Notes and reflections on Peace Be Upon You: The Story of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Coexistence by Zachary Karabell
After explaining how Islam spread to vast regions in the first thousand years after Muhammad died, the author says Muslims - like Christians - were not a cohesive group. Muslims in West Africa hardly resembled the Muslim in Mecca or Indonesia. In fact when Sufism came on the scene it "became a grab bag of Islam and pre-Islamic traditions." Despite all the talk of "the Muslim world" or the umma, Islam was - and still is - made up of a variety of cultures.
The author described the Ottoman millet system where, say, a chief rabbi was over his community of Jews and a bishop was over a Christian group for the purpose of self-governing and collecting taxes for the empire. He said Catholics were often rigid about granting divorces so sometimes Christians would convert to Islam "for the sole purpose of ridding themselves of a troublesome spouse." Ha, ha! This millet system seemed to work very well and even garnered praise for keeping rival groups' fighting to a minimum.
The millet system declined later in Ottoman rule as they started copying European models of a centralized government and Turkish nationalism and intolerance for other groups emerged. Nationalism "was hostile to religion [and] rested on a secular view of the world. [It] would prove far more lethal to groups like the Armenians than the Ottoman ruling class ever was." (pg. 184)
Ottomans discouraged conversion to Islam. Conversions brought change and the Ottoman were all about keeping things unchanged and peaceful. Karabell said they even had people in place over each millet community to make sure people did not convert to Islam.
The author discusses a Jewish man who came on the scene. Some thought Sabbati Sevi was a great man and he got many followers throughout the empire and in European countries. Others believed he was a madman. He was a follower of the school of Isaac Luria a mystic rabbi who "developed a secretive reading of the Torah" that explained the creation story as a metaphor for the "fragmentation of the divine." He "suggested that the divine had been splintered and that the point of human life was to help it reassemble. At some point, an intermediary would appear who would enable both God and man to become whole once again***." (pg. 189) Sabbati claimed to be this person, this messiah and he got a number of followers. In fact thousands of them came to Istanbul as Sevi believed he could march "convinced that waters would part, the sultan would bow, and a new age would begin." Instead the sultan offered him a choice: convert to Islam or die. Sevi reportedly converted "willingly, even cheerfully" to the astonishment and horror of his followers. A few believed this was part of Sevi's plan while the majority "drifted away, shocked that their messiah had committed an act of apostasy and embraced Islam rather than dying for his faith." (pg. 190)
Towards the end of this chapter, Karabell shares about the Ottoman empire's decline and how tolerance was the first casualty. For all the good of the Ottomans, their weakness was "lack of curiosity about the wider world" and this eventually led to their decline. While other nations were looking around, fighting each other and thus having to improve their technology, the Ottomans, it seemed, were rather content and this lead to their vulnerability as the Western nations started looking outward.
I thought this part about the rise of the West was interesting. The author says while there are many theories, it "remains one of the great unsolved riddles of the modern world." But he offers this: "The countries of Europe had fought one another to a standstill for so long that they had been forced to innovate, and to find new sources of revenue and better technology. European nations were forged in a cauldron of war and hatred, and emerged on the world stage uniquely capable of fighting. They combined the ruthlessness of all great powers past and present with the means to enforce their will." (pg. 197)
Hmmm, I'm really not getting a great sense of goodness about my Westernness and European roots from this book! Seems we are a bunch of divided fighting machines! :-P
*** While I disagree with the thought of the divine splintering as Luria believed, I do often think of sin as breaking the relationship between God and man and Jesus the Messiah as the one who restores that fellowship.
Any thoughts? Anything catch your attention that you want to expound upon?