Islam shares with Judaism the unwavering assertion that only the One God is to be worshipped; no would-be deity is to be tolerated. Any spiritual being supposedly independent from God is an imaginary god, leading mankind away from true understanding. This one true Deity is to be cherished and His guidance/commandments faithfully adhered to.
The Torah states:
Then God spoke these words [to the Children of Israel through Moses]: I am the Lord your God … you shall have no other gods before me. … You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing ..those who reject me but showing steadfast love to … those who love me and keep my commandments. [Bible, Exodus, 20:1-6]
The Quran is equally absolute on this point:
He [alone] is God, the One, besides whom there is no other God—[the Sole] Knower of the [realms of all the] unseen and the seen. … He [alone] is God. There is no God but Him… [Surah Al-Ḥashr, 59:22-23]
Islam shares with Judaism the story of Moses and Aaron in Bani Israel’s ordeal with the Pharoah of Egypt. In one of the Quran’s several recountings of these events (Surah Yûnûs, 10:75-93), Moses indicates the concept of obeying the guidance/commandments of God employing these terms:
Thus Moses said: O my people! If you have believed in God, then rely on Him [alone], if, indeed, you are muslims, in willing submission to Him [alone]. So they said: Upon God [alone] do we rely. Our Lord! Subject us not to a trial [of defeat] to [tempt] the wrongdoing people [to exult in their unbelief]. Rather, deliver us by Your mercy from the disbelieving people. [Surah Yûnûs, 10:84-86]
At the end of this passage, Prophet Muhammad —born into a pagan [jahiliyyah] Arab culture, and not one brought up in Jewish learning— is told,
So if you, [O Muhammad,] are in doubt about what We have sent down to you, ask those who have read [the Holy] Scripture [that came] before you. Most surely, the [essence of] truth has come to you from your Lord. So do not be of those who doubt [it]. [Surah Yûnûs, 10:94]
The way of life revealed in Islam is in harmony with what was given to Moses and the Jewish prophets.
One of the aspects of our lives that God has seen fit to regulate is our diet. Both Muslims and Jews have been given dietary restrictions, which are stated within our holy Books.
The differences and the similarities between the laws of Ḥalal and Kashrut/Kosher teach us about Islam and Judaism as separate world religions. But they also help today’s Muslims and Jews understand and respect each other as followers of prophets sent by the same one God.
There are three ways to compare different religions:
One way is the Medieval polemical style: ‘My way is true and any differences between my way and other ways is due to the other ways being wrong/false, deviant (sectarian heresies), or due to their distortions and misunderstandings.’
Medieval Muslim scholar Al-Biruni (973-1048 CE) is a remarkable exception. In Biruni’s well known book on the Hindu religion (with its numerous statues of numerous gods) he states, “This book is not a polemical one. I shall not produce the arguments of our antagonists (just) in order to refute them… I shall place before the reader the theories of the Hindus exactly as they are.”
The second way is the modern academic way that treats all religions as equal, seeing them, one and all, solely the result of human perceptions, ideas and experiences. By this approach, no religion can be true, except to its believers, because all of them are solely the creation of human beings. This was the firm belief of the well known scholar of Islam [“Orientalist”] I first studied with in 1960 at UCLA, namely, G. E. Von Grunebaum.
The third way is the least practiced way because it requires that scholars of religion have both a firm commitment to their own religious teaching and that they then use their own religious commitments and experiences to help them understand the religious experiences and truths to be found in other religious traditions. In the case of Islam and Judaism the harmony between the two is readily evident.
We follow the third option. This requires the ability to grasp the harmony beyond traditional differences by seeing them in the larger context of Allah’s statement in the Qur’an:
“To each of you We prescribed a law and a method. Had Allah willed, He would have made you one nation [united in religion], but [Allah intended] to test you in what He has given you; so race to [compete by doing] good. To Allah you all return together, and He will [then] inform you concerning that over which you used to differ.” (Surat Al-Mâ’idah, 5:48)
Muslims and Jews should be able to grasp the philosophical harmony between their Scriptures despite their differences of detail —in recognition of the fact that both the Torah (Tawrah) and the Quran come from the same one source of religious inspiration [wâḥy], that Source being God, the one Creator of all.
A Hadith narrated by Abu Huraira reports:
Allah’s Apostle said, “The prophets are paternal brothers; their mothers are different, but their religion is one” (Bukhari)
So all prophets of the One God have one origin or ‘father,’ so to speak, Allah; but they have different mothers, mother tongues, motherlands, etc.
There would be no need then for the prophets —who came during different historical periods— to try to make uniform or harmonize the ritual or legal practices they were teaching to their own communities because these are what make each national or tribal community a unique religious community.
