Thursday,23 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1204, (3-9 July 2014)
Thursday,23 November, 2017
Issue 1204, (3-9 July 2014)

Ahram Weekly

A tale of two faiths

Rabbi Marc Schneier and Imam Shamsi Ali, The Sons of Abraham, New York: Random House, 2013. pp240. Reviewed by Gamal Nkrumah

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Blandishment amid family proclivity to fight and a penchant for altercation? Unpicking the prickly problem of the politics of religious identity is a knotty subject. Yet, a Rabbi Marc Schneier and an Imam Shamsi Ali took up the challenge. I cannot quite pretend that they succeeded, but at least they tried. At times they get a bit technical, but it is the sort of book one reads on a road trip. And, one way to preempt parody is to parody your religion. They take their respective religions seriously, but I detect a hint of satire. The book is a pastiche, but it has its charms.

The forward by former President Bill Clinton is startling in the sense that it stresses religious identity at the heart of American-style identity politics written from a perspective of a secularist who is rather intrigued by religions that are sanctioned by God or a prophet. The implication, I presume, is that hard times make hard men who learn their religious convictions from a succession of mentors, only to distort the original concepts of the teachers. And, the father of all teachers, according to monotheists, is Abraham.

The brush with death of Abraham’s son Ishmael, son of his Egyptian concubine Hagar, and curiously considered the progenitor of all Arabs, and by implication Muslims, begins with the mother and son sojourn in the Arabian wastelands until they stumbled upon Zamzam, the well of Holy Water, in the vicinity of Mecca. The meteorite rock, now considered sacred to Muslims the world over, metamorphosed into a hallowed shrine from pre-Islamic days to today. Submission to God’s will is the very essence of Islam. And, Abraham is father in both the biological and ethical sense.

The onus of Clinton’s Forward is on the shocking violence of terrorism. “As president, I worked for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East to create a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza,used the power of the United States to stop the oppression and slaughter of Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo, and engaged in regular consultations with Muslim Americans on a wide range of issues. I also worked hard to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States and other nations. Many attacks were thwarted, both before and after I left office,but not at our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, or the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000,” Clinton extrapolates.

A hard lesson, Clinton suggests is learned. The sons of Abraham are not necessarily loving siblings. Yet, whatever its shortcomings, I would be a ridiculous reviewer to suggest that The Sons of Abraham is anything less than a standout read. The crackle of the dialogue between the Rabbi and the Imam can be distracting, but it is worth reading precisely because it poses pertinent and poignant questions.

Let us first dispel any false expectations about this book which claims to be a candid conversation about issues that divide and unite Jews and Muslims. This conversation, or dialogue, is far from seminal, but the Rabbi and the Imam’s exchanges are perturbing in that they are particularly picaresque.

The Sons of Abraham is not strictly chronological but shuttles forward and back in a most haphazard fashion. From Moses to Mohamed, monotheism is projected with a particular parochialism that is rather disturbing.

The prose reads as if translated simultaneously from nineteenth century New York Yiddish and contemporary Bahasa Indonesia. And, this pretentious universality and cosmopolitanism to my ear could do with being dialed a bit.

That said, a sinuously sinister tribute to the godfather of monotheism, Moses, rings true, but it is Abraham who puts a superfluous spin on timeworn tropes, a cynical treat of sorts.

Figuring out Abraham is hard material to wrangle. He was an imperfect man, but the perfect believer in the one and only God. His progeny, too, were and still are far from perfect. Nothing stays the same forever, except for a devotion to the Creator. “Still there are few people committed to reconciliation through honest dialogue,” Clinton concludes.

The siblings share a great deal. Their dietary rituals and even prayers are not surprisingly similar. The obligatory twice daily recitation in early Jewish prayer of the Shema, the central statement of Jewish monotheistic belief coupled with the formulaic blessings, or berakhot (barakat in Arabic) makes Christianity the odd one out in the monotheistic scheme of things.

