Jews, Christians, and the Abode of Islam: Modern Scholarship, Medieval Realities

Jews, Christians, and the Abode of Islam: Modern Scholarship, Medieval Realities

by Jacob Lassner

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Jews, Christians, and the Abode of Islam: Modern Scholarship, Medieval Realities by Jacob Lassner

In Jews, Christians, and the Abode of Islam, Jacob Lassner examines the triangular relationship that during the Middle Ages defined—and continues to define today—the political and cultural interaction among the three Abrahamic faiths. Lassner looks closely at the debates occasioned by modern Western scholarship on Islam to throw new light on the social and political status of medieval Jews and Christians in various Islamic lands from the seventh to the thirteenth century. Utilizing a vast array of primary sources, Lassner balances the rhetoric of literary and legal texts from the Middle Ages with other, newly discovered medieval sources that describe life as it was actually lived among the three faith communities. Lassner shows just what medieval Muslims meant when they spoke of tolerance, and how that abstract concept played out at different times and places in the real world of Christian and Jewish communities under Islamic rule. Finally, he considers what a more informed picture of the relationship among the Abrahamic faiths in the medieval Islamic world might mean for modern scholarship on medieval Islamic civilization and, not the least, for the highly contentious global environment of today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226471075
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/15/2012
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Jacob Lassner is the Phillip M. and Ethel Klutznick Professor Emeritus of Jewish Civilization and professor of history and religion at Northwestern University. His numerous works include The Middle East Remembered, Jews and Muslims in the Arab World, and Islam in the Middle Ages.

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Modern Scholarship, Medieval Realities
By Jacob Lassner

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-47107-5

Chapter One


The Modern Quest for Muhammad and the Origins of Islamic Civilization

By all accounts, the origins of Islam can be traced to the seventh century CE when Muhammad ibn 'Abdallah (d. 632), an Arab of Meccan origins, declared himself to be the messenger of God. To be more precise, the Qurayshite tribesman, from the Hijaz region of West Arabia, claimed he was the last of a long chain of monotheist prophets, most of them figures well known from biblical tradition. As Muslim scripture puts it, he was "the Seal of the Prophets" (khatam al-nabiyin). Later Muslim commentary expanded that descriptive label to include sayyid al-anbiya' "the Lord [that is most noble] of the Prophets." In such fashion, Muslims claimed for Muhammad a status that transcended that of Moses as well as Jesus. Despite his dramatic claim to religious preeminence, Muhammad was initially rejected, along with his message, by the overwhelming majority of his idol- worshipping kinsmen. In order to pursue his calling, the self- declared prophet was compelled to abandon his native Mecca for a more compatible environment, ultimately relocating with a group of followers at a nearby oasis called Yathrib, but more commonly known to all as Medina, "the administrative center [of the Prophet]." There, together with a group of diverse adherents, he overcame opposition among the local converts to Islam; exiled the resident Jewish tribes who refused to accept his religious calling and who took up arms against him; exterminated those Jews who allegedly colluded with his foes; and established the foundations of a religious/ political community broadly linked by belief, practice, and shared history to Judaism and Christianity.

In theory, this community, known in Arabic as the ummah, made no distinctions as to tribal, ethnic, or linguistic affiliation. By the simple act of embracing the one and only God of Heaven and testifying to the legitimacy of Muhammad's status as Messenger of that God, any individual or societal group was given equal standing within the community of the faithful. Religion had, in effect, replaced ties of tribal kinship as the cement that would bind the nascent and all-inclusive Islamic polity. This view of the ummah may have been more idealized than real, but it was—and continues to be until this very day—a powerful, if not indeed the most powerful, unifying force among diverse groups of Muslims, especially in relation to the non- Muslim world.

