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Muslims, Christians, and Jews: The Dream of Coexistence

The term coexistence, as it is used at the present time, implies a willingness to live at peace, and perhaps even in mutual respect, with others. It might therefore be useful to begin with a glance at the notion of “otherness,” which, no doubt as a result of the conspicuous failures of coexistence—religious, national, racial, social, ideological—in our century, has received a good deal of attention of late.1

The two most articulate peoples of eastern Mediterranean antiquity, the only ones who have retained both their voices and their memories, have left us two by now classical definitions of the other—the barbarian and the gentile, “barbarian” meaning not Greek, “gentile” meaning not Jewish. Both of these terms, in classical usage, contain at least an element of hostility, in which the notion of the other easily changes into the somewhat different but closely related concept of the enemy. Yet both of these notions—barbarian and gentile—represent a considerable advance on what went before.

The urge to define and reject the other goes back to our remotest human ancestors, and indeed beyond them to our animal predecessors. Both the Jewish and Greek definitions represent an immense change, in that the barriers which they raise are permeable. They are not impenetrable barriers, and in this they are different from the more primitive and universal definitions of identity and otherness based on birth and blood. They can be crossed or even removed by the adoption, in the one case of a language and culture, in the other of a religious belief and law. It was not easy, but it was possible, and already in classical antiquity we confront the phenomenon of Hellenized barbarians and Judaized gentiles, even indeed of Hellenized Jews and Judaized Hellenes, either directly or through the more spectacularly successful Jewish heresies.

The Jewish definition of identity and otherness, by religious belief and practice, was adopted by both the successor religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which for fourteen centuries have shared—or rather contested—the Mediterranean world. The three religions have an immense heritage in common—from the ancient Middle East, from Greco-Roman antiquity, from Jewish revelation and prophecy. Yet their mutual perceptions and reciprocal attitudes differ enormously.

The Jewish perception of the religious other is different from that shared by Christians and Muslims, and, in this respect, brings Judaism closer to the religions of eastern and southern Asia—in that, while Jews claim that the truths of their faith are universal, they do not claim that they are exclusive. Judaism is for Jews and those who care to join them. But, according to a well-known Talmudic dictum, the righteous of all peoples and faiths have their place in paradise. The rabbis relate that before the ten commandments given to Moses there were seven commandments revealed in the time of Noah, and these were for all humanity. Only two of them, the bans on idolatry and blasphemy, are theological; all the rest, including the prohibition of murder, robbery, cruelty, etc., are no more than the basic rules of human social coexistence. Since Judaism makes no claim to exclusive truth, salvation, according to Jewish teaching, is attainable for non-Jews, provided that they practice monotheism and morality. Much medieval Jewish theological and legal writing is concerned with the question whether Christians and Muslims qualify under these headings. It was universally agreed among Jewish scholars that Islam is a monotheistic religion, but the often misunderstood doctrine of the Trinity caused some problems to Jewish as well as to Muslim theologians.

Traditional Christianity and Islam differed from Judaism and agreed with each other in that both claimed to possess not only universal but exclusive truths. Each claimed to be the sole custodian of God’s final revelation to mankind. Neither admitted salvation outside its own creed. In the fourteen-centuries-long encounter between Islam and Christendom, the profoundest conflicts between the two religions, the most irreconcilable disagreements between their followers, arose not from their differences but from their resemblances. Some other religions would not accept converts. Most, while not rejecting them, did not seek them, and felt no mission or duty to cause other men, in other parts, to change their faiths. Christians and Muslims shared the belief that theirs was the sole universal truth, and that it was their sacred mission to bring it to all mankind. When Christians and Muslims called each other accursed infidels, each understood exactly what the other meant, because both meant exactly the same thing. Neither the adjective nor the substantive would have conveyed much to a Hindu or a Confucian.

Christendom and Islam were not only major religions; each of them was also, in modern parlance, a considerable power bloc, with universal claims and aspirations, and, for most of their shared histories, with their main power base by or near the Mediterranean. The other great civilizations of the world, India and China, despite their antiquity and their sophistication, were essentially local, regional, almost ethnic. Neither Hinduism nor Confucianism ever made an attempt to become a world religion or a world power. Buddhism, which preceded both Islam and Christianity in ecumenical ambition, had long since abandoned the attempt. Rejected in its Indian homeland, it was, in effect, confined to East and Southeast Asia. Only Christianity and Islam remained—two religions of the same kind, for more than fourteen centuries neighbors, rarely in association, sometimes in confrontation, often in conflict, each claiming to possess God’s final dispensation.

But how would the possessor of God’s final dispensation to mankind view a rival claimant? Much depends on whether that claimant is previous or subsequent. From a traditional Christian point of view, since Christianity was, so to speak, the end of the process of revelation, anything subsequent was necessarily false and noxious. From a Muslim point of view, since Christianity was earlier, Christianity, like Judaism, was an incomplete, somewhat damaged, and now superseded religion, but not in itself false and not in itself noxious. When Muslims have confronted a subsquent dispensation, like the post-Islamic faiths of the Baha’is or the Ahmadiyya, they have also reacted with something of the hostility which Christians showed to the advent of Islam—a similar situation though, as it turned out, much less dangerous from their point of view.

