This week’s topic of saint veneration has given me a new perspective on the relationship between Jews and Muslims. Many of the topics we discussed in the past had to do with defining and differentiating the religions from each other. The focus was on the differences rather than on the similarities. For example, many of the practices having to do with funeral and burial practices are similar but have elements, which make them distinctly Jewish or Muslim. Each religious group felt the need to create a set of practices, which distinguish that religion from the “other”. In contrast to this competition and differentiation, saint veneration in some ways provided an opportunity for cooperation and coexistence.
In the readings by Josef Meri, he talks about the importance of setting aside our preconceived notions of Jewish and Muslim relations. It is difficult for anyone living in the 21st century to view the relationship through anything other than a political lense, but he reminds the reader that Jews and Muslims coexisted long before the development of the modern political system or the idea of a nation state. Although this coexistence was not always peaceful or without problems, it was also not a time of perpetual conflict. Josef Meri asserts that saint veneration serves as an example of the existence of better relations between Jews and Muslims in the past. He gives examples of Jews and Muslims venerating the same saints, such as in Damascus where they would both visit the site of a Muslim saint. He also gives examples of Jews and Muslims worshipping together at the same holy sites, such as in certain places in Palestine. This is evidence that the relationship between Muslims and Jews was not always as strained as it currently is.
In the 21st century it is quite difficult to imagine Jews and Muslims venerating a saint together. When I visited Jerusalem last fall, I noticed that despite the fact that the holy sites there are significant for all three monotheistic religions, there is an unmistakable presence of segregation. There is physical segregation in the form of the wall that separates East from West Jerusalem, as well as religious and ethnic segregation within the Old City, which is divided into four quarters. As I was exploring the city, I could visibly and audibly notice when I changed quarters. For example, as I moved from the Jewish to the Muslim quarter suddenly almost all of the women were wearing hijab and everywhere I turned I heard Arabic. When I visited the Dome of the Rock, the guard at the gate stopped me to ask whether or not I was Muslim. When I was at the Western Wall, on the other hand, I did not see any Muslims around me. In this current context of political hostility and conflict, it is hard to imagine that relations in the past could have been cooperative and peaceful. However the historical record of shared practices such as saint veneration serve as evidence that cooperation and peace between Jews and Muslims is not as unthinkable as it seems.