Rebecca Primoff: A “Clash” of Civilizations – Interfaith relations in pre-modern Islamic rule

Since my religious studies at Oberlin College have focused on Jewish identity and history, I have always regarded medieval Muslim rule as a relatively positive era for Jews in Europe and within the Mediterranean territories. As I learned pre-Modern history from a Jewish perspective, I was in awe of the Jewishly regarded Geonic Period during the Islamic Golden Age. During this time frame, Jews considered Geonic academies to be the leading sources of religion and intellectualism in the globe. Now, as I reevaluate history through the lens of Islamic rule and political theory, I truly value the relationship between Jews and Muslims at the time. Additionally, it is very interesting to note the differences in interfaith relations between Christians and Muslims.   While theologically, Muslims and Jews have much in common, there are more commonalities between Christians and Muslims when it comes to political power and the fight for territorial expansion.

Generally, Muslim dynasties have been known to borrow elements from previous reigns. For example, the Great Mosque of Damascus was built using leftover pieces from a Roman temple and Christian church. Additionally, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is built on the foundations of the Jewish Temple Mount, and supposedly near the site of Abraham’s rejected sacrifice. Therefore, there is an innate tendency to borrow and collect religious, cultural, and political elements from Christians and Jews. The Umayyads in Syria built their mosque using half of a Christian church, which they purchased.

When analyzing Muslim political ideology, it is important to make a distinction between fundamentalism and quietists. On one hand, fundamentalists aim to use their religion as a means to justify their sacred political goals. Contrastingly, quietists use a secular agenda in order to maintain a social dynamic with emphasis on congregations and education. We see that in early Muslim civilization, quietist regimes provide the most rights to Muslims and non-Muslims.

From a Jewish perspective, life under Muslim reign was relatively calm and civilized. As opposed to life under Christian rule, Jews were granted dhimmi status: that is, protection under the Quranic Mandate for being fellow “people of the book”[i]. This dhimmi status allowed Jews to practice their religion in peace and be exempt from military service. Additionally, they had a poll tax jizya, which acted as a substitute for Islam’s pillar of zakat, or a tax imposed on Muslims[ii]. Therefore, Jews living under Muslim rule provided economic support to the country. Not only that, but Jews contributed a great deal of philosophical works to the Arab world. Both Jews and Muslims emphasized the literal language and grammatical importance employed in the Tanakh and Qu’ran, respectively. Additionally, Hebrew poetry in Spain flourished during the Golden Age, due to the volume of works published by Muslim poets. In fact, many Jewish philosophical works were intended for the general Arab speaking world, allowing people of many backgrounds to read and study new teachings.

For Jews, life in the Muslim Golden Age was far less violent and aggressive towards theological differences. As opposed to Christianity, Jews were not seen as a threat toward Muslim political power, because Jews had been persecuted for ages prior to Muslim rule. After living within quarters for some time, Muslims “eventually saw in the Jews a people much akin to them in race and religion, and they also found that the Jews could be of great use to them in consolidation of their world conquests”[iii]. Religiously, Jews and Muslims share many important values, such as strict monotheism, halakha and shari’a, dietary laws, scholarly leadership, and qibla to Jerusalem. Overall, Islamic political power was not threatened by a Jewish presence; as a result, Jews were able to study and pray freely so that the religion expanded.

On the other hand, Islamo-Christian relations were much more brutal, as it were two political powers battling for control of regions. In Muslim Spain, many Christians ended up converting to Islam, which angered Christian leaders, while creating an ability to share and receive cultural values. For example, both Muslims and Christians recorded the feats of military hero Rodrigo Diaz, because he fought for the rights of monarchs[iv].   While Jews have spent most of their history as minorities in a Diaspora age, Christians in Cordoba felt that speaking Arabic betrayed Christianity. Jews were much more comfortable shifting their customs to fit Muslim rule, which led to conflict between Christians and Muslims. Christian and Muslim hierarchies feared a clash of religious political ideology. Additionally, Islam and Christianity have irreconcilable theological differences. Specifically, Christianity views Jesus as the world’s imminent savior, while Islam only regards him as a human prophet. From these differences, the term “clash of civilizations” was coined, which refers to the conflict between Islamic civilization and Western civilization. While historically, Islam and Christianity “were not seen as poles apart…a very different view is now embodied in the ‘clash of civilizations’ master narrative, one of warfare, invasion, and jihad”[v]. Indeed, Islam and Christianity often fought for political power. However, Bulliet notes that the master narrative of “clash of civilizations” is an exaggerated one, which highlights differences between East and West to fuel modern day violence. L. Carl Brown notes similarities between Islam and Christianity, such as the quest for political expansion. For example, both are universal religions whose followers spoke various languages and followed various cultures. Both religions spread over vast amounts of land and conquered regions until they became the majority of the population. In fact, both religions influenced each other politically through the change of hand between Islamic and Christian rule. For example, “Islam gave way to Christianity in Iberia, Christianity to Islam in Anatolia”[vi]. Therefore, “Christianity evolved from a proletarian outcast community to become the state religion of the Roman Empire. The church government and pattern of church leadership…did not…go out of existence”[vii]. While Christianity and Islam have opposing theological and political goals, the two are inevitably linked together through their control of pre-modern regions, as well as governing systems.

To modern day Muslims, the age of the Golden Era is one of great historical and theological importance. It was during then that Islam was able to flourish as a religion and political power, by ruling Syria and the Mediterranean and then in Spain. The interfaith relations were very different between Jews and Christians. On one hand, Muslims did not view Jews to be a threat and therefore, they were granted substantial rights, which propelled the theology of Judaism. On the other hand, Christians were fearful that their religion would fall to the hands of Isalmic rule. Therefore, relations with Christians were more violent and protective. While Judaism and Islam share theological commonalities, Christianity and Islam share political commonalities due to the conquest of territory and a majority rule.

[i] Menocal, Maria Rosa. 2002. The ornament of the world: how Muslims, Jews, and Christians created a culture of tolerance in medieval Spain. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 29

[ii] Bunzl, John. Islam, Judaism, and the Political Role of Religions in the Middle East. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2004

[iii] Bunzl, 31

[iv] Menocal, 40

[v] Bulliet, Richard. “Islamo-Christian Civilization.” Lecture, Department of Religion Mead-Swing Lecture Series, Oberlin, 3/9/10

[vi] Brown, L. Carl. Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics. Columbia University Press, 2000, 44

[vii] Brown, 45