Issue 4 - Spring 2007 - The Big Issue
The golden age of friendship between Muslims and Jews wasn't all about peace, love, and understanding. It also kept the wheels of Islamic civilization turning. A Muslim refusenik explains how Allah's ambassadors could benefit by treating Jews with dignity
BY IRSHAD MANJI
A few years ago, the American writer Bruce Feiler spent time in Jerusalem researching the life of Abraham, the patriarch of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. While there, Feiler met the imam of Al-Aqsa mosque, Sheikh Abu Sneina. In London-honed English, the sheikh told Feiler that he “must follow the last prophet” whom God had sent. Otherwise, he would die under God’s blowtorch, just as millions of Jews had been “grilled alive” with divine sanction by Hitler.
Feiler left the interview disgusted. He related the incident to a local journalist specializing in religion. “The unfortunate truth,” said the journalist, “is that Sheikh Sneina represents the mainstream in Islam at the moment. You can find Jews who have a similar message of Jewish nationalism, but not that many. You can find apocalyptic Christians, but still a limited number. Your imam represents the bulk of Muslims, at least around here.”
Emphasize “at least.” Based on the e-mails I receive daily and the confidential conversations to which I’m privy, I can personally attest that Sheikh Sneina speaks for many more contemporary Muslims. I write this in the week that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is hosting a conference to celebrate Holocaust denial. Worse, I don’t know of a single Muslim protest against that conference, outside of Iran. The Council on American-Islamic Relations issued a press release to condemn the gathering, but organized no demonstration. Worse still, in writing these words I’m opening myself up to another round of accusations that I’m an agent of the Israeli secret service. That’s such a common allegation from my fellow Muslims that I’ve posted it on the Frequently Asked Questions page of my Web site, www.muslim-refusenik.com. (To clarify, of course I’m a member of Mossad. But I’m on unpaid leave.)
How all this came to be the state of affairs in my religion is a question that helped turn me into a Muslim refusenik — that is, a faithful Muslim who refuses to join an army of robots in the name of God. The Jew factor got me booted out of my Canadian madrassa at age fourteen. I challenged my teacher, whom I’ll call Mr. Khaki, to provide proof of Judaism’s plot against Islam. Instead, he provided an ultimatum: either believe or get out for good. With my temples throbbing and my neck sweating under the itchy polyester chador, I stood up, kicked open the madrassa’s hefty metal door, and yelled, “Jesus Christ!” Only later would I realize what a memorable exit I’d made: Jesus was a Jew. Who knew?
For twenty years afterward, I spent my spare hours studying in the public library. Why did we Muslims have to hate “the Jews”? Mr. Khaki taught us that the Jews worshipped moolah, not Allah — money, not God. The irony is, his students lived in and around Vancouver, a Pacific Rim city driven by Asian commercial influence. Mr. Khaki also emphasized that the Prophet Muhammad commanded his army to exile an entire Jewish tribe from Medina. What he never explained is that Islam gets all of its biggies from Judaism — the unity of God’s creation, our innate capacity to choose good, the purposefulness of our earthly lives, the obligation to seek knowledge and transform it into wisdom.
Muslims, I came to realize, were the trouble with Islam today.
Fast forward to the weeks following September 11, 2001, when the Jewish question resurfaced for me, albeit indirectly. In a series of newspapers articles calling for self-criticism in my community, I emphasized that Muslims in the West have the luxury of posing hard questions without fear of government reprisal; but rather than acknowledging a serious problem with the practice of our religion today, I wrote, we reflexively romanticize Islam. Responses flooded in, most of them negative. Still, one Muslim correspondent compelled me to contemplate. He asked if I knew about ijtihad. Not jihad, but ijtihad, the Islamic tradition of independent reasoning. Ijtihad, he said, encourages any Muslim — female or male, straight or gay, old or young — to update his or her religious practice in light of modern circumstances.
During my two decades of study at the public library, I’d come across ijtihad only as a parched legalism to be exercised by a thin elite of learned Muslims. Now I was being told that every believer has the right — and the responsibility — to take up this tradition of critical thinking. So what’s the real story? How did ijtihad become a tradition? Where had it been practiced? What did that society look like? I read, downloaded, and spoke to more scholars. What I discovered was a golden age in Islam; one that featured a sparkling symbiosis between Muslims and Jews.
