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A Bridge between Faiths 2
An Open Letter to Islam
[Part 2]

In the first part of this letter (You can find it at this link), I showed how Islam could potentially be reconciled with Judaism and how the two religions could cooperate effectively. This is contingent on Islam acknowledging Judaism as a religion that possesses a universal message and includes unique commandments given by God only to the Jews. Of course, additional issues must be addressed to create a peace bridge between Abraham's sons. The first is Muhammad's status as the prophet of Islam. 

The Status of the Prophet Muhammad from the Standpoint of Judaism

In Judaism, Muhammad’s status as a prophet is discussed primarily regarding Islam's claim that he invalidated the Mosaic Torah and less regarding his personality and actions.

In Judaism, one must meet specific requirements to be accepted as a prophet. Most relevant to our discussion is someone who claims divine prophecy cannot speak in the name of pagan deities. He can call for a temporary suspension of a commandment but not a permanent suspension. Therefore, he cannot call for a rejection of the Mosaic Torah.

Because the mainstream opinion in Islam is that Muhammad called upon the Jews to abandon Judaism, he was not accepted by the Jews. Maimonides writes as follows:

“We will not accept the prophecy of Omar and Zayid. But not because they are not Jews, as many people think… We believe or reject a prophet based on the content of his prophecy and not based on his origin” (Epistle to Yemen).

The question of whether Muhammad intended to invalidate the Torah for the Jews or if he only intended to introduce a new religion for the Arabs and other peoples must be dealt with by the Islamic authorities.

On this issue, we can distinguish Muhammad’s teachings from those of the Meccan and Medinan periods. The former teachings say nothing of invalidating the Torah. On the contrary, they reflect a positive attitude toward the Jews and hint at the divinity of the Torah. The teachings of the Medinan period, during which the conflict with the Jews increased, reflect a different attitude in which the claim that the Jews corrupted the holy scripture appears. 

Would Islamic scholars be open to seeing the primary message of the Quran as that of the Meccan period? This open question can potentially create inroads into understanding in the future.

Perhaps it is also possible to interpret the Quran in a way that does not necessarily see Muhammad’s intention as the nullification of the Torah. Could it be that Muhammad intended that the Jews maintain their religion while Islam spreads the message of the Torah and gives ethical guidance to the rest of humanity? This interpretation is, of course, not currently the official one of Islam today, but it is certainly a possible reading of the Quran as expressed in numerous verses, for example:

Sura 2,39: “Children of Israel, remember the favor I have bestowed upon you. Keep your covenant, and I will be true to mine.”

Sura 2,43: “Children of Israel, remember the favor I have bestowed upon you, and that I exalted you above the nations!”

Sura 3,50: “I come to confirm the Torah already revealed…”

Sura 5,44: “We have revealed the Torah, in which there is guidance and light. By it the prophets who surrendered themselves judged the Jews, and so did the rabbis and the divines, according to God’s Book which had been committed to their keeping and to which they themselves were witnesses.”

Sura 35,43: “You will find no change in the ways of God…”

Sura 10,94: “If you doubt what we have revealed to you, ask those who have read the Scriptures before you. The truth has come to you from your Lord: therefore do not doubt it.”

We must note that the 12th-century Yemenite Jewish sage Rabbi Natan'el al-Fayyumi proposed this type of reading of the Quranic verses in his book, Garden of the Intellects (Bustan al-Uqul ).  

Therefore, it would be an acceptable position according to Judaism to accept a believer who assumes that Muhammad was a prophet who was sent to the Arabs and all other peoples but not coming to invalidate the Torah. 

Although there would have to be positive evidence of Muhammad's prophecy for him to be accepted as a prophet by the Jews, Judaism approves that non-Jews believe in and take Muhammad as their prophet. We should also point out that Judaism and Islam include many of the very same commandments, such as refraining from eating pork, additional dietary requirements, modest dress, and more.

The Future of the Relationship between the State of Israel and the Muslim World

One of the fundamental obstacles to constructive dialogue between Judaism and Islam is the Muslim claim that Judaism is a religion but not a nation. For this reason, it is common practice amongst Muslims to show respect for religious Jews but not toward non-observant Jews. However, from the perspective of Judaism, the Jewish nation is first and foremost – a nation. The Jewish nation received the Torah, and even before receiving the Torah, it is the Jewish nation with whom God made a covenant to inherit the land of Israel. Therefore, all of Jacob's descendants are part of the Jewish nation, whether they believe in the Torah or not, and thus, they are included among the inheritors of the land of Israel.

During the Jewish exile, once the land of Israel had been conquered and the Jewish people lost their sovereignty and control of the land, the nation of Israel was, for all practical purposes, reduced to existence as a religious group, as followers of the Jewish religion. The national element became peripheral and weakened, but nevertheless, the nation of Israel never ceased to exist.  

