Friday, July 19, 2019

Turning Between Co-religionists and Others - Reflections on my participation in a Muslim schools conference Balak 2019

A bearded Muslim man, Dylan Chown, was talking to a woman with a face-veil. He paused his conversation with her and turned to greet me warmly.  Dylan then turned back to her and apologised, with real feeling in his voice:  I am sorry that I was rude to you”. These brief interactions occurred as participants were arriving to the Australian Islamic Schooling Conference. I observed the exchange and thought: this is what Muslims call “Adab”. I had learned at the conference, that Adab was something more than mere manners. Adab might be described as a set of religious, respectful and sensitive practices. The two  ‘turnings’ (towards me and back towards her) can also be used as a metaphor for the challenge of balancing attending to the priorities of our faith communities, while also relating to people outside those communities.   

Afeefa Syeed, the founder of Al Fatih, a Muslim school in the American state of Virginia, spoke about an example of how her students expressed solidarity with oppressed fellow Muslims. They visited George Washington’s cemetery at Mt Vernon, as part of their study of History. They had learned that some of the “slaves” (or, perhaps more appropriately, enslaved people (1)) had been Muslims. They asked to be directed to where those slaves were buried. This request was met with surprise: “why would anyone be interested in seeing that?” The graves were neglected, but the students said a prayer there (2).

This anecdote touched me. Alongside our concerns for humanity, there is a need, and great virtue in solidarity with one’s own community, be that a community based on faith or place. One of the Torah’s villains, the evil prophet and sorcerer Balaam, is described as being “without a nation” (3). Furthermore, this absence of national or communal ties is deemed to be indicative of exclusion from heaven (4).

At the conference an Imam, an Australian Muslim school principal, a Catholic educator (5) and I conducted a breakout session together.  One activity involved exploring quotes from Islamic and Jewish sources with similar messages. One set of these quotes was the following pair:

……..and to parents do good, and to relatives, orphans, the needy, the near neighbor, the neighbor farther away, the companion at your side, the traveler, and those whom your right hands possess. (6)

...if a poor person and a rich person come to borrow money, the poor person takes precedence. ...If it is between one of the poor of your city and one of the poor of another city, the poor of your city takes precedence. (7)

In a similar vein, we heard how the Al Fatih students showed care for their non-Muslim neighbours by adopting and cleaning the road near their school for the benefit of all the locals and passing travellers. 

I told the conference that navigating my ties to my Jewish community and others has challenged me. I cited the verse: “You shall not mistreat, nor oppress the stranger, as you were strangers in [Pharaoh’s] Egypt” (8). As a younger man, I was good at embracing the second half of the verse, with my acute awareness of millenia of persecution of the Jews, including my own grandparents. It was only later in life that I engaged more strongly with the first and main point relating to the treatment of “strangers”. Justice for members of minority groups requires proper conduct not just in deed but even in word and thought.  Indeed the story of Balaam’s curses (9) is a dramatic example of how words, spoken or prevented from being said, matter.

Speaking positive words and thinking kind thoughts about “Strangers” can be difficult when there is conflict them and one’s own community. Afeefa shared an inspiring example of how her students engaged with people who appeared hostile. During the US presidential election many of her students felt concerned about how Muslims were being talked about by Trump. The students were encouraged to seek to understand, rather than demonise Trump supporters. They approached voters on election day, and asked them who they voted for and why. They heard from people who had lost their jobs and experienced other hardships, voting out of pain, not hate.

We were asked at the conference if in the work of Together For Humanity we talk about differences, or just the similarities. I explained that we certainly discuss both. To do otherwise would be dishonest and ultimately not helpful to building trust between communities.

Juggling similarities and differences is key to our work, and was also part of my preparation of the quotes for the conference. I was aware of the Islamic teaching that “...if anyone slew a person - unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land - it would be as if he slew the whole people. And if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people” (10). There is a Jewish quote that is very similar, but with one significant difference. It compares the saving of a Jewish life to saving the world (11). Fortunately, I was able to find authoritative sources for universal versions of the same teaching, that equated saving any life with saving humanity (12).

There was yet another hurdle for me with these two quotes. One of the Imams I consulted about these quotes pointed out to me that the full verse includes a critique of some Jews failing to fully embrace this teaching. The full verse in the Quran has an additional statement at the beginning and the end, it states: “We ordained for the children of Israel, that if anyone slew a person ...Our messengers came to them with clear signs, but many of them continued to commit excesses in the land”. The Imam pointed out that it was not a comment about all Jews but some.

Notwithstanding the challenges along the way, seeing the quotes side by side was heart-warming for participants in our session, as they could see evidence of common values in our two traditions. This commonality and the goodwill between me and conference participants does not cancel out the differences between faiths and nations, or the many challenges. Sometimes we will upset people in our own communities or people outside them. We cannot be 100% focused on both at the same time. On those occasions we will apologize like Mr Chown did, but we will persevere with doing the right thing by both. Indeed, we must. 


1)       Khaldoun Hajaj, in a facebook post on 15.07.2019 challenged my comment about these human being “slaves”. He wrote “my contention concerns the use of the word Slaves. No one is a slave ... some of us are enslaved”.
3)       Talmud Sanhedrin 105a. It is a play on words, with the name בלעם (Bilam or Baalam) linked to being בלא עם (Blo- Am, without a nation)
4)       The Maharal, cited in Valdman, C. Y. in his commentary  Yosif Chayim on Ein Yaakov Hamevuar, pub. Machon Torah Mitziyon, Manchester, p. 446
5)       The Imam was Farhan Khalil, the Principal was Samir Halbouni, also a board member of Together For Humanity Foundation, and the Catholic was Kate Xavier, Senior Education officer of Together For Humanity.
6)       The Quran 4:36.
7)       Talmud, Bava Metzia 71a.
8)       Exodus 22:20. 
9)       Numbers 22:2-24:25.
10)    The Quran 5:32.
11)    Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a.
12)    Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:1 (22a),  states: whoever destroys a single life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed the whole world, and whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world. The context of this teaching is a warning to witnesses in capital cases to speak the truth. It is a reference to the murder of Abel by his brother Cain and how this murder destroyed not just one man but practically half of the future of mankind. This context supports the Jerusalem universal version.  There are several additional versions of this teaching that are universal, these include, Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer ch. 47, Eliyahu Rabbah 11, Yalkut Shimoni on Exodus 166, and manuscripts from Parma, Italy in the mid-13th century, and from Cesena, dating to about 1400. See and

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