A History of Jewish-Muslim Relations from the Origins to the Present Day

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By: Abdelwahab Meddeb
Benjamin Stora, Editor

A History of Jewish-Muslim Relations from the Origins to the Present Day. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013. 1146 pp. $75.00. ISBN: 978-0691151274.

Volume: 1 Issue: 8

December 2013

Review by:

Michael McGaha, PhD

Pomona College

Claremont, CA

I have to say, first of all, that this is a very beautiful book. It is also a very important and timely one. The general editors, Abdelwahab Meddeb and Benjamin Stora (a Muslim from Tunisia, and a Jew from Algeria) state in the Introduction that their intention in compiling the book was to “prompt exchanges and dialogue” so that “each side will be in a position to make a final assessment of the contentious issues, reaching a compromise that will allow them to work toward a reconciliation (without necessarily obscuring what is irreconcilable)” (p. 16).

The book is divided into four parts: the Middle Ages, the Modern World, the Present, and “Transversalities” (the rather peculiar term by which the editors designate areas in which the two religions overlap or converge). Each of these sections is introduced by a separate prologue, followed by numerous essays on different sub-periods or aspects of the subject under consideration. Additionally, each section contains short asides designated as “Nota bene,” featuring biographies of important figures of the period or more detailed information about a particular subject; and others entitled “Counterpoint,” which are significant excerpts from primary sources. Marginal notations usefully connect each of the essays with other references to a particular subject elsewhere in the book. The book contains more than 250 well-chosen illustrations, many of them in color. There is also a very extensive bibliography and separate indexes of names and places.

The authors of the essays are among the world’s leading experts on the subjects they address. The essays average about 10-15 pages in length. This format works well when addressing very specific, well defined issues, such as “The Jews in Jerusalem and Hebron during the Ottoman Era,” but is simply incapable of dealing adequately with such vast and complex topics as “Sufi and Kabbalistic Hermeneutics.” With very few exceptions, the authors have managed to write serious, scholarly essays in language that is accessible to the non-specialized reader. The fact that many different authors have contributed articles on closely related topics leads at times to annoying repetition and overlapping. This is particularly true of the essays in Part IV, Chapter IV: “Philosophy, Science, and Intellectual Movements.”

The section on “The Present” must necessarily confront some of the most controversial issues in the book, yet it manages to be the most satisfying. I would particularly single out Denis Charbit’s articles on “The Balfour Declaration and its Implications,” “Zionism and the Arab Question,” “From the Judeo-Palestinian Conflict to the Arab-Israeli Wars,” and “Israel in the Face of Its Victories,” as exemplary in their honesty and fairness to both sides. By contrast, the section on “Transversalities,” in my opinion, does a rather poor job of examining the many points of convergence between the two religions.

Many of the book’s articles have been translated from other languages (mainly French)and some of the translations are awkward or inaccurate. Take, for example, the reference to “the amorous Jewess of an Arab” (p. 568), where what is meant is “the Jewish woman enamored of an Arab;” or the reference to “Pierre de Castille” (p. 957) for Pedro I of Castile. As one would expect in a book of this size and complexity, there are also numerous typographical errors and misprints. On p. 483, for example, one reads that “five to eight million” settlers withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005.” Oddly, Hebrew words on pages 655 and 1016 are printed backwards (i.e., from left to right).

In spite of these minor quibbles, however, I highly recommend this book to everyone who is interested in Jewish-Muslim relations. I can easily imagine using it as the principal textbook for a college course on the subject, and I am sure that others will do just that.

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