Neighboring Faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in the Middle Ages and Today

By Jenkins, Philip | The Christian Century, November 11, 2015 | Go to article overview

Neighboring Faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in the Middle Ages and Today


Jenkins, Philip, The Christian Century


Neighboring Faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in the Middle Ages and Today

By David Nirenberg

University of Chicago Press, 352 pp., $45.00

David Nirenberg is a very learned historian who tackles topics of a scope that would be too daunting for most other writers. In Neighboring Faiths, he addresses themes that are critically significant for contemporary debates, and by no means only within the realm of religion.

Nirenberg's approach runs directly contrary to familiar modern assumptions about the nature and definition of "Great Religions" and about how people belong to them. Particularly in the West, we know that an individual adheres to one faith at any given time, although conversion is certainly possible. The frontiers between those faiths are clear and well patrolled, and dialogue between them is a cautious and tentative enterprise. It is difficult then to imagine non-Western societies--or indeed, earlier Western communities--where such boundaries were much more fluid. But they were. For instance, recent scholarship has stressed how very slow and gradual was the break between Judaism and Christianity in Late Antiquity; in some regions the process stretched over several centuries.

For much of Western history, Christians lived in societies where they were the overwhelming if not exclusive majority, and other faiths were encountered rarely. Jews and Muslims were imaginary beasts whose views demanded little consideration or respect. Yet historically, such exclusivity was not always the rule, and particularly in the Mediterranean world the three faiths often coexisted for centuries.

The best-known example was undoubtedly in medieval Islamic Spain. Modern writers love to tell how believers of all shades flourished alongside each other in cultural and intellectual harmony. This was the legendary and somewhat mythical era of convivencia, which is so often cited as a night-and-day contrast with the intolerant Christianity of most European nations. I describe this view as mythical because the authentic spells of harmony were so regularly interrupted by pogroms and persecutions as to cast doubt on the benevolent image of medieval Islamic societies. The Granada pogrom against Jews in 1066 was as savage as anything Christian Europe would produce during the medieval era. The Iberian Camelot of the modern imagination is, to say the least, highly idealized.

Nirenberg is obviously far removed from any such myth making, or even from simple debunking. Rather, he uses Iberia as a setting to explore how the three faiths interacted so intimately, mainly during the era of growing Christian hegemony after 1250 or so. His central theme is how these neighbors "loved, tolerated, massacred, and expelled one another--all in the name of God." Jews, Muslims, and Christians were indeed all children of Abraham, and that extended family was often spectacularly dysfunctional, but it was a family.

Although well thought out, Nirenberg's book is avowedly a collection of case studies and essays rather than a thoroughly integrated whole. This means that he offers in-depth treatments of specific incidents, such as the hideous Valencia massacres of 1391, when Christians slaughtered the city's Jews, and the events he discusses in the chapter titled "Deviant Politics and Jewish Love: Alfonso VIII and the Jewess of Toledo."

Nirenberg offers splendid and seemingly paradoxical accounts of such religious interactions. He shows repeatedly how scholars constructed their religious foes in the grimmest possible terms, and Iberia produced many such fierce polemics. Such tracts coexisted with extensive social and family contacts that were friendly and often intimate. We see Jews, Muslims, and Christians "interacting not only as abstractions or categories in each other's theologies and ideologies, but also as neighbors forced to jostle together on narrow streets, figures of thought elbowing figures of flesh, and in the process transforming both. …

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