Does Islam deserve its title as "one of the world's great religions"? There are reasons these days to view it, especially here in Israel, as a source of terrorist bombings, murderous incitement against Jews, denials of Jewish connection to Jerusalem, and repression -- especially of women -- cruelty and crudity, fundamentalism and fanaticism. Nor do the American Muslim communities seem to demur very much.
So let me introduce you to Shaykh Prof. Abdul Hadi Palazzi, representative of an Islam that speaks in a loving voice and acknowledges its debt to Judaism -- and who is, I suspect, on the verge of becoming a celebrity in the Jewish world.
Palazzi's impeccable credentials as a Muslim cleric include a Ph.D. in Islamic Sciences by decree of the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia and years of study with Islamic teachers in Cairo and Europe. A leader of the Muslim community in Italy, he currently serves as secretary-general of the Italian Muslim Association in Rome.
And he's a Zionist.
Palazzi accepts Jewish sovereignty over the Holy Land (he says the Koran supports it as the will of God and, theologically, a necessary prerequisite for the Final Judgment). He accepts -- even prefers -- Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem, if the rights of other religions are protected. He quotes the Koran to support Judaism's special connection to the Temple Mount. "The most authoritative Islamic sources affirm the Temples," he says, contradicting the current mufti of Jerusalem (the "pseudo-mufti," he calls him, dismissing him as a political appointee). He adds that Jerusalem is sacred to Muslims because of its prior holiness to Jews and its standing as home to the biblical prophets and kings David and Solomon, all of whom are sacred figures in Islam, too.
Moreover, the Koran "expressly recognizes that Jerusalem plays the same role for Jews that Mecca has for Muslims" -- the center toward which prayer is directed. Just as no one wishes to deny Muslims sovereignty over Mecca, he goes on, there is no sound Islamic theological reason to deny the Jews the same right over Jerusalem. "In the present situation," he has said, directly contradicting Palestinian demands, "the only way to preserve religious freedoms for all three major religions is for Israel to be the single sovereign over the Old City." Nor, according to Palazzi, is there any basis in Islam for prohibiting Jews from praying on the Temple Mount, as is currently the case.
So if that's true Islam, what are we reading in the daily papers? In Palazzi's view, Islam has been hijacked by the Wahabi movement in Saudi Arabia, a radical reformist movement which denies the traditional -- that is, moderate -- understanding of the Koran and has taken control of Mecca and Medina.
That in itself might have had only minor ramifications, but oil made the followers of the movement almost unbelievably rich. Usually, Palazzi muses, regions blessed with higher civilizations become wealthy and then assume wider cultural dominance. But in this case, the contrary occurred: money made a primitive and violent culture powerful over a wide area. And now, "they are reshaping Islam in accordance with their political issues."
Palazzi says that Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan and other moderate Arab countries restrict the Wahabi sect. But in European countries, where the commitment to religious freedom allows it to thrive, it has successfully claimed to represent Islam. (In the U.S., Palazzi claims, the movement trains Muslim chaplains for the U.S. Army, and its members are invited to the White House.)
No network of Muslim scholars exists to oppose fundamentalism, and Saudi funding of ministries of religion in many countries keeps local imams from speaking out. Nonetheless, Palazzi believes that a new attitude is emerging among some Islamic thinkers. "Many of us are now ready to admit that hostility for Israel has been a great mistake, perhaps the worst mistake Muslims have made in the second half of this century."
The shaykh has no hesitation about promoting this stance. He serves in Israel as co-chair of the Root and Branch Association's Islam-Israel Fellowship and Muslim chairman of the Association's Jerusalem Embassy Initiative, which calls for "the nations of the world to move their embassies in Israel to Jerusalem, thereby recognizing Jerusalem as the eternal, exclusive and undivided capital of the Jewish People and the State of Israel, and as the spiritual center of mankind."
The son of an Italian mother and a Syrian father, Palazzi in person is a bearish, good-humored man with a trimmed beard and close-cropped hair and wearing, the night I met with him, a crew-neck sweater, cargo pants and no head covering. No robe, no turban. He is an extremely unassuming man.
Almost everyone to whom I mention Palazzi says something like, "Isn't he afraid he'll get killed?" That is itself a sign of how low Islam has allowed itself to sink in Western eyes. But Palazzi says he's not afraid, because he is saying nothing that is not based in the Koran. Not living in the Arab world makes it easier for him to speak out, of course, but he names shaykhs even in the Palestinian Authority who he insists are largely in agreement with him.
His impact -- aside from becoming the Muslim cleric best loved by Jews -- remains to be seen. But at least he is helping to rescue the honor of Islam by representing it, not as a fanatical and murderous sect irrevocably bent on harm, but as a subtle and loving spiritual path, open to the world and glad to acknowledge its bonds of brotherhood with Judaism and Jews.