Hafiz Abdullah Muhammad, an Islamic scholar and a lawyer, founded the Quran Study Group over twelve years ago. It is an inclusive setting where people from all walks of life can study the Qur’an and Islam, in the heart of London. Ben and I visited the group in March 2019, and Hafiz Abdullah visited the Holy Land during the last ten days of Ramadan, with a colleague and member of his group, Shaykh Ahmed, who is a senior business consultant and former lawyer.
This was Hafiz Abdullah’s fourth visit to the Holy Land and Shaykh Ahmed’s first.
They saw openings and opportunity, they witnessed barriers as well. And all of these experiences show me that we need to build lines of trust, respectfully.
Why was I involved? Because I am inspired by this dream — to raise awareness of peacemaking frameworks that are inherent in Islam and Judaism.
The frameworks — acceptance of all People of the Book based upon scripture.
These frameworks formed the basis of the ancient Hebrew commonwealth, the Constitution of Medina, the Golden Age of Spain, and even modern political science. From the 16th – 18th centuries, Christian Hebraists from Erastus, to Hugo Grotius, to John Selden – the architect of the English Parliament — to the founding fathers of the United States, drew from the Torah, Talmud, and the writings of Maimonides in their architecture of modern political science.
Here are the tools they used: in Judaism, the acceptance of the Ger Toshav – the righteous non-Jewish citizen, the Chasidei Umot HaOlam — the devout ones of the Nations, and the Chochmei Umot HaOlam — the wise nonbelievers of the nations who contribute to society.
In Islam, there are similar provisions. For example, the Qur’an holds the Jews and Christians in particularly high esteem and repeatedly addresses them as the ‘People of the Book’ (Ahl al-Kitab). Non-Muslim citizens in Islamic countries were known as Ahl al-Dhimmah, and afforded equal protection by the state like their Muslim counterparts.
That is the dream, and to raise awareness begs activism.
But there are different kinds of activism, and I have witnessed too many provocations — and it hurts me to say this, especially in the Holy Land – to consider the activism of harsh confrontation to be effective. (Though it may increase ratings in the media, after a dialectic fashion).
Rabbi Tzvi Freedman states that activism must include personal self improvement. He states this is best achieved in building a family, but even with that home-centered emphasis, he notes that one finds Chassidic Jews, those thought to be the most insular and home-oriented, engaging in such activism as rebuilding houses in Nepal and providing food for Muslim families for Ramadan evening breakfasts – iftar.
Dr. M. H. Siddiqui states that Islam is indeed an action-oriented religion, invoking the hadith: “If the end of the world approaches and one of you has a seedling in his hand, if he can plant it before the end comes, let him do it.” He states, “in Islam there is no place for rash, radical or extreme actions.” Indeed, he stipulates that actions should be intellectually honest and done respectfully.
So in engaging in this activism, it seems a better course to choose the road of good manners, especially in the middle east, a place exhausted with provocations. I had a chance to put that to the test during the Shaykhs’ trip.
Now let’s discuss the first barrier they needed to deal with:
At the Border
Sometimes Muslims who wish to visit Israel do so in a circuitous route, going by way of Jordan, in case they are not admitted by the immigration authorities.
Hafiz Abdullah previously entered the Holy Land with his family through Egypt via the Taba border, another time via Jordan. But two years ago he eschewed this circuitous route, and he came directly to Tel Aviv with his teenage daughter. That experience gave him the confidence to make future trips to Israel directly. Not only did this save him both time and money, it opened up possibilities for more Muslims to travel the direct route, and….
And this time…. I had alerted the Women Wage Peace group of the upcoming visit, and in their proactive “no stopping us until we have a peace treaty” fashion, two representatives sprinted to the airport to greet them.
In my blase attitude, I had told Hafiz and Ahmed about how long it takes to get through the airport, I mean, I just smile at the immigration authorities and walk on by. I had forgotten that visiting Muslims may be held up at the border. I got a message from Hafiz at 3:30 pm: “we landed, and are in a waiting room”. Gdir and Ahuva were already there, I was anxious about them fasting while traveling. 4:30 pm – still waiting. I wrote to the women – can you tell the immigration authorities on your side that you are waiting for Hafiz and Ahmed? Will that help them get through faster? Well by 4:45 pm they were through and a jubilant meeting between the unstoppable Women Wage Peace and Shaykhs was captured in a happy snapshot.
