl al-kitāb.

Relations between Jews and Muslims until the Modern Period.

In the field, according to the sources, relations between Islam and Judaism worsened, culminating in a series of Muslim campaigns against the Jewish tribes and a final Muslim victory. These campaigns were interwoven with the long series of Muslim campaigns against the Meccans, in a sort of “point-counterpoint” fashion. Thus the early battle dramas of Badr (624), Uḥud (625), the Ditch (627), and al-Ḥudaybīyah (628) had an alter ego in the Muslim trials with the Jewish tribes of Banū Qaynuqāʿ, Banū Naḍīr, and Banū Qurayẓah.

The resolution came with the Muslim defeat of the Jews of Khaybar (628), among whom were the Banū Naḍīr expelled by the Muslims from Medina. Here a clear conception of the practical relationship between Islam and Judaism emerged. This meant the Jews would live as a protected minority, paying, in return, a special tax. A model for later arrangements was thus established. The full institution of dhimmah (protection), covering Jews, Christians, and other scriptuaries, gradually evolved in accordance with Muḥammad 's revelations and events on the ground. Derived from the later so-called Pact of ʿUmar (in various seventh- and eighth-century rescensions), this institution governed the traditional Islamic-Jewish relationship throughout the medieval era, until its dissolution in the modern period.

The foundation of Islamic-Jewish relations established during Islam's formative period remained in place and gave direction to subsequent developments. The span between 632 (Muḥammad's death) and the beginning of Islam 's modern period (late eighteenth century) saw an extension and development of this foundation. The great Jewish communities of Babylonia, Palestine, Egypt, and the Levant came under Islamic sway (seventh century), as did smaller and less venerable ones. Living administratively as “protected peoples” (dhimmīs), the Jews then interacted with Muslims in various ways.

The cultural and intellectual interchange was profound. In theology, exegesis, philology, philosophy, law, mysticism, literature, and poetry, Jews and Muslims contributed to and learned from one another. The Judaic component in Islam, for example, was augmented by works of Jewish and quasi-Jewish prophetic stories (Qiṣaṣ al-Anbiyāʿ and Isrāʿīlīyāt), which, while sometimes proscribed by Islam for theological reasons, still achieved a massive presence in Islamic texts, particularly in the tafsīr (exegetical) tradition and in popular folklore and Sufism; some would argue that this material entered Islam through the efforts of the earliest communities of ascetic Ṣūfīs, mainly in Basra, as well as through Jewish and Christian converts to Islam. The Islamic philosophical tradition, on the other hand, aided the Jews in establishing their own philosophical learning. Maimonides's debt to Muslim philosophers and theologians, for example, was very great. And the existence of the Muslim Shams-i al-Tabrīzī's (thirteenth century) commentary on a portion of Moses Maimonides's Guide to the Perplexed is a sign of great interest in the other direction. Maimonides's son, Abraham, and some of his direct descendants over a couple of centuries were proponents in Egypt of a so-called Jewish Sufism, which utilized the framework and technical terminology of the Islamic mystical tradition; this became perhaps the most thoroughgoing example of medieval Islamic influence on Judaism. Examples in these areas and in other fields as well can be multiplied many times. Much of medieval Jewish intellectual and cultural tradition in Islamic lands may be said to have been an integral part of Islamic tradition in these subjects, particularly in light of the Jewish linguistic assimilation in the Arabic language, whether in their use of standard Arabic, Judaeo-Arabic, or both.

The classical Islamic depictions of Judaism and the Jews found in the Qurʿān and other early sources were later augmented and elaborated by Muslim scholars working in various disciplines. Their discussion sometimes reflected the more polemical as well as the positive side of the classical portrayal, and severe and straightforward vilification of the Jews was not typical. The Muslim intellectuals, rather, either commented on the sources in a neutral manner or generally elaborated on the earlier depictions in such a way as to make of the Jews a kind of “warning model” to Muslims, depicting a people who had strayed and been chastised by God. Such discussions were usually detached, abstract, and not applied to the actual Jewish communities living within the Islamic fold. This was an important difference between the medieval and certain twentieth-century Islamic interpretations of the early sources on the Jews.

