I first studied Islam when I was a student at UCLA more than 62 years ago, Then again, a couple of years later, while I was a student in a Reform Judaism Rabbinical school. Over the years I continued to read the Koran and other Islamic books. Without realizing it, I was following a path first established by Rabbi Abraham Geiger, one of the founders of Reform Judaism.
Abraham Geiger was born to an Orthodox Jewish family in Frankfurt, Germany in 1810. In 1832, the University of Bonn’s philosophy faculty held a competition for scholars. Georg Freytag, Geiger’s professor in Oriental studies, urged Rabbi Geiger to write and submit a paper about Jewish connections to Islam. Geiger won the contest, his study was accepted by the University of Marburg as a thesis, and he was awarded a Doctorate.
Geiger’s thesis was first published in German, and a generation later, translated into English as Judaism and Islam. Geiger was taught, and followed, the university academic system of historical thinking; that something later was always derived from something earlier, and that the one God of the Abrahamic religions was not the source of concepts and statements in different religious traditions that were similar.
However, I believe that the One God who inspired Prophet Moses and the other Prophets of Israel, also inspired Prophet Muhammad; and thus I expect that there should be many parallels between the Koran and the Hebrew Scriptures.
Where the three religions differ, the difference is not due to error, but to different perspectives that the one God thought was appropriate for different communities. By studying each other’s Sacred Scriptures. and early traditions, I believe we can gain new insights and greater wisdom for our own religion, from the one God the three religions worship.
Thus, I study the Koran, as the Prophet taught his followers in a Hadith, “not as a believer, and not as a disbeliever”. What does that mean?
The Koran, of course, is Sacred Scripture for Muslims. A disciple of Muhammad named Abu Huraira relates, “The people of the Book used to read the Torah in Hebrew and then explain it in Arabic to the Muslims. Allah’s Apostle said (to the Muslims). “Do not believe the people of the Book, nor disbelieve them, but say, ‘We believe in Allah, and whatever is revealed to us, and whatever is revealed to you.’ ”
Following Prophet Muhammad’s teaching I also neither believe nor disbelieve in the Koran. If I believed in the Koran I would be a member of the Muslim ummah (community). But I cannot disbelieve in the Koran because I do believe that Muhammad was indeed a prophet; and I respect the Koran as a kindred revelation, first revealed to a kindred people, in a kindred language.
In fact, the people, the language and the theology are closer to my own people, language and theology than that of any other on earth.
I would like to share my understanding of several Ahadith that I gloss from my perspective as a Liberal/Reform Rabbi. They are all from the Hadith collection of Imam Bukhari who was born in 194 A.H. and died in 256 A.H. His collection of Hadith is considered second to none. He spent sixteen years compiling it, and ended up with 2,602 Ahadith (9,082 if alternate versions are included in the count).
Bukhari’s collection is one of six widely accepted collections: the five others are by scholars who worked as Bukhari did, and collected other authentic reports. There are also Shi’a collections that Sunnis say are forged.
Narrated Abu Huraira: The Prophet said, “Religion is very easy and whoever overburdens himself in his religion will not be able to continue in that way. So you should not be extremists, but try to be near to perfection and receive the good tidings that you will be rewarded. (Volume 1, Book 2, Number 38)
My Gloss: The statement against becoming extremists needs to be taught in every house of prayer in the world. This applies of course, to political extremists as well as religious extremists who always prefer the stricter path to the more lenient way. For example, both Islam and Judaism teach the importance of sacred slaughter of meat, and the avoidance of certain animals for food.
In Islam the rules are simpler and fewer than in Orthodox Judaism. Most Liberal/Reform Rabbis regard the increasingly restrictive developments in kashrut (Jewish dietary laws), especially for Passover, as a counterproductive, overburdening of the Jewish people.
The expansion of restrictions on Shabbat activities is also seen by most Liberal/Reform Rabbis as a counterproductive, overburdening of the joy of Shabbat. Prophet Muhammad wisely differentiates between extremism and striving to be near perfect (no one is perfect) which involves rejecting extremism. Just trying hard to do well will be rewarded.
