‘ Ishmael’s House’ restores Jews to Mideast history

In her reviewin the Sephardi Bulletin Lyn Julius believes Sir Martin Gilbert’s new book on Jews in Muslim lands will have a profound and welcome impact on the historiography of the Middle East – although the mass of facts, dates and names he assembles can be a little indigestible:

Perhaps for the first time ever, Sir Martin Gilbert’s In Ishmael’s House makes accessible to a mass English-speaking readership the neglected history of Jews in Muslim lands, from Afghanistan to Morocco.

The popular historian has authored more than 80 books, including the authorised biography of Winston Churchill, The First World War and Second World War; Israel: A History; The Holocaust; A History of the Twentieth Century, and nine pioneering historical atlases, including the Atlas of Jewish History and the Atlas of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Spanning 14 centuries from the first encounter between Muhammed and the Jewish tribes of Arabia to the virtual disappearance of Jewish life in the latter half of the 20th century, In Ishmael’s House is an exhaustive and detailed study. It’s built on a dichotomy of contrasts – ‘cooperation and segregation, protection and exclusion’ – experienced by Jews in Muslim lands.

There were times when Jews made great strides in the Islamic world. Who would have guessed that Al-Azhar university in Cairo, the most important centre of learning in the Arab world, was founded in 988 by a Jew, Yaqub ibn Killis? The cultural interaction between Jews and Muslims during the Spanish Golden Age is well documented and Gilbert tells us that Jews prospered under all but the most fanatical of Muslim regimes.

Gilbert seems to accept the verdict of Bernard Lewis, in Semites and Anti-Semites, that the experience of Jews living under Islamic rulers was “never as bad as in Christendom at its worst, nor ever as good as in Christendom at its best…there is nothing in Islamic history to parallel the Spanish expulsion and Inquisition, the Russian pogroms, or the Nazi Holocaust”.

But this is to set the bar quite low. Non-Muslims knew their place as inferiors. The thread running through this 400-page book is that Jews lived as dhimmis, condemned to second-class status, sporadic violence, arbitrary abuse, and a perennial state of precariousness and anxiety. Whatever Jews managed to achieve seems to have depended on them using all their powers to bribe, cajole and persuade the ruler of the day to act in their favour.

Sir Martin has assembled a vivid collection of vignettes, memoirs, letters, poems and first-hand personal testimony to chart the peaks and troughs of Jewish fortunes under Islamic rule. In keeping with his conceptual dichotomy, he bends over backwards to point out acts of kindness and rescue by Muslims of Jews. But ‘horror story after horror story’ – as one reviewer put it – tumble out of the pages, giving the overwhelming impression that dhimmi Jews and Muslims did not, contrary to Arab propaganda, always coexist peacefully.

Thus in the 19th century, Jacob Dahan died for employing a Moorish servant in Morocco, and in Iran as late as 1910, the witness to a dignitary beating two elderly Jews in Shiraz was himself murdered. Later still, in the 1930s 5,000 Jews were banned from leaving towns in Afghanistan without permits and made to pay the poll tax.

Having doggedly charted the disappearance of the Jewish communities following the establishment of Israel, and the Jewish refugees’ search for recognition, Gilbert’s concluding paragraph seems oddly politically-correct. As another reviewer has remarked, it’s ‘the triumph of hope over experience’:

The Jews who left Muslim lands – and their descendants – can feel pride at what they and their forebears achieved in so many Muslim lands, over so many centuries, and can also feel justified in their sense of belonging within the Muslim world. The exodus and dispersal after 1947 of 850,000 of the Jews living in Muslim lands was a cruel interruption to a 1,400-year story of remarkable perseverance and considerable achievement.

Cruel interruption? More like inexorable demise.

At times the book is too broad-brush: Gilbert’s disparate facts, names and dates spanning a vast geographical area, from the Atlantic to Central Asia, can be hard to digest.

The plight of Jews in Iran, Central Asia, Yemen and North Africa was worse than in the heart of the Ottoman empire, but one searches in vain for any distinction between treatment by Sunni or Shi’a, in areas where Jews were the only minority, or where Jews were one of many. There is no comparison between treatment of Jews and their fellow Christian dhimmis in the Muslim world. Gilbert fails to put the Arab and Muslim struggle against a Jewish home in Palestine, and the 20th century persecution of the Jews of the region, in its context of the oppression of all minorities by fascist-inspired modern Arab nationalism and islamism.

Moreover, In Ishmael’s House is a misleading title:it suggests that the Muslims owned the house, while the Jews lived there under sufferance as tenants or guests. Yet for 1,000 years until the 7th century Arab conquest, the Middle East was populated exclusively by Jews and Christians. They were, so to speak, the original owners, until the johnny-come-lately of Islamic imperialism usurped the house from them.

Overall, however, the book is a triumph of truth over propaganda, and will make a valuable contribution to restoring Jews to the history books of the Middle East, from which they have been unjustly expunged.

Jewish Chronicle

More reviews here, here, here, here, here,here and here

*An Evening with Sir Martin Gilbert: Sir Martin will be talking about In Ishmael’s House on 5 October at a synagogue in London. For details see Harif.


  • It would be great to see a video of Martin Gilbert talk for the benefit of those who can't be there.

  • The claim made by Bernard Lewis and echoed by Martin Gilbert that Muslims treated Jews better than Christians did is belied by Maimonides [Rambam] who said that Ishmael was worse [in his Letter to Yemen, אגרת תימן ]. Further, the Rambam was in correspondence with Jews in faraway places, from India to southern France. So he ought to have had a good basis for comparing experiences of far flung Jewish communities.


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