I am just as defensive as anyone about Israel’s security needs, and my request to get the airport authorities to communicate over both sides of the barrier was not meant to try the fragile lines of security needs here. But I was glad to hear that their wait was bearable, and that on the way back to London, their acceptance through the border went even faster.
That is one barrier breached — good. And he hopes to bring more followers – great.
Hafiz and Ahmed were impressed with the presence of members of all three faiths right outside the window of the hostel in which they lodged in the Old City. “You see the Christians turning into their churches, the Jews walking into their synagogues, the Muslims on the way to the mosque, and all trafficking together out in the open.” They witnessed a procession in honor of the Greek orthodox Easter celebration, a reminder of the overlapping calendars and cultures here.
Shaykh Ahmed added, inspired by just being in Jerusalem, “look at the shape of the Dome of the Rock. It is an octagonal shape. That means there are many different points of view in the world, you see things from one angle, others see from their angles. This has to be respected, especially in peace making.”
Sanhedrin — from pleasantries to acceptance
Two Shaykhs meeting with the rabbis of the new Sanhedrin is already an opportunity, a potential wall breached. But more than social pleasantries are needed in order to continue working together.
The Noachide laws are seven commandments that are the touch point for a just society. They are the measuring stick of correct religion. They are:
- Not to worship idols
- Not to curse God
- To establish courts of justice
- Not to commit murder
- Not to commit sexual immorality.
- Not to steal
- Not to eat flesh from a living animal
They are phrased in the negative, in the “do not do” form. While the rabbis discussed that Islam surely follows these seven laws, indeed, the seven Noachide laws are incorporated in Islam and are contained in the Qur’an chapter named “Surah Bani Israel” (see footnote at end), one demurred in Maimonides’ name that it is forbidden to invent a new religion. So how can they accept Muslims? Should non-Jews just be Noachides and that is that?
Ben explained that Islam is not in fact a new religion. Indeed, Maimonides praised Islam for the ceremonies connecting with Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) and fasting on Ramadan, never declaring them to be a “chidush” – new invention. This holds up under further scrutiny – Ramadan fasting shares the same root with the counting of the Omer, from the holidays of Passover until Shavuot, in which Jews refrain from music, weddings, and some even fasted during this time. See Leviticus 23:14: And ye shall eat neither bread, nor parched corn, nor fresh ears, until this selfsame day, until ye have brought the offering of your God; it is a statute for ever throughout your generations in all your dwellings.
The rabbi who expressed unease on this score was actually placated by this interpretation.
From this discussion, they went on to say that it is not enough to refrain from what is wrong, as implied in the parlance of the Noachide laws, but it is essential to be proactive. A true Noachide court does not just deal with crime, but is there to give guidance, create proper citizens. Thus, the intellectual framework proposed by Ben of acceptance according to scripture led to a discussion on how to continue working together, and how to apply this in practice.
And this could only have happened once a boundary was breached and turned into an opportunity. Dreams of Shaykhs and Rabbis working together cannot be realized unless acceptance is in effect.
Ben was not trying to test the Rabbis by challenging the fragile lines of demarcation between religions here, just presenting another perspective, respectfully.
And it worked
Roots Shorashim Judur Iftar
Then it was my turn to escort Hafiz and Ahmed to the iftar at the Abu Awad estate in which the group Roots-Shorashim-Judur hosts its reconciliation events. Ben had toured them around the Western Wall in the hot sun, arranged the Sanhedrin meeting, and brought them to the central bus station where I was to bring them to Gush Etzion Junction for the Roots iftar. I had asked managers of two stores there if I could sit with two fasting Muslim gentlemen in their air conditioning, and they both readily said yes.
I was not trying to test the fragile lines of fear here by putting anyone on the spot, I had asked respectfully – and both readily agreed.
So it worked.
Turns out the Shaykhs preferred to arrive at the destination rather than cool off in an air conditioned store. Off the bus at the Gush, I noticed a woman pulling out of a parked space, I asked if she could save the five minute walk in the heat and give us a lift, she was hesitant, suspicious, I assured her that these were visiting Shaykhs from London, involved in peace work, and perhaps she had heard of “Roots”? I said she can decline if she wants, but by then she had acquiesced amidst some hesitation.
I did not push at the delicate lines of suspicion here, but attempted to build lines of trust.
And it worked.
