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Fourteen Centuries of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Conflict and Cooperation

Written by Zachary KarabellAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Zachary Karabell


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: March 12, 2009
Pages: 352 | ISBN: 978-0-307-54114-7
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt|Table of Contents


In a narrative that is at once thoughtful and passionate, hopeful but without illusions, award-winning historian Zachary Karabell reveals the history of peaceful coexistence among Muslims, Christians, and Jews over the course of fourteen centuries until the present-day.

The harsh reality of religious conflict is daily news, and the rising tensions between the West and Islam show no signs of abating. However, the relationship between Muslims, Christians, and Jews has not always been marked with animosity; there is also a deep and nuanced history of peace.

From the court of caliphs in ancient Baghdad, where scholars engaged in spirited debate, to present-day Dubai, where members of each faith work side by side, Karabell traces the forgotten legacy of tolerance and cooperation these three monotheistic religions have enjoyed—a legacy that will be vital in any attempt to find common ground and reestablish peace.


Chapter One: In the Name of the Lord

Sometime around the year 570 in the Western calendar, Muhammad ibn Abdullah was born in the oasis town of Mecca, just off the western coast of the Arabian Peninsula. The town was separated from the Red Sea by a narrow, steep mountain range, and it sat at the edge of the vast desert that defined most of the Arabian Peninsula. The oasis was dominated by the Quraysh tribe, who controlled the camel trade that passed through Mecca between Yemen, in the south, and the more settled agrarian regions hundreds of miles north, which were divided between the Byzantine emperor and the Sasanian monarch of Persia.

Though Muhammad was a member of the ruling tribe, his clan was not particularly prominent. His father died when Muhammad was a boy, and his uncle Abu Talib became his protector. For most of the next forty years, Muhammad lived an anonymous life like that of many others in Mecca; he established himself as a merchant and married an older widow named Khadija. Had he died before the age of forty, his would have been one of the countless lives invisible to history, and Mecca itself would have remained a small provincial town no more important than thousands of others throughout the world. But around the year 610, Muhammad began to hear the voice of God, and for the first time, God spoke in Arabic.

Muhammad did not share these revelations with anyone other than his wife. Prophets were rarely welcome, and Muhammad did not have sufficient standing in the community to defend himself against adversaries who might not welcome the message he was being given. While the experience of receiving the revelations was physically wrenching for Muhammad, the substance was socially wrenching for the Meccans. Rather than a system anchored by tribe, clan, and family, Muhammad announced a new order, anchored by God’s will and human submission to it—hence the words islam, the Arabic word verb for “submit,” and muslim, the Arabic word for one who does.

Muhammad began to share the content of what he was being told with a small circle of friends and family, and slowly the word spread. At first, the more powerful members of the Quraysh dismissed the sermons as irrelevant, but as more people started to turn to him for guidance, the Quraysh became concerned. From what they could glean, Muhammad’s message represented a challenge to the social order that they dominated.

They were right to be concerned. In their Mecca of tribe and clan, they were supreme. Obeisance was given to the various gods and spirits known as jinn (the kindred English word is “genie”), but one’s tribe was more consequential than any god. At the time, there was a nascent sense of monotheism, though not much more developed than a vague notion that there was one god more powerful than the others. But the Quraysh of Mecca were not prepared to embrace him alone, because that would have upended the status quo. In their world, the tribe, not any god, determined social standing and marriage, and it was up to the tribe and the clan to avenge wrongs committed by others. Tribal authority was absolute—until Muhammad announced that it was not.

The core message was simple: there is one God, one messenger, and a choice. The God is Allah, who is the same as the God of Abraham, the God of the Hebrew prophets, the God of Jesus, and the God of the Christians. The messenger is Muhammad, a man like any other until he was chosen to convey God’s word in Arabic. And the choice is to surrender to God’s will and to the truth of Muhammad’s recitations and thus be saved for eternity.