During this golden age, roughly between 750 and 1250 CE, the Islamic empire reached from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indus River. In what is now Iraq, the heart of the empire, Christians and Jews worked alongside Muslims to translate and revive Greek philosophy. In Spain, Muslims developed what Yale historian Maria Rosa Menocal describes as a “culture of tolerance” with Jews. Together, all of these communities gave us the precursor to globalization: the interconnectedness of technology, money, and people. Muslims traded vigorously with non-Muslims, pioneering a system by which checks could be prepared in Morocco and cashed in Syria. The back-and-forth of commerce cultivated a hopping traffic in ideas as well. Let me highlight a handful of Islam’s contributions to Western pop culture. The guitar. Mocha coffee. The expression Olé!, which has its root in “Allah!” (Blame the pelvic thrusts on someone else.)
Ijtihad and the resulting spirit of inquiry fed dialogue. In the southern Spanish city of Córdoba, a spunky woman named Wallada organized literary salons where people analyzed dreams, poetry, and the Qur’an. They debated what the Qur’an prescribed for men and women. But what is a man? What is a woman? And why did God create people with the genitals of both sexes? They debated those questions, too. In ninth-century Baghdad, the caliph al-Ma’mun invested in the House of Wisdom — the “first institution of higher learning in the Islamic and Western world,” according to Temple University’s Mahmoud Ayoub. Competitive Córdoba wouldn’t be outdone as a crucible of ideas either; it became home to seventy libraries. That’s one for every virgin promised to today’s Muslim martyrs. Books then, babes now: a telling contrast in priorities.
At rock bottom, tolerance was the best way to build and maintain the Islamic empire. Most Muslim conquerors operated according to the ground rule that you can’t force conversion on fellow People of the Book — Jews and Christians. That rule proved to be imperialist Islam’s strategic advantage over imperialist Christianity. Catholic crusaders wouldn’t have let Jews and heretic Christians practice their own faith. Muslim conquerors did, which ensured that they’d meet next to no resistance from religious minorities during wars to usurp territory. Many Jews rejoiced when Muslims invaded Jerusalem in 638 CE and snatched the City of David away from the Byzantines, who had desecrated sacred Jewish sites by using them as garbage dumps. The victorious Muslims cleaned up the place and invited Jewish families to return.
Later, Jews kicked cooperation up one more notch and got in on the military action with Muslims. Suffering under their zealously Catholic masters, Jews in Spain begged Muslims in Morocco to liberate them by taking over the Iberian Peninsula. A bizarre alliance developed: Muslims made Jews their lookouts against surprise advances from the Pope’s army. With intelligence gathered from Jews, Muslims sacked Spain in 711 CE.
To be sure, the tricky part of empire isn’t amassing it but making it hum. That went double for Arabs who, in the words of culture critic George Raphael, were “warriors, not administrators.” But the warriors had enough smarts to understand that they required a morning-after plan. So Muslim governors appointed the brightest of their subjects to run the swelling operations of empire. They needed deputies sensitive to the strains and subtleties of managing dislocated communities. They needed the global citizens of their era. Enter the Jews, and in grand fashion. From Spain to Iraq, Jews served as high-ranking diplomats, military lieutenants, court physicians, bankers, and teachers.
I have to wonder if Jews made Baghdad a natural choice for the capital of the Islamic empire. That’s where, after the fall of the last Israelite kingdom in 70 CE, the Jewish diaspora set up a world-famous center for Talmudic learning. When Muslims arrived in Baghdad, this ancient Babylonian city already had an educated Jewish elite that could be tapped as a brain trust by the caliph. Which, in turn, smoothed the way for Baghdad’s rabbis to transmit their teachings openly to Jews worldwide, ninety percent of whom lived under Muslim rulers. (In the ninth and tenth centuries, Jews made up half the population in parts of Spain.) Thanks to the easy flow of ideas, says Hebrew Union College’s Reuven Firestone, “the Talmud and its interpretation of the Torah became the central authority in Jewish life.”
You’ve got to love the symbiosis: as Islam hit its golden age, lifting influences from Jewish intellectual life, Jews made their own glorious strides, drawing inspiration from Arab-Muslim culture. Secular Hebrew poetry poured from the pen of Shmuel Ha-nagid, the rabbi and amateur bard who served as prime minister in the Spanish courts of two Muslim monarchs. Take your time digesting that one.
