Shared Identities

Medieval and Modern Imaginings of Judeo-Islam

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Aaron W. Hughes
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     232 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.
Review coming soon!

Review by Majid Daneshgar forthcoming.


**see interview with the author of this book following this description**

Received opinion imagines Judaism and Islam as two distinct religions interacting in the centuries following the death of Muhammad in the early seventh century. Tradition describes the relations between the two groups using such tropes as "symbiosis." In this revisionist work, Aaron W. Hughes instead argues that various porous and marginal groups-neither fully Muslim nor fully Jewish-exploited a shared terminology to make sense of their social worlds in response to the rapid process of Islamicization. Even the spread of rabbinic Judaism, especially at the hands of Saadya Gaon (882-942 CE), was articulated IslamicallyIn the so-called "Golden Age" that emerged in places like Muslim Spain and North Africa, this "Islamic" Judaism could still be found in the writings of luminaires such as Bahya ibn Paquda, Abraham ibn Ezra, Judah Halevi, and Moses Maimonides.

Drawing on social theory, comparative religion, and the analysis of original sources, Hughes presents a compelling case for rewriting our understanding of Jews and Muslims in their earliest centuries of interaction. Not content to remain solely in the past, Shared Identities examines the continued interaction of Muslims and Jews, now reimagined as Palestinians and Israelis, into the present.


While common understanding characterizes Judaism and Islam as separate religious traditions, in his book Shared Identities: Medieval and Modern Imaginings of Judeo-Islam, Aaron W. Hughes revises this narrative, suggesting that these two seemingly distinct religions are far more intertwined than previously thought. By examining late antique and medieval literary sources as well as contemporary exchanges, Hughes shows that the histories of Judaism and Islam and the identities of Jews and Muslims are defined more by their interactions than by their separation. On November 19th, 2017, at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Boston, I had the pleasure to meet with Hughes to discuss his recent book.  –Kirsten Boles, Assistant Editor

KB: What is Judeo-Islam? How long has it existed and where?

AH: Judeo-Islam is all about the work that the hyphen does. It is the positing of imbroglio as opposed to tidiness. The goal of the book is to show that rather than think about Judaism and Islam as discreet religions—especially in the early period, the time around Muhammad and roughly the 200 years thereafter—the best thing to do is to see them as intimately connected to one another, as interlocked on a set of parallel courses that simultaneously converge and diverge from one another. As they developed historically, in other words, they each began to define themselves in the other’s light. Rather than work with the idea that a stable and normative Judaism gave birth to Islam, which is our inherited narrative, I argue that what Judaism looked like on the Arabian Peninsula at the time of Muhammad was probably much more complex. Rather than see Judaism as simply giving birth to Islam, I try to problematize Judaism. In particular, I argue that the rise of an initially inchoate Islam and its subsequent rapid political spread created a situation wherein various social groups –some Jewish, some Muslim, some Jewish-Muslim and some Muslim-Jewish—needed to define themselves and be defined by the others. It is this dialectic that, I argue, created various species of orthodoxy and heterodoxy in each religion. My goal, then, is to try to put the standard narrative on its head.

But then I also argue that in the medieval period, the early modern period, and even in the modern period, Judaism and Islam still need the other to think about themselves. Medieval developments in law, in rationalism, even in certain forms of mysticism, while certainly predicated on a bigger difference than before, still betray a certain fluidity. Even the contemporary Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which I also discuss in the book, is seemingly predicated on clear boundaries between what is Judaism and what is Islam, who is a Jew and who is a Muslim, but we still witness an intimate and inextricable connection between them. Whereas jurists and heresiographers in the late antique and early medieval periods sought to separate “Muslims” and “Jews” taxonomically from one another, political fiat in the present tries to separate them with security fences or apartheid walls (depending on one’s perspective). In each case, however, the separation again proves to be more artificial than real and is based, as the title suggests, on a “shared identity.”

KB: Why do you think it's important to write about this history of interactions between Jews and Muslims, and connect medieval history to contemporary relations between Jews and Muslims?

AH: I think it’s important to write about this for a number of reasons, but first I should say why I don't consider it important. Too many people look romantically at the relationship between Jews and Muslims, Judaism and Islam, in the past and say, “Oh, they got along so well in the pre-modern period. Look at the Golden Age of Muslim Spain. Why couldn't it be like this today?” I don’t like that narrative because I think that it’s based on a modern, and largely romantic, need as opposed to an actual assessment of the sheer complexity of their historical and textual interactions. Rather than assume that Judaism and Islam were locked in some symbiotic relationship, I wanted to problematize the very trope of symbiosis. In so doing, my book tries to argue that rather than simply getting along with one another, there was a much more complicated relationship between Judaism and Islam: they have constantly been interlocked with one another in their mutual processes of self-description and self-definition. The history of Jewish-Muslim interactions is, in short, a story of overlap, of the quest for differentiation, of mirroring, and of the complex webs of centers and margins.

