Chapter 5 - Acculturation without Islamization under Arab- Muslim Occupation (640 – 1099)/ DR.Rivka Shpak Lissak

The Arab policy did not include forced Islamization (except for short periods),but mainly cultural Arabization.


The Arab occupation of the Land of Israel lasted from 640 to 1071, roughly 400 years. The Seljuks, Muslim Turks, conquered the land from the Arabs, but on the eve of the first crusade, they lost it to the Fatimid who ruled it until 1099, when the Crusaders took over. Saladin, who was not an Arab, but a Muslim Kurd from Iraq, defeated the Crusaders in 1187 and ruled until his death (1192). Following the Battle of Hattin and the conquest of Jerusalem by Saladin in 1187, he took over other parts of the country while the Crusaders maintained their hold over the rest. An agreement signed by his successors with the Crusaders returned the Galilee to them and they moved their capital to Acre. The Mamelukes, Muslim Turks, conquered the Land of Israel from the Crusaders in 1260 and ruled it until 1516, when it was taken over by the Ottoman Turks who ruled the Land of Israel for 400 years. The Muslim rule in the Land of Israel ended in 1918 and a Mandate over the country was given to the British.

The Arab-Muslim Occupation (640—1071/1099)

During this period, the term ‘Arab’ was used to describe a native of the Arabic Peninsula, and according to Prof. Moshe Gil, it was interchangeable with the term Bedouin, which included nomads in the past and in the present. The Arabic-Muslim army that invaded the Land of Israel was comprised of Bedouin tribal warriors accompanied by their families, who entered the country in two flanks: The right flank entered trough the Jordan Valley, and the left flank entered through Eilat and proceeded towards the Mediterranean. Both flanks battled the Christian-Byzantine army from 634 on, and following a series of victories the land came under Arab-Muslim rule in 640.

The Arab occupation did not bring about stability to the country. The Arab-Muslim rule changed many times: At first, the country was ruled by the Umayyad dynasty. Then, in 750, the dynasty of Abbas took over, and in 942 it was the turn of the Fatimid. The Seljuks fought the Fatimid and took over the land in 1071, although the struggle between the Seljuks and the Fatimid did not end then, and the Fatimid regained control shortly before the Mameluke occupation.

In addition to the fights among various Arabic families for control over the area, the country suffered robbery and pillage by Bedouins who invaded it from the Arab Peninsula, the Sinai desert, Trans-Jordan, and the Syrian desert, as well as Byzantine raids on the coastal cities. Bedouin tribes alternated control over parts of the country, and the safety of the population was jeopardised. The Land of Israel was a battlefield throughout the Arabic occupation.

During the Arabic period, the Land of Israel was of a low priority for the Arabic rulers. The Umayyad government centre was in the Arab Peninsula at first, moving to Damascus in 660. The rulers of the Abbas dynasty moved their centre to Baghdad, while the Fatimid and the Seljuks ruled from Egypt. The Land of Israel was an occupied territory and a source of revenue from tax and land confiscations that benefited the rulers. In his article “Status of the Land of Israel under Muslim Rule”, Prof. Moshe Gill describes it as “a gold mine for Muslims”: From the year 670 to 975, the Arabs collected from 304,000 dinars per year (during the 820’s) to 850,000 dinars per year (during the 860’s). The average annual tax collected was about 400,000 dinars.

The security situation, the cut-off from Europe and the neglect on the part of the rulers greatly harmed the country’s economy, causing it to deteriorate and the population to decline. While during the Roman-Byzantine period the population was protected, during the Arabic occupation it was not, yet had to pay its taxes regularly.

Prof. Moshe Gill provides testimonies from Muslim geographers and from the Cairo Genizah letters (an archive of Jewish letters) that throw light on the economic conditions during the Arabic occupation. Many of the rural settlements were deserted and destroyed and the cultivated area shrank in size. Many of the Jews and Christians were farmers, particularly those in small settlements. Jews worked also in pottery manufacturing, smithies, glass manufacturing, mats making, textiles, flour mills, and soap manufacturing, as well as commerce. Most of the Jewish merchants came from the Maghreb, i.e., North Africa. The commercial ties with Europe were severed and most of the trading was internal or with Egypt, which had become the trade centre under the Fatimid occupation. The constant fighting, however, hurt trade and manufacturing, the economy deteriorated and the country’s population was impoverished.

