Dr Omer Salem of Yale and AlAzhar Universities envisions a borderless world open to movement and communication between all peoples. A traditionalist Sunni Muslim, he studied Hebrew Bible at Yale and had his PhD dissertation supervised by Al-Azhar University Professors in Cairo. His thesis – acceptance of the People of the Book in Islam, a theme that is pulling in the opposite direction of the less embracing schools of thought in Islam today, schools which have been propped up of late more by politics than religious doctrine.
In this spirit, Salem invited Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Nagen, Fullbright Scholar Dr. Jospeh Ringel, and myself to meet his colleagues in Egypt. Impossible! My smart aleck retort was, “sure I will catch the next train.” But within two weeks we were on Egyptian soil and in earnest dialogue with some of the best minds of Cairo today. Here is a small glimpse of what we dream will be many more encounters.
Al Azhar University was founded by the Fatimids in the tenth century CE and is the oldest university in the world still functioning. Today it is considered the center of Islamic and Arabic scholarship. The university administers about 4000 teaching institutes and a system of schools with about two million students nation-wide.
Enter the campus, humanity’s stunning variety greets you in the beauty of all its rainbow colors – Indonesians, Africans, black, white, some in western dress, some in traditional garb. This richness accompanied us to professor Awad’s office – an enormous room which over the next two and a half hours would host our marathon discussion, with students and faculty entering and exiting, some participating, some just listening. The atmosphere was respectful and congenial throughout, albeit the discussion veering into some very sensitive subjects.
Before our arrival, we debated an essential question – how can the Muslim ummah – nation – accept Jews? Assuming that the hurdles were largely theological, we discussed the approach that Jews can take to Muhammad; a Navi, prophet, has vastly different connotations in Jewish thought than in Islamic thought. Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik’s essay, “Confrontation” presents an illustration of how essential terms cannot be imported and exported across cultures, indeed, meaning is lost in translation. In Judaism, a Navi can be false and even wicked, as in the case of Bilaam (Book of Numbers). So when Muslims ask Jews, “Do you think Muhammad was a prophet?” the connotations differ vastly. What we can say is that prophecy for the nation of Israel ended with the prophet Malachi, but that does not mean that prophecy stopped for all nations. In the spirit of the Rambam, who dwelled in Egypt as physician and Rabbi, we can appreciate that Muhammad spread monotheism globally, and that he could indeed be a prophet for the other nations of the world.
We would see however that the theological hurdle is in fact not the greatest stumbling block to reconciliation.
“Welcome, welcome!” Dr Awad beckoned, along with staff and students flanking him. The men were removing their shoes, should I? Do women remove their shoes as well? They do, but I can remain shod if I choose. Both equality of women and free choice are basic premises in Islam, the professor would make quite clear. But that is not my emphasis just yet, I have something more important for you to hear.
Professor Awad’s thesis was on the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. He emphasized that dialogue is a primary tenet of Islam. “The Qur’an commands us as Muslims to engage in dialogue to reach truth.” He stated.
“The differences between people are G-d given.” And he quoted, “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other. .” Qur’an 49:13. (Arabic: لتعارفوا) Lita’arafu – to know each other. You can respect Islam and the prophet and the Qur’an, without necessarily following the sharia of Islam, and that is your right.”
He added, “There is no coercion in religion,” Qur’an 2:256
“Muslims are commanded to study the teachings of the prophet Moses. For you, learning about Muhammad is merely optional. That is an expression of tolerance inherent in Islam. The Qur’an has provided solutions for so many problems in the world, and it commanded Jews to judge according to their own Torah. This is evidence that the Qur’an is a very neutral, objective book. Jews have a right to study the Qur’an without anyone judging whether they believe in it or not. You are indeed welcome to read it with your good intention.”
I introduced myself as a Haredi woman, and added that I had traveled with the agreement of my husband and the blessing of my Rabbi. There I had braved it all the way to Egypt, overcoming personal and societal hurdles. I made that statement in order to express a living traditional value and to pave the way for more fundamentalist Muslim and Jewish women to join in social activism. When fundamentalist women act, they move large areas, they bring whole families and societies with them. And we know that we are not docile followers. I love the story from an African-American fundamentalist church in the southern United States, a woman stood up and challenged her preacher, “that’s not written in my Bible!” Fundamentalist women are in dynamic dialogue with their family and leaders. When we act, we actually move large areas of ground.
But I liked the professor’s response:
He looked at me a little sharply, “Women and men are equal. The only difference is she has a right to be provided for.” Then he ticked off her rights on his fingers, “she has freedom of work, dignity, employment, she may divorce, and she does not need her husband’s permission to travel.” I smiled inside.