I think it is thus important to understand the complexity and the messiness of the historical interaction between the two religions—or, as I prefer to call them, two social groups or two groups of social actors. Rather than be hopeful, the book tries to be realistic and argue that while there were extremely thin and fluid boundaries between Judaism and Islam in the pre-modern period, in the modern one there are increasingly very thick boundaries—symbolized, for me, by the security fence, or the apartheid wall, that runs along the green line but refuses to respect 1967 borders. It’s not a pessimistic book per se, but it tries to show the complexity of this history and that romantic narratives of golden ages are more modern wish-fulfillment than accurate historical portrayal.

KB: Do you think that what you write about in your book has implications for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?

AH: I think it does, just by virtue of the fact that it shows how intimately connected Judaism and Islam have been. Moreover, the conflict is always the elephant in the room when dealing with Jewish-Muslim relations, even when studying premodern times. Even if one does not address the conflict explicitly, it is there. So, even my two, what I consider to be, revolutionary arguments address it, but indirectly, with explicit engagement with the conflict only in the final chapter. These are: 1) that, rather than imagine Judaism as giving birth to Islam in the seventh century, I argue that a nascent Islam instead provided the material conditions to imagine orthodoxy in Jewish centers such as Baghdad; and 2) that the various species of medieval Judaism—gaonic, rational, and so on—are essentially attempts to Islamicize Judaism. Many of the great medieval thinkers like Maimonides and Saadya Goan, and all the Jewish Golden Age poets, in many ways absorbed Arabo-Islamic categories and tried to frame Judaism in its light (they did, after all, think and write in Arabic). Hopefully, you can see the repercussions that has on contemporary self-understandings. So you could say, in the modern period, that Judaism and Israel continue to need Islam and Muslims (now constructed as Arabs) for the sake of self-definition. Judaism and Islam, Islam and Judaism—i.e., Judeo-Islam—have never been entirely separate religions. My book, then, is predicated on the complexity of identity. Apartheid walls or security fences, however,  don't respect the complexity of identity. The Israeli Defense Force, the Israel government, the Palestinian Authority are the ones making the borders today while I instead argue that we need to look at the complexity of identity formation as a way to inspire a greater appreciation of the fluidity between what is Judaism and what is Islam. So, for me, to reiterate, the key aspect of Judeo-Islam is the hyphen. 

KB: How do you see your book contributing to the fields of Islamic studies and Jewish studies as disciplines?

AH: I imagine the book as contributing to both; in fact, I might even say that it is a call to show how the two fields can and should work together, and that there is much productive work to do in the future. For example, and this is the topic that I am currently working on, who were the “Jews” that lived on the Arabian Peninsula at the time of Muhammad? We don't really know anything about them. We just assume they were something akin to the rabbinic ones of later centuries, found in Jewish centers. But why should we assume this? There is certainly no textual or even archeological evidence that leads us to such an assumption. The study of Judaism, thus, has a lot to contribute to the study of Islamic origins. And, of course, vice versa. Since the book attends to the hyphen in Judeo-Islam, I would like to think that, in an ideal world, it would contribute to both Islamic studies and Jewish studies. However, I've been in this game long enough to know that that's very rarely the case, because one is always defined by something.

I also wrote the book for those in religious studies. In this regard, it tries to show how religious identity is created, how complex it is, and the dialectic between centers/margins, and selves/others, in its formation. In this, I follow the lead of the recently departed J. Z. Smith, namely, that if we do our work properly, we can use our own complex datasets to formulate and subsequently illumine larger questions that will be of relevance to those working with other data, but similar questions.

KB: What's the main thing you want readers to take away from your book?

AH: I would want the general reader to take away from the book  an acknowledgment of the complexity of identity formation; in addition to a renewed appreciation of the way borders are constructed, manipulated, imagined, and reimagined. In this regard, I hope the book contributes to the dismantling of the traditional world religions paradigm where we assume that discrete religions exist naturally in the world. An attention to the complexity of actual historical and textual  interactions hopefully shows just how problematic that paradigm is. More generally, I hope that a scholar working on another dataset—for example, Buddhism and Hinduism in South Asia—might find utility in the methodology employed in this book and adopt some of its theoretical language and theoretical categories.

I would want the reader in Jewish studies to take away the fact that Judaism is an artificial category. Yet for some reason we just seem to replicate it as a useful category—any glance at the program of the annual meeting of the Association of Jewish Studies will bear this out. When we look at Judaism’s intersection with other religions we see complexity, not some eternal essence that remains cordoned off. One must come at Judaism, framed slightly differently, through the broader cultures in which Jews—or “Jews” in the case of the Arabian Peninsula in the sixth and seventh centuries—lived.

For the reader in Islamic studies, I want to relay the fact that Judaism is an integral part of Islamic studies, and that we ignore it at our peril. Islamic studies scholars have to deal with Jewish texts much more seriously.

About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Aaron W. Hughes holds the Philip S. Bernstein Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Rochester. A specialist in Islamic and Jewish Studies, he is the author of many books including Abrahamic Religion: On the Uses and Abuses of History and Rethinking Jewish Philosophy: Beyond Particularism and Universalism.

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