The community founded by Muhammad eventually spread its political influence well beyond the Hijaz as the Prophet established relations with tribal leaders in various regions of the peninsula. By the year of his death, he was able to defeat the last of his Jewish adversaries; arrange a triumphant return to Mecca; and undertake diplomatic initiatives in all of Arabia. After the Prophet's death, his successor Abu Bakr dispatched armies throughout the so-called "Island of the Arabs," forcing its varied inhabitants to recognize the hegemony of the Muslim authorities situated in Medina. Soon after most Arabia was united in faith, large numbers of Muslim Arab tribesmen crossed the frontiers separating Arabia from the adjoining lands, initiating thereby the conquest that would eventually make Islam the dominant religion of a vast territorial expanse in the Near East and beyond. By the first quarter of the eighth century, Muslim dynasts ruled territories ranging from eastern Iran to the Iberian Peninsula. By the end of the century, Muslim influence extended beyond the Oxus River into Central Asia. The geographical terrain of Islamic rule and the political influence of those who governed on behalf of the new faith had come to rival that of the earlier Roman Empire, and, like the rise of imperial Rome, the expansion and growth of Islam was a dramatic achievement that changed the course of history.

Vast areas of the Christian world along the southern rim of the Mediterranean and in the Fertile Crescent, that arc of territory from the borders of Egypt to the lands of ancient Mesopotamia, succumbed first to the initial Muslim invasion. Then in the 670s a Muslim fleet sailed to the juncture of Europe and Asia Minor to attack Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. Although unsuccessful, this naval assault on the center of Byzantine rule was a remarkable feat. At the outset of the Muslim conquest four decades earlier, the Muslim fighting forces consisted entirely of mounted desert warriors, their tactics best suited for small units of light cavalry fighting in open terrain. The creation of a naval capability, which allowed Muslims to launch a fully coordinated offensive against the largest and best fortified city in all of Eastern Christianity, was a harbinger of future developments. Less than a half century later, a Muslim army, which had been ferried across the Straits of Gibraltar, began subduing the Iberian Peninsula, threatening thereby the eventual expansion of Muslim rule into what is today southern France. Christians managed to retain control of the Gallic lands beyond Iberia as well as most of the Byzantine heartland in Asia Minor, but the Islamic threat to Christianity was far from over. In the Latin West, Iberia was contested until the fall of Granada, the last Muslim stronghold, in 1492. In the East, the Arab expansion, which initiated an intense rivalry between Muslims and Eastern Christians, waxed and waned over decades and then centuries until the Ottoman Turks destroyed the last formal vestiges of Byzantine rule in 1453. The victorious Turks then began their assault on Christian Europe, marching westward through Greece and the Balkans until reaching the gates of Vienna not once but twice. Their advance was finally halted in the seventeenth century, and Europeans began the incipient rollback of Ottoman rule, a process that took two hundred years and more to complete.


It seems odd that the rapid Arab conquests of the Near East and North Africa, and especially the imposition of Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula, events of the seventh and eight centuries, did not stimulate greater intellectual curiosity about Islamic culture in the Latin West. It was not until the Crusades brought Latin Christianity to the Muslim heartland at the end of the eleventh century, and a resurgence of Christian power in Spain challenged Islam's toehold on the continent of Europe, that Europeans felt a compelling need to better acquaint themselves with the civilization of their powerful Muslim rivals. Be that as it may, interest in Islam was not sudden, or as the Arabs say "like the crack of dawn." Largely fanciful stories of the Muslims told by pilgrims returning from the Holy Land had long circulated in the Latin West, along with various materials obtained by way of Christians from the Byzantine Empire. Among the latter were popular apocalyptic accounts, Latin versions of polemical, or more correctly apologetic texts, originally written in Greek. Moreover, there was a serious engagement with various branches of Islamic scholarship even before the Crusaders firmly planted themselves in the heartland of Islam. The translation of Arabic philosophical and scientific works was already well developed in the multi-cultural environment of Islamic Spain, where local Christians had long been in contact with learned Muslims and Jews, as well as with their coreligionists to the north.