The Population Composition during the Arabic Occupation

Scholars agree that during the Arabic occupation the country’s population was comprised of a Christian majority, a Jewish and Samaritan minority, and Bedouins who lived on the edge of the desert.

Prof. Moshe Gill believes that most of the Christians were Aramaic-speaking Syrians, but according to Prof. Moshe Shamir in his article “Cities of the Land of Israel under Islamic Rule” the coastal cities had a large Christian population of Greek origin, were heavily influenced by the Hellenistic culture and the commonly-spoken language was Greek. On the eve of the Arabic invasion, there was a massive movement of Christians fleeing the coastal cities to the Byzantine Empire and to Trans-Jordan. Most of those leaving belonged to the top business community and the Hellenistic classes, leaving behind the lower classes who were mostly Aramaic-speakers originating in what is now Syria and Lebanon.

Prof. Ronnie Ellenblum, who specialized in the history of the Crusader rule in Israel, has shown in his study “Frankish Rural Settlements in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem” that during the Crusader period the western Galilee, the south of Samaria, and Judea, were still populated by a Christian-Byzantine population, so there is no doubt that Christians had been the majority in the country during the Arabic period. Prof. Moshe Gill quotes Muhammed ben Abdallah Al-Ma’afary from Seville who toured the country in 1095 and reported that Christians form the majority of the population. But, as Michael Assaf wrote in his book “History of the Arab Rule in the Land of Israel” that throughout the 7th and 8th centuries, Christians were the majority but this majority started to decline during the Abbasside and Fatimid periods. Christians left because of the economic conditions and the lack of personal safety.

The Samaritans were persecuted during the Byzantine period, and their rebellions were cruelly suppressed, resulting in a decline in their population. According to information from the Samaritan History Museum, on the eve of the Arabic occupation there were about 200,000 Samaritans in the Land of Israel, most of them concentrated in the north of Samaria, with a minority in other locations. Michael Assaf, however, estimates their numbers at no more than 100,000.

The Jews were persecuted by the Christian-Byzantines as well, and on the eve of the Arabic invasion Jews were massacred, causing many to flee, further reducing the Jewish population. There is no data about the number of Jews living in the country on the eve of the Arabic occupation. Based on his analysis of various factors, Michael Assaf estimates that their number then was 150,000--200,000. In his study “In Roman and Byzantine Times”, Michael Avi-Yona also estimated that during the Christian-Byzantine period there were 150,000—200,000 Jews in Israel. It is not known, however, how many remained in the country or how many survived the pogroms at the end of the Christian-Byzantine period. In his article “The Population of the Land of Israel” Maggen Broshi determined based on archaeological surveys, that the total population in the country was 1,000,000 at most. Avi-Yona estimated that the Jews comprised 10% of the population, in which case they would have numbered 100,000.

During the Arabic occupation, in the 7th, 8th, and 9th centuries, Jews from communities in the Arab Peninsula, North Africa, and Babylon returned to Israel and its Jewish population increased slightly, but from correspondence preserved in the Cairo Genizah we learn that the security situation in the country made many leave, particularly during the Fatimid period.

An archaeological survey conducted by Mordechai Avi’am uncovered a cluster of Jewish settlements in the Eastern Galilee during the Byzantine period, and the fact that most (36 out of 58) survived to the Crusader period shows that there was still a centre of Jewish population in the Eastern Galilee during the Arabic period.

Documents from the Cairo Genizah presented by Prof. Moshe Gill contain evidence of Jewish communities in Israel, particularly from the 10th to the 11th centuries. In the Galilee, Tiberias was the centre of Jewish spirituality, with several synagogues and two communities: Jews from Babylon and Jews from Jerusalem. There were also Jews in Acre, Haifa, Gush Halav, Pequi’in, Dalton, Kfar Cana, Kadesh Naphtali, Tzipori, Kfar Hananya, ‘Ivlin, Kfar Mandi, Safed, ‘Akhbara, and Biriya. According to the 10th century Arabic Geographer Al Muqadassi, there were large Jewish settlements in Gush Halav and Kadesh Naphtali, and Jews lived also in Ramle, Hebron, the coastal cities, Tzo’ar (near the Dead Sea) and Eilat. Ramle was the largest Jewish centre in the South, with three communities, 2 synagogues, and 5000 Jews. The community in Hebron was well organised and had a synagogue near the Cave of Machpelah. During the Arab occupation Jews lived in Caesarea, Jaffa, Ashkelon, and Raffiah.

