I.J. Benjamin on Jews in Mid-19th Century Islamdom, Versus America: Sharia Versus Freedom

Israel Joseph (I.J.) Benjamin [1818-1864], was a “maggid”, an itinerant Jewish preacher, best known for his extensive first hand mid-19th century travelogue accounts of the Jewish communities of Africa and Asia (“Eight years in Asia and Africa from 1846 to 1855”), and subsequently, America (“Three years in America, 1859-1862”). Benjamin’s writings were supported by letters and various other memorabilia he collected during his journeys, and ultimately garnered contemporary approval as “truthful and simple narrative” accounts, by respected scholars of his era such as Alexander von Humboldt, Carl Ritter, and Julius Heinrich Petermann.

I am unaware of any direct juxtaposition of Benjamin’s observations on the condition of Jews in mid-19th century Islamdom, i.e., under the jurisdiction of Islamic Law, Sharia, relative to their simultaneous American experience. Extracts from “Eight years in Asia and Africa from 1846 to 1855”, and “Three years in America, 1859-1862”, allow direct, res ipsa loquitur comparisons of Jews living under Sunni Ottoman Sharia in their indigenous homeland of Israel (historical “Palestine”), as well as the Shiite Persian Sharia, versus American Constitutional law, while the United States, in addition, was a devoutly Christian country (i.e., in the mid-19th century words of Tocqueville, “there is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America; and there can be no greater proof of its utility and its conformity to human nature than that its influence is powerfully felt over the most enlightened and free nation of the earth.”)

To illustrate, the antithetical ideological underpinnings of these Islamic, and American systems, I have included germane writings from the Sunni Ottoman jurist Molla Khosrew, the Shiite Persian jurist al-Majlisi, and America’s first President, George Washington.

Sharia Versus Freedom; Molla Khosrew, Mohammad Baquer al-Majlisi, and George Washington on Religious Freedom

Molla Khosrew (d. 1480) was a celebrated writer and jurist, who was appointed the Ottoman Shaykh-al-Islam (highest ranking Ottoman Muslim religious official) by Sultan Mehmed II in 1469.  One of Molla Khosrew’s authoritative, widely cited legal works, reiterated these classical views on Sharia-based governance of Muslims, and their overall legal inequality including specific restrictions on religious and social freedoms. For example, he reiterated these classical views on the jizya—a blood ransom poll-tax demanded in lieu of being slain and completely dispossessed. The jizya was collected regularly (most often annually), in person, and in a manner that confers the subjects humiliation, due to their willingly imperfect belief, consistent with Koran 9:29. Of note also, is the specific admonition to Jews:

“Jizya is a term that refers to that which is collected of the dhimmi, in exchange for their life and belongings… [belongings] referring here exclusively to land and non-moveable property [as] nothing else, except the land and the home, remain in the hands of the conquered…There are two kinds of tribute, or jizya: one is agreed upon following surrender; the other is set by the Imam if the enemy has been vanquished by Muslims following a battle. The agreed-upon jizya is not subject to later negotiations. The only situations that allow the cessation of payment are the following: death, conversion to Islam, the onset of a physical handicap, such as blindness, mutilation, or old age, to such a degree as to no longer allow work..[and] the debt contracted due to the non-payment of the previous year’s jizya should not expire… The obligation to pay the jizya ends with death or with conversion to Islam, because the divine law, [Sharia] considers such an obligation to be an earthly punishment: it serves the punitive purpose of chasing away evil from the world…The jizya should not be accepted when payment is made through an intermediary, rather, the payer should come in person to pay, and remain standing: he who is collecting should, on the other hand, be sitting. In the Al-Hidaya text [classical Islamic Law text of the Hanafi school of jurisprudence], the tax collector is also expected to shake the clothing of the payer, saying “Pay the jizya, oh dhimmi”, further, … the tax collector can also say, ‘Oh Jew, enemy of Allah, pay!’ [emphasis added]…In other texts…we read that the dhimmi should be hit on the neck at the time of collection.”

Also in accord with classical Islamic jurisprudence, Molla Khosrew outlines the typical regulations—regarding religious structures and practice, the prohibition on bearing arms, and distinguishing forms of dress, modes of travel, neighborhoods, and abodes—which complemented the jizya collection, and formed the basis for the system of dhimmitude (in this specific case, the Ottoman version):

