Experiencing Jinnah’s Legacy at the Washington Hebrew Congregation: Waziristan to Washington, A Story that all should hear
by David Greenberg
When I stepped into the Washington Hebrew Congregation last Sunday to see the dramatization of the life of Professor Akbar Ahmed, everything in this beautiful synagogue looked familiar except for the fact that many of the people in attendance were Muslim. This set the stage for what turned out to be a unique and unforgettable experience. I was truly inspired by Professor Ahmed’s message and by the challenging, dynamic and eventful life he has lived.
Insulated from a world in which some Muslims and Jews struggle to understand one another and even resort to animosity and violence, on this night the room was peaceful and calm. People from varied faiths and backgrounds listened attentively to a message of compassion and a story of relentless integrity and honest humanity. Professor Ahmed presented his life story as candid evidence of moderation in the face of extremism, of responsibility in the face of corruption, and of dialogue in the face of intolerance.
Along with his own story, Professor Ahmed’s narrative was layered with the account of Jinnah in Pakistan. Together, their stories counter the images in mainstream media that so often constrict the richness and diversity that exists within Islam. Jinnah’s legacy is clearly manifested in Professor Ahmed’s lifelong refusal to compromise his principles for personal gain and his pursuit of knowledge, ilm, in the face of opposition and even hostility toward scholarship. Professor Ahmed’s lifelong commitment to academic study and knowledge appeals to both the Muslim and Jewish communities.
The Washington Hebrew Congregation is among the largest reform Jewish congregations in the United States, and the fact that Professor Ahmed chose to premier his production at this venue is remarkable in itself. Many Jews and Muslims in attendance, who were unfamiliar with the overlapping theology in Judaism and Islam, seemed surprised at the Professor’s reverence for their shared iconography. With the prominent depiction of the Ten Commandments behind him on the wall of the Congregation temple, Professor Ahmed declared that “Moses’ commandments are my commandments.” After his presentation, Professor Ahmed and his good friend Rabbi Bruce Lustig, the senior rabbi of the Hebrew Congregation, recalled the first time the rabbi showed him the scrolls of the Torah. “I had goosebumps,” Professor Ahmed remembered.
In my estimation, the most emotional part of the evening was the tribute to Daniel Pearl. For me, any reference to Daniel Pearl elicits a visceral reaction to the brutal way in which he was murdered. Upon hearing that Professor Ahmed was from the same area in Karachi as the terrorists who beheaded Pearl, I experienced a mix of emotions as I looked around the theatre. One can only imagine the sense of horror and fear that Daniel must have felt in his last days. Meanwhile, this professor who was reared in the very same community as Pearl’s murderers but who is a person of compassion and himself a loving father expressed his outrage about this act of terrorism and his anguish over the heartache that Judea Pearl, Daniel’s father, must be experiencing. Our shared grief formed a common bond.
After hearing Professor Ahmed describe his travels across the world, I reflected on my own experience living abroad for a year in the UK. I remember spending days at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, London, where people from different backgrounds gathered for impromptu discussion and debate on a variety of topics. The arguments were passionate and tempers often ran high. But I saw the same faces—people from all different backgrounds, including Jews and Muslims—coming together again and again. Their dialogue was crude but it was genuine and it helped to reveal the humanity on each side.
Professor Ahmed emphasized the importance of dialogue, not to smooth out differences but to find commonalities. By sharing his story with the Washington Hebrew Congregation, Professor Ahmed advanced the goal of mutual respect and understanding.
What I have realized after Professor Ahmed’s performance is that most people’s spiritual journey is not a straight path. Whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish, American or Pakistani, every person is faced with choices and challenges. But many paths can lead us to the same destination.
David Greenberg is an honor student at American University and has studied at Oxford University.
Ambassador Akbar Ahmed is currently the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University in Washington DC, the First Distinguished Chair of Middle East and Islamic Studies at the US Naval Academy, Annapolis, and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He has taught at Princeton, Harvard, and Cambridge Universities and is considered “the world’s leading authority on contemporary Islam” by the BBC.
BOOK REVIEW: Journey Into Islam (Akbar Ahmed), Sheila Musaji http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/akbar_ahmeds_journey_into_islam_offers_a_blueprint_to_avert_a_clash_of_civi/
Daniel Pearl Foundation http://www.danielpearl.org/
Islam and Freedom of Thought, Akbar Ahmed and Lawrence Rosen http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/islam_and_freedom_of_thought/
Islam and Judaism, Akbar S. Ahmed http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/islam_and_judaism/
Judea Pearl and Akbar Ahmed’s Interfaith Dialogues http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6230947