ONLY CONNECT: RECONSIDERING JEWISH-MUSLIM HISTORY
Jewish-Muslim reconciliation is an imperative in and of itself…. It is an imperative as well for global peace, for an end to Muslim terrorism and the war against Muslim terrorism, and for ending a history over-burdened with recriminations, each side denying the other’s capacity to be fully human, with neither recognizing the other as oneself.”
By Salim Mansur
The need to reflect on Jewish-Muslim history in our post-9/11 cannot be overstated. Peace in our time – not Neville Chamberlain’s peace that betrayed the Czechs in Munich in 1938, but a peace that recognizes our common humanity – hinges upon whether Jews and Muslims can find the insight and spiritual resources necessary to bridge their divide.As the Berlin Wall fell to signal the end of the Cold War, there was a brief moment of optimism that peace and progress might be achieved in the new millennium. This crumbled in the fire, the dust and terror of New York’s twin towers and the attack on Pentagon.
Among the multitude of voices heard at that time was one that spoke to me with great lucidity and hope. In 1991 Hans Kung, a German Catholic theologian and academic, published a small book called in English Global Responsibility. His prophetic words were a challenge to all: “No survival without a world ethic. No world peace without peace between the religions. No peace between the religions without dialogue between the religions.”1 With this Kung reminded us that our political world cannot be separated from our religious world, and that the most important political questions in our time are also religious questions.
Today it seems as though all possible roads toward mutually respectful relations between Jews and Muslims have reached dead ends. The failure of either of these two peoples to continue to work toward mutual respect, the failure to learn from both the distant and the immediate past is a prescription for unspeakable tragedy. If this tragedy should occur it shall not matter who was most responsible. Jewish-Muslim reconciliation is an imperative in and of itself, as was Jewish-Christian reconciliation before the Shoah. It is an imperative as well for global peace, for an end to Muslim terrorism and the war against Muslim terrorism, and for ending a history over-burdened with recriminations, each side denying the other’s capacity to be fully human, with neither recognizing the other as oneself.
In recent history Jews and Muslims have become strangers to each other even when they have inhabited the same space. Too often because of personal choice and circumstance hostility has eliminated respect and affection, a hostility that imprisons both sides. The present has come to define the past. The past that was once a treasure held in common is now lost to most on both sides, thus deepening their estrangement. It is rare that we now recall how much our ancestors learned from and grew with one another in their shared history.
I must confess I did not always see this estrangement as clearly as now, nor have I always felt the tragedy of this history as acutely as I do today. Our understanding of the world is conditioned by our living, and thus writing is always partly biographical.
The events of September 11, 2001, Arab-Muslim terrorists hijacking and crashing jetliners into buildings in America’s heartland made me rethink the basis of my thinking and living, writing and teaching regarding the politics of the Middle East, the world of Islam and its relationship with the West. That morning of 9/11, I along with so many of us was overwhelmed by the horror of the evil I witnessed. That night I went to bed unaware of how greatly changed would be my sense of the world on awakening. I soon realized that I was beginning to reclaim a history and meaning for my faith – Islam – that was obscured, if not deliberately erased by those in authority and those aspiring to replace them. A significant dimension of this history deals with Jewish-Muslim relations.
Once I began to focus on this it became clear to me that for Muslims a reconciliation with Jews is not only necessary to becoming reconciled with the modern world, it is required by their faith as well.
Regarding the former, Jews as individuals have legal recognition as full participants in the democratic nations of the world. The State of Israel, which is recognized as a particularly Jewish homeland has been accepted as a full participant in the global community of democratic nations. This should not and does not prejudice consideration of the rights and claims of the Palestinian people. How is it possible then for Muslims as individuals, and as members of states which are made up of a majority of people belonging to the Muslim faith, to fail to come to terms with Jewish individuals as fellow citizens and with the State of Israel as a fraternal partner in the family of nations? It is unthinkable.
Regarding faith it became clear to me that the pillars of Islam – the Prophet’s example and the text of the Koran – assume and express a close relationship between Islam and Judaism, between Muslims and Jews. Both pillars thus require reconciliation between them. For me, as a Muslim, this continuing estrangement and enmity are unthinkable. Such rethinking prompted me to write the following during the Ramadan (month of fasting in the Islamic calendar) of 2004 in a column for the Toronto Sun.
