Islam And Judaism On Dialogue Vs. Disputation – OpEd


Inter-religious debates and disputations seek victory. Inter-religious dialogues seek to increase respect and understanding between different beliefs and groups of believers. I am a Reform Rabbi who believes that the criticism of Judaism in the Qur’an refers only to Orthodox Judaism, and is similar to what most Jews would say today about Orthodox Judaism. I myself use principles from the Qur’an and Ahadith to reconcile seeming contradictions between Islam and Judaism. I offer two of many possible examples of my methodology in this essay. 

Every four years the American public is exposed to numerous debates between the candidates for the highest political office in the country. These debates do not seek to explain the major policies and values of the political leaders and their parties. Rather each side tries to score points with simplistic attack slogans and exaggerated misrepresentations of the other side’s statements or plans. Often the speakers dwell on small but hot issues and try to make minor differences between them into major disputes. Each party desires victory. Neither party seeks to understand the other, or form an alliance to better solve the nation’s problems, for only one of them can win an election and winning is the sole object of the game. This is political disputation not dialogue; and this is how most religious leaders spoke about other religions in previous centuries, and unfortunately how many still do. 

A good example of such a religious disputation took place in Barcelona, Spain on July 20, 23, 26, and 27, 1263. Dominican priests who specialized in missionary activities directed at Jews and Muslims, pressured King James 1 of Aragon to arrange a debate between Pablo Christiani and the leading rabbi of that generation Moses ben Nakhman. The debate was really an inquisition because the Dominican priests wanted the 64 year old rabbi to answer their questions, but would not allow him to question them. The rabbi agreed, asking only that the king give him protection to speak freely in his answers. Such protected free speech was unprecedented and unrepeated throughout Christian Europe in the Middle Ages. After the fourth session, the King ended the debate saying to Rabbi Moses ben Nakhman: “I have never seen a man who was in the wrong, argue as well as you did.”  The king also awarded Rabbi Nakhman a gift of 300 dinars. The Barcelona and two other disputations have been translated by Hyam Maccoby in “Judaism on Trial” (Littman Library, London, 1993). 

Although the Dominican priests declared a victory in the dispute they later brought charges against Rabbi Nakhman for blasphemies against the church. The king protected him for some time but when the Pope himself demanded Moses ben Nakhman be punished, the rabbi fled Christian Spain and sought refuge in the Muslim world, settling in Israel where in 1270 he died in the city of Acre.  

The religious situation of the Jews in the Muslim world was much better than it was in the Christian world. One might think that since the Christians had taken over the whole Hebrew scriptures into their Bible they would feel closer to Judaism than Muslims do, but that was not the case. Although the Catholic Church no longer claims that God’s New Covenant with the Church suspended God’s Old Covenant with the Jewish people, for 19 centuries that was what was taught. Many Christian leaders were outraged that the Jewish People, who should know better than anyone else, did not accept Jesus, the son of God, as their Messiah and as their God. Medieval Catholics were taught there is no salvation outside the Church. 

Even inside the Church tens of thousands of people were burned at the stake; charged for being heretics or witches. Medieval Islam didn’t promote religious equality, no one did during those centuries, but other religions were tolerated in the subordinate Dhimmi status, and protected from all but occasional violence. A book by Mark R. Cohen ‘Under Crescent & Cross” (Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1994) that has been translated into both Arabic and Turkish is a careful and excellent study of this. 

The rise of academic religious studies programs in the 19th and 20th centuries offered hope that objective non polemical study would replace the negativity of Medieval religious disputations and lead to true dialogue. But the secular and historical outlook of almost all academics produced its own problems. Since Islam is the newest of the three Abrahamic faiths, historical oriented scholars argue that Muhammad took many of his ideas from Jews and Christians. For example, the Mishnah (an early third century compilation of the oral Torah, states,  “Adam was created as an individual to teach you that anyone who destroys a single soul, Scripture imputes it to him as if he destroyed the whole world.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)  And the Qur’an states,”one who kills a human being, unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land, would be as if he slew the whole people, and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people” (Qur’an 5:32)

Another example, “Who is a strong man? He who conquers his passions; as scripture says, ‘He who is slow to anger is better than a strong man’.” Ben Zoma in (Mishnah Avot 4:1) This is similar to “A strong man is not one who physically overpowers others. A strong man is one who controls himself when angry.” (Related by Al-Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawood and Ahmad).  Most academics explain the similarity of the two statements by assuming that since the Jewish statement is several centuries earlier than the Qur’an, Muhammad must have heard it from a Rabbi or other educated Jew in Medina. 

