What a Rabbi Learns from Muhammad

Category: Faith & Spirituality, Life & Society Topics: Jews, Judaism, Prophet Moses Views: 12236

I first studied Islam when I was a student at UCLA almost 50 years ago, Then again while I was in Rabbinical school. Over the years I continued to read the Qur'an and other Islamic books. I read these books as the Prophet taught his followers in a Hadith "not as a believer, and not as a disbeliever". What does that mean? The Qur'an, of course, is sacred scripture for Muslims. A disciple of Muhammad named Abu Huraira relates, "The people of the Book used to read the Torah in Hebrew and then explain it in Arabic to the Muslims. Allah's Apostle said (to the Muslims). "Do not believe the people of the Book, nor disbelieve them, but say, 'We believe in Allah, and whatever is revealed to us, and whatever is revealed to you.' " Following Muhammad's teaching I too neither believe nor disbelieve in the Qur'an. If I believed in the Qur'an I would be a member of the Muslim Ummah (community). But I cannot disbelieve in the Qur'an because I believe that Muhammad is a prophet and I respect the Qur'an as a kindred revelation, to a kindred people, in a kindred language. In fact, the people, the language and the theology are closer to my own people, language and theology than that of any other on earth.

I would like to begin by sharing my understanding of several Ahadith that have taught me about my own religion. My understanding is reflected in my application (gloss) of each insight from my perspective as a Liberal/Reform Rabbi. They are all from Bukhari: Narrated Abu Huraira: The Prophet said, "Religion is very easy and whoever overburdens himself in his religion will not be able to continue in that way. So you should not be extremists, but try to be near to perfection and receive the good tidings that you will be rewarded. (Volume 1, Book 2, Number 38)

Gloss: The statement against becoming extremists needs to be taught in every house of prayer in the world. This applies of course, to political extremists as well as religious extremists who always prefer the stricter path to the more lenient way. For example, both Islam and Judaism teach the importance of sacred slaughter of meat, and the avoidance of certain animals for food. In Islam the rules are simpler and fewer than in Orthodox Judaism. Most Liberal/Reform Rabbis regard the increasingly restrictive developments in kashrut (Jewish dietary laws), especially for Passover, as a counterproductive, overburdening of the people. The expansion of restrictions on Shabbat activities over many centuries is also seen by most Liberal/Reform Rabbis as a counterproductive, overburdening of the joy of Shabbat. Muhammad wisely differentiates between extremism and striving to be near perfect (no one is perfect) which involves a rejection of extremism. Just trying hard to do well will be rewarded.

Narrated 'Aisha and Ibn' Abbas: On his deathbed Allah's Apostle put a sheet over his-face and when he felt hot, he would remove it from his face. When in that state (of putting and removing the sheet) he said, "May Allah's Curse be on Jews and Christians for they build places of worship at the graves of their prophets." He intended to warn (Muslims) from what they (i.e. Jews and Christians) had done. (Volume 4, Book 56, Number 660)

Gloss: Allah's apostle strongly opposed any diversion of reverence or worship to anyone other than God. Christians, and even Jews, had started worshiping at the graves of holy men, saints and prophets. Although they claimed to be only worshiping God, their feeling that prayer was better or more effective at such sites was cursed by Muhammad. In later centuries, Muslims also began worshiping at the tombs of holy men and building places of worship near their graves. Liberal/Reform Rabbis would agree that such activity at grave sites should be condemned and could be seen as a curse. Allah's apostle must also have realized that even the Muslim community would also produce people whose piety would lead to such errors for a Hadith on the same page says,

Narrated Abu Said: The Prophet said: "You will follow the wrong ways of your predecessors so completely and literally that if they should go into the hole of an animal, you too will go there." We said, "O Allah's Apostle! Do you mean the Jews and the Christians?" He replied, "Who else?" (Volume 4, Book 56, # 662)

Gloss: Muhammad criticized the failings of many in the Jewish and Christian communities (as did the prophets of Israel) but he realized that people are human, and most do not seem to learn from the failings of others. He hoped that Muslims would retain their original purity, but he foresaw that with time and power; corruption, decay and falsification were inevitable. Allah's apostle would certainly attack the false tradition of female genital mutilation in Africa today as sharply as he attacked female infanticide in Arabia in his day. It is a shame that many Muslim leaders in Africa today do not aggressively condemn it. But then, most Jewish leaders in the west do not aggressively condemn the Orthodox for not allowing Jewish woman to divorce their husbands. We all have to do a better job.

