Review: Islam for Jews by Rueven Firestone (JPS, 2008)

Firestone’s book fills a niche in that covers both an introduction to Islamic religion and culture as well as comparative religious treatments on the relationship between people of the book. It is a fairly balanced tome that seeks to balance a deep sense of sympathy with Islamic religion and culture with an honest treatment of tensions between Islamic and Jewish cultures. Many will see this balance as either “white-washing” the history of Muslim-Jewish relations or a subtle undermining of the truth of either the Torah or the Qu’ran. In many more negative reviews, I have seen accusations that Firestone ignores the doctrine of tahrif, which Firestone does not name, but discuss. He also discusses counter-veiling tendencies in the Qu’ran and the Hadith as well as the ways the Hadith developed in more strict way it first appears in the Qu’ran, and that this actually does parallel, fairly directly, halakkah developments and the oral law in Judaism.

Indeed, Firestone makes it clear that distrust between Judaism and Islam goes both ways and has a long history. While it is true that Firestone does paint things sympathetically, he does not deny the particular tension between Jews and Muslims. Indeed, he points out that while Jewish and Islamic theology and approaches to religious law are actually more similar than either Jewish and Christian or Christian and Muslim relations, Islamic tradition has been more forgiving of Christians as people of the book than Jews, and has made less claims on its tradition beyond the Qu’rans particular reading of stories that also appear in the gospels, albiet in a profoundly different light in creedal Christian readings.

Firestone points out a lot of both the cultural and linguistic relationship to the Judaism in the Qu’ran and in Arabic culture at large. The clear relationship of Hebrew and Arabic as semitic languages, the mutual readings of the common tradition, and the overlapping and often competing cultural mileau is brought into focus. Historical development of Islam is discussed in some detail as are competing traditions of Shari’ia. The tensions of the “Jewish Golden Age” in Islamic Spain are brought out clearly as are the occasional backlashes against Jews in the pre-modern Muslim world. Firestone does mention that these were not as brutal or repressive as in Christian Europe nor were massacres of Jews as common as in pre-reformation Christian world or the early 20th century.

Firestone does shy away from discussing the tensions post-Zionism too directly, and this is small flaw in the book. The reversal of Muslim fortunes under modernity is discussed as is colonialism, but the establishment of Israel out of the British mandate is glossed over in a few sentences, and the profound distrust this creates on both sides of the divide is played down.

That caveat is an important one as is some of the historical tensions described within the Firestone’s treatment. It strives to me honest and yet respectful of believers in all three of the largest “Abrahamic” faiths, and while I think it works, that is still going to be alienating to some.