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Can History and Scripture Repair Jewish-Muslim Relations?

Review of Introduction to Islam For Jews, by Reuven Firestone (The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 2008)

If ancient sacred texts became instrumental in creating a modern international peace agreement, it would be nothing short of miraculous. Rabbi Reuven Firestone's Introduction to Islam: For Jews does not outline a strategy for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict or repairing Jewish-Islamic relations. Yet it does imply that Jews and Muslims can find common ground by looking back to their shared past.

At first glance, this joint history is discouraging. In the Hebrew Bible, Abraham expelled Ishmael and Hagar, almost sending them to their deaths. Nearly 2,500 years later in the Koran, Mohammed blamed his death on a Jewess, Zaynab bt. Al-Hârith, who poisoned his food. Mohammed was responsible for the destruction of Medina's Jewish community and the Koran condemns the "People of the Book," the Jews, who "distort scripture with their tongues ... and they knowingly tell a lie against God."

Islam cover

Is this tradition of distrust and violence surmountable? Firestone, a professor of medieval Jewish and Islamic studies at Hebrew Union College, uses a scholarly and historical methodology to try to show that Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, has the power not only to exacerbate the world's problems, but also to be part of the solution to them.

At the heart of it, Firestone' s book is an examination of Islam as a religion, with scholarly explorations of complicated Islamic legal concepts from the "Pillars of Faith" to Jihad to concepts of the divine. Yet, throughout the book, Firestone makes it clear that he is only telling part of the story of Islam--the part that is relevant to Jews. Though this is valuable, I was most interested in Firestone's attempts to contextualize the historical clashes between Jews and Muslims. "It is, of course, problematic today, when tolerance and pluralism are so sorely needed, for scriptural texts to denigrate other religions and their believers," Firestone writes, "but this is a common phenomenon among scriptures. Negative assessments and even condemnation of prior religions and their adherents occur in all three scriptures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam."

Firestone attempts to understand Koranic attacks on Jews through this logic. When Mohammed first came to Medina, he fully expected the Jews to embrace him and recognize him as a prophet, Firestone says. When the Jews did not accept him, Mohammed became frustrated and angry. "This rejection became a very serious issue for the Muslims, because the Jews were known and respected by the Arabs as a wise and ancient community of monotheists with a long prophetic tradition," Firestone continues. "Their rejection of Muhammad thus represented a major blow to his authority in Medina, not only as a prophet, but as a leader in general."

Firestone suggests that this conflict in Medina remains controversial in Jewish-Muslim relations today due to a "tendency on both sides to see the situation in simplistic terms," which overlooks the situation's complexity and "reinforces negative stereotypes that are not accurate reflections of reality." Where the debate today focuses on whether Jews actively sought to undermine Mohammed and his following, Firestone is quick to point out that Jews and Muslims in seventh century Medina "were all playing by the same set of rules," even though their behavior would be "unacceptable in an enlightened, democratically governed society that supported equal rights and privileges for all religious communities."

Firestone seeks to put the episode of Mohammed's Jewish wife Zaynab's assassination attempt into similar context. Zaynab was one of two women Mohammed took for a wife after conquering their home city of Khaybar. When asked to cook roast lamb for Mohammed, Zaynab poisoned the meat, but Mohammed had the foresight to chew the lamb without swallowing it. His close companion Bishr b. al-Bara was not so lucky, and he died. One would expect Mohammed to condemn Zaynab to death, but instead he demanded an explanation. Zaynab told him that after her people were conquered a simple test was in order: If Mohammed ate and died he was no prophet, but if he saw through the plot then he was surely a man of God. This satisfied Mohammed, but upon his deathbed he told the mother of his poisoned companion that he was finally feeling the effects of Zaynab's poison.

Muslims could have used this tale, a sort of parallel to the story of Judas in the Christian New Testament, as a pretext for violence against Jews for killing their prophet, as Christians did, Firestone notes. "Yet nowhere do we find such an accusation used for subjugation and maltreatment." Firestone gives the details of the anti-Jewish language and narrative in the Koran, but in the context of actual Jewish-Islamic history, not as a way to indict Islamic intolerance.

Even if convinced that early Islamic treatment of Jews deserves proper contextualization, many will no doubt point to current events and cite jihad as an Islamic doctrine that is untenable. But Firestone points out that jihad is at best an unofficial pillar, compared to Islam's official Five Pillars: witnessing, prayer, required giving, fasting and pilgrimage. Further, Firestone writes, "jihad does not mean fighting or warring." Instead, the root means "strive" or "take extraordinary pains." He refers to peaceful jihads such as "jihad of the tongue" and "jihad of the heart." Though Firestone does not mention it, the concept is perhaps parallel to the Jewish notion of "lifnim m'shurat ha' din," or going beyond the letter of the law.

Yet, Firestone does explore the "jihad of the sword," though he notes that it has been misrepresented in the West as "holy war." Violent jihad is war in God's name, but not necessarily divinely sanctioned war, and "jihad is not to be invoked for the purpose of forcing non-Muslims to convert to Islam through force of arms." Firestone also proves that Islam condemns those who commit suicide to eternal hellfire, which puts to rest the question of suicide bombers. In one example, Mohammed says, "Whoever kills himself by strangling will strangle himself [eternally] in the Fire."

In light of Firestone' s analysis, then, those who kill themselves and other non-combatants do so in the name of Islam, but outside of Islamic scripture. Islamic leaders and scholars hold a wide range of opinions, just as Jewish and Christian clergy and experts do, and people in the West must not jump to "quick conclusions without careful analysis," Firestone says.

Firestone's arguments might not completely repair Islamic-Jewish relations on an international scale, but he makes a very compelling case that the two faiths are fundamentally compatible and mutually respectful. If Mohammed could even spare the life of his would-be assassin, then surely Muslims and Jews today can not only tolerate one another but even come to realize their common ancestry as descendants of Abraham and come to embrace each other in social and domestic circles.

A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Menachem Wecker

Menachem Wecker is a Washington, D.C.-based writer (mwecker@gmail.com) and blogs on religion and art at http://Iconia.canonist.com.

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