March 20, 2008

Islam and Judaism in historical context – Tobias Green

Posted in religion at 4:10 pm by greensstoptheboycott

One aspect of the Israel-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab conflicts is its religious dimension. In fact religion is a minor factor but one which is advanced with an intensity which has come to dominate the wider perception of relations between Israel and its neighbours, leading to the assumption that these two religions have always been in conflict. This is contrary to the truth, and indeed one of the greatest tragedies of the conflict of the Middle East is that it has polarised two great religions which have a great deal of shared histories and rituals.

The shared histories of Islam and Judaism can easily be seen in, for instance, their history in the Iberian peninsular in the medieval period. During the almost 8 centuries during which there were Islamic kingdoms in Iberia, Jews and Moslems lived side by side. In the Moslem caliphate of Al-Andalus, some Jews were viziers and major generals for the Moslem leaders, and there were entire towns famed for being populated by Jews. Jewish culture in turn was heavily influenced by Moslem civilization, as can be seen in the Islamicised architecture of the great syangogue that still stands in Toledo, and in the harmonies and musical style of Sephardic songs and liturgy.Meanwhile, those Jews and Moslems who lived under Christian kingdoms were treated in a similar fashion, each having their own legal codes for certain aspects of communal laws, and each suffering the same proscriptiosn and prohibitions. Moreover, both Jews and Moslems were expelled from Spain within 10 years of each other, in 1492 and 1502 respectively.

From this point on, in fact, Jews generally fared far better under Moslem than under Christian rule. Many of the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 ended up in the lands controlled by the Ottoman Empire, where they lived in secure communities under protection from the Ottoman emperors and established thriving centres in cities such as Salonica, Dubrovnik, Smyrna, Istanbul and Sofia. Many spanish Jews also fled to Morocco where they lived with Moslems in important settlements in Fez, Casablanca, Essaouira and Mogador. A party of 5 ambassadors sent in 1528 by the emir of Tremecen to negotitate with the Spanish Christians at Oran included two Jews – a typical example of the co-eistence of the faiths at this time.

The fact that Jews generally fared much better in such placed than theyd id in Christian Europe may partly be owing to the fact that Islam and Judaism share many ritual practices in common. The deitary prohibitions are remarkably similar, for instance, as are the colours of mourning and the emphasis on swift burials. Both faiths pray int he direction of their holy cities – Mecca in the Islamic case, Jerusalem in the Jewish case. Mystics of both faiths believe that the scripts of the holy texts of their laws – the Qu’ran and the Torah – hold secrets which can resolve any number of earthly problems if correctly interpreted by sages.

Only in the 19th century, with the increasing pressure on Ottoman provinces caused by the rapid economic and political decline of the Ottoman Empire, did discord and difficultes begin to be wdiespread in this coexistence of Islam and Judaism. This should not obscure the many cultural and historical simialrities which should unite, rather than divide, the two religions. The fact that the current crisis in the Middle East obscures this fact may be but one of many tragedies, but it is a significant one – since only by rediscovering this coexistence can peace hope to return to the region.

Fletcher, Richard (1992): Moorish Spain. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Castro, Americo: La Realidad Historica de Espana. Mexico City. Editorial Porua (1954)

Tobias Green is an academic and Green Party member.



  1. weggis said,

    “two great religions which have a great deal of shared histories and rituals.”

    Yes, to the outsider [at least some] they are very similar indeed.

    This is important. I recently put this point to a local Catholic lady who is married to a Jewish man. “Yes”, she said, “they are all Semites. It’s always been about land.”

  2. greensstoptheboycott said,

    I dunno Weggis. Two things I want to keep in mind.

    As long as ‘they’re all semites’ is not used in a definitional way to divert attention away from antisemitism – as though, by definition, you had to be anti-Jew and anti-Muslim in order to be identifiably antisemitic.

    Islam is a religion, Judaism is a religion, Jewishness is…?

  3. Tobias

    I don’t agree with your views about this. The fact that Jews and Moslems share many ideas and traditions does not really prove that before the foundation of the State of Israel there was peaceful co-existance between Jews and Muslims. The examples of Moorish Spain is always held up but there are plenty examples of progroms against jews in muslim history starting with a massacre of a Jewish tribe in the arbian desert by Mohammed and his followers in the C7th. Jews and Christians although called the people of the book were treated as second class citizens who had no legal redress in Islamic courts.

    Muslims accept Abraham Moses and Jesus as prophets but believe that their message which was the same as that of Islam was corrupted by their followers, in other words Abraham Moses and Jesus were really muslims

    One problem (amongst others!) is with the Abramahic faiths as I see it is the idea that “God gave man dominion over the earth” has led to the environmentak crisis.

    Comparing the treatment of jews in Christian and muslim lands is like comparing bad history with worse- I think the Greens need to move away from it as they are concerned with safeguarding the future of the planet!!

  4. Tobias Green said,

    I am not pretending that there has always been peaceful co-existence between the faiths. There were problems in Al-Andalus, as also in Arabia int he period mentioned byt he Brighton poster. But to pretend that there has always been confrontation is also a huge error. Just one other example: Inerian Jews from Amsterdam trading in West Africa in the 17th century deliberately chose Islamic lands to settle in rather than other areas because – probably – of the positive experiences of Jewish refugees from Iberia in the Ottoman Empire.