“Building a synagogue or a church or a [Zoroastrian] Temple of Fire is not allowed. The term synagogue [kanisa] indicates a place of worship of the Jews, while church [bay’a] indicates a place of worship of the Christians. A place for spiritual retreat is also considered like a church. The prohibition concerns places constructed specifically for the purpose of religious rites, not areas for prayer set up within private homes, and this is applicable within the dar-al-islam. In any case, the right to rebuild that which was destroyed is granted, as buildings devoted to worship can be built in a place where such a building had been erected previously. It is not possible, however, to move from the original location, and to build elsewhere, as this would require erecting another building…It is possible for dhimmis to coexist with Muslims, but in specified locations such as a particular neighborhood. In no case should that be on Arab land, because the collaborators may not take those lands as a place of residence, according to the Prophet’s hadith, which states, ‘there may not coexist two religions on Arab (Muslim) land’. The houses of the dhimmi must be marked, in order not to violate the terms of the contract [ahd] so as to deserve to be put to death. …the dhimmi must be distinguishable by his clothing and by his means of transportation, by the way he loads his beast of burden, by his equipment, etc. For these reasons he may not appear riding a horse, or bearing arms, and he must always show his kusfig. This is a small cord, as thick as a finger, made of wool or animal hair, tied around the belly of the dhimmi, but different from a belt [zunnar], as the latter is made of silk…The dhimmi must ride a side saddle…The ideal situation would be for them not to ride any animal, but if they should do so out of necessity in a place crowded with Muslims, they should dismount and proceed on foot. Their passageways should be made narrow. Dhimmi women, too, must be distinguishable by keeping to pre-established roads and hammams (baths)…In any case, they must be kept from exhibiting their sinful practices, such as usury, and their customs, their songs, their dances, all that which is forbidden in any case…Should there be a festival, they should not celebrate by carrying crosses.”

The Ottoman system of dhimmitude—consistent with all other variants of this Sharia-based institution—conferred upon Jews (and all dhimmis) two basic legal disabilities which denied them both protection, and redress, when victimized: prohibition of the right to bear arms; and the inadmissibility of dhimmi legal evidence when a Muslim was a party.  And (as noted earlier) even the series of reforms imposed by European powers (as so-called “capitulations”) upon the weakening Ottoman Empire during its final eight decades, almost continuously (through 1914), failed to rectify these institutionalized legal discriminations in a substantive manner.

Mohammad Baqer Majlisi (d. 1699), the highest institutionalized clerical officer under both Shah Sulayman (1666-1694) and Shah Husayn (1694-1722), is recognized as the most influential cleric of the Safavid Shiite theocracy in Persia. By design, he wrote many works in Persian to disseminate key aspects of the Shiite ethos among ordinary persons.

In his magnum opus Bihar al-anwar (“Oceans of Light”), Majlisi clarifies the two aspects of the People of the Book’s ostensible “impurity.” The first concerns “spiritual impurity” (najasa ma’nawiyya) caused by “their essential nastiness, and the corruption of their beliefs” (khubth batinihim wa-su’i it’tiqadihim). The second aspect flows logically from the first: the concrete, physical impurity, frequently called “juridical impurity” (najasa shar’iyya [Sharia]), that is, an impurity defined by legal prescriptions. Majlisi’s treatise, “Lightning Bolts Against the Jews”, was written in Persian, and despite its title, was actually an overall guideline to anti-dhimmi regulations for all non-Muslims within the Shiite theocracy. Al-Majlisi, in this treatise, describes the standard humiliating requisites for non-Muslims living under the Sharia, first and foremost, the blood ransom jizya poll-tax, based on Koran 9:29. He then enumerates six other restrictions relating to worship, housing, dress, transportation, and weapons (specifically, i.e., to render the dhimmis defenseless), before outlining the unique Shiite impurity or “najis” regulations, as per their “juridical impurity.” It is these latter najis prohibitions which lead Anthropology Professor Laurence Loeb (who studied and lived within the Jewish community of Southern Iran in the early 1970s) to observe, “Fear of pollution by Jews led to great excesses and peculiar behavior by Muslims.”

According to al-Majlisi,

“And, that they should not enter the pool while a Muslim is bathing at the public baths…It is also incumbent upon Muslims that they should not accept from them victuals with which they had come into contact, such as distillates , which cannot be purified. In something can be purified, such as clothes, if they are dry, they can be accepted, they are clean. But if they [the dhimmis] had come into contact with those cloths in moisture they should be rinsed with water after being obtained. As for hide, or that which has been made of hide such as shoes and boots, and meat, whose religious cleanliness and lawfulness are conditional on the animal’s being slaughtered [according to the Sharia], these may not be taken from them. Similarly, liquids that have been preserved in skins, such as oils, grape syrup, [fruit] juices, myrobalan [an astringent fruit extract used in tanning], and the like, if they have been put in skin containers or water skins, these should [also] not be accepted from them…It would also be better if the ruler of the Muslims would establish that all infidels could not move out of their homes on days when it rains or snows because they would make Muslims impure. [emphasis added]”

Following a visit to Newport, Rhode Island, during August, 1790, and his warm reception by the local Jewish community represented in a letter by Moses Seixas, George Washington wrote a moving reply. America’s first President obviously rejected the liberty-crushing, Sharia-based restrictions upon Jews, Benjamin would witness in Sunni Ottoman Palestine, and Shiite Qajar Iran, still prevailing over a half-century later. Washington further dismissed the idea of mere “toleration” of Jews, embracing them as full, equal citizens of the nascent American nation, with complete freedom of conscience, and the guarantee of their personal security, stating:

“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support…It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.”

