Illustration of two figures facign slightly away from each other but with shadows overlapping


Renovating a Jewish-Muslim Bridge

Muslims offer a letter of reconciliation to Jews.

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

By Edward Kessler

The indisputable need to improve understanding and foster better relations between Muslims and Jews across the world increases in urgency every day. The two communities stand separated not only by a past filled with suffering, violence, and indifference but also by a present that bears new scars.

It has not always been so. Recent strife, including the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has pushed the memory of positive historical encounters into the darkest corners of a seemingly irrelevant background. Muslims and Jews are failing to learn from long periods in history when the communities prospered by working together. In comparison with Jewish life in Christendom, Jews fared well in Islamic lands, most famously in Andalusia. The term Convivencia is used to describe the relatively easy coexistence, literally “living together,” of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. In the early Middle Ages, under Muslim rule, Umayyad Córdoba was the capital of a powerful state with a large Christian population (until about 900 probably a Christian majority) and an influential, although much smaller, Jewish community. Jews were present at court as royal physicians, and in the eleventh century, when the Córdoban state had fallen to pieces, Jews served as viziers to the Berber kings of Granada. It is important not to idealize this relationship: non-Muslims were dhimmis, subject to restrictions such as heavier taxation; on the other hand, there was no attempt to insist on the full rigor of these restrictions.

Today, also, the picture is not entirely bleak; there is hope. In February an open letter from leading Muslim scholars to the Jewish community was unveiled in Cam-bridge, England. It follows a somewhat similar initiative that was launched last October, when leading Muslims wrote to the leaders of the Christian world, proposing a formal dialogue, under the title “A Common Word Between Us and You.”

The letter to the Jewish community, “A Call to Dialogue and Understanding Between Muslims and Jews,” has been facilitated by the Muslim scholars of the recently established Centre for the Study of Muslim-Jewish Relations, in Cambridge, in conjunction with Professor Akbar Ahmed, chair of Islamic studies at American University in Washington, D.C., and former High Commissioner of Pakistan to Great Britain. (The center was founded in 2006 as a sister organization to the Centre for the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations, which I founded and direct under the umbrella of the Woolf Institute of Abrahamic Faiths.) The letter’s aim is to build upon existing relations to improve mutual understanding and to further the positive work in building bridges between Muslims and Jews. It is the world’s first such letter in modern times, supported by religious scholars and Muslim leaders, to the Jewish community.

In the letter, Muslim scholars admit: “Many Jews and Muslims today stand apart from each other due to feelings of anger, which in some parts of the world, translate into violence. . . . Deep-seated stereotypes and prejudices have resulted in a distancing of the communities and even a dehumanizing of the ‘Other.’ We urgently need to address this situation. We must strive towards turning ignorance into knowledge, intolerance into understanding, and pain into courage and sensitivity for the ‘Other.’ ”

The Muslims note that Judaism and Islam share core doctrinal beliefs, the most important of which is strict monotheism. “We both share a common patriarch, Ibrahim/Abraham, other Biblical prophets, laws and jurisprudence, many significant values and even dietary restrictions,” they state. “There is more in common between our religions and peoples than is known to each of us. It is precisely due to the urgent need to address such political problems as well as acknowledge our shared values that the establishment of an inter-religious dialogue between Jews and Muslims in our time is extremely important.”

Sheikh Michael Mumisa, a lecturer at the Centre for the Study of Muslim-Jewish Relations and a co-author of the document, said that “the message in this letter conveys to the Jewish community a genuine desire for mutual respect, dialogue, and deeper understanding.”

Signatories of the letter include Tariq Ramadan, a professor at Oxford; Sheikh Suhaib Hasan, Secretary General of the Islamic Sharia Council; the Muslim Council of Britain’s Ibrahim Mogra; Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al Quds University; and Sheikh Mustafa Ceric, the Grand Mufti of Bosnia. “I really think that this letter is a signal that we are ready to call for dialogue,” said Ramadan. “We need to get beyond ‘tolerance’ which is saying that ‘I put up with you but I would rather you were not here’ to a mutual knowledge and a mutual respect.”

Jewish responses have generally been positive. Rabbi David Rosen, international president of Religions for Peace and adviser on interfaith relations to the chief rabbinate of Israel, for example, has said: “I whole-heartedly welcome this most important initiative on the part of Muslim scholars and representatives. . . . The benefits from respectful dialogue and cooperation between the Muslim and Jewish communities can be a blessing not only to the communities themselves, but can have a profound impact on even wider global relations between religions and peoples, contributing to the well being of human society as a whole.”

