- - Thursday, November 21, 2013


The seemingly intractable problems of the Middle East — and, indeed, the rest of the world where Christians, Jews and Muslims exist and sometimes collide — might have a simple solution: We need to listen to what everyone is saying so that we might understand each other.

It’s not as farfetched, or as simple, an idea as you might think, but it’s one worth considering. I’ve come to that conclusion after reading “Sons of Abraham: A Candid Conversation about the Issues That Divide and Unite Jews and Muslims,” a recent book authored by Rabbi Marc Schneier and Imam Shamsi Ali.

Mr. Schneier is a 17th-generation rabbi, while the Indonesian-born Mr. Ali attended Muslim schools in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, absorbing a rather strident worldview, as he tells it.

According to Mr. Ali’s publisher, “Jihad and Shari’a are commonly misrepresented by Islam’s opponents to depict it as a bloodthirsty, absolutist faith that is bent on domination, tramples women’s rights, and allows barbaric punishments for seemingly minor crimes. Imam Ali delves into the Qur’an to expose these falsehoods, showing that jihad is in no way a call for violence of any kind, and certainly not a justification for terrorism — rather, it represents the command to strive for a moral life.”

And Mr. Schneier believes that resolving the issue of Jews and Muslims living in the same real estate in the Middle East has a spiritually based solution: “God has many names — Adonai, Elohim. And, according to the Talmud, he also has the name Shalom. Peace. He doesn’t have the name Land. So peace is clearly a priority for His people. We have to arrive at a balance of land and peace.”

The book begins with alternating autobiographical chapters detailing the upbringing and life experiences of each cleric. The “backstories” are fascinating, to say the least: Mr. Schneier’s New York City youth is about as far removed from the rural village in which Mr. Ali was raised as you could imagine. Where Mr. Schneier’s worldview expanded as he grew older, some of Mr. Ali’s teachers — particularly in Saudi Arabia, it seems — were trying to inculcate a very restrictive view of Islam. To his credit, Mr. Ali shunned such a viewpoint, in some cases because it was physically impossible to do so: the Saudis insisted pious Muslims would grow and wear long beards, something Mr. Ali just couldn’t accomplish.

Of course, the differences between Judaism, Christianity and Islam involve far more than contrasting clothes or whether or not to have a beard. The book delves into some of the more sensitive issues, particularly the question of Israel and the Palestinians, and while the middle ground is sought, it’s a slim patch of Earth to negotiate.

For example, consider the view of Jews seeing themselves as the “Chosen People.” Mr. Schneier argues, his publisher asserted, that “the Jews were ‘chosen’ for the mission of introducing the [then, mostly pagan] world to the general concept of ethical monotheism.” On the Islamic side, Mr. Ali defines the concept of Kheir Ummah, or “best nation,” which he says is a rough equivalent to the Jewish view of “chosenness” as being “an inclusive concept that does not exclude non-Muslims.”

Not a lot of people on either side of the divide might willingly embrace either or both views, and certainly not those given to a more “literalist” view of each tradition. However, there is an effort to find common ground, and that’s commendable. More reasoned dialogue is always welcome, and even if there isn’t universal consent on any given point, greater understanding is to be welcomed and encouraged. That Mr. Ali and Mr. Schneier are able to view each other as fellow humans and even brothers is a good thing.

If nothing else, “Sons of Abraham” is a very good and very compelling read. It’s is not the sole solution to today’s tensions, and I’m not naive enough to imagine that even a commendable effort such as this will move the needle all that much. But if small steps are useful — and I believe they can be — then this book is a small, but highly important, step in what may be a helpful direction.

Mark A. Kellner can be reached via email at [email protected]

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