The initial revelations emphasized the extent of God’s power and the degree of human powerlessness in the face of it. Later assembled in the Quran, these verses paint a vivid picture of a world destined to end in a final judgment; only those who embrace the message conveyed by Muhammad will be blessed. Because the revelations unfolded over the course of many years, it took some time before they congealed into a coherent belief system. Within a decade, however, Muhammad began to challenge the system of the Quraysh directly.

The most prominent symbol of that confrontation involved the so-called Satanic Verses, which were an earlier version of a portion of the Quran that seemed to allow for the dual worship of Allah on the one hand and of three of the gods of the Quraysh: al-Lat, al-Uzza, and Manat. The Satanic Verses may have been an attempt to strike a compromise with the increasingly hostile Quraysh, but the Quraysh were not placated. Instructed by the archangel Gabriel, Muhammad recanted the verses. He claimed that they had been a trick of the devil and issued an unequivocal condemnation of al-Lat, al-Uzza, and Manat. They were not gods, he declared, only mere names.

This assault on the prevailing religious system marked a dramatic turn away from conciliation with the rulers of Mecca. Initially, Muhammad had emphasized social justice, the mystery of life, and Allah’s supreme power, and had hoped that the Quraysh would accept him. When it became clear that they would not, he indicted not just the religion of the Meccans but the Quraysh who upheld it.

As long as his uncle Abu Talib was alive, Muhammad could be criticized and marginalized but he could not be silenced or physically harmed. When Abu Talib died, in 619, however, Muhammad was placed in a precarious position. Faced with an antagonistic tribe and few options, he was responsible for the security and well-being of a community of followers, most of whom occupied the fringes of Meccan society, and he was beginning to attract adherents beyond the city.

As the position of the Muslims in Mecca deteriorated, it was not simply a problem of discrimination and intimidation. Without the protection that his uncle provided, Muhammad and his followers were in physical danger, and he began looking for a new home. He could not, however, simply pick up and leave. He had to find a tribe in another town willing to offer him protection and acceptance. In a world where resources were scarce and water, date palms, and trade were tightly controlled, there was no such thing as moving to another town to start a new life, and certainly not with eighty followers in tow.

After several false starts, Muhammad through his intermediaries was able to negotiate an arrangement with several tribes in the oasis of Yathrib, later known as Medina, two hundred miles north of Mecca. They wanted Muhammad to become their chief. The tribes of Medina were at an impasse, and they were willing to turn to Muhammad because he could act as a neutral arbiter. Muhammad and his followers then began to leave Mecca, quietly, in small groups, so that the Quraysh would not notice.

The move from Mecca to Medina in 622, known as the Hijra, was one of the defining moments in Islamic history. It led to the establishment of an independent and increasingly powerful Muslim community. It also put this community in direct contact with three Jewish tribes. Muhammad expected that they would soon embrace him as the last in a long line of prophets. They did not.

The People of the Book

The world of early-seventh-century Arabia was sparsely populated. Settlements centered on water sources, and these attracted traders and tribes. Some worshiped local deities; others not at all. But there were also a substantial number of Jews and some Christians. The Christians were from several different sects, and few followed the doctrines established by the patriarchs in Constantinople. The Monophysite Christians of Egypt, believing that Christ's human nature had been absorbed by his divine nature, were deeply disenchanted with the Byzantine emperor and the official interpretation of the Trinity; the Christians of Syria and Palestine were only slightly less disaffected; and the Assyrian (Nestorian) Christians of what is now Iraq, who had their own view of the nature of Christ, had long been seen as heretics by the church fathers further west. The Christians of Arabia were just as disparate, but Muhammad and the Meccans would have been familiar with the outlines of their faith, including the life of Christ and the basic precepts of the New Testament.

