It is indeed unfortunate that the status of the Jews as a tolerated minority in the Muslim world before the advent of Zionism has come to figure prominently in the competition between Jews and Arabs to enlist public opinion. The lay reader is often at a loss between the arguments on both sides. On the one hand, he hears that Jews (and Christians) had the status of a protected minority under Islam, and that Jews in Muslim Spain enjoyed a golden age of peace and prosperity; on the other, he is told that Jews and Christians had no legal equality and were never anything other than second-class citizens. These conflicting versions are put into a balanced perspective by Bernard Lewis:
Even at its best, medieval Islam was rather different from the picture provided by Disraeli and other romantic writers. The golden age of equal rights was a myth, and belief in it was a result, more than a cause, of Jewish sympathy for Islam. The myth was invented by Jews in 19th-century Europe as a reproach to Christians – and taken up by Muslims in our own time as a reproach to Jews.
Like most powerful myths, this story contains an element of historic truth. If tolerance means the absence of persecution, then classic Islamic society was indeed tolerant to both its Jewish and its Christian subjects – more tolerant perhaps in Spain than in the East, and in either incomparably more tolerant than was medieval Christendom. But if tolerance means the absence of discrimination, then Islam never was or claimed to be tolerant, but on the contrary insisted on the privileged superiority of the true believer in this world as well as the next.
Read it all.