Camille Backman: Engaging Community in Art


Language, community, and art largely influenced pre-modern societal Muslim Interfaith relations. Further, a large trend of translation and cross-cultural pollination provide support to positive and understanding alternative narratives of pre-modern interfaith relations. Respect out of similarity defined the initial relationship between Judaism and Islam, particularly before the spread of colonialism. Due to the gradual introduction of Islam into India, the early Hindu-Islam relationship appeared adaptive and flexible. The exchange of romantic literature near the end of the crusades provided another layer of exchange in the examination of the relationship between Christianity and Islam. Examining these relations offers insight into the numerous layers of overlap in areas of the humanities and the sciences that occurred due to the interaction of these different faith systems.

The similarity of theologies and cultures in Judaism and Islam created an environment receptive to both communities in the initial relations. Due to this environment of exploring and sharing alternative literature and methods of thought, it appears that early conflicts were political and not religious. According to Bunzl, this relationship contained “grounded dualism of discrimination and protection” (Bunzl 7) and I believe certain aspects of the Medina Constitution support this notion. First, Jewish people were considered part of the Umma and thus extended certain protections. Second, this constitution placed all people of the book within the category of semite thus unifying them in a different method of community and cementing the notion of the impossibility of anti-semitic Arabs. The Jewish and Islamic existence of community flowering through means of similarity are significant primarily through the claim of Watt that the narrative of Muslim relations rely heavily on “the real solidarity of the umma” (Watt 123) and “Shari’a as a divinely given model of social life” (Watt 123). The notion of both these faiths being guided in similar way provide evidence of interaction based out of understanding. Both these faiths largely experience guidance through community and community guidance through the texts and leadership of informed and well read religious individuals.

The primary relationship of Judaism and Islam explored methods of exchange and community through different texts and shared positions of power. Further, meaningful evidence of understanding is apparent through the transfer of ideas through translation. I find it incredibly fascinating and powerful that from the period of 1050-1428 all major Jewish Philosophy and Ethics were translated in Arabic. As part of this period of incredible intellectual growth, Watt highlights that there was the development of the notion of adaptation. While translation of texts doesn’t necessarily mean acceptance of these ideas, it does allow for the exploration and consideration of alternative methods of thought. However, the strongest argument for a non critical viewpoint of the relationship between Islam and Judaism lies in language. As explained by Menocal, the city of Cordoba developed into a flourishing source of information and intellectual growth and the libraries there “represented a near-perfect crossroads of the material and the intellectual” (Menocal 34). Despite many of these texts containing information more pertinent to Muslim culture, this profound resource drew upon Greek and Christian influence and the city itself had both members of the faith in positions of political power.

The starting relationship between Hinduism and Islam was largely driving by adaptation and cross-cultural pollination. The leadership that the Mughal empire provided largely influenced the development of literature and intellect throughout these faiths. Akbar Shah exemplifies some of the small tolerant and inclusive behavior that developed among these faiths. Akbar worked to develop a doctrine that provided means of religious tolerance. Further, his reign established that Hindus are not idol worshippers and allowed a means of understanding despite the strict monotheistic views of the Islamic faith. During this time, a tradition of strong epic poetry began to develop and allowed the concepts of ethics to be exposed to the larger community. In particular, the text of Akbarnama presented by Fazl contained perennial values and philosophies and allowed a stronger sense of identity of those affected by the reign of Akbar. The reign of Jahangir brought about further developments within the arts and sciences and was particularly insistent on the development of documentation through painting. The significance of his rule can be portrayed through his practice of faith, in particular his guidance and devotion to the concept of conversion by choice as opposed to force largely allowed these two faiths to continue together during this time. The leadership of Shah Jahan provides an example of the cross-cultural pollination existing during this time, particularly his choice in wives. Shah Jahan was involved with women of the Christian, Hindu and Muslim faith but most notable was Mumtaz Mahal. The Taj Mahal was dedicated to her and for such a gesture to exist for the Christian wife of a Muslim ruler in a Hindu majority I am tempted to believe that the initial relationship among Hindus and Muslims was one of tolerance to a point division or co-existence.

The nascent relationships between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism explored the tension between uniqueness and belonging. While community primarily enforced philosophies and development of a specifically faith driven way of life, the trend of sharing literature, art, and even architecture largely influenced the dialogues and developments of these faiths. It was ultimately placement of power geographically that disintegrated many of these open relationships. The primary fractures of these relationships settled into trends of little communication and differing political guidance, as opposed to religion specific disagreements. In Christianity, the exhaustion from the crusades and the rise of colonialism led to a decline in power of the Muslim empires, thus creating numerous conflicting political structures. Despite immense expansion through the leadership of Aurangzeb, the Mughal empire lost political prowess and alienated several communities through stricter enforcement of religious policy. Finally, the advent of Israel led to a diminishing population of Jewish people within Muslim communities and to greater misunderstanding. Despite these relations beginning in a place of developing knowledge, the resulting political structures were unable to balance community and guided religious lifestyle in a way that accepted everyone.


Works Cited

John Bunzl, ed. Islam, Judaism, and the Political Role of Religion in the Middle East, Gainesville. Florida: University Press of Florida, 2004


Menocal, Maria Rosa, “Culture in the Time of Tolerance: Al-Andalus as a Model for Our Time” (2000). Occasional Papers. Paper 1.

Montgomery Watt, Islamic Political Thought, Edinburgh: Edinburg University Press, 1968