But if one is willing to accept that Muhammad is a prophet of God who confirms the Torah of prophet Moses then Muhammad has no need to learn this statement from another human being. Academics might reply that these statements are not found in the written Torah; it appears in the oral Torah written by the Rabbis in the Mishnah more than 1000 years after Moses. But traditional Rabbis maintain that the Mishnah is part of the oral Torah that was passed down from Moses through many generations just as Ahadith have been passed down through the generations. Indeed, the Qur’an itself introduces its statement about homicide as follows, “It is because of this that We ordained for the Children of Israel ‘one who kills a human being …” (Qur’an 5:32) 

No prophet of God needs to be informed by another human what should be written in Holy Scripture. God is the source of Divine inspiration. There are several verses in the Qur’an that mention things in the oral Torah; for example the midrash that God sent a raven to scratch in the earth and show Cain how to bury the corpse of his brother (Qur’an 5:31 and Pirkay d”Rabbi Eliezer 21) and when God lifted Mount Sinai up above the heads of the people of Israel and offered them a choice between a mountain tombstone or accepting the Torah (Qur’an 2:63 and Talmud Shabbat 88a & Avodah Zarah 2b).  

My perspective is that prophets and Holy Scriptures can not oppose one another because they all come from one source. Prophets are all brothers; they have the same father (God) and different mothers (motherlands. mother tongues, nations, cultures and historical eras). All of these produce different rituals and legal systems, but their theology can differ only in unessential details. As the sage of Konya, Jalal al-Din al-Rumi says, “Ritual prayer might differ in every religion, but belief never changes.” (Fihi Mafih 49} When something in the Qur’an differs from Jewish or Christian scriptures non Muslim academics assume that Muhammad was misinformed and the Qur’an is mistaken. 

Muslims assume that in every case where the Bible literally differs from the literal statement of the Qur’an it is because the Bible is inaccurate or corrupted. Few religious scholars try to find a solution that accepts all three scriptures as offering true insights. We need more than ‘objectivity’ and ‘tolerance’ for true religious dialogue to exist. We need “hosgoru” a Turkish word that means seeing the good side of someone or something. I am a Rabbi not an Imam, but I believe all religious leaders need to follow certain teachings of the Qur’an and Prophet Muhammad. 

First, the Qur’an teaches, “For those who believe in Allah and His Prophets and do not discriminate between any of them, We will soon give them their rewards.” (4:152 &2:285 ) 

Second, as Prophet Muhammad said, “Prophets are brothers in faith, having different mothers. Their religion is, however, one.”  (Muslim, book #030, Hadith #5836) All prophets have the same father, who is the One God whose inspiration gives birth to their prophethood. However, each prophet has a different mother i.e. a mother tongue, a motherland, and a target audience that he speaks to at a specific time in history. Thus prophets are brothers in faithfulness to the One God, but their Divinely inspired message differs because it must be appropriate for their motherland, their mother tongue, their own people and the historical circumstances of the prophet’s lifetime. 

Third, since all prophets are brothers, we should act against those who claim their religion or their prophet is superior to another as Muhammad did according to Abu Huraira: Two persons, a Muslim and a Jew, quarreled. The Muslim said, “By Him Who gave Muhammad superiority over all the people! The Jew said, “By Him Who gave Moses superiority over all the people!” At that the Muslim raised his hand and slapped the Jew on the face. The Jew went to the Prophet and informed him of what had happened. Prophet Muhammad sent for the Muslim and asked him about it. The Muslim informed him of the event. The Prophet said, “Do not give me superiority over Moses, for on the Day of Resurrection all the people will fall unconscious and I will be one of them. I will be the first to gain consciousness, and I will see Moses standing and holding the side of the Throne (of Allah). I will not know whether (Moses) had also fallen unconscious and got up before me, or whether Allah has exempted him from that stroke.” (Bukhari  book 76 #524) Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious leaders should all learn humility from this teaching of Prophet Muhammad. 

