Deeper Jewish-Muslim dialogue

Leave a comment

Here we reproduce two articles which appeared in consecutive editions in 2010 of Interfaith Matters, published by the Edinburgh Inter-Faith Association. The first is by the Orthodox Rabbi of Edinburgh, David Rose. The second is a response by British Muslim writer and lecturer, Idris Tawfiq.


Deeper dialogue between Jews and Muslims


One of the greatest tragedies of the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is that it has turned into a conflict between Jews and Muslims, both globally and in this country. Despite the fact that the majority of Muslims here come from South Asia, identification with the Palestinian cause seems to have become as much a facet of Muslim identity as identification with Israel is of Jewish identity. This has led to conflict between the communities, both verbal and sometimes physical, and has often caused each community to see the other as an enemy and even inimical to their future wellbeing in this country.

A Jew or a Muslim walking down the street and seeing a hijab or skullcap often feel suspicion or even fear, rather than religious brotherhood. I know that an obviously Muslim looking person would be treated with suspicion by security at the synagogue, while the only place in Edinburgh that I have experienced anti-Semitic comments is, unfortunately, in the mosque.

Worse still, this antagonism has unfortunately been picked up by the wider society. Celtic supporters have in the past waved Palestinian flags and anti-Muslim groups have started using Israeli flags in their demonstrations. Thus rather than the two groups forging a relationship that could work to solve the Middle East conflict, the mutual antagonism created by that situation has served to import the conflict to the streets of Scotland. This is both tragic and unnecessary and serves the interest of neither community.

In fact the two communities should be the closest of friends. Unlike the issues dividing Jews from Christians, there is no weighty theological and scriptural baggage that needs to be worked through. And though Jews were often persecuted, along with Christians, in the Muslim world, there is nothing approaching the tragic history of systematic persecution and delegitimisation that marred Jewish-Christian relations. Instead we have a political issue, important to both communities, but solvable by dialogue and compromise. Unfortunately, though there is ongoing dialogue between the communities, the Middle East conflict is the one issue almost never discussed. It is the elephant in the room that casts a shadow over the whole relationship.

The only way to heal the boil is to lance it. Jews and Muslims must come together in honest dialogue to discuss and confront the Middle East conflict, not ignore it. They should not come, however, with unrealistic expectations of each other. Jews are not going to stop supporting Israel; neither Muslims the Palestinians. Rather, both communities should be willing to listen to other’s narrative, however challenging and unpalatable it might be. They need to slowly come to see the legitimacy of both groups’ point of view, while being able to still hold to their own.

Above all, both communities should see themselves as seeking to promote peace among the conflicting parties. Jews should be willing to confront their own prejudices about Muslims and stand up to Islamaphobia. It is not acceptable for Jews to say that Muslims seek to take over Europe or to talk of ‘Eurabia’. Muslims need to confront the anti-Semitic discourse that seems to permeate much Muslim discussion of the Middle East and anti-Muslim sentiment at home. It is similarly not acceptable to attribute Islamaphobia to ‘Zionist’ control of the media or the banks.

Above all, the two communities need to stop speaking platitudes to each other and begin a real dialogue. To meet and simply discuss how much we have in common is just no longer good enough. None of this is easy, but nothing worthwhile ever is. Only in this way can the two communities begin to have a more harmonious relationship and maybe eventually contribute to peace in the Middle East. Jews, Muslims and indeed Scotland, deserve no less.


A justice which leads to peace


Dialogue between people must be honest, if it is to be dialogue at all. This is all the more true if there is to be dialogue between people of faith. Without honesty, we are just talking at one another, mouthing our well-rehearsed slogans and not listening to what the other has to say.

I well remember last year my visit to Istanbul. During that visit I not only had discussions with the Muslim writer, Harun Yahya, but was honoured also, as a Muslim, to meet His All Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch, spiritual leader of the world’s 300 million or so Greek Orthodox Christians, and the Chief Rabbi of Turkey, leader of the Jewish community which has been in Turkey for the last five hundred years. To both religious leaders I passed on the greetings and good wishes of the Muslims. In fact, I began both meetings by saying what an honour it was for me and for all Muslims that such a meeting could take place.

The Patriarch knew that I was once a Roman Catholic priest. This, however, did not stop him from being wholly gracious to me, even inviting me to stay for lunch once our meeting had finished. During our discussion we mentioned areas of divergence between our two faiths, but our conversation was marked by courtesy and respect.

Before talking to the Chief Rabbi I again stressed how honoured I was to meet him, but how I needed first to make clear that this meeting in no way gave my approval to Israel, nor its treatment of my brothers and sisters in Palestine. The Chief Rabbi accepted this honest proviso and we talked frankly, and warmly, as men of faith, for an hour.

