Quebec’s recently proposed Bill 21, a so-called secularism or laicity bill, prevents public officials in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols. Though people of all religions are affected, the province’s governing party, the Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ), likely designed the bill to target Muslims, especially Muslim women wearing the hijab or niqab. But in also condemning kippot, the bill inadvertently calls attention to the profound affinity between Islam and Judaism. Publicly celebrating this religious connection can help build understanding between two peoples divided over Middle East politics.
For most of their history, Jews have been a diasporic people, living under Muslim or Christian rule. In terms of anti-Jewish violence, legal discrimination, forced conversion and expulsion, Christians treated Jews far worse than Muslims did. Vicious anti-Judaism is rooted in the New Testament, inspiring nearly two millenniums of persecution.
Life for Jews in the Muslim world, by contrast, was relatively safe and stable. It wasn’t perfect: anti-Jewish violence was rare but not unknown, and Jews (along with Christians) were relegated to dhimmi status, protected minorities who suffered from social, political and economic restrictions. But Jews were less isolated from their Muslim neighbours, which often led to cultural development and exchange, as in medieval Muslim Spain.
The Muslim-Jewish affinity is not simply a product of this relative stability. It is a product of the similarity between the two religions. Both Judaism and Islam embrace a radical unitarian monotheism, not only believing in one God, but that – as is written in the Shema – God is one. Though Muslims accept Jesus as a prophet, they reject his divinity. Their chief prophet, Muhammad, is a man, like Moses and the other Hebrew prophets.
Unlike Christianity, Judaism and Islam are both legalistic faiths. Jewish law, halakhah, and Muslim law, Shariah, are kindred spirits. Both are founded on a central sacred text – the Torah for Jews, the Qur’an for Muslims. Even the words are similar in meaning: halakhah comes from the Hebrew root “to walk,” while Shariah refers to a “path to water.”
This legalism is rooted in sacred scholarship. For Jews, the Talmud, the principal commentary of the Bible, forms the foundation of halakhah. For Muslims, the Hadith and Sunna, the sayings of Muhammad and his companions, expand on the law found in the Qur’an. Both religions have intricate traditions of jurisprudence and interpretation, involving respect for tradition and accommodation with modernity.
Both Judaism and Islam are religions of devotional obligation. Jews have to pray three times a day, while Muslims hear the call to prayer five times daily. Both faiths have strict dietary laws and ritualistic fasting. Both see the giving of charity as a commandment. Both enshrine singular holy sites above all others: the Western Wall in Jerusalem for Jews and the Kaaba in Mecca for Muslims. Both also prize female modesty in ways that upset the ultra-secularists of the CAQ.
The struggle against Bill 21 represents an opportunity to improve Muslim-Jewish relations in Quebec and perhaps worldwide. These relations are most contentious whenever Israel is discussed. It’s a problem that can be difficult to ignore, but it can be compartmentalized. Jews and Muslims in Quebec have already pledged to unite in civil disobedience, but that is not enough. They should also connect over their commonalities.
Canadian synagogues and mosques should make an effort to teach their congregants about the powerful, historical connection between Islam and Judaism. So should teachers in Jewish and Muslim schools, and in universities. In 2019, there is no greater task for our educators.
This is not to leave Christians or Hindus or anyone else out in the cold. But given the bitterness of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a religiously oriented Muslim-Jewish alliance in Quebec would honour an ancient affinity that began in the Middle East, and maybe help bring that affinity home.