Judaism and Islam – the beauty of the other

It is easy to criticise others and to give in to fear. But what is there to discover when you take a closer look and try to really get to know this "other"? Iskandar Ahmad Abdalla from Egypt and Yuval Ben-Ami from Israel both did so, diving into the world of the "other" and being enriched by it. Here they tell of their experiences, which both delighted and surprised them

By Iskandar Ahmad Abdalla / Yuval Ben-Ami

Iskandar Ahmad Abdalla (photo: Goethe Institut)
Iskandar Ahmad Abdalla

Iskandar Ahmad Abdalla is a young Egyptian translator and journalist. His insights into the spiritual and religious world of Judaism opened his eyes in many ways. In the first instance, he came across things he had not been expecting. He also realised how close he was to Hebrew, both linguistically and spiritually, and that Islam, his own religion, has the same monotheistic roots as Judaism. 

"Now the entire earth was of one language and uniform words." (Genesis 11:1). This is what the Torah says about the beginnings of mankind. From this, commentators conclude that Hebrew must have been the first human language. What is certain is that Hebrew is a holy language for the Jews, and not just because they see Hebrew as the language of the first humans; for them, it is also the language of Creation. God created the world in Hebrew. In Hebrew, he said "Let there be light", and he called the light day, and the darkness he called night (Genesis 1: 5). And after God had created the world, he spoke to Adam in Hebrew. Adam, in turn, gave all of God's creations Hebrew names. 

The branch of Jewish mysticism known as Kabbalah even goes one step further, attributing a hidden symbolic meaning to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The followers of some Kabbalist movements even believe that individual letters have magical properties. They believe that somebody possessing the divine gift of being able to read the secrets of the mystical letters can use certain combinations of letters to protect himself and his loved ones from certain evils. 

Old Hebrew, which remains essential for theologians to this day, has gone through periods of boom and times of decline. It has been preserved through the centuries, not only in the texts of the Torah, but also in prayers and religious phrases. The Chadarim (from the Hebrew cheder - "room") also played an important role here. The cheder was a religious school attached to a synagogue, comparable with the Koran schools of Islam. In the cheder, Jewish boys were taught to read and write Hebrew. Later, they learned verses of the Torah by heart and practised reciting them for religious ceremonies and services. In the Middle Ages, Middle Hebrew gained a certain significance, particularly on the Muslim-governed part of the Iberian Peninsula, at the instigation of Jewish philosophers and rabbis. It became not only the language of the faithful and of Jewish theologians, but also for a while the language of thinkers and poets. Hebrew received another boost through its revival in the nineteenth century and the resulting emergence of Israeli Hebrew, which is now the mother tongue of around six million people. 

Discovering the Hebrew language 

None of these facts were known to me when I came to Germany to start a degree in Oriental Studies. The very first class of my first term – more to the point, my very first class at a German university – was a Hebrew class. The lecturer was Jewish and came from Israel. I remember going to university with mixed feelings. For one thing, I still felt pretty foreign; I was an Egyptian student in a country I hardly knew. For another I was, of course, an Arab. Whether I wanted to or not, I brought a specific history with me – one over which I had no influence, though it had all the more influence on me for that reason. My way of thinking had been shaped over decades by a never-ending flood of newspaper reports and news programmes about an eternal conflict and by the highly politicised rhetoric of the parties involved in that conflict, meaning I had no real opportunity to create my own picture, critically and without prejudice. The national pride and religious chauvinism on both sides had too great an influence on me. There was too little room left for tolerance or the idea of the fraternity of all human beings. 

