A Tale of Two Brothers: History of Estrangement and the Birth of two Religions
By Ambreen Agha
One important point should be made right away. There is little sign of any deep rooted emotional hostility directed against Jews…[in Muslim lands…] such as the anti-Semitism of the Christian world. There were, however, unambiguously negative attitudes. These were in part the ‘normal’ feelings of a dominant group towards a subject group, with parallels in virtually any society. (Bernard Lewis, 1984: 32)
The history of mutual existence, toleration and cooperation shared between the Jews and Muslims who, today, stand against each other, hardened with negative perceptions that have percolated beyond the borders of political-territorial dispute between Israel and Palestine, is the cornerstone of recognizing the myth and reality that has come to dominate this hostile relationship. Born out of the same paternal roots, the two estranged brothers, Ishmael and Isaac, Abraham’s children, unknowingly parted ways resulting out of the passions, jealousies and complexities of two women and Abraham’s wives, Hagar and Sarah. While Hagar came to become the mother of Islam, from Sarah emerged both Judaism and Christianity. The story of these two women, their marital relationship with Abraham and human insecurities gave birth to two separate religions, Ishmael’s Islam and Isaac’s Judaism.
As a result of the high passions and emotions, Sarah succeeded in convincing Abraham to abandon Hagar and her son Ishmael. This moment in the history of the three Abrahamic faiths bears relevance till today. Abraham’s dilemma, emotional anxiety and helplessness that he suffered in executing this decision made by Sarah, of parting with his first child and second wife, is point of debate and discussion about the eventual separation of the two brothers who grew up unaware of the circumstances and human failings suffered by their mothers. However, Abraham, the patriarch, is the common and central figure to fall back upon. It is through Abraham that the three world religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam trace their lineage.
A nuanced reading of history further delineates the troubled relationship between the wives of Abraham, their struggle and contestations for inheritance, and the subsequent religions that came into existence. At this juncture, it is crucial to state that the past relationship between Jews and Muslims has often been harmonious and peaceful. It was in the twentieth and twenty first century that the enmity between Muslims and Jews became evident and of global significance, in particular with the coming of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the Muslim tradition, Christians and Jews are considered the People of the Book, and hence a point from where the idea of mutual co-existence and tolerance emerges. Since the coming of Islam in the seventh century and Prophet Muhammad’s military campaigns the Jews were subjects of their Muslim rulers across the large swathes of lands and lived under the status of Dhimmi or the People of the Book, a reference to the common roots of Abrahamic religions. Though Dhimmi was an inferior status attributed to the non-Muslims in Islamic States, history shows the relaxation of Dhimmi rules and reduction of jizya tax (or the head tax) for the Jews, thus, integrating them with respect in society. A perusal of history makes one question, if this has been the historical benevolence of the Islamic State towards the People of the Book or the Protected People, then what has caused the two communities, with the same roots, to drift apart?
Scholars who have extensively worked on the subject of Islam and Judaism argue in the strain of historical misperceptions that have been exploited and formed the popular Muslim perception of Jews and the fraught Muslim-Jewish relations. Keeping history as the point of his argument and reflecting on the 14 centuries of Jewish life under Muslim rule, Bernard Lewis, a Jewish scholar on Muslim and Jew relations, convincingly argues that the situation of Jews living under Islamic rulers ‘was never as bad as in Christendom at its worst,’ even if it was never, ‘as good as in Christendom at its best.’ Corroborating his finding that the relations between Jews and Arabs were more harmonious than the lachrymose relations between Jews and Christians in Europe, Lewis further writes, “There is nothing in Islamic history to parallel the Spanish expulsion and Inquisition, the Russian pogroms, or the Nazi Holocaust.”
The Muslim-Jew relation has been one of accommodation and contestation. The history of accommodation is long and goes back to the joint military campaigns between the Jews and Muslims in 638 century under the rule of Omar ibn al-Khattab, Prophet’s companion who ruled from 634-44. During that year the Muslim army under Omar conquered several Christian cities, and in this conquest Omar’s army was openly aided by the Jews who wanted to liberate themselves of Christian persecution. In this military coalition the Jews fought along with the Muslim soldiers, provided provisions, including food to the Muslim army and acted as local guides to their Muslim soldiers in the area familiar to them. The military cooperation seen during Omar’s time was further extended under different Muslim rulers. After sixty years, Caliph Abd al-Malik appointed Jews as the guardians of the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif (The Noble Sanctuary). There were Jews who held important administrative and other positions of responsibility.
It was later, with the politicization of the Israel-Palestine conflict, that history of coexistence was replaced with the history of confrontation and contestation. The emergence of Zionist movement in the late nineteenth century in the year 1890 for the return of Jews to their homeland and the re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel led to the embittered relations between the Jews and Muslims. There is a kind of cynicism that is visible in the existing Muslim-Jew relations. The political struggle between Israel and Palestine has translated into a religious war between the progeny of the two sons of Abraham. This Israel-Palestine conflict has transcended space and time, polarizing and negatively impacting the relations between the two communities across the globe, to wherever Muslims live and to wherever Jews live.