    Tobias Green

  5. The tragedy of it all is that the two religions are of Abraham, the same earthly father.

    Judaism (via Issac, from Abraham out of his wife Sarah) and Islam (via Ishmael, from Abraham out of Sarah’s handmaid Hagar) are therefore, in a religious context, in fact, half brothers!

  6. there needs to be a grown-up discussion about Islamic history which doesn’t shy away from unpalatable truths due to political correctness, anti-imperialsim struggles and George Galloways type of perspectve.

    Islam was always an imperial mission and mostly it went by the sword. For example Islamic incursions of europe were stopped at Poiters circa 923AD and a thousand years later the Ottomans were stopped at Vienna in 1683 to name but two conflicts.

    The Arabs and Ottomans were as much voracious slavers as the British Empire, Europeans and the Americans. Zanzibar was the African slave centre on the East coast. The History of the western slave trade is well known the Arab slave trade less so. One reason for this is that there are no descendants of Black African slaves living in muslim lands because the newly captured slaves were castrated. Another reason is that it goes against the grain of the current political climate to say bad things about Islam. Other arguments include Arab Slavery wasn’t as bad as the West because it wasn’t based on colour – White people could become slaves too. In the 16th17th 18th centuries before ‘britons ruled the waves’ Islamic pirates from North Africa would sail as far north as Devon and send landing parties to kidnap people and sell them in Slave markets in Morrocco. Slavery was abolished in Saudi- Arabia in 1962.

    This is not a question of ‘Islamaphobia’ its all checkable history.The point I am making is that Islamic history has an appalling human rights record which is ignored. The fact that Jewish people might have been slightly favoured in certain periods over other subject peoples is to ignore the plight of those others who were not.

  7. miravogel said,

    True Brighton. But Islamophobia exists, and by all accounts it is intensifying. People are deliberately provoking confrontation with carefully orchestrated phenomena like Geert Wilders’ Fitna. It is important to keep this in mind, and in the conversation, when we talk about Islam, and do nothing to give succour to the racists.

  8. Now is not the time to give up on freedom of speech Mira…

    The world is not the same as it was back when we were fighting the NF back in the 70s.

    There are 2 sorts of Far Right nowadays – The BNP etc and also the Islamist far-right who are anti semitic homophobic and mysogenist

    I have heard vaguely of the film Fitna and your links don’t present a very positive light. Nevertheless it speaks volumes that the film has been pulled because of fears for employees safety. I don’t trust the Guardian on this topic as it has been exposed as hiring writers who are members of Tizb and the muslim brotherhood- you have no doubt heard of the Ed Hussains book the Islamist? Speaking of Holland you remember Van Gogh being murdered for producing a film about Islam and women?

    This is a good site by the way – Harrys place is good but too ranty and not at all Green

    Follow this link to read about Slavery and Islam..

  9. miravogel said,

    Harry’s Place, Nick Cohen, Shiv Malik, Ed Hussain and others – invaluable in dragging the advocates of aggressive interpretations of Islam, such as that of Omar Bakri Mohammad and Yusuf al-Qaradawi into the light, along with the roles of government officials like Livingstone who help them.

    They also take care – unlike Geert Wilders – to be specific (the antidote to stereotype) and draw distinctions between these fringe perverts of Islam and the vast majority of Muslims, who are not totalitarian and who relate to human beings as human beings.

  10. I find it interesting that only 2 examples have been given of violence between Jews and Muslims in 1400 years, though more isolated incidents probably exist. Contrast this with the hundreds of examples between Jews and Christians, including their expulsion from England in 1290, from Spain and Italy in 1492. Theres a long list of similar expulsions.

    There were centuries of pogroms in Eastern Europe and Russia. But almost complete peace between Jews and Muslims till 1948, showing the current conflict is all to do with land, not about religion.

    I agree with whats been said about the mistake of identifying all Muslims as terrorists. It suited Bush and Blair to find a convenient enemy to blame for their own mistakes. There are extremists in all cultures, including Jews, agnostics and Christians. Would it be fair to pretend these are typical examples? To pre judge someone based on their religion or background is racism.


    Probably more than 2 examples in here…

    Mira I watched the film Fitna on-line and agree its pretty despicable. It is basically a montage of terrorist outrages since 9/11 cut in with extremist hate preachers and islamist demonstrators with placards saying ‘death to those who insult islam’ etc. It does remind one of anti-semitic Nazi propaganda film The criticisms are quite interesting-one saying that Wilders is a regular visitor to Isreal and is a Zionist propagandist.

    Antisemitism grew up in Poland due to its decline as a great power and partition by Prussia Austria and Russia in the C18th. Similarly the Czars whipped up anti-semitism as their power and popularity fluctuated. As the Ottoman empire declined the State also initiated progroms. Apparantly these progroms were more ‘fluffy’ because they were in muslim lands according to some posters above

  12. The middle link is German. I think the Germans know a little bit about anti semitism so maybe we should listen to what they have to say

    The last link is obviously quite flag wavingly American, but makes some valid historical points.

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