The Rise of Islam

During the Gaonic Era, an event of monumental effect on world history occurred, which at the time was very beneficial to the Jewish people. By the early 600s the outlook for the physical survival of the Jews was bleak. Christianity held sway over both the Eastern and Western Roman Empires, with Jews under its rule constantly persecuted. In 613, the Roman Catholic Visigoth rulers of Spain expelled all Jews who did not convert. In Babylonia, fanatical anti-Jewish Persian rulers closed many yeshivas and instituted decrees outlawing Jewish practices.

However, G‑d directs the affairs of empires for the benefit of the Jewish people. In Arabia, the same as the current Saudi Arabia, a merchant named Mohammed claimed prophetic revelations. He preached that the pagan Arabs should believe in one G‑d, and accept Mohammed as His prophet. Hoping to attract Jews to his new belief, he incorporated some Jewish practices into his new religion, such as a fast day similar to Yom Kippur and prayer toward Jerusalem. The Jews of Mecca, Mohammed's hometown, rejected Mohammed's overtures, feeling that Islam had nothing to offer them, and the Arabs there, too, did not heed his call. After being forced to flee Mecca, Mohammed gathered a following in Medina, and then conquered Arabia. Angry at the Jews for not adopting his faith, he severed his connection to Jewish belief. Yom Kippur was replaced by the fast of Ramadan, and prayer was directed toward Mecca. Mohammed also vituperatively attacked the Jews in his holy book, the Koran. By the mid 600s, Muslim Arab soldiers swept through much of the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe, spreading Islam over vast territories. The Caliph Omar conquered Eretz Israel and built the present-day Mosque of Omar (Dome of the Rock) on Temple Mount in 638.

Arab-Jewish Relations

The Jews and the Christians under the rule of Islam were subject to varying conditions, dependent on the place and the period. Both religions were present in Arabia before the advent of Mohammed, although Islam demanded the acceptance of the new religion only by the pagans and not by the Jews and Christians. In certain places, the Islamic rulers habitually employed Jews and Christians in higher government positions. Over time, special restrictions were applied to the Jews and Christians, including the Covenant of Omar, which laid down laws under which a dhimmi, or non-believer, was allowed to live under the rule of Islam. Some of these measures also meant imposing special taxes, wearing distinctive yellow cloth badges, and prohibiting religious practices in public. (This latter restriction is still enforced in Saudi Arabia, where non-Islamic U.S. soldiers must conduct their religious ceremonies privately.)

Actual persecution of non-Muslim religions took place during the Middle Ages and under the rule of the Berber dynasty of the Almohads, but these practices did not spread to all areas under Muslim rule. Indeed, the level of persecution of Jews often depended on the caprices of a particular ruler. Overall, however, the single worst place in the Islamic world for Jews was Yemen. There, persecution occurred constantly for hundreds of years, with periodic pogroms killing thousands of Jews. At times, Jewish life little but was abject slavery. For example, Jews had to clean the city latrines and clear the streets of animal carcasses, even on the Sabbath. Fatherless Jewish children under the age of 13 were often taken from their homes and given to Muslims to be raised in their faith. Sadly, much of this persecution lasted into modern times.

The high point of Jewish-Arab relations occurred from 900-1200 CE, and it is hardly coincidence that Jewish culture flowered in the Arab world at the time that Islamic civilization was at its apogee. For a few centuries, Greek humanism and Islamic universalism combined with a dynamic mercantile economy to produce a relatively open society. At such times, Muslims and non-Muslims could participate, if not on an entirely equal footing, at least with near equality in those spheres of activity that were not specifically religious — in the marketplace, scientific and intellectual circles, and civil service. Such activities were most prevalent in Spain, and to a lesser degree in Babylonia.

There, the Muslim majority felt sufficiently secure, and was suitably prosperous, not to be overly concerned with enforcing the humility of the non-Muslim minority. Indeed, Muslims and non-Muslims lived in close proximity, with no ghettoes. While most Jews lived in their own quarters near their synagogues, their neighborhoods were rarely exclusively Jewish. While day-to-day contacts between Muslims and non-Muslims were generally quite amicable, intimate social relationships were rare. Indeed, one's religious community was the principal arena for social life and activity; furthermore, the cordiality of interfaith relationships was tenuous. In fact, Muslims could be deeply offended when Jews rose too high or became too conspicuous in government service; at such times, there were almost always disastrous results for the Jews.

Generally, however, the Jews got along better with the Muslim Arabs than with the Christians. References in the Koran to Jews being the People of the Book, along with Jewish and Islamic belief in a common G‑d, caused Muslims to look upon Jews with less hostility than did Christians. In addition, Arabs shared a love of learning with the Jews, and needed the Jews to administer the Arabs’ vast conquests. For the Muslims, as long as the Jews realized that Islam ruled supreme, and that they were dhimmi, second-class citizens, relations were frequently cordial.

In modern times, though, Judaism and Islam have been at loggerheads. The rise of political Zionism, and the existence of the State of Israel, is regarded by many Muslims as an affront to their religion, which once again assigns Jews dhimmi status. Saudi Arabian maps of the Middle East demarcate the borders of Israel, but describe the country as Palestine. For many Muslims, it is simply inconceivable to accept Jewish rule in Eretz Israel, which they regard as holy Arab land. In addition, the Shiite branch of Islam, which stresses martyrdom and the Muslim obligation of Jihad (holy war) to rid the land of infidels, has imbued the Arabs with a fierce sense of fanaticism, embodied in such tactics as homicide bombing. To this way of thinking, no sacrifice is too great, and no struggle too long, to end Jewish sovereignty in so-called Zionist-Occupied Palestine.


The most famous of all Rashei Galusa, Bustenai's birth and life is the stuff of many legends, some of which may be true. In the late 500s, a fanatical Persian ruler of Babylonia embarked on a campaign to exterminate the House of David. Eventually, the entire family was wiped out, leaving only one pregnant woman in hiding whose dead husband was of the Davidic dynasty. One night, the tyrant dreamed that he was chopping down trees in an orchard, when an elderly man grabbed his axe and threatened to kill him for destroying the garden. The tyrant pleaded for his life, promising to stop the destruction. Upon awakening, he was greatly troubled by his dream, and sought out a Jewish scholar to interpret it. The king was told that the man in his dream was King David, threatening to punish him for wiping out his descendants. Hearing this, the king promised to treat well any survivors of King David. As such, the pregnant woman came out of hiding and was given quarters in the palace. When her child was born, he was named Bustenai, which is Persian for "orchard."

Once, as a youth, Bustenai was standing before the king when a fly alighted on his forehead and stung him, causing him to bleed. Yet Bustenai did not attempt to chase away the insect. Amazed at such self-control, the king asked him the reason for such behavior. Bustenai replied that it is the tradition of members of the House of David that, when standing in front of a ruler, they did not make a move without being granted permission. In commemoration of this episode, the seal of King David's descendants subsequently bore the image of a fly.

Bustenai was thereafter appointed Resh Galusa, and he used his influence to strengthen Jewish life throughout Babylonia. When the Arab Caliph Ali conquered Babylonia, he reconfirmed Bustenai as Resh Galusa, giving him one of the daughters of the captured Persian king as a wife. This woman converted sincerely, married Bustenai, and bore him several children. In addition, Bustenai raised a family from a native Jewish woman. On numerous occasions, there were attempts by the Jewish wife's descendants to impugn the Jewish lineage of Bustenai's children from his Persian wife, but the rabbinic authorities always ruled that her conversion was valid. A number of the Persian wife's descendants went on to become Rashei Galusa.