This piece is based on the content from a December 6 lecture by Dr. Norman Stillman at the Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies.
It is widely believed that tension has always pervaded relations between Judaism and Islam. In light of the recent developments in Israel, it is all too easy to accept the current divide between the two faiths as timeless fact. However, as I learned on Thursday, it is wrong to assume that Jews and Muslims are age-old enemies. History tells us a story of religious tolerance and symbiosis far different from today’s situation. While nothing in history is idyllic, Jews and Muslims had mutually beneficial interactions for the first 800 years of Islam’s existence. From around 500 to 1300 CE (Common Era), they contributed to each other culturally, economically, and socially through commensalism.
I learned that they also share a common foundation. Both Judaism and Islam are monotheistic religions, tightly bound by scripture (the Torah and Qur’an, respectively), oral traditions (the Oral Torah and the Surah, respectively), and legal systems (the similar Halakha and Sharia). Jews and Muslims in the Arab World recognized that they were actually much closer to each other than they were to their Christian contemporaries. Because of this religious bond, Muslims in the Arab World for the most part respected and tolerated Jews as “People of the Book”.
So deep was this relationship that, for nearly a thousand years, the majority of Jews lived in the Muslim World. They adopted a cosmopolitan lifestyle and communicated almost entirely in Arabic. Dr. Stillman continued, “Arabic gently suppressed Hebrew from Spain through the Middle East due to three main factors:
- The recognized kinship between the two languages that mitigated any feelings of foreignness
- The secular nature of the Caliphate that made Arabic accessible to the general public
- That Arabic wielded tremendous prestige within Islamic society.”
This “cult of language” pervaded the Jewish mindset so profoundly that even Rabbi Moses Ibn Ezra, one of history’s greatest Jewish poets, publicly claimed that it was due to the “power and eloquence” of their language that the Arabs were able to subjugate their empire. By Ibn Ezra’s time, Jews had so thoroughly assimilated in the Arabic World that poetry was the last vestige of their nationality. However, Stillman admitted, “If it wasn’t for Islam, Judaism wouldn’t have survived.”
In addition, Jews and Muslims had strong and frequent intellectual contact; so much so that they only argued in terms of philosophy and logic. In medieval Baghdad, for example, Jewish and Muslim schools operated in close proximity to each other. The two religions shared common attitudes and a keen mutual awareness. Such interconnection was extremely evident in their parallel legal systems. Already at the end of the nineteenth century, the father of Islamic Studies, Ignaz Goldziher, noticed the striking parallel—indeed, almost identical phraseology—in the formulas used by Muslim and Jewish judges in their rulings. Dr. Stillman, like Goldhizer before him, noted that this relationship might be the result of a positive feedback loop in which the Halakha first influenced Sharia. Muslim law, in turn, shaped Jewish law at a later stage.
However, the Judeo-Islamic bond began to separate when Arabic prosperity declined. The Caliphate and subsequent Ottoman Empire experienced significant external and internal changes due to modernism. The European Renaissance and the Enlightenment that followed it sparked the creation of new economic systems. Mercantilism and capitalism severely affected the structure of the relationship.
While the Christians and Jews identified with colonialism and viewed it as a new opportunity to have real social influence, Muslims for the most part saw it as a threat to their Empire. Additionally, modernism brought with it the one element that changed everything—Western education. During the late 19th Century, the modern educational system emerged within a burgeoning industrial economy. The Jews came to have a place in the new economy that was out of all proportion to their numbers or their traditional social status. In other words, the modern education gave them the tools to adapt to growing Western influence. Jews realized they needed religious equality—something greater than religious tolerance—from their Islamic civilizations. Because the Arab World was not ready to meet or accept that need, the relationship waned.
Faded mutualism, however, did not create hatred between the two faiths. Dr. Stillman explained that throughout modernization, Jews were never completely isolated from gentiles in the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. Almost everywhere in the Arab World, Jews were essential to the arts and to the economy. In Iran, Shiite clerics relied on Jewish musicians even up to the 1960s. In Yemen, most of the master artisans were Jews.
The hatred, it turns out, is a relatively new (and historically non-Islamic) phenomenon that actually came from the West. Modern Arab Anti-Semitism has its roots in Syria and Lebanon, where it first appeared among religious Christians in the 19th Century. One of the earliest examples of Anti-Semitism is the “Blood Libel”, a lie (or false accusation) created by Catholic missionaries that was responsible for the Damascus Affair of 1840 and the massacres of Jews by Muslims that followed. Arab resistance against the creation of a Jewish state and Westernization only exacerbated the situation and led to their adoption of European Anti-Semitism, an ironic sentiment still evident to this day.
The historic encounter between Jews and Muslims doesn’t end here. As Dr. Stillman pointed out, “It continues today.” In fact, the relationship is more relevant and volatile now than it has ever been before.
However, what we see today has not always been the case. The histories of Judaism and Islam are inextricably intertwined. Because of their similarities and despite their differences, the two religions contributed to each other culturally, economically, and socially through commensalism for most of their relationship. In light of current events, it is apparent that Jews and Muslims will share a common destiny as well.
Stillman, Norman (1979). The Jews of Arab Lands: A History and Source Book
Stillman, Norman (1991). The Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times
- Text Study: Islam and Judaism Are Theologies of Tolerance (thewrittenblit.com)
Dr. Stillman is the Director of Judaic History at the University of Oklahoma. He is an internationally recognized authority on the history and culture of the Islamic World and on Sephardi and Oriental Jewry. His works (especially the ones cited above) set the standard for the way historians study Jewish and Arab history.
The Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies at the University of Miami is a UM-wide Center. It provides an objective, in-depth exploration of the issues and trends which have affected the Jewish people over the last 100 years. The Center is engaged in outreach activities – such as lectures, conferences and symposia – to which the public is also invited; supporting the teaching done by the University’s George Feldenkreis Program in Judaic Studies Program; research and publications; and fund raising for Judaic Studies at UM.