Is Islam an Extension of Christianity and Judaism?
Understanding the Muslim view of the world in comparison with other monotheistic views is key in understanding Muslim self-perception, the perception of the other and the way both interacted.
In a time when Christians were certain that their failures were God’s retribution for their sins; and some Jews saw Islam as part of God’s plan to spread monotheism to remote pagans of the Hijaz, or as a fulfilment of messianic expectations, Muslims saw that their success is God's reward to them for following him (Silverstein 2010, pp 14). Contrary to the sectarian realities, to this day, the idea that Islam is the right continuity of a preceding corrupted monotheism is well known among Muslims.
Muslims have had many things in common with other faith traditions. The similarities between Islam and other faiths were key to the development of Islam in different ways. Preaching the end of days, fasting, charity, and the like, was familiar and unthreatening to a large number of Jews in Medina (Silverstein 2010, pp 9). The same can apply to other monotheistic faith groups. Being unthreatening in the context of early Islam is similar to being unthreatened by the surrounding faith groups. Perhaps this what made Jonathan Berkey suggest that Islam took shape through dialogue with other faith traditions (Berkey 2015, pp 57).
It is not clear if the referential character of the Koran is a result of Islam basing itself on other monotheistic religions by adopting their stories. For example, the Hebrew prophets occupy an important section of the Koran. The sanctity of Mary who has a whole chapter - Surat Maryam- under her name is an important part of it as well. What is clear is that in the Hadith narration, other monotheistic religions, especially Judaism were very important in the early formation of Islam. Some names like Abu Hurayra and the Jewish convert Abdullah Ibn Saba' who had a good knowledge of the Torah are famous in the chains of authority (Isnads) (Berkey 2015, pp 57). Their reported narrations are important in the study of Islamic theology and jurisprudence.
The notion of familiarity and unthreatening coexistance was not a call to unity between Muslims and the already divided non-Muslims. In fact Muslims took every step to distinguish themselves and assert their new religious identity. Depending on different scholars, the construction of the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, was to confront or meet Judaism’s messianic expectations and to bear an inscription that challenges Christianity’s basic doctrines. (Silverstein 2010, pp 17).
In earlier times, some non-Muslims interacted with Muslims on the basis of Muhammad's person. An example of that was brought up by Adam Silverstein who referred to Muhammad being welcome by the non-Muslims of a town in which he was an adjudicator in the past (Silverstein 2010, pp 10).
The interaction between the Muslim rulers and non-Muslims was quit different. The Caliphs levied a higher tax on non-Muslims known as Jizya. The financial interest was greater in keeping them non-Muslims than having them convert. This is a view shared by Silverstein who saw that discouraging conversion by the caliphs can be explained by non-Muslims paying more taxes (Silverstein 2010, pp 18). This view becomes even stronger if we consider the killing of non-Muslims by Caliph Abu Bakr after accusing them of apostasy -Rida -. All known Islamic accounts state that they had refused to pay taxes to him. This does not mean, however, that there was no apostasy after the death of Muhammad. Some tribes like Banu Hanifa where a man named Musaylima claimed prophethood left Islam indeed (Berkey 2015, pp 65).
The views of key non-Muslim religious leaders about Islam are important in understanding the interaction between Muslims and non-Muslims in the 7th century. For instance, Patriarch Sophronius referred to Muslim soldiers as Hagarenes and Ishmaelites . His views were largely shared by Syrian Christians at that time. (Berkey 2015, pp 65).
It is fair to say that some sort of reciprocal views existed where some non-Muslims viewed Islam as a corrupt Christianity in the same way Muslims viewed other monotheistic traditions as a corrupt form of monotheism that Islam came to correct. This fact did not prevent protected monotheistic communities (the Dhimmis) from preferring the Muslim rule rover the Roman rule. The Islamic historian known as El Balathuri reported that monotheistic non-Muslims celebrated the Muslim conquests in Syria with music and dance. (Berkey 2015, pp 91).
To sum up, the familiarity of Islam as a new religion to existing monotheistic religions, the ability of religious communities to prosper under Muslim rulers protected by an economic pact, and the contact and dialogue with these communities played a crucial role in the early formation of Islam.
- Berkey, Jonathan. The formation of Islam: Religion and society in the Near East: 600-1800. Cambridge University Press, 2015.
- Silverstein, Adam J. Islamic History : A Very Short Introduction. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2010