Jewish communities have existed across the Middle East and North Africa since Antiquity. By the time of the Muslim conquests of the 7th century, these ancient communities had been ruled by various empires and included the Babylonian, Persian, Carthaginian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and Yemenite Jews. The Jews had been in Medina for centuries before the arrival of Islam. They ran the city’s main market, as they did in many Arabian towns.
Jews under Islamic rule were given the status of dhimmi, along with certain other pre-Islamic religious groups. Though second-class citizens, these non-Muslim groups were nevertheless accorded certain rights and protections as “people of the book”. During waves of persecution in Medieval Europe, many Jews found refuge in Muslim lands. For instance, Jews expelled from the Iberian Peninsula were invited to settle in various parts of the Ottoman Empire, where they would often form a prosperous model minority of merchants acting as intermediaries for their Muslim rulers.
During the years of expansion, in early medieval times, the derogatory characterizations and descriptions of the Jews found in the Quran were expanded and amplified in Islamic sacred texts, such as the Hadith, a collection of traditions containing sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as in literature dealing with the life of the Prophet. At the same time however, the traditions and policies stemming from the more tolerant attitudes were present as well.
Prof. Meir Litvak examines the attitudes toward Jews under Muslim rule from the early days of Islam until the modern period.
Islamic–Jewish relations started in the 7th century CE with the origin and spread of Islam in the Arabian peninsula. The two religions share similar values, guidelines, and principles. Islam also incorporates Jewish history as a part of its own. Muslims regard the Children of Israel as an important religious concept in Islam. Moses, the most important prophet of Judaism, is also considered a prophet and messenger in Islam. Moses is mentioned in the Quran more than any other individual, and his life is narrated and recounted more than that of any other prophet. There are approximately 43 references to the Israelites in the Quran (excluding individual prophets), and many in the Hadith.
At various times, Jews in Muslim lands were able to live in relative peace and thrive culturally and economically. The position of the Jews was never secure, however, and changes in the political or social climate would often lead to persecution, violence and death. Jews were generally viewed with contempt by their Muslim neighbors; peaceful coexistence between the two groups involved the subordination and degradation of the Jews.
Because Islam and Judaism share a common origin in the Middle East through Abraham, both are considered Abrahamic religions. There are many shared aspects between Judaism and Islam; Islam was strongly influenced by Judaism in its fundamental religious outlook, structure, jurisprudence and practice. Because of this similarity, as well as through the influence of Muslim culture and philosophy on the Jewish community within the Islamic world, there has been considerable and continued physical, theological, and political overlap between the two faiths in the subsequent 1,400 years.