Edwin Shuker is Iraqi and Jewish, speaks fluent Arabic, and lives in London. He speaks to me passionately of his love for his native Iraq, and the pain he feels at the destruction of Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003. He is planning to travel to Iraq at some point and is worried, for obvious reasons, about being kidnapped by extremists. “Fear makes us behave as irrational beings”, he pronounces as he weaves dexterously through the nightmare of traffic in Paris. While cars speed through narrow cobbled roads, pedestrians and cyclists calmly cross their paths, as if to hurry would spoil their journey. “In Israel, you are two hundred times more likely to be killed in a road traffic accident than by a terrorist attack”, he explains. “Yet, Israeli parents live in fear of being targeted by Palestinian attacks, while happily taking their children for a drive in their car.”
The context of this conversation was a trip organised by Imams Online for a small group of British religious leaders (you didn’t think I would refer to myself as an Imam, did you?) to meet French Jewish and Muslim leaders in Paris. We wished to show our support for two communities that were feeling very besieged in the wake of the dreadful January killings at Charlie Hebdo and at a Jewish Deli. The element of fear was quite obvious among both Jews and Muslims. The Jewish community had suffered at the hands of the Far Right for a long time, and now they felt they were the target of jihadists. The immigrant Muslim community was being blamed for the attacks, despite the fact that the killers had mental health problems, had spent time in prison, did not seem to have jobs, and came from severely deprived backgrounds. The fact that their families had Muslim origins was irrelevant, but this was the fact that seemed to concern everyone.
I wonder if this sense of fear is creeping into Jewish discourse in Britain today? I do hope not. Jews are an integral component of the rich tapestry of different and vibrant cultures that weave together in Britain today. They are our cousins; we may disagree with them on some political issues, but we share a history, a religious framework and an experience that far outstrips any political issues over which, realistically, we have no control. This does not mean to say that we should remain silent over the alabaster elephant in the room, which is the creation of the state of Israel and the continuing suffering of the Palestinian people. Yes, these are real issues which need resolving. But there are other issues which we also need to address. The reason we don’t is because many Muslims see Jews only through the lens of Palestine. They refuse to engage with their Jewish countrymen, often showing open hostility, as if by doing so they will solve the problems of Gaza.
Muslims and Jews have a stunning history of coexistence, cultural exchange, philosophical debate and nation-building that spans over a thousand years. The history of Jews in Iraq is 2,500 years old. It was the land of Babylon, of ancient Biblical prophets and their tombs, a land truly of milk and honey. When Islam arrived 1400 years ago, the Muslim rulers had no desire to force the indigenous religious communities to convert or leave. Islamic expansion was about political power and not religious conversion. With the added honour of being Ahlul Kitab,( The People of the Book), the Jews were treated with benevolence and fondness. Over the centuries the Jews became an integral part of Iraqi life. They excelled in commerce, education, music, poetry, governance and so forth. They were integrated into Arab life and were a part of the wealthy middle class. Neither the Muslims nor any of the other minorities had a problem with this fact. Edward explained that when he was growing up in Iraq, the Muslim boys made a point of not harassing or mistreating Jewish girls. The concept of Ahlul Dhimma (people under protection) was firmly embedded in the psyche of the Muslim Arabs, even though Iraq was not an Islamic state and did not legislate for the Ahlul Dhimma or the payment of Jizya. Let me just explain to those who do not understand these Arabic terms that Islam legislated for the protection of Christian and Muslim minorities (ie, the Ahlul Dhimma) in times of peace and war. Non Muslims were not required to fight in war, and for this protection they paid a tax called Jizya. Muslim subjects did not pay jizya, but they were required to participate in war and to pay zakah (compulsory charity). Non Muslims did not pay zakah.
This happy coexistence was not confined to Iraq but was a common feature of life under Muslim sovereignty. In medieval Spain under Muslim rule (known as Andalucia), we read of complete cultural assimilation yet strong religious identity of the large and influential Jewish minority. Samuel ibn Nagrila Halevi is a case in point. He was a poet, religious scholar and philosopher, and was the first nagid (head) of the Jewish community. He was also grand vizier to Badis, king of Granada, and a commanding officer in the army, winning many battles for his Muslim king. It is thought that his son Joseph first laid out the elaborate gardens next to the palace of Granada, which were to become such a feature of palaces in the region.
