Prophet Muhammad And Reform Judaism – OpEd


I first studied Islam when I was a student at UCLA some 63 years ago, Then again, a couple of years later, while I was a student in a Reform Judaism Rabbinical school. Over the years I continued to read the Koran and other Islamic books. Without realizing it, I was following a path first established by Rabbi Abraham Geiger, one of the founders of Reform Judaism. 

Abraham Geiger was born to an orthodox Jewish family in Frankfurt, Germany in 1810. In 1832, the University of Bonn’s philosophy faculty held a competition for scholars. Georg Freytag, Geiger’s professor in Oriental studies, urged Geiger to write and submit a paper about Jewish connections to Islam. Geiger won the contest, his study was accepted by the University of Marburg as a thesis, and he was awarded a Doctorate. 

Geiger’s thesis was first published in German, and a generation later, translated into English as Judaism and Islam. Geiger was taught, and followed, the university academic system of historical thinking; that something later was always derived from something earlier, and that the one God of the Abrahamic religions was not the source of concepts and statements in different religious traditions that were similar. 

However, I believe that the One God who inspired Prophet Moses and the other Prophets of Israel, also inspired Prophet Muhammad; and thus I expect that there should be some parallels between the Koran and the Hebrew Scriptures. 

Where the three religions differ, the difference is not due to error, but to different perspectives that the one God thought was appropriate for different communities. By studying each other’s Sacred Scriptures. and early traditions, I believe we can gain new insights and greater wisdom for our own religion, from the one God the three religions worship.

Thus, I study the Koran, as the Prophet taught his followers in a Hadith, “not as a believer, and not as a disbeliever”. What does that mean?  

The Koran, of course, is Sacred Scripture for Muslims. A disciple of Muhammad named  Abu Huraira relates, “The people of the Book used to read the Torah in Hebrew and then explain it in Arabic to the Muslims. Allah’s Apostle said (to the Muslims). “Do not believe the people of the Book, nor disbelieve them, but say, ‘We believe in Allah, and whatever is revealed to us, and whatever is revealed to you.’ ” 

Following Prophet Muhammad’s teaching I neither believe nor disbelieve in the Koran. If I believed in the Koran I would be a member of the Muslim ummah (community). But I cannot disbelieve in the Koran because I do believe that Muhammad was indeed a prophet; and I respect the Koran as a kindred revelation, first revealed to a kindred people, in a kindred language. 

In fact, the people, the language and the theology are closer to my own people, language and theology than that of any other on earth. 

I would like to share my understanding of several Ahadith that I gloss from my perspective as a Liberal/Reform Rabbi. They are all from the Hadith collection of Imam Bukhari who was born in 194 A.H. and died in 256 A.H. His collection of Hadith is considered second to none. He spent sixteen years compiling it, and ended up with 2,602 Ahadith (9,082 including alternate versions).  

Bukhari’s collection is one of six widely accepted collections: the five others are by scholars who worked as Bukhari did, and collected other authentic reports. There are also Shi’a collections that Sunnis say are forged. 

Narrated Abu Huraira: The Prophet said, “Religion is very easy and whoever overburdens himself in his religion will not be able to continue in that way.  So you should not be extremists, but try to be near to perfection and receive the good tidings that you will be rewarded.  (Volume 1, Book 2, Number 38)

Gloss:  The statement against becoming extremists needs to be taught in every house of prayer in the world. This applies of course, to political extremists as well as religious extremists who always prefer the stricter path to the more lenient way.  For example, both Islam and Judaism teach the importance of sacred slaughter of meat, and the avoidance of certain animals for food.  

In Islam the rules are simpler and fewer than in Orthodox Judaism.  Most Liberal/Reform Rabbis regard the increasingly restrictive developments in kashrut (Jewish dietary laws), especially for Passover, as a counterproductive, overburdening of the people.  

The expansion of restrictions on Shabbat activities is also seen by most Liberal/Reform Rabbis as a counterproductive, overburdening of the joy of Shabbat. Muhammad wisely differentiates between extremism and striving to be near perfect (no one is perfect) which involves a rejection of extremism.  Just trying hard to do well will be rewarded.

