Islam did not develop in a vacuum. This is not pejorative, nor indeed contrary to the traditional Muslim account of its own origins. The traditional Muslim view is that Ibrahim (Abraham), Musa (Moses), ‘Isa (Jesus), and others were all prophets preaching Islam, but that Jews and Christians corrupted their scriptures. So one might expect certain continuities, and indeed, the Qur’an refers to Jews and Christians and presents Allah as instructing Muhammad to consult the “people of the book” if he is doubtful about the revelation he has received (Yunus 10:94). It is well known to scholars of the origins of Islam that the Qur’an adapts various biblical accounts and refers to various figures found in the Bible, but this contact between Islam and other religions did not cease with the final form of the Qur’an, but rather intensified.
After Muhammad’s death, his followers conquered a large part of the world and came to rule over societies of non-Muslims. One would then expect even more extensive contact between Muslims and non-Muslims. One result of this contact is the importation into the body of Islamic tradition of the isra’iliyyat, accounts from Jewish or Christian tradition regarding biblical figures. The anxiety of early Muslims imitating non-Muslims is shown in the hadith (traditional account) which ascribes to Muhammad the prohibition of imitating Jews or Christians. In one of several formulations, this injunction reads, “He is not one of us who imitates other than us. Do not imitate the Jews or the Christians.” (Note: hadith accounts are often not genuine, and often reflect conditions and questions that arose after Muhammad’s death.)
But “imitation” is too restrictive a model to describe the relationship between Islam and other religions of the regions ruled by Muslims, whichever direction that “imitation” is posited. It is also the case that our evidence rarely allows us to establish that “imitation” occurred. Instead, we can speak reasonably confidently of certain aspects of shared culture.
Consider the importance of Jerusalem. Of course it is the holy city of Judaism, the place where the Temple was built and G-d dwelt on earth. It is the holy city of Christianity, the place where Jesus was crucified and rose again from the dead, where the Holy Spirit came down at Pentecost and inaugurated the Church. According to traditional Islamic accounts, it was also the first holy city of Muslims and the direction that the earliest Muslims were to pray (the first qibla), before Muhammad changed Muslim prayer to be in the direction of Mecca. It is often presumed that the change of qibla relegated Jerusalem to the status of third holiest city of Islam, after Mecca (Muhammad’s home town) and Medina (Muhammad’s adopted city). But in fact, three and a half centuries after Muhammad, an important Muslim author named al-Muqaddasi (i.e. “from Jerusalem”) wrote that Jerusalem was in fact more important than Mecca or Medina because Muhammad ascended to heaven from there and God would bring all creation there for judgment! (Al-Muqaddasi acknowledged, however, that Muslims were a minority in the city.) Thus the cultural importance of Jerusalem was shared, if differentiated, among Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Other examples of shared culture include the aesthetics and gendered architecture mentioned in a previous post.
As a historian, I take it for granted that Islam has a history. Even at the highest intellectual stratum, certain thinkers thought (and, more importantly, wrote) at specific periods of time. They did so in particular cultural contexts, and cultural contexts which included not only Muslims, but also non-Muslims. Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) is one of the heroes of the Salafi movement (so-called “Islamic fundamentalism”), though he lived seven centuries after Muhammad, at exactly the half-way point between Muhammad and the present. He is known for his voluminous writings and polemical rejection of everything Islamic that did not have the most spotless pedigree. He wrote polemics against a wide variety of popular Muslim devotional practices, such as celebrating saints’ birthdays at funeral shrines, and opposed honoring mosques (even that at Jerusalem) too highly. He opposed any similarity to non-Muslim religions, and often opposed practices by arguing that they were influenced by Muslim religions. Here is a Muslim thinker for Muslims.
But like all thinkers, Ibn Taymiyya wrote in a cultural context. He wrote a polemic against Christianity (كتاب جواب الصحيح لمن بدّل دين المسيح, “The right answer to whoever corrupts the Messiah’s religion”), in response to fears that Muslims would convert to Christianity in light of a Christian polemic against Islam in Arabic. When he left his native Harran for cities further south, such as Damascus, he must have stopped for a rest in a town which was almost entirely Christian at that time: Qara, one caravan stop south of Hims. He opposed Muslims doing things that he had seen Christians do, because he wanted Islam to be a distinct religion that could stand on its own two feet without supporting itself with non-Muslims. His writings must be placed in a context which includes non-Muslims; to read them without that context, as many Salafis do today, makes Ibn Taymiyya into a monster who simply glorified in calling other religions nasty names. But instead he used polemic, as did his various contemporaries, to protect what he valued against what worried him. He was worried that the Islam of his day was not independent enough, and too similar to the religions of Christians and Jews.
And if so strong a Muslim exceptionalist as Ibn Taymiyya must be read in light of a mixed-religious context, then the normal Muslims against whom he is arguing, who are engaging in devotional practices which Ibn Taymiyya labels imitative of non-Muslims, must even more be seen in a religiously diverse Middle Eastern context. This becomes apparent when one reads the travel accounts of Muslim travelers such as Ibn Jubayr (d. 1217) and Ibn Battuta (d. 1368/9), as they discuss different local variations of Islam, and how Muslims of different regions interact with the non-Muslims there. Ibn Jubayr, during a very brief stay in the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, was scandalized at how easily Muslims adjusted to being ruled by non-Muslims, and he devoted a couple passages to arguing from Islamic tradition that Muslims are obliged to leave a region conquered by non-Muslims. Ibn Battuta describes the various ways in which the Muslim Turks ruled Anatolia in the fourteenth century, when much of the population was still Greek Christian, and he complains both that he cannot find Muslims who speak Arabic, and that people in one city suspect him of being a heretic, because they never saw anyone of his branch of Sunni Islam. Anatolian Muslims knew how to live with Greek Christians, but not Maliki Sunni Muslims.
The reason why Muslim sources so rarely discuss non-Muslims is not that there were few non-Muslims, but that the Muslim authors took the non-Muslims for granted and considered them literally unremarkable. Nevertheless, the fact that Islam developed over centuries in a religiously diverse society had a poorly understood but readily apparent impact on the shape even of religion, to say nothing of government, law, society, culture, and art. The history of Islam, like the history of every human phenomenon, cannot be understood without a broad analysis of the society as a whole.