Soon after the letter was published, the International Jewish Committee for Inter-religious Consultations, which represents world Jewry to other world religions, responded by issuing its own call for dialogue between Muslims and Jews. “We recognize the great need in our time to allow religion to serve as an inroad between our communities rather than as a divisive wedge,” that statement declares. In conclusion, the statement invites Muslims to develop the dialogue “in the pursuit of a world made better through our efforts.”

Rabbi Naftali Brawer, interfaith adviser to Sir Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi in Britain, also welcomed the letter. “This is a very considered and enlightened document,” Brawer said. “It takes bravery to reach out across the divide in this way and it is a move that inspires hope in our shared future.”

Judea Pearl, a professor at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation (established in memory of his son Daniel, who was murdered in Pakistan by Islamic extremists in 2002 during his work as a journalist for The Wall Street Journal), has described the letter as “a welcome first step toward the goals we aspire to achieve through interfaith dialogues—peace, understanding, and mutual respect.”

“The Centre for the Study of Muslim-Jewish Relations should be commended for opening this channel of communication,” Pearl said, “especially in view of the fierce resistance that is often voiced against the very idea of dialogue.”

Pearl commends the letter’s progressive strategy for dealing with contradictory texts in the holy scriptures—a strategy that “has the power of ushering reform without challenging the divine origin of the scriptures.” He also warned, however, that “the effectiveness of this strategy depends critically on finding authoritative spiritual leaders who can implement it in practice.”

“Unfortunately,” he continued, “many of these [educational] institutions currently support literalist interpretations which stand contrary to the conciliatory spirit of this letter, and which are gaining momentum in vast areas of the Muslim world.”

Indeed, the letter has drawn criticism. Pearl, for example, expressed a “disappointment, owed to the asymmetrical language” of the letter that proposes “a peaceful resolution that will assure mutual respect, prosperity, and security to both Palestinians and Israelis, while allowing the Palestinian people their rights to self-determination.” Pearl went on: “Whereas the rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination are affirmed explicitly, the rights of Israelis to the same status of self-determination are left undeclared, vulnerable to future assaults by enemies of co-existence.” And some Muslims have suggested that the letter is not sufficiently robust and should be critical of Israel.

The letter was launched in the civilized environment of the Centre for the Study of Muslim-Jewish Relations. How it will play in some of the wilder places where Islam and Judaism stand face-to-face remains to be seen. But the scholars in Cambridge stand by their conviction that by educating and gaining the support of key community leaders change will occur where it’s really needed, at the grassroots level.

When I founded the Centre for the Study of Muslim-Jewish Relations in 2006 with Amineh Hoti, we did so intending that, like the Centre for the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations, its work would be framed on the pillars of teaching, re-search, and dialogue, offering a range of educational programs both in Cambridge and online through e-learning. We believe that change is possible through education. Today we face not so much a clash of civilizations as a clash of ignorance. The down-ward spiral is obvious. Inaccurate or incomplete knowledge about the “other” allows room for prejudice and sets off a cycle of mistrust, suspicion, and anger. Consequent insularity, and an exclusivism in turn, causes boundaries to be drawn closer and tighter so that we are left with an “us” versus “them” tension. The inevitable results are increasing and widespread anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and conflict.

Informing and educating Muslims and Jews—and others—about the complexity and scope of their historical and religious existence is key to improving Muslim-Jewish relations. The “informed education” of a particular community and the quality of its relations with “others,” both external and internal, is inextricably interlinked. By “informed education” we mean a broad vision of education that is inclusive and respectful of others without undermining the self-identity of a particular community.

Amineh Hoti, director of the center, believes that the more the value of knowledge in the Muslim world increases, the better Muslim-Jewish relations will become. “I believe that Jews need to realize that we share with Muslims the experience of being minority religious communities in Europe and that they have parallel experiences and needs. At the heart of a shared passion for improving relations between Muslims and Jews is a  belief in the same One God’s message who reminds us repeatedly that He has made us into different peoples and nations so that we may celebrate and value one an-other with dignity.”

Edward Kessler, who received a master of theological studies degree from Harvard Divinity School in 1987, is director of the Woolf Institute of Abrahamic Faiths, which consists of both the Centre for the Study of Muslim-Jewish Relations and the Centre for Jewish-Christian Relations in Cambridge, England. He is also Fellow of St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge.

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