Intercultural understanding: the Judeo-Islamic connection

            Often when the question of American or western heritage is raised, Judeo-Christian values take the spotlight. Though some Islamic institutions and organizations have called for the addition of ‘Islamic’ this term, the subliminal response is often that common ground cannot be found between Judeo-Christian and Islamic values. A Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition is simply a fantasy. How could the religion of love and peace share space with a world that still tolerates polygamy and cruel punishments? After all, while the bible consists of the Old and New Testaments, the Quran has never been considered in the west as a possible addition to this inheritance. Is this just a matter of timing, a fluke of history, or is the Muslim book and its core values a stand-alone script?

            I should start by questioning the basis of the term Judeo-Christian tradition by referring to  a Christian heresy called Marcionism. Marcion, a bishop from the second century born circa 110 AD, could not find common ground between the vengeful god of the Old Testament and the peace loving one of the New Testament. He rejected the writings of the Old Testament and taught that Jesus was not the Son of the God of the Jews. The Catholic Encyclopedia considered the Marcionites as “perhaps the most dangerous foe Christianity has ever known.” Their church expanded widely and survived for several centuries. Marcionism did not question the trinity or the church, but the connection between the different facets of the God who was supposed to be shared by Jews and Christians. Both the Catholic and Protestant traditions have space to read within one vision,  “I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me,” (Deuteronomy 5:9) and “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,” John 3:16. The church accepted these two aspects of God without seeing them as contradicting each other. Few centuries later, Spinoza declared that, “strictly speaking God does not love anyone.”  When it comes to applying ethics, Jehovah and Allah have equally harsh moments.

            The Ten Commandments could shed light on another dimension of this issue, the dimension of values. Did Islam develop a set of values contradicting those set by the Old Testament?  In other terms, how far is Islam from the Ten Commandments? The prohibition against: ‘any graven image or any likeness of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below’ seem to have continued in Islam while disappearing from Christianity. The respect for Sabbath disappeared from both and was replaced by Sunday or Friday. Regardless of how these decisions to differ were made and who made them, the approach to values in both Islam and Judaism are not too far apart. This applies also to issues regarding their respective prophets. The status of women and polygamy in Islam is still shocking to many outside the Islamic tradition. Yet by such standards, almost all the Old Testament prophets could be judged as harshly as Mohammed. A minor event took place during the time of Moses: “And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married; for he had married a Cushite woman.” Numbers 12:1 the Cushite woman was his third wife, and Jehovah came to Moses’ rescue in this family dispute by punishing his sister Meriam with leprosy and grounding her in a tent for seven days (numbers 12:16). Mohammed, though his wives numbered between 13 and 15, faced the same problem when he slept with a Christian Copt during the turn of his wife Hafsa. His wives complained and God came to his rescue as he did before with Moses with the following verse Sura66:5 “It may be, if he divorced you (all), that Allah will give him in exchange consorts better than you, who submit (their wills), who believe, who are devout, who turn to Allah in repentance, who worship (in humility), who travel (for Faith) and fast,- previously married or virgins.”

Hence, similarities exist even at the level of the marital problems and cover both the Old Testament and the Quran. Given the way the rivers of tradition flow together, one wonders why the ground was never ripe for communication between these rather strict, monotheist/Middle Eastern traditions.

One answer comes from an event that took place in what used to be the Khazar kingdom. Jehuda Halevi (1075-1141) reported in his “Kitab Al Khazari” in the form of a dialogue purportedly between the king of the Khazars and religious scholars circa 740 AD, a disturbing dream that lead the king to invite religious figures of his time for a discussion. An angel appeared to the king and said, “Your way of thinking is indeed pleasing to the creator, but not your way of acting.” The king invited therefore a Muslim, a Christian and a philosopher for a debate, but no Jewish representative was invited because as reported by Halevi, “Christians and Muslims divided up the whole world between themselves and wage war against each other, although each of them has already directed his intention towards pleasing God.” The king though looking for spiritual guidance relied heavily on the political situation to look for discussants. It was only when both Muslims and Christians referred to the creation story by directing the king to the Old Testament that the king finally decided to include a Jewish rabbi.

As far as the king was concerned, in part the geopolitical status of the participants made them worthy partners. I find the point of the Khazar king still valid, for his kingdom was sandwiched between the Umayyad and the Byzantines. To him, the dialogue would play a role in maintaining peace for his small kingdom and deflecting frictions. In our time, the political balance is of course very different, in part given the creation of the state of Israel. Such a state would have caused the Khazar king to assess his needs differently, and to review his priorities in choosing counterparts. In fact, dialogue as perceived through the lens of the Khazar king could be interpreted simply as a cultural recognition of the political superpowers.

If dialogue were to be defined through the political position of the participants, then Islam nowadays has only a tentative role as a cultural partner -- unless one goes beyond the political status of the Christians, the Muslims and the Jews and tries to deepen the terms of discussion.  Any close look at the Old Testament and the Quran would unearth a number of similarities that unfortunately politics has hidden and continues to hide.  I wish to take this opportunity to make a brief yet risky step of remapping the values of the West by repositioning the lens of the scriptures.

