A rabbi and an imam walk into a bookstore. That may sound like the first line of a joke, but these aren’t any old rabbi and imam, and they’re not joking around.
Rabbi Marc Schneier, the prominent Hampton Synagogue founder and Imam Shamsi Ali, former leader of the Islamic Cultural Center, a major Manhattan mosque, have joined forces to reclaim the original relationship of Judaism and Islam: brotherhood. In their book “Sons of Abraham: A Candid Conversation About the Issues That Divide and Unite Jews and Muslims,” Schneier and Ali offer their opinions on what Jews and Muslims need to accept if they hold any hope of future friendship.
They propose that focus be placed on the theological commonalities between the two communities, rather than on current political tensions and media-generated scandals. It could work; after all, it took a theological convention (Vatican II, in 1965, when the pope absolved Jews of the murder of Jesus) to overhaul the Jewish-Christian relationship. The problem is that these two individuals — both controversial figures who have upset their own communities — might themselves be a little too fiery to succeed.
I met the rabbi and imam at a Barnes & Noble on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where they were promoting their book. Schneier and Ali make an odd couple; they’re the Timon and Pumbaa of interfaith, if you will. Ali, a diminutive Indonesian man sporting a lime green shirt and a mustache, clasps his fingers together in concentration. Schneier is badger-like, with a hefty frame and a confident demeanor.
But as Schneier insisted in an interview after the event, “You have to understand, there’s method to our madness… Many people believe that the source of the conflict between Muslims and Jews is the current rift in the Middle East. I disagree.”
In reality, the “terrible mistrust between [the] two peoples” is rooted in centuries-old misunderstandings of the other’s basic religious tenets, he says. The issue is more than semantic, because “not only do we share a common faith, but we share a common fate,” which makes this an “existentialist issue” for Judaism and Islam. “When an agreement is reached between Israel and Palestine, how will that treaty be executed? How will it be implemented when the majority of Jews don’t trust Muslims and the majority of Muslims don’t trust Jews?”
Ali outlines four factors that fuel this interreligious suspicion. The first is the media, which “inflame[s] hatred and anger” by jumping on negative news stories; next, the politicization of religion, whereby influential leaders manipulate religious beliefs for their own political purposes; and lastly misreadings of history that place more attention on “dark spots” than on times of peace. But Ali believes the most pernicious is the fourth factor, the misunderstanding of religious texts.
To address these, Schneier and Ali take alternate chapters in the book to slash common misconceptions about their respective religions. For example, Ali says the Jewish idea of the chosen people is particularly divisive for Muslims. It wasn’t until Schneier explained to him that Judaism sees chosenness as a responsibility rather than superiority that Ali realized Islam has a near-identical concept.
“It really struck me when the rabbi explained the meaning of chosen that it’s exactly what we [in Islam] understand as ‘the best nation,’” or kheir ummah, the concept of a group of individuals living as a shining example of God’s will to others, he said. The word translated as “best” even comes from the linguistic root of the Arabic word for “chosen.” It’s important for Muslims to realize this similarity, Ali believes, because the common misunderstanding of Jewish chosenness “has been the source of many poisons in the minds of Muslims.”