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13.01.16, Lassner, Jews, Christians, and the Abode of Islam

13.01.16, Lassner, Jews, Christians, and the Abode of Islam

This book consists of two interconnected extended essays, each subdivided into chapters. The theme which unites them is the examination of the relationships of the first two major monotheistic religions, Judaism and Christianity, often understood collectively as the West or the Occident, with the third one, Islam, representing the East (at least the Near East) or the Orient. This relationship has historically been characterized by a wide range of modes, from cooperation, to mild tension, to major antagonism, to violence and warfare. Whereas western Christians have often thought of Islam in terms of the medieval threat to Christendom and of modern day terrorism, eastern Muslims have seen Christianity through the prism of medieval Crusades and modern colonialism. Jews have often been caught in the middle between adherents of these two religions, even when playing the role of cultural transmitters, but with the establishment of a Jewish state in the center of the "Abode of Islam," Jews have become a major participant in this three-way relationship. Thus, Lassner's book is timely and deals with a subject of much concern to the general public, to whom this book is largely addressed.

Part One, "Encountering the 'Other'," provides an evaluation of how western scholarship perceived Islam and how Muslims responded to this scholarship. The context of this section is the debate on "Orientalism," initiated most forcefully by the late Edward Said with his attack on how non-Muslim scholars went about interpreting the origins and nature of Islam. "Orientalists," i.e., non-Muslim scholars of Islam, are accused of intellectual subjugation of the Islamic world rather than being seen as academics who are doing their best to understand their subject of research. Lassner, a major contemporary student of Islam and a former president of the American Oriental Society, makes the case that western scholarship should not be seen as an attack on Islam, and that he and his predecessors have often been quite sympathetic to this religion. Thus, Ignaz Goldziher, probably the most important Orientalist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who set the standard for the profession, spent a number of years in the Arab world, impressed Muslim religious functionaries in Damascus and Cairo with his intimate knowledge of Islam, and even prayed in the mosques of Cairo despite his Orthodox Jewish upbringing (23). Indeed, quite a number of the pioneering western scholars of Islam came from traditional Jewish homes, perhaps a reason that Lassner feels particularly close to them (54).

It would seem that the major complaint of those Muslims, whom Lassner calls Occidentalists, is that European scholars use standard academic tools to analyze Islamic texts rather than assuming that all Islamic traditions are trustworthy and that the Quran is the eternal word of God which cannot be questioned. These are the same methods used by modern scholarship to evaluate Jewish and Christian texts and traditions, and which are often thought offensive by some members of those religions as well. In the West, however, religious believers do not have the power to impose their beliefs on the academic world; this is not the situation in the Abode of Islam. Still, Muslims are correct that westerners have often distorted various features of Islam, such as calling the religion Muhammadanism, a term extremely offensive to believers. Nevertheless, Lassner has confidence that critical scholarship on Islam can be beneficial to that religion, and he defends many of the outstanding western students of Islam against the attacks against them (including those made by some westerners who are incapable of reading original sources). Lassner's review of Islamic research by non-Muslims, and the hurt reactions of the subjects of their studies, paints a clear picture of the divide between Orient and Occident, thereby explaining one specific aspect of contemporary antagonism.

The second half of the book is devoted to "Jews and Christians. The Reality of the 'Other' in the Medieval Islamic World." Here, Lassner plies his trade in a most professional manner. First, he tries to distill fact from fiction in the early Islamic narratives of the relationship between Muhammad (who is consistently referred to respectfully as the "Prophet" with an uppercase "p") and the various Jewish tribes who lived in the Arabian Peninsula during his lifetime and with whom he is reported to have had less than friendly relations, leading eventually to Muslim massacres of Jews. As pointed out in the first part of the book, western scholars subject Islamic narratives to critical analysis, but, nevertheless, Lassner seems to accept many of their traditions, doing his best to ascertain, or estimate, how many of them are reliable. It is hard to evaluate how he reaches the conclusions he does since there are no footnotes and only selected bibliographical references, the overwhelming majority of which are in English. Whatever the truth of the Islamic narrative of Muhammad and the Jews (and it seems to me that Lassner may be giving it too much credence), it did set the stage for later Muslim antagonism to Jews. Lassner points out that while theoretically Islam is closer to Judaism than to Christianity and Jews never were a threat to the Abode of Islam as Christians were, nevertheless historically Muslim attitudes towards Jews were much more negative than they were towards Christians.

Despite interreligious antagonism, each side benefitted from the encounter with the other. There are Jewish elements of Islamic traditions (the Isra'iliyat) and Jews integrated many Islamic cultural achievements, such as philosophy, exegesis, poetry and linguistics, into Jewish culture. Lassner argues that Jews rarely expressed their opposition to Islam in works of apologetics because of fear for their safety (169–174), but Jews in Christian countries engaged in the dangerous practice of refuting Christianity so Jewish reticence in Islamic countries may have other explanations (such as the comfort felt by Jews under Islam or the closeness of Jewish and Islamic theology). A separate chapter is devoted to medieval Jewish life in Islamic countries, describing both intellectual accomplishments and the nature of Jewish society (194–216).

Turning to Islam and Christianity, Lassner points out that the first encounters, according to Muslim traditions, were less fraught with tension and violence than the parallel Jewish-Muslim experience. Subsequently, as Islam emerged out of the Arabian Peninsula, Arab armies fought against Christian populations and succeeded in taking over territories which previously had been ruled by Christians, in the Middle East, North Africa and parts of Europe, most notably Spain. Eventually, Constantinople, the capital of Eastern Christianity, was captured, but this was only in 1453, many centuries after the initial spread of Islam. Lassner points out a little realized fact, namely that the subjected Christian populations of the Near East did not convert or replace their Syriac language all at once; Arabic Muslim rule did not necessarily mean that the sovereigns were the majority. In fact, in many locales Christians outnumbered Muslims, but in the over 1300 years since the Muslim conquest, there has been a constant diminution of the Christian populations in the Abode of Islam, a trend which continues to this day and which Lassner considers regrettable (257). A concluding chapter (258–285) discusses "cross- pollinations" in medieval philosophy and science among Christians, Muslims and Jews, ending with "some last musings" about the decline of this three-way symbiotic relationship among the monotheistic religions.

The success of this book is a function of Jacob Lassner's ability to write clearly and concisely with a tone of authority about the Abode of Islam, a subject which he has closely studied for years, using the best scholarly tools the western world has to offer. Speculation is usually clearly identified as such, and the book is generally free of egregious errors (an unfortunate exception is the dates of Rashi's life which are off by a century [207]). This book can be read profitably by both western non-Muslims and eastern Muslims, by experts and the general public, namely by anyone who has an interest in understanding today's religious controversies in the context of a much wider historical perspective.