Israel’s dispossession of Palestinians has blighted Jewish-Muslim ties, but the seven-decade conflict is a blip if seen from the perspective of centuries of cordial ties dating back to the rise of Islam
In September 2020, an imam at Islam’s holiest shrine—Mecca’s Grand Mosque—spoke about Prophet Muhammed’s kindness to a Jewish neighbour. The mention in the all-important Friday sermon came days before the UAE and Bahrain signed pacts to normalise ties with Israel. It was perhaps no coincidence and was seen as part of the groundwork for other Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia to follow suit. The pacts followed a thaw in Arab-Israel relations. The friendlier ties were a culmination of years of behind-the-scenes work. Arab leaders had been hinting at it.
In 2018, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, for instance, backed the Israelis’ ‘right to have their own land.’ Bahraini foreign minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa a year later called Israel a part of the region’s heritage. Bahrain backed Israeli airstrikes in Syria the same year. Israel, it said, ‘has the right to defend itself.’ Bin Salman and Khalifa’s comments were extraordinary against the backdrop of Israel’s continuing dispossession of Palestinians. Seven decades earlier, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled from their homeland for Israel’s creation in 1948.
Israel’s dispossession of Palestinians would blight Jewish-Muslim ties. But the seven-decade conflict is a blip if seen from the perspective of centuries of cordial Jewish-Muslim ties dating back to the rise of Islam. Jews thrived under the Abbasid Empire, the greatest the Arabs helmed during Islam’s Golden Age. Abbasid Caliph Al-Mansur laid the ceremonial first brick for Baghdad’s foundation as the Empire’s capital in 762 at the site Nestorian Christian monks suggested to him only after astrologers, including a Jew, chose the most auspicious day for work on the city to begin.
With 10 rabbinical schools and 22 synagogues, Jewish religious scholarship flourished in Abbasid Baghdad. Jews had their own schools where they taught Hebrew. When 12th-century Spanish rabbi Benjamin of Tudela visited Baghdad as part of travels to the most storied cities globally, he attested to close Jewish-Muslim ties. He called the Caliph ‘kind unto Israel’ and well versed in its laws.
There was nothing unusual about it for Muslims believe Islam is an extension of the Abrahamic traditions represented by Judaism and Christianity. Islam, Judaism, and Christianity trace their origins to Abraham. Early Muslims prayed in the direction of Jerusalem, the city Muslims, Christians, and Jews considered holy. When papal ascendancy in medieval Europe led to religious repression, or inquisitions, from the 13th to the 15th century, Jews found refuge in Muslim lands. Jews were banished from England and France in the 14th century, and from Spain in 1492.
The Ottoman Empire welcomed Spanish Jews fleeing the Catholic Inquisition. Jews participated in the government under the Ottomans thanks to the modernising Tanzimat (re-ordering) administrative, military, educational, legal, and social reforms in the 19th century. The reforms required provincial administrative councils to reflect local religious diversity. Menahim Salih Efendi Daniyal was among the four Jews sent from Baghdad to the first Ottoman parliament (1877–78). Sasson Efendi Hasqail, another Jew, was elected to the parliament twice from the city.
The Muslim respect for Judaism and Christianity is rooted in the Quran, which calls Jews and Christians the ‘People of the Book’ 31 times and also refers to them as alladhīna ūtū al-kitāb (those who have received the Book) ahl al-dhikr (the people of the remembrance). The Quran says God protects ‘monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques in which the name of God is much mentioned.’ When the Prophet Muhammad founded the first Muslim state in the seventh century, the Medina Charter, which many consider its constitution, underlined ‘no Jews will be wronged for being an unbeliever.’
In the charter’s Article 30, the Prophet declared ‘the Jews will be treated as one community with the believers.’ The charter essentially sought to protect the religious rights of non-Muslims. It also outlined the political rights and duties of all inhabitants of Medina, where the first Muslim community was established. Medina, one of Islam’s holiest places and the Prophet’s final resting place, was governed under the principles of socio-political justice enshrined in the charter that sought to end conflicts among tribes and maintain peace among Muslims, Jews, Christians, and pagans.
Speaking at a ceremony in Washington to honor recipients of the Righteous Among the Nations Awards honouring non-Jews, who rescued Jews during the Holocaust, US President Barack Obama in January 2016 praised Muslims—from Albanians to Arabs —who protected Jews from Nazis. Jewish-Arab relations deteriorated after Britain promised the Zionist movement a national home — Israel—in Palestine through the Balfour Declaration of 1917. The pledge rode roughshod over the native Arabs, who accounted for 90% of the Palestinian population.
The British colonialists regulated migration to Palestine over the following decades and increased the Jewish population there from 9% in 1922 to 27% in 1935. They dispossessed Palestinians by carrying out demolitions under the garb of ‘urban regeneration.’ The Nakba (catastrophe) struck when an estimated 750,000 Palestinians were forced out of their homes in 1948 with Israel’s creation which triggered the first of the Arab-Israeli wars.
Israel has continued its policies of dispossessing Palestinians, making the achievement of durable peace in the region elusive even as its Arab neighbours and UAE, in particular, have gone the extra mile to achieve it.