Giving voice to Muslims who support Peace: Omer Salem
Giving voice to Muslims who support Peace: Omer Salem

As busloads of frum Jews flocked to the funeral of Zidan Seif, the Druze policeman who sacrificed his life to protect Jews in the Har Nof massacre in November 2014, our community proudly and openly showed its support for righteous gentiles. Just as we reach out to those who make the ultimate sacrifice, we have an obligation to educate ourselves about those who promote peace – especially those Muslim leaders who are striving for a peaceful Islam. These leaders are on the front lines of an intellectual battle; they are defending the Jewish claim to the land of Israel, and defending the Jewish people as authentic “people of the book” – deserving of respect and protection. They are doing so at personal sacrifice and even risk from their less appeasing brethren. And they deserve our attention.

This article is a first in a series. I will be introducing you to Muslim leaders who support the Jewish people. We need to know this information because, as Jews, we are enjoined to respect the righteous among the nations, and surely to lend support to those who wish to support us. Many prominent Rabbanim have been active in dialogue with Muslims: 

Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar stated in a letter to Sheikh Yusef Kardawi, “our way is to honor every religion and every nation according to their paths, as it is written in the book of prophets: 'because every nation will go in the name of its lord.'"

The late Rabbi Menachem Froman, Rabbi of the Tekoa settlement in Gush Etzion, insisted that religion be part of the solution in Mid-East peacemaking. He stated that in both Hebrew and Arabic, one of the names of G-d is “Shalom”, and, “…if religion is your devotion to God, you are devoted to peace. Peace is the end of any human activity.” He also declared that Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria should serve as a bridge between our peoples.

Rabbi Yaakov Nagen, Rosh Yeshiva of Otniel Yeshiva near Hevron is heavily involved in ongoing Muslim-Jewish dialogue, and Rav Yoel Schwartz of Yeshivat Dvar Yerushalayim in Har Nof is a prolific author on the seven laws of Noah. The list goes on, and I will add to it in future articles. Now, we begin with Dr. Omer Salem, founder of the Ibn Rushd institute, whose work has a haskama from Rav Yoel Schwartz.

For a Muslim to use the word “Palestine” means he is in danger of altering G-d’s word...
Omer Salem is a devout Muslim who has his master’s degree from Yale University and has defended his PhD at the oldest university that is still operating in the world - AlAzhar University, Cairo. There in his native land, he defended basic Qur’anic principals and is insisting they become part of mainstream Islam as we know it today:

Jews have a right to dwell in the Holy Land, Muslims must support authentic Torah observance, and Jews need not embrace Islam to be accepted by Muslims.

He abjures his fellow Muslims to come to grips with the Holocaust and the dislocation of Jewish communities in the 1940’s and 1950’s, that refuge was needed and that that Jewish settlement in Israel was no colonial undertaking. He holds that any lasting peace in the Middle East must be based upon what most of its residents revere – al Kitab – Holy Scripture, and he supports the use of the term “Holy Land” in place of the term Palestine; this semantic shift will be elaborated on below.

Concerning his support for Am Yisrael (the Jewish People), Omer quotes the Qur’an, 5:14: people of the Abrahamic faiths are commanded to compete “as in a race for virtue” - the Jew is to follow Torah, the Muslim, the Qur’an, and the Christian, the Gospels. Each community is to abide by their respective covenants but not in isolation from each other, quite the contrary, we are to view members of other religions as an inspiration to keep our respective covenants properly, to compete as it were for good deeds. Omer refers to this healthy competition and mutual support “Dignitism”.

Dignitism, that is, mutual support of each Abrahamic faith, is not some revolutionary idea on Dr. Salem’s part. As the Qur’an states 49:13: "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." Al-Tabari, one of the Qur’an’s exegetes (as revered in the Muslim world as we revere Rashi), stated quite emphatically: "al din wahid, al sha'aria muchtalifa" - there is one universal law, but multiple covenants.

Furthermore, the Qur’an states 2:256: "There is no compulsion in religion" and 88:21-22, "So remind them! You are only a reminder. You are not in control of them." also 10:99, "If your Lord had willed, all the people on earth would have believed. Do you think you can force people to be believers?"