The impetus to produce translations from Arabic beyond Spain received formal support from Peter the Venerable, the twelfth- century Abbot of Cluny, one of the foremost churchmen on the European continent. However, for Peter and others sharing his views, the point of these translations was not to make the legacy of the ancient Hellenistic world, the so-called "Greek" or "foreign sciences" as the Arabs called them, accessible to Christian scholars of the Latin West. Peter's interest was not in the Islamic world's discovery and preservation of Greek philosophy, medicine, astronomy, and the like, subjects that whetted the intellectual appetites of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Spain, as it had earlier the learned scholars of all three faiths in the Islamic lands to the east, particularly Syria and Iraq. The great European churchman was driven not by intellectual curiosity but rather a more practical concern—that of combating the powerful religion that had become ascendant in former lands of the Christian world. At Peter's request, the Qur'an was first rendered into Latin in 1143 by Robert of Ketton. Other texts were soon to follow. Peter himself wrote a refutation of Islam, which he described as an abominable heresy. Not surprisingly, he supported the conquest of Spain and beyond that the effort of the Crusaders to establish Christian rule in the Holy Land. In similar fashion, the anti-Muslim tracts of Eastern Christians, written originally in Arabic or Syriac, the scholarly language of many Eastern communities, were translated for defenders of the faith in the West. Over time, Muhammad was portrayed as a charlatan, a magician who beguiled the gullible and ignorant Arabs, and, ironically enough, as an idolater and a source of veneration by idolaters—all of which was intended to denigrate Islam and fortify Christian resolve.

Nevertheless, not every churchman was convinced Christians should preoccupy themselves with Muslim writings and beliefs, even for the sake of refuting the unbelievers. Bernard of Clairvaux, a contemporary of Peter and a cleric of wide prominence, warned that those who studied and translated Muslim tomes ran the risk of having their faith undermined. Despite Peter's narrow agenda, which linked translation to anti- Muslim polemics, and Bernard's broad warning against any translations whatsoever, the effort to acquire the knowledge of the Muslims and the ancient heritage they preserved continued unabated over centuries, spreading beyond the Iberian Peninsula well into the Latin Christian heartland, a process that will be described more fully below (in part 2, chapter 11, on Islamic philosophy and science).

Throughout the Middle Ages, the interest in Islamic texts was confined to residual traces of much- valued Greek scholarship; Arabic advances in philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy; Muslim scripture; traditions about Muhammad; and polemical and apologetic tracts of Christians writing in the Islamic world. For hundreds of years, there was no particular interest in the vast Arabic literature devoted to the core of what Muslims called the "Islamic sciences": Qur'an commentary (tafsir); the complex hermeneutics linked to the traditions of the Prophet (hadith): Islamic substantive law (shari'ah) and jurisprudence (fiqh); and speculative theology (kalam). With very few exceptions, the Christians accompanying the Crusader warriors made little if any effort to understand the religious moorings of their Muslim adversaries, even as they sought to rule their domains and convert them to the true faith. Among Christians in Western Europe, only Ramon Lull (d. 1315 or 1316) took the effort to interrogate Islamic texts, having studied Arabic for many years with a Muslim slave in Majorca, the Spanish island that served as a cultural crossroads as did much of Christian Spain.

Not that Lull, a free- spirited character turned pious Christian, was ever sympathetic to Islam. When the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem was destroyed by a Muslim army in 1291, he urged the use of force to recapture the initiative. In Lull's judgment, such a military campaign would require the Christians to learn the language of their adversaries; this eminently sensible suggestion went unheeded by and large. He was also a strong advocate of converting the infidels by using their own tradition to dispute their claims. Although actively seeking to convert Muslims was declared by the latter an offense punishable by death, Lull was not dissuaded and journeyed into the Abode of Islam to spread the true faith. He was reportedly stoned by a Muslim mob in Northafrica, the last of several quixotic forays of his into the lands of the infidels.

