Despite tensions over the situation in the Middle East, Judaism and Islam have a long history of cooperation, friendship, and shared theology and customs.
That message was delivered by a prominent imam speaking at Congregation Beth-El in Edison on Nov. 15 as part of the third annual international mosques and synagogues “twinning” program sponsored by the World Jewish Congress, the Islamic Society of North America, and the New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.
Standing on the bima, Imam Moustafa Zayed of the Islamic Center of New Jersey in Parlin talked of shared reverence for the prophets Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, and King David, and for the accepted concept of “the oneness of God.”
Zayed told the audience, which also included members of several area mosques and a crew from an on-line Pakistani television channel, that while Mohammed is mentioned in the Koran only four times, Moses appears more than 130 times.
“Judaism is a part of Islam,” said the Egyptian-born Zayed, who teaches at several NJ mosques and is author of several books, including The Lies about Muhammad, in which he refutes misconceptions about Islam in the wake of 9/11.
Rabbi Bernhard Rosenberg addressed the gathering, saying that the Jewish community of Beth-El Edison supports Zayed and his community. “We support you in your endeavors,” said Rosenberg. “We are your friends. We are your cousins.”
Rosenberg added that he and Zayed are in the process of writing a book together about, among other subjects, the shared traditions of the two religions.
During the talk and in the discussion period that followed, Zayed answered questions about Muslim holidays and traditions, including dietary restrictions. Like Jews, Muslims are forbidden from eating pork.
“My mother told me when I came to America and wanted to eat out, I should go kosher,” said Zayed, adding, after a moment of laughter from the audience, “specifically glatt kosher.”
Zayed said that throughout history Muslims and Jews have lived peaceably together and that Jews thrived under Muslim rule on the Iberian Peninsula. When Jews were faced with death or conversion to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition, he said, they fled to Muslim countries.
“At a time that Jews were not even allowed in England, Jews, Christians, and Muslims were living together,” said Zayed.
“Nazism failed miserably in the Middle East,” he added because its inhabitants couldn’t understand or accept Nazi characterizations of Jews.
Religion of peace
Zayed said Islam is a religion of peace, but like other religions it has its fundamentalist radicals who distort its tenets. The 9/11 attacks were widely condemned by the mainstream Muslim community “until we were blue in the face,” but it was images of a small number of radicals dancing in the streets in the Middle East that received media coverage.
Audience member Awni Attiyah of Piscataway said he was born in Deir Yassin, 10 miles west of Jerusalem, and claimed that as a 12-year-old boy he witnessed Israel’s future Prime Minister Menachem Begin, then a leader of the Zionist paramilitary group Irgun, shoot and kill members of his family.
(The April 1948 battle in which right-wing Jewish militias were accused of carrying out a massacre of Arab villagers remains a subject of intense debate, both among Israelis and between Israelis and Palestinians.)
Yet, Attiyah said, he hopes to see Jews and Muslims find peace and said he came “to teach nice people like you.”
“Mohammed called Jews the people of the book ,and he said we should hug you,” said Attiyah. “Jews kill Muslims and Muslims kill Jews…. For me it is a pity to see in this life that the Koran is being ignored.”
The spirit of amity in Edison contrasted with a dispute in upstate New York, where two rabbis pulled out of the twinning project after citing concerns about alleged links between one of the local Islamic societies and Islamic fundamentalist groups.
Other twinning events are being held around the United States through the end of the year, involving some 100 synagogues and 100 mosques.