But the uneasy feeling in my stomach didn't last long. There is no room in a university for clichés or for a historical consciousness coloured by ideology. Academia revealed itself to be above prejudice and political opportunism. I was simply astounded by what I learned. For example, the similarity between my mother tongue and Hebrew. Even in New Hebrew, with all the words it has borrowed from Yiddish, German and English, there are many parallels to be seen with Arabic. "He read", for example, is kara' in Hebrew, and qara'a in Arabic; "he wrote" is kataw in Hebrew and kataba in Arabic; "father" is 'aw in Hebrew and 'ab in Arabic. Even where the vowels differ, as in the words for "mother" (Hebrew: 'em; Arabic: 'umm), a clear relationship can still be seen between the two languages. These are just a few of a whole host of examples I could mention. Over time, my Hebrew lecturer and I increasingly came to enjoy a kind of question-and-answer game: he would give us a Hebrew word that we students did not yet know, and I would then have to try and work out the Arabic equivalent from the sound and the appearance of the written word. I didn't always manage it, but surprisingly often I did. Occasionally, the Hebrew and the Arabic word even had exactly the same meaning. Then there were words that might have had an obvious relationship in the two languages, but which differed more or less in their meaning, like for example the Hebrew word simla ("dress") and the Arabic word samal ("worn-out piece of clothing"). And of course we made a few curious discoveries in the course of this guessing game. For example, "cake" is 'uga in Hebrew. In Egypt, we actually have a food with a similar-sounding name, but which is better described as an omelette made with onions and parsley. 

It is well known that the best way to learn a foreign language is by reading a lot of texts in that language. I most enjoyed submerging myself in the Torah, the monotheistic legacy bequeathed to humanity by the Jews. Of these five books, which are composed in high literary style and including numerous epic and mythical elements, my favourite is Genesis, the first book of Moses. I particularly like the great similarity between God and man, in comparison to the Koran and the New Testament – when, for example, God rests from his work on the seventh day (Genesis 2: 2); when he is dissatisfied that Adam is living alone and therefore creates Eve; when Adam and Eve hear his voice in the Garden (Genesis 3: 8); and when he finally speaks to them after she has eaten of the tree of knowledge: "Behold man has become like one of us" (Genesis 3: 22).

For a Muslim who is familiar with the Koran, studying the Torah stimulates the intellect and the imagination. Many of the stories Muslims know from the Koran also appear in the Torah. The content of some of these stories corresponds almost exactly, when one compares the Torah and the Koran, with the exception of a few small details. Others have little content in common, but the same people appear in both. Seen in this way, all these stories are like little rivers that are all fed by the same source: they are variations of the monotheistic doctrine that forms the basis of both Judaism and Islam. 

Apart from the common linguistic roots and the common monotheistic tenets on which the Torah and the Koran are based, there are many other points of contact between Judaism and Islam, including in the religious commandments that govern the everyday existence of believers, right down to the smallest detail: from cleanliness to food customs, all the way to the correct phrases to use in particular situations, for example when entering the privy. 

A celebratory Ramadan mood in a Jewish house 

Considering all the commonalities mentioned so far, it is hardly surprising that when I was invited to a Jewish friend's house on the eve of the Sabbath, I was reminded of the mood back home during the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan. Relatives and friends, adults and children, had gathered round the Sabbath table, which was decked with candles and the Sabbath bread, shaped into a plait and covered with a cloth. The warm candlelight intensified the already very intimate atmosphere. The father came back from the service in the synagogue, according to tradition in the company of two angels, to whom we had to say shalom aleichem ("peace be with you") – which of course reminded me of the way Muslims greet the two angels to the left and right at the end of prayers, with as-salaam aalaykum. Then the father spoke the blessing over the Kiddush cup and the Sabbath bread and wished blessings on his relatives, as we Muslims do in Ramadan when we break the fast at sunset. 