Abu Huraira related: Two men, a Muslim and a Jew, abused each other. The Muslim said , "By Him Who gave superiority to Muhammad over all the people." At that, the Jew said, "By Him Who gave superiority to Moses over all the people." The Muslim became furious at that and slapped the Jew in the face. The Jew went to Allah's Apostle and informed him of what had happened between him and the Muslim. Allah's Apostle said, "Don't give me superiority over Moses, for people will fall unconscious on the Day of Resurrection and I will be the first to gain consciousness, and behold! Moses will be there holding the side of Allah's Throne. I will not know whether Moses was among those people who became unconscious and then has regained consciousness before me, or was among those exempted by Allah from falling unconscious." (Volume 8, Book 76, #524)

Gloss: Allah's messenger is so well known for his sense of justice that a Jew can appeal to him even in a conflict with a Muslim who has attacked a Jew. It is only natural for Jews to think that Moses is the best, and for Muslims to think that Muhammad is the best. Muhammad rebukes the Muslim, telling him not to claim that Muhammad is superior to Moses because even on the day of Resurrection, Muhammad himself will not know their relative merit, for although Muhammad will be the first to be revived, Moses will already be standing there holding the side of God's throne. Muhammad teaches us that comparisons of religious superiority are wrong, for no one in this world, and perhaps even in the world to come, will know who is the best.

Most Americans that I have spoken are amazed to hear such liberal and flexible statements coming from a religion that they think is ridged and fanatical. But the politicized Islam that has captured so much attention in the Muslim world today is the outgrowth of two recent factors. One is an anti-western reaction and scapegoating due to the great upheavals occurring in all modernizing societies in the 20th and 21th centuries. This reaction is inflamed as the result of several previous centuries of socio-economic decline that took place in the Middle East. Also Judaism and Christianity have already had reforming movements that took generations to bare fruit.. Islam is just starting the process of revival and reform. The Prophet had predicted that over the centuries Muslims would also become more rigid and orthodox, just as the Jews and Christian had. Abu Sa'id al-Khudri reported Allah's Messenger as saying: You will tread the same path as was trodden by those before you, inch by inch and step by step, so much so that if they had entered into the hole of a lizard, you would follow them in this also. We said: Do you mean Jews and Christians? He said: Who else?" Muhammad was wise enough to realize that even his own ummah was subject to the circumstances of history.

Nevertheless as a Reform Rabbi, I realize that in many ways Muhammad showed seventh century Jews in Arabia how to reform Orthodox Judaism to bring it back to the simpler rules of the Torah..

Unlike Orthodox Rabbis, Liberal/Reform Rabbis accept the doctrine of nullification - which teaches that one verse in scripture can nullify another, and that rulings can be changed due to changed circumstances. Muhammad provides an excellent example of this principle in the following account. The Prophet originally told women not to visit graveyards, but toward the end of his life, he said to them: "I had told you not to visit graves; now I am telling you to visit them." The reason was that Arabian women used to wail at graves. The Prophet wanted this practice to be stopped. Therefore, he banned women from visiting graves to start with. After sometime, when Muslim women were better aware of how Islam wants them to behave in different situations, he allowed them such visits. In fact, the Prophet encourages visiting graveyards because such a visit reminds the visitor of his or her own death and the fact that they would have to stand in front of God when their actions are reckoned to determine their reward or punishment. Scholars like Ibn Qudamah, of the Hanbali school of law, make it clear that since this is the purpose of visiting graveyards, both men and women need such visits.

