The Talmud and Islam

The Talmud, the great multi-volume compendium of Jewish law and thought is based on discussions in rabbinic colleges alongside the Tigris and Euphrates, in modern day Iraq. The discussions took place between the third and fifth centuries, but the Talmud was still being compiled and collated two hundred years later. By then the area was under the control of the Islamic caliphate.

In the year 750 the caliph built the sparkling city of Baghdad, not far from the site of the ruined Babylon. The new city was the most magnificent the world had ever seen. Its dazzling splendour forms the backdrop to the Tales of the Arabian Nights.

In the heart of Baghdad stood Bayt al-hikma, the House of Wisdom. It housed the most ambitious scholarly project ever, the brainchild of the caliph Harun al-Rashid. Harun’s vision was of an Islamic culture so great that it would even exceed that of the ancient Greeks. The House of Wisdom stored the entire corpus of Greek literature, philosophy and mathematics, all translated into Arabic.

Baghdad prided itself on its knowledge, learning and sophistication; culture oozed out of the very pores of its stones. And while the Islamic scholars in Baghdad were acquiring wisdom from their study of the Greeks, the Jews of the city were doing the same, compiling, editing and studying the book that would become known as the Talmud.

Islam and Judaism share similar characteristics. They are both based on a divinely revealed text- the Torah for the Jews and  the Qu’ran for Muslims. Both texts are interpreted by means of an oral tradition, the Talmud and the Hadith respectively. Each tradition contains legal and ethical material. The Jewish legal material is called halacha and the Islamic, sharia; both terms mean a pathway, or way to go.

Of course the Qu’ran is much more recent than the Torah. It is of a similar age to the Talmud, and it originated in a similar milieu. So it is no surprise to find that both the Talmud and Qu’ran contain similar ideas. For example, the Qu’ran defines the moment of daybreak, when fasting begins during Ramadan, as when the ‘white thread of dawn becomes distinct to you from the black thread’.  Similarly, the Mishnah (the earliest layer of the Talmud) rules that the Sh’ma is to be said when one can distinguish between blue and white. And the well known injunction from the Mishnah,  that saving a single life is equivalent to saving an entire world, also crops up in the Qu’ran.

Such parallels are not surprising, after all Islam is the daughter of Judaism. What is more remarkable is the effect that Islam has had on Jewish law, nearly all of which came about because, in Baghdad, Jews and Muslims lived and worked in the same society. The Talmud  (Ketubot 63b) counsels a 12 month cooling off period before a divorce becomes effective. But Islamic law allows for immediate divorce. The result was that, in Baghdad, some Jewish women sought divorces in the Islamic courts, and then married Muslim men. Until two Jewish sages in the mid-7th century amended the law. From then on Jewish divorces took immediate effect.

Jewish law was also adapted to make trade easier between Jews and Muslims. Worried about fraud, the Talmud had forbidden money to be sent using bills of exchange. But Islamic law allowed them. When Jewish traders started to follow suit, often working in partnership with Muslims, the rabbinic courts changed their view and allowed bills of exchange to be used.

There are many  examples of Jewish and Islamic law influencing each other, particularly in matters of trade. Indeed, one scholar has suggested that Harun al-Rashid even set up a legal commission in which Jewish and Islamic scholars worked together, each developing a legal code for their own community. It’s an interesting thought.

© 2020 Harry Freedman Books