Communal Boundaries Reconsidered: Jews and Christians Appealing to Muslim Authorities in the Medieval Near East
Jewish Studies Quarterly, Vol. 14, Issue 4 (2007)
Modern scholarship has produced an abundance of works on the history of Jews and Christians in Muslim realms. Quite often these works focus on the status of these communities as religious minorities.1 With regard to this theme, scholars have been divided as to whether Islam showed tolerance or oppression towards non-Muslims. Yet the question of status, interesting as it is, may in fact be misleading. This is primarily due to its underlying assumptions and the perspectives it compels us to adopt. It assumes a relationship of rulers and subjects based upon communal distinction, i.e. a Muslim is a ruler and a non-Muslim is hence a subject. Furthermore, it assumes a centralist ruling agenda derived from one center that essentially must be enforced upon an entire region in an equal manner.
These assumptions do not take into account the possibility of a society that could have been structured under different terms and that adhered to different principles of governance. It does not take into account different sets of relations between different social layers. It prevents us from attributing greater weight to the meaning of localism and custom: two factors which must have played a crucial role in the formation of relations among Muslims, Jews, Christians and other religious groups. These sets of relations were not necessarily based on principles of communal demarcation that had been prescribed by certain individuals or small groups of the elite (whether Muslim or non-Muslim).