Another important teaching of the Qur'an is that God chose not to create human beings as one nation or with only one religion so that each religion could compete with the others in order to see which religion produces the highest percentage of moral and loving people. As it is written in the Koran [5.48] "For every one of you did We appoint a law and a way. If Allah had pleased He would have made you one people, but (He didn't) that He might test you in what He gave you. Therefore compete with one another to hasten to virtuous deeds; for all return to Allah, so He will let you know (after Judgement Day) that in which you differed." This is a wonderful further development of the teaching of the Biblical prophet Micah (4:5) that in the end of days-the Messianic Age "All people will walk, each in the name of their own God, and we shall walk in the name of the Lord our God forever."

There is no conflict, nor can there be any conflict, between Judaism and Islam. The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is a territorial dispute. There are people who would like to make this territorial dispute into a religious one in order to rally support for their side. We must resist this. I believe that the Koran itself predicts the return of the Jewish people to the Land God gave to the descendants of Abraham and his two sons. I believe the reference in the Koran to the land of Israel in Sura V, where God says to Moses and to the Jewish people: "O my people, enter the Holy Land which God has decreed for you", Koran [5:21].  More important for us today is the statement "WE SAID TO THE ISRAELITES AFTER HIM "DWELL SECURELY IN THE LAND OF PROMISE (THE PROMISED LAND) BUT WHEN THE SECOND OF THE WARNINGS COME TO PASS WE GATHER YOU TOGETHER IN A MINGLED CROWD BANI ISRAIL, Koran [17:104]. This refers to the return of Jews to the Land of Israel that is part of the great upheavals that proceed the age of the final judgment. The age we live in. The mingled crowd refers to both the Palestinians and the Israelis who will share the Promised Land together.

Neither side can claim it has the only right to the land or that its view is the only true one for as we have learned from the Hadith narrated Abu Huraira:The Prophet himself taught that even in the world to come it will not be clear if Moses or Muhammad is the supreme Prophet. Each is supreme for his own faithful community. A Muslim is one who submits to the will of Allah and believes that Allah has sent many different prophets to the many peoples of the world. As a Liberal/ Reform Rabbi I believe that Muhammad was the Prophet sent to the Arab people. I believe that the Qur'an is as true for Muslims as the Torah is true for Jews. Indeed, I love the Hadith Narrated by Abu Huraira that says, "The people of the Book used to read the Torah in Hebrew and then explain it in Arabic to the Muslims. Allah's Apostle said (to the Muslims). "Do not believe the people of the Book, nor disbelieve them, but say, 'We believe in Allah, and whatever is revealed to us, and whatever is revealed to you.' " Following Muhammad's teaching I repeat that I too neither believe nor disbelieve in the Koran. I do respect the Koran very much as a kindred revelation to a kindred people in a kindred language. In fact, the people, language and theology are closer to my own people, language and theology than that of any other on earth. The strong support that the Qur'an gives to religious pluralism is a lesson that is sorely needed by the religious fundamentalists of all religions in the world today. As a well known Hadith says, "Prophets are brothers, sons of one father by co-wives. Their mothers are different but their religion is one." (Bukhari and Muslim).

*****

Rabbi Allen S. Maller retired after serving for 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Ca. His web site is rabbimaller.com.


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  14 Comments   Comment

  1. Saeed from Khan

    Thank you Rabbi.

    May Allah increase you in knowledge and understanding, and bring you even closer to the Truth.Aameen

  2. Dr.Syed Khurshid from USA

    There are some lacunae however in your understanding.

    You should try to understand---

    Unity of God (His sovereignty, omnipotence omnipresence omniscience), His Prophets, divine books and life after death are fundamental beliefs of Al-Islam, the religion starting from Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses Jesus, and the last prophet Muhammad, peace be upon all.

    The pluralism and the conflicts between different religions are pre-ordained, for Testing Mankind.

