The lost communities: Tracing Jewish ties with Islam in Egypt

By: PhD candidate Olav G. Ørum, University of Oslo.

Many famous Jewish figures have resided in Egypt, a land where Jews have probably lived long before the Muslim conquest. Among these, we find the three philosophers Philo of Alexandria, Maimonides and Saadiya Gaon, not to forget the scriptural central figures of the three Abrahamic religions, namely Joseph, his twelve brothers, father Jacob, and Abraham himself. But during 1956, the presence of the egyptianized Jews, Greeks, Italians, Syrians and Armenians in Egypt came to an end, primarily as a result of anti-colonial ideas and the rise of Egyptian nationalism and polarization between the nationalist movement and Israel. After the Suez Crisis, the situation deteriorated further and Jews in Egypt were branded “Zionists” and “enemies of the State”, and felt pressured or were forced to leave the country.

In the centuries and decades leading up to the 20th century, Jewish life was so deeply rooted in Egypt that it could remind of the golden ages of Jewish culture some twelve centuries earlier on the Iberian Peninsula. Today there is no Jewish community, and hardly any trace of Judaism left in Egypt, and Jewish residents reportedly count less than ten people. The few traces of Arabic and Islamic culture among the Egyptian Jewish descendants who live abroad today are rapidly disappearing, if not already vanished. There is without doubt a strong sense of nostalgia for Egypt within todays various scattered Jewish communities in USA, France, South America and Israel. But somewhat categorically, the strict contradiction between Arab Nationalism and the highly politicized Jewish exodus from Arab countries have firmly uprooted the little that was left of religious interchange between Judaism and Islam.

A man kneeling during morning prayers in the Karaite synagogue in Ramle, Israel. Prostration is a common practice in Karaite prayers, as the Book of Psalms 95:6 reads: “Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker”. Photo: Olav G. Ørum

Shawn Lichaa, a member of the Karaite community in San Francisco, who is currently involved in a project on preservation of Jewish documents written in Arabic, confirms the lack of interreligious exchange of ideas between Jews and Muslims. “I think that one way towards greater respect between the two communities is to show how much similarity exists and how they influenced each other’s ways of thinking”, he remarks.

Jewish diversity in Egypt

Despite their common religious affiliation, the Jewish communities in Egypt were quite diverse, in terms of ethnicity, historical and socioeconomic background, language and religious doctrine. Before modernization came to Egypt, there were only two small Jewish communities living in Egypt, namely the Rabbinates and the Karaites, whose mother tongue was Arabic. Later, between 1850 and 1950, Egypt witnessed massive waves of migration from neighboring countries, mainly due to economic opportunities. These were Sephardi Jews (formerly of Spanish descent) migrating to Egypt from the Ottoman Empire and elsewhere around the Mediterranean Sea, accompanied by the Ashkenazi Jews who fled from prosecution in Eastern Europe.

Modernity as a challenge to the traditional Judeo-Arabic tradition

During Egypt’s era of modernization, Cairo developed into a Middle-Eastern metropolis where ethnic pluralism, culture, economy and access to education grew rapidly. Of the most important factors contributing to modernization in Egypt, were the improvements of the country’s administrative system, the establishment of an Egyptian post office, economical support to the cause of education, and building of railways and telegraphs, not to forget the opening of the Suez Canal in the end of the 1860’s. This attracted not only Jews, but people of all backgrounds seeking a better life. Now, the Rabbinate community of Egypt had grown much larger than the Karaite community, due to the large numbers of newly-arrived Jewish migrants. Differing features among Jews also grew more noticeable than before, parallel to the rest of the Egyptian society: Being a member of the higher social stratum often meant embracing European and cosmopolitan culture, particularly French, whereas the lower social class lingered in their old and less prestigious culture, which in the case of many native Egyptian Jews was the Judeo-Arabic culture. It may be appropriate to suggest that Egypt’s apparently strong propensity for multiculturalism and transformation into a modern society — in line with the general cultural tendencies of modernity — in a way was the beginning of the end of traditional Judeo-Arabic culture, and particularly its ancient ties with Islam. The explanation of this somewhat illogical assumption is that whereas more and more migrants came, bringing with them money, higher education, foreign dialects of Arabic and other languages, and a general notion of cosmopolitan rationale to Egypt, the immigrants’ own culture became increasingly embedded in Egyptian life, particularly in that of the Jewish Egyptian community.

Islamic influence on Judeo-Arabic culture

Nevertheless, thanks to the large amount of Genizah documents found in Egypt (a genizah is a storage room in a Jewish synagogue designated for the temporary storage of books and papers) we can go back in time and explore parts of former Jewish life in Egypt. When we turn to 19th-century Judeo-Arabic material, apparently written by monolingual or partly francophone Arabic speaking Karaites, we find many signs of a pre-modern and traditional Judeo-Arabic culture, especially the strong influence and acceptance of Islamic religion and culture. Particularly interesting is the body of popular works that are influenced by the traditions of Jewish Midrash and Aggadah, the Islamic Qiṣaṣ al-ᵓAnbiyāᵓ, and the so-called ᵓIsrāᵓīliyyāt.

