This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Family Feuds*

For Judaism, the transition into the Middle Ages was marked by a sea-change in the religious character of the non-Jewish surroundings. In the previous situation, the one that was presumed throughout the Bible and Talmud, Israel was the lone drop of monotheism in a heathen ocean. But as they entered the medieval era, most of the world's Jews were living in host societies that not only professed devotion to the one God, but actually shared many specifically Jewish historical and literary traditions.

While at first this might seem like a vast improvement, religious antagonisms were sometimes exacerbated by the rival claims to a common heritage--whether we choose to compare the contention to a sibling rivalry or to an Oedipal complex. The fact that Christians and Muslims were claiming to preserve the authentic prophetic message, or to constitute the true Israel, sometimes made the Jewish situation more awkward than it had been when they had been dealing with outright pagans.

The bottom line was that there was almost no way to justify one's own distinct religious identity that did not involve discrediting the claims of others. Since Jews were a vulnerable minority in medieval societies, they found few opportunities to openly argue their case against the majority religions. The Christians were continually condemning Jews as demonic deicides, while the Muslims accused them of distorting their prophetic revelation. Under the circumstances, it is remarkable how many examples have survived of forceful Jewish critiques of Christianity and Islam.

The attitudes of Moses Maimonides epitomize the tensions faced by an educated Jew living in an Islamic environment. His own theology of Judaism was thoroughly permeated with the ideas of Muslim philosophers, and he never doubted the legitimacy of Islamic monotheism. In fact, it might be argued that his positing of pure monotheism as the ultimate criterion for distinguishing between religion and idolatry was itself a borrowing from Islamic discourse. In this respect, he was more favourably disposed towards Islam than towards Christianity, with its awkward trinitarianism.

On the other hand, Maimonides himself had been a victim of Muslim extremists who forced his family to flee from Spain to Egypt; and as a leader of the Egyptian Jewish community he had to deal with similar persecutions. This reality may have influenced some statements in his writings that are less than sympathetic to Islam, such as the responsum in which argues that Christians are closer to Jews because they at least accept the text of our Bible.

For all his intellectual sophistication, Maimonides' critique of Islam sometimes boils down to we're right and they're wrong. Moses was the greatest of prophets, so Muhammad must have been an imposter if he claimed primacy. Where the Qur'an agrees with the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition, it opens itself to accusations of plagiarism.

Muslim tradition tells movingly how Muhammad, after receiving his first revelations, was deeply plagued with severe doubts about his sanity. Perhaps it is this tradition that Maimonides has in mind when he dismissively referred to the Muslim prophet as the Meshugga, the crazy one.

A tale that circulated in the early Middle Ages had it that among Muhammad's earliest followers were ten Jewish sages who taught him Torah and (according to one version of the story) were initially convinced that he was the messiah. When they realized their error (after seeing him eat camel meat), they did not dare to openly renounce him, fearing reprisals against themselves or the Jewish community. Instead, they offered to compose a scripture for his new religion; however, they planted some bloopers in the documents, and secretly inserted their names into the text of their work--the Qur'an--as well as an encoded message disclosing their involvement in the project.

None of these Jewish polemical writings could compare even remotely with the vicious anti-Muslim slurs that were invented by Christians during the Crusades. Some of those slanders eventually found their way into Hebrew works that were composed centuries later in Christian lands.

A particularly nasty collection of stories about Islam's founder was included in the chronicle Seder Eliyahu Zuta by the sixteenth-century author Elijah Capsali of Candia, Crete. Crete at that time belonged to the maritime empire of Venice, which was involved in an ongoing rivalry with Ottoman Turkey. Although Capsali was generally sympathetic to the Turks, who were very hospitable in their treatment of Jewish refugees from Spain and Portugal, his work recycles affronts to Islam that were current in the Venetian environment. Almost all of these can be traced back to Christian writings from the times of the Crusades.

Thus, we read in Seder Eliyahu Zuta that Muhammad began his career as a Christian--as a Catholic Cardinal, no less. He was sent out to sundue the orient in the name of Christendom, in return for which he was promised a promotion to the position of Pope. After successfully carrying out his military mission, Muhammad returned to discover that the agreement would not be kept; so he decided to rule over his dominions on his own authority. In order to enhance his eminence among his subjects, Muhammad passed himself off as the prophet of a new revelation. He performed various magic tricks, such as training a dove to fly down to him and appear to whisper in his ear, as if conveying a prophetic message.

Like earlier Jewish polemicists, Capsali had no particular objections to the content of Muhammad's teachings, other than their lack of originality. He dismissed the Qur'an as little more than a pastiche of quotations from the Bible.

Early Muslim traditions told of a Syrian Christian monk named Bahira who had first recognized the future greatness of the yourhful Muhammad while he was still employed as camel-driver working for his uncle. Capsali repeats a twisted version of this story that had circulated in the Crusader polemics. In this account, Bahira--referred to as Hayya-- was Muhammad's favourite counselor and lover, a fact that provoked the envy of the prophet's other companions, and especially that of Abu Bakr, depicted here as the opportunistic son of the Jewish Exilarch. In order to get rid of his rival, Abu Bakr is said to have gotten Muhammad drunk and then murdered Hayya, planting the bloodstained sword in Muhammad's hand. When the prophet sobered up, he was convinced that he had killed his companion. This, the story claimed, was the reason why Muslims were forbidden thereafter to drink wine. Malevolent stories of this sort went on to achieve some currency among later authors, such as the Divre Yosef chronicle by the Egyptian scholar Rabbi Joseph Sambari (1640-1703).

Even in the intolerant culture of medievalism, not all Jewish depictions of the prophet Muhammad were so malicious. A diametrically different attitude is evident among Jews who lived in environments governed by the Ismaili Shi'ites.

Ismaili teachings speak of an evolutionary sequence of prophetic revelations, which will culminate in the era of the messianic Qa'im who will unite all humanity in acknowledging the one God. Ismaili doctrine acknowledged that a single universal religious truth lies at the root of the different religions; and that each of the historical revelations plays a role in preparing the path for that universal truth.

There were Jews who accepted this model of religious pluralism, leading them to view Muhammad as a legitimate prophet sent to preach to the Arabs, just as the Hebew prophets had been sent to deliver their messages to Israel.

Nethanel al-Fayyumi of Yemen was the twelfth-century author of Bustan al-Uqul (Garden of Intellects), a treatise that formulated a Jewish version of the Ismaili doctrines. Like the Ismailis, he argued that God sent different prophets to the various nations of the world, containing legislations suited to the particular temperament of each individual nation. Each people should remain loyal to its own religion, because the universal teaching was adapted to the specific conditions and experiences of each community.

Unfortunately, this idyllic tale of mutual tolerance proved ephemeral. Within a generation, Nethanel's son Jacob was compelled to turn to Maimonides, asking urgently for counsel on how to deal with a new wave of religious persecutions and forced conversions that was threatening the Jews of Yemen.


This article and many others are now included in the book

A Meeting-Place for the Wise
A Meeting-Place for the Wise

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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

 

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