Muslims rarely consider that the Koran is a text rehearsing for them the story of Jews…
Muslims tend to consider their politics as inseparably bound and shaped by religion. They need, then, to reflect on religious grounds why so many of them wage wars on Jews, when the sacred words are indisputable.
The Koran recites the story of God directing Moses and the Israelites out of captivity in Egypt. It states how Moses was commanded, “Go into the holy land which God has ordained for you” (5:21).
Since Muslims believe the Koran is God’s revelation to Muhammad, how can they reconcile the atrocities committed by their coreligionists in the Holy Land with their scripture’s authoritative words?
Jewish and Muslim calendars are lunar. This is the Islamic year 1425 and the Jewish year 5765. Many Muslims need to be reminded of over four millennia of Jewish history, and of how Islam’s noontide also marked the golden age of Judaism in Muslim lands.2
Many Jews have also forgotten a rich part of the history they share with Muslims, a history that lasted over a thousand years before their estrangement – a phenomenon of recent origin and within the living memory of both peoples in the 20th century. Fourteen centuries of history is in peril of being lost because of events of the last one hundred years.
The Age of Islam from the seventh to the sixteenth century was also the Age of Judaism. This is true in more ways than we may imagine when the seeds of what would come after – European renaissance and enlightenment – were sown by people who understood their faiths as diverging streams emerging from the deep wells of spirit. Max Dimont, a hugely best-selling Jewish historian, wrote,
The Jew in this age became statesman, philosopher, physician, scientist, tradesman, and cosmopolitan capitalist. Arabic became his mother tongue. This era also saw the philandering Jew. He not only wrote on religion and philosophy, but also rhapsodized about love. Seven hundred years passed and the pendulum swung. The Islamic world crumbled and the Jewish culture in the Islamic world crumbled with it.3
Seven hundred years is a long time. The Roman Empire became a memory in seven centuries. Britain’s empire generously measured in time was acquired and lost in about two centuries. The dominant presence of the United States in our world is still young, not quite the span of a man’s life.
The secret of this history was in the faith of a people, the nomads of a desert without any history, the Arabs of a vast and uninviting peninsula protruding from the land bridge connecting Eurasia with Africa, who were moved by a simple conviction that there is only One Supreme Lord of the Universe, Allah in Arabic, to make their exit from barbarity and embrace civilization. This idea was not an Arab invention, nor were they as Arabs the first people to make such an assertion. There has not been another comparable event such as the dramatic entrance of seventh century Arabs into world history. These Arabs lived at the edge of two great civilizations – Byzantine or the Eastern Roman Empire and the Persian Empire. They were seized by a simple yet ground-breaking conviction in the God of Abraham taught to them by a prophet in the tradition of the Old Testament. Their faith was expressed in Arabic of the creedal formula La illaha illalla (“There is no god but God”), and affirmed with the acknowledgement the formula carried, Muhammadur rasul allah (“Muhammad is the Messenger of God”). In less than a hundred years following the desert prophet Muhammad’s death in 632 A.D., his people, the Arabs, arrived in Spain on the western extremity of the then known world, and the inner deserts of China and the mountains and river plains of India to the east.
The quality of the faith of a people is as varied as people themselves. But there is no faith which can move people to build a civilization if it lacks an ideal at its core. This ideal among desert Arabs as the first Muslims was a belief in an infinitely powerful God Who is ever just and ever merciful, Who creates and sustains the universe and all things in it in an orderly manner, and Whose mercy was manifest in the messenger He sent to them speaking in their language to guide them out of their ignorance into knowledge. Muhammad as the messenger, and the Koran as the sacred text containing words originally communicated to Muhammad by the Source of all things created, are the fundamental elements of Islamic civilization. A Muslim is anyone who of his own accord in submitting himself to the ever-present and all-embracing reality of God also embraces Muhammad and the Koran as signs of God’s mercy.
Over time the original faith of Muslims was corrupted by power. But the pristine faith of Muslims unencumbered by the accretion of human failings is a reassertion in historic time and space, in the seventh century wasteland of peninsular Arabia and then carried forth into our modern world, of the primordial faith of Adam as man’s archetype to which Abraham pledged himself and his progeny.