In a Jewish story about (the Islamic prophet and Christian godson) Jesus, we encounter Munkar and Nakīr ‘the Denied and the Denier’, the two angels who according to Islamic tradition will question the newly dead. Found in the same story is a phrase from kalimat at-tamjīd ‘the word of Majesty’, lā ḥawla wa-lā quwwa ᵓillā bi-llāh al-ᶜazīm (sic) ‘there is no power or strength except with God, the Great’, found in the collection of “authentic” sayings of the Prophet Muḥammad, compiled by of al-Bukhārī, Muslim, Abū Dawūd and al-Tirmiḏī. There are also numerous cross-religious references to be found, e.g. the action of putting sinners in chains, punishing them and throwing them into the blazing fire, depicted in the Quran’s Sūrat Ġāfir (no. 40) verse 71 and Sūrat Ḥāqqa (no. 69) verse 30, as well as the Bible’s Book of Daniel 3:17.

A Judeo-Arabic manuscript containing the story of Sayyidnā ¬Sulaimān ‘Our master Solomon’. In true Islamic fashion, the manuscript is introduced with the so-called basmala, the formula ‘In the name of God, Compassionate, the Merciful’. Photo: Olav G. Ørum. Permission is granted by the Karaite community in Ramle, Israel.

In another story, about the patriarch Abraham, any reference to God is either Allāh or Allāh taᶜālā ‘God, Exalted be He’ rather than Hebrew Elohim, ha-shem or the like, and Abraham himself is consistently referred to as Ibrāhīm al-Khalīl ‘Abraham the Friend’ or Ibrāhīm ᶜAbdu Khalīl ‘~ His servant’ rather than Avraham Avinu. The place in which Abraham preaches for the first time about God in public is Madīnat ᶜIrāq ‘the city of Iraq’ rather than Bavel ‘Babylon’. In the same story there are also passages displaying almost identical content as that of the Quran, for example when Abraham as a child confesses his monotheistic belief. The last part of the passage reads ᵓid-lam yahdinī rabbī laᵓakūn min al-qawm az-zālimīn (sic) ‘If my Lord does not direct me, I will be of the people gone astray’, which is (virtually) taken right from Sūrat al-Baqara’s (no. 2) verse 77. Another example of Islamic influence in the story, and indeed a symbol of interchange between Judaism and Islam in itself, is the frequent reference to Kaᶜb al-Aḥbār, a Yemenite rabbi living in the times of Muḥammad and one of the earliest important converts from Judaism to Islam. Many sayings have been attributed to him, e.g. in al-Kis­­aᵓ­ī’s work on Qiṣaṣ al-ᵓAnbiyāᵓ ‘Stories of the Prophets’, the literary style of which shows striking similarities to that of the stories appearing later in 19th-century Judeo-Arabic material.

The works of the Karaite Jews expand our understanding of the scriptural prophets’ undertakings, and thus shed important light on fundamental parts of Biblical and Quranic history. At the same time, the stories gives us important insight to how customs transmit from one culture to another; according to the Jewish Karaite stories, Abraham, upon becoming a monotheist, cleaned himself in a fresh spring, washing his hands, legs and head, and sat down to pray. The resemblance to Islam, viz. the cleansing practice of wuḍūᵓ and the submissive gesture of sujūd, is remarkable. But where did these ritual actions of ablution and prostration towards purity and divinity originate? It looks as if the Islamic influence attested in the Judeo-Arabic material from Egypt only represents a short chapter in the ancient history of cross-cultural interchange between Muslims and Jews (and Christians for that sake). To quote Marc S. Bernstein from his preface in Stories of Joseph: Narrative Migrations between Judaism and Islam, whose words have inspired my summary for the time being: “[The] Jewish text has seemingly taken its form from an Islamic prototype, which in turn was derived from the Jewish literary mode of scriptural interpretation”. It is in fact evidence of “cultural borrowing coming full circle” (ibid.), and of the nature of interreligious influence and adaptation in a somewhat continuously evolving spiral.


This post is based on work which is still in progress. Olav G. Ørum is currently writing his doctoral dissertation entitled Written and spoken Judaeo-Arabic in 19th and 20th-century Cairo. A linguistic study of the indigenous Jews of Ḥārit il-Yahūd.

Further/recommended reading:

Beinin, Joel. 1998. The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry: Culture, Politics, and the Formation of a Modern Diaspora. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Bernstein, Marc S. 2006. Stories of Joseph: narrative migrations between Judaism and Islam. Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press.

Edzard, Lutz Eberhard. 2012. “Linguistic and cultural features of an Iraqi Judeo-Arabic text of the Qiṣaṣ al-ᵓAnbiyāᵓ Genre”. Middle Arabic and Mixed Arabic. Diachrony and synchrony, ed. by Liesbeth Zack and Arie Schippers. Leiden: Brill (Studies in Semitic Languages and Linguistics vol. 64), 83-94.

Finkel, Joshua. 1937. “An Arabic story of Abraham”. Hebrew Union College Annual, vol 12/13 (1937-1938), 387-409.