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What is Islam's relation with Judaism and Christianity?

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For decades Islam has evoked discussion and debate. The religion is under a microscope after the 9/11 attacks. Never before has Islam been so questioned as to the extent that it is today. A few scholars have come to its rescue to clarify the principles on which Islam is based. One such scholar is Dr. John L. Esposito who has done so through his writings


Both Jews and Christians hold a special status within Islam because of the Muslim belief that God revealed His will through His prophets, including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus (Peace be upon them).

Say, We believe in God, and in what has been revealed to us, and in what has been sent down to Abraham and Ismail and Isaac and Jacob and their offspring, and what has been revealed to Moses and Jesus and to all the prophets of our Lord. We make no distinction between them and we submit to Him and obey. (Holy Quran 3:84)

The Holy Quran and Islam regard Jews and Christians as children of Abraham and refer to them as "People of the Book", since all three monotheistic faiths descend from the same patriarch, Abraham. Muslims believe that God sent his revelation (Torah) first to the Jews through the prophet Moses and then to Christians through the prophet Jesus.

However, they believe that over time the original revelations to Moses and Jesus became corrupted. Thus, Muslims see Greek influences in Christianity's development of "new" and erroneous doctrines such as Jesus is the Son of God and that Jesus' death redeemed and atoned for humankind's original sin.

Relations between Muslims and Christians and Jews from the time of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) till today have been marked by conflict as well as co-existence, leading many to ask: 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 Mohammed (PBUH). Jews and Christians were members or citizens of the early Muslim community at Madinah.

In his early years, Mohammed (PBUH) anticipated that Jews and Christians, as "People of the Book," would accept his prophetic message and be his natural allies. The Holy Quran itself confirms the sending of prophets and revelation to Jews and Christians and recognises 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).

Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) initially presented himself as a prophetic reformer re-establishing the religion of Abraham. For example, like the Jews, the Muslims initially faced Jerusalem during prayer. Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) made a special point of reaching out to the Jewish tribes of Madinah.

The Jews of Madinah, however, had political ties to the Quraysh tribe of Mecca, so they resisted Prophet Mohammed's (PBUH) overtures. Shortly afterwards, Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) received a revelation changing the direction of prayer from Jerusalem to Makkah, marking Islam as a distinct alternative to Judaism.

When Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) consolidated his political and military control over Medina, he wrote and promulgated the Constitution or Charter of Madinah (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.

However, relations between the early Muslim community and some Jewish tribes became strained when the Jews backed Prophet Mohammed's (PBUH) 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 (PBUH) community at Madinah.

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 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 Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) 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 co-existence. 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. This spirit was further reflected in the tendency of early Islamic empires to incorporate the most advanced elements from surrounding civilisations, 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.

An often cited example of interreligious tolerance in history is that of Muslim rule in Spain (Al Andalus) from AD 756 to about AD 1000, which is usually idealised 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.

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 re-occupied by Islam.

The Ottoman Empire is a prime example of the positive treatment of religious minorities in a Muslim majority context. The Ottomans officially recognised 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.

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 in the Muslim world 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 (protected) status in the past, others recognise that this approach is not compatible with the pluralistic realities of the contemporary world and international human rights standards.

Professor John L. Esposito is a professor of Religion and International Affairs, and Founding Director of the Centre for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Walsh School for Foreign Service, Georgetown University. Among his more than 25 books, is What Everyone Should Know about Islam, on which this series is based.


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