In fact, the Quran emphasizes that those who worship the One God have always been functionally muslims, apart from the label “Jew,” “Christian,” or “Muslim.”
O People of the Scripture! Why do you argue [with us] about [your claim that] Abraham [was a Jew or a Christian], while the Torah [of Moses] and the Evangel [of Jesus] were not sent down until after him [Abraham]? … Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian. Rather, he was a [believer, purely] upright [in heart], a muslim, in willing submission to God [alone] … Indeed, the people most worthy of [tracing their faith back to] Abraham are surely those who follow him [in willing submission to God alone] … [Surah Âl ‘Imrân, 3:65-68]
Thus, Jews and Christians are functionally “muslim” when they, and their faithful community, all have the same wholehearted and exclusive commitment to the one God (monotheism); but members of the Islamic community are truly and fully Muslims (with a capital “M”) only if they are committed to submitting to God and if they practice the Muslim way, because that is what makes their own religious community unique. This is also true for Jews.
That is why I think of myself as a muslim Jew i.e. a faithful Jew submitting to the will of the one and only God, in keeping with the fact that I am a faithful Reform Jewish Rabbi.
As a believing Jew I am faithful to the covenant that the one God made with Abraham – the original ancestor of the Jews and himself functionally a ‘muslim’— and I also submit to the covenant and its commandments that God made with Abraham’s descendants, the people of Israel under Moses at Mount Sinai [ called Tûr in the Quran).
As a Reform Rabbi I believe that Jewish spiritual leaders should be open to interpreting Jewish tradition flexibly, as social and historical circumstances change and develop. I also believe we should not make religion difficult for people to practice by accepting the increasing number of restrictions added to the commandments we received at Mount Sinai.
These are lessons that Prophet Muhammad taught 12 centuries before the rise of Reform Judaism in early 19th century Germany. Most Jews today are no longer Orthodox Jews. But suppose that the Jews of Muhammad’s time had followed the lead of prophet Muhammad—who lived and taught among some of them. Then [the equivalent of] Reform Judaism would have started 1,400 years ago instead of less than two centuries ago. In actuality, “Reform Judaism” would not have been necessary. We would have, simply, “Judaism”!
I believe that Muhammad was a prophet, sent not only to the pagan Arabs of his time, but also to the Orthodox Jews of his day. From my perspective as a Reform Jewish Rabbi, Muhammad was a prophet of what is equivalent to today’s Reform Judaism, although he was 1,200 years ahead of his time. During the six centuries between the birth of Jesus and the arrival of Muhammad in Yathrib, the city of Jews (Medina), almost all Jews had become what we can equate with today’s Orthodox Jews.
Here is what had happened historically, causing Orthodox Rabbis to add restrictions above and beyond those given by God to Moses. After the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE, the percentage of Jews —living as a minority throughout the Middle East, and in countries around the Mediterranean Sea— steadily rose higher and higher. In reaction to the risk of Jews assimilating into the polytheistic majority, Orthodox Rabbis added many extra prohibitions to Jewish law as a protective measure so as to keep Jews separate from all idol-worshipping, polytheistic pagans. Thus, most Jews became increasingly strict in the observance of the laws of Kashrut (“Kosher” dietary restrictions).
Orthodox Rabbis, unfortunately, did not follow the principle that would become the example of Muhammad as narrated by his wife Aisha:
“Whenever Allah’s Apostle was given the choice of one of two matters, he would choose the easier of the two, as long as it was not sinful to do so, but if it was sinful to do so, he would not approach it.”
Aisha also said:
“Whenever Allah’s Apostle ordered the Muslims to do something, he used to order them to do deeds which were easy for them to do.” (Bukhari)
Regarding adding to the commandments given by God, the Torah of Moses unmistakably prohibits tampering with what has been given:
“So now, Israel,” [said Moses], “give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe… You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you. … You must diligently observe everything that I command you; do not add to it or take anything from it.” (Bible, Deuteronomy 4:1-2 and 12:32)
Nevertheless, over the centuries Orthodox Rabbis added many restrictions to the laws of prohibited activities on the grounds that this was building a protective fence around the Torah’s laws.
Also, whenever Orthodox Rabbis were in doubt as to whether an animal had been slaughtered correctly according to Jewish law, or whether one could eat a newly discovered species of bird, Orthodox Rabbis ruled it ‘prohibited.’ They were not guided by what would subsequently become Muhammad’s principle, as narrated by Sa’d bin Abi Waqqas:
The Prophet said,
“The most sinful person among the Muslims is the one who asked about something which had not been prohibited, but which then became prohibited because of his asking.” (Bukhari)
Thus, when we compare Jewish and Muslim laws about daily food consumption, we will find they are very similar to each other in basic principles, with the Orthodox Jewish specific restrictions being more numerous and extensive. Of the major world religions, Christianity is the only one that has no everyday dietary restrictions. Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism all have a religious system of daily dietary prescriptions.
