As God’s world abounds with variety, so the paths of faith are numerous. “Let all peoples each walk in the name of their God and we will walk in the name of Adonai our God for ever and ever” (Micah 4:5). Jews don’t hold a monopoly on divine reward. Our ancient sources teach that “righteous people among the nations of the world have a place in the world to come.”* We should take a lesson from God in celebrating diversity. “For a man mints many coins from one mold and they are all alike, but God minted all people from the mold of Adam and yet not one is like another.”
Christians do not agree among themselves about the status and fate of the religious other. A great deal of theological argumentation has been devoted to whether “the other” is “saved.” Yet whatever the range of opinion, which varies both across and within Christian traditions, an important nugget of wisdom is often overlooked: the revelatory power of the “stranger,” and the righteousness of those who treat the stranger justly.
Matthew’s gospel provides a vivid vision of the final judgment (25: 31-46). Those judged “righteous” by the “Son of Man” for providing him with food and drink for the hungry and thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, and visiting the imprisoned ask, in effect, when they did that for him. “Truly,” they are told, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” We will be judged by how we treat others.
According to the Qur’an, God created humanity from Adam and Eve, a single pair, one male and one female. The Qur’an goes on to note that God divided the descendants of Adam and Eve into nations and tribes, not so they would despise one another, but so they would know one another (49:13). The Qur’an explains that if God had willed, He could have made people as one community (11:118). The fact that God fashioned a world with different rituals and ways of worship further reveals God’s intention to create a diverse community of people. And the Qur’an clearly warns that process of inviting others toward God should not lead to dispute (22:76). Elsewhere, the Qur’an states that God created peoples with different customs and religious practices to inspire competition among them in performing good deeds (5:48). The diversity within humanity is a blessing from God for me and I believe that we must do our best to know each other and treat one another with respect as God intended.*
As Mary and Muhammad observe, strangers are those who are different. But when the Bible speaks about how to treat the stranger, literally, “the sojourner,” it often does so in conjunction with the orphan and the widow. “For the Lord your God . . . shows no favour and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You too must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:18-19). It was easy to treat strangers, widows and orphans poorly. They were isolated and often unable to defend themselves. So the stranger is not only “other,” but one who by virtue of being different is less equipped to fend for himself or herself. In focusing on the stranger along with the widow and the needy, the Qur’an seems to share the Bible’s concern. Who are the defenseless and the easily exploited in our society today? The list is too long.
But the Bible also reminds us that we are all strangers, temporary sojourners. God says, “. . . [F]or the land is mine, and you are but strangers, resident with Me” (Leviticus 25:23). Muhammad makes the same point. When we forget that in a sense we too are strangers, we push God out of our world. An 18th century Hassidic teaching put it this way: “If we act as gerim [strangers, sojourners] in the world . . . then God will be a permanent resident among us . . . But if we act as permanent residents . . . then God will at best be a ger [stranger, sojourner] among us.”*
In a broad sense, strangers are people whom we do not know. Yet “strangers” often connote people who are “alien” or “foreign,” that is, persons who differ from us in some significant way. They may speak a language we do not understand, have a skin tone different from our own, follow customs anomalous in our own culture, or hold religious beliefs we do not. Strangers, then, may unsettle us because by their very existence they suggest that our view of the world is not the only view, that our perspective on reality is just that—a perspective. Strangers unveil our tribalism, our provincialism. Strangers threaten any assumption that God is only on our side.
The gospels of Mark and Matthew contain a fascinating story about a stranger—a Canaanite woman, a Gentile—catching Jesus unaware.* She approaches him, shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” Matthew writes, “But he did not answer her at all,” and Jesus’ disciples urge him to send her away; apparently, her bold approach and yelling are unseemly. Jesus, too, appears taken aback, and responds to her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The exchange continues:
But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
As both Matthew and Mark tell the story, Jesus initially shows a less-than-edifying attitude toward the Gentile stranger. Yet the stranger is intrepid, and her clever retort elicits not merely acquiescence, but praise. She not only wins the argument, but overcomes Jesus’ reserve toward a stranger.
The various stories in the gospel are richly textured and resist literal renderings. Much more might be said to unlock the riches of this account. Yet one layer suggests that Jesus’ unexpected encounter with a stranger—a Gentile and a woman—revealed that his parochialism needed to be stretched.
Particularly in the wake of September 11, 2001, many Christians revealed an ugly xenophobia. Intolerance of the “other” continues in fiery anti-immigrant rhetoric. Perhaps reflection on this gospel story might lead today’s disciples of Jesus to consider how the stranger might teach them.