Christianity is to put it bluntly, is the most pagan of the three monotheistic religions. Both Rabbi and Imam eschew direct criticism of Christianity, preferring instead to dwell at length about what Judaism and Islam have in common. They articulate their respective discoveries in concurrent confessions.

Sarah, Abraham’s chief consort gave birth to Isaac, miraculously at a ripe old age and Hagar her Egyptian handmaiden was cast into the desert by her mistress who commanded her husband Abraham that it is high time for the Egyptian slave to fend for herself and her son. Cruelty was the progenitor of the rival siblings. And, the lucid manner in which the tale is told in the Torah certainly documents the birth of the paradox that fuels hostility between Israelis and Palestinians to this very day. It is a chilling, bloodcurdling revelation. “Certainly, Muslims as well as Jews are descendants of Abraham, so am I somehow asserting that the descendants of Isaac (Jews) are more worthy than the descendants of Ishmael (Muslims)?” The Rabbi is non-committal.

Ultimately, I suspect, the unstable nature of diametrically opposed cultural perceptions, misconceptions and communication difficulties prevail in spite of the Herculean efforts of the Rabbi and the Imam to pretend otherwise. Take the notion of the so-called “Chosen People”, central to Judaism.

“The idea that the Jews are the chosen people is one of the most misunderstood concepts in history. Indeed, a lethal combination of the most misunderstanding and often deliberate distortion has caused immense suffering to the Jewish people at the hands of persecutors who point to the ‘chosen people’ concept as evidence that the Jews claim to be superior to other religions an nations, and even that Jews covet world supremacy,” Schneier extrapolates.

On the surface, his hypothesis is preposterous. But look beneath the surface and it becomes clear that Schneier desperately desires that his people’s story to be interpreted within a wider philosophical framework.

A clue to the rather meagre fare presented by the authors can be detected in the title itself. God absolves Abraham of having to sacrifice his own son. But which one? Muslims and Jews disagree on this very prickly subject. Muslims believe that it was Ishmael, and Jews claim it was Isaac. “Actually, the concept of the chosen people was never meant to assert Jewish superiority or supremacy. Rather the concept of chosenness designates the Jews’ special mission to introduce the world to ethical monotheism. I believe that the emergence of Christianity and Islam as great world religions represents a fulfillment of that mission. Today, the great majority of the world’s population adheres to one of the three Abrahamic faiths, and we speak of a Judeo-Christian ethic or, more accurately, of a Judeo-Christian-Islamic ethic,” Schneier elucidates.

Yet, even the Rabbi has his doubts. Or at least, he knows that his arguments are unconvincing. “There is no question that the concept of chosenness is decidedly not politically correct in the context of early-twenty-first-century liberal secularist thinking,” Schneier concedes.

Nevertheless, it is unfair to single out Jews as the only people to conjure up the notion that they are special. Certainly they were perhaps the first people to articulate it in a religious context. Yet, many ancient medieval and modern peoples also viewed themselves as special. The ancient Greeks certainly did see themselves as distinguished and their civilized ways and wisdom as unique. The ancient Egyptians, too, regarded not only their culture and religion as superior to that of their neighbours, but even their very “Black Land” was unrivaled in its fertility. And, the Chinese envisioned themselves as the very centre of the world, the Middle Kingdom” and the most sophisticated of peoples. What distinguishes Jews is that their uniqueness was inextricably intertwined with the very notion of monotheism, and hence their special relationship with God.

Yet, there is a disturbing underlying moral vacuum that does not wash with contemporary thinking. The Jewish concept of a “Chosen People” was based on a people desperately trying to move beyond the finite knowledge of mundane matters to get closer to the infinite power of God.

However, there is a prickly historical question, here. Which of Abraham’s progeny is “Chosen”? “Yet to return to the issue of chosenness, I believe that all Jews, no matter how they identify religiously, are ‘chosen’ to manifest a special destiny, a Jewish identity,” Schneier explains.