The Genizah letters also tell of deteriorating security under Fatimid rule as a result of 60 years of constant fighting against extremist Shiite elements, the Byzantines, and Bedouin assaults. Letters describe horrors committed by Bedouins in Jerusalem and Ramle. An earthquake (1033), drought and pestilence added to these troubles, and combined with the economic hardship caused a significant decline in the number of Jews on the eve of the Crusades. The Genizah letters record the presence in Egypt of refugees from Kfar Mandy, Ivlin, Amoukah, and other locations in Israel.

In his study Michael Assaf mentions Jewish settlements in the Negev and notes that Eilat was called “City of the Jews” by the Geographer Al Bakri (d. 1094). Assaf points out that in addition to coastal cities and Tiberias, Raqat and Hammat, other Upper Galilee Jewish places mentioned in the Cairo Genizah documents include the Fort of Dan, Ba’al Gad, ‘Akal, Zeitoun, ‘Alma, Al-‘Alawiya, and Tirtzah, as well as Jerusalem, Hebron, and Ramle in Judea. Assaf mentions several factors that caused the significant decline of Jewish population numbers at the end of the Arab occupation due to desertion, which was caused by the unstable security conditions.

Prof Moshe Gill summarised the Jewish situation in Israel during the Arab occupation as evident from the Genizah documents. Genizah letters describe “generations of decline and impoverishment in body and spirit in the wake of the extraordinary troubles of the times and the transformation of the Land of Israel into a constant battle field. The Jewish settlement fought for its actual physical existence”. But the letters also reflect “the continuance of Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel through generations of Arab occupation. This settlement was a direct descendent of the Jewish settlement of ancient times”.

What guaranteed the survival of the Jews despite their duress was the preservation of their community organisation. Throughout the Arabic occupation the Jews maintained community autonomy, a separate judicial system, and a central welfare and leadership system. The Genizah letters contain information about the Yeshiva of Israel from the 10th and 11th centuries, and a portion of the 250-year long list of the Israeli Geonim (Yeshiva scholars) was preserved. The letters provide information about the organisational structure of the Yeshiva and its authorities: The head of the Yeshiva, the Gaon, was considered “Head of the Jews”, holding extensive authority over the Jewish communities in the entire country, appointing the local leaders and judges. The Yeshiva was deeply involved in the lives of the communities and raised its own tax from them.

The Extent of Arabic Settlement in Israel during the Arabic Period

Scholars are divided over the extent of Arab settlement in the Land of Israel during the Arabic Muslim occupation. Most scholars agree that during the Umayyad rule there was no significant Arabic settlement in the country and the population composition remained essentially unchanged, but they disagree over the Abbasside and Fatimid periods.

According to Prof. Moshe Gill “there is no evidence that the Muslim conquest brought about a significant change in the composition of the population”. Although tribes penetrated the country, there was no permanent land settlement. “This was a land ruled by Muslims but not a Muslim land”. Gill emphasizes that the fact Arabic geographers are silent over the question of a Muslim majority in the country testifies that there was no majority; had there been one, they would have been happy to mention it.

Prof Moshe Sharon, Henry Lamans, and Yoram Zafrir expressed similar views in their studies (see below).

In his article “Arabic Conquest and Rule”, Hayim Zeev Hirshberg agrees that at first the Arabs preferred to live in their camps, but gradually moved to more permanent forms of settlement. They bought or confiscated lands and settled in the villages and the towns.

The Extent of Settlement during the Umayyad Period (640 – 750)

Prof Moshe Gill writes that during the Arab occupation the Bedouin tribes Banni ‘Assan and Banni Joddam lived on the Southern borders of the country. They had served the Christian-Byzantine rulers as mercenaries and were in the process of converting to Christianity. Papyri discovered in the area of Nitzana (‘Ouja) document the invasion of 59 tribes of Yemeni origin from the Arab Peninsula into the country at the time of the Arabic conquest. They were among the warriors and their garrisons were located outside the populated areas. The Arab rulers used to relocate them as needed.

