A REFORM RABBI LEARNS FROM PROPHET MUHAMMADby Rabbi Allen S. Maller
Almost all parents love their own children much more than they love the children of their neighbors. This is only natural. Most parents are also able to acknowledge that some of their neighbor’s children exceed in merit their own children in some, even occasionally in many, aspects of character, personality, or talent. Nevertheless, parents still love their own children much more than they love their neighbor’s children. The same preference is also found among religious believers. In every religious community people think that their own prophet, their holy book, their saints, and their religious traditions are the truest and the best. This natural human feeling can sometimes lead to an arrogant pride that results in verbal abuse that can lead to physical conflict between believers in different religions. This arrogant pride in the superiority of one’s own religion should be condemned by all religious leaders. An excellent account of this condemnation is found in the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad, when he was called upon to judge between a Jew and a Muslim in a conflict-laden situation.
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 God’s Apostle and informed him of what had happened between him and the Muslim. God’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 God’s Throne. I will not know whether Moses has been among those people who have become unconscious and then has regained consciousness before me, or has been among those exempted by God from falling unconscious” (Sunan Imam Bukhari, Vol. 8, Book 76, #524).
God’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; although Muhammad will be the first of all the comatose to be revived, Moses will already be there holding the side of God's throne. Muhammad teaches us that claims of religious superiority are wrong, for no human in this world, and perhaps even in the world to come, will know who the best prophet is. Such arrogant comparisons do not help anyone to become a better believer in God but only serve to polarize believers by inciting partisan fervor.
As a Reform Rabbi, I can state that all Reform Rabbis would applaud this teaching of Prophet Muhammad because we are all aware that during the Middle Ages all three religions claimed religious superiority over each other. If Jews, Christians, and Muslims had only followed this teaching of Prophet Muhammad, we could have avoided many centuries of bloodshed and massacres, three of the best known examples being the many Christian Crusades in Spain, Poland, and the Middle East; the Roman Catholic Inquisition in Spain and Portugal; and the thirty-year war between Catholics and Protestants in Germany and central Europe.
The Qur’ān is the only book of revelation that includes within itself a theory of prophethood that includes other religions. There have always been people (since the days of Adam) inspired by Allah who urged their society to avoid destruction by turning away from its corrupt and unjust ways and turning to the One God who created all humans. The Qur’ān mentions twenty-five prophets by name (most of them also known to non-Muslims), and Muslims believe there were 124,000 others whose names are now unknown. Of the twenty-five mentioned by name in the Qur’ān only four (Moses, David, Jesus, and Muhammad) revealed books of sacred scripture that are the bases for three religions that still flourish today.
According to the Qur’ān, every nation in the world receives at least one prophet who speaks to it in its own language. However, one nation, the Children of Israel, has received a great many prophets. The Qur’ān doesn’t explicitly tell us why so many prophets arose within the Children of Israel, but a careful reading of the Qur’ān reveals an answer. This was what I learned from a profound and enlightening essay by Irfan Ahmad Kahn in a book I read years ago, Jewish-Muslim Encounters, edited by Charles Selengut (Paragon House, 2001). The book is a collection of eleven papers given at a conference in Cordoba, Spain, sponsored by the Inter-Religious Federation for World Peace.
Almost all prophets, according to Kahn, are like Hud who was sent to Ad or Salih who was sent to Thamud. They come to warn their own people of their impending destruction due to their corrupt and immoral ways—and to call them to repentance. However, the prophets of the Children of Israel are different in two ways. First, Abraham is the only prophet we know of whose two sons, Isma’il (Ishmael) and Ishaq (Isaac), are also prophets. Indeed, Abraham’s grandson Ya’qub (Jacob) and great grandson Yusuf (Joseph) are also prophets. Thus, starting with Abraham, Allah established a family dynasty of prophets. With Joseph and his brothers (the tribes) the extended family became the twelve tribes of Israel or, as they are usually called, the Children of Israel/Ya’qub. The Children of Israel were blessed with many prophets who were the descendants of the Children of Israel/Ya’qub, who generation after generation urged the Jewish people to stay firm in their covenant with God. This prophetic ongoing concern is expressed in the Qur’ān: “When death approached Ya’qub, he said to his sons, ‘Who will (you) worship after I am gone?’ They answered, ‘We will worship your God, the God of our forefathers, Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, the One God. Unto Him we will surrender ourselves’” (2:132).