By the time Islam came into existence in the 7th century CE, the Jews had been without an independent polity for a few centuries and lived as refugees amongst other nations. In this context, Islam distinguished the respected “Banu Isra’eel” of antiquity and the disparaged “Al-Yahud,” with regard to the Jews of its time.

Perhaps surprisingly, this distinction carries with it the potential for reconciliation with Judaism today if it could be understood that the modern State of Israel represents the historic return of the Banu Israel. The Jewish State should be recognized as the manifestation of the divine promise to return the nation of Israel to its land, as mentioned multiple times in Islamic sources: Sura 5,20: “Bear in mind the words of Moses to his people. He said: ‘Remember, my people, the favor which God has bestowed upon you. He has raised up prophets among you, made you kings, and given you that which He has given to no other nation. Enter, my people, the holy land which God has assigned for you. Do not turn back, or you shall be ruined.’” 

Therefore, the State of Israel should not be regarded as a foreign entity imposing itself on the Muslim world (Dar al-Islam). Still, on the contrary, it should be seen as the realization of divine justice as found in the Quran and the Torah: the return of the land to its rightful owners. It should be recognized that when Israel was founded in 1948, political rule was not taken from the Arabs but rather from the British, who conquered it from the Ottomans. 

We must note that in 1918, a meeting was had between the Emir Faisal, the son of Hussein, king of the Hijaz, and Chaim Weizman, the representative of the Zionist Organization, which led to the 1919 London Agreement regarding cooperation between the Arab national movement and the Zionist movement. 

The foundation of fraternity between the Sons of Abraham can be the basis for a new and prosperous period of peace and progress, bringing the world toward a greater state of perfection. 

The Practical Bridge of Faith: The Relevance of the Noahide Laws for Muslims

In principle, Islam accepts the same commandments that Judaism calls the “Seven Noahide Laws” as obligatory. From Judaism’s point of view, if a non-Jew observes these seven commandments, acknowledging that they were given by the One God to all mankind, he fulfills his obligation. These commandments, which serve as a point of meeting between Judaism and Islam, are the prohibition of idolatry, the prohibition of cursing God, the prohibition of murder, the prohibition of sexual deviancy, the prohibition of theft, the prohibition of eating meat torn from a living animal, and the positive obligation to establish courts of justice and a penal system. 

The fact that Islam accepts these commandments and that from a Jewish perspective, whoever observes them is in good standing has important implications in practical halacha for building a bridge between the believers in the One God. 

The usual way to be recognized as a “Noahide” or a “Ger Toshav,” according to Jewish law, is to make a public declaration before a tribunal of three ordained Rabbis that one accepts upon himself the commandments which all of Noah’s descendants have been given. Some of the Jewish authorities believe that if an entire nation accepts these commandments, such as the Muslim umma, a declaration by each individual is not necessary. Therefore, for adherents to most other religions, it is essential to neglect or renounce their faith to be accepted as a Noahide or a righteous gentile; it is possible that Muslims could be accepted as such by Judaism without taking specific action. The only issue that needs addressing is the source of the obligation to observe these commandments. For Judaism, to be considered a “righteous gentile” and to have a portion of the world to come alongside the sons of Israel, one must accept the commandments and observe them because they were commanded through the Mosaic Torah specifically. One who fulfills them because they are logical or out of a general obligation to morality or any other source is seen positively and acknowledged as part of “the wise among the gentiles,” but has not attained the spiritual level of a “righteous among the gentiles.”

So, the full status of Noahide is only conferred upon someone who has accepted the seven laws explicitly through a commitment to the Mosaic Torah. However, there is a middle ground in which someone makes a personal declaration to themselves without making it public. There is great significance for such an individual declaration, and one who accepts this path can be considered a Noahide even without creating a public rift between himself and the society to which he belongs.

This distinction can be unique in building a bridge between our faiths. All Muslims can live in peace, even in the land that has been given to the Jews. But to attain the status to which God has attributed a unique holiness, a Muslim must acknowledge that God’s will is that the land of Israel is under Jewish sovereignty and that the prophecy given to Muhammad does not invalidate the Torah. Someone who adopts such a position, which recognizes God’s justice to Jews as well, is undoubtedly of a unique spiritual level, and Judaism is obliged to acknowledge him as such.

Removing the Obstacles between Islam and Judaism

For Judaism to accept Islam as a legitimate religion for all peoples and even grant its blessing, three things must be agreed upon:

  • The recognition of Islam as a religion parallel to Judaism and not as a replacement and that the prophecy of Muhammad has not come to invalidate the Mosaic Torah.
  • Recognizing that the Torah is God’s word carries a message to all humanity. This requires abandoning the claim of corruption (Tahrif) so that Judaism will be acknowledged as the religion from which Islam developed. 
  • The recognition of the divine promise that the Jewish people will return to their historic homeland and rule in it, as it says explicitly in the Quran.

