40 Questions, 40 Answers

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Have Jews and Muslims always been each other's enemies?

No. There are many similarities between Islam and Judaism as religious faiths. Both worship a strictly Unitarian God. Both have sacred laws with strict dietary codes and detailed rules governing gender relations. Both insist on their texts being learned and taught in their original languages. Muslims regard Jews and Christians as "People of the Book". In the Dar al-Islam - the territories ruled by Muslims - they always enjoyed more protection than heathens. For centuries across the Muslim world, Jews and Christians were subject to the rules of the dhimma statutes: in exchange for payment of extra taxes, they were granted the status of inferior citizens. For fourteen centuries, Jewish minorities lived in peace in many countries and under many regimes in the Muslim world. Yet, Muslim countries experienced peaceful periods and tolerant regimes as well as warlike regimes and intolerant periods. Under the rule of many Ottoman Sultans, for example, the religious climate was relatively tolerant. By contrast, the Safavid dynasty in Iran that ruled from 1501 to 1722 was extremely intolerant of religious minorities. Not only Persian Jews, but Zoroastrians and Armenians in Iran were regularly harassed, persecuted and forced to convert under the Safavid kings.


Did Jews live better in the past under Islam than under Christianity?

It is difficult to compare fourteen centuries of Islam to twenty centuries of Christianity, but it is generally true that while discrimination occurred against Jews in the Islamic world on a regular basis, they were rarely persecuted.
In Christian Europe, much energy was devoted to coercing Jews to repudiate their religious beliefs. For centuries, Christians zealously tried to convert Jews; this occurred much less under Islam. During these times, numerous Christian theologians and Church officials were guilty of propagating anti-Semitic legends and stereotypes. In past centuries, Muslim scholars and Islamic thinkers have been far less guilty of this. Early Muslim literature contains no "Jewish monsters". Anti-Semitic stereotypes first appeared in the Muslim world in the nineteenth century when large parts of the Arab world were conquered by European colonial powers. It is striking that almost all the anti-Semitic myths that proliferate in the Arab and Muslim world today were fashioned in the Christian or Western world.


Are there examples of harmonious Jewish-Muslim coexistence in history?

For centuries, most of the world's Jewish population lived in Muslim-ruled territories. Although Jews were always treated as dhimmis, there were periods of tolerance and even prosperity. During the tenth and eleventh centuries in the Muslim-ruled part of the Iberian Peninsula called Andalusia (Al-Andalus), Jewish, Christian, and Islamic arts and sciences flourished in harmony. The most beautiful Moorish palaces were built, calligraphers and illustrators created beautiful Torah scrolls, Bibles, and Korans, and Jewish linguists translated Latin texts into Arabic and Arabic texts into Latin. Jews played an important role at the court of Abd al-Rahaman III (912-961), who ruled the Caliphate of Cordoba for fifty years. This period came to an end when the fanatical Berber Almohad rulers of North Africa invaded Andalusia. The Almohads treated the dhimmis harshly. Faced with the choice of either death or conversion, most Jews and Christians emigrated. Some, such as the family of the prominent Jewish philosopher Maimonides, fled east to more tolerant Muslim lands, while others went northward to settle in the growing Christian kingdoms.
When the Catholic king of Spain ordered the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, Ottoman Sultan Bayazid II issued a decree to the governors of the provinces of the Ottoman Empire "not to refuse the Jews entry or cause them difficulties, but to receive them cordially". According to the American historian, Bernard Lewis, "the Jews were not just permitted to settle in the Ottoman lands, but were encouraged, assisted and sometimes even compelled". Jews prospered under the rule of several Ottoman sultans and made significant contributions to science and administration. The first printing house in a Muslim country was set up by a Jew in Istanbul in 1493.


What does Islam say about Jews?

Jews and Christians have a unique status in Islam. Muslims believe that God passed on his will to the prophets Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Mary, the mother of Jesus, appears in the Koran more than in the New Testament. There are also many references to the Torah and the Jewish prophets in the Koran. Jews are the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, while Muslims see themselves as descendants of Abraham and Hagar, the maid of Abraham's wife, who gave him his first son, Ishmael.
According to Islamic tradition, Abraham built the Ka'aba - the sanctuary of Mecca - together with his son Ishmael. Muslims believe that God's original revelations to Moses and Jesus were passed down inaccurately; the revelations to the prophet Mohammed, as recorded in the Koran, are the unique, eternal, true Word of God. Besides allusions to the Torah, the prophets, and the New Testament, the Koran also describes the clashes of Prophet Mohammed with the Jewish tribes of the Arabian Peninsula. Three Jewish tribes who did not want to convert to Islam lived there at the time of Mohammed. The Army of the Prophet expelled two of these tribes from Medina in 624 and 625. A few years later, the men of the third Jewish tribe were killed and their wives and children sold to slavery. Mohammed's conflict with the Jewish tribes of Medina is not one of the Koran's central themes; it is of minor importance. Yet, the Koran's verses about the struggle of Prophet Mohammed against the Jews have been repeatedly used in recent years by extremists who intend to whip up anti-Jewish sentiments among Muslims. These extremists completely ignore the positive treatment of Jews in both the Koran and Prophet Mohammed's oral tradition as exemplified, for example in Surah 2:47 of the Koran: "O Children of Israel! Call to mind My favor which I bestowed on you and that I made you excel the nations."


Is Islam against the Jews?

No, because the Koran recognizes Jews as "people of the Book". That's why many Muslims are saddened to see so much anti-Semitic myths and legends being propagated in the Muslim world.
It must be remembered that there are many diverse movements within the Islamic world. One must not forget that down through fourteen centuries of history, the Islamic world was relatively tolerant of the Jewish minority in its midst, especially compared to the Christian world. Because of the climate of religious tolerance in the Ottoman Empire, the persecution of Jews was uncommon, just as it had been in Andalusia - Medieval Spain - during the time of Muslim rulers.
The anti-Semitism appearing in the Muslim world today was invented in Europe, although one must not underestimate the severity and maliciousness of the anti-Semitic ideas and stereotypes now rampant in many Muslim countries. Many of these stereotypes are easily traced back to anti-Semitic images that began ages ago in Christian Europe, among them myths that depict the Jew as traitor or conspirator, the blood libel myths, etc. But it is meaningless to speak of Christian or Islamic anti-Semitism. It is not the religions that are anti-Semitic, but extremists who manipulate religious sentiments for their political gains.


The Holocaust is part of European history, so why should it be relevant to Muslims?

The Holocaust - the murder of millions of Jews by the Nazis - is not part of European history, but human history. What happened to millions of human beings in that genocide is relevant to every one of us, regardless of our religion or creed.
One of the most tragic mysteries of the Holocaust is how the premeditated, systematic murder of millions of people could occur at the hands of a seemingly advanced society. But if we are to learn from the Holocaust, we must understand that the dark forces that undermined democracy in Germany, betrayed a generation of young people, plunged the world into a global conflict and led to the Holocaust continue to pose a threat to our societies.