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Judaism and Islam

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

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    Judaism and Islam

    Founded in Arabia during the early 600s, the teachings of Islam reflected the influence of ancient religions practiced in the Middle East, including Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism. From the early days of Islam, Muslims have had a complex relationship with Jews. The two religious traditions interacted in many areas, such as scripture and belief, society and politics, and culture and intellectual life. Jews generally enjoyed fair treatment in Islamic societies. The founding of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948 and subsequent displacement of Palestinians, however, severely strained the relationship between the Jewish and Muslim communities.

    Common Ground.

    Islam considers itself the culmination of the mono-theistic traditions. Muhammad's revelations supported the religious concepts, commanded practices, and established institutions of Judaism. Both religions are monotheistic, and their followers believe that God is the creator, sustainer, and ruler of the universe. They also share a belief in divine revelation, prophecy, scripture, angels, and Satan. Islam and Judaism emphasize moral responsibility and accountability. The Muslim community accepted the Jewish practices of ritual worship and fasting, which existed in pre-Islamic Mecca. The Qur'an mentions popular figures from sacred Jewish literature, such as Joseph, Noah, Moses, and Solomon, and identifies them as prophets.

    Judaism and Islam stress practice in addition to belief, and therefore, law rather than theology is the principal source of instruction for Jews and Muslims. Peace is central to both faiths, as demonstrated by similar greetings meaning “peace be upon you”: shalom aleichem in Judaism and salaam alaikum in Islam.

    Jews and Muslims believe they are children of Abraham, although they belong to different branches of the same family. Jews are the spiritual descendants of Abraham and his wife Sarah through their son Isaac . Muslims trace their lineage to Ismail, Abraham's firstborn son by his Egyptian servant, Hagar.

    Both religions believe that they have a special covenant with God. Although Muslims recognize the Jewish prophets and the Torah, they maintain that Islam supersedes Judaism. Muslims believe that God sent a revelation to Moses, but the messages of the Torah were corrupted versions of the original revelation. For Muslims, the Qur'an is the literal, complete word of God, revealed one final time to the Prophet Muhammad as guidance for all humankind. Despite the differences, the Qur'an grants Jews a special status within Islam as ahl al-kitab (People of the Book), because they possess sacred scripture. Regardless of the degree to which the Torah may have been altered, it was once God's word.

    Opposing the Prophet.

    After Muhammad received the first divine revelation in 610 , he began to preach a message of monotheism and social equality in Mecca. He experienced limited success in converting people to his beliefs and encountered fierce persecution. In 622 Muhammad led a small group of followers to the city of Medina, where he established the first Islamic community.

    Muhammad dictated a document commonly referred to as the Constitution of Medina ( ca. 622 – 624 ). The constitution contained laws that regulated both social and political life, and it established standards for the treatment of Jews and other religious groups living in the ummah (community of faithful Muslims). Eventually Jews (and later, Christians) were granted the status of a protected non-Muslim minority, or dhimmi. This was an inferior legal status relative to Muslims, but it permitted Jews to follow their own religious practices, including the observance of Jewish religious law, and granted them control over the internal affairs of their community. Moreover, Muslims offered dhimmi the security of life and property and defense against their enemies. In exchange, Jews had to pay special taxes, follow certain regulations regarding dress, occupation, and residence, and pledge their political support to the Muslim ruler.

    Given their shared roots, it was natural to expect that the Jews would accept Muhammad's message and become his allies. The Jews of Medina, however, had strong ties to the polytheistic Quraysh tribe of Mecca, who fiercely opposed the Prophet. Their support of Muhammad's enemy caused him to take action against the Jewish tribes of Medina. In modern times, Muslim activists have cited this as evidence of the Jews' rejection and betrayal of Islam, and Jewish activists have used it as evidence of Islamic opposition to Judaism.

    Mutual Benefits.

    Following the Prophet's death in 632 , Islam spread beyond Arabia to the rest of the Middle East and to other parts of the world. During the 600s, the great Jewish communities of Babylonia, Palestine, and Egypt came under Islamic rule. Wherever Muslims took control, Jews usually became a protected religious minority. Occasionally, Jews were treated harshly in Muslim societies, but this was the exception, not the rule.

