by JOSEPH RICHARD PREVILLE for ISLAMiCommentary and TIRN on JANUARY 28, 2014: 

bookcover.Jews and Muslims have been intertwined for fourteen centuries.  Their long relationship is the subject of A History of Jewish-Muslim Relations: From the Origins to the Present Day (Princeton University Press, 2013). This elegant and learned new book is edited by Abdelwahab Meddeb, a professor of comparative literature at the University of Paris-X (Nanterre), and Benjamin Stora, University Professor at the University of Paris-XIII (Villetaneuse).

A History of Jewish-Muslim Relations features articles by a distinguished team of scholars of Islamic and Jewish history.  Among these scholars is Mark R. Cohen, who is both Emeritus Professor of Near Eastern Studies and Khedouri A. Zilkha Professor of Jewish Civilization in the Near East, Emeritus at Princeton University.  Cohen was educated at Brandeis University, Columbia University, and the Jewish Theological Seminary.  He is the author of Poverty and Charity in the Jewish Community of Medieval Egypt (Princeton University Press, 2005), The Voice of the Poor in the Middle Ages: An Anthology of Documents from the Cairo Geniza (Princeton University Press, 2005), and Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages (Princeton University Press, 1994; revised edition, 2008).

This book has been translated into many languages, including Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish, French, German, Romanian, Czech, Russian, and soon in Spanish. In 2010, Cohen was awarded the first Goldziher Prize for scholarship promoting a better understanding between Jews and Muslims.

Mark R. Cohen discusses A History of Jewish-Muslim Relations in this exclusive interview.

How is this new book “a reunion” and “a restoration” of the historical bonds between Jews and Muslims?

Jews and Muslims lived together for centuries in close proximity. Judaism contributed ideas and concepts to Islam. Islam, in turn, contributed much to Judaism. The book aims, among other things, to inform readers of these and other aspects of Jewish-Muslim coexistence, which, in the present state of things in the world, have been forgotten behind the smoke of conflict.

What is the earliest evidence of cooperation between Jews and Muslims?

Apart from the impact that Jewish ideas (like Christian and indigenous Arabian ideas) had upon Muhammad and apart from Islamic ideas that influenced Judaism, one can point to many shared intellectual interests: in philosophy, science, and medicine (all derived from Greek wisdom); in poetry, which Jews wrote in the language of their own Scripture, Biblical Hebrew, but in the style of Arabic verse and using themes taken from Arabic poetry; in the administration of Islamic government; and in shared forms of economic life that held sway in the interdenominational Islamic market place for centuries, which is documented in rich detail in the medieval Judaeo-Arabic documents found in the Cairo Geniza.

How did Jewish converts to Islam help shape Muslim civilization?

Some Jews living in Medina were swayed by the Prophet’s message and accepted Islam. Doubtless, these converts acted as a conduit through which Jewish ideas reached the Prophet, though we assume that he learned about Judaism through other sources as well, for instance, from Jews with whom he came in contact as a merchant.

Was Andalusia an “interfaith utopia” or a “Golden Age” of religious tolerance?

This idealized picture actually goes beyond Andalusia to encompass the entire Muslim world, from Baghdad to Cordova, and extends over the long centuries bracketed by the Islamic conquests at one end and the era of Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) at the other. The idea stems in the first instance from the disillusionment felt by central European Jewish historians in the nineteenth century when promises of political and cultural equality remained unfulfilled. They exploited the tolerance they ascribed to Islam to chastise their Christian neighbors for failing to rise to the standards set by a non-Christian society hundreds of years earlier. The interfaith utopia was to a certain extent a myth; it ignored, or left unmentioned, the legal inferiority of the Jews (and all non-Muslim “People of the Book”) and periodic outbursts of violence. Yet, when compared to the gloomier history of Jews in the medieval world of northern Europe and late medieval Spain, and the far more frequent and severe persecutions in those regions, the “myth of the Golden Age” contained a very large kernel of truth, and that is one of the themes pursued in the book.

How did Jews fare under the Ottoman umbrella?

The Ottoman Turks were largely tolerant of non-Muslims living in their empire, and of the Jews in particular. Especially after their expulsion from Catholic Spain in 1492, Jews in large numbers migrated to the Ottoman Empire, which openly welcomed them because of their international economic connections with other Jews and with “marrano” Jews, converts to Christianity living in Europe. Under the Turks, who conquered the Levant and most of North Africa in the early 16th century, the Middle East underwent an economic and political revival, and Jews both contributed to and benefited from this era of peace, growth, and prosperity.

How did Zionism and the establishment of the State of Israel divide Jews and Muslims?

In Europe in the 19th century, Jews, faced with a new form of racial and political anti-Semitism (building on the older, religiously-based anti-Semitism), sought solutions to what was called “the Jewish problem.” Zionism, as a means of escaping anti-Semitism, was one of the proposed remedies. The idea of a Jewish state in Palestine was one of several factors driving a wedge between Muslims and Jews in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as Arabs, too, began to be imbued with the nationalist spirit. European-style anti-Semitism, a phenomenon imported from the Christian West, combined with Muslim anti-Zionism to erode whatever remained of the age-old coexistence of Jews and Muslims, even though Zionism, in its political form, was essentially a European-Jewish phenomenon and not deeply entrenched in the belief system of the Jews of the Arab world.

How can this book help Jews and Muslims to draw closer together in friendship and dialogue?

Knowledge is power, someone once said. The book presents a balanced account of Jewish-Muslim relations through the ages. It is an honest book. It does not “cover up” evidence of hardship while it does not hesitate to highlight elements of coexistence and mutual influence, against the current of denial that is popular among some who write on the subject today. Both Jews and Muslims have contributed chapters in what strives to be a balanced book. The dialogue between Jewish and Muslim authors of this major achievement in scholarship should provide materials for Jews and Muslims to understand their common past without the distortion on both sides that divides them and stands in the way of mutual respect.

Joseph Richard Preville is an American writer living in Nizwa, Oman.  His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, San Francisco Chronicle, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, The Jerusalem Post, Muscat Daily, and Saudi Gazette.

This article was made possible by the Transcultural Islam Project, an initiative launched in 2011 by the Duke Islamic Studies Center —in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations and the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies— aimed at deepening understanding of Islam and Muslim communities. See and for more information. The Transcultural Islam Project is funded by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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