Adventures of a Rabbi Who Knows Koran
As a scholar of both Judaism and Islam, Professor Reuven Firestone, who teaches at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, has become a Jewish ambassador of sorts at scholarly conferences in Egypt, Qatar, Pakistan, and elsewhere in the Muslim world. I caught up with him as he prepared for a trip to Cairo.
ReformJudaism.org: As the only person wearing a kippah (yarmulke) at religious conferences in Muslim countries, you must have had some extraordinary experiences.
I was attending a lecture given by a Saudi cleric in Islamabad, Pakistan, when a guy with a long beard right out of the Taliban playbook leaned over and asked me if I was Jewish. I said, “yes,” and he followed up by asking me if I studied Talmud. I said, “yes,” and he excitedly told me about his friend who teaches Talmud. “You need to meet him,” he insisted. “He’s amazing, and he doesn’t live far from the hotel. Why don’t we get into a taxi and you can meet him?”
Remembering what happened to Daniel Pearl (the American Jewish journalist who was murdered in Pakistan after getting into a taxi with a stranger), I said, “I don’t think I can do that. He can come to the hotel, and I would love to meet him here.”
The friend turned out to be Allma G. R. Chishti, a Sufi Pir (teacher) who had received a traditional madrasah Islamic education in Pakistan, but as a young man wanted also to study the Torah and New Testament in their original languages. So, he traveled to England, where he spent years studying Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, and where he developed his love for Talmudic studies.
We spent that evening and the following days together. I still correspond regularly with my Sufi friend, who has had a profound influence on me.
What was it like teaching Judaism to students in Pakistan?
I remember once teaching a class in comparative religion at the Islamic International University in Islamabad to 30 women, all of them with their faces covered. The students had never met a Jew and most likely had been indoctrinated with terrible anti-Semitic stereotypes typical in the Muslim world.
In answering their questions, it became clear to me that what they had learned about Jews and Judaism was not wrong, but had a distinctly negative slant.
How did you counteract the negative image these Muslim women had of Jews and Judaism?
I had to impress them in such a way that gave me credibility in their eyes. The best way I know to accomplish that is by reciting from memory a beautiful Koranic text in Arabic. That’s when they began to believe what I was saying about Jews and Jewish beliefs was true, not empty rhetoric. I have since received email from some of them asking questions about Judaism.
When you speak to Jewish groups about Muslims and Islam, do you experience the same kind of initial skepticism and doubt about your message of interfaith understanding?
I do. Jews often think what I am saying sounds good, but can’t be the whole story. When I talk about my appreciation for the beauty, compassion, and humility that is Islam, there’s always someone in the audience who’ll say, “You don’t know what you are talking about.”
About a year ago, I gave some talks at a Jewish Community Center (JCC) and an Islamic Center (IC) in Ohio. At the IC, an older Egyptian man asked me earnestly, “Rabbi, I’m so glad we heard you, and I know you really understand a lot about Judaism and Islam. Can you tell why it is that Jews start all the wars in the world?”
The next day at the JCC, a man wearing Orthodox Jewish attire said, “I know that not all Muslims are terrorists, but can you tell me why all terrorists are Muslims?”
The stereotypes run deep on both sides.
Would you say Jewish-Muslim dialogue has become your calling as a rabbi?
At some point, it became my calling. My original intention was not activism. It was scholarship, particularly the comparative study of Judaism and Islam. And because few people can do what I can, I found myself increasingly applying this knowledge in the service of improving Jewish-Muslim relations.
Rabbi Reuven Firestone will be a featured speaker at the Union for Reform Judaism's 2017 Biennial in Boston, December 6-10, 2017.