The stranger could be a person of a different faith or from a different ethnic or a racial group or from a different social class. It is amazing to notice in social gatherings people look for familiar faces to join them. Celebrating the anniversaries of the Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue, I try to mix people at the dining tables but there are many who prefer to sit at the table with their own people. Many would not go to a party where some faces are not familiar.
The Qur’an calls for respecting and extending a helping hand to all strangers: “And worship God [alone], and do not ascribe divinity, in any way, to aught beside Him. And do good unto your parents, and near of kin, and unto orphans, and the needy, and the neighbor from among your own people, and the neighbor who is a stranger, and the friend by your side, and the wayfarer, …” (4:36). Any person with whom we come in contact, whether a stranger or not, must be treated with respect and kindness. On one occasion, Prophet Muhammad asked some people: “Is there any stranger amongst you?” They said, “No except the son of our sister.” Allah’s Apostle said, “The son of the sister of some people belongs to them.”* The Prophet meant that the stranger should be no more treated as a stranger but as one belonging to them.
Many times strangers are not received with open hearts, but rather poorly treated. People in pre-Islamic Arabia discriminated between races and different social classes. When Islam asked its believers to stand shoulder to shoulder in straight lines during the daily worship in Islam, the rich, the masters and the tribal leaders of the pre-Islamic Arabia refused to enter the new religion, objecting to the concept of equality in Islam.
Islam stands for one people under one God. All people are children of Adam and Eve in Islam. The division of people in different colors, races, tongues, cultures and faiths is intended to help know each other better by building relationships and not treating others as strangers (49:13).
Strangers constitute a minority in the community. The stranger may be from one’s same ethnic group or race but different from the rest because of his or her religion. Strangers are also those who rectify what other people ruin. Talking about Islam, Prophet Muhammad said that Islam started as a stranger, with only a few people believing in it, and it will eventually go back to being a stranger as it started, with only a few people adhering to it, so it is important give glad tidings to the strangers. When his companions asked who these strangers were, the Prophet said they were those who maintain themselves upon righteousness when people become corrupt.*
The word for stranger in Arabic is Ghareeb. In one sense, we are all strangers living in this world. Abdullah bin ‘Umar said, “Allah’s Apostle took hold of my shoulder and said, ‘Be in this world as if you were a stranger or a traveler.’” The sub-narrator added: Ibn ‘Umar used to say, “If you survive till the evening, do not expect to be alive in the morning, and if you survive till the morning, do not expect to be alive in the evening, and take from your health for your sickness, and [take] from your life for your death.”* The abode of God alone is permanent; therefore, living as a stranger in this world leads to a righteous life and makes us capable of pleasing God and being blessed.
Where has your community fallen short of its ideals in its relationship to members of other communities?
“In that day, Israel shall be a third partner with Egypt and Assyria as a blessing on earth; for the Lord of Hosts will bless them saying, ‘Blessed be my people Egypt, my handiwork Assyria, and my very own Israel’” (Isaiah 19:24-25). Let’s take Isaiah’s admittedly messianic prophecy as an ideal with respect to how we might relate to other religious communities.
Measured against this ideal, the Jewish community falls short in failing to seriously inculcate true respect of other religious traditions. Yes, we believe in freedom of religion, but that’s a far cry from truly valuing other faiths. Alas, when an Orthodox rabbi participated in an interfaith prayer service at the first inauguration of Barack Obama, he was chastised by the Rabbinical Council of America (Orthodox) for entering a church.* (Non-Orthodox rabbis do not recognize this prohibition.)
We support the concept of interfaith dialogue, but beyond clergy and selected communal leaders, far too few of us sit down and talk about religion with members of different faiths. Because so many Jews know so little about their own religion, it’s not hard to find Jews who pooh-pooh the idea of resurrection without a clue of how central it remains to traditional Judaism.
The lack of familiarity with Islam is even more striking. Numerous conversations about this interfaith conversation about the Exodus elicited an almost universal response: “What would Muslims have to say about the Exodus?” There was no awareness of the fact that the Qur’an includes lengthy accounts of the Exodus, or that Moses is a major figure in the Qur’an, mentioned more than 100 times.*
Of course, the Jewish community includes a spectrum of views on these matters. Some are deeply committed to interfaith dialogue, to learning about other traditions and believe the existence of different religions to be a reflection of God’s ultimate will. Others shun dialogue, regard other religions as fundamentally misguided and have no interest in understanding more about them.
