A Young Muslim’s Guide to Religions in the World


The adherents of Judaism who are caliedJews are far fewer in number than either Christians or Muslims or Buddihists and Hindus, btu they exert in world affairs an influence far in excess of their numerical strenght. They are perhaps the best organised of the three monotheistic groups-Jews, Christians and Muslims. Scattered throughout Europe and America for centuries, the Jews have had since the founding of Israel in 1948 what they cali a national home in territory forcibly wrested from the Arabs. But the number of Jews in countries ourtside Israel, in Europe and the USA exceeds the Jewish population of Israel. A state of war has existed since the forties between Israel and most of the Arab states, and its relations with the Muslim world in general are marked by antipathy and tension. But Jewish enmity towards Islam dates back to the very inception of Islam’s history. The Jewish community in Medina was involved in conflict with the Prophet (May God bless him) himself, and in spite of many affinities in belief and ritual and in spite of the fact that the Ouran recognises Abraham as the immediate source of the monotheism which is the core of Islam, there have been few periods in history when the two groups have not been at loggertheads.
Although conversion to Judaism is possible and takes place from time to time, the Jews have not actively pursued
proselytisation like the Christians and Muslims. Many Jews regard themselves more as a race than as a religious group, and a distinction is made between those who claim to be descended from the ancient Jewish people and those who embraced Judaism later. The term anti-Semitism which implies an attitude of hostility towards the Jews in European countries presupposes that ail Jews are Semitic in origin. Although this is not factually true, even the converts from groups other than Semitic identify themselves so closely with those who are Semitic by birth that it is not possible to distinguish them from the latter. They ail share the same world view and consider themselves as a people apart in the same way.
Like Christianity and Islam, Judaism is a Middle Eastern religion, the oldest of the three monotheistic faiths. Unlike them, however, its origins are lost in antiquity, and the Old Testament which is said to contain the essence of the Jewish faith is not a single book like the Ouran, but a collection of several scriptural texts, sorne manifestly older than others. The two books particularly associated with Judaism are the Torah, which is part of the section of the Bible known as the Pentateuch, and a supplemenatry book called the Talmud which is not in the Bible.
The most characteristic feature of the Jewish faith is the belief that the Jews are a Chosen People, or rather the Chosen People bound to God by a speical covenant. They believe themselves to be under the special protection of Jehovah, as the Jews cali God; ail religions other than Judaism are false; the Gentiles as the Jews cali non-Jews are said to lack this special protection. The Jews are consequently conscious of a special sense of mission on earth much stronger than any analogous sentiment among Christians and Muslims.
It is impossible to explain the Jewish religion without reference to Jewish history. The ancient Israelites who used to live in the area, calied Palestine later, were first displaced from their homeland by Babylonians. This dispersion took place in the 6th century B.C. and the period the Israelites spent in Babylonian Captivity. Those who came back were again dispersed by the fall of Jerusalem in 73 A.d. to the Romans. This was preceded by a long siege by the Roman army, which forced the Jews inside Jerusalem to resort to cannibalism for the sake of physical survival. The grim story of Jerusalem’s sufferings during the siege have been recorded by Josephus, the historian.
The dispersion or diaspora which followed the Roman conquest scattered the Jews throught Europe and Asia and northern Africa. There was no European country which did not have a Jewish population, large or small. Some became completely assimilated to the local populations, both linguistically and socially; others resisted total assimilation by insisting on treating themselves as a people apart, living in special quarters of the cities they inhabited which in man y places came to be called ghettos. Throughout the Middle Ages one hears of occasional outbursts of anti-Semitism in the course of which the Jews were persecuted and sought to be exterminated. Such campaigns were known as pogroms. Systematic pogroms from time to time characterised the history of mediaeval Russia, Poland and even France and England. The nuture of this persecution has been encapsulated with remarkable realism in Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice. The community apparently attacted hatred and jealousy on account of their relative economic prosperity vis-avis the Christians; their love of usury as a means of making money, and their tendency to look down upon the Christians as an inferior class. Jewish arrogance was repaid by an intensity of hatred from the Christians which sometimes bordered on the barbarous.
Ironically, it was in Muslim Spain and in countries in north Africa such as Morocco and Egypt that the Jews were safest. One of the greatest Jewish theologians of the mediaeval period, Maimonides (1135-1204), was a Spaniard. The fall of the Muslims in Spain also coincided with the beginning of persecution against the Jews in that country.
