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 behaviours 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 behaviour 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.


The Foundational Period  

When Prophet Muhammad was born in 570 CE , Arabia was deeply involved in the political,  religious, and economic rivalries between the Byzantine and Sassanian Persian empires.  Arabia was an important trade route for goods coming from the Far East and Africa and was  strategically important for each empire’s defence. Arabs were recruited into the armies of  both sides, providing horse and camel cavalries, and each empire had maintained Arab client  states as buffers and bases of operation. Around fifty years earlier, the last Jewish kingdom in  southern Arabia allied with the Persians and was defeated and replaced by a Christian  Monophysite army from Abyssinia allied with Byzantium. According to early Muslim  historians, this army, led by a general named Abraha, tried to invade Mecca in the year of  Muhammad’s birth because the pagan Arabs had defiled one of the Christian churches in  southern Arabia. Abraha and his forces were, however, defeated. Because the Abyssinians  used war elephants for their attempted invasion, many think that this is the elephant referred  to in the sura titled al-Fil in the Qur’an: 105.  

There were numerous Christian settlements throughout the southern and eastern parts of  Arabia, but few in the Hijaz, the area of Muhammad’s birth. The Hijaz had numerous Jewish  settlements, most of long standing, dating to at least the time of the destruction of the Second  Temple in 70 CE. According to some scholars, the earliest Jewish presence in the Hijaz was at  the time of Nabonidus, about 550 CE. The Jews in these settlements were merchants, farmers,  vintners, smiths, and, in the desert, members of Bedouin tribes. The most important Jewish dominated city was Yathrib, known later as Medina, which featured prominently in  Muhammad’s career. The Jews of the Hijaz seem to have been mostly independent, but we  find evidence of their being allied with both Byzantium and the Persians. Some made the  claim to be “kings” of the Hijaz, most probably meaning tax collectors for the Persians, and,  for a variety of reasons, more Jews were loyal to Persian interests against those of the  Byzantine Empire. Jews, as well as Christians, seem to have been engaged in attempting to  convert the Arabian population to their religious and political views, often with some success.  The loyalties of the Jews and Christians to one or the other of the two empires meant that Arab sources report that, at the time of Muhammad’s birth, some Meccans had abandoned  Arabian polytheism and had chosen monotheism. In Arabic these individuals were referred to  as hanif in a Jewish, Christian, or non-sectarian form. From Qur’anic and other evidence, it is  clear that Meccans were conversant with the general principles of Judaism and Christianity  and knew many details of worship, practice, and belief. During Muhammad’s formative and  early adult years, the character of his birth city, Mecca, was very cosmopolitan.  

When Muhammad had his first revelation in 610 CE, his wife Khadija sought the advice of  her cousin, Waraqa ibn Nawfal, a hanif, learned in Jewish and Christian scriptures.  Muhammad eventually declared that he was a continuation of the prophetic traditions of  Judaism and Christianity, claiming that he had been foretold in Jewish and Christian scripture.  A central doctrine of Islam places Muhammad at the end of a chain of prophets from God,  starting with Adam and embracing the major prophetic figures of Judaism and Christianity,  including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Denial of this central idea by Jews and Christians is  said to be a result of the corruption of the sacred texts, either inadvertently or on purpose.  This disparity of perspective underlies much of what Muslims believe about their Jewish and  Christian forebears, and conditions Islamic triumphalist views about the validity of Islam  against the partial falsity of the other two traditions.  

