Al Jahiz explains why Muslims hate Jews more than Christians

C. 820

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The legal position of Jews and Christians in Muslim lands was defined by the Quran and the Pact of Umar. They were protected second class citizens - Dhimmi, subject to various indignities and abridgement of rights, special dress, restrictions on occupations and other humiliating regulations. Beyond that, however, there was a strong strain of folk anti-Semitism - specifically anti-Jewish sentiment, that put Jews at the bottom of the ladder, beyond the contempt reserved for Christians.

The two excerpts before us from one of the many  works of "al Jahiz" dating from about the 9th century, attest to the fact of special anti-Jewish sentiment in Muslim and Arab society. "Al-Jahiz" was the nickname of Abu 'Uthman 'Amr b. Bahr al-Fuqaymi al-Basri, born in Basra (now in Iraq) about 776, and died about 868. His first known literary works date from about 815. Therefore the excerpts below testify to Muslim opinion about the Jews at the height of the first Arab empire, and cannot be explained away as due to the degeneracy of waning Arab civilization. 

The justifications or "explanations" which al-Jahiz gives for this hate are interesting, but are not the real source of the anti-Semitism. He confounded, perhaps without realizing it, rational and scientific or attempted scientific and rational argument with his own prejudices, so that the net result is "we hate the Jews because we believe evil things about them." He attributes Jew hate to the "common folk" but it is abundantly evident that al-Jahiz himself was a Jew hater.

The Muslim narrative myth of the Jewish betrayal in Medina was already well ensconced and taken by al Jahiz to be the literal truth without embellishment, though Jews initially welcomed Muhammad and his companions when they fled Mecca, and Jews helped the Christians in numerous conquests: in Jerusalem and Hebron and later in Spain. Al-Jahiz explains that Jews are held in contempt because of their lowly occupations, but doesn't consider that their lowly occupations may have been forced upon them because of the contempt in which they were held. He also offers this "objective" evaluation of the Jews:

The reason that the Christians are less hideous--- though they certainly are ugly -- is that the Israelite marries only another Israelite, and all of their deformity is brought back among them and confined within them. Foreign elements do not intermingle with them, and the virility found in other races is not crossbred into them. They have, therefore, not been distinguished either for their intelligence, their physique or their cleverness.

The enlightened Muslim civilization understood the bad effects of inbreeding even at that early date, but was not so liberal or objective as to consider that cousin marriages and inbreeding are especially common among Arabs, and a staple of Middle Eastern civilization.

It did not bother al-Jahiz or later commentators that some Jew haters alleged that their anti-Semitism was due to the fact that Jews are impoverished and lowly, whereas others claimed it was due to the high status, "cleverness," wealth and overbearing manners of the Jews.

The real probably causes of Muslim-Jewish enmity were probably:

Development of anti-Semitism as a part of folk culture in pre-Islamic Iraq and Arabia. The Jews, after all, had been in Iraq for a thousand years before the Arabs conquered it, and the local populace had had a chance to develop the prejudices that predated both Christianity and Islam and were evident in the pagan ancient world.

Conversion of a large number of Christians to Islam, in Syria, Palestine, Egypt and later in Asia Minor. It is inevitable that they brought with them to Islam their hatred of the Jews.

Competition between Islam and Judaism, and the need to rationalize the slaughter of the Jews of Medina as well as the Khaybar massacre.

The existence of Christian states and Christian armies, which demonstrated their equality with Muslims and also gave, to a small extent, some guarantee against extreme mistreatment, since outrageous could provoke revenge.

Whatever the causes, it would seem to be  impossible to maintain in the face of such evidence, as some nonetheless do, that there was no anti-Semitism in Muslim lands such as that experienced by Jews in Europe, or that Muslim anti-Semitism was only due to late Christian influence beginning in the 19th century, or that Muslim anti-Semitism is due to the rise of Zionism. Al Jahiz lived and wrote over a thousand years before the advent of Zionism.

