April 8, 2007
The Intersection of Judaism and IslamBy Ron Kean
I've often wondered why people don't care about the 30 Years War these days. It's relevant today as the West fights militant Islam. For many years during the Christian Reformation, the Catholics and the Protestants fought each other. They burned each other at the stake. They cut off heads like Moslems do today. Queen Elizabeth would string heads on the Tower of London maybe five-hundred years ago. But practically speaking, the horrendous carnage between the Catholics and the Protestants ended after the 30 Years War. They had had enough. Even though wide theological differences remained, there was relative peace.
The Enlightenment came. It became the Age of Reason with Sir Isaac Newton, Rene Descartes, John Locke and secularism. A new middle class developed in Germany after the 30 Years War, rebuilding Central Europe, going to college, writing, philosophizing, and having secular dialog. In the midst of it all, to a lesser extent, they would talk about Islam. The last siege of Vienna was just 35 years after the Treaty of Westphalia.
For many years, in the West, dialog about Islam centered on studies made by a French monk named Peter the Venerable. In the 12th century, Peter translated Islamic writings into Latin. Peter believed that it was a Nestorian monk named Sergius, Bahira in Islam, who was the primary theological influence on Mohammad. Peter then asserted that Jews engaged Mohammad to prevent his growth as a Christian. Peter labeled Mohammad's views as heresy and blamed the Jews for the heresy. This was a motif of anti-Semitism, minor by comparison, that persisted for centuries.
Abraham Gieger was a child prodigy in Germany in the early 19th century. He was both a product, and later, a major proponent of reform in Judaism. It's said that he learned the Talmud when he was only six years old. Later, he left yeshiva to study philology, the study of language that defines culture. He was one of the first Jews to attend a Christian university in Germany. He learned Syriac in Heidleberg and Arabic in Bonn. He was heavily influenced by the ‘historical method' of D. F. Strauss' ‘Life of Jesus'.
Rather than refute the centuries old claim that Jews corrupted Mohammad, Geiger turned Peter's argument around by affirming the worth of the Jewish influence in Islam. He argued that the influence was good. Geiger created the myth of the ‘Golden Age' of Spain. In Spain, Jews joined with their hosts in a symbiosis and were able to acquire rank, wealth, and culture under Moslem rule. Geiger contrasted the mythical Spanish Jew with the seemingly backward 19th century Eastern European Jew under Christian rule. Geiger defended Mohammed and the worth of Islam as it intertwined with Judaism. He wrote about it in a monograph when he was 23 years old.
In his paper, he tried to show that Mohammad borrowed from Judaism. Geiger produced textual links, details of borrowing, and demonstrations of rabbinic ideas that came into the Koran. The paper was considered a break-though in the study of Islam. Late in the 19th century, the Head of the Cambridge Mission at Delhi asked that the paper be translated into English so it could be of use in his dealings with Moslems. The English translation is here. Because it is heavily annotated from Suras, Sunnas, Tanach, Talmud, and Midrash, I'm allowed the luxury of cherry picking through it.
After the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, some Jews fled south to Arabia and settled in Medina. Even though the strength of the Jewish people moved to Babylonia, Jews were a presence in Arabia centuries before Mohammad. Mohammad initially tried to convert them but had little success. His verbal exchanges with Jews are part of Islamic lore and sadly Jews are described as being scoffing and teasing. In all fairness, it must be said, that his Arab brethren in Mecca disapproved of him. From Mecca, he had to take Islam on the lam.
Mohammad said that he had no knowledge of reading and writing. He denies acquaintance with ‘The Book' (Torah) or the ‘Faith' (Christianity). At first, he wanted to win over the Jews by directing prayer toward Jerusalem rather than Mecca. But he changed back. He respected Judaism by acknowledging Jewish belief in the oneness of God and he spent time with Jews. It is very likely that he could have overheard Jewish stories and learned Jewish laws orally.
But, would he even want to borrow? Would it be compatible with his mission? He described the Koran as a ‘repetition'. Mohammad acknowledged a succession of Prophets from Jewish canon, even though the succession could be wildly different than in the Bible. He considered himself to be the last prophet - the ‘seal'. He wanted to show a harmony between the revelations of one same God. Geiger believed that Mohammad used imitation to flatter the Jews to win them over. These conditions favored borrowing from Judaism.
So, did he?
One commentator, Elpherar said, ‘other people assisted' Mohammad. Elpherar quotes a second commentator, Mujahid, who identifies the ‘other people' as Jews. That says something there. A Sura instructs that ‘if there's doubt concerning what has come down to a follower of Mohammad, ask them who has read the book before.' Geiger says the ‘book' is Torah and ‘them' were the Jews.
If he borrowed, what exactly did he borrow? First, it must be shown that it existed in Judaism. Secondly, it had to be known not to be in any previous Arabian tradition. Geiger starts with words. Words can create a picture. They can convey conceptions greater than the word. Arabic is compared to Hebrew. Among 14 words are:
Then there are the views. Words combine to increase the scope. Among those on the list are:
And last, there are the stories. The contexts of the main characters in the stories however differ widely from the Koran to Tanach and even to the Gospels. In one place, Jesus precedes Job, Solomon, and David. But there is meaning in the allegory and that's the real point of intersection between Judaism and Islam.
Geiger's paper was well received. Supposedly, he won a prize. Today, it doesn't matter what his motives were. Did he want to defend his faith? Was he just precocious? To use a modern colloquialism, Geiger did it because he could. Later, he would anger Christian academics by arguing that Jesus was a Pharisee, a group of Jews reviled by Christians as hypocrites. But as Geiger angered his contemporaries, he was never threatened with violence as students, professors, writers (and cartoonists) are today. Freedom of expression was the real legacy of the 30 Years War and the subsequent Enlightenment.
True, since then, tyrants have risen up to burn books and kill the innocent. But it wasn't in the name of God like it is today with Islam. It remains to be seen whether mankind has learned from truly catastrophic religious war or whether it is doomed to repeat it. It's a crime that it's the universities that are the most awash in violent attempts to suppress free speech these days. If it wasn't for the new media, we'd all be sunk. We hope that the freedom that came from so painful an experience as the 30 Years War can maintain itself. And we also hope and pray that ambitious minds will be able to express themselves in the future freely just because they can.
Ron Kean writes from St. Louis.