The very argument strengthens the hand of critics who presume that the entire Abraham “myth” is misanthropic. And, worse, that it is out of touch with contemporary reason and logic.

“As both a Jew and as an American, I believe in the immortal words of our Declaration of Independence that all men (and women) are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Schneier confesses.

The Rabbi caustically captures, perhaps inadvertently, a hard truth. It is the belief in Jews being a “Chosen People” and that God ordained them with a “Promised Land” that has today caused so much suffering for Palestinians. They are the children of Hagar and her son Ishmael and hence must find an abode elsewhere leaving the “Land of Milk and Honey” to the children of Sarah and her son Isaac. So, the Rabbi asks a rhetorical question. “What are the implications of this belief of Jews as the chosen people for Muslim-Jewish relations?”.

And, this is where the book feels like handcrafted words. “Jews I have spoken with explain that they were chosen by God to spread ethical monotheism to the world, that this is the root of the application of ‘chosenness’ for the Jewish people. Since Christians and Muslims share this monotheistic belief and are continuing to disseminate the message received by Moses, the Abrahamic faiths must reconize their shared mission and responsibility for being the best nation. There are many more reasons to be united, in theology, friendship, and history, than there are reasons to find difference,” professes Imam Shamsi Ali.

The Imam sounds a little like a shrinking violet. “Because Muslims believe that righteousness is the key to happiness, we seek to submit to God’s will in all aspects of life. This is the first level of belief, Islam itself, the submission of our individual wills to that of God’s,” Imam Ali observes.

And, the Rabbi concurs. “Judaism is very text-oriented, as in Islam. It is clear to me that Mohamed saw Islam as the continuation of Judaism; even the dynamic of having a written law and a an oral law is similar. Dietary laws, circumcision, praying five times (instead of three times)a day, the concept of one God, it is very similar to Judaism,” Schneier expounds.

Ominously, the “texts” read like the remarks of a poisoned pen, nestling snug as a rifle between finger and thumb. Both religious Jews and Muslims adopt a literalistic and overly aspirational tone when they speak about their respective Holy Books and sacred texts.

Chapter Fifteen entitled “Why Jews Should Care about Islamophobia” is something of an eye-opener. “The normative Judaic belief, certainly within Orthodox Jewry, is that a Jew cannot enter a church but a Jew can enter a mosque. Christianity is a form of idolatry; Islam is not. A Jew can go as far as to pray in a mosque,” Schneier notes.

There are no statues or sacred icons in synagogues and mosques as there are in churches. The Christians of the medieval crusades were extremely violent, and used their religious zeal as a pretext to snatch Muslim lands, liberate the Holy Land from the infidel.

Today, however, Christianity has strangely become a byword for civility and decency. The hypocritical Victorians and the wily missionaries of the colonial period must take credit for cleverly changing the meaning of “Christian”. Long forgotten is the Spanish Inquisition.

Muslims, who were a most open-minded ruling class in Andalusia are now universally seen as terrorists. And, contemporary Israelis have sullied the proverbial meekness of the long-suffering and persecuted Jew. The Old Testament, nevertheless, testifies to a violent streak in Judaism. And, the political rivalries projected as religious wars tarnished the image of Islam from its inception. The wars of pristine Islam, like contemporary struggles between Shia and Sunni Muslims, were waged against fellow Muslims rather than with the infidels. In spite of current perceptions, Muslims have always been the most tolerant of monotheists, particularly as far as other monotheists are concerned. Islam is the only monotheistic religion that acknowledges Christianity and Judaism and venerates the prophets of the two earlier monotheistic faiths. Today, the differences between the monotheistic religions with regards to violent tendencies are blurred.

Yet, the authors in vain search for the awkward truth they espouse. “The mistaken belief that Islam is inherently violent is something that all of us, Muslims and Jews alike, need to set right,” Imam Shamsi Ali. “Too much violence and atrocity have been perpetrated in the name of God and religion,” he concedes.

