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October 4, 2015 | 21st Tishrei 5776

Abraham's children

Galilee Diary #421, December 21, 2008

Marc J. Rosenstein

Then We gave him the good tidings of a prudent boy; and when [the boy] had reached the age of deeds with him, [Abraham] said, "My son, I see in a dream that I shall sacrifice you; consider, what do you think?" He said, "My father, do as you are commanded; you shall find me, God willing, one of the mighty of spirit."
-Koran, Sura 37

A recurring question among the group of imams who participated in the course on Judaism that we coordinated for the Interreligious Coordinating Council of Israel over the past two years was: Why are we learning about Judaism, but we don't see Jews studying Islam? Indeed, this was an awkward question, as we did not have such an easy time collecting rabbis in the area (aside from the handful of Reform and Conservative rabbis in the Galilee and a few Orthodox rabbis known for their liberal leanings) willing to devote time on a regular basis to learning from the imams. There were several reasons for this, I think: a) Indeed, some rabbis simply don't feel that it is important or worthwhile to devote time and energy to learning about another religion; b) Some rabbis probably feel that they already have a basic knowledge of Islam from reading and from academic study, so are not attracted to a course in basic Islam; c) Most of the village imams in our program were not highly educated or pedagogically sophisticated, so the prospects of serious discussion were not great. Thus, we gave up on creating a symmetrical course. On the other hand, it occurred to us that there might be Jewish laypersons who would be curious to encounter local imams and to learn about Islam from them. So we invited one of the participants in the course to give a class (first, just an experimental session, to see if there was interest) on Islam for Jews.

Twenty learners showed up for that first class, and many others let us know that they were interested in attending in the future. We invited Ali Aburaya, one of the imams who had been most vocal in his disappointment that the course was one-directional, and he happily agreed to present on the topic of the holiday that was about to take place (last month), Id el Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice. He is imam of the central mosque in the town of Sachnin, and teaches Islam and physical education in the local school. He wears informal western clothes, no special headgear – you would take him for the gym teacher that he is.

He brought in the passage from the Koran describing God's command to Abraham to sacrifice his son, and explained the different traditions of interpretation (was it Isaac or Ishmael?), and the traditions of the holiday commemorating the event. The class deluged him with questions on everything from textual interpretation to folk customs to the structure of Islamic law and literature. They kept on asking until he had to leave, and all agreed that a series was called for. I think he was pleased and a little surprised by the interest and curiosity. He was honest and open and patient, but one thing that struck many of us was the cultural gap between our way of thinking and his; this came out in one exchange with a questioner. A participant asked: In our tradition, there is extensive and intensive questioning and discussion about Abraham's act – was it justified, was it problematic, how could God make such a command, etc.; do you have a similar discussion? Ali's answer was basically: No, there is no problem – Abraham and his son demonstrated perfect faith, and that's all there is to it. I don't know enough to know how representative this village preacher is of contemporary Islamic thought, but on the local level the cultural distance between him and us was clear. Nevertheless, we plan to meet again next week.

As I write this, "ignorant armies clash by night;" while ignorant civilians are trying, quietly, to create some light.


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