The Koran’s core message, and the practice of Muhammad as messenger and prophet, is this: that Islam is not a new religion but the reaffirmation of God’s original covenant made with man. In the inscrutable design of the Lord of the Universe as the Koran narrates, and so does the Bible, Abraham was elected from among his generation to broadcast the primordial faith of Adam. Jews were Abraham’s people in freedom and in captivity, and whenever their faith dimmed and they became lost, God’s mercy shone and He sent them a prophet from among their people to rekindle that faith and save them from destruction.
God is the unnameable, or in the Hebrew formulation “I Am What I Am.” He made Moses, a man of obscure birth, to be raised by a daughter of the Pharaoh. He led Abraham’s people out of the Egyptian exile. He made a virgin woman, Mary, belonging to the house of David, the King of Jews, conceive untouched by man the child Jesus. He made Jesus His instrument in bringing the gentiles accept the God of Abraham. He chose an orphan, Muhammad, among the pagan Arabs descended from the family of Ishmael born to Abraham from Hagar his bonds maid, and raised the child to be a messenger of the same primordial truth which secured for Jews their amazing survival through more than four millennia of history and the rise and fall of many civilizations.
Jews in sufficient numbers did not accept Muhammad as a prophet, just as they did not accept earlier Jesus as the Saviour. But they did recognize, or the learned among them did, that the Koran’s core message resonated the message God delivered to Moses. It was on the basis of this message, irrespective of Jews recognizing or not Muhammad’s claim to be the seal of prophets in the Abrahamic tradition, that the Islamic civilization was built. In this respect, on matters of belief, the affinity between Jews and Muslims was felt to be greater than what separated Jews from the theology of Pauline Christianity.
The Shema in Deuteronomy among the Books of Moses opens with the proclamation affirming the primordial faith of Abraham and setting his monotheism apart from the beliefs of others.
Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. (Deuteronomy 6:4)
“He is God, One,
It was in the ambiance of this message, in the civilization constructed by those who embraced this message as the core of their identity as a people defined not by ethnicity but belief, that Jews found both a reprieve from persecution and the space to reinvigorate their own traditions even as they made seminal contributions to the world of Islam. It was in Spain between the arrival in 711 of Tariq bin Zaid and the expulsion of Jews and Arabs in 1492, a heady mix of cultural learning took place. Here is how Erna Paris sets the stage of what came to be the al-Andalus of Jews, Christians and Muslims of Cordoba and Granada, of Toledo and Seville:
[R]umors of something new and utterly astonishing are on everyone’s lips. Tariq
the Moor has sent advance couriers to announce that his new regime is offering
unheard-of terms: anyone who wants to leave Toledo can do so, but Christians and
Jews of the city who choose to stay will be free to open property and practice
their religion, including governing themselves according to their own civil and
religious laws. In return they will have to pay a head tax, refrain from public
processions, and agree not to punish any coreligionist who has chosen freely to
convert to Islam.
It will not do to measure the past by present standards for the present, by the same standards, is bound to be judged harshly by the future. We must be cautious as we consider Jewish-Muslim history. We must avoid being seduced by the mindless apologetics of Muslim polemicists on the one hand, or driven to the other extreme of those Jews and their Christian counterparts who view limitations on Jews in the Islamic civilization as not substantially different from those imposed on Jews in Christian Europe. Here the sage counsel of Bernard Lewis, perhaps the most influential scholar in our time of Islam, Muslims, Arabs, Turks and the Middle East in history, should be heeded:
If by tolerance we mean the absence of discrimination, there is one answer; if the absence of persecution, quite another. Discrimination was always there, permanent and indeed necessary, inherent in the system and institutionalized in law and practice. Persecution, that is to say, violent and active repression, was rare and atypical. Jews and Christians under Muslim rule were not normally called upon to suffer martyrdom for their faith. They were not often obliged to make the choice, which confronted Muslims and Jews in reconquered Spain, between exile, apostasy, and death. They were not subject to any major territorial or occupational restrictions such as were the common lot of Jews in premodern Europe.5
Until the end of the nineteenth century Jews were suspect in the liberal Europe of France, England and the Low Countries. From within the illiberal frontiers of the east Jews left in a steady stream from Russia and adjoining lands to either the relative safety in the New World, or to reclaim their history in Palestine. Bernard Lewis in Islam in History addresses the Jewish problem in passing. The Jews were suspect of harbouring pro-Muslim or pro-Turkish and anti-Christian sentiments detrimental to European interests. The case against Alfred Dreyfus, a French army officer, for treason came to symbolize the grip of anti-Semitism deeply entrenched in European societies. E.A. Freeman, an Englishman, a historian, and contemporary of the British statesman Benjamin Disraeli, is quoted by Lewis:
“Throughout the East, the Turk and the Jew are leagued against the Christian… We cannot have the policy of Europe dealt with in the like sort. There is all the difference in the world between the degraded Jews of the East and the cultivated and honourable Jews of the West. But blood is stronger than water, and Hebrew rule is sure to lead to a Hebrew policy. Throughout Europe, the most fiercely Turkish part of the press is largely in Jewish hands. It may be assumed everywhere, with the smallest class of exceptions, that the Jew is the friend of the Turk and the enemy of the Christian.”6
The final years of the nineteenth and the early decades of the twentieth centuries were transitional years in Jewish-Muslim history. A breach unsuspected by Jews and Muslims was opening at this time that eventually would become so wide that the two people who were relatively intimate would become strangers. The lives and work of two Jews – Ignaz Goldziher and Shlomo Dov Goitein – from Central Europe during this period illustrate how the long phase of Jewish-Muslim history in the Islamic world now seem so remote and perhaps irretrievable in our life time.
Much of Jewish-Muslim history was recorded and narrated by Jews. If the Islamic civilization was the bridge connecting the ancient Greek philosophers and their writings to the world of European renaissance, Jews were the most prominent interlocutors between Islam and Muslims on the one hand, and Christianity and Christians on the other. Jews understood that what were the most prized ideals of Judaic culture found receptive soil in the lands of Islam. Moreover, the affinity they found of their faith’s traditions with those of Muslims brought Jews to the study of Islam with a sense of respect and empathy that was missing among Christians until very recently. Whatever were the causes of religious hostility between Christians and Muslims they were exceeded by the hostility of Christians and Muslims belonging to two expansive proselytizing faith traditions and as people organized within competing political systems on each other’s frontiers.
Here is Raphael Patai, a Hungarian Jew born in Budapest in 1910 and the author of several books on the Middle East including The Arab Mind and The Jewish Mind, introducing one of the foremost Jewish scholars of Islam:
I was not yet ten years old when, one day, my father took me along on a visit to Ignaz Goldziher. On our way back home, my father said to me: “Remember you shook hands with the greatest Orientalist alive.”7
Orientalists and Orientalism was given a bad name by the late Edward Said, a Palestinian of Christian faith, and his followers who tended to reduce the invaluable contributions of scholars such as Goldziher to no more than polemics in the service of European imperialism in Muslim lands. We will recover from these tendencies, but it is doubtful we will again see the likes of Ignaz Goldziher picking up the threads of Jewish-Muslim history.
Goldziher’s most formidable work available in English is Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law. Modern scholarship, as Lewis points out, has corrected some of the marginal flaws of Goldziher’s reading of Islam in terms of Muhammad’s biography or the exegesis of the Koran, but the substantive nature of his work in illuminating the classical tradition of Islamic thinking in terms of doctrine and law remains unsurpassed. Goldziher was born in Hungary in 1850 and died in 1921, some time shortly after the encounter which Patai so many years later eulogized. As a young man Goldziher spent some months in Damascus and Cairo and there acquired permission from the authorities of the al-Azhar mosque university to attend lectures. He was the first non-Muslim to so engage himself and given permission to join Muslims in their congregational prayers. Goldziher recorded in his diary those months in 1873-74 spent among Muslims were his happiest days providing him, as Lewis notes in his biographical preface to Goldziher’s book, “deep feeling of sympathy with Islam, and of kinship with the Muslims.”8 In his diary Goldziher wrote,
I became inwardly convinced that I myself was a Muslim. [In Cairo], [i]n the midst of the thousands of the pious, I rubbed my forehead against the floor of the mosque. Never in my life was I more devout, more truly devout, than on that exalted Friday.9
In another revealing anecdote of this Jewish scholar of Islam we learn from a Turkish historian of the time, Ahmed Refik, when asked on returning from Europe what was the most memorable thing or event he had witnessed there he replied: “The University of Budapest, where I found a Jewish professor expounding the Koran to a class of Christian pupils.” Refik’s observation illuminates a time not too long ago when Jews maintained the view that Islam and Muslims still had something of value to teach modern Europe.