The transcendence of the Arab-Israel conflict is seen reflected in the local Muslim-Jew narratives. It may be for media’s biased reporting or ignorance that the sensitive Muslim-Jews relations have undergone an uneasy path in Lucknow, the capital of the State of Uttar Pradesh, over the alleged ‘occupation’ of the Freemason Temple that has stood in Lucknow’s busy fish market of Narhai since 1879, by the Jews. The perception that the Freemasons are Jews is part of the larger understanding of Muslims who view it as a Zionist conspiracy against Islam. This misperception of taking Freemasons to be Jews has led to the initiation of a movement in 2011 under the leadership of Shia cleric Kalbe Jawad to liberate its building, which used to be an Imambargah before being leased by the British to the Freemasons, from the alleged Jewish control.
In an interview to this scribe, the leader of the liberation movement of this Masonic Temple Kalbe Jawad firmly reiterated that the Freemasons are Jews. Relying heavily of the Zionist conspiracy theory against Islam he said, “Freemason is a Jewish organization. However, it also has some Christians as its members. Unfortunately, some opportunists among Muslims are also a part of this movement that is a conspiracy against Islam.” To him the freemasons are the worshippers of Satan. He goes on to tell me, “You should read the Jewish book Talmud. It is a very dangerous book. I call it dangerous because it states that only Jews have the right to live. If given a choice between saving a non-Jewish human life and a life of the dog, the Jew should save the dog. This is the kind of religious instruction given to Jews in their book. Now you can understand yourself.” Belonging to the revisionist school that is critical of the glorious days of Jews under Muslim rulers, Jawad categorically states, “There are old roots to this enmity. Our first Imam, Hazrat Ali, the son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad, led a war against the Jews in the year 629 in Khyber.” However, despite this revisionism that the Maulana exhibits, he also hopes for peace between the two communities. Quoting an incident from Prophet’s life Kalbe Jawad said, “One day during the month of Ramzan (fasting) (Urdu for the Arabic Ramadan) when Prophet was sitting with his followers, a Jew came and offered him a date. The Jewish man insisted that Prophet Muhammad eat it in front of him. On his request, Prophet ate the date, leaving his followers sitting beside him shocked. As the Jew left, Prophet’s fellows asked him, ‘Why did you break your fast before time for that Jew?’ To this, the Prophet replied, ‘I prefer breaking my fast over his heart.’”
“It is from here that the Muslims and Jews should forget their old hostilities,” says Jawad, adding, “The Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, never broke anyone’s heart, be it a Jew or a Christian. The Muslims of today should learn from the life of Prophet and conduct themselves accordingly.” However, on the issue of the Freemason Temple, he says that it is a Jewish conspiracy against Islam, and a legal battle is being fought to wrest control of the building from Jewish hands.
This Muslim version of the dispute is challenged by the caretaker of the Temple Lodge, who outrightly rejected the presence of Jews in the premises of the building. Though initially skeptical of saying anything to me, the caretaker after a long conversation on the issue disclosed that the Masonic Temple has nothing to do with Jews in particular. In fact, it is open for all communities, and the minimum criterion of membership is to be a post-graduate. He took me around the Lodge, narrating his great grandfather’s migration from Rae Bareilly to Lucknow in early nineteenth century, and the subsequent handover of the building, as a caretaker, from the then British authorities. He asserted, “I am a Hindu. This is no religious place. People come here, especially lawyers, on every third Saturday of the month to hold their meetings. But these meetings are secretive. I have been living here since my birth, but have never attended the meetings conducted in the Lodge.” After a pause, he took me to the backside of the Lodge, where he showed me a small corner that served as a place of worship for him and his family. There was trishula (three-pronged sacred weapon of the Hindu deity Shiva) embedded on a high mud platform, and a tulasi (holy basil) plant. He emphasized, “This is our God and we are Hindus.”
For Jawad and other Shia Muslims living in Lucknow, the Masonic Temple belongs to the Jews and is part of the Zionist conspiracy. One Zaidi (name changed) said, “Why do these Freemasons work in secrecy? If there is nothing controversial about them, then why don’t they open their Lodge for the public? Jews have always worked secretly against Islam. They conspire with their Christian partners in their war against Islam that is seen in the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict.” After going through the two accounts, one of the Shia cleric and the Muslims on one hand, and the other of the caretaker of the Temple, which he insists to call a “Lodge”, also inscribed on its board, it can be understood as “manufacturing of a controversy”, in the words of a Jew living in Delhi.
This conspiracy theory is a manifestation of European anti-Semitism that has come to dominate the Muslim psyche and the Muslim world. It was in Germany in the nineteenth century that Jews and Freemasons began to be perceived as working in collusion for challenging the traditional Christian society. The anti-Semitism that arose then in Europe has today travelled to the Muslim world, further deteriorating the Muslim-Jewish relations, which are seen through the political lens of Israel-Palestine. The Muslim-Jew relation has been a victim of the ignorance, false perceptions and misuse of history. However, it is important to note that every Jew is not a Zionist. Hence, for a constructive future of Muslim-Jew relation it is important to deconstruct the idea of Judaism-Zionism as a homogenous identity, working in tandem against Islam. The clarion call is inter-faith gatherings for Jewish-Muslim reconciliation.
All photos, except that of Maulana Kalb-e-Jawwad, are by Adil Bhat, a freelance journalist and a student of English Literature at Delhi University.
Dr. Ambreen Agha was awarded the degree of Ph.D. by the Department of Political Science, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, for her ethnographic study of the women active in Islamic Revivalist Movement of Tablighi Jamaát. She is associated with the South Asia Terrorism Portal for the last six years as a Researcher and has extensively written on extremism and religious violence in Pakistan. Her larger interest area is Comparative Religion and various religious orientations that assert themselves, in both violent and non-violent forms.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.