On another front, the State of Israel represents both a special challenge and an opportunity with respect to the fulfillment of Jewish ideals in relating to others. One serious challenge involves the rise of extremism. Some religious zealots in Israel—and their supporters in America as well—give little weight to Isaiah’s vision of reconciliation. Instead, they draw inspiration from the case of the Amalekites, a group that attacked the Israelites soon after they left Egypt and crossed the Red Sea. God says, “I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven!” (Exodus 17:14) and envisions a war from “generation to generation” with the Amalekites. In the Book of Deuteronomy (25.19), God instructs the Israelites to wipe out the Amalekites. In 1994, Baruch Goldstein, an ultra-Orthodox Jew, opened fire in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and killed 29 Muslims at prayer. The act occurred on the festival of Purim, a day when Jews celebrate their victory over Haman who plotted to destroy the Jews of Persia more than 2,400 years ago. The Book of Esther identifies Haman as a descendant of Amalek. Nowadays, some extremists identify Arabs as Amalekites, as well, and honor Goldstein as a hero.*
The words written in 1949 by Israel’s first president Chaim Weizmann remain a timely reminder about the relations between Jews and Arabs. “There must not be one law for the Jew and another for the Arabs. We must stand firm by the ancient principle enunciated in our Torah: ‘There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who resides in your midst.’ . . . I am certain that the world will judge the Jewish State by what it will do with the Arabs, just as the Jewish people at large will be judged by what we do or fail to do in this State where we have been given such a wonderful opportunity after thousands of years of wandering and suffering.”*
In Matthew’s gospel Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God” (5:9). In Luke’s gospel Jesus says, ”Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (7:27). Paul writes a paean on love to the community at Corinth: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in truth” (1 Corinthians 13:4-6). The anonymous writer of the Letter to the Hebrews admonishes: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (13:2). “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action,” says the First Letter of John (3:18).
Such texts speak to the ideals of Christianity—ideals that share much with other religions. But the Bible is a complicated book that has an ambiguous heritage with regard to violence: other texts can be found that conflict with or compromise the command to be loving peacemakers. Consider that First Letter of John, which not only speaks of the imperative to love in truth and action but denounces the “antichrist,” the “one who denies the Father and the Son” (2:22).
Violence done in God’s name likely has more to do with the human proclivity to dominative power than with biblical texts. Nevertheless, such texts can be used to rationalize hostility toward the other. When religion becomes part of the mix of racism, xenophobia or nationalism, it is a danger to society.
The list of savage acts by Christians is a lengthy one: crusades, inquisitions, wars of religion, witch-hunts, pogroms, slave-owning and racial segregation.* The rhetorical and physical violence that Christians have visited upon members of other communities, as well as the “other” in their own (e.g., heretics, racial or ethnic minorities) constitutes a serious indictment of the failure of Christianity to live by its ideals. Yet the failure lies not only in the chasm between ideal and action, but also in the amnesia of many contemporary Christians who are ignorant of the “death-defying roots of their own tradition.” *
Precisely because Christianity constitutes a third of all the world’s religious peoples, it is vital to the health of our planet that we learn about and take responsibility for this history of violence against the religious other. We need to reclaim the non-violent example of Jesus’ teaching on the Reign of God that inspired early Christians to reject violence.
The Qur’an makes it part of a Muslim belief system to respect other faiths and followers of those faiths. Prophet Muhammad made many attempts to reconcile with other faiths. He grieved with the Christians of Rome when the Persians defeated the Romans (30:1-6).* When the Prophet and other Muslims migrated to Madina, he signed an agreement with Jewish tribes to live together in peace.* Isma`il R. Al Faruqi in his book Islam points out that the treaty of Prophet Muhammad with the Jews of Madina recognized the Jews as an Ummah (a religious community) as the Muslims were called an Ummah in the Qur’an. The same designation was extended to Christians, recognizing them as Ummah. When Muslims got their foothold in India in the 10th century, the Hindu and the Buddhist communities were accepted as Ummah. In this, Islam guaranteed each religious community protection of rights and freedom to exercise their religious obligations.*
However, like some verses in the Hebrew Bible, there are some verses in the Qur’an that have created misunderstanding in the interfaith dialogue between Jews and Muslims. For example, verse 2:65 in the Qur’an says: “for you are well aware of those from among you who profaned the Sabbath, whereupon We said unto them, ‘Be as apes despicable!’” This verse is cited as a warning not only to Jews but even to Muslims to respect the law of God. It is very much like Exodus 31:14 where the words “put to death” are used for those who violate the Shabbat observance, or Nehemiah 13:16-18 that says violation of Shabbat day will bring down the wrath of God. Muslim commentators on the Qur’an have interpreted the Qur’anic verses 2:65, 7:166 and 5:60 the same way. Muhammad Assad, in his commentary on verse 7:166, says that Zamakhshari and Razi interpret the “apes” reference metaphorically (mathal), not literally. This is similar to another Qur’anic metaphor of “the ass carrying books” (62:5). It should be borne in mind that the expression “like an ape” is often used in classical Arabic to describe a person who is unable to restrain his gross appetites or passions. It is unfortunate that some Muslims may take this verse literally and use it in a derogatory way against their opponents, especially in areas of conflict.
