09 February 2002

Antagonisms did not always
exist between Jews and Muslims

Patrick Comerford

It is almost a decade since Samuel Huntingdon wrote in Foreign Affairs about the “clash of civilisations”. Since September 11th, relations between the West and the Arab and Islamic world have deteriorated.

But, surprisingly, Muslim-Christian dialogue has improved since then, with Muslims and Anglicans signing a major agreement in Lambeth, a ground-breaking forum in Cairo involving Christians, Muslims and Jews, and another world day of prayer in Assisi, convened by Pope John Paul II and involving leaders of the major world faiths.

As relations between Israelis and Palestinians continue to deteriorate, it is too easy to imagine this malaise is typical of the relations between Jews and Palestinians. But Jewish-Muslim dialogue is another side of the triangle that is enclosed by Jewish-Christian and Christian-Muslim dialogue. Relations between Jews and Muslims in Israel and Palestine may have reached their lowest point to date, but it was not always so, and need not be like this in the future. Israelis refer in Hebrew to their Palestinian neighbours as “cousins”. Family relationships can often be tense; but, nevertheless, they remain a family concern, and the ties of kinship can never be denied.

The ties between Jews and Muslims were the subject this week of a seminar, “Jews and Muslims: the encounter through the generations”, organised jointly by the James Shasha Institute of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Trinity College Dublin.

Prof Reuven Amitai, director of the James Shasha Institute, referring to the present “sorry and difficult situation”, accepted tensions have reached a new peak, making it easy to forget that in the past relations between Jews and Muslims were seen in a different light.

They were not always perfect or idyllic, but neither were they characterised by antagonism or conflict. During the siege of Jerusalem in July 1099, Jews and Muslims had fought side-by-side, and they were massacred together. In 1187, when Salladin recognised the need to repopulate the city with a friendly and co-operative people, he turned to the Jews of the neighbouring regions.

Dr Meir Bar-Asher, a specialist in the Qur’an and Qur’anic exegesis, pointed out that the relations between Jews and Arabs predate the birth of Islam. Jews, as “People of the Book”, ahl al-kitab, were a protected minority dhimmi under Islam, along with Christians and Zoroastrians. But Dr Bar-Asher highlighted the presence of Jews in the Hijaz since the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, and the presence of both Jews and Judaised Arabs in the Arabian peninsula from ca 200 CE. At one time, the population of Medina, now the second holiest city in Islam, may have been predominantly Jewish cohanim or priests.

He contrasted Qur’anic passages describing the status of Jews as the Chosen People and the recipients of the Torah, Wisdom and Prophethood, with those verses declaiming the Jews for distorting and falsifying their scriptures.

Dr Bar-Asher detailed the Jewish impact on early Islam. Arabic terminology for many religious concepts, including heaven, hell, prayer and almsgiving, share a similarity with Hebrew or Aramaic, Biblical material has been imported into the Qur’an from post-Biblical, rabbinical sources, and practices such as Friday prayer, the original direction of prayer qibla and the Ramadan fast show an early accommodation or adaptation of Jewish concepts.

But if Judaism influenced early Islam, Dr Sara Sviri of University College London pointed to areas where Islam had influenced the religious life of Jews. Speaking on “Medieval Jewish Mysticism and the Mysticism of Islam”, she showed how the mysticism of the Sufis had influenced Jewish mystics, including three generations of the Maimonides family in Spain and Egypt, who used Hebrew characters to write in Arabic on prayer and religious practices.

In Spain, Jews once lived in close proximity to their Muslim neighbours rather than on the margins, and she argued that “Jewish Sufism” was a significant movement. “Judaism takes quite a lot from Islam as well as the other way around,” Dr Sviri concluded, “so it is not anathema to learn and appropriate from each other.”

If Islam has borrowed from Judaism and Judaism has borrowed from Islam, then Dr Amnon Cohen tried to bridge the gap by looking at the interchange of ideas between Jews and Muslims in Ottoman Jerusalem. He argued that while the Jews of Jerusalem were segregated from the 16th century on, this was due to their own choices about living close to each other and to the synagogues in the city. But he insisted they were not persecuted. “There was no element of persecution”, he said. “They didn’t suffer, they didn’t complain … They were doing quite fine and were left to live their own lives.”

Why then did relations between Jews and Muslims begin to deteriorate? Dr Michel Abitbol argued that the climate began to change with the arrival of the Western colonial powers in North Africa and the Middle East after the end of the 18th century. With the de facto abrogation of the dhimmi status of Jews, their assimilation into the society of the colonists, with the benefits of education and employment, and their acceptance of the European languages and citizenship, widened the gap between Jews and their Muslims neighbours. The notable exception was in Iraq, where Jews were proud of their Babylonian and Arab heritage and were urged to feel part of the new Iraqi state.

The rise of Arab nationalism unsettled many Jews in North Africa and the Middle East, and he emphasised that the arrival of Jews from those regions in Israel dates primarily not from the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 but from the creation of the new Arab states in the 1950s.

Dr Amitai summarised how the contacts between Jews and Muslims over the centuries were not merely the daily contacts of neighbours and commerce. Over the centuries, Judaism and Islam influenced each other in many areas, including theology, mysticism, politics and law. The conflicts of the 20th century are hardly typical of those mutual contacts and influences, and sadly fail to reflect the encounter between Jews and Muslims through the generations.

Rev Patrick Comerford is Foreign Desk Editor of The Irish Times and a Church of Ireland priest.

The ‘World View’ column was published in ‘The Irish Times’ on 9 February 2002.

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