Muslims and Jews: a historical perspective that reveals surprises

Once upon a time, a widely circulated Jewish document described Islam as "an act of God's Mercy".

Also, Jews in the near East, north Africa and Spain threw their support behind advancing Muslim Arab armies.

No, these aren't fairy tales or propaganda. The relationship between Muslims and Jews really was that cooperative and marked by peaceful coexistence.

Just ask Khalid Siddiqi of the Islamic Education and Information Center in San Jose, California where he also teaches Islamic Studies and Arabic at Chabot College and Ohlone College.

Siddiqi notes that the first quote above is from S. D. Goitein's book Jews and Arabs. The second is from Merlin Swartz's 'The Position of Jews in Arab lands following the rise of Islam' (reprinted from The Muslim World. Hartford Seminary Foundation LXI1970).

Swartz also says the Muslim Arab conquest marked the dawn of a new era. Those forces that had led to the progressive isolation and disruption of Jewish life were not only checked they were dramatically reversed.

In an interview with Sound Vision, Siddiqi gave numerous examples of Jews flourishing under Muslim rule in places like Spain, Morocco, North African in general and various parts of the Middle East.

Siddiqi points out that Islam as a religion has given specific guidelines for the followers of Islam to base their relationship with any non-Muslim. These include People of Scripture, like the Jews, people who belong to other religions, and even atheists. Non-Muslims must be treated on the basis of Birr (kindness) and Qist (justice), as referred to Surah 60 verse 8 of the Quran.

It started at the time of the Prophet Mohammad (peace and blessings be upon him)

The peaceful coexistence of Muslims and Jews began at the time of the Prophet.

Siddiqi notes that the Jews welcomed the Prophet when he arrived in Madinah at the time of Hijrah (migration), along with the rest of the city's inhabitants.

But the Prophet had begun the step towards good relations with Jewish and other communities in Madinah even before getting there.

After receiving an invitation to Madinah from one of the city's tribes that had accepted Islam, the Prophet signed treaties with the city's Jewish, Christian and polytheist tribes before he arrived there.

These treaties clearly laid out responsibilities of each of the parties. It was based on these that the Prophet established the Mithaq al Madinah, the constitution of Madinah.

Siddiqi says this was the first constitution of the world and one of the greatest political documents ever prepared by any human being. It is the oldest surviving constitution of any state.

Under this constitution, any Jew who followed the Muslims was entitled to their assistance and the same rights as anyone of them without any injustice or partisanship.

It said the Jews are an Ummah (community of believers) alongside the Muslims. The Jews have their religion and the Muslims theirs. As well, it noted that each will assist one another against any violation of this covenant.

Jews during the Muslim era

Despite this early breach of contract, there are still numerous examples from Muslim history of Muslim-Jewish cooperation and coexistence.

Siddiqi gave examples of how Muslim Spain, which was a "golden era" of creativity and advancement for Muslims was also one for Jews.

While Europe was in its Dark Ages and Jews were reviled there, Muslims in Spain during the same period worked side by side with Jews in developing literature, science and art.

Together, they translated classical Greek texts into Arabic. This task later helped Europe move out of the Dark Ages and into the Renaissance.

Jews flourished under Muslim rule in Egypt as well, where they achieved very high positions in government.

Siddiqi quotes some lines from an Arab poet of that time, to illustrate: 'Today the Jews have reached the summit of their hopes and have become aristocrats. Power and riches have they and from them councilors and princes are chosen'.

Today: the forced expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland has destroyed good Muslim-Jewish relations

So what happened?

Although not the only cause, a large part of the deterioration in Muslim-Jewish relations comes from the emergence of Zionism, the forced expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland by Zionist Jews and British colonizers, as well as their continuing oppression.

Siddiqi says, "while this reaction results in anti-Jewish feeling it must be seen in its proper historical context. It must be remembered that anti-Jewish sentiments in so far as it is to be found in the contemporary Arab world is strictly a modern phenomenon and one that runs counter to the time honored Islamic tradition of fraternity and tolerance.

"The very widespread popular notion that present day Arab-Jewish hostility is but another chapter in a long history of mutual animosity is totally false. If there is one thing the past makes clear it is precisely that Arabs and Jews can live together peacefully and in a mutually beneficial relationship. History also makes it very clear that they are the heirs to the Islamic tradition of openness and tolerance."

The key to reestablishing good relations between Muslims and Jews again is justice, notes Siddiqui. This principle is foreign to neither Islam nor Judaism.

In Islam, standing up for justice, he points out, must be done even if it is against ourselves, our parents, our kin, the rich or the poor. This is clearly mentioned in the Quran (4:135).

Siddiqi points out that the emphasis on justice is also mentioned in Jewish scripture in the prophecies of Michael in chapter three: "Zion shall be redeemed with justice and by those who will come to her with righteousness."




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