Are the Palestinians Descendants of Jews who Converted to Islam / DR.Rivka Shpak Lissak


The Arab- Palestinian narrative, which is widely known in the world, due to an extensive propaganda, is that the present Jews are not the descendants of the ancient Jews who lived in the land of Israel 2,000 years ago, but descendants of coverts. Since they are Jews by religion, but not by ethnicity, they have no rights for a state on this land, and the Arabs who have lived year for generations are the true owners of this land.

Prof. Shlomo Zand, a Post- Zionist in his views, went one step further in his book "When and How the Jewish People Was Invented," claiming that the ancient Jews had converted to Islam during the Arabic- Muslim rule and the Palestinians are descendants of converted Jews and they inherited the rights on this land.

The Arabic- Palestinian narrative as well as Zands' thesis are efforts to rewrite history for political considerations: To eliminate the Jewish state.

The thesis of this article is that there is no evidence that thousands of Jews converted to Islam.

A. A- Sham under Arabic- Muslim occupation (640 – 1099)

The Arabs conquered the land of Israel from the Byzantines between 632 and 640, and ruled the country from 640 to 1099. They named the province A-Sham, not Palestine.

Scholars agree that during the Arabic occupation the country’s population was comprised of a Christian majority of about 1,500,000, a Jewish minority of about 150,000, a Samaritan minority of about 200,000, and Bedouins who lived on the edge of the desert.( The Jewish population was reduced from about 3,000,000 in the 1st Century BCE to about 150,000 in the 7th century CE.)

B. The Legal and Religious Status of Jews and Non-Muslims

The legal-religious status of non-Muslims was determined by the Laws of Omar. This collection of ordinances for dealing with non-Muslims was developed during the time of the Caliph Omar II (717-720). The religious persecutions that characterized the Byzantine period ceased, Jews (and other non-Muslims) were allowed freedom of worship according to their own religions, and Jews could also judge according to their laws without hindrance, although by the Laws of Omar they were regarded as second-rate subjects.

The Laws of Omar stated, for example, that:

The construction of new synagogues was forbidden, and Jews should pray quietly;
Jews must wear a yellow patch, cut the hair off the front of their heads, and must not wear clothes similar to those of Arabs, so that they may be easily identified as Jews;
Jews (and other non-Muslims) must not carry a sword or ride a horse, and must clear the way before Muslims;
A Muslim’s testimony is to be given priority in any dispute between a Jew (or a Christian) and a Muslim;
Inheritance laws must follow the Muslim law;
It is forbidden to prevent one’s relatives from converting to Islam.

In addition, second-class subjects had to pay special taxes, in accord with the Quran’s decree that non-believers should be taxed particular taxes. The Quran outlines three levels of the Jaziya tax levied on non-Muslims according to income: the rich, the middle class, and the poor. In effect, however, each town was taxed a general, set amount. The Cairo Genizah contains evidence of dispute between the government and the Jews of Tiberias in the year 1030 over the amount of the general tax. The army was in charge of tax collection.

The Arab rulers also confiscated Jewish lands and handed them to the ruling Arabic classes. In 685 the Umayyad built the Dome of the Rock on the site of the ruined Second Temple, and made the site a holy place for Muslims, to compete with the religious centre in Mecca which was controlled by their rivals. The Jews lost the last hold they had on the Temple Mount.

Zealous Muslim clerics pressured their rulers to vigilantly enforce Omar’s Laws, but according to Prof. Levtzion, during the first 400 years of Islamic rule (i.e., the Arabic-Muslim period in the Land of Israel) Dimmi’s were treated with tolerance because most of the time Omar’s Laws were not enforced. In the 11th century religious extremism increased bringing with it more attempts to enforce the Laws. Prof. Bernard Lewis explains that the increase in religious extremism came about as a result of the struggles within Islam between the Sunnis and the Shiites, and the struggles between Islam and Christianity. The anarchic state of affairs during most of the Fatimid period, however, made strict enforcement impossible.

C. Islamization Policies during the Arab Occupation

Islam distinguishes between ‘Dar Al Islam’ (the Land of Islam) and ‘Dar Al Harb’ (the Land of Sword, i.e., non-Muslim territories). It is the duty of Muslim rulers to increase the Land of Islam at the expense of the Land of the Sword, by means of a ‘holy war’ (Jihad), but there is no obligation to convert the conquered local population to Islam. Islam calls also for “Da’wah”, preaching to convert, but emphasises it should be done by pleasant persuasion.