The strong support that the Qur’an gives to religious pluralism is a lesson that is sorely needed by all the religious fundamentalists in the world today. I would like to offer two examples of how I, as a Reform Rabbi understand differences between Judaism and Islam, The Qur’an states: “They say that none will enter Paradise unless he be a Jew or a Christian. That is their wishfulness. Say ‘ Produce your proof if you are truthful.'” (2: 111) At the time of Muhammad both Orthodox Rabbis and Catholic Priests did claim that only their own believers would enter Paradise. The Qur’an instructs Muslims that this claim is not based on the Jewish or the Christian scriptures but only on the desires of those people who make these claims. In truth, nowhere in the Torah of  Moses, the Zubar of David, or anywhere else in the Hebrew Bible is this claim that only Jews will enter Paradise asserted. 

The great Sage Hillel, who lived in the first century prior to the birth of Jesus, taught that “The righteous of all nations have a place in Paradise.”(Tosefta Sanhedrin)  Jesus also taught “In my Father’s house are many dwelling places; if not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.” (John 12:2) But generations after the death of Jesus, claims were made in his name, that only those who believed Jesus was the son of God, who died on the cross to save all humans from going to Hellfire, would be able to enter Paradise.  In reaction to these polemical Christian claims, some Talmudic Rabbis began to counter the claim that only Jews would enter Paradise. 

Yet even then the Rabbis did not think that eternal punishment was the fate of all those excluded from Paradise.  Gehenna-Hellfire was conceived of as a temporary abode generally believed to last a maximum of 12 months. The great sage, Rabbi Akiba, stated. ” The punishment of the wicked in Gehenna lasts 12 months.”  (Mishnah Eduyyot 2:10) This is repeated in the Talmud, (Shabbat 33b) and elsewhere it is stated that sinners, both Jewish and non-Jewish, are punished in Gehenna-Hellfire for (up to) 12 months (Rosh HaShanah 17a). 

Thus the Qur’an accurately states, “They say, ‘the Fire will not touch us except for a fixed number of days”. (2:80)  The Qur’an instructs Muslims to say to both Jews and Christians, “If the abode of the Hereafter with God is reserved for you alone, excluding other people, then long for death…but they will never long for it.” (2:94-5) So, the answer to those who claim that “none will enter Paradise unless he is a Jew or a Christian” is “No! Rather , whoever submits his whole being to God as one devoted to doing good, aware that God is seeing him, his reward is with his Lord, and all such will have no fear, nor will they grieve.” (2:112) 

Thus, the Qur’an affirms that those Rabbis who strayed from the words of Hillel, “The righteous of all nations have a place in Paradise.” were wrong. Those followers of Jesus who abandoned his teaching, “In my Father’s house are many dwelling places” and instituted the doctrine that “No one can find salvation except in the Catholic Church. Outside the Catholic Church one can have everything except salvation.”(Saint Augustine:) are also wrong. Ironically, in the debates of  subsequent centuries Muslims also began to make the same exclusivist claims. All three religions have become more exclusive as a result of engaging in disputation instead of dialogue. 

In a second example the Qur’an states, “Jews say: Uzair is the son of God, and Christians say: Christ is the son of God.” (9:30) Jews, Christians and academic scholars of religion would all agree that   Christians say Jesus Christ is the son of God. They also would all agree that Jews do not say Uzair is the son of God. So how should we understand this? First, we must note that this Quranic verse about Ezra is the only place where the Qur’an seems to accuse Jews of non monotheistic belief. But there are more than a half dozen different places where the claim that Jesus is the son of God is refuted and denied. 

