On Friday, April 20th, IIIT held its monthly seminar at its headquarters in Herndon, Virginia. The panel discussion, entitled “Jewish Muslim Dialogue: Challenges and Prospects” attracted more than forty interfaith and community leaders, scholars and university students. The panelists were: Rabbi Gerry Serotta, Executive Director of Clergy Beyond Borders, Imam Yahya Hendi, President, Clergy Beyond Borders, and Joseph Montville, Senior Research Scholar at IIIT. Guests from Eastern Mennonite University included Dr. Ed Martin, Director of the Center of Interfaith Engagement, and Dr. John Fairfield, Professor at Eastern Mennonite University. Also present were students from the American University and their supervisor, Dr. Mohammad Nimer.
Rabbi Gerry Serotta started off by acknowledging IIIT contribution to interfaith dialogue that continued for decades, referring to Ismail Faruqi’s book “Trialogue of Abrahamic Faiths” and other IIIT publications on the subject. Rabbi Serotta divided his presentations into four major sections: a) the theological basis for Jwish Muslim dialogue, b) the historical basis, or “The Golden Age of Spain”, c) the contemporary era, particularly the American experience, and d) the impact of Middle East politics, particularly the Israeli – Palestinian question.
He noted that there is a perception that Jews and Muslims are perpetual antagonists. He challenged that notion by introducing the concept of pluralism – the many paths leading to the One God – and its expressions in the Talmud and the Qur’an. On the influence of Islam on Judaism, he cited the example of Mennonites, a Jewish Rabbi and Scholar who was very much influenced by his Muslim teacher, particularly in developing – for the first time – a systematic theology for Judaism. He added “Islam with its pure monotheistic approach and its pure philosophical understanding, very much influenced Judaism throughout the Middle Ages”.
Rabbi Serotta gave examples from the Torah and the Qur’an that indicate the many paths to the One God. He mentioned the people of Babel and how God confounded their language, affirming His plan for us to have diversity and religious pluralism as part of the fabric of humanity. He talked about Maimonides, a rabbi and scholar, who wrote about the impact of Islam on Judaism. Rabbi Serotta explained that Judaism did not have a systematic theology until its encounter with Islam. “Islam with its pure monotheistic approach was a critique of Biblical imagery; Islam has a much purer philosophical understanding” he said. He believes that this Islamic understanding influenced Maimonides, and added that “there was a very important religious influence throughout the Middle Ages.”
He questioned if we can ever recover the inner penetration and learning from each other that was part of the people’s experience for 3 or 4 important centuries … both in the Arab world, particularly in what is now Iraq, and also in Muslim Spain and North Africa. He emphasized that there are many reasons for interest in the Jewish-Muslim dialogue, particularly those for conflict resolution. But there are more positive reasons for speaking in dialogue on a religious basis.
Rabbi Serotta also mentioned that “there are many things that we share going to the American Experience: being a minority in a largely Christian country, being an immigrant population that tries to take from the best of American values but not dissolve and diminish the distinctiveness of our own religious traditions, the issue of educating our children with teaching them the holy languages, Hebrew and Arabic.” He explained that the Jews and Muslims have a lot of contemporary experience. On the issue of the anti-Shari’ah legislation, Rabbi Serotta said that there are some organizations that see the same threat as majoritarianism in the society, the idea that a religious community’s laws are by themselves antithetical to American pluralism. He expressed that both the Jewish and the Muslim communities have suffered and continue to suffer from majoritariansm.
Imam Yahya Hendi thanked IIIT for providing the opportunity to speak on an important topic, and said that the three Abrahamic religions are sister religions, and not daughter religions as Rabbi Serotta mentioned. “We are all siblings, we are all the children of Abraham, whether Moses, Jesus, or Mohammad. Whether those who profess faith in God through Judaism, or Christianity, or Islam. We are all equal partners and we all claim Abraham as a father for all of us” he commented. Imam Hendi remarked that people overlook the 1400 years of positive experience between Islam and Judaism and only focus on the last 60 years. He emphasized that this does not do justice to Judaism, to Islam, or to history. He said that we have allowed these few years to shape the dialogue and image of the relationship between Islam and Judaism. He suggested that we have to liberate ourselves from those perceptions.
On the effect of the media, Imam Hendi spoke about how the stereotypes of the relationships created by the American and Arab Media have shaped the way we think of the “other”. He also mentioned that some Evangelicals have shaped this perception. He emphasized that we should redefine our relationship and future, because we often discover that there is so much in common between the two religions. He pointed out that the Qur’an is mostly narratives about the story of Moses, Jesus, and Biblical narratives. The Prophet Muhammad is mentioned less than Moses in the Qur’an, which is most probably because God wants us to learn from the experience of the Jews. He mentioned Dr. Asrar Ahmad of Pakistan and his book that addresses the issue of why God focuses on the Israelite narratives; Dr. Ahmad also believes that the reason is help Muslims learn about and avoid the traps into which the Jews fell.
Imam Hendi emphasized that in order to understand where we are now in the US or worldwide in terms of Jewish- Muslim relations we need to know where we were 50 years ago, 40 years ago, and 30 years ago. He ensured that things have improved because there is dialogue; Imams are going to synagogues, and there is an improvement between the relationships between the two faiths.
In terms of Arab-Israeli conflict, there has to be a solution. Israel has to project itself not as a Western project, but as a fellow religious community amongst equals. Imam Hendi focused on the future and emphasized that we should not dwell on the past. “The bitterness of yesterday must not paralyze the possibilities of the future,” he said. He stated that there are many projects that bring imams, rabbis, mosques, and synagogues together. In order for all of us to dream to be in Jerusalem, we have to be there together by liberating ourselves from being captives of egotism and arrogance and become humble with the love of one another.
Joseph Montville, Senior Fellow at IIIT, has been working on a project called “Toward the Abrahamic Family Reunion” for five years. He mentioned that both Rabbi Serotta and Imam Hendi, who are working hard to bring together the leadership in their communities, demonstrated that the start should be by teaching what is shared in both traditions. Montville reiterated that the Jewish and Muslim traditions are intimate. He mentioned that, “after 9-11, Muslim organizations in the US were under tremendous pressure, a combination of fear, paranoia, and ignorance.”
Montville expressed the importance of understanding history in order to understand why the mission of the Prophets – what they were trying to teach us- was hard to learn; it was “because history, politics, and egotism interfered with the mission of God and His Prophets”. He emphasized that we need to fight the propaganda that is trying to obscure what the Prophets have been trying to teach us.