Islamic History Judaism

Jews, Muslims, and Ancient Iraq: Why Harmony Can Prevail

© Shutterstock

Tariq Mahmood, Canada

The Middle East has become synonymous with socio-political instability. As the war between Israel and Hamas persists, it’s hard to detach the label of Jewish and Muslim from the conflict. 

The fact of the matter is, Islam does not harbour an inherent hatred for the Jews; both have peacefully coexisted in many regions throughout history. 

In a previous article, we discussed the treatment of Jews by the Caliph Umar (ra) when he conquered Jerusalem in the 7th century; exiled Jewish refugees were permitted to re-enter Jerusalem and were even allotted a place to live near their holiest site.

But hundreds of miles from Jerusalem, interfaith harmony between Islam and Judaism prevailed once more, this time in 7th century Iraq. 

At the time of the Muslim conquest of Iraq, the Jews were busy writing and collecting the Babylonian Talmud, but severe persecution by the Sassanids hindered their ability to practice their faith. 

From its inception, Islam has held a great reverence for the Jewish faith. The Holy Qur’an believes all prophets of Judaism to be the esteemed messengers of God as well. The Holy Qur’an itself mentions the name of the Prophet Moses (as) more than any other prophet and treats the Jews as brothers in faith.

Thus, when the Muslims defeated the Sassanids (Persians) and gained control of Iraq, the Jews therein welcomed the new empire. Nissim Rejwan, author of The Jews of Iraq writes regarding the Muslim victory and the Jewish perception regarding Islam:

‘There is reason to believe that the Jews of Babylonia – as well as Jews elsewhere – welcomed the new masters with a deep sigh of relief. At that point, for reasons of their own, the Sassanians had started on one of their periodical waves of harassment and persecution against their Jewish subjects… Islam, this new and unexpected factor in world politics, was destined to affect deeply the fortunes of the Jews everywhere, including of course those of the ancient Jewish communities of Palestine and Babylonia.’ (1)

The arrival of Muslims in Iraq brought with it the eradication of persecution towards Jews. Before their arrival, persecution escalated under the rule of the Persian King Yazdegerd III, who sought to apprehend the Exilarch (leader) of the Jews, a man named Bustanai, and sentence him to death. 

The Muslims, however, did not let this execution occur: After capturing Iraq, they saved Bustanai and restored him to his position as leader of the Jews of Iraq. (2)

The Muslims were not threatened by the Jews, nor did they seek to subjugate and oppress them; rather, they allowed them to function on their own in autonomous communities and communicated with them through their Exilarchs. Thus, the Jews became loyal and integrated citizens of the Islamic empire. 

Was Jizya Oppressive?

Some historians and orientalists allege that early Islam sought to oppress the Jews. They cite the Muslim imposition of Jizya upon the Jews to show that Islam discriminates against non-Muslims. This is an erroneous and deluded attack on Islam.

Jizya is a tax levied upon non-Muslims in lieu of military service. If a non-Muslim wished to participate in their civic duty to protect their country, they were exempt from Jizya. The Encyclopaedia Britannica itself notes:

‘Performance of military service earned an exemption; for example, under the second caliph, ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb, the Jarājimah tribe was exempted when it agreed to serve in the army. The non-Muslim poor, the elderly, women, serfs, religious functionaries, and the mentally ill generally did not pay any taxes.’ (3)

Thus, Jizya is only imposed upon non-Muslims so that they could contribute to the defense of the country. It is not imposed upon any Jewish person who cannot fight such as women and children, and those who choose to participate are automatically exempted.

Furthermore, Muslims also have a tax that they pay, called Zakat. Anti-Islamic scholars have long tried to portray Jizya as a tax which condemns Jewish people to serfdom and poverty while Muslims bask in some sort of bourgeoisie paradise. This is far from the truth. 

Zakat is a tax levied upon the Muslims despite their participation in the military. In comparison to the Jizya, many Muslim historians have outlined the same conclusion, as the Muslim historian Hazrat Mirza Bashir Ahmad (ra) says: 

‘In most cases, the tax of Zakāt which is especially levied on Muslims is greater than the tax of Jizyah, because its expenses are far greater.’ (4)

The fact of the matter is Islam cares deeply for the Jewish people and all true Islamic governments offer the freedom of religion to everyone. Jizya is an ease afforded to the non-Muslims under Islamic rule, because of which they do not have to engage in warfare, and can carry on their own lives. 