The Qur’an and the Sira (the traditional biography of Prophet Muhammad) present  ambivalent attitudes toward Jews and Christians, reflecting the varied experience of  Muhammad and the early Muslim community with Jews and Christians in Arabia. Christians  are said to be nearest to Muslims in “love” (Qur’an 5:82), and yet Muslims are not to take  Jews or Christians as “close allies or leaders” (Qur’an 5:51). The Qur’an often makes a  distinction between the “Children of Israel” (i.e., Jews mentioned in the Bible) and members  of the Jewish tribes in Arabia during Muhammad’s time. This distinction is also present in the  Sira and other histories. Some Jews are represented as hostile to Muhammad and his mission,  while others become allies with him. The Qur’anic revelations that Muhammad received in  regard to Christians and Jews seemed to correspond to the degree of acceptance that he was  awarded by these two communities. Initially, Muhammad sought their acceptance, but when  the leaders of the Christian and Jewish communities rejected him as a false prophet, he  received revelations that commanded him to distance himself from them. In the “Constitution  of Medina,” which Muhammad negotiated with the Ansar, the Muhajjirun, and the Jews of  Medina, Jews were included in the Umma, the community, and were allowed freedom of  association and religion in return for the payment of an annual tax. This agreement and the  subsequent treaties negotiated by Muhammad with the Jews of Tayma, and other cities in the  Hijaz, establish the precedent of symbolically including “People of Scripture” (Ahl al-Kitab)  in the Umma. As the armies of conquest encountered communities of Jews, Christians, and  Zoroastrians, the model of Muhammad’s accommodating behaviour extended the original  notion to incorporate all these recipients of God’s revelation as Ahl al-Dhimma, or Dhimmi,  protected peoples. There were fewer Christians in the Hijaz than Jews, so Christians are  featured less prominently in the political history of the establishment of the Muslim  community. Nevertheless, Muhammad had frequent contact with Christians from the southern  areas of Najran and Ethiopia, disputing with them as he had with the Jews over matters of  religious belief and practice. The traditions surrounding the sending of the Muslims to Ethiopia represent the ruler as seeing little difference between Islam and Christianity. The  Qur’anic presentation of the life of Jesus and Christian belief shows that Muhammad and the  early Muslims understood eastern Mediterranean Christian belief and practice, particularly if  one acknowledges the importance of the “infancy” Gospels in Christian thought at the time.  The Qur’an, however, denies the deity of Christ.  

The death of Muhammad and the subsequent expansion of Islam out of Arabia brought about  a definitive break with the Jewish and Christian Arab communities, so that subsequent  relations were built on Jewish and Christian interactions with Muslims who knew the  Prophet’s actions only as idealized history. During the first Islamic century, the period of the  most rapid expansion of Islam, social and religious structures were so fluid that it is hard to  make generalisations. Jews and Christians were theoretically expelled from Arabia, or, at  least, the Hijaz, but later evidence shows that Jews and Christians remained for centuries  afterward. As late as the eighteenth century, for example, Jewish Bedouins roamed north  western Arabia, and Christian Arabs were found in numerous settlements throughout Arabia.


The Early Centuries of Muslim History  

The period of the first caliphs and the subsequent era of the Umayyads was a time in which  Muslims, Jews, and Christians negotiated the new power arrangements. The parameters of  Dhimmi status were developed, and both head and land taxes were paid to the Muslim caliphs  through representatives and not individually. For the Jews, the Resh Geluta or Exilarch was  from the Rabbinic branch of Judaism, it became the dominant form, generally displacing  other groups. Also, because Muslims expanded to include most of the world’s Jews in their  polity, Rabbinic Judaism was able to develop its institutions within the context of the Islamic  Umma. For the newly forming Islamic state, the loyalty of the Exilarch, and, by extension, the  Jews, added legitimacy to Muslim claims to legitimate rule over its various non-Muslim  populations. The interaction between Jews and Muslims thus produced profound effects on  both Judaism and Islam.  

Christians acted as physicians, architects, clerks, and advisors in the courts of the early  caliphs. Greek and Coptic were the administrative languages for several centuries before  Arabic became established enough to be the general medium of public discourse. Even the  occasional uprisings against Muslim rule, as the Coptic uprisings of the early ninth century  and the Jewish revolts against the Umayyads a century earlier, were local, over specific  grievances, and not anti-Islamic as such. In fact, the Jewish revolt against the Umayyads,  driven, it seems, by messianic visions, was sympathetic to early Shia views and attempts to  overthrow the last Umayyad caliph.  

