Cousins: Jews and Arabs Seek Each Other Out

By Moshe Sokolow
Thursday, October 18, 2012

Absence makes the heart grow fonder.  So, it seems, is the rule governing Jews and Arabs: the farther apart they are from one another, the greater their mutual interest, while the greater their proximity, the more antagonistic they seem.  The fascination that these kindred peoples have for one another and the fractious nature of their association is not just a contemporary phenomenon born of the modern Middle East “situation”; it has been ongoing since Muhammad published his first revelation and attempted to convert others to his cause.

Over the ensuing centuries, Jews and Arabs attempted to qualify and categorize one another’s religions as well as explore common features and mutual intersections.  In his classic Jews and Arabs, S.D. Goitein described the relationship as a “symbiosis”; a fitting characterization of two religions and cultures seeking to live in cooperation and mutual benefit.

Islam regarded all of its pre-history as an age of “ignorance” (jahiliyyah) and professed no interest in any of its details—save for Persia and Israel.  Why they were excepted from the rule of disdain is unclear. The reason may have been merely utilitarian: Jews were the most immediate neighbors of the early Muslims, while Persia was Islam’s first great conquest; they were therefore the likeliest source of prospective converts.  Yet it might also have been theological: Judaism and Zoroastrianism—along with Christianity—were scripture-based religions whose adherents, named the “People of the Book” by the Qur’an, were granted relative religious tolerance.

In fact, the curiosity of early Muslims over the numerous biblical personalities and events mentioned in the Qur’an led to the creation of a genre known as “Isra’iliyat” (Israelite), in which Jewish converts combined traditional legends of the Talmud and Midrash with indigenous Arabic folklore.  Later Jewish anthologies composed in Arabia, such as the Yemenite “Midrash HaGadol,” returned the favor by incorporating Muslim traditions (hadith) into their own.

Islam was not as charitable in its estimation of the Jewish Bible, which it viewed as essentially flawed if not outright counterfeit.  Convinced, as Muslims were, of the truth of their own prophet and his revelation, they sought evidence of it in the Jewish religious tradition as well.  When they failed to find it, they concluded that it had been deliberately obscured.  This ambivalence towards Judaism was reciprocated. Maimonides (1135-1204) ruled that while it was permissible for Jews to teach Torah to Christians, even though their concept of a “New Testament” effectively invalidated the Jewish tradition, it was prohibited to teach it to Muslims, despite their essential theological kinship.  Maimonides justified his ruling on the basis that Muslims would not be convinced of the truth of Judaism, since they would not be swayed by arguments drawn from what they deemed an unreliable source, whereas Christians accepted the evidence of Jewish scripture, so theoretically could be persuaded of its truth.

Perhaps the most significant and successful medium of bicultural exchange among Jews and Muslims was the Arabic language, which (in a form known as Judeo-Arabic, utilizing the Hebrew alphabet to represent Arabic characters) became the vehicle for Jewish religious and secular expression to an extent and a degree unparalleled until the late 20th century’s use of English.

Judaism and Islam operated on parallel tracks not only in linguistic form, but in content, too. Thus, in 11th century Spain, Solomon ibn Gabirol wrote an original work of philosophy that was so consistent with the prevailing neo-Platonic philosophical norms—and so indistinguishable as a singularly Jewish composition—that when the Arabic original lapsed and the work was recovered in a Latin translation (entitled Fons Vitæ), it was presumed Muslim or Christian.  It was not until the mid-19th century that Salomon Munk identified its true author.  (The book is now known primarily in a Hebrew translation as Mekor Hayim.)

Jews were among the first Westerners to take a scientific interest in Islam in the modern age. Abraham Geiger, later the founder of Reform Judaism, wrote a prize-winning university essay entitled “What did Muhammad take from Judaism?”  In the following generation, Ignacz Goldziher—who served a term as secretary to the Orthodox Jewish community of Budapest—became the world’s leading Orientalist.  At the end of the 19th Century, Solomon Schechter, Cambridge scholar and later founder of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, retrieved the Cairo Genizah, surely the most important trove ever of Judeo-Arabic literature. Today, Israeli university departments of Arabic language and literature are world-renowned for their multi-faceted coverage of both Arabic history and culture and the contemporary Middle East, while also supplying the Israeli military and government with many of its intelligence specialists.

Arab inquisitiveness over Jews and Judaism was constrained by illiteracy and the reluctance to be exposed to alien cultures, limitations that—somewhat incongruously—seem more widespread and significant today than in the Middle Ages.  Many medieval Muslims acquainted themselves with Jewish sources, some for purposes of comparative scholarship and others for purposes of polemics.

In 2001, the American Jewish Committee published a two-volume set entitled Children of Abraham, consisting of “An Introduction to Islam for Jews” by Khalid Durán, and “An Introduction to Judaism for Muslims” by Reuven Firestone.  It would have been more revealing had each author sought to introduce the other’s religion rather than his own.  One also gets the impression that the term “Abrahamic Religions,” which has gained currency largely since 9/11, was chosen, apologetically, to incorporate Islam within the orbit of what had theretofore been exclusively the “Judeo-Christian” tradition.

Fundamentalism distorts religion, and militant fundamentalism makes the proposition of ecclesiastical recognition—let alone rapprochement—seem ever more distant and unattainable. We should be grateful to all those who sought and seek to overcome initial prejudices and contribute to mutual understanding.

Moshe Sokolow, professor of Jewish education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Yeshiva University, is the author of Studies in the Weekly Parashah Based on the Lessons of Nehama Leibowitz (2008).

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