It is in the light of the feeling of insecurity that the Jews suffered from ail over Europe that the genesis of Zionism, the movement which succeeded in establishing the Jewish state of Israel, can be understood. It began in the 19th century and the term Zionism is said to have been coined by Nathan Birnbaum in 1886. Another early leader was Theodor Herzl. The movement gathered strength during the First world War uner the leadership of Chaim Weismann who was able to extract from the British Government a promise that the Jews would be provided with a National Home in Palestine. The promise is contained in the famous Balfour Declaration and was given in return for Jewish cooperation in the prosecution of war, but it was so ambiguously worded as not to offend the sentiments of the Arabs who had been collaborating with the British on the basis of assurances which ran counter to the promise made to the Jews. The story of the Arab revoit against Turkey, the suzerain power in teh Middle East, is given in detail in T.E. Lawrence’s The seven Pillars of Wisdom. Lawrecne was the man who engineered the revoit by promising the Arabs deliverance from the Turkish yoke. The Arabs were so indifferent to Zionism’s ultimate amis that initially some of them offered to help the displaced Jews to settle in Palestine. When they were undeceived it was too late to reverse the trend of events, and at the end of the First World War Turkish territoires in the Near East had been partitioned between Britain and France. Palestine fell to the British government and as the mandatory power Britain continued to allow increasingly large numbers of European Jews to immigrate.
When British forces withdrew from palestine in 1948 the Jews proclaimed the establishment of Israel as an independent state founded on the principles of Judaism and consecrated to the achievement of a policy which was to help realise the aspirations of the Jews as a nation. Israel is technically the home of alll the Jews in the world and under their Law of Return every Jew, wherever he may be, is entitled to emigrate to it and is assured of immediate citizenship.
The revivalistic temper of the state can be judged from the fact that not only have the Rabbis, the Jewish priests, a strong say in the formulation of state policy, but even the ancient Jewish language, Hebrew, has been revived and declared the state language of Israel.
The Jewish religion as it is practised today is the outcome of the experience of the Jewish people in ancient Israel before their dispersion and also during the diaspora.
A strong distinction is made between the two main gropus of Jews, Ashkenazim and Sephardim. The first term is the appellation of Jews in Germany and Poland, the second that of the Jews in Spain and Portugal and also those who live in Africa and Asia. Sephardim has come to signify Oriental Jewry in general, many of them indistinguishable in colour and racial characteristics from other Oriental peoples.
Regardless of their origin ail Jews worship a Supreme Deity called Jehovah, a transcendent being who is stern and just. In the earlier books of the Old Testament Jehovah is painted as a terrible God who is unforgiving in His chastisement of sinners, but gradually the Jewish conception of God is said to have undergone a change in the direction of a Supreme Seing who embodies mercy and forgiveness. It was these qualities that Jesus emphasised in his revoit against orthodox Judaism which he said he had appeared to reform. The growth of Christianity as a separate religion was owing to the fa ct that the Jews were not prepared to accept Jesus’s reforms.
The Old Testament makes mention of an exceedingly long hierarchy of prophets who are ail part of the Jewish tradition, but the man whose teachings constitute the core of Judaism is Moses. He is believed to have brought the community sorne Divine Tablets, laws directly given to him for the conduct of the communal and personal life of the Jewish people. Mosaic law as these are called is a stern code, emphasising cleanliness, purity, right conduct, right food and of course right belief. Uewish dietary laws are stricter than those among Muslims. They are forbidden to eat pork and religion requires them not to eat fish and meat off the same vessels. Animais must be slaughtered, when needed for food, by cutting the windpipe in the way Muslims slaughter animais, and milk and meat must not be cooked together. The Jewish term Kosher is the equivalent of Halai in Muslim soceity, and implies purfied food. Orthodox Jews wherever they are, in Europe or America, follow these laws and Kosher food is insisted upon.
The keeping of the Sabbath is another institution which distinguishes the Jews from the Muslims and even from the Charistians. The Jewish Sabbath, demands abstention from ail wordly work including such things as cooking or plate washing. The day which is Saturday is to be devoted entirely to worship. When Israel launched an airline of its own there were objections from orthodox Rabbis to the operation of air services on Saturday; similarly the operation of public transport in Israeli cities had initially to overcome protests from the orthodox. The Christian Sabbath, observed on Sundays, does not go hait as far, but until very recently shops and cinemas in European and American countries had to remain closed on Sundays. Muslims have no Sabbath, in this sense. The congreagational prayers on Friday do not entail any cessation of work except during the prayer service itself for those participating in -them. Once the prayers are over Friday is not any different from other week days.
Although the whole of Jewish law or religion is not to be equated with the famous Ten Commandments-for there have been man y developments and interpretations by Jewish scholars and philosophers-they provide a good guide, an essential one, to the understanding of the Jewish mind. The Commandments as recorded in Exodus and believed to have been given directly by Jehovah to Moses, are as follows :

10) Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, wife, manservant, maidservant, ox, ass, etc.
Except for the fourth commandment about the Sabbath, there is nothing in this list to which Muslims object, and which is not part of Muslim law. The fact that in actual truth the Jews and Muslims have regarded themselves as each other’s enemies is a paradox explainable only in the light of their history.
