As the Muslim world, and now Iran, make increasingly hostile overtures toward Israel, it's hard to imagine that relations between Jews and Arabs were ever harmonious.
But as biblical scholar Elsie Stern pointed out, during the pinnacle of Islamic power, Jews and Muslims often had a "really fertile" relationship — one based on shared religious convictions and intellectual and cultural progress.
A new lecture series sponsored by the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies of the University of Pennsylvania aims to shed light on this formerly symbiotic relationship.
Beginning this week, the five-month "Jewish Life Under Caliphs and Sultans" program will bring leading Judaic scholars to synagogues in Center City, Elkins Park and Montgomery County to give both a basic primer on Muslim beliefs and practices, and to examine special topics in Jewish-Muslim history.
The latter will illuminate issues such as Islam's effect on the Hebrew Bible, and how Jewish-Muslim relations in the Middle Ages waxed and waned between cooperation and conflict.
Stern, assistant director for public programs at the center, said that all attending speakers — which include Bible experts, Jewish medievalists, a trade economist and a member of the Israeli Knesset — will aim to dispel the popular misconception that the antecedents of modern Judaism lie in Christian Europe.
"Most American Jews, when they think of Jewish culture and the roots of Jewish culture, they think about Judaism in Christian settings," said Stern. "But the reality is, that from the seventh to 13th centuries, 90 percent of Jews lived under Muslim rule."
Islamic lands were "the heart of sophisticated culture — where philosophy was happening, where math was happening," she continued. " 'The dark ages' were really a period when Christian Europe was a backwater."
By way of example, Stern referred to the pre-eminent Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides, whose thoughts on Jewish ethics and law were developed in conjunction with Muslim intellectuals. She explained that, by valuing classical thinkers like Plato and Aristotle, those Muslim intellectuals provided much of the fodder for Maimonides' work.
Jews can also trace their economic prowess to the Islamic empire, according to Stern.
She said that the image of "the international businessman" developed under the sophisticated trade networks of the Islamic empire, and that by capitalizing on this infrastructure, Jews began a long lineage of bartering and trading.
In general, Stern said that Judaism and Islam share "a lot more similarities than I think Jews kind of intuitively would guess."
She pointed to a mutual emphasis on the legal tradition as an example, comparing Judaism's halachic teachings to the body of work called sharia in Islam.
That's not to say that Jewish life in Muslim lands was a bed of roses during the Islamic era.
As Hebrew University scholar Miriam Goldstein noted, Jews did not enjoy full rights in most Arab nations, and often had to pay a special tax, wear distinguishing clothing or adhere to certain restrictions there. For example, she said that Jews were prohibited from building synagogues above a certain height, for fear that they would outshine neighboring mosques.
Nevertheless, Goldstein — whose scholarship at the center focuses on Muslim and Christian influences on Judeo-Arabic — said that in intellectual spheres, they were equals.
"The rule then," she said, "was really peaceful co-existence."
For a complete list of lectures, call 215-238-1290, Ext. 507, or visit: www.cajs.upenn.edu.