SHAFAQNA – Last month, I sat down for Shabbat dinner with Rabbi Dr Harvey Belovski of Golders Green Synagogue. We talked about many things. Our conversations ranged from politics to family to football to the legitimacy of eating locusts.
What I remember feeling was warmth and belonging but what made me appreciate the moment more was when a guest turned our way and said: “I never thought I would be sitting on the same table as a Muslim imam for Shabbat and having these kinds of conversations. Let’s carry them forward.”
The truth is that, despite the turbulent political situation in the Middle East, the past two years have seen a betterment of Jewish/Muslim relations in Europe. Real friendships have developed. People of both faiths are open to putting Middle Eastern politics to one side, to explore the common ground.
Whether it be the support rabbis and imams offered one another following the attacks in France, joint defences of kosher and halal meat, or the combined grassroots social action planned for this year’s Mitzvah Day, our two faiths are working side by side and, more importantly, learning how to trust again.
Jews and Muslims share a common heritage – a common ethical foundation underpinning our faiths that finds root in Abraham. Much of our theology overlaps. We have the same belief in God and prophecy. Approximately 90 per cent of Islamic law has evolved from Jewish law.
Essentially, Jews and Muslims have a lot more in common to bring them together than that which divides them.
Law – whether referred to as halachah or sharia – teaches what is required of an individual, but legal parameters do not teach humans the art of communicating and interface. Ethics and virtue teach humans how to interact and, as Abraham is the source of our understanding of ethics and virtue, I sometimes wonder what it would be like if Jews and Muslims were given a chance just to share experiences.
Such an opportunity came over the course of Ramadan when a number of synagogues hosted Muslims and showed us tremendous hospitality – I saw the Old Testament and Quran harmonise when we reflected over a shared story of Abraham and his treatment of strangers.
When discussing that which we share, barriers are overcome. And, when barriers are overcome, a real warmth begins to flourish. You start to talk about your lives, your hopes and your hobbies. You become friends.
Important to note, in this context, is that issues that take place in the Middle East are not reflective of those that take place in the UK and Europe.
Most Muslims in the UK are from the sub-continent; Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and the surrounding areas. Only a very small proportion of the Muslims are from that area of the world where conflict is taking place.
Islam incorporates seven main cultures; from the Malay culture to Arabic culture – each uniquely different.
In my own experience, my relationships with the Jewish communities of Iran and Iraq run far deeper than my ties with Muslims from other parts of the world, because we both lay claim to a common background, language and memories and culture. I can celebrate Shabbat with someone from Persia, and feel right at home doing so.
It should not come as a surprise that the majority of Muslims in the UK know little of the issues unfolding in the Middle East. Yet they feel isolated when the media and some in society make Muslims feel they are on trial.
I have heard similar sentiments from many of our Jewish friends who have said to me that, even if they disagree with a particular policy of the Israeli government, they feel they are held on trial for it and must defend it as it is the whole and not just a policy which is being attacked.
When I look at Europe and the challenges faced by our communities, it becomes apparent that the plight of both Jews and Muslims have similarities. In fact, there is much the Muslim community can learn from the Jewish community – specifically how they have developed and integrated.
The worst thing the Muslim community can do is feel victimised, as this may lead to becoming more insular. Lessons can be taken from the Jewish community on how best to prevent this.
This is where I think grassroots initiatives such as Mitzvah Day and Nisa-Nashim – the Jewish Muslim Women’s Network – are vital. Leaders may decide policy but it’s not policy that changes hearts. It’s people who change hearts. It’s grassroots work that changes hearts. It’s women who change hearts.
The Muslim community is very traditional; its backbone are the mothers, daughters and sisters. If Muslim and Jewish women are seen to be engaging together, then a generation will follow. This is why Nisa-Nashim is so very important, as it develops those relationships.
I am also proud that a record number of Muslims, from imams and elders to young people and others in the grassroots, are taking part in Mitzvah Day – the Jewish-led day of social action on Sunday November 22.
For example, in London, women from both communities will be cooking together at JW3 with the food going to a homeless shelter. In Leeds, members of the local synagogue and mosque are coming together to clean up the area. At York University, Jewish and Muslim students will be giving blood.
Islam, like Judaism, essentially boils down to two things – your duty to God and your duty to humanity.
Muslims partnering Jews on Mitzvah Day is crucial to demonstrate this – showing how we work together as one in our common humanity.
Thanks to these grassroots initiatives, we are witnessing greater co-operation and acceptance. And so, if an issue were to arise, I am confident that the Muslim community would be the quickest to offer its support to the Jewish community, and vice versa.
These initiatives also bring about significant social development.
You may not see the fruits of it right away, but you are developing a future generation, where deeper Muslim/Jewish relationships will lead to the formation of sincere friendships.
And that creates for us all a more positive future.
Sheikh Sayed Abbas Razawi is a senior imam and chair of external policy for the Shi’a Council of Scholars Europe