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Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has made a compelling case for the creative and culturally dynamic role that religious minorities can play, even in societies where the majority of people deeply oppose their religious inclinations, as was the case for much of the history of the Jewish people in Christian territories. As a Muslim, living as a minority in the West—in a culture often portrayed (by Muslims and non-Muslim Westerners alike) as locked in a fatal struggle with Islam—I found in the rabbi’s comments much cause for hope.

In briefly addressing Islam by way of contrast, the rabbi noted that Muslims, unlike Jews, have not had substantial experience with living as a religious minority. To some extent, this is true, and insofar as it is true, Muslims do indeed have much to learn from the experience of Jews in predominantly Christian lands; and some Muslim public intellectuals in Europe, particularly Tariq Ramadan, have begun to speak about the necessity of Muslims finding ways to maintain their distinct religious identity while engaging productively with European culture and society in ways vaguely reminiscent of the Jewish Reform movement of the eighteenth century.

The idea that Muslims do not have experience as a minority, however, is not completely accurate. Of course, like many religions, Islam in its early years was a persecuted religious minority in Arabia, experiencing an attitude and a situation clearly evoked in its scriptural text, the Qur’an. Even after Muslims successfully conquered the Fertile Crescent, Iran, and large parts of North Africa, they remained a minority within the territories they controlled for several centuries; and even in premodern times, the Ottomans ruled as a minority over a predominantly Christian population, and the Mughals in India controlled what always remained a majority-Hindu population. Thus Muslims do have experience as a minority, but as a dominant minority.

While the idea of a dominant minority may not immediately strike one as contributing to a positive cultural situation, the fact of the matter is that Muslim minority control of all of these territories did not result in economic or cultural decline but indeed led to a remarkable flourishing. This emergence and flourishing of what we call “classical” Islamic civilization came about not through a state-driven imposition of Islamic norms on the territories it conquered but rather as a result of the extent to which Jewish, Christian, and Zoroastrian populations (and, later, Hindu populations in the subcontinent) were allowed to continue to practice their religion and way of life, and of the openness that Muslim scholars, artists, and architects showed toward the preexisting cultures of these lands and peoples.

Islamic civilization would never have flourished as it did had the Muslims not been willing to listen and learn from, and yes, “Islamize,” the wisdom found in Jewish and Christian traditions and in the Hellenistic philosophical tradition that had inspired them all. As a famous Islamic tradition says: “Wisdom is the believer’s lost possession; wherever he finds it, he has a right to take it.”

Indeed, medieval Muslims showed little hesitance about embracing and refining, for their own religious, intellectual, and artistic purposes, the wisdom traditions of the Greeks and the Persians, as well as those of Jews and Christians, leading to a remarkable cultural synthesis.

One of the historical jewels of this synthesis was Andalusia, or Islamic Spain. Here, in the context of a remarkably peaceful religious coexistence facilitated by Muslim rule, some of the greatest scholars and religious works of both Islam and Judaism were born. The great Maimonides, referenced by the rabbi in his talk, was deeply conversant and engaged with Muslim scholastic and philosophical traditions, and this often leavened some of his greatest philosophical works.

Muslims, too, benefited from this environment, producing, for example, the great Muslim philosopher and commentator on Aristotle, Ibn Rushd (in Latin, Averroes), whose works later influenced important Western European Christian scholars, including Albertus Magnus and his brilliant student, Thomas Aquinas. Andalusia also produced that great fourteenth-century Muslim philosopher of history Ibn Khaldun, who seems to have been one of Arnold Toynbee’s chief intellectual influences for his own philosophy of history. From these historical Muslim examples of an intellectually open-minded rule as a “dominant minority” there is also much to be learned.

In his address, the rabbi cites Toynbee’s argument that civilizations are born in adversity. I disagree with this view and would argue instead that civilizations are born through cultural openness to other philosophies and views, and to the tremendous intellectual and cultural developments that can come about only through the cross­fertilization of different religious and philosophical perspectives.

The rabbi himself notes that Christian civilization was born of the great synthesis of its Hebraic and Hellenic roots; Islamic civilization was born of the synthesis of the Islamic religious ideal with the preexisting wisdom of the Jewish, Christian, and Hellenistic traditions it encountered in the Fertile Crescent; and modern European civilization was born largely through the Renaissance, facilitated by a re-embrace of Hellenistic thought now partially transformed through the work of Muslim commentators. Even the great strength of the United States, it can be argued, derives from its willingness to open its doors to peoples from a variety of cultures.

One of the most troubling aspects of the rabbi’s otherwise inspiring address is a certain tension between the idea of flourishing and the idea of “survival.” He talks much about flourishing, but also about strategies to ensure the survival of Judeo-Christian or Western civilization. I think it is fair to ask whether the West can or should continue to survive as “the West”: that is, as a sharply (I might argue, somewhat artificially) defined concept that sees itself in opposition to other world civilizations and cultures, notably the Islamic. I think that both people and societies, when faced with a real or perceived challenge to their survival, are often paradoxically driven to take actions that ultimately seal their demise; building walls is one of them.

One participant in the seminar who followed the rabbi’s talk noted the failure of multiculturalism in Europe. I think it has failed because it represents not a real engagement with the “multiple cultures” within European borders but only an agnostic and morally disengaged tolerance of them. Human flourishing—and I argue that this is what we really need to address, rather than the flourishing of this or that culture or religious tradition—depends upon cultural openness and cross-fertilization. It requires opening our minds to all of the intellectual and artistic energies that people of different cultures and traditions can bring. 

Maria M. Dakake is associate professor of religious studies at George Mason University.