Governing our dietary intake, the general religious principle is that personal self-control is best learned through overcoming the daily temptations we all have to face in satisfying our appetites and desires for food and drink. That said, there are specific restrictions for Muslims as well as for Jews. Here is a summary of the similarities and differences between Ḥalal and Kosher.
Ḥalal and Kosher: Ḥalal in Arabic means ‘permissible’ or ‘lawful.’ Kosher in Hebrew means ‘proper or fit to eat.’ Ḥalal is a general term for all that is permissible according to Islamic law. The term designates not only foods that are permissible according to Islamic law, but also all matters of daily life. Kosher foods are those that conform to the regulations of Kashrut, the Orthodox Jewish dietary law. However, many Jews also use the term “un-kosher” to describe unfit social, moral and ethical behavior.
Preparing the meat of an animal through slaughter has rules: In both Jewish and Muslim law slaughtering must be swift and at a single point on the throat; then, blood has to be completely drained. The basic principle as stated for Muslims is this:
Forbidden to you is that which dies of itself, blood, pig flesh, that on which any other name than that of Allah has been invoked, the strangled (animal), that beaten to death, that killed by a fall, that killed by being smitten with the horn, and that which wild beasts have eaten, except what you slaughter, and what is sacrificed on stone (alters) set up (for idols)… (Surah Al-Mâ’idah, 5:3 and Surah Al-An’âm, 6:145)
All of these Islamic prohibitions are similarly found in the Written Law of Moses and the Oral Law of the rabbinic tradition.
Ḥalal slaughter requires a formulaic prayer /statement of intent (“In the Name of God”) before every slaughter, so as to conform to the prescriptions of God. Orthodox Jewish Kashrut requires a holy intention to slaughter according to God’s commandments; but does not require a specific audible prayer before each act of slaughter.
Eat of that over which the name of Allah has been mentioned, if ye are believers in His revelations. (Surah Al-An’âm, 6:118)
For meat to be Ḥalal for a Muslim, the person doing the slaughtering must be a religious Muslim and for meat to be Kosher for a Jew, the animal must be slaughtered by a religious Jew. Although the rules for slaughter seem to be the same for both religions, they are not identical. The terms by which a Muslim’s slaughter is carried out apply also to Jewish slaughters, for the Qur’an explicitly states:
The food of the People of the Book is lawful unto you and yours is lawful unto them. (Surah Al-Mâ’idah, 5:5)
Thus it is clear from Surah Al-Mâ’idah that eating meat from a Christian or Jewish butcher is lawful (Ḥalal ) for Muslims. However for this properly slaughtered meat to be lawful, the Christian or Jewish butcher must be a practicing Christian or Jew.
Now in the case of Orthodox Jews this is easy. As long as the Jew is a practicing Jew, and the meat is slaughtered in accordance with Jewish law (Torah Kashrut), then this meat and all other Kosher foods are lawful (Ḥalal ) to Muslims and can be eaten by them without reservation.
But in the case of Christian butchers, the main issue is that Muslims in the West are very unlikely to come across a practicing Christian who is following the teachings of Prophet Jesus, who said about the Divine commandments in the Torah of Prophet Moses:
”Whoever annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees (Orthodox Jews), you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:19-20)
Almost all Christians eat pork. It is impossible to find a Christian butcher that does not have pork in his or her shop. Most slaughter houses and meat processing plants also process pork. Many animal by-products in the West contain pork.
Therefore most Islamic scholars advise that Muslims should not buy meat from shops that also sell pork or pork by-products. Thus only Kosher foods, that require strict avoidance of any contact —direct or indirect— with pork products, are considered Ḥalal / kosher/ fit for Muslims.
Thus we can see that in the modern world, where millions of Muslims live as a minority within Christian lands, two developments have occurred.
- Muslims can rely on Kosher food, but not on non-kosher food products, other than those Ḥalal.
- Orthodox Jews still cannot use Ḥalal food, but the majority of Jews, who are no longer Orthodox, and who now have a diet that is much closer to Ḥalal than to strict Orthodox Kashrut, can and should use Ḥalal
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Rabbi Maller’s website is: <www.rabbimaller.com>
Allen Maller is an ordained Reform Jewish Rabbi who retired in 2006 after 39 years as the Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, California, He has published over 150 articles about Islamic-Jewish connections — on both Islamic and Jewish web sites.
Rabbi Maller’s book Judaism and Islam: Synergistic Monotheisms is a collection of some 30 of his articles previously published by Islamic web sites — and is now for sale ($15) on Amazon.com