In my novel The Thread of Reason, I describe an altercation in a Baghdad marketplace between a Jewish official and a rug seller. The incident is a true story, and it offers us a view into the highest level politics among the Muslims of the time, and the lot of Jews and Christians living among them.
The imbroglio came amid deep-seated political tension between the caliph and his vizier (prime minister) Abu Shuja on the one hand, and the sultan and his vizier Nizam al-Mulk, on the other. Technically, the caliph is head of the Muslim religion, the “Commander of the Faithful,” and the sultan is merely his servant. But as we see in this account by the historian ibn al-Athir (1160-1233), the incident in the market not only led to dire consequences, but revealed where the true power lay:
In Rabi’ I of this year [Apr 23 to May 22 1091], the vizier Abu Shuja was dismissed from the post of caliph’s vizier. His dismissal came in this manner. A Jew in Baghdad, called Abu Sa’d ibn Samha, acted as the steward of the sultan and Nizam al-Mulk. A man selling carpets met him and gave him a blow which knocked the turban from his head. The man was seized, carried off to the Diwan [ministry] and questioned as to the reason for his action. He replied, “He treated me as inferior to himself.” Gohara’in [the sultan's governor in Baghdad], accompanied by Ibn Samha the Jew, went to the Sultan’s camp to complain, and both were unanimous in their complaints against the vizier Abu Shuja. After they had gone, the caliph’s warrant was issued [Apr 7 or 12, 1091], that the Dhimmis should be compelled to wear their distinctive dress, to wear what the Commander of the Faithful Umar ibn al-Khattab (God be pleased with him) had stipulated for them. They fled to various hide-aways. Some converted to Islam, among them Abu S’ad al-Ala’ ibn al-Hasan ibn Wahb ibn Musilaya, the secretary, and his nephew, Abu Nasr Hibat Allah ibn al-Hasan ibn Ali, the chief intelligence officer, who both made their conversion at the hands of the caliph.
It was also reported to the sultan and Nizam al-Mulk that the vizier was frustrating their purposes and disparaging their achievements, so much so that, when news of the sultan’s conquest of Samarqand came, he said, “This is nothing to send victory communiques about, as though he had conquered the [Christian] Byzantine lands. Is not all he has done to march against true believing Muslims, allowing them to be subjected to treatment that is unacceptable for polytheists?”
When Gohara’in and ibn Samha came to the camp and complained of the vizier to the sultan and Nizam al-Mulk, telling them of all that he was saying about them and of his frustrating their purposes, they sent to the caliph asking that he be dismissed, and it was done. He was ordered to confine himself to his residence. He was dismissed on a Thursday, and when the order was given he recited:
He took the office without an enemy,
He gave it up without a friend.
On the following day, a Friday [10 Ramadan/24 October—note that this conflicts with the April/May date given previously], he left his house on foot to go to the mosque. A vast crowd (of his supporters) gathered around him, and he was order to stay at home.
In addition to the visibility it gives us into the politics of the sultan and the caliph, the incident illustrates the precarious position occupied by dhimmis—Jews and Christians—living in the medieval Muslim world. They could reach quite high stations in society—as ibn Samha had. But, as the passage shows, this fostered resentment in ordinary Muslims, and further the Jews and Christians were subject to “what the Commander of the Faithful Umar ibn al-Khattab had stipulated for them” centuries before, often called the “Ordinance of Omar.” The requirement to wear “distinctive dress”—typically a red or yellow cord worn on the shoulder by Jews and a special belt and a cross around the neck for Christians—was just the tip of the iceberg. Jews and Christians could not build their homes or houses of worship higher than the Muslim buildings. They were prohibited from riding horses, and they could ride a donkey only if they used a wooden saddle. They were required to make way for a Muslim if they were to meet him on the road, and were banned from ringing church bells or otherwise making noise during their religious ceremonies.
Further, they were subject to the jizyah—an annual head tax of three to five gold dinars, not a huge sum, but out of reach of the poorest members of society. According to the law, the jizyah had to be paid in person and the official collecting it was supposed to hit the dhimmi below the ear; it wasn’t enough that the dhimmi was required to pay extra taxes—he had to be humiliated while he did so.
Although the jizyah was collected throughout this period, it is clear from the passage that other provisions of the Ordinance of Omar weren’t enforced prior to the incident in the marketplace. But the passage also shows that Jews and Christians lived under the threat of them being reimposed at any time—and that it was burdensome enough to drive some prominent Jews and Christians to turn their backs on the faiths of their ancestors.
Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com
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