Dr. Reuven Firestone, Professor of Medieval Jewish Studies at HUC-JIR/Los Angeles, will present a paper on "Meanings of Muhammad in Pre-Modern Jewish Literatures" at the international conference "Crossing Boundaries, Creating Images: In Searth of the Prophet Muhammad in Literary and Visual Traditions," organized by the Max-Planck-Institute and presented at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz. The three day conference will bring together thirty distinguished scholars whose work explores the varied ways in which the Prophet Muhammad has been constructed and imagined through both European eyes and within Islamic traditions.
Dr. Firestone's paper will explore how, as a minority religious community holding little or no political power in any part of the world, Jews had to be circumspect in their polemical and apologetical writings. But like Christians and Muslims, Jews were intent in defending their own religion and religious civilization in a world in which it was common to critique the religious "other." Jewish examples of such writings, however, are less common than Christian or Muslim, and references to Muhammad as well as Jesus tend to be oblique in order to protect the writers and their communities from possible or even likely adverse physical reaction. Even the great and respected Moses Maimonides (d.1204) makes clear in his "Letter to Yemen," sent to bolster the Jews of that land that had come under pressure to convert to Islam, that writing a letter that might be understood as critical of Islam endangered his own personal safety.
Nevertheless, pre-modern Jewish writings ranging from scriptural commentary to legends, legal compendia, and philosophical tracts contain a number of direct or indirect references to Muhammad. The goal of this paper is to collect the various references to Muhammad that occur within a very large library of Jewish literatures and to begin the process of understanding patterns of their purpose and meaning.