MUSLIMS BELIEVE THAT Allah’s Prophet was a messenger for all nations—and not just for the polytheistic Arabs of Arabia alone, nor even for all the other polytheistic nations throughout the world:
We have not sent you but as an unequaled mercy for all the worlds. [Surat Al-Anbiya’, 21:107]
Prophet Muhammad also had a message for Christian and Jews.
For Christians, the message was simple:
The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was no more than a Messenger of Allah…do not say: Trinity. Stop saying that. [Surat Al-Nisa’, 4:171]
For Jews (with a few exceptions like today’s ‘Jews for Jesus”), who were strict monotheists and did not venerate statues of would-be divinities, the message was more complex.
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I think of myself as a Reform Jewish Rabbi who is a ‘Muslim Jew.’ Actually, I am a Muslim Jew i.e. a faithful Jew submitting to the will of God by virtue of being a Reform Jewish Rabbi. As a Rabbi I am faithful to the covenant that God made with Abraham – the forerunner of all Muslim Jews (Surat Âl-‘Imran, 3:67 [i]), and I submit to the covenant and its commandments that God made with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai.
As a Reform Jewish Rabbi I take the position that Jewish spiritual leaders must revisit the intent of Jewish law and tradition as social and historical circumstances change and develop–so as to properly comply with its divine requirements. I also believe that it is wrong for us to make religion difficult for people to practice by adding an increasing number of restrictions to the commandments we received at Mount Sinai. These are imperatives that Prophet Muhammad transmitted 12 centuries before the rise of Reform Judaism in the early 19th century.
Although most Jews today are already no longer Orthodox Jews, if the Jews of Muhammad’s time had followed the perspective of Prophet Muhammad, then Reform Judaism [ii] would have started 1,400 years ago.
In my mind, Muhammad was a prophet of Reform Judaism to the Orthodox Jews of his day.
During the six centuries between the birth of Jesus and the arrival of Muhammad in Yathrib (Medina), almost all Jews had become ‘Orthodox Jews.’ Orthodox Jewish Rabbis had added many extra prohibitions to Jewish law, and everyone became increasingly strict in the observance of the laws of Shabbat (Sabbath), Kashrut (dietary laws) and ritual purity laws during a wife’s menstrual period.
Orthodox Jewish Rabbis did not see fit to follow the example of Muhammad as we know it from the narration of 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, #3560)
The Torah of Moses prohibits adding to the commandments:
Then Moses said to the people, “Obey all the laws that I am teaching you… Do not add anything to what I command you, and do not take anything away. Obey the commands of the LORD your God that I have given you. (Bible, Deuteronomy 4:2 and 12:32)
Nevertheless, over the centuries Orthodox Rabbis did add many restrictions to the laws of prohibited activities on the justification of building a protective fence around the Torah’s laws.
Also, whenever Orthodox Jewish Rabbis were in doubt as to whether an animal had been slaughtered correctly according to Jewish law, or if one could eat a new species of bird, it was ruled prohibited. They were not guided by Muhammad’s principle as narrated by Sa’d Ibn 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 was prohibited because of his asking. (Bukhari #7289)
The Quran has a similar warning against adding restrictions or making obligations complicated:
O you who believe, do not ask about things which, if they are shown to you, will distress you. But if you ask about them while the Quran is being revealed, they will be shown to you. Allah has pardoned that which is past; and Allah is Forgiving and Forbearing. A people asked such [questions] before you; then they became thereby disbelievers. Allah did not institute [pagan Arab customs like] bahirah, sa’ibah, wasilah or ham. But those [pagan Arabs] who disbelieve, invent falsehood about Allah; and most of them do not reason. [Surat Al Ma’idah, 5:101-103]
The Torah also teaches:
When a woman has a discharge, her discharge being blood from her body, do not come near her for seven days; she is taboo for the duration of her menstrual period. (Bible, Leviticus 15:19)
Orthodox Jewish Rabbis extended —by several extra days— the period of no intimate contact; and they demanded that there be no physical contact at all during that period —again “making a fence around” the Torah’s laws.
Prophet Muhammad, in effect, supported the Torah’s ban on sex during a woman’s period, but opposed the additional restrictions enacted by Orthodox Rabbis.
Thabit narrated from Anas:
Among the Jews, when a woman menstruated, they did not dine with her, nor did they live with them in their houses (they slept in separate beds) so the Companions asked the Apostle, and Allah, the Exalted revealed: ‘They ask you about menstruation. Say: It is [cause for] pollution, so withhold yourselves from [sexual intercourse with] woman during menstruation and do not approach them [there] until they are clean again.” [Quran ii. 222] The Messenger of Allah said: “Do everything except intercourse.’ Jews heard that and said: This man does not want to leave anything we do without opposing us in it.” (Muslim, #302)
Reform Jewish Rabbis’ advice to a Jewish couple today would be much closer to that of Muhammad than what an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi would say.
Unlike Orthodox Rabbis, Reform Rabbis accept the doctrine of nullification, which teaches that one verse in our scripture can nullify another, and that rulings can be changed due to changed circumstances. A saying of Muhammad provides an excellent example of this nullification principle in the following account.
