The Jewish-Muslim Connection: Traditional Ways of Life
by Daniel Pipes
Translations of this item:
Of the three great monotheistic religions, Judaism and Christianity appear far more closely linked to each other than either is to Islam. As the term "Judeo-Christian tradition" implies, these two faiths share deep bonds and a long history; in contrast, Islam seems alien.
There are many reasons for this. Theologically, the Old Testament is central to Judaism and Christianity, while Islam ignores the Bible in favor of the Qur'an. Demographically, the once-flourishing Jewish communities in Muslim countries have been decimated, and it is easy to forget that most Jews once lived among Muslims; for the last 500 years most Jews have lived in the Christian world. Culturally, Christians and Jews live at the vanguard of human experience, whereas Muslims had a harder time with twentieth-century life.
Notwithstanding these points, Judaism and Christianity differ profoundly in religious terms; the real resemblance is between Judaism and Islam.
Most basically, Judaism and Islam emphasize correct action and Christianity stresses correct faith. Pious Jews and Muslims are more concerned with fulfilling God's commandments; their Christians counterparts concentrate on attitude and feeling.
Judaism has been foremost a religion of laws since Mosaic times. The emphasis has been to live in accordance with the precepts which God handed down. Jesus himself accepted and maintained these Jewish laws, but before long his followers wholly eliminated them from Christianity. Led by St. Paul, early Christians argued that the coming of Jesus meant that the laws had lost their validity. Jesus changed man's relationship to God by substituting faith and love for righteous action. Religious obedience became internalized; it mattered less what one did than how one felt. Despite many modifications, this approach to God remains the distinctive Christian message.
Though it came six centuries after Christianity, Islam followed the Jewish approach to God by stressing works over faith. The Jewish and Muslim religious laws (known as the Halakha and the Shari'a, respectively) differ in many details, but they share much in outlook. Both are vast codes which touch on such diverse matters as family relations, social behavior, personal habits, and political attitudes. From cradle to grave, morning to night, few acts of an observant Jew or Muslim escape the demands of the law. But "law" is not an entirely apt term to describe the Halakha and Shari'a, for they contain many precepts outside the jurisdiction of law as understood in the West - how to wash, what to eat, where to pray. The codes contain provisions for every imaginable circumstance, including the most unlikely: who inherits what when a child dies leaving as survivors only his eight great-grandparents is a matter of some interest in the Shari'a.
For Jews, living in accordance with the Halakha is the primary means of reaffirming God's covenant with Abraham. For Muslims, fulfilling the Shari'a permits them to live as Muhammad and his companions did. For both, the letter of the law counts as much as its spirit.
Whereas theology presents the great intellectual challenge to Christians, Jews and Muslims have always been most preoccupied with the religious code of laws. Scholars of both communities have devoted enormous attention to elaborating a complete system of precepts out of the books of divine inspiration (the Bible, Qur'an), their oral commentaries (Talmud, Hadith), juridical treatises, and legal handbooks.
Development of the Halakha and Shari'a followed similar patterns. Both were drawn up by pious men without formal school or government influence. In some cases, terms of analysis are so similar in the two codes, the direct influence of Jewish jurisprudence on the Islamic seems likely - although ultimately both derived much from common sources of Middle East thought and Greek logic. Indeed, both were elaborated primarily in Iraq; and compilation of the Talmud drew to a close in the 6th century, while collections of the Hadith began not long thereafter, making direct influence plausible. Competing schools (or rites) also existed in other regions (Palestine in the Jewish case, Arabia and Egypt in the Muslim case).
Novel situations were dealt with by ad hoc decisions of leading religious authorities (responsa, fatwas). In theory, the laws remained flexible; in fact, the major rules became fixed over time and scholars concerned themselves with only minor, often trivial, matters. Yet, for Jews and Muslims, learning about even the driest legal matters is considered a form of worship; students of the divine law are thus men of religion.
