The first multilingual Psalter. Genoa, 1516. The New York Public Library, Rare Book Division.For very long time, Jews, Christians and Muslims have behaved toward one another like members of a dysfunctional family, like the competitors for an immense inheritance, the favor of Almighty God. But the current exhibition at the New York Public Library uncovers quite another strain of familiarity among the three, their devotion to the book.
Many cultures value the written word, the art of writing and a reverence for books, but Jews Christians and Muslims are unique in their devotion not merely to books – the scribe was always among their elite members before the age of printing – but to the Book.
All three communities of monotheists are profoundly committed to the notion not only that God spoke directly to them, but that the divine counsels, commands, prohibitions and warnings are inscribed in a Sacred Book, the Scripture whose devoted and jealous guardians they are. Muhammad could find no better way to describe the three communities than with the phrase, “People of the Book,” and the evidence for the truth of that judgment is on brilliant display before us.
Jews, Christians and Muslims all worship the same unique deity and since it is one and the same God who spoke to all three the communities, they are forever bound together by the content of their versions of the Book.
Christians were tied from the very beginning to what they understood as the promises of the Jewish Bible, which they repeated in their own Scripture, and the Quran is filled with an astonishing variety of tales of the Jewish prophets and of a venerated Jesus and his equally venerated mother Mary.
Whatever their differences Jews, Christians and Muslims touch each other familiarly in their common embrace of the Book.
The languages and styles of what we see in Three Faiths should not deceive us with their remarkable diversity. The works now on exhibition at the New York Public Library are all about the same thing: the mighty works of the One True God and the very human struggle on the part of Jews, Christians and Muslims, wherever they are or whenever they have lived, to understand what God requires of humankind and the equally human hope that in that understanding and observance lies a promised salvation.
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F.E. Peters is Professor Emeritus of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies and History at New York University, and an advisor on NYPL's exhibition, Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.