Perhaps you are already shaking your head in disbelief. If Islam is so tolerant and supportive of Am Yisrael, then where are all the Muslims who agree with this? They flourished in Spain, they embraced our fleeing brothers who escaped the tach vetat pogroms in the Ukraine, giving them a new life in Turkey, they granted haven in the Holy Land to Nachmanides, who had to flee Spain after the debate at Barcelona in which he was forced to publicly debate Christianity.

As Omer reminds his Muslim brethren quite passionately in his essay “What Could Happen If Only”, delivered in Egypt, 2012: "Were our ancestors mentally sluggish? Did they lack intelligence or good judgment when they provided refuge in the Iberian Peninsula Our ancestors were relying on Allah’s commandments in the Holy Qur’an: ‘if a non-follower of Muhammad asks you for asylum, grant it to him, so that he may hear the word of God. Then escort him to where he will be secure.’ That last word “secure” or “security” is what the Spanish Jews were looking for 500 years ago, and security is what the Jews are looking for today. They merely seek it in the Holy Land.”

I would add that nor are our Sephardic brethren who hail from Muslim lands mentally sluggish when they declare their glorious past under Islam, reminiscing about the good times - at least part of the time -  in Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco for example, in stark contrast to the experience of Jews under Christendom. Something was going right, and it is not hard to recapture.

In addition to abjuring his brethren to support the Jews in their religion and respect their deep need for security, which turns out to be anticipated by the Qur’an itself, Dr. Salem suggests a semantic compromise: let’s use the term “Holy Land”.“I say to fellow Muslims, ‘why do you hold onto the word Palestine? The term in the Qur’an is Al- Ard Al-Muqaddasah, similar to Eretz HaKodesh in the Tanakh, surely G-d will be pleased with us if we use the Qur’anic name. Indeed, for a Muslim to use the word “Palestine” means he is in danger of altering G-d’s word. The term “Holy Land” is already used by both sides, let us emphasize this term and not the secular invention ‘Palestine’”.

Another step that Dr. Salem takes is tackling the issue of who is an apostate, or kafer. In a speech at the Otniel Yeshiva near Hevron, hosted by Rabbi Yaakov Nagen, 2014, Omer stated, “according to the Qur’an, the Holy Land is the place that the children of Israel were commanded  to settle after the Exodus; the issue is that the Holy Land should not be ruled by kafer, and unfortunately many Muslims view Jews as kafer. We need to show that Jews are not kafer – they respect their faith. I come to Israel and I see that Jews really do keep Torah and revere their holy books. I say to religious Muslims, ‘they have their devout and they have their kafer, like we do, but not all Jews are kafer.’ Once Muslims accept that Jews are keeping Torah, then they are ahle-Kitab – people of the book – and they can and should live freely in the Holy Land.”

“Another problem I am facing is that books were written centuries after the Qur’an that state that the Qur’an was sent to trump the Torah. The Qur’an itself does not say this, it is some later scholars who invented this concept of abrogation, and this is causing us trouble. I encourage Jews to learn something about Islam so you can have an intelligent conversation with Muslim scholars, this knowledge will be the key to dispelling these misunderstandings. If you can bring Muslims back to the Qur’an, they will be kind to you.  I am not trying to convert anyone!”, he jokes, “I want you to help bring Muslims back to Qur’an, and you can do this if you can familiarize yourself with basic Islamic concepts.” He likewise insists in his essay, “What Could Happen If Only”, that Muslims learn Tanakh as if  “mining for jewels”, regarding it with respect in its ability to cast light on Islamic teachings. This has important implications for understanding the various and Hadiths that at times leads to sectarianism in Islam as well as intolerance of Judaism. Learning should go both ways, while each group retains its integrity.

“These issues, who is kafer and of abrogation, were the two major problems I faced at my dissertation at Al-Azhar, and the ulema, the scholars there, did in fact accept my dissertation.”

Rabbi Nagen served as translator between Rav Yoel Schwartz and Dr. Salem in February 2015, whereupon Rav Schwartz granted his haskama for Dr. Salem’s work. Rabbi Nagen comments, “Rav Schwartz quoted tehilim, saying that anyone who fears G-d is someone whom I love.  קיט:סג חבר אני לכל אשר יראוך   He said he has no passport but will obtain one in order to meet Dr. Salem and his colleagues in person.”

