"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
mattress,/
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).


Monday, March 18, 2013

Jews and Christians in the Abode of Islam (I)

Last week I signed a contract with Routledge Press to edit a collection of scholarly articles to be published next year under the title "Eastern Christian Encounters with Islam." Part of what motivated me to propose this book was the fact that trying to get a handle on the encounters, past and present, between Eastern Christians and Muslims is an extremely difficult task and most works to date have succeeded only partially; many fail because they are outdated, intolerably politicized and tendentious, or otherwise guilty of ignoring politically inconvenient facts, usually, but not always, at Christian expense.

For those seeking to get a handle on the literature of Jewish and Christian encounters with Islam, I am happy to recommend a new book: Jacob Lassner, Jews, Christians, and the Abode of Islam: Modern Scholarship, Medieval Realities (U. Chicago Press, 2012), 336pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us:
In Jews, Christians, and the Abode of Islam, Jacob Lassner examines the triangular relationship that during the Middle Ages defined—and continues to define today—the political and cultural interaction among the three Abrahamic faiths. Lassner looks closely at the debates occasioned by modern Western scholarship on Islam to throw new light on the social and political status of medieval Jews and Christians in various Islamic lands from the seventh to the thirteenth centuries. Utilizing a vast array of primary sources, Lassner balances the rhetoric of literary and legal texts from the Middle Ages with other, newly published medieval sources, describing life as it was actually lived among the three faith communities. Lassner shows just what medieval Muslims meant when they spoke of tolerance, and how that abstract concept played out at different times and places in the real world of Christian and Jewish communities under Islamic rule. Finally, he considers what a more informed picture of the relationship among the Abrahamic faiths in the medieval Islamic world might mean for modern scholarship on medieval Islamic civilization and, not the least, for the highly contentious global environment of today.
The author has written in an explicitly accessible manner, and his book is in many respects a very long book report on numerous other publications, in a variety of Semitic and Western languages, written over the last 1400 years. For the general reader especially--and also, perhaps to a lesser degree, the scholar needing his memory refreshed--this is very helpful: a scene-setting of sorts, usually done quite dispassionately, but in justified instances Lassner does not pull his punches. He surveys, inter alia, how Jewish and Christian writers have written about Islam, especially in the medieval period; how Muslim writers have written about both traditions, and their own, especially in the last century; how the so-called Orientalists, especially British and American, wrote about "the East," especially Islam, from the 19th century onward, and how they were criticized by Edward Said's infamous book Orientalism; how those criticized (particularly Bernard Lewis) responded; and how Muslims, whom Lassner calls "occidentalists," wrote, in turn, about their perceptions of the West. 

I'm almost finished the book, and will have more to say when I do. But in the meantime, it is, as I say, a very useful and gracefully written survey of a vast array of literature, judiciously judged, and I gladly recommend the book.

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