What more of a statement do you need than the leader of the entire Muslim Community during Islam’s conquest of Iraq?  The Caliph Umar (ra), the leader of the Muslims whose sole decision was the final word in all decisions, remarked on his deathbed:

‘I advise the Khalīfah [successor] who succeeds me to treat the non-Muslim citizens of the Islāmic State with extreme compassion and kindness. Fulfill treaties settled with them and protect them. Fight their enemies on their behalf, and do not in any case, place a burden or responsibility upon them which is beyond their capacity.’ (5)

How can Jizya be considered an oppressive tax when the leader of the Muslims is commanding his successor not to place burdens upon those who offer it? This statement shows that Jizya is not meant to be an oppressive tax; rather, Zakat is a tax levied upon Muslims, and Islam does not wish to impose its own teachings on other religions, for this would violate their freedom. Thus, it imposes Jizya

I digress back to the matter of Jews in Iraq and narrate an incident regarding their love for the Caliph Umar (ra).

It is recorded in Jewish history that one of the biggest Rabbis of that era, Rabbi Simon Bar Yohai, was visited by an angel. The angel reassured him that he should not worry, stating: 

Do not fear, son of man. The Holy One, blessed be He, is only bringing the kingdom of Ishmael in order to help you [the Jews] from the wicked one.’ (6)

What a beautiful example to elucidate the Jewish attitude towards Muslim rule, and the willingness to live harmoniously. To explain just how much the Muslims contributed to the prosperity of Judaism in Iraq, below is a list of changes made by the Islamic Empire for the Jewish population:

  1. The Exilarchate (leadership) of the Jews was restored after a temporary suspension by the Persians. The Muslims allowed the Exilarch to enjoy various dignities and near-complete autonomy.
  2. The Jews were allowed to open their academic institutions once more, contributing to the intellectual spring of Jewish studies. These institutions flourished and became pillars of Judaism in Iraq.
  3. The conquering of the Muslim Empire opened opportunities for commerce, allowing Jews to partner with non-Jews, especially in banking.
  4. Agriculture became an extremely viable prospect for the Jewish population under the Muslim Empire.
  5. If someone had mistakenly or foolishly forced Jews to convert to Islam, they were allowed to return to their religion, and practice it freely. (7)

Under these new provisions, the Jewish population contributed massively to Iraqi cities such as Kufa and Basra. They were heralded as excellent doctors and even better historians. The Jews of Mesopotamia welcomed the Muslim Empire; to them, there was finally a ruler who didn’t care to persecute the Jews, and they were allowed to keep to themselves.

Nissim Rejwan quotes a noted authority on the period of Muslim rule in Iraq in the 7th century, who states:

‘The extension of internal autonomy to the Jewish communities under Islam made possible the continuance of a Jewish way of life, or at least the semblance of it, the cultivation of Jewish learning, and patterns of behaviour which remained rooted in Talmudic literature, though they underwent an evolution and modification.’ (8)

In the 8th century, the city of Baghdad was established, which quickly became the centre of Jewish education in the world. Their academies were renowned throughout Judaism, and when Baghdad became the capital of the Islamic Empire, the Rabbis of this great city became the authority on all things Jewish. 

Their political spheres and systems were also given autonomy to function how they wished under the Islamic Empire; they imposed their own taxes on their people, while also handing out penalties as they saw fit.

After these golden years of interfaith harmony, it is important to mention that some Muslim rulers imposed strict and unjust laws on the Jewish population later on, but these rulers do not and cannot be allowed to represent Islam. They did not embody the spirit of Islam when it comes to freedom of religion. Every religion has such rulers within their time who abuse their power to subjugate others. 

For example, in the time of the Holy Prophet (sa), the three Jewish tribes of Madinah betrayed the Muslims; one tribe sought to fight the Muslims and constantly provoked them, while another refused to cooperate and even tried to assassinate the Holy Prophet (sa). Both of these tribes were exiled for treason. 

The third tribe crossed all limits; in an extremely sensitive time when all the Pagan armies of Arabia united in trying to destroy Islam and murder its followers, the Jewish Banu Qurayza tribe, who at the time were bound by treaty to the Muslims, tried to betray them and give the Pagan armies passage into Madinah, where all the Muslims would undoubtedly have been killed.

