When Rosh Hashanah and Ramadan Come Together
by Stephen Schwartz
The weekend of September 23-24 saw the commencement of the main holy days for two of the world's great religions. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins the period known as the Days of Awe, culminating in Yom Kippur on October 2. The holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast, read Qur'an, and meditate on their situation, will end with Eid al-Fitr, known as Ramadan Bajram in the Balkan and Turkic lands, on October 22-24.
Jews and Muslims dedicated to peace and opposed to extremism will doubtless meet in interfaith encounters during this time, and it is to be hoped that their discussions will surpass the limits of habitual well-wishing and political correctness.
Muslims in particular should think, during this Ramadan, of ways to purge the Islamic world community, or umma, of anti-Jewish prejudices and conspiracy theories. The prophet Muhammad himself said, in a hadith or oral comment included in the authoritative collection of the compiler at-Tirmizi, that the history of the Muslims would resemble the history of the People of Israel as "a shoe in a pair resembles the other shoe."
The fundamental similarities of Judaism and Islam were recognized by scholars from both faith communities long ago. One element of Islamic tradition that reinforces the sense of an essential relation, however troubled at present, between them, comprises the narrative of Muhammad's Night Journey and Ascension.
In the Prophet of Islam's out-of-body experience, Muhammad rose to the heavens, guided by the angel Gabriel, and spoke with the prophets of monotheism that preceded him. The Jewish prophet Moses (Musa in Islam) emerges from these colloquies as the main counselor, and in effect an elder brother, to Muhammad.
Moses is an important prophetic figure for Muslims. In the mentioned narration, as recounted by the late Sufi teacher from Saudi Arabia Shaykh Muhammad ‘Alawi al-Maliki, it is said that Muhammad observed Moses loudly reprimanding God. Muhammad was shocked and asked the angel how Moses could raise his voice and reproach God. Gabriel answered, "Almighty God is familiar with Moses' bluntness."
These theological and spiritual precedents should move Muslims, as a minority living in the Christian West – and there is no point denying that the heritage of the West is Christian – to explores ways of effective conciliation with Jews, who are also a minority in Christendom.
Muslims should look within themselves during the holy month of Ramadan and ask why the West has so far surpassed the Islamic ummah in providing for the progress and security of ordinary people. Indeed, the answer to this question is also provided in Islamic spiritual traditions. In a hadith included in another of the main collections, known as "Sahih Muslim," Muhammad is said to have predicted that Western civilization would become the most powerful element in human society, and praised Westerners, i.e. Jews and Christians, for their good moral qualities. These included calm and patience when facing difficulties, rapid recovery after misfortune, physical and military courage, charity to those in need, and above all, "they do not stand for the oppression of tyrants."
With all that has transpired in our world, and in the West, since the time of Muhammad, we who are Westerners can say with pride that these qualities of character remain undiluted. They are even more significant now when the democracies have made a stand, which must not be abandoned, in Iraq.
In thinking about the Jewish-Muslim link, moderate Islamic believers, as well as non-Muslims, should take heart in minor but important indicators of new thinking and fresh solutions for the Middle East. One such small but bright beacon of light is provided by the existence of mainstream Muslim educational facilities like the al-Qasemi Academic College, founded by Sufi Muslims from Hebron in the West Bank, and now operating in the Israeli Arab town of Baqa al-Gharbya.
Our organization, the Center for Islamic Pluralism, urges moderate Muslims around the world to assist and exchange experiences with the al-Qasemi scholars in strengthening their efforts at enlightenment.
Other promising developments include reports of contacts between Israel and the reforming king Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who clearly wants a break with the extremism that has characterized the kingdom's state ideology, Wahhabism.
Finally, American Jewish and American Muslim service personnel are still in harm's way in Iraq, fighting alongside Muslims and others for a democratic and safe future. To them let us say, l'shanah tovah! Ramadan mubarek!