And indeed, men of religion in the two traditions, rabbis and ulema (the Muslim equivalent of rabbis, often but mistakenly translated as "clerics" in English) do share much. Neither have liturgical functions but both are wise in law. While the individual believer can pray to God directly without them, he needs them for assistance in properly carrying out God's commandments. Rabbis and ulema elaborate and interpret the law: Do two drops of milk in a pot of meat make it unkosher? How far must a traveler go to be excused from the fast of Ramadan?
Their expertise in the laws led to other roles. They acted as judges, educators and community leaders, and intermediaries between the common people and the governmental authorities. Their sons often inherited these positions. Partly as a result of this diversity, the place of worship, the synagogue or mosque, served as law court, place of study, community center, and hospice.
Ways of Life
Parallel law codes led to many similarities in the way of life of traditional Jewish and Muslim communities. A sampling of similarities follows.
Synagogue and mosque services are both informal, with a great deal of coming and going; the absence of a priest in charge means that each person can pray on his own, adding an element of chaos to the proceedings. Women need not go to services; those who choose to are relegated to a separate section where they are less visible to men. References to God, to blessings and curses, and to ritual life permeate conversations among Jews and Muslims. But whereas Muslims invoke the Lord every few sentences, pious Jews never mention His name. In both religions, ritual purity requires ablutions after sexual relations, excretion, sleep, or eating. Before prayers, Jews pour water over their hands, while Muslims splash it over other parts of the body too.
Simple dietary regulations have vast social ramifications. Jews and Muslims are required to maintain stringent codes about eating meat and other foods. In order to supply themselves with proper food, they must band together and live in organized communities. Dietary laws have especially important consequences wherever Jews or Muslims are in a minority, setting them apart from the majority community.
Traditional educational systems bear striking resemblances. At about the age of five the sons of observant Jews and Muslims begin to memorize their holy book in primary school (beit sefer, kuttab), spending long hours six days a week repeating sounds in a strange language (not all the boys speak Hebrew or Arabic at home). Traditional Jews and Muslims consider memorization the soundest approach to learning; only by incorporating a text by heart can it be fully understood. To assist in this process, students sway back and forth, establishing a mnemonic rhythm. The classroom buzzes as students recite different assignments, each at his own pace, the teacher watching attentively for laziness or mistakes. And well he might, for a primary school instructor often lives off payments brought by students to class - fathers frequently test their sons at home and recompense the instructor according to their means and their satisfaction.
Some girls attend primary school, but they study at a much more relaxed pace and few go beyond the primary level.
After primary school, some boys go on to a higher school (yeshiva, madrasa) to learn the meaning of the holy book they have already in good part memorized. As the boys grow older, the emphasis of their study turns to the pervasive intellectual concern of Jews and Muslims: the divine law. Both peoples having subordinated other subjects - the humanities and sciences, for instance - over the centuries, concentration was focused on even on the most minor details of legal doctrine. In the process, much attention was shifted away from the Bible and Qur'an in favor of commentaries, glosses and superglosses. A regular course of study ends at about age twenty, when the student is acknowledged as learned.
Certain other likenesses have existed for many years, and still do. Rich-poor and male-female relations are cases in point. Both traditions view charity more as a way for the benefactor to gain favor in God's eyes than as a way for the supplicant to survive (although Jews think more about the social service of giving). Beggars in both societies know the function they serve and, as a result, they demonstrate a most remarkable insolence. Obligations to make donations are socially enforced, so the affluent have virtually no choice but to give, and often.
Traditional Jewish and Muslim laws also operate on the assumption that indiscriminate mingling of the sexes will destroy the social order. To avoid this, both communities structure daily life so that men and women are effectively separated from one another. Work, amusement, travel, even family relations are rigorously regulated. The Halakha requires men not to gaze at women; Muslims restrict contact between by isolating women from male spaces through the veil and harem. Males and females each inhabit their own sharply defined societies; the two sexes rarely deal with each other freely and familiarly, especially in Muslim society.