The Jews had been in Arabia for centuries. Before Muhammad’s birth, the Arabian king Dhu Nuwas had converted to Judaism and then launched what appears to have been a mini pogrom against the Christians. In many respects, Arabian Jews were indistinguishable from other tribes. The harsh realities of desert life and the way that people adapted and survived did not know from clan or creed. Jews dressed in similar fashion, ate similar food, and confronted the same challenges posed by nature. They also traded with the Quraysh and other leading Arab tribes, and spoke a dialect of Arabic. Because of their God and certain aspects of diet, marriage, and law, they were culturally distinct. On the whole, however, they were more familiar than alien to Muhammad, and that may explain his initial hope that they would welcome him and his message. The Quran is quite clear that there is a continuum from the Hebrew prophets through Jesus Christ leading ultimately to Muhammad, and when the Jews of Medina refused to acknowledge that, Muhammad and his increasingly powerful followers began to treat them as enemies.

Initially, when Muhammad arrived in Medina, an agreement was reached between the two non-Jewish tribes, the three Jewish tribes, and the new community of Muhammad and his followers. Whether this was a written document or a verbal understanding, it became known as the Constitution of Medina, and it was a model of ecumenism. It was also a necessity. Given the circumstances of Muhammad’s arrival in Medina, it was essential that the various parties agree on how this new confederation would be governed. Without that, there would be no way to settle the conflicts that would inevitably arise.

Many of the constitution’s clauses dealt with relations between the newly arrived Muslims and the major tribes of Medina. “The believers and their dependents constitute a single community [umma]” was the first clause, and in terms of later Islamic history, one of the most important. In that simple statement, the unity of Muslims everywhere was established, and to this day, there is a deep sense in the Muslim world that all believers constitute one community. That means that state boundaries and doctrinal differences that separate Muslims are false and wrong.

Having established the principle of unity, the constitution laid out the responsibilities of the tribes: they would each handle policing and administering justice to their members, and murder was forbidden. No individual Muslim was to act in a manner contrary to the will or needs of other Muslims, and believers were enjoined to take care of their dependents. And as for the Jews, they “belong to the community and are to retain their own religion; they and the Muslims are to render help to one another when it is needed.” Intertribal alliances were hardly unknown in pre-Islamic Arabia, and tribes did not need to share a religious system in order to act in concert. In that sense, Muhammad and the other interested parties could draw on past precedent in drawing up the Constitution of Medina.

For a brief moment, Medina became a unified Jewish-Muslim community. In the words of the constitution, “The Jews have their religion, and the Muslims have their religion,” and yet the two lived side by side as equals and supported each other when and where support was needed. Muhammad saw himself as the last in a series of Jewish prophets, and he instructed his followers to face Jerusalem when they prayed. In this hybrid community, Muhammad had the role of first among equals and the arbiter of disputes. The Constitution of Medina created a precedent for peaceful and cordial coexistence. But it did not last long.

There were three powerful Jewish tribes, and the first that Muhammad confronted was the Banu Qaynuqa. The precise reason for the fissure isn’t clear. The ninth-century chronicler al-Baladhuri reported only that “the Jews of Qaynuqa were the first to violate the covenant and the Prophet expelled them from Medina.” Al-Bukhari, also writing in the ninth century, mentioned that as the Muslim community grew, the Muslim immigrants needed more land and more date groves, and the reluctance of the Jews to accede to Muhammad’s authority made them a legitimate target. Another aggravating factor was the refusal of the Jewish tribes to come to Muhammad’s aid during the battle of Badr, when the Muslims of Medina, to the astonishment of the Quraysh, defeated a small army sent from Mecca. Still others claim that hostilities erupted because an Arab woman was the victim of a practical joke that resulted in her skirt riding up too high, which led a Muslim man to kill the perpetrator, who happened to be Jewish. Whatever the proximate cause, the Jews of the Banu Qaynuqa refused to validate Muhammad’s claims to prophethood. Their expulsion coincided with a symbolic shift in how Muslims prayed. Instead of facing Jerusalem, they now turned toward Mecca. Jerusalem would remain a holy city for Muslims, but after the banishment of the Banu Qaynuqa, Mecca became the focal point.

