It was a moment of crisis for Yeminite Jews. They were being persecuted by extremists of the Zaidi branch of Shiite Islam and forced to convert -- with the explicit threat of death if they refused. Moses Maimonides, a widely respected rabbi in what is now Egypt, responded in the way he thought best: discrediting the prophetic tradition of the Muslim sect oppressing the Yemenite Jewish community -- and Christianity, for the sake of definitiveness, as well.
In what became known as the "Epistle to Yemen" after widespread circulation throughout the Middle East, Maimonides claimed that Islam and Christianity were but distortions of the "true and divine religion, revealed to us through Moses, chief of the former as well as of the later prophets." His strategy was clear: bolster the Jews of Yemen by discrediting the faith of those oppressing them. He then forcefully questioned whether Jesus and Muhammad had knowledge of the sacred -- even going so far as to hurl epithets about them.
While his actions were considered praiseworthy by some of his coreligionists at the time, this picture of "support" by Moses Maimonides seems quite bleak, if not galling today. The 12th century is not widely known for its inter-religious interchange, but Maimonides, like many other Middle Eastern rabbis, was fluent in Arabic and even as a rabbi held a significant knowledge of Islam. Maimonides even served the royal court of Saladin's empire as a physician and often demonstrated nuanced views of Islam, which he even defended at one point against accusations of idolatry from rabbis less versed in its teachings.
But in light of the terrible state of affairs for Yemen's Jews, Maimonides' instinct was to question the legitimacy of the prophetic histories of Islam and Christianity -- to attack the very foundations of the other Abrahamic traditions.
Maimonides' tactics are hardly confined to Judaism or the 12th century -- or any religious tradition or era, for that matter. Just open the newspaper and read what contemporary religious leaders are saying about other in regions of conflict.
Yet, these are perhaps quintessential examples of what Hindu author and philanthropist, Rajiv Malhotra, has termed "history centrism." Due to the significant emphasis on prophetic history, religious groups can become what he terms "historical societies" -- preserving, codifying and interpreting the religious histories of their founders. In conflict, they come to question each other's histories, and therefore the legitimacy of each other's faiths.
WATCH Rajiv Malhotra discuss his idea of history centrism:
While I will reserve judgment on this claim, Malhotra suggests that the Abrahamic traditions may be especially prone to conflict based on conflicting interpretations of their prophetic histories, in contrast, he suggests, to Dharmic traditions, which are less reliant on (if not avoidant of) the fixed history of a given person. To take but one of Malhotra's examples, compare reincarnation to the idea of a prophet who lives and dies but once.
Maimonides' infuriating criticism of Muhammad and Jesus in the Epistle to Yemen merely exemplifies the tendency Malhotra identifies at its most extreme. Many milder examples reinforce the idea that Abrahamic traditions are heavily reliant on history as a basis for religion. Inter-religious relations can at times more closely resemble a debate about history than a discussion of the sacred and opportunities for future collaboration.
So what of the Abrahamic emphasis on prophetic history? Is it possible to accept the teachings of a prophet (or set of prophets) without focusing on prophetic history? Can one be religious -- or religiously knowledgeable -- without the study of history? In short, could the future of religion be better off without knowledge of the past?
When Malhotra first asked me these and other, similar questions in the course of an interview series, I found myself flummoxed. I simply could not identify strands of my Jewish heritage that could be extricated entirely from the history in which they are rooted. Even in prayer, I think of the generations before me who joined in the same songs, chants, movements, aspirations and moments of inspiration that I do. Religion is inextricably bound for me in history; one cannot exist without the other.
All the more so, then, is Malhotra's question a worthy one: What baggage does our history entail, and how can we live religiously with less of it? I find myself at once rooted in Jewish history and aware that not all history provides the basis for progress. While I may never seek to extricate religion from history, I must at least be aware of the history that I bring to bear on religious practice and belief.