In the matter of conversion, Islam also distinguishes between the People of the Book (i.e., Jews and Christians) who are tolerated, and pagans whose forceful conversion is permitted. This was the religious attitude, but political considerations were sometimes used to justify exceptions. Omar’s Laws intended to set the status of non-Muslims under Muslim rule as protégés.

Scholars are divided over the issue of conversion to Islam. Most scholars are of the opinion that the Umayyad rule was not interested in converting the non-believers. Islam at its outset did not embrace a policy of Islamization, and the Arabic rulers preferred collecting taxes from non-believers rather than converting them. A gradual change in policy began during the Abbasside period, with the transition in emphasis from Arabism to Islamism. Religious debates between Muslim and Christian clerics and Muslim and Jewish clerics were introduced during the 9th century. The Muslim clerics attempted to tone down the differences between the religions in order to attract the non-Muslims to Islam.

Prof Avraham N. Pollack in his article "Origins of the Arabs in Israel" disagreed with the majority. He determined that the Umayyad ran a strong campaign for Islamization, constructing the Dome of the Rock in an attempt to turn Jerusalem into a Muslim religious centre in order to divert pilgrims from Mecca. Enticements for converting included exemption from the non-believers tax, participation in government, exemption from inheritance laws (which discriminated against non-Muslims), and exemption from land confiscation.

According to a contrary opinion, most of the Umayyad, Abbasside, and Fatimid rulers preferred their income from the non-believers tax over conversion, and religious persecution took place only under particular rulers (see below).

Michael Assaf determined that “rarely were the protégés pressured to convert. For most of the time, there is no evidence that the monarchy was interested in converting or assimilating the protégés into the Arabic culture” (pp. 107-108). “Happily for the protégé communities, the revenue issue in the Arabic monarchy became increasingly worrying and onerous, and this stopped the religious zeal from crossing certain limits” (p. 120).

Prof Gil determined that during the first hundred years (640 – 740), i.e., during the Umayyad period, there is hardly any evidence of conversion among the local population, while evidence exists of the rulers’ reluctance to convert the non-believers. The Arabs maintained their strict segregation from the rest of the population. Being Muslim meant belonging to a separate social class whose membership was hereditary and privileged. Laws were passed to ensure this segregation: Non-Muslims were forbidden to dress as Muslims, associate with Muslims, or enter their homes; It was forbidden for non-Muslims to teach their sons the Quran.; Non-Arabs wishing to convert needed to find a Muslim to act as their protector; Non-Arab converts were not considered equal to Arab-Muslims and were not exempt from the non-believers tax; Non-Arab converts could only serve in the auxiliary forces and claim a third or up to a half of the booty. Converts gained equality only toward the end of the Umayyad period, under the Caliph Omar. Before then, the non-Muslim population did not have a strong motive to convert.

A change in policy took place during the Abbasside period, when the emphasis shifted from Arabism to Islamism, but the Abbasside rule was constantly fighting for its survival and under such conditions had little resource to spare for Islamization. The Fatimid were Shiite, while most of the population in Egypt, their centre, was Sunni. Being the minority, the Fatimid preferred dimmi’s in their administration, and were mostly tolerant towards them, except during the reign of the Caliph Al Hakkim. Jews were the court physicians and held key position at the top of the Fatimid government. Documents in the Cairo Genizah mention a Jew by the name of Menashe in charge of the interests of the Fatimid army in Syria and Israel, who looked after the Jews.

Prof Levtzion agrees that the Umayyad did not encourage conversion to Islam. He determined that during the first 200 years there was no systematic, directed policy although there were a few politically-motivated individual cases. The policy of discouraging conversion was born primarily from the idea that Islam was the religion of the Arabs, and there was no intention of including the conquered population in the political-religious community. Theoretically and practically, “the conquests had territorial goals, not conversion goals”. The Umayyad rulers were also of the opinion that a policy of religious tolerance without conversion would facilitate their establishment. Equally important, they feared the loss of tax revenues. Non-Arab converts were taxed a higher land tax than the Arabs. The government exempted converts from the non-believers tax only in cases that had political considerations. The candidate for conversion had to join an Arabic tribe as an attaché (Miali) of an inferior status. When the Caliph Omar II gave converts equal rights to Muslims, the opportunity for exemption from the non-believers tax may have created a motive to convert, particularly among the lower classes who struggled to pay their taxes. The Caliph Omar, however, required converts to pay the same charity tax as Muslims, and did not exempt them from the land tax (the Haraj), although Muslims were taxed at a lower rate than others. The rulers who succeeded Omar II again discouraged conversion.