    Al-Quran has one third part devoted to people of the book, Christians and Jews and more on Jews. (I have collected all the verses in a book. They are repeated in almost all of 114 Suras of Al-Quran)

    Allah the most gracious and merciful speaks very endearingly about His chosen people Bani-Israel, but warns them of severe punishment, because of their rebellion and falsifying and killing their prophets, even the last one Jesus son of Maryam PBUT.

    Rebellion in worshiping things other than one God. (their passions, money, progeny) selling the verses of Torah for a small price.'" Twice will they rebel and twice will they be punished"" Says Quran.

    You say that Judaism and Christianity took generations to reform and revive, but what's this revival if it rebels against the fundamental beliefs of the divine books and swerves you from the worship of one true God?

    Muslims in their era of enlightened scientific advancement saw to it that they did not go astray in the path of Satan, away from obedience to one God and His prophets.

    Today if Muslims are hated is not because of their different race and religion, but because they are not following in line with the hedonistic, technologically triumphant post-modern western civilization. They are like a lone thorn in their flesh.

    You know very well Rabbi that Zionists are not Jews from Bani-Israel, and there is no chance of their turning believers. Agreed that the promised land of Palestine belongs to both Israelis and Palestinians, but Palestinians are beng killed

  3. Umar from UK

    Assalamu alaikum, peace be upon you Rabbi. Your article was well written and you are to be commended for your willingness to read the Qur'an and the ahadith. I have two comments on your article which I would like to share without intending to cause offence so please forgive me if any is caused: i) you state that "Muhammad teaches us that comparisons of religious superiority are wrong" but that statement is not correct. It is the comparison of Prophets here which is warned against, for they are all Prophets and the Qur'an tells us on several occasions that we should not distinguish between them. On the subject of religion, the Qur'an says (3:85) "For if one goes in search of a religion other than Islam it will never be accepted from him, and in the life to come he shall be among the lost". As a Rabbi who understands the principle of nullification, if you search in your heart and reflect on the possibility that later revelation from God has the ability to nullify earlier revelation, you will realise that the only logical conclusion is that if Islam is the last revelation and is revealed to all mankind then it must by definition supercede prior revelation. This brings me neatly onto my second point; ii) you say that you respect the Qur'an as "a kindred revelation to a kindred people in a kindred language", however, again this statement is not entirely correct. The Qur'an was revealed to a prophet from amongst the Arabs, however it was not a message for the Arabs alone to the exclusion of other communities as you suggest: "And we have sent thee as an Apostle to all mankind: and none can bear witness as God does" (4:79). Numerous other verses make clear that Islam is not for a single pre-existing ethnic or cultural community but rather that those who embrace it become part of a single religious community at the moment of embrace (the Ummah). Moses peace be upon him was Jewish (ethnically) and a Muslim (one who submits to God). Perhaps you will be too one day, God willing

  4. Noor Mahomed Joosab from South Africa

    Correction: Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)was a PROPHET not for the ARABS but for ALL MANKIND.

  5. mohammed from england uk

    This was very beutyful it remind me of the bety of islam and the peace it give to the world when act right. In today world hate has taken over in all belife the oriagla msg has been higen because what happening in the world. We forget that has human being we change think to suite our self. Christ and moses amd mohammed p.b.h.

    All believe in helping mankind. If they saw has today what would they say. We are all to blame for this/. A pray the world will find peace soon so we all can live like brothers/ameen we all have the same forfarther and mother adam eve. bye take care.

  6. Mustapha from USA

    Dear Rabbi,

    Thank you for your honesty, however, there is a grave mistake regarding the translation of: may Allah's Curse... in this sentence:

    Narrated 'Aisha and Ibn' Abbas: On his deathbed Allah's Apostle put a sheet over his-face and when he felt hot, he would remove it from his face. When in that state (of putting and removing the sheet) he said, "May Allah's Curse be on Jews and Christians for they build places of worship at the graves of their prophets." He intended to warn (Muslims) from what they (i.e. Jews and Christians) had done. (Volume 4, Book 56, Number 660)

    In fact, due to language (mis) understanding, the English translation of the Arabic words: , is: Allah cursed Jews and Christians...