Over the next three years, the Muslims of Medina gained converts, including some Jews. Events alternated between skirmishes with the Quraysh and confrontation with the remaining Jewish tribes. After Muhammad led his followers to a battlefield victory against the Meccans, he broke with the second Jewish tribe, the Banu Nadir. They were expelled after a two-week siege, but unlike their predecessors, they were not allowed to take their weapons.

The final tribe, the Banu Qurayza, having watched as Muhammad consolidated his power, made a fateful choice: they cast their lot with the Meccans, who were preparing a final assault on Medina. The Muslims had taken control of the trade caravans, and had cut Mecca off from the source of its wealth and strength. While the Banu Qurayza did not actually consummate an alliance with the Meccans, they did not support Muhammad, and may well have been in negotiations with his enemies. Either way, they were in a difficult position. A victory for the Meccans would reduce the autonomy and influence of Medina, and lessen the power of the remaining Jewish tribe even if it removed the threat of Muhammad. A victory for the Muslims was hardly much better, and indeed turned out to be much worse. After the Meccans failed to take Medina in 627 and were forced to retreat, Muhammad ordered an attack on the Qurayza, who succumbed after a siege that lasted nearly a month. This time, the penalty wasn’t expulsion; it was execution.

From the Hardcover edition.

Table of Contents


Chapter One: In the Name of the Lord
Chapter Two: At the Court of the Caliph
Chapter Three: The Sacrifice of Isaac
Chapter Four: The Crusades
Chapter Five: Saladin’s Jihad?
Chapter Six: The Philosopher’s Dream
Chapter Seven: The Lord of Two Lands
Chapter Eight: The Tide Begins to Turn
Chapter Nine: Brave New Worlds
Chapter Ten: The Age of Reform
Chapter Eleven: Hope and Despair
chapter Twelve: In an Otherwise Turbulent World
Coda: Is Dubai the Future?

Zachary Karabell|Author Q&A

About Zachary Karabell

Zachary Karabell - Peace Be Upon You

Photo © Joanne Chan

Zachary Karabell was educated at Columbia, Oxford and Harvard, where he received his PhD. in 1996. He is the author of several books, including The Last Campaign, which won the Chicago Tribune's Heartland Award, and Parting the Desert: The Creation of the Suez Canal. His essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, and Newsweek. He lives with his wife and two children in New York, where he is an executive vice president of a leading asset management firm.

Author Q&A

Q: While PEACE BE UPON YOU details the history between Muslims, Christians, and Jews, it seems to focus most heavily on Muslim culture. Why did you choose to structure the book this way?
A: There’s really only one reason for that: most interaction between Muslims, Christians, and Jews has taken place in Muslim societies. There are exceptions, such as Spain after the 13th century, the Crusader states of the 12th century, and to some extent, the colonial rule of the Europeans in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but for the most part, Muslims, Christians and Jews have coexisted mostly in Muslim societies. Until the very last years of the 20th century, in fact, there were few Muslims in Europe or in the United States. In the 21st century, the interaction between Muslims, Christians, and Jews in societies that are mostly Christian–especially Europe but also the United States with its growing group of 5 million Muslims–will be a major factor shaping how those societies evolve.

Q: You write: “Today, millions of people–especially in the Muslim world–still believe the myth that the caliph ruled the spirit as well as the flesh of his subjects and that the early Muslim empires represented a unique synthesis of faith of power.” Why has this had troubling implications for how Islam has been defined in our modern world? What can be done to reverse this thinking?
If you believe that there is no separation of church and state in the Muslim world, then you usually think that there is little chance for faiths to coexist. That’s rooted in the belief that religious freedom and tolerance are based on separate spheres for private faith and public action. But Muslim societies have always recognized a distinction between religion and politics, certainly in practice if not necessarily as an ideal. The vision of Muslim extremists that classical Islam was a fusion of church and state is a fiction that is not grounded in most of history. As with any distorted view of the past, the only thing that can be done to counter such thinking is to highlight the forgotten stories that present a different picture.

