When I told my son that I was going to Cape Town, he told he had a friend there who belonged to a mosque committed to including women in worship, a community under the leadership of a progressive imam. It happened that my commitments to teach at Limmud, the South African version of the British festival of Jewish study, began late Friday afternoon. So I called Imam A. Rashied Omar and arranged to visit the Claremont Main Road Mosque for Friday prayers and an interview.
My new article on the mosque and the imam is now up at the American Prospect. A personal preface: The fact that I wrote about this particular community and its leader doesn’t mean they are unique. Indeed, friends who have already seen the article have already sent me names of other Islamic teachers working in similar veins. I’m writing about Omar because he’s the one I had the opportunity to meet.
I don’t know what portion of Muslims he or his community represent. But I don’t think that the essence of a faith is determined by majority vote. In 1665, the majority of Jews believed Shabtai Tzvi was messiah and that Nathan of Gaza was his prophet. The dissidents who understood that their community was in the midst of mass hysteria had a stronger grasp of Judaism. Today the majority of Orthodox Zionists in Israel are caught up in a warped version of Judaism, originally promoted by that latter-day Nathan of Gaza, Tzvi Yehudah Kook, that sanctifies land, power and Jewish exclusivism. I firmly believe that the majority is deeply mistaken.
This is a statement that can be made from within a tradition. Looking at Islam from the outside I can only note that there is a debate within it. Most writers from the outside who assert what Islam “really” is do so for polemic purposes. That most certainly includes Israeli polemicists, professional and amateur, who assert that Islam “really” is violent and incapable of reconciliation with Judaism – a reading that conveniently places the responsibility of unending conflict entirely on the opposing side.
For my part, I simply note that there are Muslims and Christians whose readings of their own faith I find inspiring, and others whose readings of their religion I find frightening. The lines that divide traditions from each other are not necessarily as important as the lines dividing them from within. And this biography offers hope:
Omar, 49, is an extraordinarily slim man with a small goatee and frameless glasses. His mother, he recounts, wanted him to attend a madrasseh, an Islamic institution, for high school. His father insisted on a secular school. He attended both each day. By 12th grade, he was jailed as a student activist against apartheid. Since then, he says, “My struggle has been how to build a bridge between my faith commitment and my participation in protest against racism and apartheid, which I believed is evil.” This biography hints at two factors that can shape a religious progressive: learning to value a complex education and having the opportunity to apply religious commitment to human equality, not just one’s own liberation.
In 1985, he went to Sudan “to see how Muslims in the mainland were struggling with religion and politics.” He was, he says intensely, “extremely disappointed” by the stream of political Islam that had turned an Islamic state into a “sixth pillar” of the religion, alongside belief, prayer, giving to the poor, fasting, and performing the hajj to Mecca. He rejected the “idolatry of the state.” As an imam in Cape Town, before and after the transition to democracy, he has insisted instead “on being part of civil society,” separate from the state, and on “speaking truth to power and not being part of any political party.” For that reason he’s critical of the mainstream South African clerical group, the Muslim Judicial Council. “During apartheid they didn’t speak out,” he says. “Now they are too close to the new government.”
One expression of his activism is addressing the HIV-AIDS pandemic overwhelming South Africa. “We were among the first … to invite someone HIV positive to Friday services, to speak, to get rid of stigma, to say that our first response should not be one of judgment but rather of compassion,” he says. “We tried to challenge theology of those who said is punishment, a curse of God for those who may not living chaste lives.” From that work sprung an activist group, Positive Muslims, that provides counseling and runs education programs.
Read the full article here, and come back to South Jerusalem to comment.