“Among many concepts in Islam, one of the most misunderstood is the concept of jihad. The term jihad has become synonymous with ‘armed conflict’, usually of an offensive and aggressive nature. For the uninformed, the word conjures images of the suicide bomber or the terrorist network. There is the angry young man egged on and supported by a network of armed combatants, glorified videos, and seduced by the seventy beautiful virgins awaiting him in the hereafter. But this is not what jihad meant for the Muslims who first heard of it, revealed in the Meccan time, pre-migration to Medina,” the Imam insists.

But, is such an assertion strictly speaking true? On closer inspection it becomes abundantly clear that Islam was tainted with violence that erupted into incessant and frankly speaking unnecessary infighting when Prophet Mohamed passed away. His wars against the pagans of Mecca, his own people, his kith and kin, were justifiable because they were in self-defense.

But there is no escaping the fact that three of his successors, the Caliphs, leaders of the Muslim community were murdered, mostly in cold blood. Shia Muslims to this day do not acknowledge the Caliphs, Abu-Bakr, Omar and Othman, as rightly ordained Caliphs. They only regard Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Mohamed as the truly sanctioned Caliph.

It is a rather dark story, rivetingly told, that relays a great deal about early Islam. Ali, like Omar and Othman were murdered, or martyred, depending on one’s religious convictions.

Jews masqueraded as a victimized people for much of their history and that in some twisted sense justified their forcible appropriation of Palestine in modern times as in yesteryear, the distant idealized past.

Muslims, on the other hand, were rulers in the heydays of Islam. They treated their non-Muslim monotheistic subjects benignly. Yes, there were a few exceptions to the rule, but historically Muslim rulers were on the whole tolerant of the other. It is strange that today Muslims are seen as a violent lot. Muslims, it must be said, never shied away from aggression, which has come to be known as the concept of “Jihad”.

“The word jihad most closely means ‘struggle’ or ‘striving’ in English translation, and there are different forms of jihad, the Greater Jihads and the Lesser Jihads,” Shamsi elaborates.

The Imam’s central argument, which is that the true jihad is a struggle to submit to the will of God and eschew self-will, is now all but forgotten by both Muslims and non-Muslims alike. “Greater Jihad is the war we fight with ourselves, while Lesser Jihad is the war that we fight with others,” Shamsi extrapolates.

The Imam writes affectingly throughout the book about his passion for pristine Islam. “Greater Jihad urges us to surmount the millions of things that we as humans tend to fail at, at one time or another, in our lives. We should strive to conquer these flaws and faults in order to become better people. These are internal and spiritual struggles. Lesser Jihad refers to any armed conflict,” Imam Shamsi Ali makes clear.

Rabbi Schneier is more skilled at the art of the calculated sulk. “Here, of course, is the great irony. Jesus was born and remained a Jew for his entire life and upheld main tenets of biblical law at the heart of his teachings. And yet Christians later came to cite the Golden Rule as one of the main maxims distinguishing Christian beliefs and behavior from that of Jews, a people whom they excoriated as evil for the better part of two millennia,” argues Schneier.

Schneier and Shamsi Ali appear to have been more interested not so much in highlighting various aspects of Islam and Judaism, the commonalities in the Torah and the Quran as in the psychology of the relationship between the adherents of the two religions.

Sons of Abraham is a cavalcade of random theories and the verisimilitude of Islam and Judaism is obvious. From the two writers’ personal perspectives, the reader is meant to sense the shift from transcendence to majestic immanence of both Judaism and Islam. The emphasis on what unites and what differentiates the two monotheistic religions is clearly articulated. Yet, the divisive differences within each of the two respective religions is rigidly avoided. And, hence the respective stories of the two religions are sadly incomplete. Each is a tale of our time that encapsulates the belief systems of two very closely related monotheistic religions.

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