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Muslim-Jewish Roundtable offers High Level Scholarly Forum

Date: 12/2/2015

On December 2nd, 2015, KARAMAH held a “Muslim-Jewish Round Table” convening Muslim and Jewish leaders and scholars from faith and academic institutions. This high level scholarly forum was part of KARAMAH’s efforts in furthering interfaith understanding. While many forums focus on mere understanding between faiths, KARAMAH designed this forum to elevate the level of discourse to a scholarly level, inviting speakers to delve into nuances often not discussed. The two topics of the day were: The Concept of the “Other” in the Islamic and Jewish Tradition and Family Law: the Cornerstone of Muslim and Jewish Society.

The event opened with introductory remarks by Ms. Aisha Rahman, KARAMAH executive director and a statement by Imam Mohamed Magid, Imam of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS). Imam Magid commended KARAMAH for arranging this scholarly forum and stressed the need for similar high-level inter-faith discussions in order to advance peace and social justice in our communities and globally.

The roundtable centered around two panels; the first addressed “the Concept of the Other in the Islamic and Jewish Traditions,” and featured Dr. Azizah al-Hibri, KARAMAH Founder and Rabbi Jack Bemporad, professor of Interreligious Studies and director of the Center for Interreligious Understanding. Dr. al-Hibri and Rabbi Bemporad both relied on scripture to frame the discussion within the context of monotheism and divine order of justice and peace.

Rabbi Bemporad spoke about the concept of the “Other” in Judaism from creation to the culmination in a messianic age of justice and peace for all human beings. According to him, “looking at the concept of ‘the Other’ from a narrower context would distort it.” The concept of the “Other” in Judaism, said Rabbi Bemporad, can be understood by reference to Abraham and his ideal. The way to unify the world is not through conquests, wars and wealth but with blessing. Abraham came with the ideal that one should strive to be a “blessing” for the “Other.” Thus, one can find in the bible a call to “equality” among people with special emphasis on the disadvantaged, the poor and the stranger – an equality that is achieved by “raising the status of the disadvantaged and the poor and the vulnerable to the status of the secure.”

Turning to Islam, Dr. al-Hibri invited the attendees to contemplate the story of Iblis (Satan) and his idea of the “Other” – Adam. When God ordered Iblis to prostrate to Adam, he refused claiming that since he was created from fire, he was better than Adam who was created from clay. Iblis’ arrogance brought upon himself eternal divine wrath. This idea of a superior self vis-à-vis the “Other” is counter to divine instructions. Still, many people adopt this attitude. God tells us that He created human beings different so they may know one another (Qur’an, 49:13). However, we live in a world where people seek to be superior to others in terms of wealth and territory hence causing wars and chaos. In the eyes of God, righteousness is the standard by which He judges who is better than who. God instructs us to treat one another justly- to “stand up for justice even if it is against ourselves.” God and His Prophet also instruct us to deal justly with people of other faiths, the poor, the wayfarer and the orphan. The early Muslims from the Prophet on, implemented this in their lives, but unfortunately, somehow, “the system broke down.”

The second panel addressed “Family Law: the Cornerstone of Muslim and Jewish Society” and featured Rabbi Judith Hauptman, Professor of Talmud and Rabbinic Culture at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, and Dr. Zainab Alwani, KARAMAH Board member and Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at Howard University.

Rabbi Hauptman highlighted legislation in the Bible related to women. “The Bible relegates women to a lower status than it does men,” said Rabbi Hauptman. In the Bible, men are heads of households not women. Men take women to be their wives and may dismiss women from marriage. A man may marry more than one wife. A father must leave his property to his male children only. Rabbi Hauptman added that if a man dies childless, his widow is betrothed to his oldest brother to have an heir.

Rabbi Hauptman went on to explain that Rabbis of the Talmud and the Bible inherited this framework of Jewish law and transformed it in many areas for the benefit of women. For example, the term for marriage in the Bible is “to take” or, in Biblical Hebrew, “to purchase,” Rabbis changed the name of the institution to “Kidushin/holy” to make it positive. They also significantly reduced the amount to pay for a bride transforming marriage from being purchase to a holy union. The Rabbis also put into effect the Ketubah, a document written by the husband to his wife guaranteeing her financial provisions in the institution of marriage and upon his death. Since, in Jewish Law, only the husband can initiate divorce by issuing a “get” to his wife, some women cannot get out of marriages when husbands refuse to do so. In certain circumstances, some Rabbis have given these women permission to remarry. While these changes did not realize equality for Jewish women, they brought them “from being chattels to being second-class citizens,” said Rabbi Hauptman.

Speaking about legislation in Qur’an on women, Dr. Zainab Alwani pointed to 4 issues often wrongly considered as evidence of women’s lower status in Islam: inheritance, polygamy, divorce, and bearing witness in financial transactions. Dr. Alwani argued that an examination of the Qur’an and the Sunnah and the context within which some provisions came reveal misunderstanding and misinterpretation. Dr. Alwani noted that most of what Rabbi Hauptman talked about is familiar as many Muslim societies have ‘urf/customs that are very similar. However, in Islamic law, there are differences. In terms of inheritance, clarified Dr. Alwani, the woman has the right to inheritance depending on her role in the family (mother, sister, daughter…). As far as marriage is concerned, it is a mutual agreement between the man and the woman. As for polygamy, Dr. Alwani explained, looking at the context of the polygamy verse, it becomes clear that it is not the norm. Polygamy was an answer to restoring stability at a time of war. Therefore, Muslim scholars’ role has been to evaluate customs/ ‘urf within an Islamic law framework based on Qur’an and Sunnah and not vice versa.

While the level of the discourse is difficult to memorialize in writing here, KARAMAH will make available the video of the introductory presentations made by scholars Rabbi Bemporad, Dr. al-Hibri, Rabbi Hauptman, and Dr. Alwani. Moreover, we encourage you to read their works to gain a larger understanding of their positions:

“Divine Justice and the Human Order” by Azizah al-Hibri

“The Islamic Worldview” by Azizah al-Hibri

“Domestic violence: an Islamic Perspective” by Zainab Alwani

“New Perspectives on Gender in Sharīʿa-based Family Law Studies: Moving Beyond Women’s Rights” by Zainab Alwani

“The Inner Journey: Views From the Jewish Tradition” By Rabbi Jack Bemporad

“The Possibility of Transformation Through Dialogue” By Rabbi Jack Bemporad

  “Women and Prayer: An Attempt to Dispel Some Fallacies” by Rabbi Judith Hauptman

“Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman’s Voice” By Rabbi Judith Hauptman