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A Reform Rabbi Learns from Muhammad
Mar 1, 2008

All Muslims know that the Qur’an often refers to the “people of the book” and their prophets. In addition, there are dozens of hadiths, sayings of the Prophet of Islam, that speak about Jews and Christians. The hadiths that refer to the Jews of Muhammad’s time are about Orthodox Jews. Of the 13 million Jews in the world today the majority, both in Israel and throughout the world, are no longer Orthodox. The largest denomination of non-Orthodox Jews in the US and Canada, where 6 million Jews live, is the Reform movement. Reform Judaism began in Germany almost two hundred years ago as a “back to the basics” modernizing movement. I am a Reform Rabbi who first became interested in Islam when I studied it at university (UCLA) more than forty-five years ago. I have continued my study of Islam off and on since that time. In many ways hadith relating Muhammad’s comments about Orthodox Judaism, and religion in general, prefigure the thinking of Reform Rabbis some twelve to thirteen centuries later.

Hadiths are narrative accounts by Muhammad’s companions of situations involving God’s Messenger and rulings or statements that Muhammad made. Since Muhammad is considered by Muslims to be an excellent exemplar, hadiths have had a major impact on Islam’s worldview. There are six major collections of hadith. The most influential one is by al-Bukhari (who died about 240 years after Muhammad). Bukhari claims to have examined almost six hundred thousand hadith. He only accepted seventy-four hundred of them (1.2%) as being undeniably authentic. The other five collections also did not include the vast majority of hadiths they examined, but they do overlap considerably in the ones that they do consider authentic. I have selected five hadiths to gloss from my perspective as a Reform Rabbi. The first is from Sahih Muslim and the following four are from Bukhari.


Sahih Muslim: Thabit narrated it from Anas: Among the Jews, when a woman menstruated, they did not dine with her, nor did they live with them in their houses; so the Companions of the Apostle (may peace be upon him) asked the Apostle (may peace be upon him), and God, the Exalted revealed: “They also ask you about (the injunctions concerning) menstruation. Say: ‘It is a state of hurt (and ritual impurity), so keep away from them during menstruation’” to the end (Baqara 2:222). The Messenger of God (may peace be upon him) said: “Do everything except intercourse.” The Jews heard of that and said: “This man does not want to leave anything we do without opposing us in it.” (Book 003, Number 0592)

Gloss: Both Islam and Judaism have laws about ritual pollution deriving from a woman’s monthly period. Orthodox Judaism had greatly expanded the prohibitions against physical contact during a woman’s period. Muhammad opposes this expansion and limits the prohibition for Muslims. Reform Rabbis today are much closer to Islamic practice than they are to Orthodox Jewish practice.


Bukhari; Narrated Abu Huraira: The Prophet said, “Religion is very easy and whoever overburdens himself in his religion will not be able to continue in that way. So you should not be extremists, but try to be near to perfection and receive the good tidings that you will be rewarded.” (Volume 1, Book 2, Number 38)

Gloss: Unlike Christianity, both Islam and Judaism teach the importance of sacred slaughter of meat, and the avoidance of certain animals for food. In Islam, the rules are simpler and fewer than in Orthodox Judaism. Reform Rabbis would regard the increasingly restrictive developments in the laws of kosher diet, especially for Passover, as a counterproductive, overburdening of the people. The expansion of restrictions on Shabbat activities is also seen by Reform Rabbis as a counterproductive, overburdening of the joy of Shabbat. Muhammad wisely differentiates between extremism and striving to be near perfect (no one is perfect) which involves a rejection of extremism. Just trying to do well will be rewarded. Religion should not be hard. Making religion easier does not mean making religion soft or impious. This is a very important hadith because all religions have believers that think more is better, and harder is still better.

Worshiping none other than God

Narrated ‘Aisha and Ibn’ Abbas: On his deathbed God’s Apostle put a sheet over his face and when he felt hot, he would remove it from his face. When in that state (of putting and removing the sheet) he said, “May God’s Curse be on the Jews and the Christians for they build places of worship at the graves of their prophets.” He intended to warn (the Muslim) from what they (i.e. Jews and Christians) had done. (Volume 4, Book 56, Number 660)

Gloss: God’s apostle strongly opposed any diversion of reverence or worship to anyone other than God. Christians, and even Jews, had started worshiping at the graves of holy men, saints and prophets. Although they claimed to be only worshiping God, their feeling that prayer was better or more effective at such sites was cursed by Muhammad. In later centuries, some Muslims also began worshiping at the tombs of holy men and building places of worship near their graves. For Islam, none other than God can be attributed with divinity. Therefore, seeking divine assistance from the graves is shirk, associating partners with God, which is the gravest sin in Islam. However, some ignorant Muslims may unintentionally hypothesize divine qualities for certain deceased people. Although such Muslims are not too many, and they do not really intend to worship them, this is one of the developments that the Wahhabi movement strongly opposes.1

Reform Rabbis would agree that such activity at grave sites should be condemned and could be seen as a curse. God’s apostle must also have realized that even the Muslim community would produce people whose piety would lead to such errors. No religious community is exempt from people who use piety and belief improperly. This hadith teaches us all to be humble when we view other religions and other sects within our own religion. The next hadith teaches this even more explicitly.

