A Rabbi's Open Letter to Islam
Can Islam pursue paths for reconciliation with Judaism?
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This is a guest essay by Oury Cherki, chairman of Brit Olam and a community rabbi in Israel.
On October 7th, Hamas brutally murdered over 1,200 men, women, and children — and took hundreds captive.
That this attack was carried out by an Islamic movement, acting in the name of Islam, begs the question: Is Islam capable of progressing toward a spiritual horizon that will prevent such atrocities in the future?
The answer is to be sought amongst the leading Islamic religious authorities, and this question has become more salient today, mainly because the current moment in Arab history is unique.
For the first time, a sovereign Jewish state arose again in a land that had been part of the Muslim world for a significant period (known in Arabic as Dar al-Islam). This situation has engendered complex relations between Jews and Arabs in the land of Israel and across the Middle East.
Little has been written over the centuries exploring the Jewish tradition’s view of Islam. Such literature does exist, both in the philosophical realm and in that of Jewish law, but for the most part it is scattered across the rabbinic literature and challenging to find concentrated in one source. As well, few rabbinic authorities have also studied Islam in-depth.
I decided to write an open letter, which I recently sent to dozens of religious leaders in the Islamic world, outlining Judaism’s view of Islam. The letter constitutes an invitation to constructive dialogue, and I identify many points of commonality and room for respect. At the same time, I outline the many moral and theological problems with Islam and suggest pathways for reform.
It may strike some people as pretentious for a rabbi to publicly call out the moral shortcomings of Islam. Others may be ill at ease that I should reach out for any sort of dialogue given recent events. But in an era in which the Jews have a powerful nation-state, we are free and indeed obliged to clearly state our positions on the global issues of the day.
While we should not expect drastic changes overnight, it is my hope that the letter might contribute to mutual understanding and perhaps promote more peaceful relations between the descendants of Abraham — the sons of Israel and the sons of Ishmael — in the future. Here are the highlights of my open letter.
What’s right with Islam?
Islam and Judaism agree on the belief in monotheism, the negation of God’s corporeality, and the rejection of idolatry. For this reason, Jews are allowed to enter a mosque as a house of worship.
For Judaism, all people are obligated by the seven commandments of basic morality that God gave to all humanity, known as the Seven Noahide Laws. Islam accepts these commandments in principle, and this holds the potential for all Muslims to be recognized by Judaism as having the status of Noahides, without abandoning Islam.
Judaism and Islam also observe many similar practices, such as dietary requirements, modest dress, family values, and more. In light of the crisis of values in many societies today, there is potential for cooperation that could bring great blessings to the world and promote the belief in God’s oneness and His ethical commandments.
What’s wrong with Islam?
There are significant problems with Islam today. The foremost issue is that it seeks to impose its rule on the entire world. The use of violence in order to further the spread of faith is unjustifiable.
A related issue is that, while Islam accepts the basic tenets of morality as expressed by the Noahide laws, it has not yet clearly affirmed these principles as obligatory toward non-Muslims, and this equivocation has been a blemish on Islam throughout its history, expressed once again by the events of October 7th.
More fundamental is the principle that all the actions of Mohammed are to be emulated, even those which contradict one’s moral conscience. This principle subordinates morality to religious belief. In contrast, for Judaism, morality takes absolute precedence, as embodied by the rabbinic phrase, “Proper moral behavior precedes the Torah.”
Regarding Judaism, Islam claims that the Mosaic Torah has been corrupted by the Jews and therefore nullified, calling upon Jews to accept Islam. For Judaism, the Mosaic Torah is eternal and remains valid even if God sends additional prophets.
Finally, there is the Muslim claim that Judaism is a religion, but not a nation. During its lengthy exile, the national component of the Jewish people’s identity was weakened. By the time Islam appeared, the Jews had been without an independent state for centuries, and so it drew a distinction between the respected biblical nation, the Banu Israe’el of antiquity, and the disparaged al-Yahud, the Jews of its time.
However, the Jews are first and foremost a nation that has never ceased to exist. It is the Jewish nation who received the Torah, with whom God made a covenant to inherit the Land of Israel, and to whom He has fulfilled His promise to return to its land and re-establish its state.
Where do we go from here?
Despite the above difficulties, I believe there are pathways within Islam that, if pursued, could allow for a historic reconciliation with Judaism and hold promise for the entire world.
The original intent of Islam could be found in the initial phase of our father Abraham’s activism, during which he built a movement for ethical monotheism, gathering thousands of followers. His descendants through Ishmael were blessed with abundance in order to spread the knowledge of the One God and His ethical commandments to all individuals.
A distinction could be drawn between prophet Mohammed’s teachings from the Meccan period, which say nothing of invalidating the Torah and even reflect a positive attitude toward the Jews, and those of the Medinan period which accuse the Jews of scripture corruption and reflect a negative attitude toward them. Islamic scholars could choose to see the primary message of the Quran as that of the Meccan period.
This interpretation could see Mohammed’s intention, not as a nullification of the Torah, but as meaning that the Jews maintain their religion, while Islam spreads the message of the Torah and ethics to the rest of humanity. This is, of course, not currently the official doctrine of Islam. But it is certainly possible to read the Quran as acknowledging Judaism as the religion from which Islam arose.
One of the crises facing Islam is the challenge of adapting to modernity while remaining loyal to its faith. In Judaism, there are mechanisms in place to apply the word of God to the needs of the times, without diverging from an Orthodox position.
Perhaps Islamic scholars can find inspiration here to reopen the gates of Ijtihad (an Islamic legal term for independent reasoning in solving a question), as they forge a path for the Muslim world into modernity, while remaining true to their roots.
Lastly, it could be understood that the modern State of Israel represents the historic return of the Banu Isra’eel. The Jewish State should not be regarded as a foreign entity imposing itself on the Muslim world, but on the contrary, as the fulfillment of the divine promise to return the nation of Israel to its land, as mentioned in multiple Islamic sources.
None of these suggestions are trivial, and they are unlikely to be immediately embraced by Muslims, but a process can be started. The fraternity between the descendants of Abraham can be the basis for a new and prosperous period of peace and progress.
Until then, as the war started in its name rages on, the world of Islam must know that, as we say in Hebrew, “Netzach Yisrael lo yishaker.”
Translation: The Jewish People are eternal.