A rabbi and an imam have joined forces to create mutual religious understanding between Muslims and Jews by teaching that a respectful relationship between the people of their two faiths is not just a good idea, it’s also good theology.
“We believe that the greatest challenge is not a political peace process or an economic peace process, but the greatest challenge is a theological peace process,” said Rabbi Marc Schneier, an 18th-generation rabbi and founder of the Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, LI and the New York Synagogue in Manhattan. He also co-founded the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding with music-business magnate Russell Simmons.
Schneier and Iman Shamsi Ali work with the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding’s Muslim-Jewish relations programs in 30 countries on six continents. Together they visited the Forest Hills Jewish Center on Dec. 15 for a conversation and to sign their new book, “Sons of Abraham: A Candid Conversation about the Issues that Divide and Unite Jews and Muslims.”
Both the rabbi from the Upper East Side of Manhattan and the first-generation imam from a rural area in Indonesia grew up sheltered, to an extent, from anyone who could be labeled as “The Other.” Their credentials include not only religious training but also a history of overcoming their own personal prejudices, which they confess in the book persisted into adulthood and were still in the process of crumbling as their relationship began.
“To be honest, I still had something in the back of my head about Jewish people,” Ali said. “The same as Rabbi Schneier had something in the back of his head about Muslims.”
Ali is chairman of the Al-Hikmah Mosque in Astoria and the director of the Jamaica Muslim Center in Queens, and serves on the advisory board of the Tanenbaum Center and Federation for Middle East Peace.
The title “Sons of Abraham” refers to the common descent of both Judaism and Islam from the Biblical story of Abraham. Schneier noted that while Christianity is also an Abrahamic religion, Jews and Christians have a mature interfaith relationship, but Jews and Muslims do not.
Such a relationship must start with not only a better understanding of the other’s religion, but of one’s own, say Schneier and Ali. Their primary example, a major point of contention that they believe could instead become a point of reconciliation, is the Jewish concept of being a “Chosen People” and the very similar Islamic concept of “Kheir Ummah,” or “best nation.”
Schneier said that the oral tradition of Judaism teaches that “chosen people” doesn’t mean Jews are superior to any other group but rather that they were chosen for a special responsibility, which he believes was to establish and promote ethical monotheism. He sees that responsibility as fulfilled, not contradicted, by the development of Islam and Christianity.
Ali said that the Islamic concept of Kheir Ummah as a similar meaning. He teaches that being a member of the Kheir Ummah is neither a gift nor a status bestowed on a Muslim, but rather a challenge for those Muslims who want to be righteous to serve both God and their fellow human beings.
Schneier told the Jewish Center audience that when he started to learn about Islam, he hadn’t thought about the fact that the Muslim oral tradition informs and interprets otherwise extreme-sounding written texts in the same way the Jewish religion does. Jews need to avoid focusing on out-of-context quotes from the Koran, such as the one about Muslims being the “best nation,” and instead become informed about the importance of the Islamic oral tradition, he said.
“No one here would dare to read the Torah literally. Ever read Deuternomy literally? It’s not a pretty picture; the writing about how to conquer Israel,” Schneier said, to murmurs of assent from the Jewish Center audience. “How many of you know that they pMuslims] have an oral tradition as well?”
Along with their theological work comes the work of friendship. Ali has spoken out repeatedly against anti-Semitism, notably when leaders of Hamas and Fatah condemned a visit by a Gaza Palestinian children’s group to New York’s Holocaust Museum.
“Not only did he publicly condemn the leaders of Hamas for taking that position, but he called on other Muslim leaders to expose their children to Holocaust education,” Schneier said.
And when Congressman Peter King (R-LI) was planning hearings that the two felt singled out Muslims in a xenophobic fashion for terrorist activity, Schneier initiated a Times Square rally entitled, “Today, I am a Muslim, too.” At the rally, they said the real enemy is extremism, not Muslims.
“People who fight for their own rights are only as honorable as when they are fighting for the rights of others,” Schneier said.
Audience members indicated that they were interested and hopeful but perhaps not as optimistic as the rabbi and the imam. One saw Islamic extremists in the form of suicide bombers present as one of the greatest obstacles. Ali answered that this is one of the greatest challenges Muslims have right now, “to bring the Muslims back into the correct religion. It’s a very severe sin to kill oneself.”
Another felt that a question raised by a Jewish member of the audience about restrictions on groups of Jews who want to pray at the Temple Mount — called Haram al-Sharif by Muslims — highlighted the seemingly intractable question of authority over Jerusalem. Schneier, who emphasized that the interfaith work is not about politics, noted that most parties on both sides seem willing to respect the other’s right to access holy sites in the area and added that the real problem that needs to be negotiated might be the question of who gets the naming rights.
“It took the Israelites 40 years to get to the promised land. We have not arrived at the promised land of Muslim-Jewish relations,” Schneier said.