By Akbar S Ahmed
May 27th, 2016
When the 9/11 attacks occurred in the US, I had just begun teaching at the American University in Washington, DC as the new Chair of Islamic studies. As the scale of what had happened became apparent, I knew how important fostering dialogue and communication between Islam and other religions would be. I particularly understood the critical urgency of the Jewish-Muslim dialogue, which I had been engaged in over the previous decade. While I worked constantly in the media, academia, in houses of worship, and at countless seminars and events to promote better relations between religions, Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations thesis loomed large and I often felt I was swimming against the tide. The atmosphere was a difficult one and there were high levels of ignorance and anger against Muslims.
One day, I received a truly inspirational gift out of the blue. It was a copy of The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilisations (2002), the best-selling book by Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the then-Chief Rabbi of the UK, with a warm personalised inscription from Lord Sacks himself. While I had been familiar with Lord Sacks’s bold initiatives in fostering dialogue between religions, I had never before had the pleasure of meeting or interacting with him. Yet, here suddenly was a handwritten note of admiration for, he wrote, my wisdom and courage. Lord Sacks even expressed his empathy for the pushback I often faced from my own community in my work.
He himself wrote that he faced similar criticism from the Jewish community. Yet it was Lord Sacks’s concluding line that resonated with me the most. “Great spiritual leaders”, he wrote, “are the ones who push their communities beyond their comfort zones to build peace in our fractured world.”
Lord Sacks’s gift was only the beginning of what would blossom into a deep friendship. Over the years, our friendship has symbolised the power of extending a hand, and has shown how friendship can go a long way in mending deep tensions despite different religious and ethnic boundaries. Lord Sacks and I first met in person two years after his gift, in 2004.
He had invited Judea Pearl, the father of murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, and myself to discuss our recent bridge-building endeavours. The three of us visited both, a Muslim school, the East London school run by the famous Yusuf Islam, and a Jewish school in London together, making history by bringing the Chief Rabbi of the UK and a leading American Jew in direct contact with one of the largest Muslim communities in England. Our visit formed part of Rabbi Sacks’s annual BBC address to the nation — an honour only bestowed to the likes of the Queen of England.
This encounter, widely viewed across the UK, made a huge impact on the British public and allowed people to see Jewish-Muslim relations in a more positive light.
The following year, Lord Sacks, alongside the Episcopal Bishop of Washington in charge of the National Cathedral, a senior Shinto priest, the senior rabbi of the largest Jewish Congregation in DC and the head imam of the largest Muslim mosque in the DC area, joined me at my home for breakfast in an inspiring show of interfaith harmony the morning after American Thanksgiving. Lord Sacks and I, with our distinguished guests, dined, talked, and even prayed together, aiming to simply bring leaders of diverse faith backgrounds together in the spirit of friendship.
This gesture of mutual prayer and affection moved all in the room. As Melody Fox described in her article on the occasion, “Although this is a time when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict worsens daily and passions and hate run high between Muslims and Jews, the sight of Akbar Ahmed and Rabbi Sacks praying together for peace provides a strong symbol of hope for the future.”
Yet, among our most important accomplishments as partners in bridge-building was a public dialogue late last year at American University about his award-winning book Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence (2015). (The acknowledgements said, “I also owe an enormous debt to Prince El Hassan bin Talal and Professor Akbar Ahmed, two figures who over the years have inspired me with their generous and deeply humane vision of Islam.”) The event attracted a full-house audience of 400, including some of the top scholars and leaders in Washington, DC, to hear us, a great Jewish religious leader and Muslim scholar, discuss together how to bring different faiths closer together (see “Jewish-Muslim Relations” by Patrick Burnett, November 18, 2015, Huffington Post).
This gathering itself was a marvellous feat in the polarised American political climate where leading figures talked of interning and banning Muslims altogether from the US.
Commentators view our communities as engaged in a sort of sibling rivalry. We are, after all, the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael. Yet Lord Sacks, both in our dialogue and in his latest book, Not in God’s Name, argued that in the Bible’s Book of Genesis, the stories of Abrahamic sibling rivalry — Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers — are in fact both cautionary tales of sibling rivalry leading us astray, but also guides for reconciling with one’s siblings. Lord Sacks also reminded us that God has enough love to spread to all His children equally. He even noted, “What good parent only loves one child?”
Jews and Muslims alike are often unaware of the many similarities in their respective faiths. It may also come as a surprise to Jews and Muslims alike that, as Lord Sacks revealed, during the time of coexistence between Muslims, Jews and Christians in Andalusia, Muslim scholars influenced Jewish philosophy. Most notably, Lord Sacks told of how Rabbi Moses Maimonides, “the greatest rabbi of the Middle Ages”, was inspired by Islam. He explained, “Not only his philosophy, but almost every aspect of his work was influenced by and stimulated by Islam. His creation of this magnificent legal code was inspired by Shariah codes.”
Building bridges between the Jewish and Muslim communities is of the utmost importance in today’s world. The Middle East continues to face regional fallout from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, impacting Jewish-Muslim relations globally. The cycle of violence between Israelis and Palestinians continues unchecked. The two peoples must work to live in peace, security and stability.
In Europe, anti-Semitism is on the rise across the continent. Meanwhile, Islamophobia grows unchecked and women in hijab and mosques are attacked in Europe and the US. Muslims in the Muslim world are suffering at the hands of tribal, political and ideological conflicts that are tearing our communities apart. With all of the turmoil around us, we as Muslims must seek out the hands of friendship to explore common ground. Together, we can envision and work to implement a harmonious future — to heal this fractured world.
The writer is Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at the American University, Washington, DC. He is working on the book Journey into Europe for Brookings Press while the film with the same title has already been released