The first two Islamic centuries was a time of translating Christian and Jewish scripture into  Arabic, along with a vast body of commentary, particularly on biblical figures. Qur’anic tafsir  (commentaries) became the repository of much Jewish and Christian tradition concerning  such figures as Abraham, Moses, Solomon, Jesus, and others. The beginnings of Islamic  theological speculation were stimulated by translations of Hellenistic thought from Aramaic,  Coptic, Greek, and Syriac. One of the effects of this trend was to produce tension between  those inclined toward greater cosmopolitanism of the intellectual and cultural heritage of  Hellenism and those who felt that Islamic society should be centered only on the Qur’an and traditions from Muhammad, presaging the debates about the inclusion or exclusion of outside  ideas. The resulting balance between religious and scientific learning became such a part of  Islamic societies that even in periods of political fragmentation, Jews and Christians con tributed along with Muslims to the intellectual and cultural life of the Islamic communities.


The Medieval Period  

In the western Islamic lands of the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa, Jews, Christians, and  Muslims combined in a society that is often described by later historians with the adjective  “golden.” The areas of poetry, music, art, architecture, theology, exegesis, law, philosophy,  medicine, pharmacology, and mysticism were shared among all the inhabitants of the Islamic  courts and city-states at the same time that Muslim armies were locked in a losing struggle  with the Christian armies of the Reconquista. In the eastern Mediterranean, similar symbiotic  societies could be found. The universities of al-Azhar in Cairo and Cordoba in Spain, both  founded in the tenth century, followed the older model of the Bayt al-Hikma in Baghdad, as  places of shared learning among scholars from the three traditions. Both the concept of these  types of institutions of learning, as well as the learning itself they produced, had profound  influence on European institutions of higher education and European scientific advancement.  Within the intellectual circles of the Islamic world, Jews contributed and participated in this  civilization through contact with Muslim philosophers and theologians, just as Muslims had  from contact with Christians earlier. In the areas of commerce, world trade was dominated by  trading associations made up of Muslims, Jews, and Christians from Islamic lands.  

The twin attacks on the Islamic world in the Middle Ages by the Crusaders from the West and  the Mongols from the East transformed Muslim attitudes toward the Dhimmi, and also the  attitudes of the Jews and Christians in Islamic lands toward their relations with Muslim polity.  Many Islamic areas develop in accordance with an already existing tendency to organize  society along military lines. This becomes particularly true in areas where Turkic peoples take  over the leading governmental and military roles. Converted by Sunni merchants and  organised as military brotherhoods imbued with the spirit of military jihad, the Turks became  the defenders of the Islamic lands. In their vision of society, the influence of Christians, Jews,  and non-Sunni Muslim groups was circumscribed and made more rigid, but it was not  eliminated. Muslim religious scholars used depictions of Jews and Christians found in the  foundation texts as cautionary models for Muslims, but actual communities of Jews and  Christians were treated with strict adherence to legal precedent. The Dhimmi had to wear  distinctive clothing and badges to indicate their position in society, as did Muslims, as part of  a general “uniform” indicating rank and status. Certain occupations became common for Jews  and Christians, such as tanning, which was regarded as imparting ritual impurity to Muslims,  and it became less common in this period to find Jews and Christians in the highest ranks of  advisors to the rulers. Jews and Christians usually lived in separate quarters of cities, and,  while they were inferior to Muslims in public and barred from riding horses or blocking the  public way with religious processions, they lived autonomously with respect to their  communal affairs. This autonomy, while somewhat protective of individuals, was to prove to  have long-term consequences. Some Christian communities, caught in the middle of the  conflict during the Crusades, actively expressed their loyalty to Rome and Constantinople and  looked to the Crusaders as protectors of their interests. This association began a process of  separation of some of these communities from the matrix of Muslim polity, and they became  viewed as foreign by Muslims and themselves.