During the Abbasside period the distinction between Arabs and non-Arabs was abolished, and replaced by the distinction between Muslim and Non-Muslim. “This change marks the end of the age of tolerance towards non-Muslims, increasing pressure on non-Muslim minorities”. Prof Levtzion emphasises, however, that “we have little evidence for large scale conversion to gain exemption from the Jeziah”, the poll tax (p. 217). Prof Levtzion believes that, in principle, the Arabic rulers did not carry out a systematic, consistent policy for converting their subjects to Islam.

In his study on “Mediterranean Society”, Prof Shlomo Dov Goytin notes that “other than these two exceptional persecutions [during the reign of the Caliph Al Hakkim and in Andalusia] no unusual pressure was put on minorities to convert to Islam during the Fatimid and Ayoub periods, although obviously Christians and Jews were encouraged to convert” (pp. 378—379).

D. Did the Local Jewish Population Convert to Islam?

As in other subjects, scholars are divided over this issue as well.

According to one view, Jews converted en-masse during the Arabic conquest.

David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben Zvi published a book in 1918 titled “Eretz Israel, Past and Present”. The book’s thesis is that “the falahs [farmers] do not descend from the Arabic conquerors who took over the Land of Israel and Syria in the 7th century . . . The falahs originated from the rural population the Arabs countered in Israel in the 7th century. . . The rural population the Arab conquerors found was mostly Jewish” (p. 196). The authors hypothesized that the Jewish urban, educated and well-off population emigrated due to the security situation and the religious and economic decrees while the Jewish farmers, who did not have the means to emigrate, remained on their land. Some pretended to convert to Christianity during the Byzantine period, but during the Arab occupation they realy converted to Islam. The main motive for conversion was their loyalty to the land rather than their faith, as the farmers were tied more to the land than to their religion. The authors considered other motives as well: the heavy tax burden, the danger of being driven off the land, and Mohammed’s teachings being closer to their heart than Christ’s teaching. Another explanation offered by the authors is that converting to Islam allowed them to join the ruling classes and the ease to convert to Islam: “It was enough to declare once that there is no God but Allah and that Mohammed is the messenger of Allah”. Unfortunately, the book’s thesis was not supported by any historical documents and it is impossible to know what the authors based it on.

In his article Prof Pollack discusses the “romantic wishful thinking (that the Arabs in Israel are descendents of the Jews) that in this way it may be possible to sustain a Jewish majority in the country”. He found in the commentary on the Book of Daniel written by Rabbi Se’adya Gaon (892 – 942) proof that there was conversion to Islam of the Jews in Israel in his time, but rejected the hypothesis that there was wide spread conversion to Christianity during the Byzantine period, based on the Jerusalem Talmud and the archaeological finds of numerous synagogues built during that time. Prof Pollack determined that according to Jewish, Arabic, and Christian sources there was a belief among the Jews that the Arabic rule will fulfil the Jewish Messianic vision. Pollack quoted a Jewish Midrash (commentary) arguing that “the Caliph will build the home of the Lord of Israel” (he did not mention which Midrash it actually was).

Although Pollack was of the opinion that there was significant conversion to Islam during the Umayyad period, he warned that “viewing Ishmaelites in 10th century Jerusalem as converted Jews should not automatically apply to those in the 20th century, for the ethnic development and migration did not stand still over the centuries”. In other words, the immigration into Israel of Muslims from Lebanon and Syria, of Balkans, Kurds, Algerians, Caucasians, and Bosnians following the Crusader period in the Mameluke and Ottoman periods, resulted in ethnic mixing and “eventually a population formed that could no longer be simply defined as converted Jews . . . although there are strong blood and origin connections between it and the Jews”. In short, Pollack disagrees with Sand’s claim that the Arabs living in Israel today are descendents of Jews who converted to Islam.

In his article “The Land to Its Workers and Converting the Falahs to Judaism”, Shmuel Almog rejected the idea that the Arabs in Israel are converted Jews. He analysed the early Zionist movement leaders’ fantasy that the Arabs in Israel were descendents of the Jewish people and their hope that they will be reabsorbed into the Jewish people. In his definition of this phenomenon, which died out after World War I, Almog explains that “despite the fact that the ideas of racial links between the falahs and the Jews were never more than a romantic wish, they became a complete thesis that shaped the form of the renewed Jewish culture” (p. 175).

