REVIEW: Jacob Lassner, Jews, Christians, and the Abode of Islam

Jacob Lassner, Jews, Christians, and the Abode of Islam: Modern Scholarship, Medieval Realities

Reviewed by Sasha R. Goldstein-Sabbah, Leiden Institute for Religious Studies

9780226143187Jacob Lassner’s monograph Jews, Christians, and the Abode of Islam: Modern Scholarship, Medieval Realities is a highly readable, well written volume synthesizing the history and the current state of scholarship on Islam.  The volume also provides an overview of the history of Jews and Christians in the Muslim World spanning the advent of Islam up until the early modern period.   Although ordered and presented as one volume the book should really be considered as two separate extended essays each divided into chapter based subsections.

The first half of the book refers to the first part of the subtitle Modern Scholarship, focusing on how the West has studied Islamic civilization and conversely how modern Islamic society has studied and perceived the West.

In the first two chapters of the first section the focus is largely how Western scholars have studied Islam.  In these chapters Lassner outlines the evolution of the field such as the transition from the missionary come scholars to the contemporary academics. He summarizes the various schools of research which have emerged such as the Jerusalem school which he sees as a living link to pre-WWII European scholarship or the SOAS school and their revisionist approach to Muslim foundational myths.  And he recounts some of the more explosive publications of the past few decades such as Christophe Luxenberg’s The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran: A Contribution to the Decoding of the Language of the Koran and Michael Cook and Patricia Crone’s Hagarism: the Making of the Islamic World.  This allows the reader to undersand  the issues without having to read the volumes and gives some insight into the current state of academia.

Lassner is not shy about viewing his opinions for example in the first chapter entitled the Orientalists he criticizes the “Eurocentric outlook of Jewish Studies” in American academia.  And later deftly points out the flaws of Edward’s Said’s now classic Orientalism, citing many critical reviews.  He also ventures to explain why Jews have been so prominent in the field of Islamic studies in Europe suggesting a perceived link between the Jewish “golden age” of Muslim Spain and the period of Jewish emancipation and enlightenment which occurred in 19th century Europe.  This explanation sets up a reoccurring theme of comparison that is used to demonstrate the inherent difference between the minority experience in Europe with that of the Jew or Christian in the Islamic world.

In the concluding chapters of this section Lassner, citing the earlier works of Margalit and Buruma, develops the idea of the Occidentalist.  In Lassner’s definition the Occidentalist refers to the Muslim and how he or she perceives the West.  Lassner is careful not to present this concept as a clash of civilizations with the Orientalists but instead to present Islamic society’s interest, or lack thereof, of the West and how the Occidentalists both historically and in the modern period have perceived the Orientalists and European society.  Charming anecdotes includes his mention of Idrisi, the twelfth century geographer who chronicled the European continent all the way to the British Isles with help from European informants and later the twentieth century University of Baghdad professor who proposed, based on Idrisi’s description of the British Isles, that Shakespeare could have in fact been Sheikh Zubayr, a man of Muslim extraction whose plays were inspired from the medieval Islamic World.

Part Two of the volume is more straightforward and less innovative.  Entitled “Jews and Christians”, it offers a summary of the relationship between the Muslim majority and the Jewish and Christian minorities from the advent of Islam until the end of the Medieval Period.  The first chapter of the section gives a concise synopsis of the Jews of Medina and their untimely fate as a result of Mohammed’s consolidation of power.  Although the summary does not present any new material or provide any new insight into this period it presents an elegant and concise account which still manages to discuss the historiography and inherent pitfalls of trying to reconstruct such a period, in short a perfect summary to be used in a classroom environment.

In this section Lassner also takes the time to clarify concepts such as what is meant by tolerance in medieval Islamic society in comparison to how tolerance is defined in the West today and he highlights concepts central to the understanding of Islamic society such as the ummah and the importance of communal identity.  Clarifying that the historic ummah should not be confused with the modern state.  He also juxtaposes phenomena in European history with those in Islamic history as a contextualization tool to show the limits of what can be known of the Medieval Islamic world.  One example of this is his comparison of individual Jews converting to Christianity in Great Britain and the Continent during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century so as to integrate into gentile society with that of Jews who converted to Islam during the Middle Ages so as to ascend the higher echelons of the civil service.

In summary the book is a very enjoyable read for the intellectually curious non-specialist wishing to gain a basic understanding of the main actors, ideas, and themes of both the history of Islamic Studies as a field and the historical triangular relationship between the three Abrahamic religions, to quote from the introduction of the volume.   This book is also ideal for the academic wishing to gain a quick refresher on the major debates in the field or a non-politicized historical account.    The one caveat for the latter group being the lack of footnotes which while completely understandable given Lassner’s focus on the former group was at times frustrating.  That being said, the selected bibliography at the end of the volume is organized thematically by chapter and is useful for further reading.  However it should be noted that the author has consciously decided to limit the references of foreign language publications and it is therefore best suited to non-specialists and students.   Lassner’s book is a major accomplishment in that he is able to present a complicated and highly politicized field in a nuanced and evenhanded manner and for that he should be lauded.  This volume will undoubtedly by of great use to both specialist and student alike.

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