For example, “Jesus son of Mary, did you ever say to people ‘worship me and my mother as Gods beside Allah?’  and he will answer, ‘How could I say what I had no right to say?'” (5:116) and “The Messiah (Jesus) never disdained to be a worshipper of God” (4:172). Also, “Jesus in the sight of Allah is like Adam” (3:59), and “The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was no more than a Messenger of  Allah…do not say Trinity. Stop saying that.” (4:171)  And general statements like “those who say, ‘Allah has begotten a son.’ have no knowledge about it, nor did their forefathers; this is a monstrous word that comes from their mouths. They utter nothing but a lie.” (18:4,5) So also (3:79, 5:72-75, 19:30). 

Although 9:30 uses parallel language for both statements the two are not parallel. Ibn Hazm (a 10th century Muslim Spanish polemicist)  claimed there was a small group of Jews in Yemen  who believed that Uzair was a son of God. The Encyclopedia of the Quran states “Muhammad could have heard about a Jewish or Judeo-Christian sect that venerated Ezra in the way other sects venerated Melchizedek.” Al-Tabari said that only one Jew (Finhas) viewed Ezra as the son of God, others like Qurtubi said that the verse refers to the extreme admiration of Jews for their great sages. Tirmidi in his commentary on the Qur’an relates that Adiy ibn Hatim, a convert from Christianity, once came upon God’s messenger when he was reciting the verse that follows 9:30 ” Jews take their scholars and Christians take their monks, as well as Jesus, for Lords beside God, but they were commanded to worship only the One God.” (9:31) He (Adiy) said, “O Messenger of God, they do not worship them.” 

The Messenger replied, “Yes, but they forbid to the people what is permitted, and permit them what is prohibited, and the people obey them. This is their worship of them.” (Tirmidi, Tafsir, hn:3292) Thus, the Qur’an does not literally mean Jews worship Uzair (Ezra) the way Christians actually worship Jesus. Rather it is a criticism of orthodox Jews who allowed their pious orthodox rabbis to substantially expand the prayer service, and derive additional restrictions to the Torah’s rules about Kosher food, Shabbat limits, vows and many other areas of Jewish law. Ezra represents all those very restrictive sages since he was a priest , a scribe and a restrictive leader who pushed away potential converts.

Over many centuries the Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law has gotten stricter and stricter. As a Reform Rabbi I totally agree with the Hadith Narrated by Sa’d bin Abi Waqqas: The Prophet said, “The most sinful person among the Muslims is the one who asked about something which had not been prohibited, but was prohibited because of his asking.” (Bukhari book 92 #392)  For example, both Islam and Judaism teach the importance of sacred slaughter of animals for meat, and the total avoidance of certain animals for food. (Qur’an 2:173, 6:145, & 16:115) In Islam the rules are simpler and fewer than in Orthodox Judaism. (Qur’an 6:146 , Leviticus 11:1-47 & Deuteronomy 14:3-21) 

Most Reform Rabbis would 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 Reform Rabbis as an unneeded overburdening of the joy of Shabbat. Prophet Muhammad wisely differentiates between extremism and striving to be near perfect (no one is perfect) which involves a rejection of extremism. Just trying to do well will be rewarded. As Abu Huraira related: 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, just try to be near to perfection and receive the good tidings that you will be rewarded.” (Bukhari book 2 #38) 

Those Jews (as well as Christians and Muslims) who follow the principle that stricter is always better; ‘worship’ the spirit of Ezra. 

Thus there is no reason to claim that Prophet Muhammad was misinformed and the Qur’an was mistaken about Jewish worship of Uzair. The statement is only directed to those orthodox Jews who ‘worshiped’ strict piety and it can be understood as applying to all believers, including Muslims, as is clearly stated by Muhammad in the following Hadith. Abu Sa’id al-Khudri reported Allah’s Messenger as 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 entered into the hole of a lizard, you would follow them in this also. We said: Allah’s Messenger, do you mean by those before you, Jews and Christians?” He said: Who else?  (Muslim Book 034, Number 6448)

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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