Shared Identities

Medieval and Modern Imaginings of Judeo-Islam

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Aaron W. Hughes
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     2017.
     232 pages.
     $99.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190684464.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

     READ INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR HERE

While speaking on French International Radio, Dariush Shayegan (d. 2018) wondered why both Western and Muslim contexts no longer produce intellectuals as they did between the 1950s and the early 1990s. The reason, according to Shayegan, is that modern intellectuals likely have not been able to keep up with the changes and problems that occur daily. Shayegan asserted that this could be a global phenomenon. 

I have personally had this concern, too, about where the line is between a scholar of religious studies who sits behind a desk reading and writing articles and books, being apologetic and neutral on the past and present, on the one hand; and a scholar who places religion and its history into a wider context to critique them and thereby find solutions for global conflicts, on the other hand. In Shared Identities: Medieval and Modern Imaginings of Judeo-Islam, Aaron W. Hughes reminds us of the important role of intellectuals, historiographers, and deconstructionists who decode the past in finding a solution for today’s conflicts. In this well-written book, he sheds light on our censored “knowledge of the past,” knowledge that was mainly created by pre-modern and modern Jews and Muslims. He is affected by the geographical border between Jews and Muslims in the real world created by powerful people, and the hyphen between the terms “Jewish” and “Muslim” in historical and academic discourses. He tries to deconstruct historical assumptions that suggest all monotheistic religions emanate from Judaism, which, according to him, is the result of “Jewish pride” (48). Hughes tries to place readers of religion, history, literary criticism, and literature outside of their academic office, and invites them to critically reimagine the past and coexist in the present. 

In contrast to the popular understanding of Judaism and Islam, as well as of Jewish-Muslim relations, which simply suggests that Islam came after Judaism and consequently that there are many Jewish elements and rituals that are the basis of Islamic ones, Hughes suggests that Jewish and Muslim identity is more complex than this centuries-old idea. Hughes presents himself as a critic of the famous German-Jewish scholar Abraham Geiger (d. 1874) and declares that the relationship between Judaism and Islam is not a one-way street from the former to the latter, but rather that Jewish and Muslim identities are integrated and mutually supportive. To analyze this, Hughes highlights “uncertainty” concerning the anatomy of Jewish-Muslim symbiosis. In so doing, “the goal is to try to reimagine interaction from the bottom up, as it were, as opposed to from the top down” (5). 

Hughes also critiques the fact that scholars are practically silent about the interactions of pre-Islamic communities in the Middle East. He examines why scholars have not provided an answer for “what or who the Arabian Jews [were]” in the early period of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula. Furthermore, unlike the large number of interreligious projects that are limited to a vague presentation of (peaceful or violent) relations between Jews and Muslims, this volume aims to “investigate the construction of mutual identities through the discourse of alterity. Just as Jewishness aids in the formation of multiple and overlapping Muslim identities, Muslimness serves a similar function in the construction of Jewish identities” (11). 

This book contains six main chapters. The first chapter, “Symbiosis: Rethinking a Paradigm,” tries to show that the aforementioned borders between Jews and Muslims that are used by politicians, academics, and the general public are “a set of imaginative acts” produced by earlier writers and scholars. Hughes’s concerns in this chapter revolve around the terms that have been historically added to our dictionary and that have built our imagination of us and them (i.e., Jews and Muslims, or vice versa). The second chapter deals with the Jews of the Arabian Peninsula from the 6th century onwards. This chapter critiques methodological approaches applied by earlier scholars and raises many unanswered questions dealing with the identity of Jews in Hijaz both before and after Muhammad. For example, it invites readers to rethink the traditions related to Muhammad and his confrontation with the tribes of the Banu Qurayza. Hughes critiques Geiger’s claim that “Muhammad borrowed or stole certain biblical terms both to authenticate his own message and to differentiate it from earlier ones” (47). He finds that Geiger failed to consider the possibility of a shared vocabulary in the region. 

Chapter 3 is about the application and imagination of Jewish themes such as messianism in Islam after the death of Muhammad. Chapter 4 mainly deals with Saadya Gaon, who was impressed by Islamic theology and was a critic of the Ananites and Karaites. The chapter also analyzes the “debt owed by Islam to the Jews of Arabia and its subsequent repayment to those Jews living under the orbit of medieval Islam” (83). The final two chapters examine the notion of a “golden age,” with Hughes exploring “how and why 19th-century German-Jewish scholars created the trope of the ‘golden age’ of Muslim Spain” (15). In contrast to some traditionalists and nativists, who think that Muslims need to revive their earlier glorious time, Hughes believes that such titles or names ascribed to different religious, racial, or national groups do not help people understand the past, and that this causes them to stray them from understanding to what extent, for example, the idea of Judaism is Islamic. 

The gist of Hughes’s concerns is found in the conclusion, which starts with the story of the building of the physical barrier which separates “the occupied West Bank from Israel proper” in 2002. For Hughes, this is where the reimagining of history can be helpful in removing the veil of ignorance covering current racial and national biases. In line with Edward W. Said (d. 2003), Hughes invites his public readership to rethink both the complexity and integration of Jewmuslim and Muslimjew, without a hyphen.

Yet, as this book targets a wide readership from different disciplines, I think it would have been appropriate if it had also discussed the arguments of previous scholars about the interaction of identity, religion, and civilization, as well as Arabs and Jews in Palestine. For instance, he could, like Said did in “The Clash of Ignorance(The Nation, October 22, 2001), argue with Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order (Simon & Schuster, 2001)and highlight how the latter’s ideas are or are not still widely accepted or rejected by both scholars and the general public. 

For academics and activists, Hughes not only suggests a philological reading of the past but also a critical re-reading of the literature that emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries, which has shaped our understandings of, and approaches to, the “Other.” Thus, this could be considered an important contribution to the history of religion, religious studies, and the Middle East.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Majid Daneshgar is Junior Fellow and Marie Curie Fellow of the European Union, Frieburg Institute for Advanced Studies, Univeristy of Frieburg, Germany.

Date of Review: 
June 22, 2018
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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