A Call to Bridge the Abrahamic Faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam

Sermon at al-Farah Mosque, September 6, 2002

Editor?s Note: This sermon was delivered just a few blocks away from Ground Zero in the presence of more than a dozen Christian and Jewish religious leaders who also offered brief remarks about the need to create bridges of understanding.

I begin by invoking the name of God, the God of Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and the Children of Israel, the God of Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon them all. And I invoke the special blessings of God upon all these Prophets and Messengers, and greet them with the greetings of peace.

Religion is a powerful tool. Correctly used, it has led to the vision of God. But when usurped by violent men, religion has proven extremely effective in rousing the masses to violence and aggression.

For those souls who have sought and found union in the vision of God, religions are but a diversity of creeds and practices that are merely ways to the One Goal, the vision of God. We who have grasped this truth recognize that everything is a veil hiding the Essential, and therefore seek to peel away those veils that hide the knowledge of the sole true Reality. We recognize that all religions have the same relative value with respect to the high goal to be reached, and the same lack of value if they fail to call forth the love of God. This alone is the uniform standard of value in the assessment of religions. Our voices, raised together to proclaim the recognition of the unity of God, serve to bring mankind together, while those voices that focus on the differences of our laws cause division and loss.

The great 13th century mystic poet Jalal ud-Din Rumi (1207-1273) expressed this when he wrote in one of his poems,

The lovers of ritual are one group, and those whose hearts and souls are aglow with love of God are another.

Extending Rumi?s quote above, we can posit that from the spiritual and ethical point of view, there are only two groups of religionists:

1.    Those who have seen the vision of God, and they are one group regardless of their nominal religious affiliation, and

2.    Those who are exclusive, militant and hard-line in their religious interpretation; they too are also one group, regardless of their nominal religious affiliation.

I am therefore probably closer to my Jewish brother Rabbi Lenny Schoolman and Rev. Bill Tully here today, who share my spiritual and ethical convictions, than to my Muslim co-religionist whose narrow and militantly exclusive worldview is probably identical to the Jewish, Christian or Hindu fundamentalist carrying an equally narrow and militantly exclusive worldview.

This simple insight brings us to a conclusion that is startling to many:

We urgently need to establish discourse and dialogue not only at an interfaith level, but also at an intra-faith level, between those who have different perspectives and interpretations within the same religious tradition.

9/11 happened, and has become part of our vocabulary. 9/11 has meant many things to many people, and to American Muslims, it has meant being recipients of a major plea from our non-Muslim fellow Americans: Explain yourselves! Who are you? What are you? Why do you hate us? What do you want from us? And how can we help you?

Today, we are joined in our commemoration of 9/11 by some of our friends from the Jewish and Christian community, whose souls are aglow with the love of God, who recognize the wisdom of Rumi quoted above.

They share our quest for moral and social perfection as a natural outcome of a shared commitment to tread the Greater Path within the authentic practice of religious tradition, an impulse that propels us to build a heightened human consciousness of God among humanity.

My objective today, brothers and sisters, is to proclaim to our Jewish and Christian brethren as well as to our own community some of what we have learned from the last 12 months, especially as to what the work that lies ahead of us must be, both within our respective faith communities and in what we want from each other.

First and for the sake of our common shared goals, we must learn to view ourselves in relationship to them.

Two major ground rules - simple and far-reaching - must be observed when we dialogue with other faiths. First, compare equal to equal - and second, allow each to define himself to the other.

Although obvious, the first rule is broken when the apologist of our own faith is tempted to compare his tradition in its ideal form against the actual or bad forms of the other. For example, while many Christians correctly believe their faith as being the religion of love and peace, Christian history has not always been peaceful and loving towards Jews and Muslims, neither is it true that Judaism and Islam are devoid of compassionate love and manifestations of shalom/salaam (peace).

The second rule is to let others define what they are and what they feel from the other, and refrain from defining the other?s religion in a manner that enhances our own values and superiority. Thus, for example, as Muslims we ought not construe an Islamized caricatured version of the other?s tradition, and pay little attention to how the other faith sees and experiences us. In particular, we Muslims need to cogently explain, if Islam is a religion of peace, why is it that non-Muslims? experience of Islam is belligerent?

