Muslims Who Advocate for Peace, Article V: Diverse Culture
Muslims Who Advocate for Peace, Article V: Diverse Culture

For Part I on Nusantara, click here

In my previous article we met Imam Shamsi Ali, founder of the Nusantara Foundation, New York City. We saw that, impressed by the advocacy and support from his Jewish colleague for the Muslim American community in the wake of proposed congressional hearings: "The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and That Community's Response”, Imam Ali then championed Holocaust education in Austria.[1] There is more.

Advocating for each other: Circumcision, Kosher and Halal, Oral Tradition

Advocacy for the other leads to trust. With basic trust established, Muslims and Jews see more clearly that there are common elements in their faith.

The Imam and Rabbi worked together to protect ritual circumcision for both Muslims and Jews, which had been threatened by proposed legislation in the Parliamentary assembly of the council of Europe, 2014[2].  They were successful in getting this resolution defeated, and a key element was the solidarity and advocacy between the Muslim and Jewish groups. This same solidarity is in effect in their joint defense of kosher and halal slaughter, which has been banned in several European countries.

“When government leaders see that it is not just Jews speaking for Jews and Muslims speaking for Muslims, but instead a collective voice, working together, this speaks volumes.”

When government leaders see that it is not just Jews speaking for Jews and Muslims speaking for Muslims, but instead a collective voice, working together, this speaks volumes.
Regarding the verses in the Qur’an that appear harsh and anti-Jewish, Rabbi Schneier's view is that just as Jews have the oral tradition that we rely upon to understand the written Torah, the same courtesy must be extended to Islam vis a vis verses in the Qur’an. These verses must be contextualized in their oral tradition, also known as sunnah which is based upon hadith, or sayings of Muhammed. We do not interpret “eye for an eye” literally, we can likewise pause before we make conclusions about harsh-sounding Qur’anic passages, turning to their religious leaders for clarification.

On Loving One’s Fellow

Moving on from advocacy for the other, what is the Imam’s style as an Imam to his followers? His smiling persona belies an ability give thunderous rebuke to his flock in his sermons.[3] “We are neighbors with every single human being, now in this era of globalization.” He states that Muslim prayer begins with Allah HuAkbar, then one greets one’s neighbor on the right and left. If one’s greeting is inadequate, if one does not have  love in one’s heart for one’s neighbor, then the salat (prayer) will not be accepted. “We have to be concerned with our neighbors in China, in Africa, because if we are not, if we do not take the challenges facing our neighbors to heart, that is when trouble starts in our own communities. “

“I studied in Indonesia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and I learned Islam there. I did not study Islam(ic texts) from non-Muslims, but I have to admit I learned to be a better Muslim from my non-Muslim friends.

"I learned to be friendly, to be more accepting.” [4]

Then he quotes, "O Mankind! We created you from a male and female, and made you into peoples and tribes so that you might come to know each other (“lita’arafu” – to know each other, a key word in Qur’anic acceptance of diversity, remember it.) The noblest among you in God's sight is that one of you who best performs his duty. God is All-Knowing, All-Aware" 49:13

The Imam elaborates on this ayah (verse): “by getting to know each other we develop understanding, which leads to compassion and subsequent cooperation, (as the Imam has done so well). This leads to our ability to appreciate one another, and that is why I am not hesitant to say I learned how to be a better Muslim from my non-Muslim friends.”

“I know that the Qur’an challenges me when it says, “O people of the Book, come to the same common ground. Worship none but G-d.” I came to the conclusion that spirituality is universal, but religions are limited. We must go beyond the barriers that have come between us. We need to stand up for each other. Muslims around the world have corrupted Islam! But Americans have been standing for Muslims. Likewise I am fighting against anti-Semitism.”

Sounds liberal? Maybe religious texts can be interpreted as more peace-seeking than we thought. Imam Ali is a fundamentalist echoing Qur’anic teachings that simply came to life as he interacted with non-Muslims.

And he finds Qur’anic support for his statement that religions are limited – to each respective people - and at the same time the need to retain a universal perspective: “To each among you we have prescribed a Sharia (covenant) and Minhaj (custom). If Allah had so willed, he could have made you a single Umma (people), but (His plan is) to test you in what he hath given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is Allah; it is He that will show you the truth about the matters in which you are different.” Al Meada 5:48

As Qatada Ibn al Numan (a contemporary of Muhammed) said, “Al Din Wahid Al Sharia Muchtalifa” – there is one deen ( basic law, perhaps comparable to Noahide law in our parlance) and many covenants - many acceptable religions.

Combating Radicalization in the Muslim world: education, grassroots efforts, integration

Imam Shamsi Ali again proves his ability to balance his all embracing stance with his serious battle against radicalization, and he wages this battle via education.

“We are particularly concerned about our youth; our youth is very emotional, easily influenced by the media, particularly social media. The Nusantara foundation hosts discussion groups for youth to respond to the messages they are getting about the so-called Islamic state, or ISIS. I ask them, is establishing an Islamic state really a core issue?” Evidently it is not with Imam Ali. This echoes the sentiments of another Muslim leader, Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, theologian and former advisor to the Pakistani government, who states that the formation of an Islamic state is not a basic religious obligation for Muslims.

Once American Muslim youth are guided in questioning the claims of radical groups, Imam Ali offers a way of channeling their frustrations when Muslim youth feel disparaged. Instead of getting emotional, respond to the challenge positively! The Imam gives an example of such grassroots efforts, “some groups have published cartoons of Muhammed in order to provoke Muslim sensitivities, I called some friends who are Christian ministers, and in response, they are giving positive lectures about Muhammed in their churches!” Thus, Muslim American youth are given an example of channeling their frustrations into educating others about Islam, instead of letting their emotions lead them into more radical outlets. “Don’t respond irrationally, respond with education!” he declares.

The third step is integration into American society. “I am pushing Muslims to get involved with American society and not segregate themselves. We organize summer camps with other communities so they can get to know different kinds of people. We tell them that in whatever country they reside, Muslims are enjoined to protect their country of residence. This country belongs to them and they have a responsibility towards it.

His interfaith work is part of this integration. “Interfaith activities do not mean we are trading religions, nor is it self-betrayal. We simply feel that in order to be a good Muslim we must have good relations with others. Muslims come away from such activities being more comfortable and open with others.”

“I suggested to an Imam I know, go ahead and “twin” with a local synagogue. He said he would not. So I went to the local Rabbi and suggested that he call this Imam. Well when the Rabbi called him he panicked and asked me what to do! They finally did get together – each congregation visits the other annually and they share a kosher meal.”

For those concerned with an overly open religious framework and even assimilation, understand that no congregation spends most of its time in interfaith work; events may happen only annually. But it is keeping the door of communication open that has a moderating effect, provides an outlet for education, and serves as a preventive measure against radicalization. Beyond that, it can be a source of inspiration to find our commonalities, that Jews are not alone in upholding dietary laws or fast days for example.

Muslims in America – Sharia law

Concerning the integration of Muslims into American society, sharia law (Islamic law) and its application in United State jurisprudence has been a hotly debated topic. Muslims have been faced with a similar question that has confronted Jews  – are you loyal to Jewish law or the laws of your country of residence? And, more recently, are you loyal to the state of Israel or to the United States of America? We have had centuries of dealing with the concept of split loyalty, its resolution in the Talmudic teaching DinaDeMalchuta Dina, (the law of the land is the law) and I may proudly add, centuries of proving ourselves worthy citizens of our host countries while being loyal to Torah. 

Imam Ali comments: “sharia is how we apply the Qur’an to daily life, like your halakha.  There really is no contradiction between sharia and American law. It really bothers no one that we eat halal meat, or pray five times a day. We also hold that we must follow the law of the land.”

The word “sharia” means “path” or “way”, similar to the Hebrew “halacha”.  It refers to Islamic law; it also means covenant or brith. Referring back to the passage from the Qur’an, al-Maeda 5:48, “To each among you we have prescribed a Sharia (covenant) and Minhaj (custom)….” 

Islamic sharia is derived from the Qur’an and Islamic oral tradition -yes, another parallel to Judaism – oral tradition. In Islam, oral tradition is called “sunnah”, and is derived from the hadith (plural, ahadith), which are the sayings of Muhammed, preserved orally, and then written down in the 9th- 10th centuries.

The term “sharia” connotes harsh practices in the minds of many westerners, and for good reason. Floggings and beheadings continue to be performed in the Muslim world. The question is, is this a true representation of Islamic sharia, or a superimposition of Islam on cultures that have not yet shaken their previous primitive practices?

In his recent book, Bigotry: the Dark Danger,[5] Adnan Oktar vociferously condemns brutal interpretations of sharia. He traces such practices as the fault of those leaders who are imposing their own inklings and not truly applying authentic sharia law. “Is there an Islamic country in the world that meets these (authentic) definitions of the sharia of the Qur’an? Of course not.” The solution – get straight to the Qur’an and away from outside influences. He goes on to quote professor Yasir N Ozturk:

“Why do they (Islamic governments) talk of ‘sharia’ and not of ‘Islam’? Because if they speak of Islam they will have to prove their claims with the Qur’an…” Otherwise, he goes on, such leaders can state that what they are doing is the consensus and has centuries of precedent. “Consensus” and “precedent” are not scripture.

The further they get away from the Qur’an and authentic ahadith, the less accountable such leaders are to their populations. But anyone can educate themselves in scripture. Scripture is the ultimate equalizer.  Brandishing the Qur’an and authentic ahadtih, a questioning Muslim can challenge barbaric practices, as Adnan Oktar has in this book.

Stoning adulterers to death has indeed occurred in modern day Iran, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia. Oktar attributes this to ahadith which he says are false.

But wait, how can you distinguish false from authentic ahadtih? They are authentic if and only if they do not contradict Qur’an. Then Mr. Oktar brings us to the Qur’anic passages that actually refer to adultery: four witnesses must testify, and the punishment is one hundred lashes, which can be administered in one blow by trying one hundred lashes together.

And, to paraphrase Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, the flogging should not wound him, nor should he be bare-bodied, nor tied up.[6]

That is not stoning, and it is not a death penalty. Thus, those ahadith that call for stoning can be rejected outright.

Concerning limb removal, Oktar compares verses that are cited for the removal of the hand as a punishment for thievery, to other passages, concluding that mere cuts are made in the hands of a thief, and not the total removal of hands. [7] Dr Ghamidi does interpret the removal of the right hand, below the wrist, as a literal punishment for theft, only when the criminal deserves no leniencies, and is to be very, very rare.[8]

For those who have heard of the ahadith - the trees will say at the end of days, 'here is a Jew, kill him', again, Islamic scholars have grappled with false ahadith. Dr. Omer Salem and Adnan Oktar declare these to be false, as they not only are not sourced in the Qur’an, but contradict Qur’anic teachings. Only study of the Qur'an enables one to differentiate between true and fabricated ahadith.

Concerning the three passages in the Qur’an that refer to Jews as apes – that is the Qur’an, not ahadith. However the three verses, in their view, are in the context of Muhammed rebuking Jews for punishments that await for breaking their Sabbath  or other religious precepts, and not as any permanent state or applying to all Jews.

Peace-seeking Muslims encourage a return to the Qur’an and authentic ahadith. As Dr. Omer Salem says, “get Muslims closer to the Qur’an, they will be nicer to you.”[9]

Are Mr. Oktar and his compatriots merely being defensive about sharia? Law Professor Jan Michiel Otto concurs that some Muslim communities do not distinguish between tribal custom and authentic religious teachings; onlookers can retain a negative view of sharia even when high-ranking Muslim leaders declare that these are misinterpretations.[10]

The only solution is education - learning the sources with a qualified scholar.

Sharia in America

In 2010, legislation was proposed in Oklahoma to bar the courts from considering international law, singling out Islamic law. [11] “This measure… forbids courts from considering or using international law. It forbids courts from considering or using Sharia Law….”

Arizona, Kansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, and South Dakota followed with similar proposed legislation.  Whether this was a response to genuine fears of much of the American population in the wake of 9/11, or Islamophobia is beyond the scope of this article.  

What is of concern is that sharia-based contracts could be automatically excluded from judicial consideration just because they are “foreign”, even if they do not contradict American law.

Attorney Abed Awad notes two cases in which sharia-based law was indeed upheld in American courts because it did not conflict with American law, and in the end, actually better served the interests of one American company. He states, “The true story of sharia in American courts is not one of a plot for imminent takeover but rather another part of the tale of globalization. Marriages, divorces, corporations and commercial transactions are global, meaning that US courts must regularly interpret and apply foreign law.” [12]

Law Professor Azizah Al-Hibri states that such legislation is unnecessary as the Constitution is what trumps all else - that foreign, international or religious precepts simply do not have the power to overcome American law. She emphasizes that there is no need to formulate laws against precepts that have no automatic authority in America.[13]

What immediately comes to mind in the importance of the protection of Jewish law in secular courts. Do we really want an absolute ban on the consideration of “foreign” law not only in our age of globalization, but concerning the enforcement of the ketuba marriage contract, or the use of the heter iska in business contracts? Indeed, one observer states that such legislation would impair the rights of observant Jews as well.[14]

Imam Ali comments: “in the Middle East now, sharia is being misapplied. Some Americans see this and themselves mistakenly represent sharia as something negative. But sharia gives full protection and freedom to the woman for example. To ban sharia is to discriminate against Muslims, and there really is no contradiction between a Muslim keeping sharia and being loyal to the United States.”

The amendment was struck down by an Oklahoma federal judge in 2013.[15]

It is this advocacy that advanced Holocaust education in Austria, the prevention of a ban on circumcision in Europe, is striving to protect kosher and halal meat on the European continent, and is simply part of what we must do as a minority people who, marginalized plenty, naturally sympathize with the plight of the other.

With all our concerns about violent trends in Islam, leaders like Imam Shamsi Ali, Sinem Tezyapar, Adnan Oktar, Sheikh Ibrahim of the Tabighi Jamaat movement, and Dr. Omer Salem deserve our recognition and support. There are more such leaders.

Back to Nusantara, connoting a variety of ethnic groups, religions and languages under one flag.  Functioning as a cluster, different from each other yes, but united in understanding and cooperation. We should be able to achieve this too, in the Holy Land.


[1] Sons of Abraham video

[2] Jews, Muslims unite to combat circumcision ban,7340,L-4480242,00.html




[6] The Penal Law of Islam


[9]  minute 58 – 1.02, 1.19 – 1.21


[11] See pages 7-8 for the specific wording of Oklahoma proposed amendment:

[12] The True Story of Shariah in American Courts: The Nation

[13] Sharia Controversy

[14] Can States Prevent American Courts from Considering Jewish Law?

[15] Oklahoma Ban on Sharia Law Unconstitutional…