Narrated ‘Aisha and Ibn’ Abbas: On his deathbed Allah’s Apostle put a sheet over his-face and when he felt hot, he would remove it from his face. When in that state (of putting on and removing the sheet) he said, “May Allah’s Curse be on Jews and Christians for they build places of worship at the graves of their prophets.”  He intended to warn (Muslims) from what they (i.e. Jews and Christians) had done.    (Volume 4, Book 56, Number 660)

Gloss: Allah’s apostle strongly opposed any diversion of reverence or worship to anyone other than God.  Christians, and even Jews, had started worshiping at the graves of holy men, saints and prophets.  Although they claimed to be only worshiping God, their feeling that prayer was better or more effective at such sites was cursed by Muhammad.  

In later centuries, Muslims also began worshiping at the tombs of holy men and building places of worship near their graves.  Liberal/Reform Rabbis would agree that such activity at grave sites should be condemned and could be seen as a curse.  Allah’s apostle must also have realized that even the Muslim community would also produce people whose piety would lead to such errors for a Hadith on the same page says,

Narrated Abu Said: The Prophet said: “You will follow the wrong ways of your predecessors so completely and literally that if they should go into the hole of an animal, you too will go there.”  We said, “O Allah’s Apostle! Do you mean the Jews and the Christians?” He replied, “Who else?”  (Volume 4, Book 56, # 662)

Gloss: Prophet Muhammad criticized the failings of many in the Jewish and Christian communities (as did the prophets of Israel) but he realized that people are human, and most do not seem to learn from the failings of others. He hoped that Muslims would retain their original purity, but he foresaw that over   time and with growing power; corruption, decay and falsification were inevitable.  

Allah’s apostle would certainly attack the false tradition of female genital mutilation in Africa today as sharply as he attacked female infanticide in Arabia in his day.  It is a shame that many Muslim leaders in Africa today do not aggressively condemn female genital mutilation . But then, most Jewish leaders in the west do not aggressively condemn the Orthodox for not allowing Jewish women to divorce their husbands. We all have to do a better job.

Abu Huraira related: Two men, a Muslim and a Jew, abused each other.  The Muslim said , “By Him Who gave superiority to Muhammad over all the people.”  At that, the Jew said, “By Him Who gave superiority to Moses over all the people.”   The Muslim became furious at that and slapped the Jew in the face.  The Jew went to Allah’s Apostle and informed him of what had happened between him and the Muslim.  

Allah’s Apostle said, “Don’t give me superiority over Moses, for people will fall unconscious on the Day of Resurrection and I will be the first to gain consciousness, and behold!  Moses will be there holding the side of Allah’s Throne.  I will not know whether Moses was among those people who became unconscious and then has regained consciousness before me, or was among those exempted by Allah from falling unconscious.” (Volume 8, Book 76, #524)

Gloss:  Allah’s messenger is so well known for his sense of justice that a Jew can appeal to him even in a conflict with a Muslim who has attacked a Jew.  It is only natural for Jews to think that Moses is the best, and for Muslims to think that Muhammad is the best.  

Muhammad rebukes the Muslim, telling him not to claim that Muhammad is superior to Moses because even on the day of Resurrection, Muhammad himself will not know their relative merit, for although Muhammad will be the first to be revived, Moses will already be standing there holding the side of God’s throne. Muhammad teaches us that comparisons of religious superiority are wrong, for no one in this world, and perhaps even in the world to come, will know who is the best until God tells us.  

Most Americans that I have spoken to are amazed to hear such liberal and flexible statements coming from a religion that they think is rigid and fanatical. But the politicized Islam that has captured so much attention in the Muslim world today is the outgrowth of two recent factors. 

One is an anti-western reaction and scapegoating due to the great upheavals occurring in all modernizing societies in the 20th and 21st centuries. This reaction is inflamed as the result of several previous centuries of socio-economic decline that took place in the Middle East. Also Judaism and Christianity have already had reforming movements that took generations to bare fruit.. Islam is just starting the process of reform. 

The Prophet had himself predicted that Muslims would also become more rigid and orthodox just as the Jews and Christian had by saying: You will tread the same path as was trodden by those before you inch by inch and step by step, so much so that if they had entered into the hole of a lizard, you would follow them in this also. We said: Do you mean Jews and Christians? He said: Who else?” 