However, many would agree that Muslims made great strides during their medieval period to bridge the gaps of misunderstanding among different religions. Muslims accepted and welcomed Jews and Christians and lived together in peace. When Jerusalem fell into Muslim hands in the 7th century, Jews were welcomed back to Jerusalem and the same happened after the Crusades. Baghdad and Spain became the centers of interfaith activities, creating a great civilization of religious peace and harmony.
Since the 19th century Muslims have faced many catastrophes. They lost their political power and were colonized. They became dependent economically and lost their manufacturing capability. Colonial powers supported Christian missionary activities and Muslims were challenged religiously. Muslim-Christian relations were severely damaged and Muslims mistrusted even those Christians who were living as their neighbors for centuries, suspecting them as collaborators with colonial powers. Muslim-Jewish relations took a negative turn after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. As the Palestinians were driven out of their homes and many took shelter in the Arab countries, intolerable policy toward Israel was formulated, and similarly, Jews living in the Arab countries lost the trust of their neighbors.
The political and economic downfall of Muslims had a reverse impact on Christian-Muslim and Jewish-Muslim relations. While there has been some progress in Christian-Muslim relations from the last two decades of the 20th century, the Jewish-Muslim interfaith relations are strained over the Israeli- Palestinian situation.
As many Christians and Jews are not ready to enter into interfaith relations for one or other reasons, there are Muslims who also have deep suspicion about interfaith dialogue. To encourage Muslims to participate in interfaith dialogue and remove some of their fears, Mohammed Abunimer and I wrote: Interfaith Dialogue: A Guide for Muslims, published by IIIT in Herndon, VA, 2007.
Today all Major Muslim organizations in America such as the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), Muslim American Society (MAS), and the Council of American and Islamic Relations (CAIR) support interfaith dialogue. Saudi Arabian religious authorities had been a major obstacle in this effort. A major advance took place in 2008, however, when His Royal Majesty King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia supported interfaith dialogue publicly and set aside funds to create a center for interfaith dialogue in Switzerland.
What tensions do you experience between elements within your tradition that are more embracing of the “other” and those which are more exclusive?
Judaism speaks in both a universalistic and exclusivist voice. There’s real tension between them. Consider the core traditional belief that God revealed the Torah to Israel. One early midrash asserts that the revelation was given in the desert, and because had it been given in the Land of Israel, “the Israelites could have said to the nations, ‘You have no share in it.’ But now that it was given in the desert, publicly and openly, in a place that is free for all, everyone wishing to accept it could come and accept it.”*
Another source from the same period teaches exclusivism. God offered the Torah to the nations of the world one after another. Each asked what it contained. The children of Esau rejected it because the Torah outlawed murder, the Ishmaelites because it prohibited theft. Each people explained its refusal because the Torah outlawed an element of immorality that was fundamental to its essence. When God realized that the nations of the world couldn’t live up to the most basic moral standards, God gave the Torah to Israel.* The fact that in later periods rabbinic literature equated Esau with Christendom and Yishmael with the Arab world adds to the darkness of this text.
The universalistic midrash implicitly faults Israel for potentially claiming the gift of Torah for itself alone and asserts that Torah is available to all. The exclusivist midrash argues that every nation in the world — except Israel — possesses an immutable moral corruption that ipso facto renders Torah beyond its reach.
