By Reuven Firestone and Khalid Duran
Why publish this book and its companion volume, Khalid Durán’s Children of Abraham: An Introduction to Islam for Jews, and why publish them now? The appearance of these works by Khalid Durán and Reuven Firestone responds to a significant period in the 1500-year relationship between Islam and Judaism. This period is fraught with danger and laden with opportunity. We at the American Jewish Committee are drawn to this task precisely because of the "civilizational" storm now looming and because of the enormous importance of what is at stake. We cannot and will not stand idle in the face of this great challenge. In a shrinking world with boundaries between the local and the global disappearing, there is an obligation to enhance mutual understanding and reduce mutual ignorance and suspicion.
These first two volumes of a series we have called the Children of Abraham will, we earnestly hope, render an important service to Jews and to Muslims by reminding us of uplifting, revivifying, and unifying seminal truths.
First and foremost, they tell us about the striking theological and moral resemblance between Judaism and Islam. Indeed, no two other major religions on earth are closer to each other. Of the three great monotheistic faiths, Judaism and Islam are most akin; both literally descend from Abraham, our common biological and spiritual father. Knowledge of that connection has been largely lost among most Jews and Muslims, a casualty of the enmity of recent times.
The books also remind us of the long, rich, and often mutually nourishing historical relations between Jews and Muslims in many lands and the extraordinary gifts to humankind that Muslim-Jewish interaction generated in advancing knowledge and culture. True, as these volumes show, that history is complex; it did not always rise to the level of the earthly paradise some imagine to have existed in the Golden Age of Moorish Spain, but, even in its less glorious moments, it was generally far less fraught than Jewish-Christian history.
Finally, given the understandable contemporary preoccupation with the threat of Muslim fundamentalism (generally referred to among experts as Islamism), the Children of Abraham underscores the wide gap between the great universal religion of Islam and the totalitarian political ideology of Islamism.
These volumes of the Children of Abraham are groundbreaking in a number of ways.
Professor Firestone’s work offers a unique encounter with Judaism designed specifically for Muslims. A respected scholar of Islam and a rabbi, he presents Judaism with a Muslim sensibility and frame of reference in mind, and his work thus establishes unprecedented intimacy between Jewish and Muslim consciousness and worldviews. Indeed, it represents the first work of its kind to offer a comprehensive introduction to Judaism with a special emphasis on issues of particular concern to Muslims. It explores with sensitivity and candor such difficult subjects as the "parting of the ways" between Abraham and his two sons Isaac and Ishmael, the role of the Jewish tribes of Medina in opposing the prophet Muhammad, the Zionist movement, and the emergence of the State of Israel.
Professor Durán’s work also breaks new ground in its ambitious introduction to Islam for Jews. A renowned Muslim scholar, he presents the majesty of the Muslim religion and Islamic history and culture. But he neither ignores nor rationalizes their more problematic aspects. His book offers a forthright and tough-minded treatment of Muslim fundamentalism and also offers a candid analysis of the situation of women in Muslim belief and practice, as well as an unsentimental assessment of the historical treatment of minorities within Islamic societies. Professor Durán’s book is finally also a cri de coeur against intolerance, chauvinism, and religious triumphalism, as well as a passionate argument in favor of mutual respect and reconciliation between Muslims and Jews.
The American Jewish Committee’s major project in Muslim-Jewish relations—the present volumes and those to follow, including a book on the two religions aimed at high school students as well as translations into Arabic of all the volumes—would never, could never have been undertaken except for the extraordinary vision and generosity of Harriet and Robert Heilbrunn. Their devotion to interreligious understanding, and particularly to the improvement of Muslim-Jewish relations, is being advanced through the pioneering work of the Harriet and Robert Heilbrunn Institute for International Interreligious Understanding of the American Jewish Committee, founded through their support. Their commitment has been the indispensable cornerstone of this agenda within the American Jewish Committee.
Several of my colleagues at the American Jewish Committee have participated in this ambitious undertaking. I would particularly like to acknowledge the efforts of Dr. Stephen Steinlight and Rabbi Jim Rudin, as well as Robert Rosenbaum, Linda Krieg, Yehudit Barsky, Larry Grossman, Aleida Rodriguez, and Brenda Rudzin. Moreover, Bernie Scharfstein of KTAV Publishing, as always, has been a wonderful partner.
The late and beloved Cardinal O’Connor of New York once said: "No organization I know in this city, in this country, in this world, has done more to improve Christian-Jewish relations than the American Jewish Committee."
Let us hope that, with the far reaching initiatives made possible by Harriet and Robert Heilbrunn, the same will one day be said by religious leaders of our desire to forge an era of enhanced understanding and strengthened ties between Muslims and Jews around the world.
David A. Harris
The American Jewish Committee
February 1, 2001