Religion as the Dividing Factor Between the Jews and Arabs

Reading the Firestone article, I found his description of the nonexistent difference between the Arabs and the Jews to be very interesting. Firestone writes, “the Jews of sixth- and seventh-century Arabia appear so highly integrated economically, ethically, and geographically into the local culture that they must be considered culturally or ethically Arab” (269). From this Firestone furthers explains that both the Jews and the Arabs would have defined themselves in terms of geographical location, rather than by means of cultural differences.  Firestone paints the picture of these two civilizations as coexisting harmoniously, mutually influencing the traditions of one another.

From this depiction, I found the split between the Arabs and the Jews to be rather shocking with the rise of Islam. Firestone writes that the Arabian Jews resisted Muhammad’s initial attempts at conversion, detailing his failure in Arabia. However, after the conquest of the Arabs, Islam began to take hold as a popularized religion. In this, I wondered if the new power dynamic between the Arabs and Jews was what sparked the large-scale Arab conversion to Islam. Firestone describes Islam as “one of the powerful motivators” for a “huge movement of peoples,” which would imply the social/cultural implications that a new religion had within the Arabic world (271). In class we discussed how under Muslim rules, the Jews had much freedom to continue their religious practices and to pursue economic ventures; however, with the solidification of Islam as a religion this began to change.

Elaborating on Muhammad’s development of Islam, Firestone writes, “Muhammad knew that he was a prophet of God sent to the Arab people,” and despite the close proximity of the two cultures, as the Jews began to openly reject Islam, a distinct line is drawn between the two peoples (283). It is interesting to note how religion was not used to define either culture pre-Islam, however, once a new religion arises it suddenly becomes the defining and dividing factor of their relationship. In this, I found how influential conflicts of faith can be in creating boundaries between cultures.

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