Victoria Fendel

Bridging the Great Divide: the Jewish-Muslim Encounter


'And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.'
(New Testament, 1 Corinthians 13:13, King James Bible)

This was my starting point into the course Bridging the Great Divide: the Jewish-Muslim Encounter (BGD). In essence, I had an outside perspective with regard to both Judaism and Islam. As a European in a changing Europe, this felt far from ideal. So, I decided to go on a journey towards the two monotheistic faiths that were only known to me from textbooks. For, one only understands what one learnt to understand.

My academic background has very little to do with theology. I am a Classical linguist working on early Byzantine Greek and Coptic texts and have just finished my PhD at Oxford. Yet in early Byzantine Egypt, the three monotheistic religions were in fact about to supplant the old pagan rites. Small Jewish communities had already existed there for centuries before Christianity was taking ground in the early Byzantine period only to be challenged by the arrival of Muslim Arabs in the seventh and eighth centuries. My research interest is primarily in language contact: How did languages change when communities of speakers were in sustained contact? Thus, my research focuses on our most powerful tool for and in any dialogue, our language(s).

Like modern-day Europe, the cohabitation of several groups of people in early Byzantine Egypt demanded dialogue. However, what characterises real dialogue and what makes dialogue successful?

'Dialogue demands that we take the 'Other' as seriously as we demand to be taken ourselves.' (BGD, week 4)

This was the most important lesson I took away from this course. As simple as this sentence may sound, it made me reconsider so many instances of failed communication in my own everyday life and see them in a different light. Living with the 'Other' is our daily challenge, not least because of our famous 'global village'. One way to approach the 'Other' is tolerance, essentially 'live and let live', but mere tolerance often degenerates into indifference. The alternative approach is acceptance and respect. Yet neither is possible without a thorough understanding of the 'Other'.

'If we are to live in close proximity to difference, as in a global age we do, we will need more than a code of rights, more even than mere tolerance. We will need to understand that just as the natural environment depends on biodiversity, so the human environment depends on cultural diversity, because no one civilization encompasses all the spiritual, ethical and artistic expressions of mankind.' (Sacks 2002: 62)

To put it differently, we do not want to have a nice chat and exchange pleasantries, we want to have a serious debate that unveils all the unknowns since it is only then that we can reach a compromise, a way to actually live with each other rather than alongside each other.

Back to People