Michael Assaf determined that during the first 30—40 years following the Arabic conquest there was not a significant Arabic settlement in the country because the forces were not enough to continue the conquest of other territories and settle as well. During the first years following the conquest, deserted Byzantine estates as well as deserted settlements of Greek Christians were confiscated and taken by the rulers and their relatives. The policy of distinguishing between Arabs and non-Arabs resulted in their settling in separate settlements or separate neighbourhoods in mixed towns. Surrender treaties of cities such as Bet Shean and Tiberias included transfers of 50% of the houses to the Arabs. In the coastal cities, however, settlement was initiated for security reasons. The coastal cities were under constant attacks by the Byzantine navy and therefore were settled by garrisons who were given homes of Christian Greeks who fled before the conquest. The Umayyad rulers leased lands to the tribes in return for their military services, while the local inhabitants continued to work the land as tenants. The Caliph Mou’awiye confiscated all Byzantine estates and portioned them among his relatives and favourites (this seems to refer to the Western Galilee, where Byzantine estates were concentrated). Farmers became tenants of the Arabic estate owners. Arabic land settlement began at the time of Othman or toward the end of Omar I's rule.

Prof Moshe Sharon too explains in his study “Process of Destruction and Nomadisation in the Land of Israel” that there was no significant Arabic settlement in the country following its conquest, because the conquering armies, who were comprised of Bedouin tribes, continued north to conquer Syria, and west towards Egypt and North Africa. Arabic tribes that stayed behind were of the warrior class, mostly Yemenites, who were not inclined to settle in towns or villages and were also not inclined to work the land, preferring to live in camps outside urban or rural centres, relocated by the Caliph as needed. Religious clerics, however, did arrive with the conquerors’ army.

Prof. Nehemiah Levtzion in his book “Islam, an Introduction to the Religion’s History” concurs that during the first stage following the conquest, Arabs did not enter the settled areas and did not mingle with the local population. They concentrated in military camps on the edge of the desert and maintained their tribal structure and nomadic life style. The only settlement initiative encouraged soldiers (Arab and Persian) to settle in the coastal cities to protect them against attacks by the Byzantine fleet. In Jerusalem and Tiberias, however, Arabs settled in deserted homes of the Greek-speaking social elite that had fled the country with the Arabic conquest. The Umayyad rulers, wishing to avoid undermining the security and economic conditions in the country, were not supportive of Bedouins entering the populated areas, but when the Abbasside dynasty took over in the 10th century, Bedouin invasions increased.

In her article “The Role of the Conquest in Shaping the Layout of Settlement in the Land of Israel during the Early Muslim Period”, Dr Milka Levi-Rubin determined that the main change in population composition took place in the coastal cities. The change was evident in the almost total desertion of the coastal cities by their Christian population as the Arabic army approached. The Christian population was, until then, the economic, social and cultural back bone of the country. Most of those leaving belonged to the elite affluent, Greek-speaking classes, and those staying behind were mostly Aramaic-speaking lower classes who had immigrated to the Land of Israel from what is now Syria and Lebanon.

Archaeological research supports somewhat the theory that there was no significant change in the composition of the population under Umayyad rule. In 2005, the archaeologist Ittamar Texel reported on archaeological surveys he carried out in a lecture titled “Characteristics of the Rural Settlement in the Land of Israel at the Beginning of the Early Arabic Period” and concluded that “from surveying the types of sites and from the (little and uncertain) information given by these surveys, it seems that during the first few decades following the Muslim conquest, and perhaps even by the end of the 7th century, there was no significant change in the size of the rural population in the Land of Israel. Direct and indirect changes in the area’s economy, on the one hand, and the increasing pressures from the Muslim rule, on the other hand, gradually brought about (particularly during the latter half of the Umayyad period) the weakening of quite a few rural communities and the gradual decline in their size and number. This decline gathered momentum from the 8th century onwards.”

The Abbasside and Fatimid Periods (8th – 11th centuries)

Yoram Zafrir described in his study “The Arabic Conquest and the Process of Population Impoverishment in the Land of Israel” how “during the Muslim period, and generally through the Middle Ages, a most significant process of decline in the population of the Land of Israel took place”. Zafrir brings archaeological evidence that show that the process reached its climax during the Abbasside period, from the mid 8th century, although signs of population decline are apparent already in the Umayyad period. The reasons for this crisis, according to Zafrir, were:
In the first place, neglect: once the government centre moved to Baghdad, the government did not allocate resources for the country’s prosperity. Secondly, the trend of replacing the Christian administration with an Arab-Muslim one lowered its efficiency, while the anti-Christian sentiments drove Christians out of the country. Zafrir studied the Arabic population in the country based on the Nitzana Papyri (late 7th century) and M. Kokhavi’s archaeological survey. These sources attest to the desertion of Arabic settlements in the Negev Mountain area due to the difficult living conditions, water and land shortages, insecurity caused by Bedouin pillage raids, Bedouins taking over settlements and populating them on-and-off, and demolishing buildings for their construction materials as seen fit.

