Ask The Rabbis | What Should Jews Know About the Muslim Faith?
This question immediately reminds me of the one put to Hillel: to summarize all of Judaism while standing on one foot. And he, mind you, was an insider, talking about his own belief system. Are we non-Muslims possessed of enough chutzpah to summarize all of Islam in 200 words?
Some basics: Islam is defined as acceptance of and obedience to the teachings of God as revealed to the prophet Muhammad. Islam acknowledges its roots in Judaism and Christianity and affirms that Adam, Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and Jesus were prophets before Muhammad.
Just as our Torah has verses about God as gracious and forgiving and also lines that depict God as punitive and vindictive, the Quran is of mixed mind about the Jews. Some lines express tolerance. Others are hostile. We and Muslims alike make choices about which verses to embrace and which to deemphasize. Islam, like Judaism, affirms that human beings have free will to choose right or wrong. The five essential pillars of Islam also have echoes in our belief system: shahada (the testimony of faith), salat (the ritual prayers performed five times a day), zakat (support for the needy), sawm (fasting in the month of Ramadan) and hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime). Islam also affirms the idea of a Day of Judgment or Resurrection. I know I’ve exceeded my word limit. Now, as Hillel would say, go and study!
Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer
The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism
New York, NY
They should know that, not unlike the Christian faith, Islam too plundered our ancient scriptures to invent itself and then endeavored for more than 1,500 years to destroy us through oppression, expulsions, outright massacres and defamatory literature disguised as sacred scripture. In fact, the very first decree that Jews wear a yellow badge originated in the Muslim nation of Iraq in 850 C.E. And though Jews for the most part fared better in Muslim countries than in Christian lands, the tragic history of Muslims against Jews needs to be remembered so that current history may be put into perspective. Islam’s opinion of us was formed long before the Balfour Declaration of 1917. In some sacred writings of Islam, it appears almost as if the life of Islam were dependent upon the death of Jewry. Being nice to Jews, or tolerating them, was considered by some an outright affront to everything that Islam stood for. “Love of the Prophet,” taught the 15th-century scholar Muhammad al-Maghili of Tunisia, “requires hatred of the Jews.” (See The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism, ed. Andrew G. Bostom.) Still, the sporadic anti-Jewish slurs in the scriptures of Islam fail to compete with the 450 successive ones that fill the New Testament and that inspired the former.
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Cedar Glen, CA
Islam and Judaism are kindred religious traditions. Islam’s story of its founding prophet Muhammad recalls some of our stories about Moses. Muhammad, a middle-aged man in difficult circumstances, is suddenly addressed by God. Initially ambivalent, he grows into a gifted spiritual teacher, leading his community to develop social ethics, religious rituals and a successful army.
Islam calls Muhammad the final prophet of human history (as Talmudic rabbis called Zechariah and Malachi). Thus, some say Islam claims to supersede Judaism and Christianity. Others say Islam is inclusive, showcasing in its Quran Jewish and Christian biblical figures and featuring stories from the Jewish midrashic tradition. Like Judaism, Islam birthed a powerful mystical tradition, Sufism, which explores universal divine love through expanded consciousness. Like Jews, Muslims chant their scriptures, encourage daily prayer and practice feasting and fasting.
Muslims connect their religion with politics in various ways, disagreeing over whether it requires pacifism or militarism. Like Jews, Muslims in North America have been caricatured for political purposes. Yet over the years, these two clans of Abraham’s spiritual descendants have also frequently lived in peace.
Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
Vancouver School of Theology
Jews should know that there’s a religion with often bloodthirsty scriptures, known for marginalizing others and quashing dissent, some of whose adherents justify oppression and murder in the name of tradition. And its name is: Judaism. And Christianity. And Islam. Know too of a religion in which God is compassionate and merciful, brilliant ethics are taught, and progressive boundaries are ever pushed from within; most adherents know it only as a religion of love and justice and peace. And its name is: Islam. And Christianity. And Judaism. Know this: Every tradition is both weird and wonderful; each has contradictions and beauty; all can be roundly condemned, or heartily praised, often for the very same traits. Know as well the five pillars (one, zakat, charity, is a cognate of tzedakah). Know Islam’s rich similarities with Judaism. Know key differences—between Islamic and Arab, Sunni and Shia, mainstream and extremist. Know key sacred terms like sura (verse), hadith (traditions), and salat (prayer). Know to say “Eid Mubarak” to your Muslim neighbors at the right times, just as “Chag Sameach” means much from another. Above all, know your Muslim neighbors—and love them as yourself. Our tradition, much like theirs, demands no less.
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb
Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation
For many years, my city of Fresno has faced Islamophobia, ignorance about Islam and hate crimes against the Muslim community. We found ourselves dealing with this once again in April in the wake of an incident of gun violence in which many assumed that the gunman’s crimes were motivated by his Muslim faith; it turned out they were not.
I used to think I knew what Islam was about. Yet as I came to know more Muslims personally and learned more about their faith, I realized that much of what I knew was either flat-out wrong or grossly misguided. Islam, like Judaism, is not a monolithic faith. As on the pages of this publication, there are differences of opinion. The Muslim community has many voices and perspectives on what living a Muslim life can and should look like today. The essential theme of the Quran is that it is a Muslim’s duty to create justice in the world. A Muslim is supposed to embody compassion, love and peacefulness and to seek healing and wholeness in the world. This is the Islam I have come to know. I hope others will do what they need to in order to see this Islam as well.