The life of Jewish communities in the Muslim world throughout this long period was governed by the elaborate laws of dhimmah. Itself derived from traditional hierarchical conceptions of Islamic spiritual finality and superiority to the other faiths, the dhimmah idea and practice mainly imposed practical regulations and restrictions as a way of implementing these notions of difference. Thus were the Jews (and other ahl al-kitāb) subject to certain legal, economic, occupational, dress, and other restrictions. Although this created a legal status and feeling of inferiority for the Jews in Muslim countries, they could often be autonomous in their internal communal life while also interacting with the majority culture. Harsh treatment, although certainly not unknown, was also not the rule but the exception. In later centuries, the situation of Jews (and other minorities) deteriorated generally, but this occurred unevenly in different times and places. These developments reflected a difficult period of relative political and economic decline in parts of the Islamic world. The dawn of the modern era witnessed an exacerbation of the general Islamic situation and a radical change in the Jewish position.

Changes in the Modern Period.

The late eighteenth century is usually held to be the beginning of the modern history of the Islamic Middle East. After a long period of growing Western economic and political involvement in the area, Napoleon's entrance (1798) and brief stay with his army in Egypt presaged an era of great Western influence and domination. The general changes wrought by this situation profoundly affected the life of the dhimmīs in general and the Jews in particular. The institution of dhimmah eventually virtually disappeared and, with a few pockets of exception, the great ancient Jewish communities of the Islamic Middle East and North Africa went with it. Islamic–Jewish relations in the Middle East then took a form very different from anything previously known. The chronology of this period of change is from the nineteenth century onward.

In the nineteenth century, until World War I, the Western powers, France and Britain in particular, consolidated their presence in the Middle East. One prominent feature of this presence in some regions was a Western policy of equal rights for minorities, a direct challenge to the institution of dhimmah. Some indigenous Muslim powers responded to this in legislation, if not always in its implementation. Thus the Ottomans, in a two-stage legislation in 1839 and 1856, in principle provided a framework for a total equalization of dhimmīs and Muslims. In spite of the less than total acceptance and application of these laws throughout the realm, they did reflect real changes being effected in other ways by the powers. Dhimmīs were being liberated according to new Western ideas. By the end of World War I, this had to a great extent been completed.

The period between the two world wars saw a continuation of the Western powers’ presence in the Islamic Middle East. This encouraged stronger nationalist sentiment among indigenous peoples. The Jews, by no means uniformly Zionist, did in places respond positively to that movement, as their Muslim (and Christian) neighbors promoted their own new nationalist ideologies. The period 1929 to 1939 to saw an exacerbation of Muslim-Jewish tensions in various places in response to the worsening conflict in Palestine. The World War II period witnessed a continuation of the troubles in the midst of the complex politics of that time.

In the postwar period, the tensions of previous years rose to new heights, with the intensification of the Palestine problem. Anti-Jewish disturbances occurred, for example, in November 1945 in several Arab countries, with greater or lesser severity. With the United Nations partition resolution of November 29, 1947 the situation became more acute, and in subsequent months more disturbances took place. Within twenty years the vast majority of the Jews in Arab countries had left, going mainly to Israel and, to a lesser extent, Europe and North America. North Africa, Turkey, and Iran were less affected, but gradually they too saw a diminution of their Jewish population. With Middle Eastern Jewry now concentrated in Israel, Islamic–Jewish relations in the Middle East (and elsewhere) were subsequently to be colored by the politics of the Arab-Israel dispute. Aside from the natural tensions that ensued, a very prominent and original aspect of the new relations was an innovative Islamic thought concerning Judaism and Zionism.

Though derived from the traditional ideas concerning the Jews and Judaism, the new thought also represented a sharp departure from that foundation. The differences can be found in the existential import of the new thought as well as in certain new conceptions and formulations. Like much of modern Islamic thought, this genre too is a direct response to some aspect of Islam 's situation in the world. Unlike the majority of premodern Islamic discussions of the Jews, which have a more historical conception of Judaism and an academic way of discussing it, here the subject was given a practical and emotional significance it had not had for centuries, if ever. At the same time, Judaism was given an essential nature—derived from sacred sources but removed from history—that might help to explain the new historical development. Old myths became new realities, giving rise to new concepts.

