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What Judaism Can Teach Islam About Reforming The Faith

Does Islam needs its own Martin Luther? Does it need its own “Reformation,” which will lead to the separation of the Muslim “church” from the state? I have heard these questions frequently in the past decades from Westerners. They were right about one thing: Islam, despite being a religion that once cultivated an open, tolerant, enlightened civilization, has not yet made its peace with liberal modernity. Hence, a clash of values has been taking place, on various levels, between conservative Muslims and liberal values — with gruesome results such as stoning of adulterers or execution of blasphemers. So, when looked at from a liberal perspective, mainstream Islamic thought and practice indeed needs some kind of “reform.”

Yet many those who were calling for that reform in Islam were still making a mistake: They were comparing Islam to Christianity. These two religious, however, are quite different. Islam never had a dominant institution like the Church — especially the Catholic Church — that needs to be depoliticized or decentralized. That’s not the issue. Meanwhile, Christianity never had a sacred law that encompasses all areas of life. With Islam, that sacred law — the Shariah — is the issue.

Judaism, on the other hand, has a lot common with Islam. Both religions are strictly monotheistic, with no room for doctrines like the Trinity. Both religions lack the clericalism that is central to Catholicism. And both religions have a tradition of sacred law — Halacha and Shariah — that raises the real issue when it comes to reconciling with liberalism.

That is the case, because Islam is really a religion modeled on Judaism. The Qur’an is a book that has strong similarities to the Torah. Prophet Muhammad was a lawgiver exactly like Moses. And the law has many themes — such as dietary laws, circumcision of males and the banning of “graven images” — that are clearly inherited from Judaism.

As a Muslim, I have been thinking about these parallels between my religion and Judaism. They also made me ask a question: How did Jews move forward? How did they embrace the liberal society, where everyone is free in his or her choices, and no one is coerced by any sacred law? That question must be asked, because the Halacha clearly includes a penal code with many illiberal injunctions. It also draws boundaries between Jews and gentiles. So, how could most Jews in the world, with the exception of the ultra-Orthodox minority, embrace the modern values of freedom and equality?

A part of that answer is in Jewish history: The destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE deprived Jews of a state of their own — for almost 2,000 years. This experience forced them to conceptualize themselves as a minority without political power — and without any chance for a halachic state.

But besides this political reality, Jews also went through their own “war of ideas.” A key moment was the Haskalah, or the Jewish Enlightenment, an intellectual movement that began in 18th-century Europe. Its proponents argued that the liberal and rational spirit of the Enlightenment was already rooted in Judaism, if the latter is properly understood. They also argued that Jews could fully integrate into European society as “Germans or Frenchmen of the Mosaic faith.”

Lately, I have been reading the works of Moses Mendelssohn, the most prominent pioneer of the Haskalah (his bust is displayed above). What strike me are the similarities between his arguments and the arguments of contemporary Muslim reformists. Mendelssohn offered a new interpretation of Judaism where Jews could be true to their faith while being full members the gentile society. He argued against religious coercion among Jews, with the argument that only under freedom can genuine religiosity flourish. These are the exact same issues that Muslim liberals are dealing with today.

It is notable that Mendelssohn was criticized in his time by both more conservative Jews, who found him too liberal, and by gentile skeptics, who found him too Jewish. One of the latter, a Christian writer named August Friedrich Cranz, judged Mendelssohn’s reformism a hopeless effort. For Cranz, Judaism was a religion of “armed ecclesiastical law,” and Jews would never be able to accept freedom of religion unless they “directly contradict” the faith of their forefathers. He sounds like the Islamoskeptics of today, who also think there can be no real Muslim liberals, except the ones who really cease to be Muslims.

One interesting detail from Mendelssohn: He believed that one of his famed co-religionists, Jesus of Nazareth, had offered a vision that could serve as a model for reinterpreting Jewish law — by focusing on the moral purposes of law, rather than blind literalism. That, too, is a vision noted by some Muslim reformists.

Neither Jews nor Muslims will probably ever accept the Christian teaching that defines Jesus as God. But Jesus’ own teaching as a reformer of law helped inspire the Haskalah. It may also help inspire the “Muslim Haskalah” that is needed today.

Mustafa Akyol is currently a visiting fellow at the Freedom Project at Wellesley College, and the author of the just released “The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims.”

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