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Is Judaism A Good Model For Islamic Reform?

Mustafa Akyol’s recent New York Times column, What Jesus Can Teach Today’s Muslims, bravely broaches one of the most important issues today: reform in Islam. The separation of church and state, the position of women, the role of violence— all of these factors and more must be addressed for the Muslim world to experience its own form of “modernity,” characterized by freedom of individual conscience and movement.

Akyol points to two pivotal experiences in Jewish history, the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and territorial dispossession and the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) of the 18th and 19th centuries, as offering guidance for Islam. These are useful points of reference, but are only starting points.

What came in between suggests why Jewish models may, or may not, be useful for Islamic reformers. Jews, both before and after the fall of the Jewish Commonwealth, were always a minority in the larger Greco-Roman world. This forced adaptability as a cultural trait, a continual process of weighing concepts and innovations of others, looking outward and inward, all around Rabbinic leadership that was at once conservative and progressive.

Halacha (Jewish law) has always been a simultaneous process of redefining the boundaries of Judaism, balancing both reason and tradition. It is both philosophical and legal, and was influenced by a plethora of outside thinkers: Greeks, Christians, Muslims, and Europeans in turn.

In contrast, Shari’a law is, if anything, more legal than philosophical, more weighted towards tradition than philosophy. The famous “closing the gates of Itijihad,” the decision by Sunni jurists a thousand years ago to limit interpretation and look backwards towards the idealized words and life of Mohammad and his companions are formidable obstacles even today.

Muslims have of course been minorities, at least in the West, but its core cultural experiences and historical reference points have developed around periods when they were the dominant majority. Minorities are more inclined to make compromises to survive and remain intact, and to embrace modernity when offered emancipation from legal and religious subjugation. This was perhaps the key experience of European Jews in the 18th and 19th centuries, as Napoleonic France and then other states freed Jews from all manner of restrictions. Islam, and individual Muslims, never having been subjugated as such, do not have that experience of liberation.

Even more to the point, Judaism as a religion never claimed that it was the end point of prophecy and revelation, or that other faiths were necessarily misguided. In contrast, Christianity and Islam have been relentless in their determination to distance themselves from the parent, and not infrequently to smother it. Supersessionism(the idea that a certain religion has succeeded the Israelites as the chosen people of God) is a key element for Islam to overcome. It cannot be put aside as something different faiths “agree to disagree” about.

The structure of religious authority here is key. Islam is without a Pope or a rabbinate and has a diffused, local religious leadership that periodically goes through processes of “revival” as intolerant “fundamentalist” elements from core areas and peripheries alike emerge to reenergize the global community. Islam thus has no natural base for “reformers.”

Judaism built upon generations of geographic dispersal, doctrinal controversy, contrasting schools of learning, thought and practice. Because it had no rigid model of the “ideal” or the “perfect” man and his times, was capable of evolving in varying directions, notably toward modernity. For all its variations, Islam has, above all, traditions and fundamentals of piety and practice, and it is to these that educated 18th century “reformers” like Ibn Wahhab, the founder of the Wahhabi movement that underpins Saudi Arabia, and “amateurs” like Osama bin Laden, appeal. Who has the authenticity and authority in Islam to call for reform of the sort Akyol desires?

Judaism reformed because it had to in order to survive. Had the House of David not fallen in 586 BCE, or the Hasmoneans not consumed themselves and opened the door to Roman domination and eventual downfall, ‘Judaism’ would have been something utterly different. Perhaps we should be glad that circumstances demanded reform, but these were catastrophes that took countless lives that should not be wished on anyone.

The issues raised here and more may or may not be insurmountable, but Akyol should be applauded for looking outside of his own tradition for ideas and inspiration. Judaism has much to offer reformers. It would be especially fitting if examination of the Jewish experience could help bring about a Muslim Haskalah, starting with individual Muslims like Akyol. Perhaps the parent still has something to offer the offspring.


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