Title: Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms: A Reform Rabbi’s Reflections on the Profound Connectedness of Islam and Judaism

Author: Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Publisher: Hadassa Word Press Pages: 120 Price: 15 US dollars ISBN: 978-3-639-79499-1

Reviewed by: Neza T. Reyhan†

Current political tensions over Palestine/Israel might seem to project a different image, but contrary to what many think, there is actually much in common between Judaism and Islam; and it is good to remind ourselves of this fact.

This is a task that Rabbi Allen Maller, a Jewish religious scholar based in the USA, has taken upon himself in this very timely book. Interestingly, the book is a collection of 31 articles on Muslim-Jewish relations by the author; that have been published over the years in several Islamic websites, a testimony to the fact that there are also several Muslims who, like Rabbi Maller, are eager to promote friendship between Muslims and Jews.

A “Muslim Jew”

Readers will not be left unimpressed by the Rabbi’s very warm appreciation of Islam. The Rabbi provides some insights into his own personal journey of studying Islam—about how he, as a ‘Reform Rabbi, ‘learns from Muhammad’, as he puts it. He explains that he first became interested in Islam when he studied it at the University of California Los Angeles almost half a century ago, and says that he has continued this study ‘off and on’ since then.

Impressed by the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (whom he considers as a prophet sent by God) while still identifying strongly as a Jew, the Rabbi sees himself as a ‘Muslim Jew’, the word Muslim here being understood in the broader sense of one who has submitted to the One God. “Actually I am a Muslim Jew i.e. a faithful Jew submitting to the will of God, because I am a Reform Rabbi”, the Rabbi clarifies. “I am faithful”, he explains, “to the covenant that God made with Abraham–the first Jew who was a Muslim (faithful monotheist)”, adding, “and I submit to the covenant and its commandments that God made with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai”. At the same time, he says, “I believe that the Quran is as true for Muslims as the Torah is true for Jews.”

Similarities Between Islam and Judaism

A major focus of the book is to draw out some of the similarities between Judaism and Islam. The Rabbi reminds us that in the Quran, “one of the most recounted narratives is the story of the bondage of the Children of Israel and their deliverance from Egypt’s Pharaoh.” Both Islam and Judaism, the Rabbi goes on, “teach the need for establishing the Law of God on earth, so that there will be peace and harmony flourishing everywhere.” Rabbi Maller believes that Quran and Torah “complement each other”, and opines that “it is false and narrow minded to say that one contradicts the other.”

Another aspect that the Rabbi focuses on is what he sees as the close similarities between the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad and the particular Jewish tradition that he is affiliated with, ‘Reform Judaism’, which began in Germany almost two hundred years ago and which is now the largest Jewish denomination in the USA. The Rabbi writes that in many ways reports that relate to the Prophet Muhammad’s comments about Orthodox Judaism, and religion in general, “prefigure the thinking of Reform Rabbis some twelve to thirteen centuries later.”

Rabbi Maller relates that “Reform Judaism”, which seeks to make the practice of the faith more easy and simple, is in many ways closer to early Islam than it is to Orthodox Judaism”. He believes that “the reform movement in Judaism would have started 14 centuries ago if the Jews of Muhammad’s time had followed his teachings.”

Countering Misinterpretations

While recognizing the common ground between Islam and Judaism, the Rabbi does not ignore the existence of considerable antipathy among many Jews and Muslims today. One source of anti-Jewish feelings among many present-day Muslims that he highlights is a selective and distorted interpretation of references to Jews in the Quran. These are verses that, he says, actually only apply to some Jews (and some Christians) but are misinterpreted to apply to all Christians and Jews.

The Quran correctly understood does not denounce all of the Children of Israel, the Rabbi points out. Every community, including the Muslim ummah, he says, “contains groups of faithful believers and a party who disbelieve”. The same holds true for the Jews. The Quran recognizes this fact when it distinguishes between Jews who follow the path that God has established for them from those Jews who have strayed from this path. For instance, it states: “There is among them a party on the right course; but many of them follow a course that is evil.” (5:66)

Defining Christians and Jews as “descendants of apes and pigs”, Rabbi Maller rues, “is notoriously widespread today in religious, educational and public discourse in the Arab world.” But, he explains, “In truth, the Quran never states all Jews were turned into apes or pigs; but clearly states that only some Jews were”, and in this regard he quotes the Quran as saying: “…They are those whom Allah has cast aside and on whom His wrath has fallen and of whom He has made some as apes and swine…” (5:60)

This means, the Rabbi says, that in every generation there were some Jews who failed to live according to the covenant that God had made the Jewish People; just as in every generation some Muslims within the Muslim ummah have failed to live according to Islamic teachings. In every religious community of human beings there are many individuals who act like apes and pigs and fail to repent and amend their behaviour. But to claim that this describes all Jews (and Christians), as some Muslims do, is thus absolutely unacceptable from the Quranic point of view itself. Those who imply that Christians and Jews in general are “the descendants of apes and pigs”, Rabbi Maller insists, “are Satans spreading misguidance for political purposes. Their teachings should be rejected.”

Far from condemning all Jews (and Christians), the Rabbi reminds us, the Quran clearly refers to some of them as firmly on the right path:

“They are not all alike. Some of the People of the Book are firmly committed to the truth. They recite the Verses of Allah during the hours of night, and remain in the state of [prayer] prostration before their Lord.” (3:113)

The Quran is also very explicit at stating that as in the case of Muslims, those Christians and Jews who adhere to their covenant will be rewarded. Thus, it says: “Those who believe (in the Quran), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians; any who believe in Allah and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve. (2:62)

Along with critiquing the marked tendency among many Muslims to denigrate all Jews (and Christians) on the basis of misinterpretations of certain Quranic verses, the Rabbi also critiques exclusivism and supremacism among a number of Jews, which derives from distorted interpretations of their faith. Thus, he emphatically insists that (contrary to what some Jews believe), “Jews are not THE chosen people”. They have a “sacred relationship” with the one God, but, he says, “they are not the only ones to do so.”

This book comes straight from the heart of a man who seems deeply committed to peace between people who follow different religions, someone who is also deeply pained by the horrors being committed in religion’s name. It is a beautiful example an appreciative understanding of another religion by a person who seems deeply rooted in his own. For those concerned about the conflict over Palestine/Israel—an issue on which global peace seems to hinge—and about relations between Muslims and Jews, and peace in the world generally, this book is a very precious gift.

Many of Rabbi Maller’s writings are accessible on the Internet, including on his website www.rabbimaller.com

† Neza T. Reyhan, based in India, is very interested in issues of religious discourse and is engaged, in his own limited way, in promoting better understanding and harmony between people of different religions and different communities. He recognizes the profound truth of the saying: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world”.