Pre-20th Century-Between Muslim and Jew: The Problem of Symbiosis under Early Islam

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Between Muslim and Jew: The Problem of Symbiosis under Early Islam, by Steven M. Wasserstrom. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995. viii + 237 pages. Bibl. to p. 278. Index to p. 300. $45.

Reviewed by Richard C. Martin

In his study of interconfessional relations during the early centuries of Islam, Steven Wasserstrom has presented a work that goes beyond traditional Judaica and Oriental studies. Between Muslim and Jew is a reworking of the category of symbiosis, which had been used to describe medieval Jewish and Muslim relations by Solomon D. Goitein, and later by Bernard Lewis. More particularly, it is a study, as the author states toward the end of the book, of "the dialectical reception and construction of other social worlds [which] made symbiosis function effectively. Jews had to construct `the Muslim,' and Muslims necessarily constructed `the Jew.' This is the problem of symbiosis at its heart: the existence of other worlds was always social and imaginary" (pp. 209-10).

Wasserstrom has organized his study in three parts, which he calls trajectories, constructions and intimacies-each of which contains two chapters. In part one, the author summarizes what scholarship has come to know about the social world of Jews, especially during the 8th-llth centuries in the Middle East, and he problematizes that knowledge for its gaps and complexities. In the second chapter, he advances his argument that Jewish Messianic sects, particularly the 'Isawiyya, initiated a trajectory or paradigm of messianic expectations that influenced early Shi'ite sectarianism. This sectarian milieu of Jewish and proto-Shi'ite messianism arose in the context of the social and political turbulence of the Muslim conquests and civil wars of the first century of the Islamic era. In part two, "Constructions," Wasserstrom carries his argument further by deconstructing the views held by Ignac Goldziher, Goitein, and many 20th-century Orientalists that Shi`ism was fundamentally hostile to Judaism. He discusses the comparison and its variants that "the Shi`is are the Jews of our community" (p. 96). In Chapter 4 (the most interesting for this reviewer), Wasserstrom goes beyond this early stage of sectarian disputes to examine the intellectual tools developed by exegetes and theologians in defense of their own religious self-understandings and their categorization of the other. The focus of the discussion is the use of the science of allegorical and rational interpretation (ta'wil) as a tool for comparing religions. Muslim and Jewish scholars (and other sectarian scholars in Islamic society) used ta'wil as a tool for comparative exegesis. …


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