Jüdischer Islam: Islam und jüdisch-deutsche Selbstbestimmung

By Susannah Heschel

The book (in German) was published in the Schriftenreihe des Forum Transregionale Studien in the Matthes & Seitz series Fröhliche Wissenschaft. It will be published open access on perspectivia.net in April 2019.

Susannah Heschel, Jüdischer Islam, Matthes & Seitz Berlin, 2018

Why were so many European Jewish scholars drawn to the study of Islam? From the 1830s to the 1930s, Jewish scholars began studying the Qur’an, writing scholarly books and articles about the origins of Islam, the life of the prophet Muhammad, and even published translations of the Qur’an into German, French, and Hebrew.  These scholars, primarily in Germany, Hungary, and France, painted a broad canvas describing the nature of Islam very sympathetically.

Initially, scholars presented Islam as derived from Judaism, and under whose aegis, especially in medieval Muslim Spain, Jews enjoyed not only religious tolerance, but cultural and economic flourishing. Jewish historians wrote of a “Golden Age” of Muslim Spain, in which exchange of ideas between Muslims and Jews led to an intellectual renaissance. They compared Islam’s religious tolerance with Christianity’s intolerance, describing the blossoming of Jewish religious thought, philosophy, and poetry under Islam with the persecution Jews experienced in medieval Christian Europe.

Jewish scholarship on Islam was translated by popular writers and theologians to a broad readership, and Moorish architecture of synagogues also signified a Jewish identification with Islam. In the long nineteenth century, Islam came to play an important role in Jewish self-definition, as the religion closest to Judaism, even as a model of enlightened religion to which Judaism might aspire.

Jewish scholarship on Islam began with Abraham Geiger’s 1833 book, What Did Muhammad Take from Judaism?, Gustav Weil’s 1843 biography of the prophet Muhammad, Ludwig Ullmann’s 1840 German translation of the Qur’an, Herman Reckendorff’s 1857 Hebrew translation, Ignaz Goldziher’s monumental studies of the Hadith, and the innumerable works comparing rabbinic commentaries with the Qur’an published by Jewish scholars from the 1830s onward. Some Jewish scholars traveled to Muslim countries, some converted, and several left important footprints in Islamic scholarship and culture. For example, Gottlieb Leitner helped establish the University of the Punjab in Lahore, where he lived during the 1860s and 70s, and wrote several books in Urdu on the history of Islam, before returning to England, where he built the first mosque and institute for the study of Arabic. Josef Horovitz served as Professor of Arabic from 1907 to 1914 at the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College, later known as the Aligarh Muslim University. By the 1920s and 30s, Jews played a central role in the field of Islamic Studies at German universities, and German Jews were imbued with an Islamic imaginary.

The image of Islam created by Jewish scholars and theologians in the modern era was of a religion that maintained Judaism’s monotheism, rejection of anthropomorphism, and ethical law. Precisely those aspects of Judaism that these Jewish scholars despised – mysticism, pietism, apocalypticism – were also ignored or marginalized in their representations of Islam. By contrast, Christianity, though similarly derived from Judaism, had violated its central principles once Paul entered the realm of pagan thought – or so Jewish theologians argued.

Jewish views of Islam map changes in modern Jewish self-understanding. Initial Jewish scholarship proudly touted rabbinic influences on the Qur’an, but as that narrative continued, the tone began to change from discovery to negation, from colonial revolt to imperialist discourse. The Jewish depiction of Islam as a rational religion rooted in Jewish theology was initially a vehicle to de-orientalize Judaism, and to identify Judaism with Islam as the two religions of strict monotheism and religious tolerance, in contrast to Christianity. By the turn of the century, however, as Jewish scholars continued the comparison of Islamic and rabbinic texts, some Jewish scholars began speaking of Islam’s lack of originality, even as other Jewish scholars recognized the Qur’an not as a receptacle of prior Jewish and Christian traditions, but as a critical interpreter of those religions. European philological methods were exported with the Jewish scholars expelled by the Nazi regime who immigrated to the United States, Palestine, England, and elsewhere.

Zionism altered the tone. Some Zionists identified with Arab culture, donning keffiyahs and riding camels, convinced that Arabs had preserved an ancient, authentic biblical Jewish culture (eg, Bezalel School). Adopting Arab culture was a tool, they thought, for ridding Jews of their false consciousness as Europeans. Other Zionists argued that Jews were bringing European modernity to the “primitive” Arabs in Palestine. Arab alterity was neglected in part because so many Jews assumed that Islam was simply a version of Judaism rather than a religious tradition with its own, separate subjectivity and agency.

Zionist politics were similarly inflected, making a derivative Islam a signifier of Judaism’s pivotal position on the cartography of world religions. And there were political consequences: Jewish scholars of Islam immigrated to Palestine and engaged Zionist politics in a variety of ways. Some advocated a binational state, others worked for the government security services; some Jewish scholars continued to promote Islam as an ally of Judaism, while others demonstrated Islam’s liberalizing influence on Jewish law in antiquity.

European Orientalism was a complex phenomenon. Jews, who were viewed as Orientals in Europe, allied Judaism with Islam in part to de-Orientalize that image of themselves: Jews and Muslims provided the rational foundations of Western civilization, in their view, and were in no way eroticized “others” of the West. Today’s intertextual Qur’an studies, especially the pioneering scholarship of Angelika Neuwirth, would be unimaginable without the heritage of nineteenth-century German-Jewish scholarship. Her work establishes a new era in Islamic Studies, one that is deeply informed by the heritage of the Wissenschaft des Judentums and reconfigures its methods by understanding Islam not as a receptacle of prior ideas, including those of Jewish texts, but as an interpreter of those texts and ideas, bringing them to a new level of insight.

Susannah Heschel is the Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College. Her scholarship focuses on Jewish-Christian relations in Germany during the 19th and 20th centuries, the history of biblical scholarship, and the history of anti-Semitism. Her numerous publications include Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus (University of Chicago Press), which won a National Jewish Book Award, and The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton University Press). She has also taught at Southern Methodist University and Case Western Reserve University.


Citation: Susannah Heschel, Jüdischer Islam: Islam und jüdisch-deutsche Selbstbestimmung, in TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 21.03.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/ 18243


Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien is a research organization that promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. The Forum provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. In cooperation with universities and research institutions in Berlin and the rest of Germany, it carries out research projects that examine other regions of the world and their relationship to Germany and Europe systematically and with new questions.

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