Friday, November 25, 2016

Religious Texts divide us? & sky-high and deep conversations with Sheiks - Chayeh Sarah

Sitting on a plane to Perth with an Aboriginal elder on my right, and a Muslim Sheikh on my left, it was only natural that my thoughts turned to coexistence. One of the oft repeated comments about Muslim-Jewish relations (and the relationship between Muslims and others in general), is that although Muslims and Jews got along well in the past, this was only the case when the Muslims had higher status and the Jews were subservient, or “Dimhi”. This argument dismisses the golden age of Spain as being irrelevant to coexistence in the West today.

Good intercultural understanding practice requires finding out what Muslims think about these assertions. Ideally, by talking to an actual Muslim person directly, rather than by performing a Google search. My own community, in St Ives, was recently maligned based on some of my neighbours’ findings on the internet in the recent Eruv controversy (1).

Fortunately, I was sitting next to a learned Sheikh on this flight to Perth. He explained to me that the word “Dimhi” means “under protection”. He told me that: “one statement of the prophet Muhammad (in the Hadith) declared that a person who harms a Dimhi will not smell the fragrance of paradise” and that protection of religion/s was a core purpose of Sharia. The Sheikh acknowledged that he is not surprised by the alternative interpretation of “Dimhi” by people like ISIS, but such groups don't just have a problem in their attitude to non-Muslims but with anyone, including Muslims, who thinks differently to them. They regard everyone unlike them as not being ‘rightly guided’.  

Another useful approach is to explore this notion of acceptance as being conditional on subservience in my own Faith. Abraham's son Ishmael is said to have become a good man later in life. We know this because in the report about Abraham's burial, Ishmael is mentioned after Isaac (2). This sequence is taken as proof that Ishmael, father of the Arabs, honoured Isaac by allowing him to go first (3). Hmm. Something about people in glass houses comes to mind.

My first inclination was to look for alternative interpretations. I found one that highlights the fact that the Torah mentioned the obvious fact that Isaac and Ishmael were Abraham's sons, in this context, in order to hint that they were both equal in their honoring him [Abraham] (4). I was happy to find this interpretation that emphasises equality rather than superiority.

This second interpretation does not cancel out the first. I slept on this matter and my discussion with the Sheikh. It occurred to me, lying in bed after midnight, that perhaps it didn't make sense to impose secular literary political analysis on a religious text. The text is working from the assumption that it is a matter of absolute fact that Isaac was profoundly righteous. Ishmael honoring him is evidence of him humbly disregarding his status as an older brother, which serves as a lesson in humility for us. In fact it is written that Ishmael’s humble gesture earned Ishmael the merit to enjoy a place in heaven (5).

It was something the Sheikh said on the plane the previous day that inspired me to step back and question my critical approach. We were discussing portrayals of the Jews in Islamic stories. I asked if he could tell me the ratio between positive and negative portrayals. He told me that this kind of analysis had not been done. Instead he shared one story with me about a very pious Jew who met an outcast Jew. The outcast noticed that the pious man was enjoying the shade cast by a cloud hovering just above him. The outcast sat down near the pious man but was arrogantly sent away. God then forgave the outcast and canceled the pious Jew’s merit so both were at square one (6). On reflection this Muslim story is primarily a lesson for Muslims about humility rather than a commentary on Jews. It was more useful to understand what the story means to those who are guided by it than to impose an external lens to view it through.

On my return to Sydney, I had a chat with another Sheikh to plan an activity to foster interfaith understanding. Our conversations followed media articles sparked by references to another Muslim story also involving Jews, which were made during a lecture presented by this Sheikh. In this story, a murdered wealthy man was temporarily miraculously brought back to life by Moses  to identify his killer: a greedy nephew. Jewish villagers who were relieved of suspicion by this miracle still failed to believe in Moses despite his performance of this amazing miracle. The punishment meted out to the Jewish villagers 3000 years ago for their lack of belief was that God hardened their hearts (7). None of the context of the 3000 year old story was clear to those who viewed a YouTube video of the lecture. To them the Sheik appeared to be saying that “the Jewish [people- presumably in any time and place] have hard hearts] with no mercy, only envy and hatred”. There is no way to know for sure if even some of the members of the original audience also failed to understand the strictly contextual nature of the remarks. Sacred text is read by imperfect humans with various opinions and possibly, prejudices.

In conclusion. Curiosity and dialogue is crucial. There is value in resisting the temptation to rush to judgement. On the contrary, we are taught to be patient in judgement (8). Some traditional teachings might not appear compatible with modern principles of equality and embracing diversity. Let us continue to grapple with these.

  1. See my blog post….
  2. Genesis 25:9
  3. Talmud Bava Basra 16a
  4. Yalkut Ner Haschalim, manuscript, cited in Torah Shlaima, vol 2, p.998, note 34
  5. Midrash Hagadol, cited in Torah Shlaima, vol 2, p.998, note 34
  6. Imam Ghazali, in revival of the religious sciences
  7. This kind of punishment is also found in the Torah, in Exodus, in the case of Pharaoh whose heart was hardened after he chose the path of defiance instead of letting the Hebrews go free.
  8. Ethics of the Fathers

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