Learned churchmen were not the only consumers of Islamic cultural artifacts. The portrayal of Muslims in the popular European literature of the Middle Ages contains occasional echoes of entertaining Arabic tales that found their way into the Latin West, but, broadly speaking, these portraits bear little if any resemblance to the contemporaneous Muslim world, a place of material splendor and great intellectual sophistication. Rather, the Islamic lands were often presented in Western literature as places of fantastical objects and beings, all of which excited the imagination of Europeans, the overwhelming majority of whom did not venture far beyond their domains. Islam and the Muslims would also serve as a literary trope for declaring the newest of monotheist religions a dangerous Christian heresy. With that opinion of Islam, Christians denied altogether that Muhammad considered himself to be divinely inspired; rather, he inspired a conscious deviation from the true faith, namely Christianity. Were that not sufficient to malign Muhammad and the Muslims, the worst features of their false religion were then said to have been imitated by insincere Christians misusing power in their own world. Such sentiments, born of a malice that had become endemic to Christian Europe following the Reformation, did not require a detailed knowledge of Islam and the Muslims. The mere claim of links to the infidels and their beliefs was sufficient to discredit the enemies of pure Christian faith.

On the other hand, in the sixteenth century and especially in the seventeenth, European scholars who would later be known as orientalists began to study Arabic in earnest and with objectives that extended beyond polemics and the acquisition of ancient scientific knowledge. When the Ottoman Turks captured the Byzantine capital, terminating eleven hundred years of Christian imperial rule, and then overran the Balkans, penetrated central Europe, and laid siege to Vienna, there was a perceived need for individuals learned in the ways of the Muslims and skilled in Islamic languages. How else could Europeans transact the business of war, diplomacy, and commerce? The result was an expanded interest in all aspects of Islamic civilization. Ramon Lull may have been an adventurer guided by Christian zeal, but he certainly foresaw Europe's need to engage Islam and the Muslims through knowledge of their language and, by implication, their rich and complex culture.

There was yet another reason to occasion interest in Near Eastern languages. Protestant reformers, seeking to clarify the meaning of the Old Testament, strongly emphasized the original Hebrew text over the Latin Vulgate, which had been for countless generations the standard translation serving Christians in the West. Understanding the literal meaning of the Old Testament allowed for more accurate translations into the vernacular languages of an expanded readership, especially after the introduction of printing and the widespread distribution of books. Bible scholars well trained in Greek and Latin thus turned their attention to Hebrew and sought to learn languages related to it, such as Aramaic, Syriac, and Arabic. Some scholars also mastered Ethiopic, as well as Turkish and Persian. The primary purpose of learning Arabic, along with several other languages, was not to defame Islam but to clarify the meaning of the biblical text as a guide to true Christian belief and behavior. Because of its similarity to Hebrew, it was believed Arabic could unlock many passages of the Old Testament that were obscure or had given rise to interpretive flights of fancy by overly imaginative and/or doctrinaire Latin scholars and commentators. The learned Europeans sought what Jewish scholars described as the p'shat or literal meaning of the text as opposed to its d'rash or exegetical accretions.


Excerpted from JEWS, CHRISTIANS, AND THE ABODE OF ISLAM by Jacob Lassner Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


A Preliminary Note....................xvii
1 ORIENTALISTS The Modern Quest for Muhammad and the Origins of Islamic Civilization....................3
2 RETHINKING ISLAMIC ORIGINS....................26
3 "OCCIDENTALISTS" Engaging the Western "Other," Medieval Perceptions, and Modern Realities....................61
5 THE FIRST ENCOUNTER Muhammad and the Jews of Arabia....................131
6 PERCEIVING THE "OTHER" Jews and Muslims in the Abode of Islam....................155
7 ACCOMMODATING "OTHERS" Tolerance and Coercion in Medieval Islam....................175
8 MEDIEVAL JEWRY IN THE ORBIT OF ISLAM....................194
9 EARLY MUSLIM-CHRISTIAN ENCOUNTERS The Islamization of Christian Space....................217
10 MUSLIMS AND CHRISTIANS Perceptions, Polemics, and Apologetics....................236
11 CHRISTIANS, MUSLIMS, AND JEWS Cross-pollinations in Medieval Philosophy and Science....................258
Selected Bibliography....................287

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