British Sheikh Muhammad al-Hussaini talks about why interreligious dialogue is an essential component for the well-being of Islamic law.

Sheikh Muhammad al Hussaini (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Sheikh Muhammad al Hussaini
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
It took about half an hour for the small group of Muslim, Jewish and Christians theologians poring over the koranic exegesis of the binding of Isaac to reach the volatile analogy of jihadist suicide bombings.
The biblical story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son at God’s directive, one of Judaism’s formative narratives, proved fertile ground for the scholars in the joint learning session, part of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s 24th Annual International Theology Conference that took place a few weeks ago in Jerusalem, bringing some 50 scholars from 15 countries for four days of study, this year’s theme being “a good man.”
“This conference is about going to the next stage in interreligious relationships,” said Rabbi Donniel Hartman, Shalom Hartman Institute president. “For many years, interreligious conferences were about how we relate to each other. What we do at this conference is interreligious studies. We know for sure that we have to live with each other, we take that for granted.
We know for sure that we have to respect each other.
“What we want to do is to take that respect as a vehicle for asking how can we ask big, important questions of our religious traditions, and learn with each other and from each other what it means. And by that to have our religious lives as individuals enriched by hearing the testimony of somebody else, who comes from another religious tradition. That’s why two-thirds of the conference is composed of hevruta [joint learning] sessions of Jews, Christians and Muslims learning together.”
Leading the Jewish and Christian scholars through the Islamic texts in that specific hevruta session was Sheikh Muhammad al-Hussaini, a research fellow in Islamic studies at Leo Baeck College and lecturer in Abrahamic religions at Al-Azhar College.
To him, conducting such interreligious dialogue is not only a natural continuation of his London upbringing and education, which included Jewish neighborhoods and institutions, but also an essential component for the well-being of the Islamic law and thought.
“In academic terms, I’d say that it’s absolute folly not to recognize that we are part of mongrel traditions – inbred, interbred – and the idea of creating pristine Islam and other religions is a modern construct,” he said. “The reality is that we owe considerably to Jewish sources in the formative period of Islam, and the greatest flourishing of Islamic thinking has occurred in areas in which there has been this vibrant intellectual cross-fertilization with Jewish scholarly activity.”
“What I want to see in our community is that engagement of the brain that we see here, that engagement of the brain that allows us to move beyond crude and simplistic readings of the text that result in disastrous and quite often wicked and evil outcomes. But rather to be able to see the historical context, the closure of particular commandments in their particular historical context,” such as the biblical description of the treatment the Israelites gave the inhabitants of Canaan upon their arrival, “that what happened then does not apply to the behavior of the Jewish people toward non-Jews in the present time.
“If Muslims are able to put their understanding of texts in the historical context and say ‘that was a chapter that does not provide a template for our engagement with other peoples now,’ that’s using intellectual tools that already exist within the Jewish context,” Hussaini said.
THE CONSTANT fluctuation and adaptation of Jewish law to the changing realities in the different periods and different diasporas is another model that Muslims should implement, according to Hussaini.
“The ability to develop organically, to have the license to develop Islamic fiqh [jurisprudence] and Shari’a in the same way the Halacha did in many Jewish contexts, is an organic developing intellectual and living body and system that’s very important for our growth and development,” he noted. “One of the difficulties we have as a community is that in a sense, whereas the Torah was given according to tradition to a whole Jewish people, from heaven but to a whole Jewish people, and every Jewish soul was there at Sinai, that gives a license – it is our Torah now, we can develop it and make it relevant to each particular context...
“The Islamic scriptural tradition has a different form of delivery, a vertical setting, through a sending down. But if we can see it’s contextualized to a certain time, and has the fundaments in it to be developed over the time for different contexts, then we might be approaching that level of fluidity and potential for development that Halacha has had, that has enabled the Jewish people to make it relevant and contextual for different settings.”
Among recent examples Hussaini noted are the Saudi adult breast-feeding fatwa controversy in June 2010, which starts with the extreme Wahhabi restrictions placed on women having regular contact with men, resulting in fatwas to get around the problem by making a male driver the “milk sibling” of the woman (who is banned from driving herself) by her giving her breast milk to him.
Even in the UK, there are contingents of loud Wahhabiinfluenced young men who, having determined to follow extremist rulings that Britain and the West are juristically dar al-harb (the abode of war), justify their committing indiscriminate fornication on the grounds that all non-Muslim English women are jawari (captive women/war booty).
“What we have is a combination of being hidebound in that way combined with demographic and anthropological issues,” Hussaini said of the potential danger of oversimplifying intellectual traditions and discouraging question asking. “Wherever the Jewish communities have gone in the Diaspora, they’ve always taken their books and their rabbis with them.
“In the Jewish context, the core message is that you’re always getting told that it’s complicated, there are so many layers. Whereas the message we get in the Muslim community is – it’s simple, I feel it in my heart, it’s an identity thing.
There’s no need for the text, because I feel Islam in my heart.
It’s the faith, the simplicity of purity, the shocking dangerous purity of faith, that is the driving momentum.
“Ten yeshiva students arguing around a table is a huge improvement from what we have in the Muslim world. We don’t know how to disagree, and this is something the hevruta method allows.”
When asked if his attitude might be considered a trend in Islamic thought, Hussaini replied, “I can’t say I’ve got a following,” though “my heritage – my Islamic academic heritage – is thoroughly traditional, absolutely establishment.”