Hafiz Abdullah and Ahmed were visibly moved by Khaled Abu Awad’s personal story and commitment to peace. Khaled is co-director of Roots-Shorashim-Judur, whose stated goal is “fostering a grassroots movement of understanding, nonviolence, and transformation among Israelis and Palestinians.” Roots brings Israelis and Palestinians together in discussion groups, summer camps for children, various joint activities, and of course an annual iftar.
Khaled’s beloved brother Yusuf was killed at an Israeli checkpoint in 2001. Incredibly, this tragedy deepened his commitment to peaceful conciliation, a commitment that deeply moved Hafiz and Ahmed. I managed to get them to a side room so they could talk privately, whisking in the iftar delicacies so they could continue their discussion away from the growing crowd. And Khaled graciously invited Hafiz to speak in front of the group.
“We are now waiting for the bus in Qiryat Arba”
Last day of Ramadan, I got this casual message from Hafiz, “the talk at Otniel Yeshiva was a delightful experience. Everything went well. We are now waiting for the bus in Qiryat Arba.”
Talk about barriers – now they were in a place that most Israelis avoid.
Leading up to their talk at Otniel, Hafiz and Ahmed hoped to pray at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, Hebron then give their speech at Otniel yeshiva.
But how to get from Jerusalem to Hebron, to the Muslim quarter from where they can pray at the Tomb? And then, to the Jewish yishuv, Otniel? Crossing over from the Muslim side of Hebron to a place they could reach Otniel seemed complicated, but in this barrier-defying trip they made it. Here are some key points in Hafiz’ speech to the students of Otniel yeshiva, near Hebron, Holy Land:
See Hafiz’ speech here:
“The Prophets all spoke the same message, just in different ways, adapted to different times and needs. The details of the laws that were given are less important than the core message, indeed, laws adapt to different societies and different ages. That core message is the Oneness of God, and this message is intimately tied with the importance of serving humanity. To serve God is to serve humanity, because humanity is the work of God.
“Judaism and Islam are the two religions who are closest to each other in that they are firm on the oneness of God. Your Shm’a Prayer is like our Shahadah, in that both affirm the oneness of God.
“This land is called Holy Land, both in the Qur’an, as Ard al Muqaddasah, and in the Bible. If we do unholy things here, then that is a desecration; we must not pollute this land. If we embrace our commonalities, we shall see each other as cousins, not as foreigners or enemies. Especially for those who claim to be believers, we need to live by our religious teachings so others can see our good example, emphasizing kindness and justice.
“The Qur’an teaches a moderate path. We reject extremism of all forms, whether in religion, politics or other spheres of life. It is ignorance of the Scriptures that feeds extremism. Many people just want enough religion to feel good and then they do whatever they want. Serving God means also serving humanity, we need to bring them back to the essential teachings of the Scriptures. Like there is a minority of extremists among your co-religionists, there is a tiny minority of extremists in our midst too. These extremist Muslims threaten other Muslims more than they pose as a threat to non Muslims.
“The Qur’an does not look at race, but considers one’s closeness to God, one’s piety is what matters in the sight of God. The Qur’an says that if we do not fulfill our responsibilities properly, then that mantle will be given to another people.
“I urge you to invite more Muslims to your yeshiva, and that you should visit with the local population.Get to know each other.
“The message of the Qur’an is a simple one, not complicated at all, and that is to worship God alone and to serve humanity. This is what we are striving for at our Quran Study Group to the best of our ability. Whilst we have to make the efforts, success is at the hands of God.”
Then off to Qiryat Arba bus stop, like it was no big deal.
I am not dismissing the fragile lines of security that exist in these parts, just respectfully assisted Hafiz and Ahmed in crossing boundaries in the Hebron area, from the Tomb of the patriarchs to a speech in a local yeshiva.
And it worked.
And then –
Expect the unexpected.
Back in Jerusalem, the bus was delayed on the return trip home, it turns out the police were called by the bus driver a few stops before mine. A confused elderly gentleman with whom I am acquainted had confronted the driver, then wandered up to my bus stop, and when he arrived, he spoke to me,”I do not know why the bus driver did not let me on.” I did not know the context so I tried to placate him. It was odd that a Haredi man was speaking to a woman, I switched to a mild state of alert.
The bus arrived late, with a police woman on board, the driver identified the elderly man, she started asking what happened. He just stared. The Haredi men nearby tried to intervene. I saw the tension mounting, I rebuked the men, “let her ask the questions, do not interrupt her!”