The beginning of this thought might be located in its earliest form in certain Islamic Arabic publications of the late 1930s. Prominent here was the Egyptian journal al-Fatḥ (The Opening). Loosely linked with more populist Islamic trends rather than with the official ʿulamāʿ (community of religious scholars), al-Fatḥ published many articles and editorials on the intensifying Palestine problem. This was a still early and fluid stage of that problem's development, before the creation of Israel and the Jewish exodus from Muslim countries. There was as yet no clear doctrinal line or framework story; there was, rather, a continuous commentary, from an Islamic perspective, on the developing situation. Three points, however, were clearly made and reiterated:

1. fear of a gradual Judaization (tahwīd) of Palestine and a displacement of indigenous peoples; 2. concern over the security of Islamic sacred sites; and 3. most plaintively, an appeal to the Jews of Arab and Muslim lands not to abjure the centuries-old symbiosis of Muslims and Jews, Islam and Judaism, in favor of the new “un-Jewish” Zionism. Zionism was held to be as bad for the well-being of the Jews themselves as it was for its Muslim and Arab opponents. Subsequent to Israeli statehood, a framework story emerged that informed almost all the wide variety of new intellectual trends: the new Jewish phenomenon of national movement and nation-state was held to be a recapitulation of the rebellious behavior of the ancient Israelites and the Jews of Muḥammad's time. The traditional stories became interpretative models through which contemporary problems were given meaning. Tales of Muḥammad 's trials with the alleged machinations of Medinan Jews, for example, were abstracted and read into modern Israel's national character. Or, sometimes, modern Israel was little mentioned but present by implication. Either way, past and present were mixed so as to create an eternal present. The time-bound traditional presentation of Jewish stories was here effaced, and an ahistoricity ensued that rendered stories universal in their applicability to historical events.

Examples of this approach abound in the voluminous new (Arabic) Islamic literature on Judaism as seen through the prism of modern events. From al-Azhar and other ʿulamāʿ to Islamist fundamentalists to Muslim intellectuals writing from an Islamic perspective, many minds have attempted to wrestle with this aspect of Islam 's situation in this way. The large, two-volume proceedings of the 1968 al-Azhar Conference (Cairo, 1970) provide one interesting example of this line of thought. Written as responses of Muslim religious scholars to the shocking Israeli victory in June 1967, the papers in these volumes seek guidance in the early sources in confronting this modern catastrophe. The fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood's publications, al-Daʿwah (The Calling) and al-Iʿtiṣām (Steadfastness), in the late 1970s elaborated on and applied this reasoning to President Anwar el-Sadat 's visit to Jerusalem. In a proliferation of articles, these magazines argued not only that Sadat 's initiative was wrong in an Islamic sense, but that, if a peace agreement ensued, the Israeli Jews would cause offense to Islam in Egypt and would attempt to subvert the foundations of faith as their ancestors had done in the Medina of the Prophet.

Consonant with the new possibility of an official Israeli Jewish presence in Egypt, and expressing a particular fundamentalist concern with internal Islamic moral values, the emphasis is on Jewish Israel as a cultural challenge within Muslim Egypt. This special angle in Sunnī revivalist and fundamentalist circles can be traced back at least as far as the Egyptian Sayyid Quṭb (d. 1966), whose long essay “Our Struggle with the Jews” (early 1950s) was seminal. On the other hand, with President Sadat's visit to Jerusalem and the subsequent Camp David Agreements, certain Islamic circles (particularly in al-Azhar) proclaimed support for a peaceful settlement, based on their own interpretations of Qurʿānic verses. Noticeable here were a more pragmatic view and an absence of the common modern framework story of the Jews. Also, as might have been expected, Palestinian Islamic circles produced their own brands of thought on these issues, partaking of the larger themes created elsewhere, while providing a local Palestinian Islamic nationalist flavor. Especially striking here are the publications of Ḥamas, the Palestinian fundamentalist movement.

Jewish responses to their new situation in regard to Islam were not equal, quantitatively or qualitatively, to those of Islam. But they do exist, mostly unstudied and deserving of serious research.