Narrated ‘Aisha and Ibn’ Abbas: On his deathbed Allah’s Apostle put a sheet over his-face and when he felt hot, he would remove it from his face. When in that state (of putting on and removing the sheet) he said, “May Allah’s Curse be on Jews and Christians for they build places of worship at the graves of their prophets.” He intended to warn (Muslims) from what they (i.e. Jews and Christians) had done. (Volume 4, Book 56, Number 660)
My Gloss: Allah’s apostle strongly opposed any diversion of reverence or worship to anyone other than God. Christians, and even Jews, had started worshiping at the graves of holy men, saints and prophets. Although they claimed to be only worshiping God, their feeling that prayer was better or more effective at such sites was cursed by Prophet Muhammad.
In later centuries, Muslims also began worshiping at the tombs of holy men and building places of worship near their graves. Liberal/Reform Rabbis would agree that such activity at grave sites should be condemned and could be seen as a curse. Allah’s apostle must also have realized that even the Muslim community would also produce people whose piety would lead to such errors, for a Hadith on the same page says,
Narrated Abu Said: The Prophet said: “You will follow the wrong ways of your predecessors so completely and literally that if they should go into the hole of an animal, you too will go there.” We said, “O Allah’s Apostle! Do you mean the Jews and the Christians?” He replied, “Who else?” (Volume 4, Book 56, # 662)
My Gloss: Muhammad criticized the failings of many in the Jewish and Christian communities (as did the prophets of Israel) but he realized that people are human, and most do not seem to learn from the failings of others. He hoped that Muslims would retain their original purity, but he foresaw that over time and with growing religious and political power; corruption, decay and falsification were inevitable.
Allah’s apostle would certainly attack the false tradition of female genital mutilation in Africa today as sharply as he attacked female infanticide in Arabia in his day. It is a shame that many Muslim leaders in Africa today do not aggressively condemn female genital mutilation. But then, most Jewish leaders in the west do not aggressively condemn the Orthodox for not allowing Jewish women to divorce their husbands. We all have to do a better job.
Abu Huraira related: Two men, a Muslim and a Jew, abused each other. The Muslim said , “By Him Who gave superiority to Muhammad over all the people.” At that, the Jew said, “By Him Who gave superiority to Moses over all the people.” The Muslim became furious at that and slapped the Jew in the face. The Jew went to Allah’s Apostle and informed him of what had happened between him and the Muslim.
Allah’s Apostle said, “Don’t give me superiority over Moses, for people will fall unconscious on the Day of Resurrection and I will be the first to gain consciousness, and behold! Moses will be there holding the side of Allah’s Throne. I will not know whether Moses was among those people who became unconscious and then has regained consciousness before me, or was among those exempted by Allah from falling unconscious.” (Volume 8, Book 76, #524)
My Gloss: Allah’s messenger is so well known for his sense of justice that a Jew can appeal to him even in a conflict with a Muslim who has attacked a Jew. It is only natural for Jews to think that Moses is the best, and for Muslims to think that Muhammad is the best.
Muhammad rebukes the Muslim, telling him not to claim that Muhammad is superior to Moses because even on the day of Resurrection, Muhammad himself will not know their relative merit, for although Muhammad will be the first to be revived, Moses will already be standing there holding the side of God’s throne. Muhammad teaches us that comparisons of religious superiority are wrong, for no one in this world, and perhaps even in the world to come, will know who is the best until God tells us.
Most Americans that I have spoken to are amazed to hear such liberal and flexible statements coming from a religion that they think is rigid and fanatical. But the highly politicized Islam that has captured so much attention in the Muslim world today is the outgrowth of two recent factors.
One is an anti-western reaction and scapegoating due to the great upheavals occurring in all modernizing societies in the 20th and 21st centuries. This reaction is inflamed as the result of several previous centuries of socio-economic decline that took place in the Middle East. Also Judaism and Christianity have already had reforming movements that took generations to bare fruit.. Islam is just starting the process of reform.
Prophet Muhammad himself had predicted that Muslims would also become more rigid and orthodox just as the Jews and Christian had by saying: “You will tread the same path as was trodden by those before you inch by inch and step by step, so much so that if they had entered into the hole of a lizard, you would follow them in this also. We said: Do you mean Jews and Christians? He said: Who else?”
Nevertheless, in many ways Prophet Muhammad showed seventh century Jews in Arabia how to reform Orthodox Judaism to bring it back to the simpler ritual rules of the written Torah.