I recently spoke on Islam and my new book at a local senior center. As members trickled in, a white-haired man approached me and announced, “I have never known an Arab or a Muslim who wasn’t anti-Semitic.”
I replied, “I’m not anti-Semitic and I have many Jewish friends.”
“Congratulations,” he said sardonically.
I sighed and smiled wryly.
“You know, “ I said, “when Arab Muslims conquered Jerusalem in 638, they invited the Jews – who’d been banished by the former Christian rulers – back to live and worship in the city. They left the Christians free to live and visit the holy places, too.”
Seeing no response on his still face, I continued. “In the seventh century, Muhammad urged his followers to fast on Yom Kippur, in solidarity with the Jews. The Qur’an states that fasting is prescribed for Muslims, just as it was prescribed for those (the Jews) before them.”
After a pause, he said, “Thank you. I didn’t know that.” Turning, he shuffled to his seat.
I couldn’t spare the time then, but later I grieved that Islam is perceived as anti-Semitic. Anti-Semitism has no place in Islam, just as Islamophobia has no place in Judaism. For their time, these two religions sought to decrease violence and bigotry in the world. The weight of history, if we can but remember it, is on the side of pluralism.
Islam accepts Judaism, as well as Christianity, as part of the Islamic tradition. Muhammad didn’t claim to preach a new religion, but rather Abraham’s religion of the One God. Thus, Islam accepts as its own the Judeo-Christian prophets, including Adam, Noah, Abraham, Solomon, David, Moses, Jesus, and many others.
Because Islam is part of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Qur’an grants Jews and Christians an exalted status. They, among others, are called “People of an Earlier Revelation” or “People of the Book,” referring not to a literal book, but the Book of God, the divine message.
As such, the Qur’an allows Muslims to marry Jews and Christians. Moreover, it is firmly established in Islamic law that heaven is not reserved solely for Muslims. Those who perform good deeds, including Jews and Christians, will achieve heaven.
The Qur’an orders Muslims to not revile those who do not worship God. The Qur’an prohibits even arguing with People of an Earlier Revelation, except courteously. And it contains several statements of religious tolerance that were remarkable for a seventh-century religious text, among them, “To you your religion, to me mine!” and my personal favorite, “There shall be no compulsion in religion.”
I’m not saying that any of our histories are perfect. My local bookstore prominently featured a book on how some Muslim preacher allied himself with the Nazis to spread anti-Semitism. Well, I find that disgusting.
But where’s the balance? Why focus on this guy and not on the Muslim king of Morocco, who refused to give up his Jewish population to the Nazis? Why not focus on the Albanians, a country of seventy percent Muslims, who hid their Jewish neighbors from the Nazis so that – remarkably – all but five Albanian Jews survived the Nazi occupation of Albania? Why not remember that fifty thousand Spanish Jews fled the Inquisition to settle in the Muslim Ottoman Empire, where most stayed for another four centuries?
We can either focus on the conflicts in history, proving only that human beings are imperfect; or, we can focus on the countless cooperative, cross-religious acts of generosity instead, using those to drive forward our vision of the future. It’s up to us.