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Religious dialogue in a divided world

Khaled Abou El Fadl calls for Muslim dialogue; Yossi Klein Halevi looks for interfaith partners in Israel and Palestine.
By Christopher L. Walton
January/February 2003 1.1.03

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Many people—from William G. Sinkford to George W. Bush—have insisted that the world is not embroiled in a “clash of civilizations.” The war with al Qaeda, they argue, is not a clash between Islam and the West. But 9/11 publicized another conflict quite clearly: There is a clash of theologies within Islam, and the stakes of that battle are high indeed.

Within days of the attack, Khaled Abou El Fadl, a professor of Islamic law at UCLA, publicly denounced the “dogmatic, puritanical, and ethically oblivious form of Islam” that has swept the Muslim world since the 1970s. The Taliban movement, Osama bin Laden, jihadism, and the Wahhabi sect in Saudi Arabia (which funds mosques and Islamic scholarship around the world) threaten to suppress more diverse and—he argued—more orthodox forms of Islam in their increasingly brutal war against sin and blasphemy. Since 9/11, Abou El Fadl has championed an orthodox but tolerant Islam in scholarly and public forums, drawing death threats from radicals and complaints about his outspokenness from mainstream Muslim organizations.

Abou El Fadl’s essay, “The Place of Tolerance in Islam,” provoked a lively exchange with other scholars last year in the Boston Review. Now Beacon Press has turned that discussion into a brief but important book. “Islam is now living through a major shift, unlike any it has experienced in the past,” Abou El Fadl writes. “The Islamic civilization has crumbled, and the traditional institutions that once sustained and propagated Islamic orthodoxy—and marginalized Islamic extremism—have been dismantled.” He argues that puritanical Islam is rooted in a misreading of the Qur’an and a rejection of centuries of Islamic cultural development. The Qur’an “presumes a certain amount of moral probity on the part of the reader,” and each verse ought to be read “in light of the overall moral thrust of the Qur’anic message”—a point the early Unitarians made about the Bible. Abou El Fadl makes the case for a conscientiously tolerant and modern Islam.

Essays by other scholars dispute or expand his argument, making this book a model of the dialogue Muslims need to engage in if we are to avoid a clash of civilizations.


Religious dialogue sometimes seems the least likely path to peace, but even in the terrorized Holy Land, some insist on taking it. At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden is the extraordinary spiritual memoir of Yossi Klein Halevi, an Israeli journalist and liberal Orthodox Jew, who recounts his two-year quest to join Israeli Christians and Israeli and Palestinian Muslims in their prayers. Halevi writes, “I wanted to test whether faith could be a means of healing rather than intensifying the conflicts in this land.” Meeting Christians and Muslims as fellow worshipers rather than as activists or theological apologists proved much harder than he expected. The result of his experiment is a bold and heart-breaking testament to genuine interreligious engagement.

He grew up “in the heartland of Jewish isolationism, a Brooklyn neighborhood called Borough Park, populated mostly by Orthodox Holocaust survivors,” with “an inherited dread toward Christianity.” His wife, who converted to Judaism from Episcopalianism, helped him begin a rapprochement with Christianity, but after twenty years in Israel, he had never visited the Christian holy places. He wants to experience the Christian observance of Holy Week, but how can a Jew approach the story of the crucifixion, which animated Christian anti-Semitism for centuries? He finds Jerusalem’s Armenian Christians, traumatized by their own experience of genocide, and finds his own way to appreciate the central paradox of Christianity.

In Israel, of course, Islam represents a much more challenging interfaith partner. Halevi finds Muslims with whom to pray through the unlikely guide of a young man named Eliyahu Charanamrit McLean. “The breakdown of traditional religion was embedded in his name: His mother was Jewish, his father Christian, and they raised him in an obscure subsect of Sikhism in Hawaii that preached the universal truth of all faiths.” Eliyahu embraced Judaism as a teenager, moved to Israel in 1990, and—in a strange twist—converted to Islam in Cairo after meeting a Sufi sheikh. “He prayed with the most extreme ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem and met with Muslim fundamentalists in Gaza, neutralizing suspicion by honoring their intensity,” Halevi writes.

The Sufis, it turns out, are the only Muslims who welcome Halevi’s interest. Eliyahu introduces him to Sheykh Ibrahim, a mystic whose visions of Moses had told him to make peace between Jews and Muslims. The story of Ibrahim and Halevi’s friendship is the warm heart of this book.

But his account of a trip to pray with the Sufi Sheykh Abdul-Rahim in occupied Gaza, where he had been injured as a soldier during the first Intifada, stands out especially. “Gaza presented me, a child of the Holocaust, with an unbearable paradox. I believed that history imposed on Jews two inviolate demands: Never do to others what was done to you, and never underestimate the intentions of your enemy.” Wary and sick with fear, he confronts this paradox and goes unarmed into the angry camp of his enemy, hoping to join the ecstatic zikr of the Sufis. There may be no happy endings in the Holy Land, but this clear-eyed, bracing, and often lovely book offers something even more powerful: the honest truth.


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