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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.