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Islam and Other Religions >
Haven't Jews and Christians always been enemies of Islam?

The relationship of Jews and Christians to Islam, like the relationship of Christianity to Judaism, is long and complex, conditioned by historical and political realities as well as religious doctrine. Jewish and Christian tribes lived in Arabia at the time of the Prophet Muhammad. Jews and Christians were members or citizens of the early Muslim community at Medina.

In his early years, Muhammad anticipated that Jews and Christians, as “People of the Book,” would accept his prophetic message and be his natural allies. The Quran itself confirms the sending of prophets and revelation to Jews and Christians and recognizes them as part of Muslim history: “Remember, we gave Moses the Book and sent him many an apostle; and to Jesus, son of Mary, We gave clear evidence of the truth, reinforcing him with divine grace” (23:49–50; see also 5:44–46, 32:23, 40:53).

Muhammad initially presented himself as a prophetic reformer reestablishing the religion of Abraham. For example, like the Jews, the Muslims initially faced Jerusalem during prayer and fasted on the tenth day of the lunar month. Muhammad made a special point of reaching out to the Jewish tribes of Medina. The Jews of Medina, however, had political ties to the Quraysh tribe of Mecca, so they resisted Muhammad's overtures. Shortly afterward, Muhammad received a revelation changing the direction of prayer from Jerusalem to Mecca, marking Islam as a distinct alternative to Judaism.

When Muhammad consolidated his political and military control over Medina, he wrote and promulgated documents commonly referred to as the Constitution of Medina (c. 622–624), which regulated social and political life. The constitution states that the believers comprise a single community, or ummah, which is responsible for collectively enforcing social order and security and for confronting enemies in times of war and peace. Tribes remained responsible for the conduct of their individual members, and a clear precedent was set for the inclusion of other religions as part of the broader community led by Muslims. The Jewish population was granted the right to internal religious and cultural autonomy, including the right to observe Jewish religious law, in exchange for their political loyalty and allegiance to the Muslims.

Muslims point to the Constitution of Medina as evidence of Islam's inherent message of peaceful coexistence, the permissibility of religious pluralism in areas under Muslim rule, and the right of non-Muslims to be members of and participants in the broader Muslim community. However, relations between the early Muslim community and some Jewish tribes became strained when the Jews backed Muhammad's Meccan rivals. Judged as traitors for their support of his enemies, many were attacked and killed. This confrontation became part of the baggage of history and would continue to influence the attitudes of some Muslims in later centuries. Recently, this legacy can be seen in official statements from Hamas and Osama bin Laden. Both not only condemn Jews for Israeli occupation and policies in Palestine but also see the current conflict as just the most recent iteration of an age-old conflict dating back to the Jews' “rejection and betrayal” of Islam and the Prophet's community at Medina.

Nevertheless, in many Muslim communities at various times in history, Jews found a home where, as “People of the Book,” or dhimmi, they lived, worked, and often thrived. Vibrant Jewish communities existed in Muslim countries like Egypt, Morocco, Turkey, and Iran. When the Catholic rulers Ferdinand and Isabella drove the Jews out of Spain, many found refuge in North Africa and the Ottoman Empire. The establishment of the state of Israel was a turning point in relations between Muslims and Jews. The political fallout from the struggle between the Palestinians and Zionism severely strained Jewish-Muslim relations in Muslim countries. As a result, the majority of those Jews emigrated or fled to Israel and other parts of the world.

The relationship of Christians and Muslims is even more complex. Despite common theological roots, Islam and Christianity were in contention from the outset. Islam offered an alternative religious and political vision. Just as Christians saw their faith as superseding the covenant of the Jews with God, Islam now declared that God had made a new covenant, revealing his word one final and complete time to Muhammad, the “seal” or final prophet. Islam, like Christianity, proclaimed a universal message and mission and thus challenged the claims of Christianity. Moreover, the remarkable spread of Islam, with its conquest of the eastern (Byzantine) wing of the Roman Empire, challenged the political power and hegemony of Christendom.

The history of Christianity and Islam has been one of both conflict and coexistence. When Muslims conquered Byzantium, they were welcomed by some Christian sects and groups, who were persecuted as heretics by “official” Christianity, that is, Catholicism. Many Christians welcomed a Muslim rule that gave them more freedom to practice their faith and imposed lighter taxes. Despite initial fears, the Muslim conquerors proved to be far more tolerant than imperial Christianity, granting religious freedom to indigenous Christian churches and Jews.

This spirit was further reflected in the tendency of early Islamic empires to incorporate the most advanced elements from surrounding civilizations, including Byzantine and Persian Sasanid imperial and administrative practices and Hellenic science, architecture, art, medicine, and philosophy. Christians like John of Damascus held positions of prominence in the royal courts. Christian and Jewish subjects assisted their Muslim rulers with the collection and translation of the great books of science, medicine, and philosophy from both East and West.

