April 17, 2008
Paving the path to dialogue
The letter, which was initiated by American University professor Akbar Ahmed and formally presented by Oxford University professor Tariq Ramadan at Cambridge, England, stresses the Quranic acceptance of Jews and Muslims as one nation (Ummah); elaborates on commonalities of contemporary beliefs, rituals and values; celebrates shared memories of positive historical encounters; and ends with a call for "concrete outcomes in Muslim-Jewish relations in different parts of our shared world."
Second came an impassioned plea from the Saudi King Abdullah, for a dialogue among Muslims, Christians and Jews, the first such proposal from the custodian of Islam's holiest shrines and a nation that bans non-Muslim religious services and symbols. Abdullah said that Saudi Arabia's top clerics have given him the green light to hold meetings with "our brothers" in Christianity and Judaism, "so we can agree on something that guarantees the preservation of humanity against those who tamper with ethics, family systems and honesty."
Israel's newspaper Yediot Ahronot had subsequently reported on March 30, based on a phone call from the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, that Israeli rabbis will soon be invited to an interfaith conference initiated by the Saudi kingdom.
The official Jewish response to these proposals has been wholeheartedly enthusiastic. Responding to the Muslim letter, the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC), an umbrella committee representing major Jewish organizations, has issued a welcoming call for dialogue between Muslims and Jews titled, "Seek Peace and Pursue It," and IJCIC's chair, Rabbi David Rosen, encouraged Muslims to develop the dialogue "in the pursuit of a world made better through our efforts."
As to King Abdullah's proposal, my understanding is that all chief rabbis in Israel, and there are many of them, are currently busy packing for an adventurous trip to the Arabian Peninsula.
Oddly, when I was asked by the initiative organizers to respond to the Muslim letter, I felt somewhat reluctant; it seems that all the media excitement caused me to take a sober look at the enterprise of Jewish-Muslim dialogue, with which I have been involved for almost five years.
My first thought landed of course on the positive symbolic value of having a visible dialogue going, regardless of its content. I therefore commended the authors for opening a new channel of communication between Jews and Muslims, and endorsed the letter as "a welcome first step toward the goals of peace, understanding and mutual respect."
But then I asked myself, how would an average Jewish reader react to the content of the letter? It became clear that the letter would evoke two immediate reservations, if not objections: First, it is totally void of self-criticism and, second, it skirts the thorniest of all issues: Israel's right to exist.
The question then became not whether a dialogue is a good thing to have (this I take as an axiom), but whether unconditional embracing of an invitation based on certain premises constitutes a tacit endorsement of those premises, with which one may disagree: In our case, the two premises in question are, first, that Islam is in no need for reform or introspection because it is already a pluralistic, nonexpansionist, Jew-respecting, violence-minimizing and human-rights-protecting religion and, second, that peace can somehow be achieved without Muslim acceptance of the legitimacy and permanency of Israel.
The concept of reform is a sensitive one in conversations with Muslims. Understandably, no person, let alone a community leader, would engage in an interfaith discussion only to listen to a sermon on how his or her religion should be reformed. Reforms, as Jews would surely recall, emerge from internal debates, not external criticism. Dealing with reform is especially hard for Muslims, since they are instructed to view the Quran as the final, perfect and immutable word of God.
In view of these contraints, what the Muslim letter is presenting to us is, in effect, a progressive reform strategy that we might as well call "stealth reform," namely, reform cast as reinterpretation of the sacred scriptures. The strategy invokes a simple recipe of dealing with contradictory texts in the Quran: texts that conform to accepted norms of modernity are to be considered central, universal and intentional, while those that deviate from modern norms are contextualized to specific events in seventh century Arabia and marginalized from modern discourse.
Before we dismiss this strategy as self-deceptive or disingenuous, we should be reminded that identical strategy has been used to great advantage in the Jewish tradition since the time of the Mishnah. Its most explicit expression is encapsulated in the Talmudic saying: "Kol mah Sh'Talmid vatik atid l'horot lifnei rabbo, kevar n'emar L'Moshe B'Sinai" (Translated: "Whatever a seasoned scholar is destined to innovate before his master was already revealed to Moses at Sinai") (Yerushalmi, Pe'ah 2.4). In other words, the Talmud bestows divine power unto the capacity of the human mind to reason and innovate.
The secret of this "stealthy" strategy lies in its power to usher in reform without challenging the divine origin of the scriptures; modern interpretations, however creative, are given equal chance to compete against extremist, literalist interpretations that accord universal validity to morally outdated texts. Stealth reform worked marvels in the Jewish tradition (e.g. no child was ever stoned for disobeying his parents, Sanhedrin, 71) and, if it worked in the Muslim world, we would be the last ones to quibble with its logic.
However, the effectiveness of this strategy depends critically on finding authoritative spiritual leaders who are willing to implement it in practice and turn it into the ruling philosophy of religious education. In other words, progressive interpretations of the Quran would become credible if sustained and reinforced by educational and jurisprudence institutions such as, for example, Al Azhar University, in Cairo, the most prestigious center of Muslim learning in Sunni Islam. Unfortunately, the leaders of these institutions, including Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, grand imam of Al-Azhar University, often support literalist interpretations that depict Jews as despicable, eternal enemies of Islam, and these interpretations are the ones that are currently gaining momentum in vast areas of the Muslim world.
It seems reasonable therefore to suggest that the Muslim letter would do more good if sent to Grand Imam Tantawi and other Islamic leaders in the Middle East who, evidently, have compelling reasons to object to the conciliatory interpretation espoused in the letter.