Home Op-Eds A Liberal/Reform Rabbi Learns from Prophet Muhammad

A Liberal/Reform Rabbi Learns from Prophet Muhammad

Quran, The holy book, Islam

By Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Rabat – I first studied Islam when I was a student at UCLA almost 50 years ago. Then again while I was in Rabbinical school. Over the years I continued to study Qur’an, Ahadith, and other Islamic books. I read these books, as the Prophet taught his followers in a Hadith, “not as a believer, and not as a disbeliever”. What does that mean?  The Qur’an, 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 Muhammad’s teaching, I too neither believe nor disbelieve in the Qur’an. If I believed in the Qur’an I would be a member of the Muslim Ummah (community). But I cannot disbelieve in the Qur’an because I believe that Muhammad was a very great prophet; and I respect the Qur’an as a kindred revelation, 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 begin by sharing my understanding of several Ahadith that have taught me about my own religion. My understanding is reflected in my application (gloss) of each insight from my perspective as a Liberal/Reform Rabbi.  They are all from Bukhari: 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).

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 people.  The expansion of restrictions on Shabbat activities over many centuries is also seen by most Liberal/Reform Rabbis as a counterproductive, overburdening of the joy of Shabbat.   Muhammad wisely differentiates between extremism and striving to be near perfect (no one is perfect) which involves a rejection of 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 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)

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 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)

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 with  time and 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 it. But then, most Jewish leaders in the west do not aggressively condemn the Orthodox for not allowing Jewish woman 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)

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.  

Most Americans that I have spoken are amazed to hear such liberal and flexible statements coming from a religion that they think is ridged and fanatical. But the politicized Islam that has captured so much attention in the Western world today is the outgrowth of recent factors. The primary one being the anti-western reaction and scapegoating due to the great upheavals occurring in all modernizing societies in the 20th   and  21th centuries. This reaction is inflamed as the result of several previous centuries of socio-economic decline that took place in the Middle East. The Prophet had predicted that over the centuries Muslims would also become more rigid and orthodox, just as the Jews and Christian had. 

Abu Sa’id al-Khudri reported Allah’s Messenger as 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?” Muhammad was wise enough to realize that even his own ummah was subject to the circumstances of history. 

Nevertheless as a Reform Rabbi, I realize that in many ways Muhammad showed seventh century Jews in Arabia how to reform Orthodox Judaism to bring it back to the simpler rules of the Torah..

Unlike Orthodox Rabbis, Liberal/Reform Rabbis accept the doctrine of nullification – which teaches that one verse in scripture can nullify another, and that rulings can be changed due to changed circumstances. Muhammad provides an excellent example of this principle in the following account. The Prophet originally told women not to visit graveyards, but toward the end of his life, he said to them: “I had told you not to visit graves; now I am telling you to visit them.” The reason was that Arabian women used to wail at graves. The Prophet wanted this practice to be stopped. Therefore, he banned women from visiting graves to start with. After sometime, when Muslim women were better aware of how Islam wants them to behave in different situations, he allowed them such visits. In fact, the Prophet encourages visiting graveyards because such a visit reminds the visitor of his or her own death and the fact that they would have to stand in front of God when their actions are reckoned to determine their reward or punishment. Scholars like Ibn Qudamah, of the Hanbali school of law, make it clear that since this is the purpose of visiting graveyards, both men and women need such visits.

Another important teaching of the Qur’an is that God chose not to create human beings as one nation or with only one religion so that each religion could compete with the others in order to see which religion produces the highest percentage of moral and loving people. As it is written in the Qur’an [5.48] “For every one of you did We appoint a law and a way. If Allah had pleased He would have made you one people, but (He didn’t) that He might test you in what He gave you. Therefore compete with one another to hasten to virtuous deeds; for all return to Allah, so He will let you know (after Judgement Day) that in which you differed.” This is a wonderful further development of the teaching of the Biblical prophet Micah (4:5) that in the end of days-the Messianic Age “All people will walk, each in the name of their own God, and we shall walk in the name of the Lord our God forever.” 

There is no conflict, nor can there be any conflict, between Judaism and Islam. The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is a territorial dispute. There are people who would like to make this territorial dispute into a religious one in order to rally support for their side. We must resist this. I believe that the Koran itself predicts the return of the Jewish people to the Land God gave to the descendants of Abraham and his two sons. I believe the reference in the Koran to the land of Israel in Sura V, where God says to Moses and to the Jewish people: “O my people, enter the Holy Land which God has decreed for you.” More important for us today is the statement “WE SAID TO THE ISRAELITES AFTER HIM “DWELL SECURELY IN THE LAND OF PROMISE (THE PROMISED LAND) BUT WHEN THE SECOND OF THE WARNINGS COME TO PASS WE GATHER YOU TOGETHER IN A MINGLED CROWD BANI ISRAIL. This refers to the return of Jews to the Land of Israel that is part of the great upheavals that proceed the age of the final judgment. The age we live in. The mingled crowd refers to both the Palestinians and the Israelis who will share the Promised Land together. 

Neither side can claim it has the only right to the land or that its view is the only true one for as we have learned from the Hadith narrated Abu Huraira:The Prophet himself taught that even in the world to come it will not be clear if Moses or Muhammad is the supreme Prophet. Each is supreme for his own faithful community.  A Muslim is one who submits to the will of Allah and believes that Allah has sent many different prophets to the many peoples of the world. As a Liberal/ Reform Rabbi I believe that Muhammad was the Prophet sent to the Arab people. I believe that the Qur’an is as true for Muslims as the Torah is true for Jews. Indeed, I love the Hadith Narrated by Abu Huraira that says, “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 Muhammad’s teaching I repeat that I too neither believe nor disbelieve in the Qur’an. I do respect the Qur’an very much as a kindred revelation to a kindred people in a kindred language. In fact, the people, language and theology are closer to my own people, language and theology than that of any other on earth. The strong support that the Qur’an gives to religious pluralism is a  lesson that is sorely needed by the religious fundamentalists of all religions in the world today. As a well known Hadith says, “Prophets are brothers, sons of one father (Allah) by co-wives. Their mothers (motherland, mother tongue, etc) are different but their religion is one.” (Bukhari and Muslim).

Rabbi Maller’s web site is: rabbimaller.com His new book ‘Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms: A Reform Rabbi’s Reflections on the Profound Connectedness of Islam and Judaism’ (a collection of 31 articles by Rabbi Maller previously published by Islamic web sites) is now for sale ($15) on Amazon and Morebooks.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent any institution or entity. 

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