As people of faith, then, we should never be afraid of goodness, wherever we find it. Goodness, after all, comes from God. But nor should we be afraid of speaking the truth, even if that truth is sometimes unpalatable.

In the last issue of Interfaith Matters there appeared a lead article entitled, “Rabbi calls for deeper dialogue between Jews and Muslims.” I could not agree more with the sentiment. It is that article, though, which has prompted these words, not by way of a reply, but as a thoughtful reflection on some matters of importance.

Looking for support for the State of Israel, however subtly, under the guise of interfaith dialogue, is being less than honest. In fact, introducing the State of Israel into our discussions at all, especially at this time, is not helpful. As people of faith we have so much in common, so let us not distort that faith by introducing political agendas that would see us ignore the truth.

That previous article claimed that “identification with the Palestinian cause seems to have become as much a facet of Muslim identity as identification with Israel is of Jewish identity.” Clever words, but not quite true. By no means do all Jews identify with what is going on in Palestine. In fact there are many of them who denounce the whole Zionist project as inimical to Judaism itself.

Similarly, calling upon Jews and Muslims to “come together in honest dialogue and confront the Middle East conflict” sounds wholly acceptable, but it is not acceptable to ask them to accept a fait accompli in which injustice becomes perpetuated because of “facts on the ground.”

As a Muslim I travel around the world encouraging tolerance and dialogue between Muslims and those who are not. In the course of my travels I have met many rabbis. Last August, in meeting Edinburgh’s Lord Provost, I presented him with a copy of my latest book, Looking for Peace in the Land of the Prophets. I asked him not necessarily to agree with its contents, but at least to listen to an opinion other than the one which has become the received wisdom in political circles.

The central tenet of that book is that there can never be lasting peace without justice.

Calling for compromise is a noble call. Asking people to compromise on justice, though, is wrong. So, please don’t ask me to compromise and dialogue with those who are occupying my house or besieging my brothers and sisters, forcing them to live in houses made of mud, whilst those who usurped their land lounge on the beaches of Tel Aviv. Don’t reduce our interfaith dialogue to a political game that would see people denied their rights. There can indeed be no peace without justice. And justice will never come to the Land of the Prophets until the whole truth has been told and acknowledged.

Jews and Muslims hold so much in common. As the Chief Rabbi of Turkey told me last year, there is a phrase which Jews and Muslims can say together: La illaha illallah (there is no god but the one true God). Let us not score political points off one another but, instead, let us hold fast to that belief, and let us finish with a quote from the Book of Amos:

The Lord says, “I hate your religious festivals; I cannot stand them! When you bring me burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them; I will not accept the animals you have fattened to bring me as offerings. Stop your noisy songs; I do not want to listen to your harps. Instead, let justice flow like a stream, and righteousness like a river that never goes dry.”


Moderation and Extremism… on Islamic Terms

Leave a comment

By Sohaib Saeed [Originally published by 1st Ethical]

Sometimes we feel we are losing the war of words. As new concepts and coinages colonise the Muslim mind, we are left playing catch-up. Defining terms is a function of power, hence the feeling of helplessness in the face of familiar words being “redefined”. Wisdom is required to be flexible to genuine progress while maintaining the integrity of our religious discourse; after all, scripture-based religion necessitates a keen awareness of the meaning of words and the intent of speakers.

Unethical media/political usage of certain words has evoked a variety of strange reactions. They have mastered the art of using words laden with value judgements (connotations) yet devoid of precise meaning (denotation), such that they can even be strung together to great effect. Upon this method, “extremist radical fanatic” means no more than “bad bad baddie”. Then we have some Muslims trying to reclaim these negative terms by casting aside their baggage. On the other hand, some reject ostensibly positive labels such as “moderate” because people with problematic agendas have promoted them under this banner. If anything, these are the names we need to reclaim!

So what is a “moderate”, and what is Islam’s approach to this concept? To speak of Islam’s “approach” is to assume that its scriptures have spoken of the concept, not leaving us to react at a later time. Do we need to consider “moderation” as a RAND-y agenda, or is it the sort of lifestyle that takes a bit of Islam, but not too much (like being a “moderate drinker”)? Is the “moderate” someone who cancels any religious teaching which critics find unpalatable?

The aim of this brief article is to draw attention to some of the keywords in our Islamic tradition and contemporary discourse for both sides of this equation. By so doing, we can aspire to perfecting our individual and collective religiosity, directing it to be both faithful and sustainable, while avoiding the pitfalls of those who have gone before. More

Dialogue Matters (column)

Leave a comment

Here is an archive of my columns for Interfaith Matters, formerly published by the Edinburgh Inter-Faith Association. I may continue the series if it finds a new home!