Now in Haredi society, women have a lot of power. For men and women to be speaking together is eschewed, therefore, for a Haredi woman to confront Haredi men means she has an automatic upper hand. They wanted to refrain from more interaction with me, so they were easily cowered by me, as a woman.
In that one sentence, I established a line of trust with the police woman – let her run the show. I added that I know who he is and will remain with him. That was another line of trust. What could have been mounting tension turned into a calmed situation. No this was not a terrorist, not a thug, just a confused elderly gentleman, used to the previous generation when you could alight a bus wherever you wanted, there was nothing so orderly as formal bus stops in his day. And he would be escorted home by someone who could relate both to the police woman as well as to him.
I did not abuse or sneer at the fragile lines of modesty in this society, by confronting the men, indeed, that would be unthinkable. It is wonderful that there are societies in which men are taught to have modest boundaries.
I was just was attempting to build lines of trust.
And it worked.
See Hafiz’ speech here:
On the Seven Noachide Laws in the Qur’an:
Prophet Noah (pbuh) is clearly seen as a lawgiver in the Qur’an. It is taught that what the Almighty Lord reveals to the Prophet Noah (pbuh) He also revealed to the other Prophets and the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh):
Surat Ash-Shura 42.13, “He has laid down the same religion for you as He enjoined on Noah: that which We have revealed to you and which We enjoined on Abraham, Moses and Jesus: ‘Establish the religion and do not make divisions in it.’ What you call the associators to follow is very hard for them. Allah chooses for Himself anyone He wills and guides to Himself those who turn to Him.”
Surat Nooh 71:1, “We sent Noah to his People: ‘Do thou warn thy People before there comes to them a grievous Penalty.'”
Surat Az-Zumar 39.23 “Allah has revealed the most beautiful Message in the form of a Book, consistent with the Oft-repeated (verses).”
17:22 Take not with Allah another object of worship; or thou (O man!) wilt sit in disgrace and destitution.
— *Prohibition of Idolatry #1*
17:23 Thy Lord hath decreed that ye worship none but Him, and that ye be kind to parents. Whether one or both of them attain old age in thy life, say not to them a word of contempt, nor repel them, but address them in terms of honour.
— *Prohibition of Blasphemy #2*
17:32 Nor come nigh to adultery: for it is a shameful (deed) and an evil, opening the road (to other evils).
— *Prohibition of Sexual Immorality #4*
17:33 Nor take life – which Allah has made sacred – except for just cause. And if anyone is slain wrongfully, we have given his heir authority (to demand qisas or to forgive): but let him not exceed bounds in the matter of taking life; for he is helped (by the Law).
— *Prohibition of Homicide #3*
17:34 Come not nigh to the orphan’s property except to improve it, until he attains the age of full strength; and fulfil (every) engagement, for (every) engagement will be enquired into (on the Day of Reckoning).
— *Prohibition of Theft #5*
— *Prohibition of Limb of a Living Creature #6* (see Surat al-Ma’ida 3, Surat al-Baqara 173 for direct prohibition. The prohibition of blood mentioned in 2:173; 5:3)
17:35 Give full measure when ye measure, and weigh with a balance that is straight: that is the most fitting and the most advantageous in the final determination.
— *Imperative of Legal System #7*
17:36 And pursue not that of which thou hast no knowledge; for every act of hearing, or of seeing or of (feeling in) the heart will be enquired into (on the Day of Reckoning).
Concerning the term “Muslim” which means “submission”, it should be noted that in the Torah, everywhere the word “Kenite” used, it is translated to Aramaic as Salamai or Muslamai. Some suggest this refers to the great numbers of non-Jewish believers who came to sacrifice the Qurban Shlamim in Jerusalem together with the Jews. Salamai, Musalamai, Muslims. This could be a clear indication in our literature that Islam is an ancient religion, dating back to second temple times, at least. And if Islam’s roots are the same as what we call Bnei Noah, then it is much older, it is the religion of Noah, and Adam himself.
Dr Muzammil H Siddiqui on Activism in Islam: see “Righteous Action and Activism: Islamic Perspective”
Rabbi Tzvi freedman on “Tikkun Olam” , see: Is Social Activism Destroying American Judaism
For more information on the scriptural roots of modern political science, see: