Sons of Abra­ham: A Can­did Con­ver­sa­tion about the Issues That Divide and Unite Jews and Muslims

  • Review
By – May 13, 2013

It would be hard to image two co-authors as mis­matched as Rab­bi Marc Schneier and Imam Sham­si Ali. One is a mod­ern Ortho­dox rab­bi, the descen­dant of gen­er­a­tions of rab­bis who grew up in priv­i­lege and access to pow­er in Man­hat­tan. The oth­er is an Indone­sian-born imam, the son of a farmer who grew up in pover­ty and, after time in an Islam­ic uni­ver­si­ty in Pak­istan, came to Amer­i­ca to lead a Mus­lim con­gre­ga­tion. In the end, how­ev­er, it is their dif­fer­ences that make this book so impor­tant, read­able, and compelling.

Both the rab­bi and the imam grew up in worlds that feared and demo­nized the oth­er. Rab­bi Schneier was deeply sus­pi­cious of Mus­lims, believ­ing them all to be anti-Semit­ic and bent on the anni­hi­la­tion of Israel and all he held dear. Imam Ali believed that Jews were untrust­wor­thy, devi­ous, and the sworn ene­my of Islam. Rab­bi Schneier and Imam Ali tell their sto­ries in alter­nat­ing chap­ters in which they also tack­le the most dif­fi­cult issues that divide Jews and Mus­lims, like the notions of cho­sen­ness, jihad, Israel/​Palestine and Holo­caust denial.

My favorite anec­dote in the book is when Imam Ali arrives at JFK Air­port in 1996 beset by night­mares that Amer­i­ca is filled with Mus­lim-haters and gets into a taxi dri­ven by a Mus­lim. He writes: I quick­ly real­ized that, despite my fears, the first per­son I had an inter­ac­tion with in this coun­try was a fel­low Mus­lim, and that he and I were not alone in an angry sea of white Chris­t­ian evangelicals.”

Rab­bi Schneier’s ini­tial out­reach beyond his Jew­ish world was to Amer­i­can blacks. In the 1990s, he estab­lished the Foun­da­tion for Eth­nic Under­stand­ing, which works to reju­ve­nate the old alliance between blacks and Jews.

The rab­bi and the imam first meet at an inter­faith meet­ing in the after­math of the ter­ror­ist attacks of 9/11 and forged an unlike­ly friend­ship that even­tu­al­ly led to dia­logue and invi­ta­tions to address each other’s congrega­tions. Both lead­ers encoun­tered hos­til­i­ty from co-reli­gion­ist who thought they had gone too far in reach­ing out. Their oppo­nents argued that they had com­pro­mised their reli­gious her­itage. But this book bold­ly demon­strates that they rep­re­sent the best in their reli­gious tra­di­tions and have forged a mod­el for oth­ers to emulate.

Ari L. Gold­man (ALG), a for­mer New York Times reli­gion writer, is a pro­fes­sor at the Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty Grad­u­ate School of Jour­nal­ism. He is the author of three books, includ­ing the best­selling The Search for God at Harvard.

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