     First of all I would like to draw a new map where a dialogue could be initiated and maintained. Christian - Muslim controversies in the past have often stalled the possibilities of mutual understanding, due to a common assumption that if Islam and Christianity cannot accommodate each other, there is little point in communication. My approach would be to initiate a dialogue between Judaism and Islam and to let the Christian component resolve itself through this door.  That is, Christianity would come on board later. Hence can we talk about a Judeo-Islamic tradition? My answer is yes. These traditions are so close, it is genuinely difficult to believe that Jews and Muslims cannot yet look at each other and greet each other as family.

     Mohammed did not dare deny the qualities or the validity of the Old Testament as mentioned in Sahih al Bukhari Volume 9, Book 93, Number 632:  narrated by Abu Huraira: “The people of the Scripture used to read the Torah in Hebrew and explain it to the Muslims in Arabic. Then Allah's Apostle said, ‘Do not believe the people of the Scripture, and do not disbelieve them, but say, We believe in Allah and whatever has been revealed..’  Though Jehuda Halevi discarded the value of the miracles of Mohammed because the Quran was written in Arabic, the credentials of Mohammed were drawn mainly from the Old Testament and Jehuda Halevi himself -- one of the most renowned Jewish scholars -- wrote in Arabic.

            Political controversies aside, Moses created a state by introducing a revolutionary concept in a time of oral tradition, “the Author and the manuscript.” In strict truth, Moses climbed a mountain with two tablets in order to receive the constitution of the nation that he was about to create. Mohammed followed in the footsteps of Moses, for the first verse revealed to him indicated the importance of reading.  When faced with the problem of what god had created first, Ibn Al Athir reported that Mohammed said, “ God first created the pen and said write,” from alkamil filtarith by Ibn Al Athir.  Ibn Kathir recorded also from Ibn Abbas that “the first thing that god created was the pen, then the tablet of fates.” (my translation)

The Judeo-Islamic tradition continued since to rely solely on the text and to develop the text regardless of the political context. In reading and understanding the text lays the key that can open the door to dialogue – that is, in a scholarly reading that would put emphasis on the text, not on what the text says or the implications of its practice. Mohammed also wanted to build a nation, and of course he could not hand his followers a constitution in a foreign language, be it Hebrew or Chinese.  The Judeo-Islamic tradition ought to be understood as a tradition of the text, and among its purposes counts the building of a state. The western cultural context can be considered a space within which dialogue can be initiated and facilitated.

The participation of the West could be to permit and even encourage a secular reading of the Judeo-Islamic text by creating more institutions and chairs dealing with the Quran and the Old Testament. If the first verse revealed to Mohammed was to read, then the first verse of a dialogue should be to understand.  By understanding I mean to create an environment where Muslims accept to read the Quran from a historic and sociopolitical perspective, even while maintaining their spiritual one. I would like to refer here to an event reported by Aviva Lori for the Haaretz newspaper where famous Israeli archeologist Israel Finkelstein reported the following: “One day at the time of the withdrawal from Hebron, I visited the tomb of the patriarchs with Rabbi Menahem Fruman. I explained that the structure is Herodian and the interviewer Emmanuel Rosen asked Fruman what he had to say about that. He replied, ‘It’s very interesting. He is a man of science, so I assume he knows what he is talking about.’ Rosen was absolutely flabbergasted, he was afraid Fruman would attack me but Fruman went on ‘do you want me to play time games here? For me it’s enough that he says Jews prayed here in the Herodian period. If he said that it’s been here since the Middle Ages that would be enough for me.’” Let me remind the audience here that by being Herodian, the building loses its spiritual and historical dimension.

Similar to this, I would like to recount an event I witnessed in Saudi Arabia. It was a talk by Thomas Thompson a leading scholar from the school of Copenhagen. By the end of his presentation, the clear conclusion though disguised was that there was no ground for the existence of the first temple because Jerusalem did not become a city until the fall of Lachish circa 701bc.[1] Members of the Saudi audience were pleased by this implication – not realizing that by doubting the validity of the first temple and hence of Solomon and David, they were literally invalidating Muslim precepts relating to these same prophets! What indeed both doctors Finkelstein and Thompson delivered to the Judeo-Islamic tradition was a separation of the text from the state.

The western tradition paved a new path by separating its state from its church; the same process ought to take place in both Jewish and Islamic worlds. Muslims ought one way or another to let their text float and be understood as a socio-political document rather than a religious text only. Rabbi Fruman distinguished between his text and his state, a great lesson to orthodoxy in general. The western world separated its state from the church even when the church condemned the move. The syllabus of Pope Pius IX published in 1864 condemned officially the statement that: “The Church ought to be separated from the State, and the State from the Church."   This condemnation was reconfirmed in "Lamentabili sane exitu", issued on July 3, 1907 by pope Pius X, confirmed again on July 10th of the same year and sanctioned a few months later on November 18, 1907. Yet the separation took place, the church survived it and the western state thrived.

Muslim and Jewish scholars could also learn to separate their text from their state in order to prepare the ground for a dialogue, whether their religious scholars agree or not.  Texts are not intended to be inert; texts can be amended, but before we get there we should understand them. Their text could survive the move and so are their states.


Thank you. © Karim Chaibi 2005


[1] A statement he defended earlier in Journal of biblical studies Jul Sep 2001 issue “On Reading the Bible for History”