A Clash of Civilizations
Cont’d from page 1
Both reject the idea of superior “church” officials
such as popes or bishops. For Judaism and Islam, the highest religious
officials are those steeped in the interpretation of the law based
on the Torah or Quran. Ideally, rulers are as subject to the law
and to the jurists as anyone else.
Although Islam did not accept Jesus as divine, it did revere him
as a messenger of God, a prophet like Abraham and Moses before him,
and Muhammad afterward….
Protecting fellow “People of the Book”
As the successor to two preceding messages from God, Islam historically
considered Jews and Christians, like Muslims, to be “People
of the Book” — the Torah, Gospels, or Quran. As such,
Jews and Christians, in return for a tax, were protected in Islamic
countries, permitted to follow their religious practices, education,
and laws, but they were regarded as not equal to Muslims, just as
their revelations had proved to be inferior to Islam.
However outmoded Islamic practices appear today, historically they
provided legal protection and status for non-Muslims. This was in
sharp contrast to the anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim sentiments found
in Christian Europe, especially with the advent of the Crusades.
Latin Christianity’s drive to recover Muslim-controlled Jerusalem
reminded Western Christians that Jews, as well as Muslims, denied
Jesus’ divinity. This instigated harsher treatment of Jews
in Europe and their slaughter, along with Muslims and even non-
Latin Christians, when the Crusaders
took Jerusalem in 1099.
Similar persecutions of Jews and Muslims arose following the Spanish
recapture of Iberia, causing them to flee to Muslim lands. The Ottoman
sultans welcomed Jewish refugees, many of whom settled in Salonika
and remained there for centuries. At the end of the 19th century,
Jews were the largest single religious community in the city.
Were there instances where Jews or Christians suffered specific
persecution during the Muslim centuries? Of course, cases can be
found, but the systematic record is one of protection and survival,
not the reverse. Applying today’s ideals of Western equality
backwards ignores the historical record.
We are not so far removed historically from an era
when Islamic law provided as much, if not more, security for
women than did Western law
The place of women
The same can be said regarding uninformed assumptions about the
place of women in Islam that often are used to denigrate the religion.
Today, in Saudi Arabia, women cannot drive cars or vote in elections,
but they have been doing so for years in other Muslim regions.
In general, Saudi Arabia is the exception, not the norm. Indeed,
women in Iran, governed by a Shi’ite theocracy, must wear
traditional clothing. But, they can vote and be elected to parliament,
and they can drive cars! Many are doctors and lawyers, including
Shirin Ebadi, who recently won the Nobel Peace Prize.
We should keep in mind that women in the
West gained the right to vote relatively
recently—France in 1945, and Switzerland in 1971. Iranian
and Moroccan women gained the right to vote in 1963, and their Turkish
sisters won their rights to vote in 1930, ten years after the United
What about women’s rights of inheritance, another source
of empowerment? When Islam appeared in the 7th century, it gave
women the right to inheritance, half of what male heirs received...
Though people deprecate this lack of equality today when compared
to the West, that right was revolutionary at the time, compared
to other civilizations. Moreover, women could use their inheritance
as they wished. It may have been half of a man’s, but, by
law, they had control of it. Women did not gain similar rights in
Europe until the end of the 19th century.
In short, we are not so far removed historically from an era when
Islamic law provided as much, if not more, security for women than
did Western law.
…I hope that public perception, as well as public policy,
can be informed and guided by portrayals of what actually occurs,
not highly slanted accounts. There always is room for interpretation
of facts and their meaning without delving into fiction.
Charles D. Smith, a professor of Middle
East history in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at University
of Arizona, is the author of Palestine and the Arab-Israeli
Conflict, now in its fifth edition.
Ed.’s note: This is a major portion of
the article published in Arizona Alumnus Magazine Spring 2005 Edition.
Professor Smith’s article can be accessed in its entirety