Lecture Series with Prof. Reuven Firestone: Jewish Muslim Relations – A Historical Perspective
Reuven Firestone is a professor of medieval Jewish and Islamic studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. Many of Rabbi Firestone’s publications, including An Introduction to Islam for Jews; Jews, Christians, Muslims in Dialogue; Children of Abraham: An Introduction to Judaism for Muslims, and Journeys in Holy Lands focus on interfaith relations.
At Pacfiica Institute Los Angeles office, Rabbi Firestone talked about the “Jewish- Muslim Relations- A Historical Perspective”. In his speech, Dr Firestone said ” There are two differing perspectives on this golden age, two polarized views of the relations between Muslims and Jews during the Middle Ages.
Prof. Frestone started off by observing that one perspective has it that Muslims treated the Jews as brethren with equal rights, honored them, gave them full status in Muslim society and provided political and social environment in which Jews could thrive. In Baghdad, Saadia Gaon developed the first formal Jewish book of theology, produced a poetic dictionary and translated the entire Hebrew Bible into classical Arabic. Firestone added, in Cairo, Moses Maimonides wrote an encyclopedic code of Jewish Law, the Mishneh Torah, and the most important Jewish philosophical work in history, the Guide for the Perplexed.
Prof. Firestone pointed out to the audience that Jewish Grand Viziers ran the administrations of Muslim sultans and the Andalusian rabbi, Shmuel Hanagid even functioned as the head general for a Muslim king’s armies for sixteen years. Jews and Christians were encouraged to be fully engaged in a great and open civilzation made up of Muslims, Christians and Jews. As amazing as it appears, all of these great developments are documented. They really happened and they all occured under Muslim rule.
Quoting the example of the Spanish Inquisition, Prof. Firestone noted that when Jews were forced out in 1492, they were welcomed into the expanding and self confident Ottoman Empire, a great empire ruled by the Turkish Muslim sultan. But many Jews for a variety of reasons, chose or had no choice but to flee to other places. The letter of Rabbi Isaac Tzarfati had this to say.
” I proclaim to you that Turkey is a land wherein nothing is lacking, and where if you will all shall yet to be well with you. The way to the Holy Land lies open to you through Turkey. Here every man dwells at peace under his own vine and fig tree. Here you are allowed to wear the most precious garments. ”
Prof. Firestone added that this letter was real. It documents the sentiment that was prevalent during much of the medieval period.
Prof. Firestone noted that in the 12th century, some 80% or more of the world’s Jews lived in the Muslim world. By the 19th century, the numbers were reversed. 19th century Europe had experienced the Reformation and Enlightenment for its Christian inhabitants and the partial emancipation of its Jews. In those times, a message to the European Christians went something like this “If you are truly enlightened and believe in the ideas of the modern Europe, you may not consider only Christians to be human. You must also accept us Jews.”
Today the deep tensions in some parts of the world affect our views of Jewish Muslim relations.
Rabbi Firestone added his opinion towards the end of his speech by noting that in fact overall the position of Jews under Islam was the best that was available in the pre-modern world. But their position was not what we would wish for today such as in the US. And it has been far worse such as in Germany and most of Europe in the 30s and 40s.
Rabbi Firestone made his closing remarks by saying that the truth of the matter was that Jews and Muslims have always had a lot in common in terms of religion and culture, spirit and civilization. It would benefit both communites to learn more about one another and work toward pooling our resources and experiences so we can build a better world for ourselves and for the larger communities in which we live.
The lecture came to an end with the Q&A session.