Intertwined Worlds

9 September 2011

A conference which aims to establish wider recognition for a “Judaeo-Islamic tradition”; the shared, cultural past common to Muslims, Arabs and Jews, will take place in Cambridge this weekend.

Researchers from all over the world, among them several specialists from the Middle East, will be taking part in the event. Under the heading “Intertwined Worlds”, academics will seek to identify the various ways in which, prior to the bitter enmity of recent decades, Jews, Arabs and Muslims have a much longer history of often positive and productive co-existence and exchange.

Organisers have expressed the hope that the acknowledgment of this deeper past as a “tradition” will eventually extend far beyond academic circles and perhaps provide a basis for improved relations between the different groups. “We want people to start using the term Judaeo-Islamic; give it more currency than it presently has – effectively create a brand name for something that we think exists but at this stage is inchoate,” Professor Yasir Suleiman, one of the conference’s co-organisers said.

The event is being run jointly by the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre of Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge, and the Centre for the Study of Muslim-Jewish Relations, part of the Woolf Institute, which studies the relationship between Christians, Muslims and Jews. It takes place against a backdrop of renewed tensions between Israel and Palestine in the Middle East, and the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

Its starting point is the observation that while it is common to speak of a Judaeo-Christian tradition – a set of social practices, cultural forms and intellectual ideas that sprang from years of co-existence between Jews and Christians in Europe and elsewhere – no parallel tradition between Jews and Muslims is ever really discussed.

In spite of this, one clearly exists. For centuries, Jewish communities lived and often thrived in Muslim-dominated areas such as the Middle East, North Africa and Spain. While not always peaceful, their relationship was for the most part characterised by educated and informed encounters, shared cultural experiences, mutual trading arrangements and parallel concerns about the wider world.

Researchers argue that this common heritage emerged regardless of differences in their religious beliefs and should be seen as something separate from the question of faith. “This is not about faiths or inter-faith relations,” Professor Suleiman, who is director of the Centre of Islamic Studies, said. “We are talking about cultural traditions.”

“In doctrine, there are differences between Jews and Muslims that clearly cannot be bridged. But it is also possible to deal with things that are not part of the sacred – things that are part of this life – without that doctrinal obstacle getting in the way. Accepting, understanding and studying the deeper, shared culture of these peoples offers us some sort of direction. It provides a sense of hope that it’s possible for them to interact.”

Dr Ed Kessler, Director of the Woolf Institute, said: “There is much for Muslims and Jews to learn from times in history when their communities coexisted, prospered and learned from each other in periods of relative harmony in places like Andalusia, Turkey and Egypt. Yet today, partly due to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the immediacy of electronic communication, it seems that the memory of positive historical encounters has been shelved into the darkest corners of a distant, seemingly irrelevant background. My hope is that the conference will show that the picture is not so bleak.”

Delegates at the event will give papers covering not just the medieval exchanges between Muslims, Arabs and Jews, but more recent examples as well. One touches on the threat that the ethnic cleansing advocated by the Nazis ultimately posed to them all; another discusses the large Jewish community which made up over a quarter of the population of Baghdad until the early 1950s; while a third looks at the emergence of Jewish-Arab fusion music in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The broad thrust of the conference, however, emphasises that before the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, these peoples cohabited because they could draw on the long inheritance of centuries of common history and experiences. Notwithstanding their religious differences, they shared universal principles of ethical and moral conduct and used these to forge similar legislative codes to govern their communities.

Even during the high-point of Muslim dominance in the Mediterranean, Jews often prospered. A thriving Jewish society existed under the Fatimid dynasty that ruled Egypt for about 150 years from the mid-10th century. Cases have also been identified where Jews copied and read Muslim theological texts to develop and advance a systematic theology, or of a Muslim who wrote a commentary on a code of Jewish law.

Conference: Intertwined Worlds – The Judaeo-Islamic Tradition

11-13 September 2011
Selwyn College, University of Cambridge

Co-sponsored by the Centre for the Study of Muslim-Jewish Relations, Woolf Institute and the Centre of Islamic Studies

The symposium aims to examine the state of play in the academic study of Muslim-Jewish relations.
It consists of two parts:
1) Presentations will explore the diverse ways in which the traditions, cultures and heritage of the Jews and Muslims of the Islamic world were interconnected in history, including exegetical works, devotional practices, artistic expressions, literary and intellectual cross-fertilisation, social interaction, and common spaces and places.
2) A round table discussion involving all participants and invited guests. Invited international speakers who will serve as round table discussants will be asked to address three central questions which will guide the discussion: Is there/could there be a Judaeo-Islamic tradition? How do we define it? How do we study this tradition?