As outlined, there are pathways within the Islamic tradition that can help bring such agreement.

It is clear that none of the above issues are trivial matters and are not likely to be immediately or entirely embraced by Muslims. However, it is certainly possible to start a process once the issues are clarified. A hint of such a process can be found in God’s words to Hagar, the mother of Ishmael, who is seen as the progenitor of the Arab people: “Return to your mistress” (Genesis, 17,9). Hagar had attempted to claim supremacy over Sarah, the matriarch of Israel, a claim which later led to a denial that Islam was, to a large degree, inspired by Judaism. God speaks to Hagar through an angel who informs her that she will have a son, Ishmael and blesses her with success but conditions this on her accepting Sarah as her mistress. In other words, this is a demand for Islam to recognize its origins as a religion that grew out of Judaism.

The Figure of Ishmael in the Torah

Ishmael, the patriarch of the Arabs, is discussed in four episodes in the Torah: 1 – the revelation of his birth, 2 – his being cast out from Abraham’s estate, 3 – during Abraham’s funeral, and 4 – during his daughter’s wedding. 

  1. An angel reveals Ishmael’s birth while his mother, Hagar, is fleeing from her mistress, Sarah. The angel promises her success unless she returns to Sarah. If we read this in historical terms, the success of Ishmael’s progeny is conditioned on recognizing the Hebraic origin of their religion and understanding that it is not meant to replace the Torah of Abraham, Sarah, and the Jews. 
  2. The casting out of Ishmael from Abraham’s estate comes on the backdrop of Ishmael’s ridiculing laughter during the feast in honor of Isaac. There are varying opinions amongst the Jewish sages on the essence of this ridicule. Some saw it as proof of Ishmael’s grave sins, which made him unsuited for Abraham’s house. Others saw in Ishmael’s ridicule an attempt to negate Isaac’s rights as the inheritor of Abraham. According to this opinion, we should distinguish between the period of Ishmael’s descendants outside of the Abrahamic tradition – represented by the pre-Islamic ‘Age of Ignorance’ (Jahiliyyah), and the period during which Ishmael’s descendants have returned to the values of the Abraham tradition – the belief in God’s oneness – although have not accepted the legitimacy of Isaac.
  3. Ishmael’s participation in the burial of Abraham represents a significant turning point. It says: “And they buried him, his sons Isaac and Ishmael.” By putting Isaac first, Ishmael recognizes Isaac’s honor and precedence, which the Rabbis call an act of repentance. Ishmael’s repentance must include his recognition of the Israelites as the actual owners of their land.
  4. Ishmael’s daughter marries Esau, Jacob’s hostile brother. This is a hint that later in history, the descendants of Esau may try to incite the descendants of Ishmael against Israel. This is a warning against illegitimate attempts to cancel God’s choosing of the Jews. 

The Oral Torah – Judaism’s Potential Contribution to Islam

The attempt to build a theological bridge between two faiths may be audacious, especially since this initiative comes from only one religion. However, pathways exist through which the two positions can be brought closer. The realities of living in proximity often invite practical and even ideological solutions. 

One of the crises Islam has faced in recent generations is the difficulty of adapting to modernity while remaining loyal to its faith. In Judaism, there are already mechanisms in place to apply the word of God to the needs of the times without diverging from an orthodox position. This is the mechanism of the Oral Torah, which has the power to re-interpret the holy writings according to the judgment of the sages of each generation. And indeed, Jewish scholars are constantly renewing Jewish law to deal with the challenges of the times without abandoning loyalty to their sources. Perhaps Islamic scholars will find inspiration from this pathway in their attempts to forge a path for the Muslim world into modernity and its necessities while remaining true to their roots. 

Another difficulty in the face of the development of Islam is the principle that all the actions of Muhammad are to be emulated, even those which contradict moral consciousness. According to this principle, morality is subordinate to religious belief. On the other hand, Judaism holds that morality takes absolute precedence, as embodied by the rabbinic phrase, “proper moral behavior precedes the Torah.” (derech eretz kadma latorah). In Judaism, there is a principle that morality is not defined by the behavior of the nation's leaders, whoever they may be. Often, we find the Jewish sages criticizing even the kings and prophets. Adopting such a position would allow Islam to free itself of the religious obligation to accept every one of Muhammad’s actions as being worthy of emulation.

Even though this letter includes a call to reconsider some aspects of Islamic theology, it is not meant to delegitimize the religious mindset unique to Islam, which is worthy of respect as one of the pathways for humanity to accept upon itself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven.

To summarize, we have presented Judaism's position concerning Islam. After clarifying the fundamentals, especially in the time of the Jewish people's national revival, it's possible that we may yet merit to see positive developments in the Muslim world.

Rabbi Oury Cherki
Chairman of Brit Olam Institutions

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