Shlomo Dov Goitein was born in 1900 in a little village in southern Germany and died in 1985 while living in Princeton where he taught at the Institute for Advanced Study for many years. Eric Ormsby, of McGill University in Montreal, wrote a beautiful and elegant biographical essay, published in The New Criterion, about his teacher affectionately known and remembered as the “Schulmeister.” Goiten belonged to Goldziher’s tradition and his widely read book Jews and Arabs: Their Contacts Through the Ages illustrates his faith in the kinship between the two people and the three faiths at a time in mid-twentieth century when Jews and Arabs, Jews and Muslims, turned their backs on each other. Eric Ormsby comments, “In the 1960s every department of near Eastern or Islamic studies was torn apart by dissension arising from the Arab-Israeli conflict. By focusing so resolutely on the philological tradition as well as on the common humanity of Jews, Christians, and Muslims within a specific historic milieu and tradition – and not through some vague good will or fuzzy ecumenism – Goitein gave us a way of negotiating those awful divisions.”10
But Goitein’s most important contributions were his translations and commentaries on the documents of the Cairo Geniza, the record of Arabized Jews meticulously preserved from the 10th-11th century through the Middle Ages. Goitein’s work revealed the process of cultural synthesis between Jews and Muslims, and since Arabic was the primary language of the Islamic lands around the Mediterranean the extent to which Jews contributed to the making of a Judaeo-Arabic, or Judaeo-Islamic culture. In theology, in law, in philosophy and literature, in science and in mysticism, Jews contributed as broadly to Islam and Muslims as they borrowed from them.
The towering figure from that period, as Goitein’s work sheds light on his life and philosophy, was the Jew Moses Ben Maimonides known to his Muslim contemporaries as Musa ibn Maymun. Maimonides, revered by Jews as the second Moses, was born in Cordova in 1135, some ten years after Ibn Rushd (known in the West by his Latin name, Averroes) was born in the same city. Ibn Rushd is possibly the most important translator and commentator of Aristotle in the medieval era. They were acquainted with each other, were probably friends, and both had to leave their native city for North Africa when a rising tide of fanaticism and bigotry gripped parts of the Muslim communities of al-Andalus as a prelude to what came later and made the re-conquest of Spain by Christians less difficult than it otherwise could have been. It is instructive to note that Maimonides travelled east to Egypt where he thrived as a court physician to members of the Ayyubid dynasty and its most famous son, Salah ad-Din, or Saladin to the Europeans, and died in Cairo in 1204.
Ibn Rushd and Maimonides were not strangers. For Goldziher and Goitein several centuries later Islam as religion and culture was still a presence that reflected for them an understanding of their own tradition that was increasingly being lost in the secularized West. Now we know there were other forces and ideas at work through this period of history when Europe became the colonizing and imperial power over Muslim lands. These forces, primarily nationalism and secularism, would seep through the barriers of culture and faith that formally separated Islam from the West and affect the Jewish-Muslim history in ways that Goldziher certainly, and Goitein to some extent, could not have imagined.
We now stand in more ways than we might want to admit on the ruins brought about by these forces of nationalism and secularism in the world of Islam at one end and the West at the other. We do not know how the relationship between Islam and the West, between Muslims and non-Muslims, might be repaired. The war on Muslim terror, or “radical Islamism,” as a response to what produced 9/11 is one sort of effort with the hope that democracy may find roots in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East and drain the toxins of the region to let once again the promise of what al-Andalus represented in its time be renewed in the twenty-first century. But it can be said with some degree of certainty no such promise can be realized unless Jews and Muslims find the resources within themselves of being reconciled again as members of the Abrahamic family. And in this instance, in our time, at the beginning years of a new millennium, such effort at reconciliation must begin with Muslims unconditionally reaching out to embrace Jews.
We saw a glimpse of such reconciliation when Anwar Sadat, the President of Egypt, traveled to Jerusalem and embraced Menachem Begin, the Prime Minister of Israel, in November 1977.
