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July 28, 2014 | 1st Av 5774

Free Will

Galilee Diary #465, November 11, 2009
Marc Rosenstein

Proclaim: "This is the truth from your Lord," then whoever wills let him believe, and whoever wills let him disbelieve.
-Quran 18:29

All is foreseen - and freedom is granted...
-Mishnah, Avot 3:15

A few years ago our foundation facilitated, for the Interreligious Coordinating Council of Israel, a course on Judaism for local village imams (Moslem religious leaders). The group of about a dozen imams met monthly with various rabbis, and were a congenial and curious group. A question that was asked more than once was, "How come this is one-way? Where are the Jews who are curious about Islam?" We decided to find out the answer, and invited, a couple of times over the past year, a local imam to speak on Islam, publicizing the event through our usual local channels of advertising. The attendance both times was about 15 people. Unfortunately, the speakers were not really successful at conveying a coherent and intellectually satisfying account of Islamic customs or beliefs, in Hebrew, and the audience went home frustrated. The training that these clergy receive in Islamic seminaries does not include much in the way of pedagogy or critical inquiry - or comparative religion. Meanwhile, a friend referred me to an imam from a village a little farther away, near Nazareth, whom he recommended for such settings. I called Khaled Abu Ras and we arranged to meet at his home, and he turned out to be a charming and articulate 30-something doctoral candidate in religious thought at Bar Ilan University, a teacher in his local high school, and a Sufi (devotee of Islamic "Kabalah"). We talked for a long time - and looked at all the photos of him and his wife on their recent pilgrimage to Mecca, and I invited him to speak.

We did our usual publicity, giving emphasis to Khaled's academic credentials and Sufi affiliation; we decided to go with a topic we thought would be attractive to a serious audience (the concept of free will in Islam). Khaled sent us a page of text excerpts, and we ran off 15 copies and bought a cake. For reasons we still don't understand, over 60 people showed up, and enjoyed a fascinating evening. The audience was a real cross section - Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, secular, left and right; even a few rabbis - and some from as far as 45 minutes away. The speaker was indeed charismatic and serious, open to all questions, full of illustrative stories. And when he chanted the passages from the Kuran before we read them in translation, he held the crowd spellbound, adding a cultural component to the intellectual content. We learned that the view of Islam on free will is more complicated than the stereotype most of us carry around - indeed, it shares the ambivalence we find in Jewish sources, as both religions realize that there is a tension between the belief that God is all-knowing and the belief that we have total freedom of will - for if God knows what we are going to do, then are we really free to choose? There were plenty of questions, and when the time finally ran out, there was clear consensus that this would be the first of a series. When the speaker ended with a short prayer for peace, somehow it seemed more convincing than the platitudes that are usually delivered on such occasions.

On the one hand, it has always surprised and disappointed me to be reminded of how ignorant Jews and Arabs are about each other's religion and culture beyond superficial knowledge - which often turns out to consist of distorted stereotypes. After so many decades of living in the same small country, you might expect a little more mutual knowledge to have rubbed off. On the other hand, it was encouraging to learn, from this evening, that the glass is also half full, that there is mutual curiosity and good will, and even, if you look, someone to talk to.

 

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