The Islamic attempts ideologically to confront the collapse and disappearance of the institution of dhimmah, the emigration of the Jewish communities from the Islamic Near East, and their reconstitution in Israel, considered illegitimate in some quarters, constitute part of a more general Islamic search for early exemplars that would provide a gloss on Islam's modern situation. Of necessity, this approach usually could not include the great medieval models of Islamic–Jewish cultural and intellectual interaction, even when calling for a return to the practices and ethos of that era. In removing this interaction by dismantling the legal, social, and political structures that supported it, history has altered Islamic-Jewish relations in an unprecedented way.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, apart from the Middle East–related developments mentioned above, there has been a growing trend of Islamic–Jewish dialogue in Europe and America; some of this is in an academic or semi-academic framework, while other efforts remain purely in the realm of intercommunal and interreligious activities, sometimes through extracurricular student societies. In Britain, a new radio station has been established dedicated to this subject. In most instances, these efforts emphasize an attempt to explore various aspects of the Muslim-Jewish encounter in neutral environments where both communities live as part of a liberal pluralistic society and removed from the direct tensions of Middle Eastern problems.


  • Ashtor, Eliyahu. The Jews of Moslem Spain. 3 vols.Translated by Aaron Klein and Jenny Machlowitz Klein. Philadelphia, 1973–1984. The basic work on the subject.
  • Chouraqui, André N. Between East and West: A History of the Jews of North Africa. Translated by Michael M. Bernet. Philadelphia, 1968. Good survey written for a general audience.
  • Courbage, Youssef, and Philippe Fargues. Christians and Jews Under Islam. Translated by Judy Mabro. London, 1997. A survey of the history from Islam 's inception into the twentieth century; particularly good on demographic information.
  • Fischel, Walter J. Jews in the Economic and Political Life of Mediaeval Islam. New York, 1969. Standard general work, originally published in 1937.
  • Goitein, S. D.The Community. Vol. 2 of A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza. Berkeley, Calif., 1971. One of four superb volumes, particularly accessible to the general reader.
  • Landau, Jacob M. Jews in Nineteenth-Century Egypt. New York, 1969. Standard general work.
  • Laskier, Michael M. The Alliance Israélite Universelle and the Jewish Communities of Morocco, 1862–1962. Albany, N.Y., 1983. Standard general work.
  • Lewis, Bernard. The Jews of Islam. Princeton, N.J., 1984. Standard work on the history of Jews in the Muslim world from Islam 's beginnings to the latter half of the twentieth century. Particularly good on intellectual and cultural aspects.
  • Maimonides, Moses. Guide of the Perplexed. Translated by Shlomo Pines. Chicago, 1963. The standard translation of this classic work. The translator 's introduction and notes give much information about Islamic influence on Maimonides.
  • Masters, Bruce. Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Arab World: The Roots of Sectarianism. New York, 2001. A standard work on the Ottoman Arab areas.
  • Nettler, Ronald L., ed.Studies in Muslim Jewish Relations. Vol. 1.Reading, U.K., 1993. Contains a variety of articles on the subject.
  • Newby, Gordon D.“Tafsir Israʿiliyat: The Development of Qurʿan Commentary in Early Islam in Its Relationships to Judaeo-Christian Traditions of Scriptural Commentaries.”Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 47 (1979): 685–697. Excellent study of this aspect of Islamic–Jewish cultural interchange.
  • Nissim, Rejwan. The Jews of Iraq: 3000 Years of History and Culture. London, 1985. Good survey for the general reader.
  • Peters, F. E.The Children of Abraham: Judaism, Christianity, Islam. New ed. Princeton, N.J., 1982. Excellent study of the beliefs and other features held in common by the three religions. Special emphasis is given to the ancient Near Eastern background.
  • Stillman, Norman A., comp. The Jews of Arab Lands: A History and Source Book. Philadelphia, 1979. Introductory survey of Jewish history in Arab lands and a much longer section of translated representative texts concerning various aspects of history. Covers the period from Islam 's beginnings to the third quarter of the nineteenth century.
  • Stillman, Norman A. The Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times. Philadelphia, 1991. Following the same format as the earlier volume (survey essay and translated sources), this book covers the period from the late nineteenth century to the late 1960s.
  • Tritton, A. S. The Caliphs and Their Non-Muslim Subjects: A Critical Study of the Covenant of ʿUmar. London, 1970. Still the standard work on the subject. A very good overview, though somewhat dated in some of its details.
  • Wasserstrom, Steven M. Between Muslim and Jew: The Problem of Symbiosis Under Early Islam. Princeton, N.J., 1995. An interesting and challenging theoretical approach to intellectual and cultural traditions.


Nettler, Ronald L. "Judaism and Islam." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online,

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"Muslim Journeys | Item #200: 'Judaism and Islam' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online", July 20, 2024


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