The work encompasses three levels on us Muslims:

1.    We must explain our special relationship to Christians and Jews, and the need that this places on all of us.

2.    We must explain that religious militancy is not uniquely to be found within the Muslim community; and secondly, the major reasons that fuel such militancy, which if addressed, would enormously attenuate such militancy.

3.    Third, we must learn from the experience of our Christian and Jewish predecessors the lessons they learned as they morphed from being imported expressions of mainly European churches and synagogues, to American expressions of Judaism and Christianity. We Muslims are now undergoing these same trials of re-expressing the eternal truths of our faith within the cultural modality of America and sharing the challenge of dealing with issues of modernity. Most if not all Islamic Centers and mosques in America are undergoing the challenge of speaking to their children in a language and cultural mindset that is different from that of their own countries of origin.

How Islam sees itself, and - through this self perception - how it relates itself to Judaism and Christianity

Islam relates itself to Jews and Christians on three levels: as humans, as heirs of the Semitic religious tradition, and as Jews and Christians. This relationship is on this account built into Islam?s very nature and core. There is no Islam without it.

Being the youngest of the world religions, and in its self understanding, intended to be a religion of all humans, Islam relates itself to the religions of mankind, and through them to humanity. Second, being a reaffirmation and re-crystallization of the Semitic religious tradition, Islam relates itself to all Semitic religions, i.e. to its predecessors within that tradition. Thirdly, Islam also relates itself to Judaism and Christianity in the most intimate way because, again in its self understanding, it sees itself standing in great affinity to them.

Islam recognizes all Jews and Christians as creatures of God, whom God had blessed with reason and understanding, sufficient to enable them to know God; that being so endowed, they must have recognized God, as one who is transcendent and ultimate. Moreover, Islam acknowledges that all Jews and Christians have received from God messages through their prophet?s teaching of the same lesson, so that, if for some reason they have missed what is natural and hence necessary to them, they were given it gratuitously as a gift from heaven, through prophecy. As such, Jews and Christians are people with the true religion, the din al-fitrah. No Muslim may deny this fact of nature without contradicting the Qur?an and hence abjuring Islam. Recognition of this truth is of his faith. Therefore, religiously speaking, the Muslim acknowledges the Jews and Christians to be endowed with the religion of God twice, once by nature and hence necessarily and universally, and once by the grace of God through their Prophets.

B. The level of the Semitic tradition.

Unlike the first level on which Islam regards the Jews and Christians as de jure possessors of true religion necessarily, i.e. by virtue of their birth as humans and their receipt of universal prophecy, this level regards them as possessors of true religion by virtue of their inheritance of the Semitic religious tradition. Religiously speaking, the Jews and Christians are heirs of a genuine religious tradition, perhaps the greatest on account of its numerous prophets.

The Semitic legacy of religion, Islam holds, began with Noah. ?God ordained for you the same religion He ordained for Noah,? the Qur?an affirms (42:13). ?God chose Adam, Noah, the people of Abraham and `Imran?We have sent a revelation to you (Muhammad) as We did to Noah and the prophets after him?to`Ad and Thamud and countless others known only to God that came after them, and about whom We did not tell you, to them We sent our prophets..(3:33; 4:163; 21:85; 6:86)

The religion of Noah?s descendants consisted of five principles, which were repeatedly affirmed by all Semitic revelations.

1.    The first was the transcendence of God, affirmed in His ontological separateness, or otherness, from His creation.

2.    The second was the relevance of God to His creation, constituting its raison d?etre, its purpose and the norms by which every creature is to live its life.

3.    The third is that this divine relevance is knowable to man, whether by divination (i.e. reading it in the omens of nature), by science (i.e. discovering it in the inimitable patterns or laws of nature), or by prophecy, the direct revelation of the will of God through words for the ready use of human understanding.

