Few religions have as much in common as Islam and Judaism.
At the heart of the two faiths is an ethical-monotheistic vision that determinedly resists any compromise on the idea of the transcendence and unity of God, who is envisaged as just and merciful and who has revealed a way of life in accordance with these values for the benefit of human society.
Even though Islam and Judaism differ over the precise text of such revelation, the Hebrew Pentateuch (the Torah) and the Quran share much religious narrative as well as injunctions. The two religions also share many other fundamental religious concepts, such as reward and punishment relating to a Day of Divine Judgment, as well as the belief in the afterlife, heaven and hell, and future resurrection.
Moreover, the structure and modus operandi of their religious jurisprudential codes of conduct — sharia and halachah — bear a striking similarity. Both Islam and Judaism are essentially theocratic democracies or better, meritocracies, in as much as they do not have clergy who by virtue of sacrament are separate from the rest of the community.
Religious authority is essentially a function of individual mastery of the religious sources to be able to guide the community in accordance with their teachings. While there are of course many differences in their specific forms, the two faiths also share the central practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, as well as dietary laws and aspects of ritual purity.
In addition, both religions have a lunar calendar. But whereas in Islam this means that the religious calendar is continuously moving in relation to the solar calendar, Judaism synchronizes its lunar calendar with the solar calendar approximately every three years. This of course means that the coincidence of events in the two calendars changes over the years and offers ever changing insights.
This year, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan coincides with the Hebrew period of the Counting of the Omer, the days between Pesach — Passover celebrating the exodus from Egypt — and Shavuot, the anniversary of the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai. This counting highlights the fact that freedom and independent dignity are given to us to serve God and His way of justice, righteousness and mercy.
Notably, just before Shavuot, Ramadan reaches a climax on laylat al qadr, the night when the Quran was first sent down from heaven to the world and when the first verses were revealed to the Prophet.
Thus both religious communities will be affirming around the same time, the idea that the “divine way of life” has been revealed to humanity; and that the goal of our respective ritual observances is to draw near to the All Merciful (Ha-Rahaman in Hebrew, identical to El Rahman in Arabic) and our fellow human beings, in love and service.
While there have been ups and downs in the history of Jewish communities under Islam, there is no question that Jews fared far better under its rule than they did in the Christian world, and there were periods of great collaboration and mutual stimulation in the arts, sciences as well is in philosophy, commerce and even social and political cooperation.
The collapse of imperial rule and the rise of modern nationalism led to the clash between the Jewish nationalist aspiration for self-determination in the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people and the struggle for national self-determination on the part of the regional and local Arab populations. The conflict that followed is thus a territorial one and not a religious one. However, in recent times, vested interest parties have increasingly sought to give the conflict a religious character.
While not seeking to go into the causes and effects, rights and wrongs of the political struggle in the Middle East, the increasing religious characterization of a territorial conflict has come from various quarters, presenting it as part of a “clash of civilizations” between the Muslim world and Western/Christian world, with Israel and the Jews portrayed as a hostile “bridgehead” into the Arab world in particular and the Muslim world in general.
However, the truth of the matter is that what we are witnessing is not a clash of civilizations as much as a clash within civilizations. It is a clash between those elements of a religious culture whose sense of historic injury and humiliation leads to alienation and conflict within their own societies as well as to those outside their religious culture, and those who seek to constructively engage other societies as part of world culture and a positive interaction with modernity. This “clash within civilizations” means that religious extremists of various traditions and cultures are (almost always unwittingly) part and parcel of a “conspiracy of conflict”.
Regrettably, because their very character and goals are sensational, they get far greater visibility. Precisely therefore, the enlightened voices of religion within these traditions have a responsibility to work together not only to be greater than the sum of their different parts but also to provide the essential alternative testimony –- that of interreligious cooperation and mutual respect.
In particular, Muslim and Jewish leaders have a duty to their communities and faith traditions to counteract the destructive exploitation of their religious heritages and to draw their inspiration from those past examples of the glory of cooperation and collaboration among the children of Abraham. This requires that first and foremost, we educate ourselves genuinely about one another and not allow prejudice, bigotry, stereotypes and propaganda, to poison our minds.
Indeed, this is the charge of the Quran itself in Surat Al-Hujarat (The Chambers, 49:13) “to know one another” and to compete only in righteousness.
May both Muslims and Jews live up to this charge and demonstrate ourselves to be worthy children of our common father Abraham and of our respective religious traditions.
A former chief rabbi of Ireland and the Jerusalem-based international director of interreligious affairs of the American Jewish Committee.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.