In Search of a More Perfect Union

Marc Schneier and Shamsi Ali Join Forces for Reconciliation

Timon and Pumbaa of Interfaith: Rabbi Marc Schneier and Imam Shamsi Ali have gone on a quest to resolve theological misunderstandings between Jews and Muslims.
Frederic Brenner
Timon and Pumbaa of Interfaith: Rabbi Marc Schneier and Imam Shamsi Ali have gone on a quest to resolve theological misunderstandings between Jews and Muslims.

By Lauren Davidson

Published March 30, 2014, issue of April 04, 2014.
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For Schneier, the most eye-opening lesson he has learned about Islam is that Muslims, like Jews, have an oral tradition — a secondary body of legal literature that adds context and interpretation to the written law. Quoting phrases from the Quran that seem to be destructive or unsavory, therefore — think four wives, or 72 virgins — is a meaningless exercise and “the height of ignorance.”

“There are some statements in the Torah that, if they were to be read literally, I could make the argument that we’re a bloodthirsty religion. But I would never read the Bible in a literal fashion,” Schneier said. “Who am I to take different verses from the Quran, without really understanding the oral tradition in its historical context?”

The rabbi and imam tackle similarly contentious topics throughout “Sons of Abraham,” from jihad and sharia law to Israel and Islamophobia. But both writers employ a religious vernacular throughout the book, using words and quoting authorities that might be unfamiliar, and therefore alienating, to readers who are not educated in Jewish or Islamic thought. And the whole premise of the project suggests that a resolution of theological misunderstandings could solve wider geopolitical problems today — and be more powerful than the media or global leaders — which seems a far stretch.

It’s important to both leaders that their work be seen as a serious undertaking, and not be dismissed as an exercise in mutual back patting.

“I don’t want you leaving here this evening thinking that you’re only experiencing a ‘kumbaya’ moment… We’re not about dialogue,” Schneier told his Manhattan audience, shrugging off the typical rhetoric that gets applied to interfaith work. He called dialogue “an exchange of pleasantries” that typically includes doing nothing, going to conferences and embracing one another. “That’s not the work that we do. We’re about fighting for the other.”

Neither the rabbi nor the imam is a stranger to hostility. Ali, currently chairman of the small Al-Hikmah Mosque in Astoria, Queens, was fired from his former post at the Islamic Cultural Center in 2011. The reasons for his dismissal remain hazy, but Ali claims the mosque disapproved of his close relationship with the Jews

Schneier is no less of a divisive character in his community. A five-times married rabbi, Schneier was snapped kissing his new girlfriend (now wife) in public before his previous marriage had been dissolved, prompting the Rabbinical Council of America to launch an investigation into allegations that Schneier committed adultery.

Neither of these leaders’ controversies has gone unnoticed. At the book signing, one audience member asked the speakers: “Imam, you are here representing Muslims, so how do you explain the fact that you were fired by the Islamic Council? Rabbi, you are here representing Jews, so how do you explain the fact that you are being investigated for breach of ethics by the Rabbinical Council?” The moderator, criminal defense lawyer Joel Cohen, shut down his question before either Ali or Schneier had a chance to answer, but it poses a valid problem: If these men have alienated their own communities, how can they expect to foster reconciliation with the other?

And yet the pair is making significant waves. In the wake of September 11, Ali was invited to accompany former President George W. Bush on an interfaith visit to Ground Zero, while Schneier recently met with senior representatives (although he declined to specify just how senior) of the Vatican. Bill Clinton wrote the foreword of their book.

“The amount of work we have ahead of us is really Herculean,” said Schneier during the interview. “It took the Israelites 40 years to get to the Promised Land, and there was reconciliation between Judaism and Christianity — what did it take, 2,000 years? We’ve been at this for six.”

Lauren Davidson is a freelance journalist living in New York. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Times of London and The Atlantic. Lauren tweets from @laurendavidson.

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