Second, when Musa (Moses) is sent by Allah, he comes not primarily to warn or rebuke the Children of Israel (his own people), but he is sent “to Pharaoh” (20:24, 51:38, 73:15, and 79:17), “to Pharaoh and his chiefs” (al-mala) (7:103, 10:75, 11:97, 23:46, and 43:46), and “to Pharaoh and his people” (27:12). Musa is sent to Pharaoh to warn him of the destruction that will fall on Egypt if he does not stop setting himself up as a God, and does not let the Children of Israel go free. Musa comes to rebuke Pharaoh and to rescue the Children of Israel. Only when the nation is free from Egyptian bondage do they receive the Torah directly from God to Moses without any mediation of an angel. This enlightening essay by Kahn shows that, as opposed to the accusations of some who blame the Qur’ān for being antagonistic toward Jews, many narrations in the Qur’ān present events from Jewish history as archetypal events from which all humanity can draw lessons. The Qur’ān stresses again that one part of the Children of Israel was faithful and another party was not. Perhaps the fact that the spiritual history of the Children of Israel was so well known in Arabia is a simple explanation of this, or, perhaps, the Qur’ān views the Children of Israel as an ongoing illustration of a religious community striving to live up to its covenant with God. The Qur’ān relates this ongoing concern when Prophet Moses speaks to his people as follows: “O my people! Remember God’s favor upon you, for He appointed among you Prophets, and rulers, and He granted to you favors such as He had not granted to anyone else in the worlds” (Maidah 5:20).
The principle that God can make a covenant with a whole people, and not just with those who are faithful believers, also helps me understand a powerful verse wherein the Qur’ān narrates that at Sinai, before giving the Torah to the Children of Israel, Allah makes a covenant with them. Allah raises the mountain above the whole people saying, “Hold firmly to what We have given you (the Torah) and remember what is in it” (2:63). The whole nation’s fate stands under the shadow of Mount Sinai, and this explains the miracle of all Israel’s agreeing to the covenant. This may be the reason why Musa is the only prophet whose book comes not from an angel but directly from Allah. Individuals who hear a prophet may choose to believe or disbelieve, but in this case God Almighty makes “an offer that you can’t refuse,” so, as far as Judaism is concerned, all of the Children of Israel have to struggle for all generations to come with living up to the covenant into which they chose to enter. This concept, can lead—and among many ultra orthodox Jews has led—to exaggerated and self-righteous feelings of pride. Thus, when the Qur’ān (A’raf 7:171) another time mentions the same event, when the Mount was moved above the Children of Israel, this verse is followed by a reminder in 7:172 that “Children of Adam” were all made to bear witness against their own souls: “‘Am I not your Lord?’ . . . They said: ‘Yea! We do testify!’” God Almighty made a covenant with all individuals “lest [they] should say on the Day of Judgment: ‘Of this we were never mindful.'” This reminder by the Qur’ān that no religious community should be self-righteous is similar to that of the prophet Amos, who tells the Children of Israel, “Are you not like the Children of Ethiopia to me, O Children of Israel? says God. Did I not redeem Israel from Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Syrians from Kir?” (Amos 9:7). Indeed, the Rabbis taught that God had made a prior covenant with Noah and all his decedents that applies to all humanity.
Thus, although the covenant was made with the whole community of Israel, this community, like all other nations, also had people among them whose hearts are like rocks that spring forth streams, while others yield water only when split, and others sink for fear of Allah (2:74). It is this last segment of the Children of Israel that Prophet Muhammad refers to when he rebukes the Children of Israel. The Qur’ān, correctly understood, does not attack all of Israel. Every community, including the Muslim ummah, contains groups of faithful believers and a party who disbelieve. This has always been true and sadly will remain true until the end of time when Judgment Day will occur. It is unfair and arrogant for any religious leader to compare the best of the followers of one’s religion with the worst of the followers of another religion. This is why the Qur’ān declares, “Mankind! We created you from a single male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (and not despise each other). Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted” (49:13).
Most Americans would be amazed to hear such a liberal and tolerant statement coming from a religion that they think is rigid and fanatical, but the politicized Islam that has captured so much attention in the world today is not true Islam. It is the outgrowth of two recent factors. One is an anti-Western reaction and scapegoating due to the great dislocations and upheavals occuring in Muslim societies as a result of the globalization taking place in all modernizing societies in the twentieth century. The second factor is the result of several previous centuries of socioeconomic decline in the Middle East. Jews and Christians have already had reforming and modernizing movements that have helped them break out of the narrow rigidity of the Middle Ages, but Muslims have not. Prophet Muhammad himself predicted that in future centuries Muslims also would become more rigid and orthodox, just as the Jews and Christians had. In a well-known Hadith, Abu Sa’id al-Khudri reported God’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?” (Bukhari, Vol. 4, Book 56, #662). Islam was meant to be an easy religion as this Hadith testifies: 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” (Bukhari,Vol. 1, Book 2, #38).
Unlike Christianity, 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 those in Orthodox Judaism. Reform Rabbis regard the increasingly restrictive developments in the laws of kosher diet, especially for Passover, as a counterproductive overburdening of the people. The vast expansion of restrictions on Shabbat activities is also seen by 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 to do well will be rewarded. Religion should not be hard. Making religion easier does not mean making religion soft or impious. This is a very important Hadith, because all religions have believers that think more is better, and harder is still better.