I.J. Benjamin’s mid-19th century observations on the Jewish communities of Israel, Persia, and America

[Israel] “Deep misery and continual oppression are the right words to describe the condition of the Children of Israel in the land of their fathers. —-I comprise a short and faithful picture of their actual state under the following heads.

1) They are entirely destitute of every legal protection and every means of safety. Instead of security afforded by law, which is unknown in these countries, they are completely under the orders of the Scheiks and Paehas, men, whose character and feelings inspire but little confidence from the beginning. It is only the European Consuls who frequently take care of the oppressed, and afford them some protection. .

2) With unheard of rapacity tax upon tax is levied on them, and with the exception of Jerusalem, the taxes demanded are arbitrary. Whole communities have been impoverished by the exorbitant claims of the Scheiks, who, under the most trifling pretenses and without being, subject to any control, oppress the ‘Jews with fresh burthens.; It is impossible to enumerate all their oppressions.

3) In the strict sense of the word the Jews are not even to complain when they are robbed und plundered; for the vengeance of the Arabs would be sure to follow each com plaint. Alas, alas, that such in the nineteenth century should be the condition of some of our people.

4) Their lives are taken into as little consideration as their property; they are- exposed to the caprice of any one; ever. the smallest pretext, even a harmless discussion, a word dropped in conversation, is enough to cause bloody reprisals. Violence of every kind is of daily occurrence. When, for instance in the contests of Mahomet Ali with the Sublime Porte, the City of Hebron was besieged by Egyptian troops and taken by storm, the Jews were murdered and plundered, and the survivors scarcely even allowed to retain a few rags to cover themselves. No pen can describe the despair of these unfortunates. The women were treated with brutal cruelty; and even to this day, many are found, who since that time are miserable cripples. With truth can the Lamentations of Jeremiah be employed here. Since that great misfortune up to the present day, the Jews of Hebron languish in the deepest misery, and the present Scheik is unwearied in his endeavours, not to allow their condition to be ameliorated, but on the contrary, he makes it worse.

5) The chief evidence of their miserable condition is the universal poverty which we remarked in Palestine, and which is here truly astounding; for nowhere else in our long journeys, in Europe, Asia and Africa did we observe it among the Jews. It even causes leprosy among the Jews of Palestine, as in former times. Robbed of their means of subsistence from the cultivation of the soil and the pursuit of trade, they exist upon the charity of their brethren in the faith in foreign parts. — The Writer, who has seen all their misery with his own eyes, and with his own hands has touched the deep and ever open and bleeding wounds of his brethren, has often repeated in his heart the words of Jeremiah: ‘If I go forth into the field, there I behold the slain with the sword, and when I enter into the city then I behold those who are sick with famine! —How is my heart oppressed with sadness! how loudly does it throb, I can nowhere find peace.’ But altho’ he has grieved over their inexpressible misery, he has also admired the resignation with which his brethren in the faith have borne their misfortunes for hundreds of years up to this time, and the confidence, with which they continue to be steadfast in hope. Like shadows they steal over the hand, which nourishes their cruel and imperious tyrants. The ignorant and barbarous Arab tramples this sacred soil beneath his feet, and considers the Jew a disinherited and accursed being, unworthy of dwelling there; and yet these ruins, these desolate cities, these wide-spreading fields now uncultivated and desolate, are the inheritance of Israel; and still does this fruitful land up to the present day bring forth abundantly every kind of grain, fruits of all countries, and excellent wine; and its air is also of exquisite purity and indescribable freshness…In a word the state of the Jews in Palestine, physically and mentally, is an unbearable one. This we vouch for and our assertion is the more deserving of credence as we devoted all our time and energies to obtain correct information on this point, and yet there the land yields most abundantly. If the possession of it were not too completely in the hands of the Arabs, — if one could only secure for the Jews some little portion of it, and give them the means for its cultivation, sufficient sources of industry would be open to them, wherewith to obtain a subsistence. We are thoroughly convinced of the correctness of this from our own personal observations on the spot. We paid very particular attention to this subject, as it is one that has been much agitated in Europe of late. But what does it benefit them to cultivate the ground, if the Arabs rob them of the harvest?”