    Thank you for you understanding

  7. Yuwsuf R Abdulghafoor from U.S.A

    asSalaamoo Alaikum: ALLAH Knows this man's heart, yet for all of his respect for Prophet

    Muhammad_saw & Islaam has he 'taken his Shahada' - no! IMHO, this sounds like a very

    nice piece of religious relativism ... is that what our Prophet taught and lived? As always,

    ALLAH knows best; may we be the Muslims that HE wants us to be!

  8. Dr. Shafi A. Khaled from USA

    There is, first of all, ikhlas or sincerity in the thought process going into this paper. There is also hikmah or wisdom. God opens the hearts of Man. Man may or may not try to reach out to God, but He has always reached out. However, without His permission no doors whether of exposure, understanding or acceptance will open. A Hanif is a man or woman who is upright just as Ibrahim (pbuh) was even before he was anointed a Prophet. This is something organic or intangible in a personality and is a manifest Divine Favor. The Good Rabbi is blessed amply in just that manner.

    May his journey take him farther and further along to its natural culmination in the path of Faith just in the manner of Einstein and others after him, or perhaps before him, when they sought to find a unifying theory of Physics. Unlike as in Science, which is Mankind's process of discovery of what constitutes his environment, Faith is now in full display under God's glaring sunlight since the Seal of the Prophets (pbuh) just as He understood and intended. Indeed, Gold helps the earnest one: The Quran documents God's reward & punishment processes: He moves 10 steps toward His slave for every step the slave takes toward Him. As for the one who steps back one step from The Supreme Lord & Master, the Merciful retreats likewise just one step.

    Whoever would complain about this disproportionality, please stand up.

  9. Tadar from U. S. A.

    As-Salaam-u alaikum He spoke the truth and here is the Qur'anic verses that prove it. Allah tells us, no, commands us for points of clarification to ask the Children of Isra'el (Israel) questions about His revelation to Moses, and its meaning. Please read all of these cited passages in context?

    Al Baqarah 2:211

    At-Taubah 9:70

    Yunus 10:94

    Yusuf 12:108-111

    Ibrahim 14:9

    An-Nahl 16:43

    Al Isra' 17:101

    Ta Ha 20:9

    Al Anbiya' 21:7

    Al Mu'minun 23:113

    Sad 38:21

    Ghafir 40:78

    Ash-Shura 42:10-13-14

    Adh-Dhariyat 51:24

    Al Taghabun 64:5

    An-Nazi'at 79:15

    Al Buruj 85:17

    Al Ghashiyah 88:1

  10. tom wiley from u.s.a.

    I really liked what the Rabbi said and think that he is right on the mark about all people of faith coming together and finding common ground. Enough of the hatred and my God is better than your God mentality that is so much of the world now. Let's just be the best people we can be and bring light to all of our faiths in a VERY dark world .

  11. Saeed Khan from USA

    Peace be unto you Rabbi. Thanks you for the thought provoking article.

  12. sam from USA

    Good article. I hope everyone learns to read the books of other faiths with an open mind and submits to God when they find the truth. However, I would like to comment on one point. It is wrong that Muhammad (s) was sent to his people only. The quran clearly states that Muhammad (s), being the last in a chain of prophets, was sent to the entire mankind whereas all previous prophets were sent to their people. (Chapter Saba 34:28). Also those who follow him would be witnesses to mankind after him till end of this world.(Chapter The Hajj 22:78).The bible also confirms coming of the last prophet so it is clear that this last prophet would be sent for their people too.

  13. Imran Hussain from UK

    Your quote "O my people enter the Holy land which God has decreed for you" Koran 5: 21.

    I have checked the quran and there is no such quote in chapter 5 verse 21 or chapter 21 verse 5.

    So please clarify is this a concoction on your part or a mistake and if so what is ther reference for this verse. If it is a concoction then I think you should clarify to the readers.