The journey of Sadat from Cairo to Jerusalem was, in the first instance, a political journey conceived in strategic terms by a military leader of the most important Arab state at war with the Jewish state to wrest back by diplomatic means territories lost in the June 1967 war. Yet it carried within it the possibility of renewing and reconstituting under entirely new conditions Arab-Jew and Jew-Muslim relationship that could heal the rift between the two branches of Abraham’s family.
Sadat’s speech at the Israeli Knesset was loaded with allusions of the shared descent of Jews and Arabs, and of much that is common to their respective faith traditions. Sadat had traveled far from where he began as a young soldier in awe of dictators – Napoleon, Hitler, Ataturk – and in sympathy with the political ideology of Hasan al-Banna and his Muslim Brotherhood, to arrive in Jerusalem and make peace with Israel. Sadat knew the risks involved in his attempt to scale the walls of enmity which separated his people from Jews, and he was shortly thereafter murdered for his audacity by radicalized Muslim warriors who broke away from the Brotherhood and became the ideological precursor of Osama bin Laden’s network of al Qaeda terrorists.
We will never know how Sadat, if had lived longer, would have steered Egypt’s relationship with Israel and demonstrated what it means in practical terms of forging familial ties between Jews and Muslims. But we know that in the reciprocal friendship of Begin and Sadat we were witnessing once again the sort of respect and generosity of feeling that Ibn Rushd and Maimonides held for each other, and the warmth of affection that once flowed naturally between Jews and Muslims of which Goldziher wrote from personal experience.
From this point in the twenty-first century we can see that Jewish-Muslim history was fatally ruptured by the events of the twentieth century. At the heart of Muslim-Jewish animosity is the question of Palestine, and the competing claims of Arabs and Jews to Jerusalem. But if Arabs had not become blinded by modern nationalism and had instead heard the words of the Koran uncorrupted by the politics of the time seething with anti-colonial anti-imperialist rhetoric, they undeniably would have learned their claims were not warranted by Islam and its sacred text.
At best Arab claims to Palestine and Jerusalem were based on squatters’ right, and this right was not denied by Jews as they pursued their historic right of return for establishing home in the land of their prophets. Palestine was “liberated” from Ottoman Turkish rule by Britain towards the end of World War One and then partitioned twice. In 1922 for the first time when Britain demarcated the land on the east bank of the River Jordan as Transjordan (later to become the Kingdom of Jordan); and then for the second time in November 1947 when the United Nations divided the remaining territory on the west bank into two states, one Arab and one Jewish.
In denying Jewish rights to a homeland in Palestine, Arabs departed from the path of righteousness and became mired in bigotry. This is the root cause of the problem in the Middle East, the bigotry of Arabs and Muslims towards Jews, and over the years the problem has worsened with Arab refusal to acknowledge the wrong done by them to Jews through boycotts, wars, and terrorism with the aim of defeating and eliminating Israel. It was to the credit of Anwar Sadat that he recognized the futility of Arab enmity against Israel, and then sought to remove its root cause by making his journey to Jerusalem for reconciling with Jews.
Jews and Muslims as believers in the God of Abraham may only guess what might be His design for them. Yet for Muslims the Koran does provide an indication of God’s purpose if they swallow their false pride and listen carefully to the sacred words retelling the story of Abraham and his people as instruction about His providence in history.
Some 1300 years after Muhammad had delivered to his people God’s message as revealed in the Koran, the return of Jews to their ancestral land held forth another lesson for Arabs and Muslims. Jews as contributors and participants in the making of the modern world of science and democracy could be the catalyst for the Arabs in their transition from the old world to the new.
Such a partnership in the making of a more humane, prosperous and peaceful world would not be unprecedented; it would only be picking up the threads of the vanished world of Spain before its Christian re-conquest. In doing so it would reclaim a past for a future with limitless possibilities for Jews and Muslims as they learned to share in common what was given to them in Abraham’s name. The alternative for the Arabs and Muslims is to persist in their bigotry against Jews bringing greater ruin for themselves and their children; to watch from the sidelines of history as the distance between their world and the West as a result become increasingly remote.
Salim Mansur is an associate professor of political science at the University of Western Ontario, London, Canada, and a regular contributor to the Toronto Sun and the Western Standard (Calgary).
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