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What does Islam say about non-Muslims? The vast literature on this subject tends to wobble unsteadily on a narrow base of evidence—namely the Qur'an itself. Or as Friedman, professor of Islamic studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, delicately puts it, "some of the more substantial works on our topic are based exclusively on the few relevant Qur'anic verses and, surprisingly enough, have no recourse to the enormous amount of material in hadith, tafsir, and fiqh." The preference to focus on the Qur'an rather than the million or so hadiths (sayings and actions attributed to Muhammad) is certainly understandable, but for a true understanding of Muslim jurisprudence and ethos, the latter needs to be taken into account.

In a tour de force, Friedman reviews the hadith literature on a series of topics concerning pre-modern Muslim attitudes toward non-Muslims, including equality before the law, religious compulsion, apostasy, and interfaith marriages. The power of his analysis lies in the distinctions he finds between eras and madhhabs (schools of law). For example, he shows that whereas Muslims early on granted non-Muslims equal protection from murder, with time, only one of the four Sunni madhhabs held to this position. More broadly, he argues that this development over time signifies that "the idea of Islamic exaltedness gained the upper hand as the decisive factor in the determination of the law."

This theme of Islamic supremicism has key importance; in the words of one hadith, "Islam is exalted and nothing is exalted above it." With the most minor of exceptions, Friedman observes, Muslims throughout the pre-modern period "faced the other religions from the position of a ruling power, and enjoyed in relation to them a position of unmistakable superiority." To a great extent, this also defined their attitudes toward tolerance and coercion.