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A Book Review . . . Broad Historical Knowledge And Insight

August 9, 2014 Featured Today No Comments


Lassner, Jacob. Jews, Christians and the Abode of Islam: Modern Scholarship, Medieval Realities. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. Pp. xvii + 312.

Lassner sets out to examine the triangular relationship that “defined and continues to define the political and cultural interaction among Jews, Christians, and Muslims as defined by law and social convention.” But he does more than that insofar as he provides in passing a history of Western Islamic scholarship from the “orientalists” of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Ignaz Goldziher and Abraham Geiger, for example, to the present.
That said, Lassner is primarily interested in the actual conditions of Jews and Christians under Islamic rule. Forced conversion to Islam was rare, he finds, given the psychic and economic advantages of embracing the Muslim faith. For the Jews the strict monotheism of the Muslims and the similarities between Jewish and Muslim practices, as well as the social and political benefits of being Muslim, no doubt induced the fainthearted to opt for conversion. Life was difficult for those who refused to convert.
Maimonides, for example, was forced to leave his native Cordoba because under Muslim rule he could not openly practice his faith. He fled to Fez, Morocco, which was thought to be a more tolerant community, but he had to flee from Fez when he was falsely accused of having reverted to Judaism after having embraced Islam, an offense punishable by death. Muslims were not troubled by Muslims converting to Christianity or to Judaism because conversion throughout Islam was subject to the death penalty.
Examining the literature produced in the early stages of contact between Islam and Judaism and Christianity, Lassner notes that Christian literature vis-à-vis Islam is largely defensive, apologetic in tone rather than an outright doctrinal confrontation or a polemic against Islam. Muslim writings against Christians by contrast tend to be forcefully polemic in nature.
There is one area in which the Muslims were at a loss. The power of Christian religious symbolism remained difficult for Muslim authorities to counter, especially the rich pictorial imagery characteristic of Byzantium and subsequently the Italian Renaissance. The Umayyads eventually withdrew from formal iconic competition with the Christians by simply prohibiting the display of “graven public images.”
Polemical exchange did not prevent the three faiths from finding ways to accommodate each others’ presence. Lassner finds numerous examples of cultural borrowing, especially in the early years of contact. Because Mecca was a hub of international trade, he believes it is reasonable to assume that Mohammed was acquainted with Jewish and Christian beliefs well before the onset of his prophetic mission. The first significant encounter with Jews occurred when Mohammed relocated to an oasis called Yathrib (renamed Medina), situated about three days distant from Mecca, the home of several Jewish tribes.
Jews in an expanding Islamic realm were usually free to observe their faith and conduct their communal affairs. In spite of allegiance to the One God and common practices, Muslim authorities held a negative view of Jews. In addition to the Qur’an and a large body of commentary thereon, there are pejorative references to Jews and Judaism in a wide variety of Islamic historical and literary works. Still, in spite of their disparagement, Muslims were often benign in their treatment of Jews.
Lassner believes that the Dome of the Rock built on the sacred ground of the Temple in Jerusalem was created as a symbol of the triumph of Islam over Judaism and Christianity. It was perhaps the first great Muslim monument outside of Arabia.
In passing, Lassner finds reason to question some of the scholarship of the 19th and 20th-century “orientalists,” who having absorbed the atmosphere of the European Enlightenment developed a taste for skepticism that led them to doubt privileged myths of the past, not only those of the Islamic world but also those of Jewish and Christian communities. Ignaz Goldziher, he points out, denied the historicity of the hadith. Bernard Lewis, in surveying the history of Islam, comparing its achievements in science and technology to those of the West, pointedly asked in his 2002 volume, “What Went Wrong?” How is it that the West advanced while the lands under Islamic domination, by contrast, remained backward and impoverished, not to mention militarily inferior? That book as well as Lewis’ The Muslim Discovery of Europe might well be read in conjunction with the present volume.
While not dissenting from Lewis’s assessment, Lassner notes, “After a century or more of looking to Europe and then America in order to modernize their societies, many tradition-bound Muslims are repulsed by the corrosive side effects of Westernization. Most have no qualms about embracing Western scientific and technological developments. But jarring to traditional Muslims is the manner in which Westernization, including Western forms of governance, has introduced to the Islamic Near East all sorts of godless and immoral behavior.”
Lassner then cautions that in talking about Islam, it is important to recognize that in spite of more than a billion adherents, who are to be found in all regions of the world, there is no such thing as an Islamic mind.
These textual samplings cannot do more that indicate the broad historical knowledge and insight that Jacob Lassner brings to his topic. Respectful of his 19th and early 20th-century “orientalist” predecessors, he adds significantly to their accounts from the wealth of research subsequently published.

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(Dr. Dougherty is dean emeritus of The School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America.)

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