‘Abdullah ibn Buraidah narrated from his father
that he was in a gathering where the Messenger of Allah was present and he said: “I used to forbid you to eat the sacrificial meal for more than three days, but now eat it, give it to others and store it for as long as you want. And I told you not to make Nabidh in these containers: Al–Dubba’, Al–Muzaqqat, Al–Naqir, and Al–Hantam. But now make Nabidh in whatever you want, but avoid everything that intoxicates. And I forbade you to visit graves, but now whoever wants to visit them, let him do so, but do not utter anything which is not suitable. (Sunan Al-Nasa’i, #2033, grade: Sahih)
The reason given for the last change was that Arabian women used to wail at graves. The Prophet wanted this practice to be stopped. Therefore, he banned women from visiting graves to start with. After sometime, when Muslim women were better aware of how Islam wants them to behave in various situations, he allowed them such visits.
In fact, the Prophet encourages visiting graveyards because such a visit reminds the visitor of his or her own appointment with death and the fact that they would have to stand in front of God when their actions are reckoned, so as to determine their reward or punishment. Scholars like Ibn Qudamah, of the Hanbali school of law, makes it clear that since this is the purpose of visiting graveyards, both men and women actually benefit from such visits.
Allah’s Messenger knew that even the future Muslim community would produce people whose piety would lead to such errors —for a hadith narrated by Abu Sa’id says:
The Prophet said: “You will follow the wrong ways of your predecessors so completely and literally that if they should go into the hole of an animal, you too will go there.” We said, “O Allah’s Messenger! Do you mean the Jews and the Christians?” He replied, “Whom else?” (Bukhari, #3456)
Muhammad criticized the failings of many in the Jewish community (as did the prophets of Biblical Israel) but he realized that all religious communities are made up of people who are human, and most humans do not seem to learn from the failings of others. He hoped that Muslims would retain their original purity, but he foresaw that decay and falsification were inevitable.
Surely, Prophet Muhammad would attack female genital mutilation (FGM) in Africa today, as sharply as he attacked female infanticide in Arabia in his day. It is a shame that most Muslim leaders in Africa today do not condemn it.
Another important teaching of the Quran for people all over the world today is that God chose not to create human beings as one nation; that He bestowed upon them free will to believe or not to believe. As it is written in the Quran:
For every one of your communities did We appoint a Divine Law and a way of life. If God had pleased, He would have made you one people, but (He didn’t) that He might test you in what He gave you. Therefore compete with one another to hasten to virtuous deeds; for all return to God, so He will let you know (after Judgment Day) that in which you differed. [Surat Al- Ma’idah, 5:48]
I see this as a wonderful further development of the teaching of the Biblical prophet Micah that in the end of days—the ‘Messianic Age’—
All people will walk, each in the name of their own God, and we (Jews) shall walk in the name of the Lord our God forever. (Bible, Micah 4:5)
A Muslim is one who submits to the will of God and believes that God has sent a multitude of various prophets to the many peoples of the world. As a Reform Jewish Rabbi I believe that Muhammad was a Prophet of Reform Judaism. I believe that the Quran is rightly true for Muslims, just as the Torah is rightly true for Jews.
Indeed, I love the hadith narrated by Abu Hurairah that says,
The people of the Book used to read the Torah in Hebrew and then explain it in Arabic to the Muslims. God’s Apostle said (to the Muslims). “Do not believe the people of the Book, nor disbelieve them, but say, ‘We believe in God, and whatever is revealed to us, and whatever was revealed to you.” (Bukhari #7362)
Following Muhammad’s logic, I too, as a Reform Rabbi, neither believe nor disbelieve in the Quran. I do respect the Quran very much as a kindred revelation, first given to a kindred people, in a kindred language. In fact, the Arab people, the Arabic language and the Quran’s theology are closer to my own people, language and theology than that of any other on earth.
Of course, more than 80% of Muslims in the world today are of something other than Arab decent. But Arabic is the sacred language of all Muslims—as Hebrew is the sacred language of all Jews—and the tradition that Arabs and Jews are cousins is widely accepted.
This makes the present conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis especially tragic. It is very important to realize that their conflict is a political one and not a religious one. There can be no religious conflict between religions like Judaism and Islam because neither of them declare that their own holy scriptures are the only ones that came to us from God.
The strong support that the Quran gives to religious pluralism is a lesson that is sorely needed by religious fundamentalists of all stripes in the world today. It should also be a decisive guide to political and political-religious leaders to avoid exclusivist claims of right and righteousness. Instead, all must seek to find ways to share compassion and concern with peoples of other communities and an understanding of their religions—especially in regard to how we can join together in efforts to bring peace and justice to our world.
Rabbi Maller’s web site is: www.rabbimaller.com
[i] 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] —and never was he of those who associated gods with God. [Surah Âl-‘Imran, 3:67]
[ii] Note that in the U.K. we Reform Jews are called ‘Liberal Jews.’ And, what are labeled ‘Reform Jews’ in the U.K. are what we in North America call ‘Conservative Jews.’