None of this implies that Islamic civilization was all handholding harmony for Jews and Muslims. God no. Since the Prophet Muhammad, Islamic societies have had “issues” with treating Jews, Christians, and even Muslim minorities as equals in the dignity department. So it was during the golden age. From the eleventh century on, successive political regimes in Spain eroded tolerance with their tyranny. But even then, cultural convergence didn’t immediately die. Observers of all three Abrahamic faiths ran for their lives, resettled, and continued to marry each other, fusing everything from languages to fairy tales to philosophies.
One man’s career demonstrates the dynamism I’m talking about — Moshe ben Maimon, or Maimonides, the top-tier Jewish philosopher, rabbi, physician, and ethicist from Córdoba. He published almost exclusively in Arabic. (While serving as prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion learned Arabic during his lunch breaks so he could truly appreciate Maimonides.) And yet, Maimonides was no spiritual sellout. The first person to codify scriptural laws for the average Jew, he wrote the Mishnah Torah in Hebrew. What makes his achievements that much more admirable is that Maimonides lived in the precarious time after Muslim extremists seized control of Córdoba. Around 1150 CE, he and his family fled to North Africa, then to present-day Israel, before winding up in Egypt. There, he became physician to the top brass of Saladin, the Muslim military hero who frustrated the early wave of papal Crusaders. Given the not-so-distant drumbeat of Islamic militancy, Maimonides could have withdrawn into a religious and cultural cocoon. He didn’t. In Egypt, he kept doctors’ hours and then some. He tended to the patients lined up at his door, studied with his Jewish community, and wrote for the wider world.
Maimonides had a Muslim equal — the philosopher, physician, mathematician, and fellow Córdoba native Ibn Rushd (after whom Salman Rushdie’s father re-named his family). Inside Spain, Ibn Rushd dared to differ with the theocrats, championing in the west the freedom to reason that Maimonides epitomized further east. Prompted by the rise of a ferocious Islam all around him, Ibn Rushd argued that “philosophers are best able to understand properly the allegorical passages in the Qur’an on the basis of their logical training. There is no religious stipulation that all such passages have to be interpreted literally.” Amen to that.
Quite possibly the first European feminist, Ibn Rushd also spoke up for gender equality. In his judgment, “the ability of women [was] not known” because they were “relegated to the business of procreation, child-rearing, and breast-feeding.” He went on to say that among the reasons great civilizations collapsed into poverty is that they had treated women as if they were a burden on men. With audacity like that, Ibn Rushd became a threat to the hyper-Muslim powers-that-be. They exiled him to Marrakech, Morocco, and on the eve of the thirteenth century, he died under suspicious circumstances.
As I imagined what might have been inflicted on the supple mind of Ibn Rushd, I kept asking myself, How could this happen? How could a haven of heterodoxy such as Muslim Spain become an outpost of orthodoxy? Why did the gates of ijtihad narrow in so many more parts of the Islamic empire? Above all, what does this mean for Muslims today?
It turns out that Muslim Spain was blindsided by religious vandals from inside Islam. The Muslim governor of Seville, al-Mutamid, needed to fortify his principality against the menacing Christian king of Castile, Alphonso. He solicited the help of some iron-fisted Muslims from Morocco, the Almoravids, who took up the invitation, took care of business — and then took over. In an eerie parallel with the Taliban, the Almoravids did more than fight a proxy war; they also quashed the liberties of Muslim Spain. Exiling Ibn Rushd doesn’t begin to capture the scope of their lacerations on the corpse of ijtihad. These thugs despised Jews and Christians, deplored women, and abhorred debate. They torched the work of a conservative Muslim philosopher because he wasn’t conservative enough. In short, Muslim Spain didn’t crumble because of ravenous Christians. Sure, Christians scooped up the pieces, but the brutes who dimmed the flame of Islam’s golden age were Muslim themselves.
There’s a lesson here for twenty-first century Muslims. Long before European colonialism took off, and even longer before the state of Israel was born, Muslims were bludgeoning each other’s freedoms and imposing martial law. Fixing Islam’s crisis of conscience begins with Muslims. As chapter 13, verse 11 of the Qur’an tells us, “God does not change what is in a people until they change what is in themselves.” Call it a 13/11 solution to a 9/11 problem. &