Friday, December 11, 2009

Interfaith Dialogue at Chapman University

Chapman University, Orange, Calif.

Thursday night, I attended an interfaith dialogue at Chapman University, the 2nd annual such event held. There were three panelists present, Dr Marv Meyer, the head of the Chapman Religious Studies Department, Rabbi Stuart Altschuler, of the Jewish Studies Department and Dr Mohammed Zakyi Ibrahim, who teaches comparative religions at California State University at Fullerton. Dr Ibrahim was substituting for Dr Muzammil Siddiqi, who is the head of the Islamic Society of Orange County, who was suffering from laryngitis. There were about 20 people present.

The actual focus of the dialogue was the relationship between Jews and Muslims, which caused one audience member to ask why no Christian panelist was present. (Dr Myer was acting only as moderator). The question was significant because it underlined the inescapable fact that there is a clear divide between Jews and Muslims today-more obvious than that between Christians and Muslims.

The program began with Dr Ibrahim, who is a native of Ghana, speaking about similarities between Islam and Judaism. After he spoke for about 30 minutes, Dr Altschuler spoke on the same theme. Altschuler, did, however, refer to present-day enmity against Jews that exists within Islam. Altschuler is a strong proponent of interfaith exchanges and still hopes for an eventual reconciliation between Jews and Muslims.

Then the questions came from the audience. Dr Ibrahim received the most questions. I want to say here and now that Ibrahim comes across as a nice man and I have no negative information about him whatsoever. In fairness, I should also point out that English is not his first language. I must say, however, that I found some of his responses unsatisfactory.

The first question came from an elderly gentleman who asked Dr Ibrahim why we hear so many reports of religious leaders in mosques referring to Jews as "apes and pigs". This brought a long response from Dr Ibrahim to the effect that certain people had their own agendas and were misunderstanding the true religion. He, of course, disassociated himself from these expressions. He also referred to those people of ancient times who had disobeyed the laws of the Prophet Moses and were punished and seemed to indicate that these were the ones being referred to as "apes and pigs".

Note: Dr Ibrahim repeated the term "misunderstand" more than once to refer to those Muslims who express hatred toward non-Muslims. Maybe it's just me, but I am seeing that expression being used often lately to refer to Islamic radicals and terrorists.

I then followed that up with a question about the infamous hadith that speaks of trees and rocks calling out to Muslims that "there is a Jew hiding behind me-come and kill him". I asked given this hadith that perhaps these imams calling Jews such names were not misunderstanding anything after all.

Ibrahim's response was to refer to some scholar who was engaged in the study of "hadith fabrication", in other words, trying to determine which of the thousands of hadiths were factual and which were not. Again, Ibrahim disassociated himself from this particular hadith but implied that it was not a true hadith.

After about 7 questions, Dr Meyer brought the event to a close. There were so many other questions we could have asked Dr Ibrahim, but the time and the questions were limited. Many questions could have been asked about international terrorism, but I think Dr Ibrahim's answers would have been similar to the above answers he gave. Left unresolved is the question of how so many Muslims including imams and clerics could "misunderstand" the true messages of the faith.

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