The Road Less Traveled: One Rabbi’s Reflections on Islam

The Road Less Traveled: One Rabbi’s Reflections on Islam

We in the Jewish community sometimes forget how much we owe Islam. It was the great Islamic theologians and thinkers — among them al-Farabi, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) — who recovered the classical tradition of philosophy, leading the West out of the Dark Ages.

Maimonides, one of the greatest Jewish thinkers in the past 1,000 years, was also deeply indebted to them. Throughout his masterwork, The Guide for the Perplexed, he is in constant dialogue with the Mutakallimun, or the Muslim Kalamists. Even his great religious law code, the Mishneh Torah, was inspired by Sharia codes. Maimonides, in turn, influenced Christian thinkers like Aquinas. Thus, both Judaism and Christianity are deeply indebted to the thinkers of Islam.

Furthermore, Maimonides’ son, Rabbi Abraham, felt a deep kinship with Islamic mystical traditions. Speaking personally, I learned much from Ibn Khaldun, who is sometimes described as the world’s first sociologist. His insights into the processes of social decline remain deeply relevant to the West today.

Some years ago, I wrote an article in The London Times telling the story of how Averroes became the first person to make a religious argument for freedom of speech. He influenced the 16th-century Jewish sage, Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague, who quotes him on the subject. John Milton, a Christian writer, made the same point in his 1644 defense of free speech, Areopagitica. Two centuries later, secularist John Stuart Mill reiterated the argument in his 1859 classic, On Liberty. I found it moving how first a Muslim, then a Jew, then a Christian, then a secular humanist, came together to agree on the importance of free speech and the dignity of dissent.

Today, however, all religions face a challenge. The world is changing at an ever-accelerating pace. Meanwhile, societies in the West are abandoning the religious ethic that once made them great. The dominant culture in Europe today is secular, consumerist, individualist and relativistic, offering little by way of moral guidance, and still less in terms of a sense of the sacred.

Oscar Wilde once defined a cynic as a person who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. In that sense, ours is a cynical age. That is why in all the great faiths, the most rapidly growing groups are those most opposed to the secular mainstream. In one sense, this is good news. It means that religion still has a voice in the 21st century, and an important one reminding us of the things that have value, but not a price. In another sense, though, it is very dangerous indeed, because religion has become a source of strife throughout the world in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and even Europe. That is why I wrote Not In God’s Name.

It is a religious protest against religiously motivated violence, against those who kill in the name of the God of life, hate in the name of the God of love, wage war in the name of the God of peace and practice cruelty in the name of the God of compassion. For this is not the way of Abraham and those who count themselves among his heirs.

The Abrahamic monotheisms — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — have all had violent periods in their history, but in the long run, these experiences have turned out to be disastrous. They begin by fighting the “Other,” but they end by fighting people of their own faith: Jew against Jew, Christian against Christian, Muslim against Muslim. That is when serious believers — at first only a few, but an important few — come to the conclusion that this cannot be what God really wants from us. They know that every life is like a universe, that the murder of the innocent is a sin as well as a crime, and that terror in the name of God is a desecration of the name of God.

The great faiths consecrate the name of God when they honor human dignity, practice justice and compassion, lead people to feed the hungry and help the homeless, and teach their children to love, not hate. Those who respect others are respected, while those who practice violence eventually perish through violence.

Jonathan Swift once said, “We have just enough religion to make us hate one another, but not enough to make us love one another.” Let that not be said of us. We each have the responsibility to offer an alternative to the violent voices within our own faith. Only Jews can do this for Judaism, Christians for Christianity, and Muslims for Islam. I wrote Not In God’s Name to encourage others to do the same within their own faiths. Real change only comes from within.

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In an age of extremes, it is easy to be an extremist. The real religious hero is the one who takes the road less traveled, showing that faith heals, not harms. That is what Islam did in the great age of Al Andalus and La Convivencia in Spain, and it won the admiration of the world. Who will do it today?




From the Book:
NOT IN GOD’S NAME by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.
Copyright © 2015 by Jonathan Sacks
Published by arrangement with Schocken Books, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday
Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC

Excerpt PAGES 262 – 265

Not in God’s Name can be purchased here.


Today Jews, Christians and Muslims must stand together, in defence of humanity, the sanctity of life, religious freedom and the honour of God himself. The real clash of the twenty-first century will not be between civilisations or religions, but within them. It will be between those who accept and those who reject the separation of religion and power. Those who believe that political problems have religious solutions are deluding themselves as well as failing to understand who Abraham was and what he represented. The confusion of religion and politics was what Abraham and his heirs opposed, not what they endorsed.