When Jews and Muslims were expelled from Spain in 1492 CE, the majority of Jews chose to  move to Islamic lands, the area of the Ottoman Empire in particular. The Iberian Jews were so  numerous, well educated, and prosperous, that Iberian Jewish culture often supplanted that of  

the older Jewish communities, so that Sephardic became the general term for Jews living in  Islamic lands. The trading and manufacturing skills and the capital of these immigrants to the  Ottoman Empire provided much of the wealth for Ottoman expansion. Under the Ottomans,  Jewish and Christian communities achieved the greatest degree of autonomy. Through the  millet system, each community was distinct and responsible directly to the Sultan. The most  famous intrusions into communal life occurred with the Ottoman institution of the Jannisary  corps. Young Christian males were conscripted by the Ottoman military, trained as soldiers,  converted to Islam, and placed in high positions in Ottoman administration. The process  sometimes produced resentment among Christians, but some families actively sought to have  a member chosen because of the possibilities of favours and preferential treatment later when  the candidate assumed official duties.


The Modern Period  

Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 is generally regarded as the beginning of the modern  period of the history of the Islamic Middle East and the beginnings of Western colonialism  that was to encompass most of the Islamic lands in Asia and Africa. In reality, it signified the  decline of Muslim polities against the economic and technological rise of Western Europe. By  the eighteenth century, most Muslims found themselves living in or dependent on one of the  three great Muslim empires: the Ottoman, the Mughal, or the Safavid Empire. All three  empires were agrarian and relied on peasant labour for wealth, military strength, and products  for worldwide trade. As Western Europe underwent the technological transformation usually  termed the Industrial Revolution, with the concomitant rise of capitalism, it also underwent a  social and religious revolution that placed great value on the individual and stressed  individual effort and initiative. This reorganisation produced societies generally freed from  family and clan constraints on labour allocation, rewards, and relations with governing  powers such that the societies became more efficient in manufacturing and trading goods on  the world market. In the worldwide competition, major areas of the Islamic world became  providers of raw or only partially manufactured goods for the industrialized West. When the  West sold back the manufactured goods, which often drove superior local goods from the  market, it also exposed the Muslim customers to the ideals of the reorganised, industrialised  society: individualised human rights, democracy, secularism and secular law, universal edu cation, science, nationalism, and the subordination of religion to the greater ideology of the  nation-state. Western military and economic success proved attractive to many members of  the Islamic states who sought to adopt Western ways as a means of securing part of this  success.  

In the Ottoman Empire, the British and French found Jews and Christians to be willing agents  for their commercial activities, and the Ottomans, in turn, were pleased to employ the Dhimmi  for these purposes as well. Many Jews and Christians sought to secure the benefits of Western  societies for themselves and their offspring by asking for and getting Western protection,  

passports, and, in some instances, citizenship. The Dhimmi often fell under the protection of  the foreign powers. The increasing identification of Jews and Christians with non-Muslim  powers served only to isolate these non-Muslims from the rest of Islamic society. Even in places where there was not an indigenous Jewish or Christian population to be exploited for  economic gain, Western European powers arrived as colonialists with professedly Christian  institutions, expectations, and ideologies. The British were able to separate Egypt from the  Ottoman Empire and establish a protectorate in 1882, as they were able to put India under  direct British rule in 1857. The French colonized Algeria in 1830 and Tunisia in 1881. The  Dutch competed with the British for Southeast Asia, so that by the end of the nineteenth  century, most Muslims were under Western political and legal influence. The secular legal  systems devised in the West supplanted both Christian and Muslim customary and religious  law, seriously challenging or eliminating the category of Dhimmi in those countries. The  result was often a complete separation of Jews and Christians as groups from a relationship in  law with Muslims.  

The dissolution of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, resulting in the creation of  a number of small nation-states, resulted in a further separation of non-Muslims from  Muslims. The ideology of nationalism reduced religion to the status as one of the components  of a nation-state ideology. Education became Western, technological, and secular, further  reducing religion to peripheral status. By the eve of World War II, most Islamic countries  were prepared to overthrow colonialism and establish nation-states. When this happened after  World War II, constitutions were modelled after such countries as Switzerland, the United  States, and France, usually guaranteeing freedom of religion but providing no particular  safeguards for religious expression. Other religious and ethnic groups also desired nation states. Nominal Christian states were formed in the Balkans, and the state of Israel was  formed in the formerly British mandate territory of Palestine. The creation of the state of  Israel in 1948 became a central focal point for Muslim-Jewish relations, which had steadily  deteriorated since the end of World War I. The worsening conflicts in Palestine increased  Jewish-Muslim conflict in the Arab states, where Jews were seen as both foreign and  instruments of Western colonial designs. Within twenty years after the formation of the state  of Israel, the majority of Jews living in Arab lands migrated to Israel, thus crystallizing the  conflict in Palestine into a Jewish-Muslim conflict. Rulers in predominantly Muslim countries  no longer had a constituent Jewish population. Jews were an abstract and hostile other, and  Judaism, now increasingly identified with Zionism by Jews and non-Jews alike, was  revalorized as the ever-present opposition to Muslims in Islamic history. This last notion,  while having its roots in the foundation texts of Islam, was now abstracted in a way unlike  any time in the past, and Jewish-Muslim relations took a new direction.  

A common thread among many Islamic intellectuals concerned with the role and direction of  Muslims in the postcolonial world is the role of the Jews in Islamic history. As mentioned  above, the historical circumstances of a strong Jewish presence in the Hijaz during  Muhammad’s time and the opposition of most of the Jewish tribes to Muhammad’s mission  embedded numerous seemingly anti-Jewish statements into the early literature. For a few, in a  quest to use the Islamic historical past to explain the present, the negative accounts of Judaism  and Christianity became abstracted so as to conflate the past with the present Arab-Israeli and  East-West conflicts; for example, biblical descriptions of Jews rebelling against God’s  commands. Medinan Jewish opposition to the forming Muslim state and Israeli actions  against Palestinians were read together as an eternal Jewish character, a view sometimes  informed by Western anti-Semitic literature. The Egyptian intellectual, Sayyid Qutb’s article  “Our Struggle with the Jews,” is one example, as are the views expressed by leaders of the  American Nation of Islam.

Other Muslim intellectuals read the same foundation texts with an emphasis on the special  relationship between God and People of the Book. While deploring the problems in Palestine,  they separate the Arab-Israeli conflict from discussions about Jews and Christians. Some at  al-Azhar in Egypt cite the Qur’an and sunna to support peace accords between Israel and the  Palestinians, and Warith D. Muhammad, the son of Elijah Muhammad, in the United States  has countered the anti-Jewish essentialist reading of the past with a Qur’anic-based message  of mutual cooperation among Muslims, Jews, and Christians.


The Future  

As Islam spreads to new places in the world, more and more Muslims are living as minorities  in non-Muslim lands. This, too, has proved to be an intellectual challenge. Some Muslim  states and organisations have tried to revive a notion of Dhimmi in reverse, seeking to be the  protectors of the rights of Muslims in non-Muslim countries, as, for example, the Muslim  World League and the Islamic Call Society. Linked to these ideas is the notion of the da‘wa,  or the invitation to Islam to non-Muslims. The situation of minority Muslim communities in  Africa, North America, and Asia, many of whom express Islam in ways different from those  in Muslim-majority countries where Islam and indigenous cultures are intermixed, is  prompting a form of inter-Muslim ecumenism parallel to the willingness of Muslims to par ticipate in the essentially ecumenical dialogues with Jews and Christians, the aims of which  are understanding without attempts at conversion.  

Discourse about Muslim-Jewish and Christian relations has been dominated in the first half century by the problems of forming new group identities after the dissolution of colonialism.  Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities have all suffered from conflicts pitting one group  against another. As with any conflict, this period has produced considerable polemic. It has  also produced positive calls for mutual respect and cooperation. The World Council of  Churches has called for positive dialogue with Islam as part of its movement to reach out to  people of all religions, and at the Vatican II Council, the Roman Catholic Church called on its  members to esteem Muslims. Among synagogues in America, groups are expanding to  promote Jewish-Muslim dialogue. As peace treaties are negotiated and conflicts are reduced  to non-belligerency, members of all three religions find themselves in a position to build on  the traditions of common heritage and common experience.  

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An empty image for staff profile

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.

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