Muslims, however, do not judge all Jews on the basis of a select few tribes; we can see that the Caliph Umar (ra) treated the Jews with immense respect, despite witnessing all the treasonous actions of the Jewish tribes of Arabia. This demonstrates the lack of antisemitism within Islam.

Islam advocates for peaceful coexistence between followers of diverse faiths. 7th century Iraq demonstrates that this can be achieved.

Muslims and Jews were able to peacefully coexist in Iraq for centuries. At the turn of the 20th century, Jews even made up approximately one third of Baghdad’s population. When antisemitism did spring up, it wasn’t rooted in Islam; the Muslims lived peacefully with their Jewish brothers and sisters in humanity for over 1300 years. In fact, extremist antisemitism began with a pro-Nazi coup in Iraq, which occurred in 1941 but was short-lived. With the creation of the state of Israel, Iraqi Muslims had solidified their belief that Zionism was synonymous with Judaism. Thus, antisemitism of this height was imported by antisemitic attitudes in Europe. (9) 

The Holy Qur’an explicitly refers to Jews as ‘Ahl al-Kitab’, i.e., ‘The People of the Book’. The Qur’an makes clear that there are always kind and decent people of every faith, and evil people who may espouse the very same faith. 

The Holy Qur’an does denounce certain types of Jews, but it also denounces certain types of Muslims. In fact, the Holy Qur’an extensively condemns hypocritical Muslims who don’t practice what they preach.

In a parallel manner, the Holy Qur’an says regarding Jews:

‘They are not all alike. Among the People of the Book there is a party who stand by their covenant; they recite the word of Allah in the hours of night and prostrate themselves before Him.

They believe in Allah and the Last Day, and enjoin what is good and forbid evil, and hasten, vying with one another, in good works. And these are among the righteous.

And whatever good they do, they shall not be denied its due reward; and Allah well knows the God-fearing.’ (10)

Thus, one can clearly observe that Islam and Judaism are not at odds with one another; 7th century Iraq and Jerusalem shine as brilliant testaments to the idea that Muslims and Jews can peacefully coexist with one another. Peace can prevail if it is given a chance to do so. 

The current war between Hamas and Israel is being fought in an environment diametrically opposed to the same land 1400 years ago. As Israel seeks to commit atrocity after atrocity, continues to bomb hospitals and refugee camps, and kills innocent women and children, there seems to be no end in sight. It seems Israel does not desire peace this time, but rather the complete decimation of Gaza after decades of oppression.

Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times.’ (11)

History has much to teach us if we allow ourselves to learn from it. Examples such as these remind us of the possibility that peace can be established if we work towards it. 

It also reminds us that this war has nothing to do with Islam and Judaism; if Israel truly followed their religion, then peace would be established, but alas they continue to neglect the teachings of the Torah and forget to show the same mercy that they claim God showed them all those years ago.

For now, we pray for peace to be established, so that the loss of innocent lives may cease, and the Levant can breathe a sigh of relief once more.

About the Author: Tariq Mahmood is a graduate of the Ahmadiyya Institute of Languages and Theology in Canada and serves as Secretary of The Existence Project Team for The Review of Religions.


  1. Nissim Rejwan, The Jews of Iraq: 3000 Years of History and Culture (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1985), p. 80.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Asma Afsaruddin, “Jizyah | Definition & Facts,” Encyclopedia Britannica, September 24, 2019,
  4. Mirza Bashir Ahmad, The Life and Character of the Seal of Prophets, vol. 2 (Tilford, UK: Islam International Publications Ltd., 2013), p. 564.
  5. Kitābul-Kharāj, By Qāḍī Abū Yūsuf Ya‘qūb bin Ibrāhīm, p. 135, Faṣlun: Fī Man Tajibu ‘Alaihil-Jizyah, Printed by Baulāq (1302 A.H.), Taken From Mirza Bashir Ahmad, The Life and Character of the Seal of Prophets, vol. 2 (Tilford, UK: Islam International Publications ltd., 2013),p. 566.
  6. Nissim Rejwan, The Jews of Iraq: 3000 Years of History and Culture (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1985), pp. 82-83.
  7. Ibid., pp. 79-85
  8. Ibid., pp. 86-87
  10. The Holy Qur’an, 3:114-116
  11. Niccolo Machiavelli. The Prince. (Race Point Publishing, 2017), p. 220.