I was also struck by the parallels between religious customs in Islam and Judaism during other Jewish feast days and festivals, like Hanukkah, for example, which is also called the festival of lights. During this festival, a candle is lit on the Hanukkah candelabrum (menorah) each night, for eight nights in a row. At this time, people traditionally eat food cooked in oil, like potato pancakes or doughnuts. By contrast, during the first week of Pesach, when Jews remember the people of Israel's exodus from Egypt, they eat unleavened bread (matzo). On the first evening of the actual Pesach festival, which is called Seder, families come together to eat a celebratory meal, consisting of very specific foods, all of which have a symbolic meaning. In addition to this, extracts from the Haggadah are read, these days by several members of the family, often in a very lively way. This is a book containing texts and songs about how the people of Israel were enslaved in Egypt in the time of the pharaohs and the exodus that followed under the leadership of Moses. As well as the texts and songs from the Haggadah, on the Seder evening the foods on the Seder plate are supposed to bring the suffering and the freedom of the people of Israel to mind in as vividly as possible. Bitter horseradish, for example, reminds them of the bitter time in Egypt; a boiled egg stands for sadness and impermanence etc.

The lovely thing about these and other traditions is that they are not reserved for strictly observant Jews, but are also practised by many Jews who are otherwise less conscientious in their religious observance, but who see these customs and traditions as a cultural heritage and therefore observe them reverently. Even if the members of this broad mass take only a limited amount of direction from the Torah, they understand Judaism – if not as a religious, then at least as a cultural identity, manifesting itself as a collective Jewish memory. In this form, it is a religion for all those who have no religion, at least in the sense of the "faith of the fallen Jews", a concept formed by the historian Yosef H. Yerushalmi. What remains is a consciousness that has made the Jews a fixed element of human history – a tight bond between Jewish forefathers and their descendants, which has managed to endure over centuries in spite of the worst persecutions, so that one must wonder with Mark Twain: "All things are mortal but the Jew [...]. What is the secret of his immortality?"


Yuval Ben-Ami (photo: Goethe Institut)
Yuval Ben-Ami

Yuval Ben-Ami works as a journalist in Tel Aviv. To this day, he vividly remembers the feeling of alienation from his Muslim neighbours that he used to have in Jerusalem as a child. Arabic music and language were strange to him. Over the years, that changed. Alienation was replaced by surprise and admiration, which developed into a real love of Islamic architecture, culture and religion: Allah is great, almighty and golden, while man, even millionaires and princes, will return to dust and ashes. 

A conversation about beauty is always one of those things. It can easily sound trivial, sometimes even stupid. But my first encounter with Islamic culture came through aesthetics, which on closer examination revealed themselves as anything but banal and mundane: the perfection of form and elegance that come from the human soul have depth, size and weight. 

As a child, all I had to do was open the window. We lived in one of the Jewish quarters in the eastern part of Jerusalem that were established after the Six-Day War. It was basically a Jewish settlement, even if its inhabitants had not moved there for ideological reasons. The people who lived there were for the most part academics who either taught or studied at the nearby Hebrew University and were not particularly interested in the political status of East Jerusalem. As for so many Israelis, insofar as they come into contact with it at all, my attitude towards Arab culture was shaped by a feeling of alienation (many Israelis have entrenched themselves in homogenous coastal towns and don't even get to experience this feeling). 

This distance made itself felt in a number of ways, including in the form of an aesthetic uneasiness. The route we took to go shopping in the west of the city led us through Palestinian residential areas. The Arabic shop signs that I caught sight of through the car window frightened me. Arabic was the language of the enemy, which meant that to me, its letters looked like lances and swords. The Egyptian and Lebanese music with its maqam note-sequences, which came from cafes and passing cars, sounded unmelodic to me. It was alien to me, had no artistic attraction; on the contrary, it frightened me. I couldn't understand how people could enjoy this music. 

The Dome of the Rock: unquestionable perfection of form and splendour 

When I looked out of my window in the evening, I could see the dome glistening on Temple Mount. This magnificent golden building had been enthroned in the middle of the old town for over 1,300 years. Even if I didn't know the age of the dome, there was no doubting its beauty. Then as now, the golden dome was a religious and political symbol, embodying a seemingly endless conflict. But at the same time, it was – and still is – one of the most beautiful structures in the world. 

At the start of the first intifada, when the old town became a dangerous place, I was just eleven years old. Everything I could see from my window – including the magical dome – was now forbidden territory for me. At night, flares made the narrow alleyways glow orange. The golden dome, in front of which I had never stood, looked as if it was on fire. At seventeen I ventured into the old town for the first time and walked up Temple Mount. 

