- Neighboring Faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in the Middle Ages and Today by David Nirenberg
The strength of Nirenberg’s book lies in part in his emphasis on not providing easy answers about how medieval religious communities thought of themselves and one another but, instead, interrogating contemporary perceptions of the past in order to open up further avenues of study. The potential application to contemporary society of new understandings about medieval religious interactions is mentioned frequently throughout the book, but Nirenberg makes it clear that in this area as well, he is providing no answers, no particular vision of what the future could look like. Rather, he claims, long-standing assumptions about religions and religious interactions can be exposed by examining how and why medieval modes of thought about religion and religious interaction developed. The awareness Nirenberg creates of the trajectory of modern views provides opportunities for richer examination of contemporary religious interaction, accompanied by an awareness of the complexity and nonlinearity of that trajectory.
The introduction demonstrates the complexity of interactions among medieval religious communities and uses the term coproduction to refer to the method by which ideas developed—through not only internal religious thought but also a mingling of many factors from the various religious communities that together produced ideas about one or the other. Nirenberg mentions a few areas of scholarship that have recently begun to apply ideas of coproduction, namely, influences of one language and literature on another, one set of religious laws on another, etc. The contribution of this book to the concepts of interaction already circulating is a call to [End Page 274] look at less obvious influences, especially those that cross from economic or political realities to theological developments. It is easily demonstrable, for example, that Jewish Kabbalah did not develop exclusively internally to Judaism but was influenced by Christian mysticism and Neoplatonism. More difficult to track is the effect of social realities on the development of ideas, especially ideas that today seem inseparable from the religion itself.
“Christendom and Islam” begins to lay out the complexity of the relationships through a study of how Mudejares, Muslims living in Christian Iberia, lived together with Christians and simultaneously attempted to maintain Muslim identity. The complicated dynamics and differences between the ways Muslims in Christian lands and in Islamic lands regarded those living under Christian law illustrate the many possibilities in conceptions of self and of religious other. Definitions by Muslim jurists of what makes a Muslim were affected by the reality of some Muslims choosing to live in a place where at times they were required to submit to Christian law. From the Christian perspective, Nirenberg discusses multiple registers in which Christian thought about Islam and Muslim people appears, including economic, military, literary, and chivalric registers. All of these indicate that Christians were capable of imagining pluralist polities at many levels, an observation that paves the way for further study of these relations. In literary studies, for example, critics have noted instances of understanding in texts traditionally read as intolerant of other religions, but Nirenberg calls for critical studies reflecting the complexity beyond either intolerance or understanding. Focusing on medieval scholars’ study of another religion’s holy texts, he points out that understanding another religion was usually geared not toward acceptance but toward gaining enough knowledge to condemn that religion and strengthen the faith of the scholar’s co-religionists. His observations about how scholars of both religions would focus on specific passages of the other’s texts in order to prove a point, among other methods, are echoed in later chapters when discussing less obvious contemporary instances of this phenomenon.
In the second chapter, “Love Between Muslim and Jew,” the complexities start to become more visible, as Nirenberg moves among the three religions in a variety of configurations. Although the chapter title includes only Muslim and Jew, the Christian cannot be omitted, because both Muslim and Jew were subordinate to the Christian dominant, who mediated relations between the two groups. But...