Concerning the role of religion in peacemaking, Dr. Salem presented that religion must be part of any peaceful solution in the Middle East in a speech to the United States Senate in 2012. “For the past sixty-four years U.S., Israeli and Arab politicians have been trying to find a workable but primarily secular solution to no avail. The latest peace attempt led by Special Mideast Envoy Senator George Mitchell failed because, in the words of writer Tawfik Hamid, ‘Solving the Arab-Israeli conflict must be done initially at the theological rather than the political level…’

“Therefore, approval from Islamic leaders and recognized by their followers will be needed. Yes, religious sanction will be needed for any sustainable political and economic peace agreement.”

For those used to a heavy dose of the idea that religion and politics do not mix, note that we are dealing with a traditional population in the Middle East. Cultural Diplomacy is indeed becoming vogue. As Dr. Mordechai Kedar, lecturer in Arabic at Bar-Ilan University and Arutz Sheva columnist, noted, “… traditional Islamic people find it easier to talk to traditional Jews who share the same cultural world….It is important for Israel to be represented in a way that will make it easier for our traditional neighbors to accept us, and that the state of Israel is not entirely secular and liberal.”

At a time when tradition is being challenged not only by the left, but by those who claim to be part of liberal orthodoxy that does not always feel authentic to some members of the orthodox world, Dr. Salem gives us a different message: Jews ought to be more faithful, to uphold Torah in line with our sacred traditions. “Continue to live the good moral values in the Torah, you will prevail when you are true to them!” As we are used to feeling we must bow to pressure to westernize, that is liberalize, in order to be more appealing to our secular brethren, why not raise our heads out of that position of intimidation, and look a little eastward to cousins who feel enjoined to help us uphold Torah.

With speeches from the Senate to Jerusalem, Hevron to AlAzhar, what is the key to Omer’s success? His soft-spoken manner reflects years of practice of really listening to others. “I talk to people face to face, eyeball to eyeball. It is the human contact that really counts.” He spends little time on social media. “You connect with those who will listen, and they will be the messenger for their compatriots who did not listen.” It looks like his approach is working.

As Muslims like Omer Salem encourage the use of scripture to solve problems in the Middle East, we as Jews are faced with some questions. Are we ready to trust that anyone out there really prefers that we keep Torah? Accustomed to pressure from a western model to water down religion, what if there was “pressure” to keep it? What has become of us that we so readily think that compromise with values antithetical to tradition will somehow advance Judaism? Does Judaism have to be “advanced”, that is, made appealing to a secular relativistic mindset? - A mindset that cannot work with Israel's Haredim or its Sephardic majority, or most of its Muslim neighbors.  

For example, when voices from non-traditional Jewish groups say that they accept the orthodox IF they are empowered, how many orthodox are tempted to rush over to the non-traditional and assure them how empowered we are? Why must we bow to that kind of pressure? What they mean by “empowered” is not what the Torah teaches: they mean that religion is optional and that if today we feel like keeping tradition that is okay, but if some day we do not feel like it, we can easily jettison these oppressive rules. I prefer to proudly say that I am a small link in a never-ending chain and will sacrifice for it. That is the exact opposite of western concepts of empowerment (although it may be a more sublime and ultimately truer “empowerment” in the long run.)

But we are human, and people naturally need a support system. It helps us to know that we really do have support from abroad, that in fact we will have a better claim to the land of Israel in the eyes of the overwhelming majority in the Middle East – the Muslim population, if we cleave to tradition.

Let us raise our heads and instead of bowing to Esav, look to Ishmael. Ishmael - who at the end of his life honored Isaac at the Ma'arat HaMachpela when the now at peace half-brothers buried Avraham together, with Ishmael deferring to his younger sibling. Ishmael supported us then, and they will support us now. Let us hear their voice. Stay tuned for more.


Institute for Cultural Diplomacy:

International Center for Religion and Diplomacy:

For a copy of the lecture Omer gave at the Otniel Yeshiva, Yehuda, Holy Land:

What Could Happen If Only – Essay by Omer Salem

Dr. Salem’s speech in US Senate, 2012

Dr. Salem’s LinkedIn: