“What is a Jewish view of Islam?”

created at: 2014-05-06

Like anything else in Judaism, there is not any one official view. Historically speaking, Jewish communities generally thrived in Muslim societies, beginning with Babylonia in the seventh through ninth centuries, in Moorish Spain in the eighth through 14th centuries, and in the Ottoman Empire from the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and well into the 19th century. That doesn’t mean that these eras of co-existence were not marred by periodic intolerance and even violence, but overall it is safe to say that Jewish experiences in predominantly Muslim countries in the medieval period were a world apart from the overt anti-Semitism and persecution that Jews often faced in many parts of Christian Europe. Muslim culture over the centuries has influenced Jewish culture, from philosophy to poetry to cuisine.

In terms of how Jews have viewed Islam as a religion, one of the early issues for the rabbinic leadership was whether or not Islam—a relatively new religion in the early medieval period— should be considered “idolatry.” Jewish law prohibits Jews from supporting idolatry in any way, so if Islam were ruled to be an idolatrous religion (a lá ancient Roman religion), there would be barriers to social and economic interactions between Jews and Muslims. While there was some debate on this topic, by the time of Maimonides in the 12th century (himself born in Muslim-ruled Spain and living out much of his life in Egypt), Islam was recognized as a monotheistic religion. Like Judaism, Islam prohibits any attempt to represent God with images or objects, and emphasizes the Oneness of God.

In addition, Islam and Judaism share a legal and ritual approach to religious life, which is shaped not just by belief, but by a whole set of practices, from clothing to eating to business ethics. Some major differences are that Jews do not accept Islam’s claim that Mohammed is the last prophet of God (Jewish tradition holds that prophecy ceased after the time of the Hebrew Bible), nor do we share the view that differences between the Koran and the Torah result from the Koran being the ultimate, whole revelation, while the Torah contains partial truth. From a Jewish perspective, the prophet Mohammed was clearly aware of and knowledgeable about Jewish texts and practices, and seems to have incorporated some of those into his teachings.

Since the early 20th century, Jewish-Muslim relations have been vastly complicated by the Jewish return to the land of Israel, clashes with the Arab population there, and expulsions of Jews from Arab lands in response to the Zionist movement. At its foundation, the struggle over Israel/Palestine is not a religious conflict, but a conflict of national movements and of claims to the land. Many Israelis do not identify as religiously Jewish, and there are Christian, as well as Muslim, Palestinians (and worldwide, the majority of Muslims are not Arab at all). But unfortunately this decades-long conflict has taken on religious overtones and has led some to mistakenly view it as a primarily religious conflict between Jews and Muslims. The good news is that, since 9/11, there have been renewed efforts here in the U.S. especially to foster Jewish-Muslim cooperation and dialogue, and today our communities are learning more about one another and exploring our similarities, as well as our differences.created at: 2014-05-06

Rabbi Toba Spitzer is the rabbi at Congregation Dorshei Tzedek, a Reconstructionist synagogue in West Newton.

Boston is host to a diverse interfaith community. Check out the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization here.