4.    The fourth is that humans are capable of fulfilling the divine imperatives, by virtue of their knowledge, by their actional capacity and subservience of nature to them, which God had endowed to them.

5.    The fifth and last is that humans are responsible and hence subject to judgement; to reward in the case of compliance and punishment in the case of defiance or violation. These five principles are the core and foundation of all Semitic religiosity, from Noah to Muhammad. All those who belonged to the Semitic tradition acknowledged these principles regardless of whether they observed them or not in their everyday lives. And by doing likewise, Jews and Christians establish their claim to the religion of God. And to acknowledge this truth is integral to the faith of Islam.

C. The particular level of Judaism and Christianity.

The foregoing acknowledgments of Islam, indubitable and unchallengeable to Muslims because they come as divine proclamations in the Qur?an, were further reinforced by a third kind of justification; the direct kind. The first two levels effected their justification by laying down principles and declaring the Jews and Christians as instances of them. The third level confronted the Jews and Christians in their Judaism and Christianity head on, and declared them justified in the eye of God. ?Those who have believed?and the Jews, the Christians, the Sabaeans?those who believe in God, the Last Day (of Judgment) and do good works, stand to be rewarded by God. No fear or grief shall befall them (2:62; 5:72). ?Say (to the Jews and Christians): We (Muslims) believe in that which was revealed to us as well as that which was revealed to you. Our God and your God is One and the same. We all submit to Him (29:46).? ?Say, we (Muslims) believe in God, in what He revealed to us, to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and the tribes, to Moses, Jesus and all the revelations of the prophets?without discriminating between them. To God we submit (2:136)?

This constitutes more than justification of Judaism and Christianity. It is not only similarity, likeness or agreement of Judaism and Christianity with Islam. It is self-identification with them. Obviously, no greater justification can be found or given. Islam regards the God of Judaism and Christianity as its own God, their prophets as its own prophets, their revelations and scriptures as its own revelation and scripture. Together, Islam holds the two religions and itself to be one religious fraternity. Nothing more could be asked or desired. Like the other levels of justification, this too is Qur?anic, held by all Muslims to proceed from God verbatim.

This unity - even identity - of the three religions makes the Muslims regard the Jews and Christians as their brothers in faith, in submission to the one God of all. Disagreement between them there certainly is; but under the canopy of one faith in God and belonging to His religion, all disagreements are domestic disputes. Indeed there is no single criticism which Islam has pointed at either Judaism or Christianity that Jews and Christians have not pointed to themselves or their tradition, and which Muslims themselves are subject to as well.

The religious wish that the Quran entertains regarding Judaism and Christianity is therefore the same wish entertained by countless Jews and Christians across the ages.

To speak of a religious tradition, therefore, is to speak of immutable principles of divine origin and of their application to different moments of time and space. It is also to speak of the continuity of certain doctrines and of the sacred forms which are the means by which these doctrines are conveyed to humankind and whereby the teachings of the faith tradition are actualized within us. Religion, as here defined, must not be custom or habit; nor the transient style and cultural fashion of a passing age. Religion, which speaks to the eternal in man, must be the presiding idea of a normal society and the animating principle of the whole life of a people.

I wish my Jewish friends Happy Rosh Hashanah, and relate the story of Prophet Muhammad when he went to Madinah and joined the Jews in fasting Yom Kippur. It is now celebrated as the fasting the 10th day of Muharram, the 10th day of our new year.

I would like to conclude with a poem by Sheikh al`Arabi, regarded by some to have been the Greatest Sufi Master (ash-Shaykh al-Akbar). What is sweet about this poem is that he expresses his shift from one of the groups Rumi talks of in the above quote to the other, thereby fueling our hope that we too can precipitate such changes in humanity at large:

There was a time when I took it amiss in my companion if his religion was not near to mine;

But now my heart takes on every form; it is a pasture for gazelles, a monastery for monks,

A temple for the tables of the Torah, a Ka`ba for pilgrims and the holy book of the Qur?an.

Love is my religion, and whichever way its riding beasts turn, that way lies my religion and belief.