07/08/2013 06:51 pm ET Updated Sep 07, 2013

Reformist Think in Islamic Thought in Israel Today

The title of this blog post may surprise many people. Is it possible that Islam is being reformed? And in Israel!

The answer is yes, as I discovered when I attended a fascinating research seminar last week at Tel Aviv University on "Contemporary Islamic Thought in Israel". The seminar, which took place at Tel Aviv University, brought together Jewish and Arab scholars and practitioners (like me) as well as Jewish and Muslim clergy and educators. It was a groundbreaking program, which reinforced my own experience of many years that has taught me that there is a fascinating phenomenon in Israel which I call "Israeli Islam".

The main speaker at the conference was my friend, Kadi Iyad Zahalka, a kadi (religious judge) of the Muslim Sharia court of the state of Israel, which functions under Israel's Ministry of Justice. I have known and admired Kadi Zahalka for the past several years. We traveled together on a speaking tour to the USA last fall, and will go again this coming fall. And, a few months ago we began a new Jewish-Muslim Dialogue and Action group comprised of local religious leaders, educators, academics, community leaders, and journalists, which we call Kodesh -- Kolot Dati'im L'Shalom -- Religious Voices for Peace. We will study together, discuss issues of mutual concern, and take action together in our communities.

I wanted to hear Kadi Zahalka speak about the research he has been doing for his doctorate in Islamic Thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His topic is how Islamic jurisprudence can be applied to Muslims who live in non-Muslim countries -- such as Europe countries or the United States -- and especially in Israel. This is a topic that is close to his mind and heart and he is very passionate about it.

Kadi Zahalka calls his interpretation of Islamic Law "reform" or "liberal", which in itself is quite amazing. But he is not a "Reform Muslim". Rather, he, and other kadis in Israel, have been changing and updating Islamic Law in recent decades, entirely from within their own tradition. If we take the Jewish community as an example -- Zahalka is more of a modern Orthodox Islamic Liberal than a Reform Rabbi!

His work, which is based on solid scholarship over many years, brings classical Islamic doctrines up-to-date for the times in which we live. He, and the other kadis in Israel who represent a new generation of serious, responsible, and thoughtful religious leadership, are slowly but surely changing the face of Islam in Israel today.

This phenomenon is virtually unknown both inside and outside of Israel. The mainstream media does not report on this and tends to portray all of Islam as radical and fundamentalist and would be surprised to learn that the leadership of Israeli Islam is rational, moderate and even liberal in their thinking. This is why I take the time to write about this.

Unfortunately Islamophobia -- based largely on ignorance and misinformation -- is rampant, both in Israel and beyond. This is why it is so refreshing to hear Muslim moderates, like Kadi Zahalka, speak so thoughtfully and inspirationally about new reform thinking in Islam -- in Israel and in other parts of the world -- today. Despite the widespread presence of radical Islam in many countries surrounding Israel in the Middle East, Islam in Israel remains, for the most part, both solid and sane. This is indeed a very positive development.

This is not to say that there are no problems here. As Kadi Zahalka pointed out quite accurately in the discussion in Tel Aviv, Israeli Muslim Palestinian Arabs not only face much discrimination in Israel, but they are also part and parcel of the conflict in the region. Despite this, they do their best to get on in life, to develop their own way of life and to adapt it to contemporary contextual realities.

I applaud Kadi Zahalka for his thoughtfulness, clarity and courage to present new ideas which may go against mainstream thinking about what Israeli Muslim citizens think and how they live. For example, women get complete equal treatment in his sharia court, according to his understandings of Islamic legal tradition and in light of contemporary circumstances.

And, I am glad that I will have another opportunity to travel with him next fall to spread our message of peaceful coexistence and cooperation to audiences throughout North America. I feel fortunate to partner with such a creative and charismatic leader who genuinely believes in the value of dialogue and seeks to act together to effect social change in Jewish and Palestinian communities in Israel and in Israeli society as a whole.

[The seminar was hosted by the Konrad Adenauer Program for Jewish-Arab Cooperation of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East and African Studies of Tel Aviv University.]