On the other hand, it would probably be wrong to conclude that Islam is inherently more anti-Semitic than Christianity. All faiths and cultures have an element of intolerance, expressed at different times and places to a greater or lesser extent. Despite the ferocious anti-Jewish rhetoric of the Qur'an and Hadiths, the Jews did, by and large, fare relatively better under Muslim rule than they did under Christian rule. This existence however, was always predicated on the assumption that they were second or third class citizens, who existed at the whim of their rulers, always an object of history and never really the subjects and initiators of historical processes, always hapless victims and never victors. As long as the Jews were guests of other peoples, it could not be otherwise.

Ami Isseroff

January 12, 2010

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Why Muslims prefer Christians to Jews

 I shall begin by discussing the reasons why the Christians have come to be better liked by the masses than the [Zoroastrians?? or Jews], and why they are considered by them to be more sincere than the Jews, closer in affection, less treacherous, less unbelieving, and  deserving of punishment [ at the last judgment??]. There are many causes for this, and the causes are clear. Whoever investigates them will know them, and whoever does not will remain ignorant. .

First, the Jews were the Muslims' neighbors in Yathrib [Medina] and elsewhere, and the the enmity of neighbors resembles the enmity of relatives in intensity of power and in the persistence of rancor. Meanwhile, man will treat as an enemy someone he knows. He will turn against someone who resembles him. He will observe the shortcomings of those with whom he mixes. Loathing and estrangement will be in direct proportion to the degree of prior love and intimacy. It is for this reason that the feuds between neighbors and relatives, among all people as well as the Arabs, have been longer and more intense in enmity. Thus, when the [Muslim] Emigrants [from Mecca] became the neighbors of the Jews [in Medina] -- after the Ansar [the Muslim "helpers" who joined Muhammad] had been already been there for a long time their neighbors and partners in their settlement --the Jews began to envy them the blessings resulting from their faith [apparently a reference to material benefits of joining with Muhammad] , and the union they formed  after their separation. They cast doubts in the mind of the common folk and tried weaken their faith. They made common cause with the enemies and the envious. Then they went beyond mere backbiting and insinuating doubt into open hostility. They gathered their cunning and dedicated themselves and their wealth to fighting them and to attempting to expel them from their homes. That struggle against them was prolonged, exhaustive, and it came increasingly into the open. Rancor built up, the hatred doubled, and the resentment was firmly established.

The Christians, on the other hand, due to the fact that they lived far way both from the place where the Prophet -- may Allah bless him and grant him peace-- received his call and from the place to which he emigrated, did not undertake to slander Islam, nor did they have a chance to stir up plots, nor unite for war. This, therefore, is the first reason why the hearts of Muslims are hardened toward the Jews, but inclined toward the Christians.

Then there was the case of the Muslims who emigrated to Ethiopia and were received well there, which made the Christians more endeared to the Muslim masses. The more the heart is softened toward one people, the more it is hardened toward their enemies. And the less they hated the Christians, the more they despised the Jews. It is human nature for a man to love whoever does him good or is the cause of it whether for the sake of Allah or not, whether intentional or not.


One of the reasons why the masses respect them (the Christians) and the vulgar have affection for them is that among them are to be found government secretaries, attendants of kings, physicians of nobles, perfumers and bankers; whereas, you will find a Jew only as a dyer, a tanner, a cupper [a sort of doctor who extracted blood using cups], a butcher or a tinker. So when the masses saw the Jews and Christians in this light, they imagined that the Jews' religion held the same place amongst the other religions as do their trades among the professions, and that their unbelief was the most contaminated even as they were the filthiest of peoples. The reason that the Christians are less hideous--- though they certainly are ugly -- is that the Israelite marries only another Israelite, and all of their deformity is brought back among them and confined within them. Foreign elements do not intermingle with them, and the virility found in other races is not crossbred into them. They have, therefore, not been distinguished either for their intelligence, their physique or their cleverness. As the reader certainly knows, the same is the case with horses, camels, asses and pigeons when they are inbred. ( al-Jahiz, al Radd ala 'l Nasra ed Joshua Finkel, (Cairo 1926)  pp17-18) as it appears in Stillman, Norman, The Jews of Arab lands, 1979, pp 169-170.) 


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