    The cultural and intellectual interchange between Jews and Muslims was profound. They contributed to and learned from one another in the fields of theology, philosophy, law, mysticism, and poetry. Jewish scholars helped Muslim rulers collect and translate great works of science, medicine, and philosophy from both East and West.

    Assured of a protected status, Jews sometimes relocated to Islamic lands during periods of Christian persecution. For example, during the Middle Ages, many Jews moved from Europe to Muslim-ruled Andalusia, the southernmost region of Spain, to escape a class system that prohibited them from improving their position in society. Due to the greater tolerance of Muslim governments, Jews were able to prosper as small landholders in Spain. During the 900s, Jews worked in Andalusia as translators, engineers, physicians, and architects in the court of the caliph. Jews also fled from Europe to Muslim countries during the Inquisition—a period when Catholic courts persecuted Muslims and Jews, who were considered heretics.

    Equal Rights.

    Beginning around 1800 , France, Great Britain, and other Western nations established themselves as colonial powers in the Middle East. In some regions, they introduced a policy of equal rights for minorities. This was a direct challenge to the long-standing institution of dhimmah, protection of the rights of non-Muslim minorities. The leaders of the Ottoman Empire responded by passing laws that gave dhimmi, including Jews, equal status with Muslims. Although these rules were not universally accepted and applied throughout the empire, they reflected the real changes being implemented by the Western powers. By the end of World War I in 1918 , Jews had become full citizens in most Middle Eastern Islamic countries.

    During the 1920s and 1930s, the Western presence in the region continued. Feelings of nationalism grew among Muslims living in Western-controlled countries. As a growing number of Muslims joined the movement for independence, some Jews became supporters of Zionism (the movement to create a Jewish state in Palestine). This, in turn, led to increasing tension between Muslims and Jews.

    Radical Change.

    The establishment of the state of Israel was a critical turning point in relations between Muslims and Jews. After World War II ended in 1945 , those Jews who had survived Nazi persecution in Europe urgently pressed for the creation of a homeland in Palestine, a territory that Arabs had inhabited for centuries. After massive immigration into Palestine from Nazi-occupied Europe, Israel proclaimed its independence on May 14, 1948. Neighboring Arab countries, rejecting its claim to statehood, invaded the new Jewish nation. War lasted until the United Nations was able to broker a peace agreement in 1949 . As a result of the war, about 600,000 Arabs, living in the part of Palestine that had come under Israeli control, fled their homes. Major conflicts between Israeli and Arab forces occurred again in 1956 , 1967 , 1973 , and 1982 .

    Within 20 years of the first war, the majority of Jews in Muslim countries migrated to Israel, and to a lesser extent, North America and Europe. In subsequent years, relations between Jews and Muslims were influenced by the politics of the Arab-Israeli dispute and growing feelings of anti-Semitism. For some Jews and Muslims, the struggle over Israel is based on religious, not political, claims to the land.

    The role of the remaining Jews in Islamic countries has been controversial. Many Muslims believe that citizenship should be tied to religious affiliation, as it was in the past. They argue that Muslims must lead a state governed by Islamic law, because only Muslims are capable of interpreting Islamic law. In Pakistan, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Iran, non-Muslims do not have the right to hold high-level government positions.

    Strict interpretations of Islam have led to persecution and discrimination against religious minorities under some Muslim governments, such as under the Taliban in Afghanistan. The legacy of Muhammad's attacks against the Jews of Medina for betraying him has been used by Hamas and Osama bin Laden to further their anti-Semitic aims. They argue that the Jews of Israel want to undermine Islam as their ancestors did in Medina during Muhammad's time.

    In sharp contrast to these views, some Muslims support greater religious tolerance. In their opinion, religious pluralism is the basis of Islam, and Islamic societies benefit from opening the political system to followers of other faiths. To support their position, they cite passages in the Qur'an and the practices of Muhammad and the early caliphs that demonstrate a tolerant attitude toward Jews and other religious minorities in the community. See also Abraham; Andalusia; Arab-Israeli Conflict; Christianity and Islam; Islam: Overview; Jihad; Minorities; Taliban.

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