On Monday, March 9th, I was pleased to welcome Kadi Dr. Iyad Zahalka to lecture to a group of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Rabbis as part of an annual general meeting of Rabbis for Human Rights, which now hosts the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI) , which I directed for 23 years, and for which I now serve as Senior Advisor. As of January of this year, ICCI has become a department of Rabbis for Human Rights, which has welcomed us with open arms and which has demonstrated a profound interest in interreligious dialogue in Israeli society for the sake of peaceful coexistence.
Zahalka, one of my leading partners in interreligious dialogue in recent years, not only serves as the Muslim judge of the Sharia court of the state of Israel in Jerusalem, but also teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University and Bar Ilan University. Since completing his doctorate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem a few years ago, he has already transformed Zahalka, his doctoral dissertation into a book called Sharia Law in Modern Times, which came out in Hebrew by Reisling Press last year, 2014, and which will be published in English by Cambridge University Press later this year, 2015.
Since we have been partners in dialogue for several years—and have travelled twice to North America together on speaking tours (and will do so again next Fall)—Kadi Zahalka readily accepted my invitation to speak about the attitude of Islam to Human Rights, a subject that is very dear to him. It was eminently clear to all who heard him speak so passionately on this subject that his modern Muslim theology values human rights deeply at its core.
According to Kadi Zahalka, Koranic sources emphasize over and over again that God created human beings and gave them the responsibility to care for this earth. Human beings are given both rights, as God’s creation, and obligations.
In his understanding of Islam, all human beings—irrespective of their religion, race or gender—are created equal by God. Not just Muslims. All human beings. He was careful to emphasize this universalistic aspect of Islam in his talk.
Many people who heard Kadi Zahalka talk for the first time were pleasantly surprised by his erudite, sophisticated, open and modern approach to Islam. They were not used to hearing such statements from a Muslim religious leader, since they don’t hear such statements in the mainstream media very often nor do they see such world views expressed so clearly on the internet very much. Indeed, like most Jews in Israel and the world, they are used to a daily diet of Radical Islam in the news, with a focus on violence and extremism (the mainstream media seem to thrive on this!).
When asked during the question period about issues such as honor-killings of women in Muslim society or about the violence committed every day by ISIS and other radical Islamic groups, Kadi Zahalka made it very clear that these actions represent distortions of true Islam. As a monotheistic tradition committed to humanistic values, Islam –as he understands and practices it in his personal and professional life—does not condone violence against women, nor does it support beheading and otherwise murdering innocent civilians.
I believe that Kadi Zahalka’s views represent the views of the overwhelming majority of Muslims in Israel and in the world. This is why it is important to give him—and others like him– opportunities to share his views in public as much as possible, and why it is important for readers of this blog to know that he exists and represents mainstream Muslim thinking in Israel.
Perhaps this will be one small step forward in helping Jews in Israel and abroad to combat Islamophobia and to refrain from labeling all Muslims as extremists who simply want to kill everyone else in the name of some gross distortion of their religion. Moreover, this represents a new opening for Jews and Muslims to work together in common cause to preserve human rights—in the mutual interest of everyone—in the months and years ahead.