Tarik Ataul Munim, Spain
Imagine if we could find out how Jews lived in the time of Al Andalus in Spain. We would then know that, for example, a certain Toviyya wanted to marry Faiza, but it was not easy for him because he obviously had a very bad reputation.
This is known thanks to the discovery of hundreds of thousands of Jewish manuscripts found in a synagogue in Cairo, the synagogue of Ben Ezra. This discovery is special for Jews, because it speaks of their own distant past. One of these documents is a rather lengthy record where Toviyya swore in front of witnesses that his life would henceforth be blamelessly boring. He pledged to avoid mixing with bad company for the purpose of “eating, drinking or anything else”, and not to spend a night away from Faiza unless she wanted to. These facts were shown to the public for the first time in an exhibition at Cambridge University.
These records show us different aspect of the issues and daily routine that the Jewish Community had in Spain. Thanks to them, we are able to establish that until the Caliphate was abolished, they had a peaceful life, with no restrictions in the practice of their religion, their freedom of expression, and no friction with the Muslims. They were able to study, get married, get divorced and lead a peaceful and meaningful life.
Thanks to this and other discoveries, we know that in Spain Jews, Muslims and Christians thrived as a community, living and working together. We see how Jews were able to participate in all sectors of the economy and were not prohibited from even the most profitable enterprises, such as the trade in furs and spices.
This is shown through the lives of the characters that appear in the ancient manuscripts which include among others: a wandering son-in-law, a wife threatening with a hunger strike (but only during the day) as a protest due to her husband’s behaviour, a Jewish woman in love with a Christian doctor, and a rich woman excommunicated for adultery.
We also know that, during the Muslim reign in Spain, some Jews reached the level of Vizier/Chancellor, such as the well-known Samuel ibn Nagrella, who reached the highest position in the court, or Ibn Hasdai in Zaragoza: secretary of the chancellery of the Taifa of Zaragoza, a literary figure, philosopher and physician of Al Andalus.
And one of the best-known figures was Maimonides, a Jew born in Cordoba, considered one of the greatest scholars of the Torah. He worked as a doctor, philosopher, astronomer and rabbi, and was a point of reference for Jewish and Muslim philosophers and scientists.
The reflection I would like to make is: where does all this peaceful coexistence between Jews and Muslims come from? Why were people of different religions able to coexist with prosperity and wealth, where each one was able to achieve their personal objectives and goals while in the rest of Europe medieval darkness reigned? Was it thanks to or in spite of Islam?
To find out the answer we will look at some of the stories that have come down to us from the time when Islam was founded, to learn more about how Jews and other minorities lived at that time. All these stories are extremely important for any Muslim because they form the basis of Islamic jurisprudence.
On one occasion, when the Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa) was alive, a funeral procession passed in front of him, and he immediately stood up out of respect. A companion of his told him that it was the funeral of a Jew, not a Muslim. Hearing this, the Prophet replied, “Are not Jews human beings too?”
With examples like this, the Prophet taught the early Muslims that respect for humanity is more important than race or religion.
On another occasion, following altercations between Muslims and Jews, some Muslims misappropriated some of the Jews’ fruits and animals. The Prophet of Islam was furious when he heard about this and said: “Al’lah does not allow you to enter the houses of the People of the Book without their permission. Likewise, it is absolutely unlawful to pluck fruits from their orchards”.
Through this and many other instructions, the Prophet instilled in the early Muslims the importance of treating equally and giving equal rights to other members of society, regardless of their religion or origin.
At a later time, during the Caliphate of Hazrat Umar, he once came across an elderly non-Muslim, who was living in appalling conditions. On seeing him he exclaimed: “By God! It is not right that during his youth we should benefit from his abilities and leave him to suffer in his old age in this way”. He then instructed that he should be given a pension until his death. And furthermore, he established allowances for all poor and needy non-Muslims in all provinces.
This story is an example of how the Islamic government took responsibility for the basic needs of the people, regardless of their religion. This enabled the inhabitants to prosper and develop their studies and careers.
Another example is a letter from a Nestorian priest contemporary to Hazrat Umar describing the political conditions in the area to a friend. He says: “The Muslims protect our religion, respect our priests and Pharisees and have granted land for our churches”.
These are some of the many examples of how Islamic teachings were a decisive factor in the coexistence of Jews, Muslims and Christians, as they enabled the social development of Spain at the time of Al Andalus.
Some people claim that Muslims discriminated against non-Muslims by forcing them to pay a tax known as the jizya. But a deeper analysis shows that the reality is quite different. The jizya is a tax that exempts non-Muslims from fighting in the army at a time when there was no standing army. It is not a discriminatory tax.
By contrast, Muslims had to fight when required, and in addition, they had to pay Zakat which is a much heavier tax. And from which non-Muslims were exempt.
Sadly, with the decline of Islam, some of these regulations have ceased to be promoted throughout history, or have been altered to serve less noble purposes. Nevertheless, history bears witness to the fact that, if desired, coexistence between Jews and Muslims is possible and, moreover, profitable for both sides, and Spain was an example of this.
About the Author: Tarik Ataul Munim, serves as the Editor for The Review of Religions Spanish edition.
 Musnad Ahmad Bin Hanbal Vol. VII, pp. 899-900, Hadith 24343. (Beirut 1998)
 Abu Dawud, Kitabul-Khiraj, Hadith 3050. (Riyadh 2007)
 Izalatul-Khifa’ ‘an Khilafatil-Khulafa’, Part II, p. 73. (Suhail Academy, Lahore 1976)
 Memory of Fatuhush-Sham, p.106