Whether one inclines toward Judaism’s exclusivist or universal voice often depends on how one appraises the “other.” The story of Jacob and his brother Esau provides a perfect example. Jacob had had cheated Esau out of the blessing their father had intended to give his brother. Twenty years later, the brothers finally had a reunion. They embraced, wept and Esau kissed Jacob. According to ancient scribal tradition vayishakeihu, “he kissed” must be written with dots above each letter, a practice that has spawned much commentary (Genesis 33:4). The classic interpretation, attributed to a second century sage who lived through a brutal period of Roman persecution, suggests that this kiss is the exception that proves the rule. “Rabbi Simeon Bar Yohai says: ‘According to halakha [Jewish religious law], it is a well-known fact that Esau hates Jacob; however, Esau at that moment was overcome by compassion and kissed Jacob with all his heart.'”* In Rabbi Simeon’s era, Esau was equated with Rome. Nowadays, too many Jews still believe that the expression “Esau hates Jacob” embodies what Jews should expect from non-Jews.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 1808-1888), one of the guiding lights of Modern Orthodoxy, took a very different view: “The word vayivku (“and they wept”) faithfully attests to the fact that what we have here is a display of pure human feeling. People can kiss without feeling anything in their heart; however, when tears burst forth at such moments, they come from the depths of the heart. This kiss and these tears reveal to us that Esau is a descendant of Abraham our patriarch and not just an uncivilized hunter – how else could he have become a ruler? The sword per se, which symbolizes pure physical force, cannot prepare mortals for such a role.* Esau gradually abandoned his sword, instilling in himself a love for humanity.”*
To believe in redemption is to know that hatred — even among brothers — can truly be supplanted by love.
The digital age makes it possible to think globally in ways our ancestors could not have imagined. But the very technologies capable of expanding our world may be used to narrow it. With the vast array of cable channels, we can select only the news shows that reinforce our ideologies. We can search the blogosphere for the like-minded, listen only to radio talk shows that give voice to our outrage, or access websites that purport to separate out “real” Christians from “unfaithful” ones. Christians are not immune to the ideological enclaves technology makes possible, and to the demonization of those who think or act differently. I find the lack of civil discourse in the churches is not only scandalous but destructive.
One of the central tensions in Christianity arises from the vast divide between those who, believing that only Christians will be saved, are intent on converting others and, in contrast, those who work to foster religious pluralism. As my participation in this project indicates, I believe it is crucial that Christians contribute to the development of religious pluralism. Pluralism supersedes mere tolerance because it requires the pursuit of understanding; it demands an encounter of commitments and a respect for difference flowing from the knowledge of one’s own tradition.* I believe that the fate of the 21st century may turn on whether the world’s religions can “make a space for those who are not its adherents, who sing a different song, hear a different music, tell a different story.”*
David and Mary have described universalistic and particularistic voices within their traditions. Islam also includes both pluralistic, inclusivist and exclusivist tendencies. All prophets in Islam came from God. The Qur’an says: “Say: ‘We believe in God, and in that which has been bestowed from on high upon us, and that which has been bestowed upon Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and, their descendants, and that which has been vouchsafed to Moses and Jesus; and that which has been vouchsafed to all the [other] prophets by their Sustainer: we make no distinction between any of them. And it is unto Him that we surrender ourselves’” (2:136). The Qur’an called Christians and Jews and People of the Book (Ahl al Kitab) in many places.* Muhammad called all the prophets as his brothers. As narrated in Abu Huraira, “Allah’s Apostle said, ‘Both in this world and in the Hereafter, I am the nearest of all the people to Jesus, the son of Mary. The prophets are paternal brothers; their mothers are different, but their religion is one.’”*
When it speaks inclusively, the Qur’an sometimes blames Jews and Christians for allowing their own desires to change the true revelation from God. The Qur’an says: “Woe, then, unto those who write down, with their own hands, [something which they claim to be] divine writ, and then say. ‘This is from God,’ in order to acquire a trifling gain thereby; woe, then, unto them for what their hands have written, and woe unto them for all that they may have gained!” (2:79). The Qur’an says in another verse: “Among those of the Jewish faith there are some who distort the meaning of the [revealed] words, taking them out of their context…” (4:46 ). The Muslim belief that the Qur’an is the most authentic scripture because it was preserved as it was revealed tends to strengthen an inclusivist view of Islam.
Just as many Jews and Christians believe that theirs is the only true religion, some Muslims believe the same about Islam. To make their point, they quote this verse from the Qur’an: “Behold, the only [true] religion in the sight of God is [man’s] self-surrender unto Him [Islam]; and those who were vouchsafed revelation aforetime took, out of mutual jealousy, to divergent views [on this point] only after knowledge [thereof] had come unto them. But as for him who denies the truth of God’s messages – behold, God is swift in reckoning!” (3:19). Thus some Muslims believe that all other religions are invalid after the revelation of the Qur’an. There is a difference of opinion among scholars on the application of this verse. Scholars like Muhammad Asad, Fazlur Rahman and Mahmoud Ayoub believe that the verse refers to all monotheistic religions as a true religion of God as Islam means submission to one God. Others say that the verse is about the religion of Islam revealed to Muhammad. Still others claim that this verse pertains only to the hereafter and life in heaven.
Whether one sees it as a pluralistic or inclusivist or exclusivist religion, all Muslims should agree that in this life Islam stands for justice and equal treatment for all people.