It may not be out of place at this point to mention that the auran lists both Jews and Christians as People of the Book or Ahlul Kitab, with whom the Muslims are permitted to interdine and intermarry. That attitude cannot be said to be reciprocated by either group who regard the adherents of Islam as either heretics or a misguided community.
An important difference between Jewish and Islamic law which is worth bearing in mind is that there is no truly historical person among the Jewish prophets like Prophets Muhammad in Islam to whose life we can refer for guidance as to how the Commandments are to be interpreted. The twin sources of Islamic law are the auran and the Sunnah or the sayings and traditions of the Prophet (May God bless him). The Hadith as these traditions are called supplement the auran and are regarded as an authoritative commentary on it. For anything ana logo us in Judaism one must turn to commenta ries written by Jewish scholars down the ages.
Moses is not the only prophet with a claim on the allegiance of the Jewish community. But none of them belongs to history in the same sense as Prophet Muhammad (May God bless him).
It is the Talmud rather than the Old Testament which provides the best guide to Jewish civil and canonical law. It consists of two parts : the Mishnah and the Gemara. The Mishnah is written in classical Hebrew and was codified by Simon who died in 166 A.D and his son Jehudah Hannasi and his disciples. The scholars are known collectively as the Tannaim. The code they compiled deals with a wide and comprehensive range of activities such as agriculture, festivals, women, marriage and divorce, civil and criminallaw, Temple services and ritual cleanliness. The Gemara is a commentary on the Mishnah, made necessary, it is said, by changing conditions of time and place. Written partly in Aramaic and other Middle Eastern languages, it continued to be added to and revised until the end of the 4th century. Maimonides, the Spanish scholar earlier mentioned, made an abstract of the Talmud in the 8th century which is still in general use. The whole Talmud is available in English.
The equivalent of the church in Christianity and the mosque in Islam ÎS the synagogue in Judaism. The term means a place of assembly where the Jews gather for common prayer and worship. Synagogues were established after the Jewsih Exile and do not rank in prestige with the Temple in Jerusalem which is venerated as the holiest of holies in Judaism. The first Temple is believed to have been raised by King Solomon about 1000 B.C. And was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. The Second Temple, the Temple of Zerubbabel, was built about 516 B.C. and was replaced by the third and last Temple, that of Herod which was completed in 64 A. D. But six years later the Romans under Titus burnt it to the ground.
Another term heard in connextion with Judaism is Tabernacle. It tefers to the sanctuary, a portable tent, which the Children of Israel carried about with them in the Wilderness during the forty years they are believed to have spent on their return or escape from Egypt.
The main external symbol on a synagogue is the Star of David, a seven-pointed star which also appears on Israel’s flag and other Jewish property. Men entering the synagogue for worship are expected to cover their heads. Men and women sit apart. The synagogue building is so orientated as to face Jerusalem. Furnishings include the Ark, (a replica of Noah’s Ark), which shelters the Scrolls of the Law, the decorated curtain (Parochet), pulpit (Sima), candlestick (Menorach), reading desk and charity chest.
Services in synagogues are held on Monday and Friday evenings and on Saturday. In Orthodox Judaism women are not eligible for office in the synagogue, but the rule has been relaxed among modernised Jews.
Orthodox Jews also practise circumcision like Muslims. They hold that it was ordained by Jehovah in the covenant with Abraham.
The main Jewish festivals commemorate important landmarks in their history. The most important is Yom Kippur. The day is kept as a strict fast; no food or drink is allowed except to smail children and the sick from the evening of ninth Tishri, a Jewish month, until that of the tenth. No work is permitted. The whole period must be devoted to worship. The central portion of the service in the synagogue is the recital of the service of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. At the end of the Day the ram’s horn is blown as a sign of liberation trom sin and reconciliation with God.
Next to it in imprtance is the Passorver which commemorates the deliverance of the Jewish people from their Egyptian bondage. One of the rituals observed is the eating of the Matzah or unleavened bread.
ln the same way the Seder, the most sacred domestic ceremony in Judaism, is a commemoration of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. It is performed on the first and second night of Passover and comprises the recounting of ancient Israel’s liberation; a festive meal preceded by kiddush which means formai benediction; the partaking of bitter herbs and unleavened bread; the singing of hymns and psalms; and the partaking of four cups of wine at certain intervals.
The Jews have a religious calendar of 12 months of 29 and 30 days alternatively and add a 13th month every third year. Like Muslim festivals which follow the Hegira calendar Jewish festivals are kept according to their religious calendar.