Then the professor touched upon difficult subjects, and though his tone remained respectful, his passion and concern was evident. Something was irking him, it was clear.
Discovering a Stumbling Block
He wondered at the verse in the Torah that declares Canaan as cursed – where is the justice in that? All have free will, how can anyone be cursed from birth? “Certainly you are accountable for what you do.” (Qur’an 16:93) He wondered why Jews do not proselytize to other nations, is that an uncaring approach? And, with equal passion, Dr Awad questioned how the revelation at Sinai could have been in Hebrew – the Jews had just exited Egypt? This final question was expressed with as much concern as the previous two, though I felt that whatever language was spoken at the time of the Revelation at Sinai was surely less important that wondering if Judaism is discriminatory.
Rabbi Nagen responded – “you have raised the most important questions. My whole life I am searching for answers to these questions. We know that holy books sometimes have verses that seem troubling. For me, the verse that is most important is that all of humanity has one father and is in the image of God. Anything that seems to contradict this puzzles me and we struggle with it. We know that with both Torah, Gospel and Qur’an, people can quote verses to do great good or not good. Our task is to find a way to teach good from the Torah and Qur’an. The question is – what is the rule and what is the exception? What is the context? I read the Qur’an and I know that every sura begins with All-h is Rachman. If I find a verse that seems violent, I know this must be talking about a particular context and it’s not the rule. I have hundreds of students; I interpret the Torah and Talmud. I organized a prayer rally to protest the alleged arson attack in Kfar Dumas. I am part of a group of a thousand Rabbis, we put out a thirty page pamphlet that was read in synagogues that week.”
The professor could not be placated, there was something nagging at him. And then it came out:
“We as Muslims are not asked to judge others; however we cannot accept oppression by one people over another people or making mockery of one over the other.”
So that was it. Agree or disagree, this was the professor’s central concern, and it was echoed in our meetings with Dr Aly El-Samman, former advisor to Anwar Sadat, and with Professor Wagee AlShamy of Dar Oloom College in AlFayoum, a city south of Cairo.
Indeed, Dr Wagee Al-Shamy asked us to proclaim this message – “tell your people: the state of the Palestinian Arabs is of great concern to us. That is the real stumbling block to normalization. Please ease their plight; that will pave the road to better relations between our peoples.”
Agree or disagree, that was the message we heard throughout our trip. So it is not scripture or theology that divides. Negative light is shed upon Judaism when Israel is seen as oppressing its Arab residents. Looking for the cause of the injustice, our scriptures are held up as possibly blameworthy.
But is this not how we feel when presented with injustices wrought by other cultures? Do we not point to the source of an ‘Other’s’ impropriety as based in their basic tenets? As much as what I am saying may sting, and we can certainly feel the call to defend Israel’s need for self defense, or the real meaning of holy writ, we need to consider – if this is what prominent Egyptian Muslims are saying, and even asking us to proclaim this, it does mean that the situation is a lot more hopeful than if stumbling blocks to normalization were scripture and theology.
So what are we to do? Embark on a grand-scale hasbara (explanation) campaign? There are better places we can put our energy; injustices are best addressed, in my husband Ben Abrahamson’s words – by establishing joint Jewish-Islamic religious courts. They existed in Yemen, and they can exist now. This gives both Muslim and Jew a feeling of a common language. Once injustices are addressed in a framework that both sides revere, the view changes. The diamond tossed up to the light reflects various hues, constantly changing as it turns before the sun, yet the diamond remains the same. We do not have to change our very being; we just need to address concerns where all parties are heard in the language they revere the most.
“Show me the fatwa.”
Ben was once speaking to a sheikh who was criticizing Israel. Ben said simply, “show me the fatwa.” Instead of relying on media reporting, Ben challenged the sheikh to find an Islamic court which has investigated an allegation of injustice and issued a fatwa – ruling. Knowing of none, they both relaxed and fruitful discussion followed.
The best hasbara campaign to defend Israel and Judaism will never really be enough; there is not the trust and common language needed for such efforts. The gap can be bridged not via hasbara, which is likely to fall upon deaf ears, but via joint courts. Joint Jewish-Islamic courts will succeed in striving for justice, trust building, and an expanded narrative that finally will include all residents of the Holy Land. It will be a huge relief to us all.
We had been welcomed by the professors at AlAzhar in warmth and parted with love and hopes of future dialogue. Yes, things can get rocky in discussion, but if you believe that the Other is coming from an honest place, then only the late hour and weariness born from a marathon conversation brings it to a close.
And we will work for more such encounters. We must.