For both Christianity and Islam, Judaism is a predecessor, yet there is a fundamental difference in the attitudes of the two religions toward the Jews, alike in the extent, the form, and the manner of toleration. Both claimed a world mission, whence the continuing clash between them. For both of them Judaism as a predecessor was entitled, by the logic of their own beliefs, to a certain, albeit limited, measure of tolerance. But in their actual treatment of Jews there were significant differences deriving from the foundation myths—I mean no disrespect by this expression—of the two religions, reinforced by subsequent experience. The founders of both religions came into conflict with Jews, but in these conflicts one lost, the other won. This made a profound difference to the perception of Jews in sacred history, in the memories enshrined in the scriptures and other writings that formed the core of self-awareness of the two religious communities. Muhammad won his battle with the Jews, and it was he who destroyed them, not the reverse. His successors therefore felt able to adopt, shall we say, a more relaxed attitude to subsequent generations of Jews.

There is also a difference in their claims. The Christian dispensation claims to be a fulfillment of promises made to the Jews, and the accomplishment of Jewish prophecies. Christians retained and reinterpreted the Hebrew Bible, which they called the Old Testament, and added a New Testament to it. In a view only recently and partially relinquished by the churches, God’s covenant with the Jews was taken over and Israel was, so to speak, replaced by the “true Israel,” Verus Israel, which is the Church. Jewish survival and still more Jewish refusal were thus seen as somehow impugning the authenticity of the Christian dispensation. Muhammad and his successors made no such claim, and the conversion of the Jews was therefore a matter of little or no concern to them. Muslims abandoned both testaments, which in their belief were replaced, not supplemented, by the Koran. This difference is manifest in the polemical literature of the two faiths. There is in medieval and even in modern Christendom a vast literature of polemics, written by Christian theologians, to persuade Jews of the truth of the Christian dispensation. The theologians of Islam felt no such need. There are few Muslim polemics against Judaism, and most of them are efforts at self-justification by recent converts from that religion.

This doctrinal difference was confirmed and amplified by important practical differences between the two situations. In Christendom, which until the dawn of the modern era substantially meant Europe, Jews were the only religious minority in an otherwise religiously and to a large extent racially homogeneous society. Their presence, and still more their otherness, were always clearly visible, and in times of trouble they provided not just the best but the only scapegoat. The Islamic world in contrast was international, indeed intercontinental, embracing peoples in Asia, Africa, and Europe, and forming a varied and pluralistic society in which Jews were just one among a great many minorities. In Muslim eyes they were for the most part neither the most important nor the most dangerous. They were obviously much less important than the Christians, who were vastly more numerous and who could moreover be accused of treasonable sympathy with the Christian European enemy. No such suspicion attached to the Jewish minorities in Islamic lands.

A religious definition of group identity inevitably raises the question of another kind of otherness, crucial in the history of Christendom, not unimportant in the history of Islam—that of an intermediate status between the believer and the unbeliever—the schismatic, the heretic, the deviant.

Islamic experience, both past and present, shows many groups of deviants, who differed from mainstream Islam in belief or practice or both. The major polemical literature of Islam was written by Muslims against other Muslims—between Sunnis and Shi’a, between the different schools and tendencies within each of these, and between mainstream Islam and extremist fringe groups such as the Isma’ilis, the Alawis, and the Druse. These polemics are far more extensive and sophisticated than any directed against Christians or Jews. Deviation was serious; it was dangerous. It represented a real adversary that could threaten the established order. Beginning in early times, it continues to the present day. Yet there is no such thing as either schism or heresy in Islam, in the Christian sense of these terms.

Schism means split. There is no split in Islam like the schism between the Greek and Roman churches, since there is no institutional authority—no popes or patriarchs or councils, and therefore no questions of jurisdiction or obedience or submission. Heresy means choice and therefore, human nature being what it is, it has been specialized to mean a wrong choice. This again hardly arises in Islam because there is considerable freedom of choice in matters of belief, within very widely drawn limits. And so, despite frequent deviation and occasional repression, we find few of the legal, theological, and practical implications of heresy that we know from Christendom. One reason has already been mentioned—the absence of an institutional structure, a church. There was no ecclesiastical authority to formulate, promulgate, and direct belief, or to define and denounce incorrect belief—to detect, to enforce, to punish. All this, so characteristic of the Christian churches, has no true equivalent in Islamic history. There have been a few attempts by rulers to impose some kind of orthodox creed. Most such attempts were short-lived and ineffectual.

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    This article is adapted from a lecture given in Naples in April 1991, at a colloquium on Coabitazione tra religioni e laicità dello stato nel Mediterraneo del novecento, organized by Storia Uomini Religioni. The proceedings of the colloquium will be published in Italian, by Laterza, later this year.

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