When Egyptian Imams Study with American Rabbis

September 4, 2014

Sometimes light shines unexpectedly from unexpected places. Such was the case this week when I participated in a study seminar with a group of 10 American rabbis and 10 Egyptian imams.

The ten Muslim scholars are visiting the United States from Egypt’s Al Azhar University. They were brought to the United States through a grant from the American Embassy in Cairo as part of a program called “Muslims in America: Community, Democracy and Political Participation.”

Rabbi Reuven Firestone, Professor of Medieval Judaism and Islam at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, and Rabbi Sarah Bassin, the immediate past Executive Director of the LA-based NewGround, a Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, hosted us.

We began our two hours of learning and dialogue by coupling one rabbi with one imam, and introducing ourselves to each other by explaining the origins of our names. Then we studied in chevruta pairs the traditional story of Cain and Abel/Qabil and Habil as it appears in both the Torah (Genesis 4) and the Quran (Sura 5).

I paired with Saudi Arabian-born Sheikh Ahmed Wessam Abbas Khedhr, a scholar in the Department of Shari’ah Law at Al Azhar University, who is also a member of the Council of Egypt’s Fatwa House and an imam (prayer leader) and khateeb (deliverer of Friday sermons) at Al-Rahman Al-Raheem Mosque in Cairo.

Ahmed spoke no English, so a translator simultaneously translated as we spoke to each other. He is a gentle, kind, dignified, and intelligent man about half my age. As we read together the Torah and Quran stories of Cain and Abel/Qabil and Habil, as well as one rabbinic text from Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 that is based on the story of Cain, we found the following common message: “…anyone who destroys one human soul is considered as if he destroyed an entire world, and anyone who establishes one human soul is as if he has saved an entire world.” (see also Quran – Sura 5:32) 

We then focused on the theme of compassion and its central place in each of our religious traditions. I shared with Ahmed the Talmudic statement that “One who shows no compassion, it is known that he is not of the seed of Abraham.” (Bavli, Beitzah 32b) He shared with me that one of Allah’s most significant other names is Rahman (“the Mercificul”) and I was able to share with him that in Jewish tradition the Hebrew cognate Rachamim (“Compassionate One”) is also one of God’s names.

Ahmed raised the issue of terrorism, and wished to emphasize with me that Islam utterly rejects terrorism and violence against innocents. I shared with Ahmed that the same holds true in Judaism.

Very quickly we found that we share many common religious values and that they are central to our respective faith traditions despite vast differences between Judaism and Islam. From there, each of us palpably relaxed and settled into a wonderful exchange of ideas.

Our conversation ended all too quickly as we were drawn back into a larger conversation with the complete group of 10 imams and 10 rabbis. Rabbi Firestone reminded us how important it is for Jews and Muslims to respect each other’s religious faith traditions, not simply to tolerate each other, but to come to understand and then accept each other as exponents of a true expression of God’s revelation.

I had earlier shared with Ahmed the idea that God’s light is so brilliant that it cannot be seen by any human being, and that the Divine light is refracted as if through a prism into many colors of the rainbow each of which represents a particular religious path and tradition. Only when all peoples’ faith traditions are taken together as one can humankind begin to glimpse a small portion of God’s light.

I was exhilarated to be a part of this study session, and we agreed that there is too little of this kind of dialogue taking place here and in the Middle East. 

Our ignorance of each other’s traditions is substantial, and that ignorance inevitably leads to distrust, the creation of negative stereotypes and simplistic absolutist thinking about each other.

Reuven concluded by sharing the hope that when our guests return to Cairo they would speak more to the international media on behalf of moderate Islam, because the world needs to hear from them and not Islamic extremists.

As we parted, Imam Ahmed Wessam bid me farewell as “Brother John,” and I returned the compliment saying, “Brother Ahmed – Assalamu Alaikum.”

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