The Muslim Jewish Relations in Ayyubid Egypt (1171-1250)

The Muslim Jewish Relations in Ayyubid Egypt (1171-1250)

By Mohamed Hawary

Paper given at Children of Abraham: Trialogue of Civilizations (2007)

Introduction: Egypt had a very sizable Jewish population during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Over ninety cities, towns, villages, and hamlets with Jewish inhabitants are known. Fustat had a Rabbanite Jewish community numbering some 3,600 souls. In addition, there were the much smaller Karaite community and a small congregation in nearby Cairo, bringing the total Jewish population in the capital to well over 4,000.

The history of the Jews in Egypt since the Arab conquest (630- 41) till Jauhar’s entry into Fustat at the head of the Fatimid army (969) is almost entirely shrouded in obscurity. The earliest reference to the Jews in Fustat, so far known, is a document of the year 750 C.E. But very little indeed do we know of the life of the important Egyptian Jewry during more than three centuries.

Many of the Jewish communal officials in Egypt were connected in some way or other with government. The Jews no doubt were treated in the same manner as the other non-Muslim inhabitants, the people of the tribute (ahl-al-dhimma). The Fatimids and their successors, the Ayyubids (1171-1250), employed ahl-aldhimma in their administrations far beyond their proportion in the general population. The Jews in Egypt used to be distinguished in this period by a different dress.

The Jewish community of Egypt in the High Middle Ages was affluent, influential, and on the whole stable and secure. The Jewish community of Egypt was well organized. In short, it was bourgeois but not particularly creative in the spiritual or intellectual spheres. The Jews of Egypt were pious and hardworking, and they took care of the lees fortunate among them through admirable social services. They were generous in supporting Jewish institutions at home and in the spiritual centers of Palestine and Iraq. There were some men of learning among them, none truly outstanding, and even some of these had come from elsewhere.

This paper deals with the Egyptian Jews under the Ayyubid (1171 – 1250) rule. There were three prominent Jewish sects in Egypt during that time: Rabbanites, Karaites, and Samaritans. The history of the Jews in Ayyubid Egypt occupies an important part in the general course of Egyptian history. The Jews, at that particular period, were not isolated from the whole community, either politically, economically, or socially. In general, they performed their role freely, like all other society segments. During that time, the Jews constituted an inseparable part of the Egyptian society in its entirety. It is very important to know how the Jews lived in Egypt among non- Jews : Muslims and Christians, to study the relations between Egyptian Jews and others.

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