Rabbi Laura Novak Winer
“I used to think I knew what Islam was about. Yet as I came to know more Muslims personally and learned more about their faith, I realized that much of what I knew was either flat-out wrong or grossly misguided.”
Jews should learn more about Islam in order to make informed judgments about Jewish-Muslim relations and the role of Islam in the world. I want my congregants to understand the origins of Islam and how it has evolved since Muhammad’s death. By being exposed to the teachings of Islam, my congregants may recognize the similarities between Judaism and Islam. In addition, I would want my congregants to know the basic teachings of the Quran and to learn about Muhammad, the man and the prophet.
Finally, I think it is important to know more about the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims and the different ways they practice their religion. As Muslims grow in number in this country, we are more and more likely to encounter them as neighbors, classmates and coworkers. We should reach out and get to know one another in the hopes of establishing respectful relationships. We will need each other to work on issues of common concern. For those of us who care deeply about Israel, we may then be able to create opportunities for dialogue.
Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz
Temple Beth El
Ideally, they should know as much as possible. Islam is an important world religion with tremendous impact on Jewish life, including past periods of close relationship and religious symbiosis. The more Jews know, the more likely they will be to connect to Muslims and help sustain them against potential demonization or discrimination in the United States.
Jews should also connect with Muslims because there are serious difficulties between us. Islam is in crisis, with a strong fundamentalist Salafi wing that has resisted or badly handled modernization. This has nurtured the creation of a radical/terrorist/jihadi branch which is expansionist and violent. The Muslim world is rife with anti-Semitism, which feeds off and sustains anti-Zionism and denial of Israel’s right to exist. We must give positive feedback to moderates who assert themselves and strong moral support for their efforts to regain control.
For two millennia, Christianity demeaned Judaism and persecuted Jews. This degraded the quality of Jewish life. Since the Holocaust, Christianity has repented and made major strides to eliminate anti-Semitism and respect Judaism. We need the same inner process from Islam. Otherwise Muslims will degrade the quality of Jewish life and threaten it for the next millennium.
Rabbi Yitzhak Greenberg
I think three areas are vital. The first is to understand the contribution Judaism made to Islam, alongside other monotheistic religions. It’s important to be able to see the Jewish roots in so much of Western religious striving. The second is for Jews to familiarize themselves with the areas of overlap, because those areas can provide an impetus for communities to ease tensions and come together. And the third is to know about the differences that can be sources of Jewish pride.
For instance, all three monotheistic religions have elements or passages in their holy literature that they would prefer not to put up in 100-foot letters in Times Square. Jews, Christians and Muslims all have different ways of handling them. Traditional Jews have an interpretive tradition: For passages where people might say, “How can you believe that?” we say, “Well, this is in the Torah, but the Talmud says no.” That gives depth and nuance and rationality to what we believe. Muslims had such a tradition historically—ijtihad, the use of rationality to derive laws. But many of the prevailing forms of Islam that we see around us and in the news—the Salafi Mulsims and others like them—are much more focused on the unvarnished text. I do think the way Islam will moderate itself is to rediscover the interpretive tradition it had in the past.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Loyola Law School
Los Angeles, CA
When we think of Jewish communities in Muslim lands, it is almost always in the past tense, simply because most of them are gone. But there is a noticeable exception: I write this from Casablanca, Morocco, where I serve as an emissary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory. The Jewish community here, while certainly much smaller than it was 60 years ago, is alive and active, and we feel safe and protected. Chabad-Lubavitch has had a presence here since 1950, and we do not plan on going anywhere.
For hundreds of years Muslim lands served as a refuge for the religiously persecuted. In a letter to His Majesty, the late King Hassan II, the Rebbe noted that it was in Fez, Morocco, that Maimonides found refuge from religious intolerance, later becoming the personal physician of Sultan Saladin in Cairo, Egypt.
In the conclusion of his letter to the king, the Rebbe quotes Maimonides’ Mishnah Torah, writing that “the knowledge of G-d is the basis of mankind’s future; the ideal world in which there is no jealousy nor animosity among individuals and nations, but only peace, justice and benevolence under One G-d.”
We rabbis ought to tell our congregants that despite the real and present danger of Islamic extremism—a danger to both Jews and Muslims—the possibility of true coexistence and mutual respect with Muslims is real. As Jews, we have our own faith, which is what we must study and adhere to; our path to serving G-d is solely the Jewish one. At the same time, while it is not our religion, we value Islam’s dedication to One G-d, a core belief of our faith which must serve as the bedrock of society. This should not be underestimated.
Rabbi Levi Banon
I would like my congregants, who are mostly Sephardic, to know that our culture was deeply influenced by and is intricately woven with that of Islam. I also believe that it is important for all Jews, as well as Muslims and Christians, to know that. My ancestors hail from, among other countries, Iraq, Syria, Morocco, Tunisia and Turkey, and I have had congregants who were natives of Bahrain and Indonesia. Our Shabbat songs and liturgy borrow freely from centuries of Islamic, Sufi and secular Arabic music, but the connection runs much deeper.
Judaism, under the rule of Islam, did not experience the same level of hatred, anti-Semitism and persecution common to Christendom. Jews were not accused of deicide and did not have to defend their religion in public disputations. If the term Judeo-Christian sounds legitimate, the term Judeo-Muslim could well describe the moderate and enlightened Islam which nurtured the glory of Andalusia, Cordoba and Granada.
I would like Jews to know that there are many moderate imams and Quran scholars who are willing to accommodate to changing times and that just as there are multiple voices and opinions in Judaism, so there are in Islam.
Rabbi Haim Ovadia
Magen David Sephardic Congregation