Keywords: Muslim, Jews, Christians, Interfaith relations, Qur�an, Byzantine, Monotheism, Sira, Ummayad, Ahl al-Kitab, Dhimmi, Ottoman, Sunna, Umma, Constitution of Medina, history, al Azhar, Bayt al-Hikma, Safavid, Vatican, Roman Catholic Church, Aramaic, Coptic

Abstract: Seen from the vantage of the late twentieth century, relations between Muslims, Jews, and Christians look both better and worse than at any time in the past. In many parts of the world, Muslims are engaged in dialogue with Jews and Christians. Islam has become the fastest growing religion in the multiconfessional mix of (New World) religions, and Muslim leaders are now found alongside rabbis, priests, and ministers in many civic and religious organizations. Yet, at the same time, members of all three religions find themselves fighting one another in territorial and nationalistic wars that have taken on sectarian and religious overtones. In sorting out this mixed state of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian relations, it is important to keep in mind that all three religious groups point to the historical past to inform how they relate to the other groups. Interpretations of history, as well as sacred text and traditional doctrines, thus far have become the determining factors for how well or badly Muslims, Jews, and Christians interrelate. Throughout the article the author explains how understanding history and the ways history has been interpreted becomes, then, central in understanding the various claims made by the members of each religion.


Relations among Muslims, Jews, and Christians have been shaped not only by the theologies and beliefs of the three religions, but also, and often more strongly, by the historical circumstances in which they are found. As a result, history has become a foundation for religious understanding. In each historical phase, the definition of who was regarded as Muslim, Jewish, or Christian shifted, sometimes indicating only a religious identification, but more often indicating a particular so­cial, economic, or political group.

While the tendency to place linguistic behaviour, reli­gious identity, and cultural heritage under one, pure de­finition has existed for a very long time, our modern age with its ideology of nationalism is particularly prone to such a conflation. Ethnic identities have sometimes been conflated with religious identities by both outsiders and insiders, complicating the task of analyzing intergroup and intercommunal relations. For example, Muslims have often been equated with Arabs, effacing the existence of Christian and Jewish Arabs (i.e., members of those religions whose language is Arabic and who participate primarily in Arab culture), ignoring non-Arab Muslims who constitute the majority of Muslims in the world. In some instances, relations between Arabs and Israelis have been understood as Muslim-Jewish relations, ascribing aspects of Arab cul­ture to the religion of Islam and Israeli culture to Judaism. This is similar to what happened during the Crusades, during which Christian Arabs were often charged with being identical to Muslims by the invad­ing Europeans. While the cultures in which Islam pre­dominates do not necessarily make sharp distinctions between the religious and secular aspects of the cul­ture, such distinctions make the task of understanding the nature of relations among Muslims, Jews, and Christians easier, and therefore will be used as an ana­lytic tool in this chapter.

Another important tool for analyzing Muslim-­Jewish-Christian relations is the placement of ideas and behaviors in specific temporal and geographic con­texts. Visions of the past have had a strong influence on each of the religions, and none more strongly than Islam. Many Muslims have as keen an awareness of the events around the time of the Prophet as they do their own time. It is important for a practicing Muslim to know what the Prophet did in his relations with Jews and Christians as a means of shaping their own behav­ior toward them. The Qur’an and the sunna of the Prophet are key guides for a Muslim in dealing with Jews and Christians, as they are in all areas of conduct. This same historical consciousness is also present among Jews and Christians, as each group makes claims for positions and status in Islamic societies. What is important to remember is that the historical in­teractions of Muslims, Jews, and Christians have re­sulted in each constituency being shaped, affected, and transformed by the others, such that it is difficult to imagine how each religion would be as it is without the presence and influence of the others.


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Gordon Newby

Gordon Newby is chair of the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies, at Emory University, and former director of Emory's Institute for Comparative and International Studies; he is co-chair of the Qur'an group of the AAR. His publications include A Concise Encyclopedia of Islam.