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.