Reuven Firestone: Muslims and Jews are ‘manipulated by fear’

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With attacks on Jews in Germany increasing, DW spoke with the renowned theologian Reuven Firestone, about the complex relations between Islam and Judaism, and how Muslims and Jews could be brought closer together.

Deutsche Welle: There are studies that claim that the religion of Islam is essentially against Judaism? Do you agree with this theological position?

Reuven Firestone: Islam emerged in an environment in which major religions already existed. The birth of a new religion is always seen as a critique of the old religions. Its very existence is a statement that says, “Well, the old religion is not good enough; otherwise why would God reveal a new scripture that corrects or nullifies what is currently practiced?” So the followers of established religions always resent the newcomer.

At the time of Islam’s birth in Arabia in the seventh century, all established religions resented it and attacked its prophet. The Quran records their criticisms and their attacks, and it replies with attacks of its own, criticizing Jews and Christians and believers of the local religions, whom it calls “mushrikun,” or “those who join” other deities with God — i.e., polytheists.

So, yes, the Quran does contain negative references to Jews, but not only about them. It talks negatively about other threatening communities (I should add that it also contains positive references to Jews and Christians, although not to polytheists). The important point is that the Quran and the early Muslims did not criticize Jews exclusively.

We must not forget that the same scenario played out with the emergence of Christianity. The Jews resented those who claimed that Jesus was the Messiah, and especially that he was God’s incarnation. And the New Testament criticizes Jews in response to attacks on the new community.

Similarly, the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) slams the older religions that were clearly against the Israelites.

During the early phase of Islam, Muslims and Jews coexisted peacefully. When did the rifts begin to appear, and were the reasons more political than theological?

As I said, there were always tensions between Muslims and Jews over the authority of their respective faiths. It was both a political matter and a theological issue. When Islam became the dominant power, like all pre-modern and non-democratic powers, it privileged the people it identified as its own over all others. Therefore, while Jews (and Christians) were considered citizens of the Muslim world and protected by the law of the land (including religious law, the Sharia), they were given a second-class status that was defined by restrictions in position, prestige and freedom. How this actually worked out in history varied from time to time and place to place. In some situations, Jews were treated essentially as equals, but in others they were persecuted severely.

Explanations such as mine should be understood in a context. Keep in mind that minority communities were not treated equally under law or custom in pre-modern, non-democratic regimes. All historians agree that, on average, Jews suffered more under Christian rule than they did under Muslim rule.

The Prophet Muhammad’s time in exile in the city of Medina provides some great examples of Muslim-Jew coexistence, but at the same time violent conflicts marred their ties. How do you see that phase of Islam, and do the events in Medina, in which the Jewish tribe of Qurayza was said to have betrayed Muhammad, shape present day “Muslim anti-Semitism”?

The tensions, and the violent conflict that eventually broke out between Muhammad and the Jews of Medina, have become points of heavy stereotyping on both sides. A separation between the two communities has grown over the years. Jews were accused of betraying their equal religious and civil status in Medina by trying to aid an enemy intent on destroying Muhammad, and even of trying to assassinate him. As a result, the Jewish communities of Medina were forcibly exiled, and one Jewish community was massacred.

Many Jews and Christians point to this period as a prime example of what they consider the fundamentally violent behavioral norms exhibited by Muhammad that are established in Islam. Many Muslims point to this as a prime example of how Jews are, by nature, deceitful, corrupt and can never be trusted.

There are mixed accounts of those events, and we have no Jewish versions of the story. What is tragic about this is that an incident a millennium and a half ago has become a tool for some radicals in both communities to try to vilify and defame the other.

Although both Judaism and Islam are Abrahamic religions, why do they appear to be so far apart?

Actually, Judaism and Islam are essentially quite close in many ways. In fact, most religious scholars consider them closer to one another than either is to Christianity. The theology of divine unity in Judaism and Islam is understood in Christianity through the Trinitarian nature of God. Jews and Muslims agree that this is simply impossible to accept. Even the theological terminology between Judaism and Islam is quite similar. For example, iḥūd in Hebrew and tawḥīd in Arabic are linguistically related terms that refer to the same essential nature of the absolute unity of God.

What needs to be done to bridge the gulf between Muslims and Jews? What inspirations can be taken from the religious texts?

The tension between Muslims and Jews today cannot be resolved simply by taking inspiration from the sacred texts. Both Judaism and Islam are great and complex religious civilizations. The sacred texts have been read in a variety of ways by people through the ages. One can cite texts that inspire fear and hatred in both religious traditions, and one can cite texts that inspire appreciation and love.

The core of the conflict between Muslims and Jews is a willingness to be manipulated by fear. Fear allows people to draw false conclusions that would not otherwise be possible. All people, with very few exceptions, strive to do good and avoid evil. We must check our impulse to draw negative conclusions based on fear and rumor. Both the Bible and the Quran emphasize that one should not succumb to the fear brought about by evil, but one should only fear God.

Reuven Firestone is the Regenstein Professor in Medieval Judaism and Islam at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, which has campuses in Cincinnati, Ohio, New York, Los Angeles and Jerusalem. Firestone has written over one hundred scholarly chapters and articles and eight books, with translations into many languages. Having lived with his family in Israel, Egypt and Germany, he regularly lectures in universities and religious centers throughout the United States, Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

The interview was conducted by Shamil Shams.

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