There is some evidence from the Arabic period of conversion among Jews:

According to an Arabic source from the time of the Caliph Mou’awiya (661—680), 42 Jewish scholars converted to Islam at the end of the 7th century.

Prof Levtzion determined that the Caliph Omar the second (717—720), held exceptional views about conversion during the Umayyad period.

Mou’awiya Al Ash’ary, a Tiberian Jew, is known to have converted and served as a Wazir in the court of the Caliph Al Mahdi (775—785).

A famous case of conversion occurred during the Fatimid period. A Baghdad Jew named Jacob Ibn Khals, was promoted as a clerk in Israel during the Fatimid period. He converted at the end of the 10th century and was promoted to Wazir.

It is widely believed today that there was no wide spread conversion of Jews to Islam. Since 1918, and more so since 1967, many studies on this subject were published, and most scholars reject the idea that conversion was wide spread, although individual cases of conversion are known.

Prof Shlomo Dov Goytin based much of his research “Mediterranean Society” on the collection of letters from the Cairo Genizah dated to the 11th – 13th centuries. He determined that “conversion to Islam was not common during the classical period of the Genizah, and therefore we hear very little about inheritances of Jews who converted” (p. 520). Prof Goytin quoted a letter from the Genizah telling of Jews who were forced to convert while others preferred death or exile to Byzantium, Yemen, or other countries”. The letter referred to the conversion decree during the reign of the Caliph Al Hakkim.

His central thesis, however, was that “the disadvantages of being a minority were not so dire as to cause mass conversion to Islam” (p. 379). There is some evidence in the Genizah documents of single cases of individuals of all classes who believed, for one reason or another, that they would benefit more from joining the ruling faith. But Prof Goytin noted that this was not typical of Jews in Israel but rather of “people who were living in a foreign land and so were uprooted from their regular environment” (p. 379). According to Genizah documents many converts did not sever their ties to their former religion and it was usually difficult for a convert to enter Muslim society.

Prof Levtzion concluded that “the Jews held on to their faith and only a few converted to Islam” (p. 248). The converts converted not so much from spiritual attraction to Islam but more from fear or for benefit. He believes that the demise of community organisation and leadership did not take place among the Jews as it did in the Christian communities. The strength of the community was the main reason for the psychological strength of the Jews. The community continued to offer its services. Very few cases of conversion are recorded in the Genizah documents between the 10th and 12th centuries.

Prof H. H. Ben Sasson determined in his book “History of the People of Israel during the Middle Ages” that “the vast majority of the Jewish people under Muslim rule held fast to their faith” (p. 33).

Prof Moshe Gil is also of the opinion that there was no mass conversion of Jews under Muslim rule. Although Omar’s Laws turned the Jews, along with other non-believers, into second class citizens, “there is no mention in the Jewish, Christian, or Muslim sources of mass conversion of Jews to Islam at any time or place” (p. 49).
Genizah 11th century documents list Jewish settlements in the Galilee in the 11th century, i.e., at the end of the Arabic occupation. Mordekhai Avi’am’s archaeological survey also confirms that during the Crusader period there were still at least 36 Jewish settlements in the Galilee. Prof Gil wrote that despite the difficult conditions of the Jewish population during the Arab-Muslim period, the Genizah letters describe “the continued existence of Jewish settlement since time immemorial". There is no evidence of conversion. Jewish settlements survived the Arabic period very much thanks to its community organisation. The community formed the main barrier against assimilation and desertion of the Jewish faith. It maintained the sense of belonging to a nation, and the unique values of the Jewish faith were preserved within it from one generation to the next” (pp. 130-131).

Dr Milka Levi-Rubin, in a lecture to students, confirmed there were few cases of conversion to Islam among Jews.

Dr A. Y. Braver, in his article “The Jewish Element among Arabs in Israel”, rejected the idea that the Jews converted to Islam and determined that “anyone claiming it [the Jewish people] converted for the benefit of material gain is defaming its memory, is wrong and misleading” (p. 424). He also rejected Prof Pollack’s commentary on the Book of Daniel and determined that the Arabs in Israel arrived as immigrants.