According to this archaeological survey there were 470 settlements in the southern area in the Byzantine period, and only 76 remaining during the Arabic period. Fifty of them were located in the Jordan Valley, where desertion was halted thanks to irrigation works carried out by the Umayyad government. Around Sde Bokker, 8 settlements remained during the Arabic period out of 45 that existed during the Byzantine period. The Byzantines converted the inhabitants of the Judean desert to Christianity, but the population left with the collapse of Byzantine rule because, contrary to the Byzantine government’s custom of reducing taxes and providing protection during times of drought, the Arab-Muslim rule was only interested in collecting taxes. The deserted settlements were taken by Bedouins who continued their nomadic life-style.

Prof. Sharon determined in his study “Processes of Destruction and Nomadisation in the Land of Israel” that Bedouin invasions for settlement began only in the mid 9th century, increasing around the mid-10th century and particularly through the 11th century. During the 9th century, Bedouin tribes settled in the Negev area, and from the mid-10th century, and particularly in the 11th century, Bedouin tribes invaded the Jordan Valley. Throughout the Arabic Muslim period other Bedouin tribes conducted raids into the country, and for some time also ruled sections of it (article on the Bedouin invasions of the Land of Israel will be published latter).

Michael Assaf quotes a report by the Arab Geographer Al Ya’akubi from the end of the 9th century about the settlement of Arabs and Persians in the Galilee, around Ramle-Lydda, in the coastal cities, Nablus, and Yavne. He mentions 6 Arabic tribes that settled in the country. Assaf brings similar reports of 10th century Arabic historians. The picture emerging from the Arabic sources is of Arabic settlement in estates confiscated from the Byzantines in the Western Galilee, settlement in Tiberias and the Eastern Galilee, around Ramle-Lydda and in the Jordan Valley. According to Assaf the Arabic sources tended to obscure the presence of Christians and Jews in the country and exaggerate the extent of Arabic settlement. The 10th century Arabic Geographer Al Mouqadassi reported the presence of Samaritans and non-Arabic Christians.

Prof. Moshe Gill notes that with the Abbasside conquest the presence in the country of the tribes that served as garrisons was limited, their allowances were cancelled and they were relocated to Egypt and Iraq. The tribe Bannu Al Ash’ar (originally from the South of the Arab Peninsula) resided in Tiberias during the Abbasside period. The Arabic author Al Mas’oudi wrote that from the end of the 10th century to the mid 11th century there was only one mosque in Tiberias compared to 3 synagogues, attesting to the small number of Muslims in the city. Muslims began settling in Hebron only from the 10th century. Muslims were living in Eqron, which had a large mosque. In Nablus, Arabic tribes were living in the 9th century alongside the Samaritans. In Bet Shean the population included Arabs as well as non-Muslims.

In his research on the Crusader period, Ronnie Ellenblum determined that, as a result of the decline in Samaritan population in north Samaria at the end of the Byzantine period, Bedouin tribes began moving into that area during the Arabic Muslim occupation. Their process of permanent settlement, however, was slow and was not yet completed at the time of the Crusader conquest.

In a lecture on Samaria, Dr. Levi-Rubbin determined that Arabic historians give evidence of significant Muslim settlement in Samaria, side by side with the Samaritans, during the 9th century, and that Arabic penetration into the area began in the 7th century. In Saladin’s time, i.e., in the 12th century, Arabs were the majority in Samaria.

In his research “The Coastal Cities of the Land of Israel during the Arabic Period, 640 – 1099”, Amikam Elad states that an effort was made by the Arabic rulers to encourage Arab and Persian soldiers to settle in the coastal cities, by handing out land and homes that had been deserted. Mosques were built in the coastal cities and Muslim clerics opened schools for Islam.

The Extent of Arabic Settlement - coclusions

Michael Assaf determined that by the end of the Arabic period, in addition to the Arabs, Turks and Muslim Berbers from North Africa and Egypt had also settled in the country. The numbers of Non-Arabic Christians and Jews was on the decline. Assaf discusses the debate over the size of the Muslim-Arab population. The discussion includes several factors: Population conversion to Islam, Arabic immigration, and natural increase.

Regarding the extent of conversion to Islam, see below.

Regarding the extent of immigration into the country, Assaf mentions a study by the renowned Middle-East researcher Henry Lamans, which asserts that the country was not attractive to immigrants because of the ever lasting wars, both internal and external, which claimed many lives and turned entire regions into wilderness. The epidemics and the famines also deterred immigration.

