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  • In Ishmael's House: A History of Jews in Muslim Lands
  • Khaleel Mohammed
In Ishmael's House: A History of Jews in Muslim Lands. By Martin Gilbert. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2010. 448 pp. $35.00 (cloth).

If classical Jewish depictions of the past under Christendom were overwhelmingly narratives of suffering, accounts of the relations with Muslims generally depicted a far more tolerable coexistence. Shlomo Dov Goitein, arguably the most accomplished scholar on Muslim-Jewish relations from classical to modern times, coined the term "creative symbiosis" to describe the early interaction between the two communities. 1 Keenly aware of the changing developments over the course of history, and of the acrimony shortly before, during, and after the establishment of the modern state of Israel, he deemed this post-1900 period as "the new confrontation."2 Goitein, however, was the consummate academic—able to read documents in their original Arabic and Hebrew, and rigorously objective in his analyses.

Recently, a new genre of recollections about the Jewish past has emerged. It has the political agenda of establishing the rightfulness of an Israeli state, while at the same time delegitimizing Palestinian claims to the land on which the modern Jewish polity exists. This revisionist approach seeks to debunk the idea of Muslim tolerance, trying to establish that the Arab and Muslim attitude toward Israel has little to do with modern political developments, but is rather simply the manifestation of a hate that comes from the very core of Islam. In Ishmael's House: A History of Jews in Muslim Lands fits neatly into this new category. [End Page 159] Sir Martin Gilbert, a much decorated historian of the Holocaust, has sought to weave a compelling revisionist counterhistory.3

In the very first paragraph of his narrative, he commits an error that manifests his unfamiliarity with the study of Abrahamic religions. He mistakenly claims that the Talmud is more than two thousand years old. In writing of the early history of Muhammad and the Muslims, he claims that the prophet of Islam was the one who adopted the ritual of circumcision for his people from the Jews (p. 1). In fact, Josephus, writing in the first century, had noted that Arabs were known for the practice—predating Muhammad by more than six centuries.4

It would stand to reason that if one wishes to debunk the history and scripture of another, one ought to at least read such scripture thoroughly so as not to make mistakes. Gilbert writes that Muslims ridiculed the Jewish institution of the Sabbath—something that is not supported by any verse in the Qur'an or material from hadith. Rather, the Qur'an castigates those who violate the Sabbath, and it is from such violation actually that comes the myth of the transgressors turned into apes (Qur'an 2:65). In an attempt to negatively compare Islamic war ethics against Biblical edicts, the author decides to cite the verses of Deuteronomy that forbid the cutting down of fruit trees (p. 15). Such tendentious citing actually opens the door to polemic that could run against the very idea of Qur'anic brutality that Gilbert is trying to establish. Anyone trying to compare would find nothing in the Qur'an's harshest verses to match the Biblical command to kill, slay, and burn as in Numbers 31:7-18.

The massacre of the Jews of the Banu Qurayzah has become the linchpin of many a propagandist against Islam, and Gilbert accepts the stories without question. Strangely, a nonhistorian and critic of many Muslim traditions, Tarek Fatah, examines the story, drawing upon several aspects of analyses to show that, while it did occur, in no way did he see evidence for the gory details provided by later Muslim propagandists.5

In Gilbert's narrative, there is no room for differentiating between the Qur'an and Muslim oral tradition—even though specialists are [End Page 160] very careful to do so. He asserts that Muhammad denies that Isaac was the sacrificial son and that rather it was Ishmael (p. 23). Professor Reuven Firestone—a rabbi and specialist in Islam—and others have shown that in early Islam, there were...


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