Rabbi, imam plead for un­der­stand­ing in ‘Sons of Abraham’

The Washington Times Daily - - Nation -

The seem­ingly in­tractable prob­lems of the Mid­dle East — and, in­deed, the rest of the world where Chris­tians, Jews and Mus­lims ex­ist and some­times col­lide — might have a sim­ple so­lu­tion: We need to lis­ten to what ev­ery­one is say­ing so that we might un­der­stand each other.

It’s not as far­fetched, or as sim­ple, an idea as you might think, but it’s one worth con­sid­er­ing. I’ve come to that con­clu­sion af­ter read­ing “Sons of Abraham: A Can­did Con­ver­sa­tion about the Is­sues That Di­vide and Unite Jews and Mus­lims,” a re­cent book au­thored by Rabbi Marc Schneier and Imam Shamsi Ali.

Mr. Schneier is a 17th-gen­er­a­tion rabbi, while the In­done­sian-born Mr. Ali at­tended Mus­lim schools in Pak­istan and Saudi Ara­bia, ab­sorb­ing a rather stri­dent world­view, as he tells it.

Ac­cord­ing to Mr. Ali’s publisher, “Ji­had and Shari’a are com­monly mis­rep­re­sented by Is­lam’s op­po­nents to de­pict it as a blood­thirsty, ab­so­lutist faith that is bent on dom­i­na­tion, tram­ples women’s rights, and al­lows bar­baric pun­ish­ments for seem­ingly mi­nor crimes. Imam Ali delves into the Qur’an to ex­pose th­ese false­hoods, show­ing that ji­had is in no way a call for vi­o­lence of any kind, and cer­tainly not a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for ter­ror­ism — rather, it rep­re­sents the com­mand to strive for a moral life.”

And Mr. Schneier be­lieves that re­solv­ing the is­sue of Jews and Mus­lims liv­ing in the same real es­tate in the Mid­dle East has a spir­i­tu­ally based so­lu­tion: “God has many names — Adonai, Elo­him. And, ac­cord­ing to the Tal­mud, he also has the name Shalom. Peace. He doesn’t have the name Land. So peace is clearly a pri­or­ity for His peo­ple. We have to ar­rive at a bal­ance of land and peace.”

The book be­gins with al­ter­nat­ing au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal chap­ters de­tail­ing the up­bring­ing and life ex­pe­ri­ences of each cleric. The “back­sto­ries” are fas­ci­nat­ing, to say the least: Mr. Schneier’s New York City youth is about as far re­moved from the ru­ral vil­lage in which Mr. Ali was raised as you could imag­ine. Where Mr. Schneier’s world­view ex­panded as he grew older, some of Mr. Ali’s teach­ers — par­tic­u­larly in Saudi Ara­bia, it seems — were try­ing to in­cul­cate a very re­stric­tive view of Is­lam. To his credit, Mr. Ali shunned such a viewpoint, in some cases be­cause it was phys­i­cally im­pos­si­ble to do so: the Saudis in­sisted pious Mus­lims would grow and wear long beards, some­thing Mr. Ali just couldn’t ac­com­plish.

Of course, the dif­fer­ences be­tween Ju­daism, Chris­tian­ity and Is­lam in­volve far more than con­trast­ing clothes or whether or not to have a beard. The book delves into some of the more sen­si­tive is­sues, par­tic­u­larly the ques­tion of Is­rael and the Pales­tini­ans, and while the mid­dle ground is sought, it’s a slim patch of Earth to ne­go­ti­ate.

For ex­am­ple, con­sider the view of Jews see­ing them­selves as the “Cho­sen Peo­ple.” Mr. Schneier ar­gues, his publisher as­serted, that “the Jews were ‘cho­sen’ for the mis­sion of in­tro­duc­ing the [then, mostly pa­gan] world to the gen­eral con­cept of eth­i­cal monothe­ism.” On the Is­lamic side, Mr. Ali de­fines the con­cept of Kheir Ummah, or “best na­tion,” which he says is a rough equiv­a­lent to the Jewish view of “cho­sen­ness” as be­ing “an in­clu­sive con­cept that does not ex­clude non-Mus­lims.”

Not a lot of peo­ple on ei­ther side of the di­vide might will­ingly em­brace ei­ther or both views, and cer­tainly not those given to a more “lit­er­al­ist” view of each tra­di­tion. How­ever, there is an ef­fort to find com­mon ground, and that’s com­mend­able. More rea­soned di­a­logue is al­ways wel­come, and even if there isn’t uni­ver­sal con­sent on any given point, greater un­der­stand­ing is to be wel­comed and en­cour­aged. That Mr. Ali and Mr. Schneier are able to view each other as fel­low hu­mans and even brothers is a good thing.

If noth­ing else, “Sons of Abraham” is a very good and very com­pelling read. It’s is not the sole so­lu­tion to to­day’s ten­sions, and I’m not naive enough to imag­ine that even a com­mend­able ef­fort such as this will move the nee­dle all that much. But if small steps are use­ful — and I be­lieve they can be — then this book is a small, but highly im­por­tant, step in what may be a help­ful di­rec­tion.

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