Religious Persecution and Pressures to Convert

The Umayyad dynasty was Sunni, and the Sunnis were more tolerant than the Shiites who were known for their religious zeal. The Abbasside dynasty was not Shiite, but relied on Shiite Persian administration. Religious zeal increased during the Abbasside period and policies emphasised Muslim identity over Arabic identity (contrary to the Umayyad period). Following this change more rigid enforcement policy of Omar’s Laws was determined upon. The need for tax revenue, however, moderated religious fervour. The Fatimid, who were a Shiite minority whose centre was in Sunni Egypt, treated Jews with tolerance and required their assistance in the administration of the Kingdom’s affairs, except during the reign of the Caliph Al Hakkim.

The Abbasside Caliph Haroun El Rashid (786—800) ordered the destruction of synagogues and churches but there is no evidence this was carried out.

The Caliph Al Muwatukal (847—861) not only enforced Omar’s Laws, but added his own:
Non-Muslims had to wear a yellow scarf and a two-buttoned hat in a colour different to those worn by Muslims;
New churches were to be destroyed, with mosques built in their places where sites were suitable, and 10% of Christian homes confiscated;
Non-Muslims were forced to hang wooden figurines in the form of the devil over their homes to distinguish them from Muslim homes, and non-believers’ homes were not to rise higher than Muslim ones;
Non-believers’ graves must be lower than Muslim ones.

The Caliph Al Muktader (908—932) added more:
Non-Muslims were barred employment in the government, except medical services;
New dress codes required non-believers to wear honey-coloured clothes, and their children to affix coloured patches to their clothes.

There is evidence of religious persecution and forced conversions during the reign of the Fatimid Caliph Al Hakkim (976—1020). Nissim Danna describes Al Hakkim’s policies towards Jews and Christians in his book “The Druz in the Middle East”. In the early years of the Millennium the Caliph decreed that:
Christians must wear blue coloured (or, according to another version, black) clothes, a belt and a black hood, and wear a wooden (or, according to another version, iron) cross weighing 5 Kg round their necks;
Jewish and Christian women must wear one red shoe and one black;
Jews must wear wide black belts and carry a wooden calf’s head around their necks in memory of the sin of the golden calf (according to one version. Another version mentions wooden hoops weighing a little more than 2 Kg).

Persecution of the Christians was inspired by the struggle between the Arabs and the Byzantines. The Christians were victims of this struggle.

The Caliph ordered the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and the construction of a mosque on its ruins as well as converting two other churches into mosques. The celebration of Easter was forbidden, Christian pageants were forbidden, and all the churches and monasteries in the Land of Israel, as well as synagogues, were ordered to be destroyed.
Christians and Jews were forbidden to use wine for religious purposes.
The last stage in these persecutions was the decree to convert, or leave the country. Many dimmi, Christians as well as Jews, fled the country as a result.

These laws were in force until 1014 or 1017. The Caliph retracted his laws and allowed the forced converts to return to their faith, rebuilt the demolished places of worship, and admitted that “a Muslim by force is not a true Muslim”. According to another version the persecutions continued until his death in 1020, and only ceased during the reign of his successor, A-Zahar.

To summarise

Most scholars have determined that there is no basis for the claim that Jews converted en-masse to Islam during the Arabic period, although individual cases of conversion are known. Jews under Islam enjoyed relatively better conditions than under Christianity. The Muslim State did not interfere in its subjects’ religious rituals or legal autonomy. Jews did not live in ghettos and religious persecution was not common.

The fact that during the Crusader period there were still 36 Jewish settlements in the Galilee alone is testimony to the Jews’ devotion to their faith through the Arabic occupation.

The Jews’ situation as protégés was far better than their status under Christian-Byzantine rule and no unbearable situation developed that would force them to convert:
I. The robustness and coherence of the Jewish community organisation prevented Jews moving out of it.
II. Omar’s Laws were not rigidly enforced through most of the Arabic-Muslim period.
III. Taxes under Arab-Muslim rule were not much heavier than during the Christian-Byzantine period.
IV. Most of the time, the Arab rulers avoided converting the local population, preferring the revenues earned by taxing it instead.
V. The rulers allowed the Jews and other non-believers to observe their religious rites almost undisturbed, and upheld their legal autonomy.
VI. During the first few centuries of the Arabic occupation the status of converts was not equal to that of born Muslims, so there was no real motive to convert.
VII. The Arab-Muslim control over the area was never complete, due to the Bedouin raids, inter-Arab conflicts, and fights against the Christian enemy. It is doubtful, therefore, that the rulers could effectively enforce an Islamization policy. The Jews suffered more from Bedouin raids and the deterioration of the security and economic situation than from pressures to convert.

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