For a large part of their history, Sephardic Jews lived in Moslem and middle-eastern lands while Ashkenazi Jews lived in Christian and eastern european lands. In learning about Sephardim it is therefore important to understand their standing in the Moslem world.
The early Moslems saw the earth as divided into 3 spheres. On one side was the Islamic World, darb el Islam, (the sphere of Islam) where the population was all Moslem or under Moslem rule. In time it was felt that all peoples on earth should accept Islam as the true faith and it was the duty of the Moslem to cause this to occur as rapidly as possible. Hence the rapid expansion of Islam in the giddy early centuries after the birth of Islam when the Moslem armies seemed invincible.
On the other side was the pagan world (darb el harb, the sphere of war). This world was to be forcibly conquered and the vanquished pagan populations were to be given only 2 choices: death or conversion to Islam.
The third Sphere lay between these two. Named darb el Salah, sphere of peace, this was made up of people who the Moslems felt had received a partial revelation of the true nature of God but needed to move on to the full revelation provided by Mohammad. This group consisted of the Jews and Christians, also known as the people of the book, ahl al kitab.
Having received partial truth, Jews and Christians were to be tolerated and allowed to exist under Islamic rule and indeed to be protected by the rulers. As Ahl al dhimmis (protected people) they were allowed full autonomy in their internal affairs and could engage in most occupations - both of which did not exist for Jews in Christian Europe. Their synagogues, churches and personal property were protected and they could travel freely through Moslem lands except for Arabia itself.
However, so that they would be encouraged to convert to Islam, they were to be made "uncomfortable" in a variety of ways, known as the Covenant of Omar ("till they pay the tribute readily, offered on the back of their hands, in a state of humiliation" sura 9:29)). These included special additional taxes (jiziya poll tax and haradj produce tax), the wearing of distinctive yellow clothes and prohibition of riding horses or wearing swords, etc. They were to always hold a position inferior to the Moslem, could never be in a position of commanding a Moslem and were to be generally scorned.
So what happened in Moslem Spain?
Enforcement of the covenant of Omar varied greatly depending on time, place or both. As a general rule the further the location from Arabia the less stringently were the restrictions enforced. Moslem Spain in the west and Turkey and the Ottoman empire in the east were the most lax in this respect. However even here this varied depending on the time period. When the fanatical and religious Almohad dynasty came into power in the 12th century in Spain, the restrictions were enforced to the fullest and it was not a happy time for Jews.
When the Moslems conquered Spain, they found themselves to be in the minority. The tolerance shown by the Moslem rulers towards both Christians and Jews was largely due to the fact that they needed their help to govern the country. The Jews, a fellow semitic people with a similar language to Arabic, and a long standing love for education rose rapidly to positions of importance in Moslem Spain. The Christians, largely illiterate - a character in Don Quichote when asked if he could read exclaims "Of course not, I am a good Christian sir!" - fared less well.
In Christian Europe Jews were often the only significant minority and as such the full wrath of the majority was focussed on them alone. On the other hand, in Spain Jews were only one of several minorities with other minorities more likely to draw the rulers anger. Whereas in Europe, the Church's depiction of Jews as "Christ killers" obviously played a major role in how Jews were mistreated, this was not a factor under the Moslems. On the contrary, Jews were seen as recipients, albeit incomplete, of the truth about God. In fact there is evidence that Mohammad was strongly influenced in his formative period by Jews, probably Karaites, and had great hopes that Jews would be very receptive to his teachings. His subsequent rejection by Jewish tribes whom he sought to convert was a prime cause of his anger towards them.
In the Moslem state of Granada, Jews were so prominent, both in population and government, that it was called Garnatat al Yahud (Granada of the Jews). In 11th, Samuel ben Joseph Halevi ibn Nagrela was named Grand Vizier to King Badis and commander in chief of the armies, both in blatant disregard of the Covenant of Omar. On his death in 1056 he was succeeded in that position by his son Joseph. However on Dec 30 1066 angry moslems caused Joseph to be murdered on his way to Shabbat services following which a moslem riot occurred and 1500 Granadian Jews were killed. Though Jews continued preeminent in financial and cultural circles this demonstrated the insecurity of that prominence.
Like French Jews using French, Italian Jews using Italian, Jews in Moslem Spain used Arabic as the spoken vernacular and often wrote it with Hebrew letters. Maimonides, Ibn Gabirol, ibn Ezra, etc. all wrote in Arabic. As Arabic grammar was developed, it prompted a revival of spoken Hebrew and the development of its grammar and there followed a flow of delightful Hebrew poetry.
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