Palestinian girls read the Koran as they attend a Koran memorization lesson during summer vacation inside a mosque in Gaza City.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Isn’t it time for the Muslim ummah (people), through its Muslim ulama (scholars), to manifest the Koranic truth about the status of Qaum Mousa (the Jewish people) within the ummah? The Koran (5:21) is clear as to whom God granted the holy land. Why not have a group of Muslim ulama, especially from Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, convene and issue a fatwa regarding the status of the holy land in Islam? Also, what would happen if we Muslims considered Qaum Mousa (the Jewish people) as Ahlul Kitab (the People of the Book)? Historically speaking, Jews and Muslims lived together in a state of harmony, prosperity and peace. From the time of our beloved prophet Muhammad and his Jewish wife, called Umm-ul-Mu’mineen or the “Mother of Believers” (Safiyyah bint Huyayy) in Medina, to the 20th-century Jewish communities in Morocco, Libya, Egypt, Levant, Iraq and Yemen, we coexisted in religious peace. Unfortunately, those Jewish communities were recently dismantled, not for religious reasons but for political ones.
My uncles Mohamed and Nabil, leather merchants, had close Jewish associates in Egypt before the government of Egypt “facilitated” (that is, forced) the Jewish community there in dismantling itself and leaving the country. No one felt free enough to admit it out loud, but I would hear murmurings here and there about how Egypt has declined since the Jews left. Ironically, it seemed as though the Jews were always getting blamed – even their eviction made some of my parents’ friends bitter! In the late Seventies, our family immigrated to California, where I received an education at the highly acclaimed Berkeley and Stanford universities. I had little time to think about the plight of the Jews as I was making my way in America, but I did notice that my Jewish professors and schoolmates in college seemed to be more than reasonable people. They were bright and motivated, taking breaks at odd times of the semester to observe some holiday or other with their family, loyal to their heritage.
Those impressions stayed with me and eventually brought me to become deeply involved in solving the Arab-Israeli conflict on a grassroots level.
To keep a long story short, after achieving a degree of success in business, I needed a break from the rat race, as we say in the US.
In the late ‘90s, I was impressed with the simplicity and modesty of a Muslim sect called Tablighi-Jamat, and decided to join them on a trek to India to learn more about my parent’s religion – Islam. What I needed at that time was a dose of humility and pacifist spirituality that the Tablighi offered.
While on khrooj (passing the time in the path of Allah), I had a chance to reconnect with my Arabic and Islamic roots. I also had an opportunity to read and memorize parts of the Holy Koran. When I returned to the States, I was determined to make a difference for my people and continued to have the nagging sense that peace with the Jews would herald peace and prosperity for all people in the Middle East.
Pursuing peace with the Jewish people led me to study the Hebrew Bible at Yale University. Upon my successful completion of my master’s degree in religion at Yale, I began work on a PhD in Islamic studies that would be supervised and defended at Al-Azhar University in my native Egypt. My chosen dissertation topic was the People of the Book in the Koran, “Ahlul Kitab fi al-Quran.” My efforts for peace also took me on several missions to the Holy Land, where I had a chance to meet with rabbis and imams.
Tirelessly pursuing peace with the Muslim and Jewish people, I recently completed a whirlwind tour of Israel. My jam-packed schedule placed me in 10 venues ranging from high schools to synagogues to yeshivot in the West Bank to the Jewish Agency, with an encounter interfaith group and a few mosque meetings to boot. I also participated in an intensive five-day seminar geared for US Muslim community leaders on the Arab-Israeli conflict that included an intensive program of tours and study throughout Israel. I was constantly presenting a call for peace based upon scripture, as well as relaying central concerns between the Muslim and Jewish communities.
As to what motivated me to get involved in Jewish-Muslim rapprochement, I saw the Arab-Israeli conflict as central to solving other conflicts in the Middle East. I have friends and family back in Egypt; I want the Jews and my people to prosper, and I see making peace with the people of Israel as key. My proposals on the topic are delineated in my new book, The Missing Peace: the Role of Religion in the Arab-Israeli Conflict.
Any solution in the region must be based upon scripture, both Torah and Koran, as this is what ultimately unites Muslims and Jews both theologically and historically.
Koranic verse 5:48 says, “Allah prescribed to each of you a law and an open way. If Allah had wanted, He would have made you a single people, but (His plan is) to test you... so strive in all virtues as though you are in a race.”
Invoking multi-covenants – Jewish law for Jews, Islamic law for Muslims – this teaching demands more than mere tolerance, but active acceptance of other faith communities.
Indeed, the companion of Muhammad and exegete of the Koran Ibn-Qatada stated emphatically: “There is one universal law, but multiple covenants.”
Jews and Muslims can prosper side by side. They can live and coexist together; it is not a situation in which one side goes up and the other must fall. Our ancestors prospered in parallel when both sides respected the other.
With the Jews cleaving to Torah and the Muslims to the Koran, there will come a day when Muslims in the Holy Land will tell the Jewish people what they yearn to hear: “Welcome home!”
The writer is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy. He holds a master’s degree in religion from Yale University and a PhD in Islamic studies from Al-Azhar University.