Q: You discuss many revolutionary religious figures from the past such as Muhammad, Saladin, and Sabbatai Sevi. Who, in your opinion, were the most significant religious leaders of the past? Who are they today?
Clearly, Muhammad is the pivotal figure, but there are so many stories from his life that it is possible to find support from his example for almost any course of action if one is looking for a guide of moral behavior. Today, extremists such as Bin Laden get the attention, but there are other voices, both secular and religious, who speak for another, more peaceful path, whether they are political leaders such as Jordan’s King Abdullah or religious leaders such as Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf in New York City.

Q: You note that the actual history of the Crusades was a lot more mundane than history paints it to be. Why do we romanticize the Crusades? Why are they seen today as having been so divisive?
We romanticize the Crusades because of a century or more of books and movies that romanticize the Crusades. From the novels of Sir Walter Scott to Hollywood’s fascination, the Crusades have been the perfect blend of high ideals and war. The downside is that they are an easy symbol of the violence and hatred that has characterized some of the history between Muslims and Christians. The Crusades also perpetuate the view that these religions are locked in a struggle to the death, and for Muslims today, they are a reminder of a time when the West literally invaded the Muslim world for religious reasons.

Q: How has the change from Muslim societies’ dominance to lack of power influenced them today?
No society loses power gracefully. For more than a thousand years, the story of Muslim history was one of triumph with occasional setbacks. Then, in the 19th century, Europe dominated, and that was followed by the rise of the United States in the 20th century and the creation of Israel. The result has been turmoil for the Arab world most of all, and a cycle of self-recrimination and blame. There has also been less tolerance for other religions, but that isn’t unique to the Muslim world. Few societies manage to stay tolerant of differences when they feel insecure and under siege. Look at America post-9/11, where people have been willing to accept more limitation on freedom in return for more security.

Q: You argue that in most of the nineteenth century, religion was not a primary cause of conflict among Muslims, Christians, and Jews, and that it was not the common view to see religious identity as an important social factor. When did this change and why?
At the end of the 19th century, most people throughout the world thought the days of religion were numbered. A century later, it is on the upswing. At some point after the middle of the 20th century, people in both the western world and the Muslim world began to question the promises of secularism, science, and progress, and, they turned back to religion. That in turn was the necessary prelude to the rise of religious extremism in the last decades of the 20th century and now in the first decade of the 21st.

Q: When European nationalism rose toward the end of the nineteenth century, organized religion declined. Does European nationalism still have an effect on religion? Does the same theory hold true in modern day America?
Europe has become post-religious and post-capitalist, but the United States has managed to maintain both a high level of nationalism and a high participation in organized religion. In this way and others, the United States in unusual. It manages to be highly religious, yet also tolerant of high level of religious diversity.

Q: In the last chapter of PEACE BE UPON YOU you argue that the future of coexistence might look like Dubai. Why would this work, in your opinion?
Dubai has the right conditions for coexistence: namely prosperity and security. Its government is economically laissez-faire but provides enough security to make businesses and entrepreneurs feel safe. Somewhat like the Ottomans centuries ago, and like Singapore today, the government of Dubai doesn’t care what people believe, only that they contribute to the collective good. Dubai may be excessive, vulgar, Vegas-like, and amoral, but that just says that coexistence doesn’t need to be some pristine thing, full of high-minded souls; it just means that people of different creeds and colors go about their lives and pursue their ambitions without caring much about what other people believe or to whom (if anyone) they are praying.

From the Hardcover edition.



“Beautifully written, passionately argued. . . . [A] beacon of hope for an all too often gloomy world.”—Los Angeles Times “A hopeful, historical meditation. . . . Lucid, well written and persuasive.”—The Washington Post Book World“A fine, wise and important book. . . . It shows that Christians and Muslims have known prosperous, co-existent peace before-and could do so again.” —The Times, London “Reminds us of the possibility of a better future.” —Fareed Zakaria, editor, Newsweek International

  • Peace Be Upon You by Zachary Karabell
  • March 11, 2008
  • History - Middle East
  • Vintage
  • $16.95
  • 9781400079216

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