[Persia] “I comprise their oppressions under the following heads:

1) Throughout Persia the Jews are obliged to live in a part of the town separated from the other inhabitants; for they are regarded as unclean creatures, who bring contamination with their intercourse and presence.

2) They have no right to carry on trade in stuff goods.

3) Even in the streets of their own quarter of the town they are not allowed to keep any open shop. — They may only sell spices and drugs, or carry on the trade of a jeweler, in which they have arrived at great perfection.

4) Under the pretext of their being unclean, they are treated with the greatest severity, and should they enter a street, inhabited by Mussulmen, they are pelted by the boys and mob with stones and dirt.

5) For the same reason they are forbidden to go out when it rains; for it is said the rain would wash dirt of them, which would dirty the feet of the Mussulmen.

6) If a Jew is recognized as such in the streets, he is subjected to the greatest insults. The passers-by spit in his face, and sometimes beat him so cruelly, that he falls to the ground, and is obliged to be carried home. I

7) If a Persian kills a Jew, and the family of the deceased can bring forward two Mussulmen as witnesses to the fact, the murderer is punished by a fine of 12 tumauns (600 piastres); but if two such witnesses cannot be produced, the crime remains unpunished, even though it has been publicly committed, and is well known.

8) The flesh of the animals killed according to Hebrew custom, but as Trefe declared, must not be sold to any Mussulmen. The slaughterers are compelled to bury the meat, for even the Christians do not dare to buy it, fearing the mockery and insult of the Persians.

9) If a Jew enters a shop to buy anything, he is forbidden to inspect the goods, but must stand at respectful distance and ask the price. Should his hand by accident touch the goods, he must take them at any price the seller chooses to ask for them.

10) Sometimes the Persians intrude into the dwellings of the Jews and take possession of whatever pleases them. Should the owner make the least opposition in defense of his property, he runs the danger of atoning for it with his life.

11) Upon the least dispute between a Jew and a Persian (Muslim), the former is immediately dragged before the Achund (Muslim cleric), and, if the complainant can bring forward two witnesses, the Jew is condemned to pay a heavy fine. Is he too poor to pay this penalty in money, he must pay it in his person. He is stripped to the waist, bound to a stake, and receives forty blows with a stick. Should the sufferer utter the least cry of pain during this proceeding, the blows already given are not reckoned, and the punishment is begun afresh.

12) In the same manner the Jewish children, when they get into a quarrel with those of the Mussulmen, are immediately led before the Achund, and punished with blows.

13) A Jew who travels in Persia is taxed at every inn and caravanserai he enters. If he hesitates to satisfy any demands that may happen to be made on him, they fall upon him, and ill use him until he yields to their terms.

14) If, as already mentioned, a Jew shows himself in the street during the three days of the Katel ([or Ashura, 10th day of Muharram] feast of mourning for the death of the [Shiite] Persian founder of the religion of Ali) he is sure to be killed.

15) Daily and hourly new accusations are raised against the Jews, in order to obtain excuses for fresh extortions; the desire of gain is always the chief incitement to fanaticism in these parts.

These points give a clear insight into the wretched condition in which the Jews languish…”


Fifty years ago, the nonpareil scholar of Muslim, non-Muslim relations, S.D. Goitein, elucidated the yawning gap difference between Sharia-based, and U.S. Constitutional systems, and their impact on religious (and other) freedoms.

…a great humanist and contemporary of the French Revolution, Wilhelm von Humboldt, defined as the best state one which is least felt and restricts itself to one task only: protection, protection against attack from outside and oppression from within…in general, taxation [by the Muslim government] was merciless, and a very large section of the population must have lived permanently at the starvation level. From many Geniza letters one gets the impression that the poor were concerned more with getting money for the payment of their taxes than for food and clothing, for failure of payment usually induced cruel punishment… the Muslim state was quite the opposite of the ideals propagated by Wilhelm von Humboldt or the principles embedded in the constitution of the United States. An Islamic state was part of or coincided with dar al-Islam, the House of Islam. Its treasury was mal al-muslumin, the money of the Muslims. Christians and Jews were not citizens of the state, not even second class citizens. They were outsiders under the protection of the Muslim state, a status characterized by the term dhimma, for which protection they had to pay a poll tax specific to them. They were also exposed to a great number of discriminatory and humiliating laws…As it lies in the very nature of such restrictions, soon additional humiliations were added, and before the second century of Islam was out, a complete body of legislation in this matter was in existence…In times and places in which they became too oppressive they lead to the dwindling or even complete extinction of the minorities.

Those stark differences were already clearly discernible by the mid-19th century as confirmed in the travelogues of I.J. Benjamin, recording the experiences of his Jewish co-religionists under the Sunni, or Shiite Sharia, versus American Constitutional law, within a devoutly Christian America.

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