  1. Why Dialogue?
  2. Humility
  3. Trust
  4. Listening
  5. The Question
  6. Partners
  7. The Middle Ground
  8. Self-Presentation
  9. Dealing with Feeling More

Muslim, actually

Leave a comment

Walking the path of fame and staying on the Straight Path

By Sohaib Saeed
[Originally published by The iWitness newspaper (2005) as a review of a BBC documentary.]

 You don’t always do what you think is right, but you do it for the sake of doing it, disregarding all other things. And I think in terms of acting sometimes you do have to do that.”  – Atta Yaqub

As part of a well-received BBC2 special on British Pakistanis, Atta Boy gave us an insight into the dilemmas faced by rising star Atta Yaqub. A Pollokshields resident who shot to fame after starring in Ken Loach’s film Ae Fond Kiss, Atta struggles to balance his ambitions with his values. A youth counsellor at Glasgow’s YCSA, he was discovered while modelling part-time and his ambition is to have a fulfilling career in acting.

It would be most unfair to judge what is in Atta’s heart, or imply by offering my views here that I am somehow better. He gave the impression of someone who is sincere and loves his religion, but has trouble resolving tough tests on the way to worldly success. The fact that he agreed to make this documentary suggests that he wants to be understood. So what can we understand from his experiences? More

A Word of Peace

Leave a comment

By Sohaib Saeed [Originally published by 1st Ethical]

It may have become something of a cliché that Islam means peace, or is a religion of peace. Yet there is no doubt that the pursuit of peace is a central goal of this life, just as we strive to arrive at the Abode of Peace after we die. When the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said “Spread peace”, it was a sign that his followers should feel that they have this role upon the earth: to be bearers of peace.

The greeting of peace – in Arabic, expressed with the word salām – is one of the great symbols of Islamic ethics and is heard upon the tongues of the Prophets in the Qur’an as well as the Bible. To extend the word of peace to those you know and those you do not, is to put them at ease and engender an atmosphere of trust. It is a covenant extended to all who will accept to live in peace with us, and a precursor to getting to know one another as the Qur’an instructs.

In a verse exemplifying constructive reciprocity, Almighty God says: {And when you are greeted with a greeting, then greet with something better than it, or return it (in kind).} (Qur’an 4:86)

While the scholars have discussed in detail the wordings of such greetings and their replies, the spirit of this verse is to take positivity and build upon it before passing it on. Every society will benefit from this lesson, and it ought to be kept in mind when interacting within our own community as well as engaging with others.

It is also the case that knowing our scripture and its higher purposes – and reflecting on the localised contexts of its application – will enable us to benefit from divine guidance in living among people, inviting them through our words and actions to a life of peace and fulfilment. In particular, I have in mind the reservations Muslims often have when it comes to sharing this greeting of peace with non-Muslims.

Perhaps, were it not for the way the following two Prophetic narrations have been understood, they would not doubt for a moment that it is their duty to greet every human being with a smile and peaceful greeting. It would seem completely natural to promote a shared culture built upon this word of peace. More

Interfaith Engagement and Reciprocity

Leave a comment

By Sohaib Saeed [Originally published by 1st Ethical]

The announcement of some perennial publicity seekers that a Georgian Christian bishop had been invited to deliver the Jumu‘ah sermon to a (thoroughly mixed) congregation in Oxford failed to shock me because I had (half jokingly) declared long before that this would be their logical next step. (And not all logic is good logic.)

Rather, it reminded me of my own experience being invited by Christian friends to deliver a sermon at their Edinburgh church, which is also a hub of positive engagement in the city and beyond. I decided to honour their kind invitation and speak according to my own beliefs, respecting their practices without joining in their form of worship.

My theme was the Golden Rule, which has everything to do with empathy and reciprocity. Naturally, I wondered at the time: what would happen if we were to invite a Christian to deliver our khutbah? While to me it was an obvious impossibility, that audience of mine could be justified in thinking that I ought to return the favour and offer my minbar to their ministers.

On the contrary, that assumption would be to overlook the differences between our respective beliefs and practices. Perhaps the status of the sermon in each religion is completely different. Perhaps our approaches to validity of acts of worship defy comparison. In short, there will be things that work for one group and not the other, and vice-versa. More

The Golden Rule: An Islamic-Dialogic Perspective


By Sohaib Saeed (extended version of 2010 paper)

Anyone with an interest in the philosophy of ethics, or in the common ground between different faiths and cultures, is very likely to be familiar with a dictum known as the “Golden Rule”. Worded in various ways, its straightforward message is to treat other people as you would like to be treated; or to refrain from treating them in a way that you would dislike to be treated. In this article, I shall explore the concept as it is expressed within the Islamic tradition, and then outline how the Golden Rule can be applied to great benefit in the broader context of interfaith understanding and dialogue. Before tackling these two subjects, however, the concept and its significance deserve some introductory exploration.

“Whoever shows no mercy is not shown mercy.” Artwork on display at Fanar Center, Doha

Older Entries