Can Muslim and Jewish narratives co-exist?

by Deborah Weissman
JERUSALEM - In his book, Longitudes & Attitudes (2002), journalist Thomas Friedman, citing Middle East expert Stephen P. Cohen, suggests that the true clash in today’s world is not “between civilisations” (as argued by Samuel Huntington) but within each civilisation or religion—a clash between the forces of extremism and those of moderation, tolerance, or what might be called “religious humanism”.

One of the challenges to all of our traditions is to find within them those resources that can help us make room for the Other. There are several strategies for dealing with problematic texts that include de-emphasising them contextualising them historically, putting them in dialogue with other texts and re-interpreting them. Thus we can and must develop a narrative or even a theology of our relationship with members of other communities.

Traditional Jews have often found it easier to relate to Islam than to Christianity. One reason is historical—Jewish communities have suffered more in Christian settings than in Muslim ones. The great scholar Menachem ben Solomon HaMeiri of Provence (1249-1316) maintained that both Christians and Muslims were “peoples disciplined by religion”. But most medieval (and even many modern) rabbis see in Islam a “true” faith, non-idolatrous and radically monotheistic.

Islam and Judaism are close not only theologically but also structurally. Both religious cultures emphasise a legal system for the regulation of everyday life. That system, called in Judaism Halakha (from the root “to walk”) is like a path which Jews are summoned to walk on a daily basis, the Muslim equivalent being Sharia. The laws govern everything from eating to marital relations to business or medical ethics, so that theological and Prophetic ideals are concretised through incremental steps on a day-to-day basis.

Theoretically, there are at least two religious issues around which Jews and Muslims could make common cause: One involves the availability of kosher/halal food. Both Jews and Muslims are affected by government bans—for example, in Sweden—on kosher meat slaughtering. There are several North American universities that have opened special dining halls to accommodate the dietary needs of Jews and Muslims together. Sitting over a shared meal may facilitate friendly dialogue. The second issue involves circumcision, practiced by both groups and sometimes in jeopardy in some Western societies, where it is perceived as cruel. How interesting—and symbolic—that two religious issues around which Jews and Muslims could unite both involve knives. Would that we could beat our knives into ploughshares…

Among Israelis and Palestinians who engage in dialogue and represent two nations but also three religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—our experience has often been that people who identify with their respective religions and traditions can find a common language and establish rapport on that basis. There must be some kind of mutual acknowledgement of narratives as a basis for understanding and dialogue.

The Palestinian and Jewish/Zionist narratives must eventually exist side-by-side; less difficult, I believe, would be to reconcile the Jewish and Muslim narratives. In both traditions there are texts that support the idea of religious diversity. Perhaps best-known is Sura 49, 13 in the Qu’ran, in which Allah states that he has created humankind in various groups and tribes, “so that you may know one another”.

One of the challenges is that in both Jewish and Muslim traditions, some of the interpretations call for a more monolithic future in which all people will eventually be converted to that particular faith. There are, I would suggest, at least three ways of confronting this challenge. The first is to locate and emphasise alternate texts within the same tradition—texts that allow for diversity even in the “End-Times”. Such a text, from the Jewish tradition, might be Micah 4:5: “All the nations may walk in the name of their gods; we will walk in the name of the LORD our God for ever and ever.” The second would be to engage in a serious process of re-interpretation of the more exclusivist texts. Israeli Bible scholar Moshe Greenberg has written, “Even the choicest vine needs seasonal pruning to ensure more fruitful growth.”

A third strategy, that has been employed in Catholic-Jewish dialogue, is to postpone the fulfilment of the conversionary impulse to the distant future and conduct open dialogue in the here and now. This path is perhaps less satisfactory on some levels but may be more pragmatic.
In any case, it is imperative that Jews and Muslims engage in dialogue, overcome fears and stereotypes and work together for a more peaceful and just world.


* Dr. Deborah Weissman, a Jewish educator based in Jerusalem, is President of the International Council of Christians and Jews ( The verse from Sura 46, 13 in the Qu’ran quoted above has been adopted by The International Council of Christians and Jews as the theme for its 2010 annual conference, to be held in Turkey. This article is part of a special series on Jews and Muslims in each other’s narratives and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 04 March 2010,
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Using Qur’anic narratives in pursuit of peace
Jewish respect and admiration for Muslim religiosity
Islam and Muslims on Judaism and Jews
The Jewish-Islamic heritage and its contemporary significance
The tragedy of monotheism
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Other articles in this series

Using Qur’anic narratives in pursuit of peace by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf
Jewish respect and admiration for Muslim religiosity by Zvi Zohar
Islam and Muslims on Judaism and Jews by Mustafa Abu Sway
The Jewish-Islamic heritage and its contemporary significance by Rabbi Naftali Rothenberg
The tragedy of monotheism by Rabia Terry Harris