Bishop Rabi ibn Zayd of Elvira was not just a religious personality, but the Muslim Caliph’s envoy to the German court of Otto 1. Hasdai ibn Shaprut was a physician, philosopher, scholar and considered to be a nasi (prince) of the Jewish community. He was also vizier to Abdel Rahman III. This is how he described his native Andalucia:
“It is a land of grains, wines and purest oils, rich in plants, a paradise of every sort of sweet…Our land also has its own sources of silver and gold and in her mountains we mine copper and iron, tin and lead, kohl and marble and crystal…When other kings hear of the power and glory of our king they bring gifts to him…I receive those offerings and I,in turn, offer them recompense.” (Maria Menocal, Ornament of the World).
Given that Muslims, Jews and Christians (and later, other religious minorities in India) managed to not just live together but respect and love one another, what on earth is the problem today? Why do so many Muslims today feel it is perfectly acceptable to hate Jews, insult rabbis and break windows of synagogues? I was asked this very question by a member of CRIF, an important French Jewish lobby group that has its history in Napoleonic times. My response was that the Quran contains two sets of references to the Jews. The first set of references is incredibly extensive and covers the history of the Children of Israel. It begins with Prophet Abraham and carries through Jacob and Joseph, David and Solomon, to John the Baptist and Jesus son of Mary. This is a very, very long and detailed story. Incidents involving Prophet Musa are elaborated in detail as the Children of Israel were clearly seen to be the Chosen people. It is a story of pain and suffering, long treks through an inhospitable desert, a golden calf, a cow that needs to be sacrificed to reveal the identity of a murderer, stunning miracles such as the parting of the Red Sea, hot food on demand in the desert, rivers flowing from rocks, fishermen bending the rules of the Sabbath and so much more. It is the story of a generous and loving God holding the hands of His errant people and leading them through numerous trials. If God reprimands the Children of Israel for being lazy or for complaining that they want cucumbers instead of meat, well it is because he loves them and needs to discipline them. It is a beautiful story of hope and struggle, and divine Mercy that continues to bless a people for centuries.
The story of the Israelites is important to Muslims reading the Quran for its historical and narrative value, but it also shows the close and personal interest that God takes in His people. After all, we are all the servants of God, whether or not we choose to acknowledge this fact. It reminds Muslims of the importance of obeying their Prophets, showing gratitude for Divine favour, repenting for sins, working hard and fighting for the truth. It is a story that resonates through the ages.
The second group of verses refers to the Jews of Madina at the time the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). In Makkah the Muslims were a despised and persecuted minority, with no power base and no access to defence. They were thus forbidden from defending themselves by the Quran. In Madina the situation was completely different. The Muslims had power and authority, they could summon an army (albeit a small and ill-equipped one), and they needed to fight in order to survive. This was a fledgling community in a hostile world; the pagans of Makkah were signing secret deals with the Jewish and Christian minorities of Madina in a bid to destroy the young Muslim state from without and from within. The Muslims needed to win every single battle, and to fight tooth and nail to survive. Defeat guaranteed death for the new Muslim state. It was in this context that certain Quranic verses were revealed, exhorting the Muslims to fight bravely, to kill their opponents, not to show cowardice on the battlefield, and not to trust the tribes who were feigning allegiance to the Prophet. These verses are critical to understanding the history of Islam and they provide guidance on warfare and military strategy generally. What they do not do is tell Muslims to hate Jews forever.
Muslim Andalucia was a haven for Jews fleeing persecution from Christians in Europe. To see European Jews today living in fear of attacks by Muslims is dreadful. We travelled to Paris to show solidarity to our Jewish and Muslim friends across the Channel. I really hope that the Muslims of UK and Europe will stand up to defend the safety of their Jewish cousins.