What then must we do? We must put the same long-term planning into strengthening religious freedom as was put into the spread of religious extremism. Radical Islam was a movement fuelled by Western petrodollars, used by oil-producing countries to fund networks of schools, madrassahs, university professorships and departments, dedicated to Wahhabi or Salafist interpretations of Islam, thus marginalising the more open, gracious, intellectual and mystical tendencies in Islam that were in the past the source of its greatness. It was a strategy remarkable in its long time-horizons, its precision, patience, detail and dedication. If moderation and religious freedom are to prevail, they will require no less. We must train a generation of religious leaders and educators who embrace the world in its diversity, and sacred texts in their maximal generosity.

There must be an international campaign against the teaching and preaching of hate. Most Western countries have anti-racist legislation that has proved virtually powerless against the vitriol spread through the social media. Education in many countries continues to be a disgrace. If children continue to be taught that non-believers are destined for hell and that Christians and Jews are the greater and lesser Satan, if radio, television, websites and social media pour out a non-stop stream of paranoia and incitement, then Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with its commitment to religious freedom, will mean nothing. All the military interventions in the world will not stop the violence.

We need to recover the absolute values that make Abrahamic monotheism the humanising force it has been at its best: the sanctity of life, the dignity of the individual, the twin imperatives of justice and compassion, the moral responsibility of the rich for the poor, the commands to love the neighbour and stranger, the insistence on peaceful modes of conflict resolution and respectful listening to the other side of a case, forgiving the injuries of the past and focusing instead on building a future in which the children of the world, of all colours, faith and races, can live together in grace and peace. These are the ideals on which Jews, Christians and Muslims can converge, widening their embrace to include those of other faiths and none. This does not mean that human nature will change, or that politics will cease to be an arena of conflict. All it means is that politics will remain politics, and not become religion.

We need also to insist on the simplest moral principle of all, the first (as we saw in chapter 2) to be confirmed by computer simulation: the principle of reciprocal altruism, otherwise known as Tit-for-Tat. This says: as you behave to others, so will others behave to you. If you seek respect, you must give respect. If you ask for tolerance, you must demonstrate tolerance. If you wish not to be offended, then you must make sure you do not offend. As John Locke said, ‘It is unreasonable that any should have a free liberty of their religion who do not acknowledge it as a principle of theirs that nobody ought to persecute or molest another because he dissents from him in religion.’ This principle alone, properly applied, would have banned at the outset the preachers-of-hate who radicalised so many impressionable minds in the West, turning them into murderers in God’s name.

Wars are won by weapons, but it takes ideas to win a peace. This book has been about one such idea: an alternative to the sibling rivalry that has been a source of fratricide and religious violence throughout history. Sibling rivalry as a contest for divine love is a bad idea and wrongly diminishes Abraham’s God. The truth that shines through the Genesis texts is that we are each blessed by God, each precious in his sight, each with our role in his story, each with our own song in the music of humankind. To be a child of Abraham is to learn to respect the other children of Abraham even if their way is not ours, their covenant not ours, their understanding of God different from ours. We know that we are loved. That must be enough. To insist that being loved entails that others be unloved is to fail to understand love itself.

It has also been about the dual covenant in Genesis, first with Noah, then with Abraham. This is the best solution I know to the potential violence implicit in the fact that we derive our identities from groups. Groups conflict, so that the altruism we show to the people like us goes hand in hand with the aggression we show to the people not like us, and both are deeply embedded in human nature. That is why the great attempts to escape from identity — into either universalism or individualism — have always failed, whether they were religious or secular. Sooner or later the tribes return, fully armed and breathing fire. The only adequate alternative, proposed by Genesis precisely as God’s protest against violence, is to say that he has made two covenants with us, one in our common humanity, the other in our specific identity. The first is about the universality of justice, the second about the particularity of love, and in that order. Our common humanity precedes our religious differences. That must be the basis of any Abrahamic theology capable of defeating the false god of violence and the idolatry of the pursuit of power.

And yes, there are hard texts. There are passages in the sacred scriptures of each of the Abrahamic monotheisms which, interpreted literally, can lead to hatred, cruelty and war. But Judaism, Christianity and Islam all contain interpretive traditions that in the past have read them in the larger context of co-existence, respect for difference and the pursuit of peace, and can do so today. Fundamentalism — text without context, and application without interpretation — is not faith but an aberration of faith.

Screenshot 2016-02-09 11.29.08This article appears in the Winter 2015 print issue of The Islamic Monthly. 

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