On my visits to the old town I met sensitive, good people. I discovered that the danger was not nearly as great as I had been led to believe. I felt increasingly secure and learned to read the letters that had once seemed like lances. I began to find meaning in the sounds of music that I hadn't understood before. I developed an awareness of the paradoxical situation in which the Palestinians live, and of injustices perpetrated by my section of the population. But I also spoke with the Palestinians about grievances within their community, and about challenges that we all faced. 

Five-fold thanks for the time we have been granted 

Beauty made me think again: the overwhelming elegance of Islamic architecture – which is in no way trivial – the aesthetics of which bear witness to deep values. In the middle of a modest little wood, the noble, proud Dome of the Rock, high up on Temple Mount, embodies a magical connection between heaven and earth. Allah is great, almighty and golden, while man – even if he is a millionaire or a prince – returns to dust and ashes. There is nothing wrong with dust and ashes per se. The pines whitewashed by the summer dust lend their shade and cast their black silhouettes on the dome; olive trees languidly let their fruit fall before it; women sit here on plastic chairs, listening to the Hadith, the traditions of the Prophet Mohammed.

The beauty of the Al-Aqsa Mosque speaks of the goodness and the vast extent of our world. We people have been granted time to linger in this garden, for which we express our thanks five times a day. We give thanks for sunrise and night. We give form to an amorphous afternoon with the help of a song. 

Now it can certainly be claimed that Temple Mount is not fundamentally Islamic. Since ancient times it has been the second holiest place on earth for Jews. The whole complex, which was created by Herod, has retained its present dimensions since 600 years before the birth of the Prophet. The architecture of the Dome of the Rock is inspired by the octagons of Byzantine churches. But things are not created in a vacuum. Islamic art too has deep, widely branching roots, some of which stretch back to the religions of antiquity and even older artistic traditions, inspired by the landscapes of the Middle East, its climate and – some may say – God. 

Cairo: an experience that gets under your skin 

My youthful encounter with Islamic aesthetics led me to other sites of Islamic beauty in Egypt, Turkey and other places in the surrounding region, to all the countries that an Israeli citizen is permitted to visit in spite of the many restrictions. In Cairo, of course, the pyramids left a deep impression on me, but it was the Mamluk mosques in the Khan el-Khalili area that really got under my skin, with their pointed domes carved out of stone. The great gates of the madrassas with their shadowy domes, hung with what look like delicate stone stalactites, and the thin towers of the Ottoman mosques high up on the citadel filled me with awe.

I encountered the values of Islamic aesthetics in the lifestyles of the Muslims I met all over the world, in their attitude to time and space, their hospitality and the way they listened to me. There is a strong connection between the Cairo mosques and the night my girlfriend and I were picked up in the town of Mersa Matruh by a taxi driver who insisted on giving us a free ride. He invited us into his house, introduced us to his wife and children, prepared a wonderful meal for us and at around 3.30 a.m. in the morning, showed us his daughter's wedding video. The aesthetic and the lifestyle are deeply connected, even if this is hard to put into words. You just have to take a close look at the inviting buildings surrounded by gardens, the domes and pines. The connection is there. 

The Middle East: a region full of tensions and hatred, but also optimism and love.

The deeper significance of the Middle East cannot be put into words. But centuries-old works in stone and breath-taking ornamental tiles express at least something about this region. It is not a simple region. Life is hard for us here, but it's also hard for our neighbours. The women of this region are oppressed, and groups working for changes are in constant danger of awakening the wrath of fanatics. And yet there is great cause for optimism and empathy, even in difficult times of crisis. 

I am a Jew. And so I know that Islam can be the most tolerant and progressive religion in the world. This must have been implanted in my memory by my forefathers, who once chatted to their Muslim friends over the irrigation channels in the orange groves. 

© Goethe Institut 2014
Translated from the German by Ruth Martin