However, the rapid expansion of Islam also threatened Christian Europe, as Muslims seemed poised to sweep across Europe until finally turned back by Charles Martel in southern France in 732. The Crusades, the Inquisition, and European colonialism represented major periods of confrontation and conflict, as did the rise and expansion of the Ottoman Empire into Europe.

The most often cited example of interreligious tolerance in history is that of Muslim rule in Spain (al-Andalus) from 756 to about 1000, which is usually idealized as a period of interfaith harmony, or convivencia (living together). Muslim rule of Spain offered the Christian and Jewish populations seeking refuge from the class system of Europe the opportunity to become prosperous small landholders. Christians and Jews occupied prominent positions in the court of the caliph in the tenth century, serving as translators, engineers, physicians, and architects. The Archbishop of Seville commissioned an annotated translation of the Bible for the Arabic-speaking Christian community.

Islamic history also contains positive examples of interfaith debate and dialogue, beginning in the time of Muhammad. Muhammad himself had engaged in dialogue with the Christians of Najran, resulting in a mutually agreeable relationship whereby the Najranis were permitted to pray in the Prophet's mosque. The fifth Sunni caliph, Muawiyyah (ruled 661–669), regularly sent invitations to the contending Jacobite and Maronite Christians to come to the royal court to discuss their differences. During the Middle Ages, debates involving both Muslims and Jews occurred in Spanish Muslim courts, and in the sixteenth century an interreligious theological discussion between Catholic priests and Muslim clerics was presided over by the Mughal emperor Akbar. These debates were not always conducted between “equals” (indeed, many were held precisely in order to “prove” that the other religion was “wrong,” which was also the case for dialogues initiated by Christians). The fact that the debate was permitted and encouraged, however, indicates some degree of open exchange between faiths, a significant stage of educational and cultural achievement in the Muslim world.

Furthermore, Muslims maintained an open-door policy to Jews escaping from persecution in Christian Europe during the Inquisition. During the Crusades, despite their conflict, Muslims tolerated the practice of Christianity—an example that was not emulated by the other side. In the thirteenth century some treaties between Christians and Muslims granted Christians free access to sacred places then reoccupied by Islam. For example, the great Christian saint Francis of Assisi met the Muslim leader Salah al-Din's nephew Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil in 1219. The sultan granted freedom of worship to his more than thirty thousand Christian prisoners when hostilities were suspended, as well as offering them the choice of returning to their own countries or fighting in his armies.

The Ottoman Empire is a prime example of the positive treatment of religious minorities in a Muslim-majority context. The Ottomans officially recognized four religiously based communities, known as millets: Greek Orthodox, Armenian Gregorian, Muslim, and Jewish. Under the millet system, Islam assumed the prime position, but each other millet was placed under the authority of its own religious leaders and permitted to follow its own religious laws. The millet system enabled the empire to accommodate religious diversity, placing non-Muslims in a subordinate position to Muslims and offering them protected status. Members of minority religions further had the right to hold government positions in some cases. Thus, a limited form of religious pluralism and tolerance were important components of Ottoman statecraft.

In the contemporary era, religious and political pluralism has been a major issue in the Muslim world. Many of those seeking to establish Islamic states look to historical precedents to determine the status of non-Muslims. Although many call for a strict reinstatement of the gradations of citizenship that accompanied dhimmi status in the past, others recognize that this approach is not compatible with the pluralistic realities of the contemporary world and international human rights standards.

Those who advocate gradation of citizenship according to religious affiliation believe that an Islamic state, defined as one in which Islamic law is the law of the land, must necessarily be run by Muslims because only Muslims are capable of interpreting Islamic law. This has been the position of Islamization programs in Pakistan, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Iran, which have legislated that only Muslims have the right to hold senior government positions. Obviously, this is not satisfactory to non-Muslims who wish to enjoy full and equal rights of citizenship. In fact, religious minorities have been persecuted and subject to discrimination under some Muslim governments in countries like the Taliban's Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Sudan. Thus many reformers who do not agree with the application of this classical tradition in modern times insist that non-Muslims be afforded full citizenship rights.

Advocates of reform maintain that pluralism is the essence of Islam as revealed in the Quran and practiced by Muhammad and the early caliphs, rather than a purely Western invention or ideology. They point to the Islamic empires that permitted freedom of religion and worship and protected the dhimmis as evidence of the permissibility and legality of pluralism. While many militants and mainstream conservative or traditionalist Muslims advocate classical Islam's dhimmi or the millet system, reformers call for a reinterpretation or reunderstanding of pluralism. Recognizing the need to open the oneparty and authoritarian political systems that prevail in the Muslim world, many mainstream Islamists (as distinguished from extremists) also began applying the word pluralism to the political process. Since the 1990s, the term has been used to legitimate multiparty systems as well as modern forms of religious pluralism and tolerance.

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