Speak, learn, befriend
By Akbar S. Ahmed
Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington.
January 18, 2004
"How can you shake the hands of the rabbi whose hands are dripping with blood?" So wrote a Muslim journalist to me when he learned I had agreed to take part in an interfaith dialogue organized by the Washington (D.C.) Hebrew Congregation. I wrote back to him that such stereotypes were not only inaccurate but plainly anti-Semitic. He accused me of sounding like a representative of the Israeli embassy.
Not an encouraging start for my first visit to a synagogue; however, the friendship and knowledge of the rabbi, whose hands were certainly not dripping with anyone's blood, made up for the discouraging note - discouraging, because the Jewish and Muslim communities in the United States now have a historic opportunity to lead the dialogue between their great faiths.
A Jewish-Muslim dialogue here can encourage one not only in the Middle East, but also elsewhere. And it is desperately needed in view of the anti-Semitism that has resurfaced in many countries such as France. Leaders of the two communities must take three important steps to start the process: dialogue; learning about each other; and the creation of personal friendships.
Dialogue. Sept. 11 acted as a spur to interfaith dialogue across the land. But dialogue in itself is simply an attractive but usually empty process. A meeting for an hour or so that touches only on generalities makes little ultimate difference to the communities. But it can create an opening, which in turn can lead to an attempt from each tradition to learn about the other.
Learning about each other. Any rabbi or imam will confirm the close affinity between Judaism and Islam. The rabbi will point out verses from traditional Jewish sources that emphasize tolerance of non-Jews. Maimonides, arguably one of the greatest rabbis of all times, acknowledges not only Jesus of Nazareth but also the prophet of Islam, to whom he refers as "that Ishmaelite." Maimonides wrote, "All who accept the Seven Commandments" - Muslims unequivocally accept them - "and observe them carefully are indeed among the righteous of the nations of mankind and have a share in the world to come."
Entire verses of the Torah are reflected in the Quran. For example, Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5 warns that the taking of a single man's life is like the taking of "a whole world," and the saving of a single soul "as though he had saved alive a whole world." Chapter 5:32 of the Quran says exactly the same thing.
As mutual knowledge grows, Muslim anti-Semitism, which has grown over the last decades, will be checked. Muslims will be reminded that Jews and Christians are People of the Book, and they share the same God and the same Prophets.
Friendship. With dialogue and learning, friendship becomes possible. In my own case, I met Lawrence Rosen almost a quarter of century ago at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He had just won a MacArthur Award. We remained friends over the years, and I have dedicated my latest book, Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World, to him. Developments in the Middle East have distorted each community's perception of the other. Barbaric acts, such as the killing of Danny Pearl in Karachi, create only further misunderstanding. That is why I am grateful to Danny's father, Judea Pearl, who has provided the opportunity for dialogue, knowledge and friendship. I believe - although this may just be the dream of an idealist - that in learning about each other, both Jews and Muslims will rediscover how much they share.
Contact Akbar S. Ahmed at firstname.lastname@example.org.