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Ancient texting

The historic trip that I took part with seven other Muslim-American faith leaders to the Auschwitz and Dachau Nazi concentration camps in August 2010 continues to move and inspire me. All the Muslim participants of the trip felt that condemning Holocaust denial and dialogue are necessary, but they’re not enough. The transformative effect of the trip and pressing current issues here in the United States and the Middle East requires Jews, Christians and Muslims to take dialogue further.

In this spirit, I co-organized a closed-door conversation with a select group of Jewish and Muslim leaders last weekend. A once radical and unthinkable event quietly took place in a Jewish temple in New York City: Jewish rabbis and scholars in Halacha (Jewish juridical literature) met with Muslim imams and scholars in Sharia (Muslim juridical literature) to discuss how improved understanding and interpretation of the foundational texts, upon which their respective religious laws are based, can help bring the two communities together. My partners in crime, Rabbi Jack Bemporad, director of Center for Interreligious Understanding (New Jersey) and Professor Marshall Breger from Catholic University Columbus School of Law (Washington, D.C.) were the other two co-organizers.

Although it was scholarly, we tried to make sure this coming together was not just some “Ivory Tower” undertaking. Even today, ancient religious texts are profoundly influential in our daily lives. From the golden rule to the Ten Commandments and everything in between, our laws, society and understanding of each other are guided, and at times held captive, by the ancient texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. So how they are, or maybe more importantly how they are NOT, studied, taught, understood and interpreted today is crucial.

In response, an unprecedented gathering of 40 of the country’s foremost minds in Sharia and Halacha met in a closed-door conference in New York. Our very own Dr. Ebrahim Moosa, one of the foremost scholars of Sharia in the U.S. from Duke University’s religious studies department; Dr. Kecia Ali from Boston University, who holds a Ph.D. from Duke; and myself were the main Muslim presenters. Despite horrible weather and snow storm in the Northeast, the Oct. 30 inaugural meeting of the “Muslim Jewish Scholars Conference” was the beginning of an ongoing bridge-building effort between the two communities. The conference brought together Jewish and Muslim scholars, rabbis, imams, university professors and chaplains who otherwise have few opportunities to talk to each other. It provided an opportunity for Muslim and Jewish scholars to talk with each other openly about their respective views on their own traditions; it gave them the opportunity to talk about pressure points between their communities.

With the status of Sharia at the forefront of controversy, the early afternoon session on anti-Semitism and Islamophobia was of particular interest. The session focused on honest discussions about the limits and contextualization of criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism. It also considered the extent to which legislative attacks on Sharia, (some 20 U.S. states are looking at proposals to ban Sharia including our own North Carolina), logically implies similar attacks on Halacha. As I repeatedly said throughout the conference: Bigotry should not only be condemned when it applies to one’s own particular religion. It should be condemned when it applies to any religion. Jews should not simply condemn or focus on anti-Semitism and Muslims on Islamophobia; we need to be united in speaking out against bigotry and extremism wherever it occurs. To me, hurting one religious community somewhere means hurting all religious communities everywhere.

Although not everyone was willing to publicly acknowledge their attendance at the event, illustrating that clearly this unprecedented effort is in its infancy, they showed up and they openly engaged. For example, one of the issues that confronts both religious traditions has to do with re-conceptualizing the role of women; these issues were not avoided but were explicitly discussed.

I strongly believe, the need to understand and use foundational texts to improve relations is not only fundamental: With the rise of Islamophobia and the proposals to ban Sharia in the U.S. and rising anti-Semitism in Muslim majority societies such dialogue efforts is urgent. Understanding the commonality and differences in our texts will go far in explaining why attacks on Sharia are also attacks on religious law and religious freedom and cannot be tolerated.

There are so many forces and people out there tirelessly working to divide faith communities locally and globally. I hope and pray, with this aforementioned sense of urgency and responsibility, Jewish and Muslim leaders will learn and prove to work as hard, if not harder, to unite their respective communities. This conference was a modest step in that direction. May it continue and grow, God willing.

Abdullah Antepli is the Muslim Chaplain and an adjunct faculty of Islamic Studies. His column runs every other Tuesday.