08/02/2012 02:41 pm ET Updated Aug 07, 2012

How Can American Muslims Approach Muslim-Jewish Dialogue?

American Muslims interested in dialogue with Jews actually do exist. Muslim-Jewish dialogues should be attempted, even if these seem difficult at times and even if there are people in both Muslim and Jewish communities who don't believe in Muslim-Jewish dialogue. The potential short-term and long-term benefits outweigh the disadvantages.

Undoubtedly, persons in both Muslim and Jewish communities will demand an acknowledgement of certain major and minor stumbling blocks involved with Muslim-Jewish dialogue. Experience shows that, if it is to succeed, Muslim-Jewish dialogue in the USA will require savvy participants with sufficient intellectual equipment, training and spiritual readiness to know how to handle these matters delicately and with sensitivity for all persons and groups concerned, both Muslims and Jews. Although it is certain that there are some situations where dialogue clearly and simply is not possible, when dialogue is possible and can be arranged, there are valuable lessons to be learned from this endeavor for dialogue between communities. We can strive for better relations and dialogue is part of this effort.

To be realistic, interfaith dialogue cannot always be easy talk about sweet topics like love and what we have in common. One example comes to mind from when I was invited to be the keynote speaker on a panel discussion about "Islam and Democracy" at the University of Bridgeport. The conference organizers arranged my co-panelist to be the renowned Jewish theologian and Holocaust scholar, Dr. Richard Rubenstein. I won't go into details but I found myself disagreeing strongly with some (not all) of Dr. Rubenstein's statements and Muslims in the audience were clearly in disagreement with some of his points. I should say that Dr. Rubenstein was a gentleman, but what was most important with Dr. Rubenstein's presentation was his overall honesty and straightforwardness about his opinions. This honesty was an important part of the dialogue that day being real. We may or may not disagree with some dialogue partners but if we are going to have meaningful dialogues that have outcomes connected with reality and that may be informative and useful, we may sometimes need to talk to people whom we would rather not discuss with and cover matters that we would prefer not to cover.

In academia we have privileged access to more opportunities in this area of interfaith dialogue generally and academia may offer the easiest initial approach for Muslims to participate in Muslim-Jewish dialogue. Here Muslim-Jewish dialogue is easier to arrange in certain situations and I can remember examples of academic interfaith events that succeeded. My co-teaching of a course at a local university on the development of the Abrahamic religions with a Christian pastor and a Jewish rabbi involved two interfaith events, the best one being our Muslim-Jewish-Christian discussion about the meaning of the Ten Commandments. (These commandments are all essentially reiterated in different places in the Quran.) Another example of a success was the lunchtime seminar at a local university where we representatives of different religions discussed the topic of "love in religion." For this it was quite easy to take material from Islamic spirituality and the other religions had no shortage of their own fascinating material covering this topic.

One lecture at Hartford Seminary that involved a Jewish guest speaker, Rabbi Jonathan Magonet, was very informative. I asked him what he gained from doing Jewish-Muslim dialogue with Turks in Germany. His answer was essentially what he describes in his writing "preferring ... a dialogue with others that continually challenges, that opens up new dimensions of my own self" (J. Magonet, "Talking to the Other: Jewish Interfaith Dialogue with Christians and Muslims," IB Tauris, 2003, p61). In fact I couldn't agree more with Rabbi Magonet on this matter. It has been absolutely fascinating to engage in these dialogues with other religions' adherents, learn about certain attributes from others, and then reexamine what exists in my own religion, of course while maintaining the integrity and moral fiber of my own religion. Interfaith dialogue sometimes points to revivification of excellent but often neglected material within Islam. Specific examples that come to mind are the many ways that others talk about the topic of love, this leading to new inquiries into the rich stock of material available within Islam about the topic of love.

As described above, arranging successful Muslim-Jewish interfaith events needs to draw on the work of different intellectually and spiritually equipped scholars to properly plan and facilitate these events, including the best choice of dialogue genre for the situation. Jane Idleman Smith's description of genres of dialogue attempted by Christians and Muslims in North America provides useful categories that can be adapted for planning Muslim-Jewish events (see Jane I. Smith in "Muslims' Place in the American Public Square: Hope, Fears, and Aspirations," New York, Altamira Press, 2004, pp. 164-197). These categories are: the "confrontation/debate model" (I don't recommend this one to start with.); the "dialogue as information sharing model"; the "theological exchange model"; the "ethical exchange model," the "dialogue to come closer model"; the "spirituality and moral healing model"; and the "cooperative model for addressing pragmatic concerns." These and possibly other genres of dialogues, which Muslims have used with Christians, could be considered for planning Muslim-Jewish dialogues. My own favorite genre is the one that takes up a comparative Muslim-Jewish discussion of spirituality.

On the Muslim side, there are at least two important scholarly examples whose work is very relevant for interfaith work. One example is Said Nursi and his later successors in Turkey who discuss the importance of dialogue and arrange dialogue events. I also have welcomed the major 500-page fatwa in 2010 of the Pakistani Sheikh ul-Islam, Dr. Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, against terrorism and suicide bombing. (This is available in English.) A reading of Dr. Qadri's major fatwa shows that he defines Islam and its relationship to non-Muslims in clear terms. Following his scholarly opinion, non-Muslims ought not to have cause for fear and generally should not be having many of the grievances that we may have been hearing about. I am sure that many in both Muslim and Jewish communities will agree with me that there is much to discuss and there are things that have to be said. Even if matters are not always pleasant to hear, the forums for such dialogue need to exist.

There certainly are other venues but academia is often in an advantaged position to facilitate interfaith dialogue owing to its higher concentration of specialized knowledge in the field and other logistical factors. More academic institutions that are properly equipped could cooperate with scholars to foster Muslim-Jewish dialogue. Although there are different institutions around doing interfaith work, Hartford Seminary, already well known for its Islamic chaplaincy program, has their Building Abrahamic Partnerships program. Muslims and Christians come to Hartford Seminary from all over the world but this summer saw its first crop of Jewish students formally endorsed by their own Jewish seminary attending Hartford Seminary. Jews participated alongside Christians and Muslims in this program as part of its agreement with Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. American Muslims wondering how they might pursue Muslim-Jewish dialogue could take a closer look at this program or similar projects to get some initial experience.

My immediate hope with Muslim-Jewish dialogue is that, different participants achieve what Rabbi Magonet described, opening up new dimensions of their selves and creating more understanding. For the long-term, what appear presently to be tiny Muslim-Jewish dialogues, fostered initially within academic settings with better facilitation, may eventually become broader waves of new understanding, hope and better relations. We should work toward those ends.