Assaf mentions disagreements among scholars over the extent of the Arabic natural increase in the country. A. Kremer is in the opinion that natural increase was high due to polygamy. Lamans, however, is in the opinion that the birth rate was offset by disease, famine, internal and external wars, and deplorable sanitary conditions.

Prof Moshe Gil agrees with Prof Sharon that there is no evidence the Arab-Muslim conquest resulted in significant change in the composition of the population. Although tribes penetrated the country, in most cases they did not do so for settlement purposes. Based on texts written by Arabic geographers Prof Gil determined that the country’s villages were populated mostly by their earlier, non-Muslim residents. The Arabs in the Land of Israel were not farmers but warriors and owners of confiscated lands.

Based on Latin sources and the archeological survey carried out by Mordechai Avi’am, Ronnie Ellenblum determined in his study of the Crusader period that at that time the Western Galilee, South Samaria, and Judea were still mostly Christian, and that a cluster of 36 Jewish settlements existed in the Eastern Galilee. The population along the coast was mixed: Christian, Muslim, and Jewish. The picture emerging here is of a country that did not yet have a Muslim majority.

In summary, historical research and archeology, both reject the notion of a significant Arabic immigration and settlement in Israel during the Arab conquest period due to the security, economic, and sanitary conditions. Studies show that during the Arabic period many Bedouins raided and invaded the country for pillage and robbery, but not for significant settlement. The process was the reverse: the country was continuously depopulated. Entire areas became a wasteland as a result of the wars and Bedouin raids.

The absence of demographic data makes this debate difficult to settle.

The Acculturation Policy

Acculturation meant imposing the Arabic language, culture, and customs, but did not include converting the population to Islam.

The Arab conquerors did not call the country Palestine, but rather Al Sham, meaning “left”, because the Land of Israel is to the left of the rising sun. This term included Syria as well.

The Umayyad rulers maintained the Byzantine administrative division: Palestina Prima, which included Judea, Samaria, and part of the coast, and whose capital was Caesarea, was called Hijaz Filastin(Hijaz means district)/ The Capital was first moved from Caesarea to Lydda, and in 717 was moved to Ramla, the only city the Arabs built (in 716) in the Land of Israel.

Palestina Secunda, which included the Galilee, the Sea of Galilee, and part of the Jordan Valley and whose capital was Tiberias, was named Hijaz al Urdun, i.e., the Jordan District. Jerusalem’s Roman name, Aelia Capitolina, was maintained for a while, then changed to Bet Al-Maqdas (‘Beit Hamikdash’ – the Temple) and then to Al Quds.

The Arabs did not have an educated class that could take over the administrative system, nor did the Umayyad welcome any shake-ups until their rule was stabilised. The Greek language, therefore, remained as the official language and Christian officials continued to administer the country’s affairs. The top echelon, however, were the Arabs, who gave themselves estates – villages that provided their income.

The Arabization process began only at the end of the Umayyad period, as evident in the gradual take over of the administration by Arab administrators, the use of Arabic for official matters, the replacement of Byzantine coinage with Arabic one, and the spreading of the Arabic culture as a way of living.

The rulers, however, were often forced to abandon the efforts to replace the administration with Arabic administrators due to the absence of an Arabic educated workforce. Prof. Levtzion determined that most of the time the rulers did not enforce this decree because they needed the ‘Dimma’ (the ‘protected’, i.e., the non-Muslims such as the Jews and the Christians) to administer the country’s affairs. Prof.Gil, too, notes that Christians and Jews were allegedly barred from the country’s administration, but the fact that for many years this prohibition was mentioned again and again is a sign that it was not enforced. Christians and Jews were employed in administration even by the Fatimid rule.

Prof. Levtzion states that, unlike the slow Islamization process which was never completed during the Arab-Muslim occupation, the Arabization process was more successful. Arabization did affect the rate of conversion, particularly among the Christians, although, as mentioned, this process was not complete (p. 212).

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.

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).

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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19. Levi-Rubin, Milka. The Role of the Conquest in Shaping the Layout of Settlement in the Land of Israel during the Early Muslim Period, Katedra 121. 2007. pp. 53-78
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29. Danna, Nissim. The Druz in the Middle East. 2003

Research mentioned in Michael Assaf’s book:
Kremer,A., Kulturgeschichte des Orients, pp.11-115.
Lammens,H, La Syria, pp.7-120.

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