Nevertheless, in many ways Muhammad showed seventh century Jews in Arabia how to reform Orthodox Judaism to bring it back to the simpler rules of the Torah..

Unlike Orthodox Rabbis, Liberal/Reform Rabbis accept the doctrine of nullification – which teaches that one verse in scripture can nullify another, and that rulings can be changed due to changed circumstances. 

Prophet Muhammad provides an excellent example of this principle in the following account. The Prophet originally told women not to visit graveyards, but toward the end of his life, he said to them: “I had told you not to visit graves; now I am telling you to visit them.” 

The reason was that Arabian women used to wail at graves. The Prophet wanted this practice to be stopped. Therefore, he banned women from visiting graves to start with. 

After sometime, when Muslim women were better aware of how Islam wants them to behave in different situations, he allowed them such visits. In fact, the Prophet encourages visiting graveyards because such a visit reminds the visitor of his or her own death and the fact that they would have to stand in front of God when their actions are reckoned to determine their reward or punishment. 

Scholars like Ibn Qudamah, of the Hanbali school of law, make it clear that since this is the purpose of visiting graveyards, both men and women need such visits.

Another important teaching of the Koran is that God chose not to create human beings as one nation or with only one religion so that each religion could compete with the others in order to see which religion produces the highest percentage of moral and loving people. As it is written in the Koran [5.48] “For every one of you did We appoint a law and a way. 

If Allah had pleased He would have made you one People, but (He didn’t) that He might test you in what He gave you. Therefore compete with one another to hasten to virtuous deeds; for all return to Allah, so He will let you know (after Judgement Day) that in which you differed.” 

This is a wonderful further development of the teaching of the Biblical prophet Micah (4:5) that in the end of days-the Messianic Age, “All people will walk, each in the name of their own God, and we shall walk in the name of the Lord our God forever.” 

There is no conflict, nor can there be any conflict, between Judaism and Islam. The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is a territorial dispute. There are people who would like to make this territorial dispute into a religious one in order to rally support for their side. We must resist this. 

I believe that the Koran itself predicts the return of the Jewish people to the Land God promised to the descendants of Abraham and his two sons. I believe the reference in the Koran to the land of Israel in Sura V, where God says to Moses and to the Jewish people: “O my people, enter the Holy Land which God has promised to you.”(5:21)  

More important for us today is the additional statement: “And thereafter We [God] said to the Children of Israel: `Dwell securely in the Promised Land. And when the last warning will come to pass, we will gather you together in a mingled crowd. (17:104) 

This refers to the return of Jews to the Land of Israel that is part of the great upheavals that proceed the age of the final judgment. The age we live in now. The mingled crowd refers to both the Palestinians and the Israelis who will return and learn to share the Promised Land together. 

Neither side can claim it has the only right to the land or that its view is the only true one for as we have learned from the Hadith narrated Abu Huraira: Prophet Muhammad himself taught that even in the world to come it will not be clear if Moses or Muhammad is the supreme Prophet. Each is supreme for his own faithful community.  

A Muslim is one who submits to the will of Allah and believes that Allah has sent many different prophets to the many peoples of the world. As a Liberal/ Reform Rabbi I believe that Muhammad was the Prophet sent to the polytheists in Arabia and the rest of the world. 

I believe that the Koran is as true for Muslims as the Torah is true for Jews. The strong support that the Koran gives to religious pluralism is a lesson that is sorely needed by the religious fundamentalists of all religions in the world today. 

As a well known Hadith says, “The prophets are brothers, sons of one father by co-wives. Their mothers are different but their religion is one.” (Bukhari and Muslim). The mothers are the different mother-lands and mother-tongues, but the father is the One and only God of all humanity. 

Finally, I agree with the Qur’anic religious principle lana dinuna walaka dinuka, (in Hebrew lanu dinu valakha dinkha) for us is our religion and for you is your religion (Koran 109:6) 

If we can learn to see that religious pluralism is indeed the will of God, we will find the way to fulfill the 2500 year old vision of Prophet Isaiah: “In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt, and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together. In that day Israel  will join a three-party alliance with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing upon the heart. The LORD of Hosts will bless them saying, “Blessed be Egypt My people, Assyria My handiwork, and Israel My inheritance.”…(Isaiah 19:23-5)

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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