The same restraint from becoming super-pious is evident in the treatment of women during their menses. A Hadith relates: Among the Jews, when a woman menstruated, they did not dine with her, nor did they live with them in their houses (share the same bed); so the Companions of the Apostle asked God’s Messenger, and God revealed this verse to him: “They ask you about menstruation; say it is a pollution, so keep away from woman during menstruation” (Qur’ān, 2:222). The Messenger of God said: Do everything except intercourse. The (Orthodox) Jews heard of that and said: “This man does not want to leave anything we do without opposing us in it” (Sahih Muslim, Book 003, #0592. Both Islam and Judaism have laws about ritual pollution deriving from a woman’s monthly period. Orthodox Judaism had greatly expanded the prohibitions against having sex during a woman’s period. Muhammad opposes this expansion and limits the prohibition for Muslims. Reform Rabbis today are much closer to Islamic practice than they are to Orthodox Jewish practice in this matter. Nevertheless, although Orthodox Jews to this day do require married women to cover their hair, they never urged them to cover their faces with a veil.
In the seventh century when Muhammad was spreading Islam, almost all the Jews of Arabia and the Middle East were Orthodox Jews. Had the Jews of Medina been more open to his teachings Reform Judaism would have started thirteen centuries ago, not just two centuries ago. Of the 13,000,000 Jews in the world today the majority, both in Israel and throughout the world, are no longer Orthodox. The largest denomination of non-Orthodox Jews in the United States and Canada, where 6,000,000 Jews live, is the Reform movement. Reform Judaism began in Germany almost 200 years ago as a “back to the basics” modernizing movement. As a Reform Rabbi, I first became interested in Islam when I studied it at the University of California, Los Angeles, fifty years ago. I have continued my study of Islam off and on since then, and for some time I have considered myself to be a Reform Rabbi and a Muslim Jew. I am a Muslim Jew, that is, a faithful Jew submitting to the will of God, because I am a Reform Rabbi. As a Rabbi I am faithful to the covenant that God made with Abraham—the first Muslim Jew—and I submit to the commandments that God made with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai. As a Reform Rabbi I believe that Jewish spiritual leaders should modify Jewish tradition as social and historical circumstances change and develop. I also believe we should not make religion difficult for people to practice. These are lessons that Prophet Muhammad taught twelve centuries before the rise of Reform Judaism in the early nineteenth century. In many ways statements in the Qur’ān about Orthodox Jewish beliefs and Ahadith relating Muhammad’s comments about Orthodox Judaism and religion in general prefigure the thinking of Reform Rabbis some twelve to thirteen centuries later.
Unlike Orthodox Rabbis, 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, so he banned women from visiting graves. After some time, when Muslim women were better aware of how Islam wants them to behave in different situations, he allowed 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’ān for people all over the world today is that God chose not to create human beings as one nation and bestowed upon them free will to believe or not to believe. As it is written in the Qur’ān (5.48) “For every one of you did We appoint a law and a way. If God 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 God, so He will let you know (after Judgment Day) that in which you differed.” This is a wonderful further development of the teaching of the biblical prophet Micah (Mic. 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.”
A Muslim is one who submits to the will of God and believes that God has sent Muhammad, Moses, David, Jesus, and many other prophets to the many peoples of the world. As a Reform Rabbi I believe that Muhammad was the Prophet sent to the Arab people. I believe that the Qur’ān is as true for Muslims as the Torah is true for Jews. Indeed, I love the Hadith also 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. God’s Apostle said (to the Muslims). ‘Do not believe the people of the Book, nor disbelieve them, but say, ‘We believe in God, and whatever is revealed to us, and whatever was revealed to you.’” Following Muhammad’s teaching I neither believe nor disbelieve in the Qur’ān. If I believed in the Qur’ān I would be a member of the Muslim community. If I disbelieved in the Qur’ān I would be a member of the atheist community or of those religious communities that think that only their religion is the one true religion.
I do respect the Qur’ān very much as a kindred revelation given in a kindred language, to the descendants of a kindred people, 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. Of course, more than eighty percent of Muslims in the world today are not of Arab descent, but Arabic is the sacred language of Muslims, and the tradition that Arabs and Jews are cousins is widely accepted. This makes the present conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis especially tragic. It is very important to realize that the conflict is a political one, not a religious one. There can be no religious conflict between religions like Judaism and Islam because neither of them declares that their scriptures are the only ones from God. The strong support that the Qur’ān gives to religious pluralism is a lesson that is sorely needed by the religious fundamentalists of all religions in the world today.
followers of all religions should always repeat this teaching of
Allah’s Messenger, “Prophets are half-brothers in faith, having
different mothers. Their religion is, however, one” (Muslim, book
#030, Hadith #5836 . All prophets have the same father, who is the
One God whose inspiration gives birth to their prophethood. However,
each prophet has a different mother, that is, the nation and people
as well as the period and age that he speaks to. Thus, prophets are
siblings in faithfulness to the One God, but their message differs
because it must be appropriate to their motherland, their mother
people, and their mother tongue. The words, the rituals, the customs,
and the specific aspects of ethics and morals may differ, but the
goal of living and loving according to Allah’s will is the same. As
the great poet Jalal al-Din al-Rumi taught, “Ritual prayer can be
different in every religion, but belief never changes” (Fihi Mafih).
Rabbi Allen S. Maller Temple Akiba Culver City, CA