Rabbi Sacks Interviewed by Akbar Ahmed on Jewish-Muslim Relations
At American University in Washington, DC, on 12th November 2015, Ambassador Ahmed hosted and interviewed Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks in the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies’ office.
Rabbi Sacks covered a range of subjects that included Andalusia, La Convivencia or Coexistence, and steps to be taken to build bridges between different religious communities. His words of wisdom need to be heard by all those interested in countering the religious hatred and misunderstanding that are unfortunately so widespread in our times.
Thank you so much, Lord Sacks. Thank you for allowing us to share your wisdom.
Good to be with you.
How do you see this Andalusia and the notion of La Convivencia coexistence?
This period of Al-Andalus under benign Muslim rule was not only one of the most benign Convivencia living together but one of the most intellectually and spiritually creative in all of the Middle Ages. What had happened was that you had these extraordinary Muslim scholars who had recovered the classical tradition, the Neo Aristotelians and Platonists. They were the first people in Europe to do so. They lifted Europe out of the Dark Ages.
They then had an enormous impact on figures like Moses Maimonides, the greatest Rabbi of the Middle Ages, whose, not only his philosophy but almost every aspect of his work was influenced by and stimulated by Islam. His creation of this magnificent legal code was inspired by Sharia codes. His formulation of the principles of Jewish faith was inspired by the fact that Muslim thinkers had done this wonderful presentation of Islamic faith. It spread from Islam to Judaism. It then spread to Christianity through Maimonides and influenced a figure like Aquinas.
You have Islam leading Europe out of the Dark Ages and showing what might not be a 21st century standard of liberal democracy as it were but a standard of tolerance and mutual acceptance that was never rivalled in the whole of the Middle Ages anywhere else in Europe. Andalusia is one of the most important facts about our present situation. The reason is when you talk about good relations between faiths, at moments of high-intensity conflict, people think you’re being utopian. People just aren’t that good. What brings these aspirations from utopia to reality is the knowledge that we have been there before. Andalusia showed how it could be done and showed that it could be done.
Because of that, for me, Andalusia is the single most important feature of our current situation. We have a precedent. We know what it looked like. That’s why I think the more people know about Andalusia… There’s that wonderful book by María Rosa Menocal called Ornament of the World. This is a beautiful book. But I think any study of Judaism or Christianity, we’ll see exactly how Islam contributed to these other faiths.
How would you as a scholar, as a thinker, as a Sage, not only as a Jewish Sage, but I would say as a World Sage, how would you see our world in relation to Jews and Muslims in the middle of the century and at the end of the century?
Well, it seems to me that Andalusia is the positive model. You then have the negative model of bereaved parents in the Middle East, of people who’ve known tears and loss. There is a sense in which the bereaved recognise each other across cultural divides. There’s one thing that, to me, speaks very powerfully from the Hebrew Bible. Jews experienced slavery in Egypt, and then Moses, having taken them out, says, “Never oppress a stranger because you know what it feels like to be as a stranger.” It seems to me that for Jews, just reflecting on their own history, have to make that empathetic leap and see the suffering that many Muslims have undergone in many ways and the kind of hopelessness that affects some of those communities. One would hope that many Muslims would reflect on the Jewish experience. Even in modern times, Jews are haunted by the Holocaust and many, many terrible events. But I think we have to think also more recently of massacres of Muslims in Srebrenica and so on.
I think just looking at our own tears must make us realise that the other side has had those tears. It does seem to me that there are moments when there is something very human that reaches out to the others across the divide. In that moment of contact, a hope is born. I think the other thing is the experience of being a parent or even a grandparent. It makes us want to leave our children and grandchildren a better world than we currently inhabit. I just think that the experience of parenthood will also eventually lead both sides to say, “Look, the way we have chosen until now is leaving our children without hope. Let us present our children with a more hopeful world.”
What steps would you suggest to improve the relationship between Jews and Muslims that Muslim leaders need to be taking, and Jewish leaders need to be taking?
I think what really improves relationships is when we as individuals take the trouble to get to know our Jewish or Muslim neighbours. Tip O’Neill said, “All politics is local.” I think all great interfaith is local as well. Then, I think communities can do just that. If a Rabbi or an Imam arrange for their congregations to get together, and if they’re able to do that in order to do acts of kindness or social action to other people in the neighbourhood, that’s what I call “side-by-side”. That really is a very powerful builder of friendships. To my mind, friendship is the essence here. We don’t always need to engage in high-level interface dialogue. Sometimes just being friends is even more powerful.
The other thing I tried to do, of course, and you were part of it, Akbar, was when I occasionally used to make television programmes. I used to try and show the Muslim community at its best. If you recall, we did a programme with you and the father of the murdered journalist, Daniel Pearl, Judea Pearl, speaking together and then visiting a Muslim school and a Jewish school. This has made a huge impact on the British public. I think leaders can sometimes do that, the thing you don’t expect to see.
Jews always end every set of prayers with a prayer for peace. It’s our highest hope, but we know it tends to come last. But we always say this prayer, and this is the prayer I share with Muslims, Jews, and Christians, and people of other faiths throughout the world. Oseh shalom bimromav. May God, who makes peace in His high places, help us make peace down here on earth. Amen.
Thank you so much, Lord Sacks. Thank you. Beautiful.
After this interview concluded, the Ambassador Ahmed and Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks proceeded to the main event of the evening at American University where they conducted a religious dialogue in front of a capacity crowd of 400 guests. The event was introduced by Professor Pamela Nadell, moderated by Professor Michael Brenner, and concluding remarks were given by Rev. Joseph Eldridge, American University Chaplain, and Senior Rabbi Bruce Lustig of the the Washington Hebrew Congregation. A key element of the evening was a discussion around Lord Sacks’ new book, “Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence,” which had been widely discussed and reviewed following its recent publication.
The dialogue was marked by the raising of serious issues that concern the communities in a spirit of cordiality and warmth. Both men emphasised the importance of creating friendships which would act as an effective check to the misunderstandings and mistrust of the other and in that way act as a deterrent to the violence. You can watch their discussion here.