These sex regulations are more consistently enforced by the rich and the city-dwellers; the poor cannot afford them. Thus the impression exists that Judaism and Islam are preeminently middle-class, urban religions. For both, the city merchant came to epitomize the pious believer - an irony, for the Halakha and Shari'a both stringently prohibit usury, forcing merchants to contrive legal fictions in order to charge interest. As long as the letter of the law is fulfilled, the Jew or Muslim has acted correctly; here especially, it is the deed, not the intention which prevails.
Merchants took advantage of religious bonds to build up extensive commercial contacts. Before the age of rapid communications, a widely dispersed people enjoyed great advantages in trade; they could trust each other across wide distances and maintain long-term contacts. The Geniza, medieval Jewish writings preserved in Cairo, testify to a far-flung web of Jewish traders reaching from Spain to India. Muslim networks reached yet farther, from West Africa to China.
Coping with Modern Life
Traditional Jewish and Muslim ways of life have not fared well in recent times. Relatively few Jews still live in strict accordance with the Halakha. And while many Muslims do still observe the Shari'a, these are generally the believers least affected by modern life; in the cities especially, observance steadily decreases. As the rules fall into disuse, Jews and Muslims are increasingly stressing faith over action. By doing so, they forsake their own heritages in favor of the Christian approach to God.
Until the eighteenth century, Jews lived among Europeans without giving way to Christian influences. They did this by living in shelters and ghettos, maintaining the law, and usually turning their backs on anyone who entered mainstream Christian society (even if he, like Spinoza, remained a Jew). But since the late eighteenth century, Jewish isolation has diminished. Due to the Enlightenment, Christian influence receded from many aspects of life and a new, secularist culture developed. For the first time Jews were accepted into European society and culture. As Christianity's hold weakened, Jews entered society. They found themselves face to face with the dazzling changes taking place around them and many eagerly joined in the new intellectual, commercial and social pursuits.
The Halakha proved an obstacle to participation, however, and modern Jews increasingly abandoned it. As the Halakha lost its central place in Jewish life, much of Jewish tradition disappeared. By now, most Jews have become, effectively, Christianized, concerned more with attitude and intention toward God than with divine law.
Today's Jews have adopted wide range of attitudes towards maintenance of the law: some keep it as of old, others observe major portions such as kosher laws and sex restrictions, or small parts - prohibition of pork and fasting on Yom Kippur; still others totally ignore it. Anything goes; indeed, some Jews even developed a pride in this diversity of religious practices. This tolerance would have been utterly unthinkable a few generations ago, when not to keep the law was not to be a Jew. Though it remains a hot political issue in Israel, the battle over Halakha is over.
Muslims too face the temptations and challenges of Western culture, especially as the Europeans established virtual hegemony over the Muslim lands during the nineteenth century. Stunned by the success of these Christians, Muslims accepted many of their customs and along with religiously neutral borrowings such as military technology and sanitation, they also, willy-nilly, took up Christian notions of faith. Not a few Muslims today excuse their consumption of alcohol on the grounds that this is irrelevant to their deep faith in God.
Even so, the battle over the Shari'a still rages. Many Muslim leaders believe it possible to apply the law as of old, and respond with horror to suggestions that Muslims can transgress the Shari'a without fear of retribution on the Day of Resurrection. Events in Iran dramatize this problem. Modernized Iranians who long flouted the laws of Islam now must observe them or face punishment by a government whose first priority is to reapply the Shari'a.
While most Jews cheerfully accept modern life, Muslims contest every concession to it. As a result, Judaism today appears in many ways more akin to Christianity than to Islam; and in many ways it is. Yet this is new. For many centuries, adherence to divine law made Judaism and Islam kindred spirits. Conceivably they could be so one day again; but that will happen only when Muslims too abandon the law.
June 28, 2005 update: I discuss a related subject at "Is Allah God?"
Reader comments (63) on this item
Comment on this item
You can help support Daniel Pipes' work by making a tax-deductible donation to the Middle East Forum. Daniel J. Pipes