Muslims and Jews in History

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Muslims and Jews in History


The historical interaction of Judaism and Islam started in the seventh century with the origin and spread of Islam in the Arabian peninsula. Judaism and Islam share a common origin in the Middle East through Abraham, and there are many shared aspects between the two religions in their fundamental religious outlook, structure, jurisprudence and practice.


At the heart of the two faiths is a monotheistic vision which resists any compromise on the idea of the transcendence and unity of God who is envisaged as just and merciful and who has revealed a way of life in accordance with these values for the benefit of human society.


Islam and Judaism do not have clergy who by virtue of sacrament are separate from the rest of the community.  Religious authority is essentially a function of individual mastery of the religious sources to be able to guide the community in accordance with their teachings.


Muslims regard Jews and Christians as "People of the Book". In the Dar al-Islam - the territories ruled by Muslims - they always enjoyed more protection than heathens. For centuries across the Muslim world, Jews and Christians were subject to the rules of the dhimma statutes: in exchange for payment of extra taxes, they were granted limited rights.


There are different opinions among scholars regarding the character and origin of the Jewish communities that the Prophet Mohammed encountered in Arabia.  Clearly, they shared enough of the message of the Prophet Mohammed for the latter to assume that the Jews of Medina would eagerly rally around him.  Their failure to do so led to the ensuing discord, arguments and hostility between them.


The restrictive conditions which ensured the Jews' inferior status were codified in the Pact of Umar. But despite their dhimmi status, the Jews were free to practice their religion and were better off under the Muslim rule than under the Byzantine Christians.


Medieval Islamic civilization developed into its most productive period between the years 900 and 1200, and Jewish civilization in the Islamic world followed suit.  The fact that, with the spread of Islam, Arabic became the language of the Middle East, North Africa and Spain, including the Jews of those countries, facilitated cultural cross-influences.  For several centuries, most Jewish writing in those regions, both secular and religious, was in Arabic, written in Hebrew letters.


Beginning with rabbis like Saadya Gaon in Iraq, and continuing especially in Muslim Spain, Jewish thinkers followed in Muslim footsteps and applied the same kind of loving study and exploration to the Hebrew language that Muslim scholars were doing to Arabic, the language of the Quran. They developed the study of Hebrew grammar, which was something new in Jewish thinking.  Over time, they worked out the understanding of Hebrew grammar that is in use today.


During this period, some of the greatest works of Jewish philosophy, grammar, law, philology, and lexicography were written, in parallel with great advances in these fields in the Islamic world.  Jewish poetry in Hebrew found a renaissance during this period as well, and its meters, styles, and contents parallel those of its Muslim Arabic counterpart.  In Spain, Jewish civilization flourished along with the flowering of the Islamic and secular sciences and culture throughout the region, known in Arabic as al-Andalus.


The relatively open society of al-Andalus was reversed and then ended by the coming of North African armies to help defend against the Spanish Christians, who were pushing the Muslims southward from their strongholds in the north.  Jews were highly restricted under the Islamist Berber regimes and eventually began moving northward to newly conquered Christian areas where, for the time being, they were treated better.


The reversal of Jewish good fortune in Spain was mirrored in other parts of the Islamic world, where by the thirteenth century the open and humanistic qualities of Islamic society began to give way to a more feudalistic mentality of rigidity and control.  Many Jewish communities were forced into ghettos and in places Jewish and Christian communities were destroyed.  As the Islamic world declined, so too did the Jewish communities within it, and Jewish intellectual, cultural, and religious creativity generally tended to shift toward the Jewish communities of Europe. But as a rule, the Jewish communities that remained in the Muslim world were generally protected in keeping with the Pact of Umar and as long as they accepted their second class status, lived peacefully and cooperatively with their Muslim neighbors.


Nowhere was this more true than in the Ottoman Empire. When in 1492 the king of Spain, Ferdinand, issued an edict to expel from Spain all remaining Jews who did not convert to Christianity, the Ottoman Sultan Bayazid II offered refuge to the Jews. For centuries, Jews lived in relative calm under Ottoman rulers, and an increasing number of European Jews sought refuge in their territories.  According to Bernard Lewis, "the Jews were not just permitted to settle in the Ottoman lands, but were encouraged, assisted and sometimes even compelled".


The newly-arrived Jews made important contributions to scientific and technical progress of the Ottoman Empire. One of the most significant innovations that Jews brought to the Ottoman Empire was the printing press. In 1493, only one year after their expulsion from Spain, David & Samuel ibn Nahmias established the first Hebrew printing press in Istanbul. Jewish literature flourished in the relatively tolerant atmosphere of Ottoman Empire.


Living conditions for Jews in several Muslim countries began to deteriorate in the nineteenth century with the decline of Ottoman power and the rise of nationalist fervor and religious radicalism as a reaction to the growing influence of European colonial powers. Anti-Semitic stereotypes first appeared in the Muslim world during this period.


In the twentieth century, the collapse of imperial rule and the rise of modern nationalism led to the clash between the Jewish aspiration for self determination in what the Jews regarded as their ancestral homeland and the struggle for national self-determination on the part of the regional and local Arab populations.  This territorial conflict has degenerated in recent times to increasingly assume the character of a religious conflict.


While not seeking to go into the causes and effects, rights and wrongs of the political conflict in the Middle East, the increasing religious characterization of a territorial struggle has come from various quarters, presenting the conflict as a clash of civilizations between the Muslim world and Western society. Extremists portrayed the others as devoid of moral character and without religious legitimacy, with Israel and the Jews portrayed as a hostile "bridgehead" into the Arab world in particular and the Muslim world in general.


The truth, however, is that what we are witnessing is not a clash of civilizations as much as a clash within civilizations.  It is a clash between those elements of a religious culture whose sense of historic injury and humiliation leads to alienation and conflict within their own societies as well as to those outside their religious culture; and those who seek to constructively engage other societies as part of world culture and a positive interaction with modernity.


This "clash within civilizations" means that enlightened voices on both sides of the divide have a responsibility to work together not only to be greater than the sum of their different parts but also to provide the essential alternative testimony - i.e. that of interreligious and intercultural cooperation and mutual respect.  In particular, Muslim and Jewish leaders have a duty to their communities and faith traditions to counteract the destructive exploitation of their religious civilizations and to draw their inspiration from those past examples of the glory of cooperation and collaboration among the children of Abraham - Muslims, Christians and Jews - for the benefit of all.