Ali three of the festivals mentioned above derive their sanction from Jewish history and cannot be understood in isolation trom it. In this respect they are unlike the Muslim festivals or institutions like the Ids, Ramadhan, or Hajj which are not a reflection of or a response to Islamic history. For a true correspondence between Islamic and Jewish institutions mention may be made of such observances as the ceremonies kept on the birth anniversary of the Prophet (May God bless him) and the custom that has arisen of celebrating important da ys in the Islamic calendar, such as the Miraj Day or the Lailatul Qadr. These celebrations, it will be worth emphasising, have no sanction in Islam in the same sense as the observance of the Ramadhan fast or the Hajj. Nor does Islam prescribe the eating of any special kind of food in any festival.
The part that history has played in the growth of Jewish festivals points to an essential difference between Islam and Judaism. Judaism is or has been an evolution.
Throughout the centuries since they were dispersed by the Romans in 73 A. D, the Jews have kept alive the dream of a return to their ancient home land in Palestine with a tenacity which is astonishing. Exiled from the area for over 19 centuries, and even though Palestine itself came to be occupied by the Jewish people as outsiders from other places in the Middle East where they had been wandering for ages, they still claim that Israel belongs to them by right. The period of exile the ancient Israelites spent in Egypt, their wanderings in the desert, the Babylonian Captivity, the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem on three occasions, and the final dispersal of the Jews after the conquest and occupation of Jerusalem by the Romans-these are stages in their history which have left a deep and indelible impress in their history which have left a deep and indelible impress on their collective consciousness, shaped their response to the outside world and moulded their religious practices. If the experiences recorded in the Old Testament are considered to be historical, those writings can be said to be the first historical records produced by any ancient people, predating the achievenments of the Greek historians. Not only this. Unlike Greek historical literature which does not appear to project any intervention by supernatural forces in human events, Jewish historical writing looks upon history as an unfoldingof the Divine Will on earth with the Jewish people at the centre of the entire chain of events. the Jews also believe that there is an afterlife in which men will be submitted to God’s Judgement and either rewarded for virtue or punished for transgressions in hell, Jewish eschatology has strong affinties with both Christian and Muslim concepts on the subject.
As has been stated earlier, the Jews believe in prophecy as a means by which God makes His will known to men.
Orthodox Jews implicity believe in the promise said to have been given to the Jewish people by God through the prophets who arose after their Babylonian Captivity that they will one day be enabled to return to their ancestral lands. Modern Jews see in the founding of Israel in 1948 a fulfilment of that Divine promise. Along with this goes the belief that their sufferings down the ages have ail been due to their failure to live up to Divine commandments. Their dispersal itself, it is said, was intended to purify them by punishment.
It is against this background that one can best understand the role that Rabbis play in Israeli politics by claiming that Israel has been made possible not by secular manoeuvres but God Himself in fulfilment of His promise.
The pride which is generated by the Jewish conviction that they are the Chosen People of god derives considerable strength from Jewish achievements in the last 19 centuries since the Diaspora began. The ancient Jews have little other than their literature to boast of but Jewsih groups and individuals in the countries where they have lived, in Europe and America, have many things to their credit, in art, literature, music, science, technology, industry and finance. Einstein, Freud, Chagall, Thomas Mann, the Rothschilds, to give sorne examples, were ail Jews. Jewish influence in American industry and finance is so great that no American political party can afford to propound or initiate a policy which is desapproved by the Jewish community.
World Jewry today are divided broadly between two groups; Orthodox Jews who demand that ail ancient rites and rituals must be strictly observed and a second group who are satisfied with allegiance to the Jewish faith without insisting on strict conformity. Many have become assimilated to the modem Christians in their style of living. The same division is also noticed in their attitude to the question of the eventual return of ail Jewish people to Israel. There are many-but they are a minority among Jews-who oppose the forcible annexation of territory from the Arabs and believe that the creation of Israel has created more problems than it has solved. The supporters of Israel are usually called Zionists. Zionism is not to be confused with Judaism. Many sensible Jews themselves strongly denounce Zionism as an aberration which is giving the community as a whole a bad name.
The campaign aganist Jews by Hitler and his attempt to exterminate themall have stiffened the Jews’ resolve to seek safety at any co st. They allege that Hitler slew over 6 million Jews. This massacre is referred to as the Holocaust and although sorne people question whether the number of Jews killed was really 6 million or less, the experience has left a traumatic effect on the Jewish psyche and influences ail their decisions, political and social and economic. It has generated a bitterness which has further fuelled the exclusiveness for which the Jews have been noted down the ages.
To understand modern Jewry one must always remember their history, their exile in Egypt, their captivity in Babylonia, the diaspora, the anti-Semitism which characterised the attitude of the Christian communities to them, and finally the Holocaust of the 40s of the present century. What views other take of these events is much less important than how the Jews themselves perceive them. They are using their wealth and political influence in modern times, their worldwide organisations, to promote their interests as they understand them regardless of whether their policies involve any injustice to others. They are so positioned that no Western power and few Third World powers dare deflect them from their courses.

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