January 17, 2002
By Linda LaRoche
Dr. Yahia Abdul- Rahman is a chemical engineer who resides in Altadena. A native of Egypt, Rahman is a distinguished man with refined features and steel blue eyes; he aims at furthering interfaith amity and helping fellow Americans understand Islam through the Shura Council, a statewide association of mosques, schools and Islamic centers.
The 100 people in attendance at Abdul-Rahman’s recent presentation at the Pasadena Jewish Center and Temple (PJTC) were expecting to hear a political discussion on the ever growing military and human rights crisis erupting in the Middle East. But like most things related to that historic conflict, there are no straight definitions, no easily explained theories and the spiritual pull that the often misinterpreted Koran has on the people who believe in it.
Since the events of Sept. 11, the Koran and the religion it inspired has been on trial. Is Islam an inherently intolerant faith? Does the Koran oblige Muslims to wage jihad (holy war) on those who do not share beliefs? If Jews and Christians are monotheists too and Muslims revere their prophets through their holy books, then who are the infidels? And why do Muslims cherish the idea that Mohammed could not read or write as proof that the Koran is a pure revelation. Does that purity constitute perfection and the submission ideal? What common ground if any joins these groups? With the never-ending battle in the Middle East what particles of reconciliation lies within Jews and Muslims and the traditions they represent?
But in today’s world, religious voices do not command attention. However, Rahman preached humility, not bravado plumbed into the mind of God, with a historical lesson on Islam and its similarities to Judaism. And as Rabbi Gilbert Kollin of PJTC pointed out regarding Rahman’s presentation, “It’s this understanding that opens the door to continued dialogue”.
Theologically, both books, the Koran and the Pentateuch (first five books of Moses) also known as the Torah profess faith in a single God. Both warn of God’s punishment and final judgment of the world. According to Rahman both texts define rules for prayer and religious rituals, relations between men and women and how to raise righteous children. The Koran, he claims places a great deal of emphasis on acts of justice, mercy and compassion. There are many interpretations of jihad-, which means literally “effort.” Often it means to be a better more pious Muslim. But we’ve come to associate the meaning with religious war because terrorists use Gods name and religious texts in a way that authenticates their cause. War gets justified as a personal obligation that challenges authority. In reality their goals are political and personal. That’s not Gods doing, its man.
In Islam’s current political conflicts with the West the major problem is not the Muslims sacred book but how it is interpreted. Muslims everywhere are plagued by a crippling crisis of authority. The Koran may have envisioned a single Muslim community, but history shows that they have never resolved the tension between religious authority and Islamic governments.
When I asked Rahman about his opinion on the building tension in the Middle East he cited, “Arab countries nationalize religion. The Koran, either consciously or inadvertently has been corrupted. Also the text is misinterpreted, with 98% illiteracy, lack of education is the problem. Extremists of Muslim backgrounds are violating the norms of Islamic justice and should be held accountable for their criminal behavior”.
As sacred texts, however the Pentateuch and the Koran could not be more different. To read the Old Testament requires analysis and there are commentaries, anthologies that draw from many sources. It’s also a historical document. Judaism is also overwhelming self-critical, whereas the Koran is poetic and reads like a fluid stream.
Where these two cultures can unite is in their commonality. Both are descendants from the Patriarch Abraham, and traditionally these two cultures both have religious verses that show both God and Allah, created diverse people for pluralistic reasons. Here it seems, lay the seeds for reconciliation. “If more God- loving Jews and Muslims were fair with one another and came to the table with fresh ideas and dismissed the idea of settling accounts of this madness would go away. I fear that the episodes of the last few weeks will leave a scar and influence the minds of youngsters, both Muslim and Jew. My greatest hope lies in organizations such as this one, that raise the consciousness of Americans who in turn work with their Muslim brothers overseas to strive for peace” said Abdul-Rahman.
Muslims and Jews are at a precarious place in history. In this country we have a large population of first and second-generation Muslims, enlightened intellectuals who have experienced democracy firsthand.
Similar to the American Jew assisting his or her fellow Israeli, and building a fellowship for support here after World War II, Muslims in America have the ability and duty to give encouragement and lend support in efforts to educate their fellow Muslims, both in this country and afar.
Let’s hope as Americans, both Jews and Muslims live up to that responsibility and seek to do the best that their respective gods intended for us all.