Learning from failings

Narrated Abu Said: The Prophet said: “You will follow the wrong ways of your predecessors so completely and literally that if they should go into the hole of an animal, you too will go there.” We said, “O God’s Apostle! Do you mean the Jews and the Christians?” He replied, “Whom else?” (Volume 4, Book 56, Number 662)

Gloss: Muhammad criticized the failings of many in the Jewish and Christian communities (as did the prophets of Israel), but he realized that people are human, and most do not seem to learn from the failings of others. He hoped that Muslims would retain their original purity, but he foresaw that decay and falsification were inevitable. God’s apostle would certainly attack female genital mutilation in Africa today as sharply as he attacked female infanticide in Arabia in his day.2 It is a shame that many Muslim leaders in Africa today do not condemn it. Reform Rabbis, who have now been part of a modern democratic society for several generations are openly critical of those Orthodox practices and ideas that we think betray the spirit of Judaism in today’s world.


Abu Huraira related: Two men, a Muslim and a Jew, abused each other. The Muslim said, “By Him Who gave superiority to Muhammad over all the people.” At that, the Jew said, “By Him Who gave superiority to Moses over all the people.” The Muslim became furious at that and slapped the Jew in the face. The Jew went to God’s Apostle and informed him of what had happened between him and the Muslim. God’s Apostle said, “Don’t give me superiority over Moses, for people will fall unconscious on the Day of Resurrection and I will be the first to gain consciousness, and behold! Moses will be there holding the side of God’s Throne. I will not know whether Moses has been among those people who have become unconscious and then has regained consciousness before me, or has been among those exempted by God from falling unconscious.” (Volume 8, Book 76, #524)

Gloss: God’s Messenger is so well known for his sense of justice that a Jew can appeal to him even in a conflict with a Muslim who has attacked a Jew. It is only natural for Jews to think that Moses is the best, and for Muslims to think that Muhammad is the best. Muhammad rebukes the Muslim, telling him not to claim that Muhammad is superior to Moses because even on the day of Resurrection, Muhammad himself will not know their relative merit, for although Muhammad will be the first to be revived, Moses will already be there holding the side of God’s throne. Muhammad teaches us that comparisons of religious superiority are wrong, for no human in this world, and perhaps even in the world to come, will know who the best is, and such comparisons do not help anything but polarize people by inciting partisan fervor. All Reform Rabbis would applaud this teaching although we know that during the Middle Ages all three religions claimed superiority.

Most Americans would be amazed to hear such liberal and flexible statements coming from a religion that they think is rigid and fanatical. But the politicized Islam that has captured so much attention in the world today is the outgrowth of two recent factors. One is an anti-western reaction and scapegoating due to the great dislocations and upheavals occurring as a result of globalization in all modernizing societies in the twentieth century. The second factor is the result of several previous centuries of socio-economic decline that took place in the Middle East. Jews and Christians have already had reforming movements. Muslims have not. But the Prophet predicted that Muslims also would become more rigid and orthodox just as the Jews and Christians had. As we have seen Abu Sa’id al-Khudri reported God’s Messenger as saying: You will tread the same path as was trodden by those before you inch by inch and step by step, so much so that if they had entered into the hole of a lizard, you would follow them in this also. We said: Do you mean Jews and Christians? He said: Who else?”

Unlike Orthodox Rabbis, Reform Rabbis accept the doctrine of nullification, which teaches that one verse in scripture can nullify another, and that rulings can be changed due to changed circumstances. Muhammad provides an excellent example of this principle in the following account. The Prophet originally told women not to visit graveyards, but toward the end of his life, he said to them: “I had told you not to visit graves; now I am telling you to visit them.” The reason was that Arabian women used to wail at graves. The Prophet wanted this practice to be stopped. Therefore, he banned women from visiting graves to start with. After some time, when Muslim women were better aware of how Islam wants them to behave in different situations, he allowed them such visits. In fact, the Prophet encourages visiting graveyards because such a visit reminds the visitor of his or her own death and the fact that they would have to stand in front of God when their actions are reckoned to determine their reward or punishment. Scholars like Ibn Qudamah, of the Hanbali school of law, make it clear that since this is the purpose of visiting graveyards, both men and women need such visits.

Another important teaching of the Qur’an for people all over the world today is that God chose not to create human beings as one nation and bestowed upon them free will to believe or not to believe. As it is written in the Qur’an (Maedah 5:48) “For every one of you did We appoint a law and a way. If God had pleased He would have made you one people, but (He didn’t) that He might test you in what He gave you. Therefore compete with one another to hasten to virtuous deeds; for all return to God, so He will let you know (after Judgment Day) that in which you differed.” This is a wonderful further development of the teaching of the Biblical prophet Micah (4:5) that in the end of days-the Messianic Age-”All people will walk, each in the name of their own God, and we shall walk in the name of the Lord our God forever.”

A Muslim is one who submits to the will of God and believes that God has sent many different prophets to the many peoples of the world. As a Reform Rabbi I believe that Muhammad was the Prophet sent to the Arab people. I believe that the Qur’an is as true for Muslims as the Torah is true for Jews. Indeed, I love the hadith also narrated by Abu Huraira that says, “The people of the Book used to read the Torah in Hebrew and then explain it in Arabic to the Muslims. God’s Apostle said (to the Muslims). “Do not believe the people of the Book, nor disbelieve them, but say, ‘We believe in God, and whatever is revealed to us, and whatever was revealed to you.’”3 Following Muhammad’s teaching I too neither believe nor disbelieve in the Qur’an. I do respect the Qur’an very much as a kindred revelation to a kindred people in a kindred language.4 “We have not sent you but as an unequalled mercy for all the worlds” (Anbiya 21:107). The Prophet Muhammad's mission, peace be upon him, is not restricted to Arabs only. Arabs today comprise not more than twenty percent of the entire Muslim population around the world. Belief in the Prophets and previous revelations are two of the six pillars of faith in Islam. Likewise, the Qur'an is the final revelation that was sent after the Torah, Psalms, and Gospels. Its message is universal and does not cover one specific nation only. (Ed.)In fact, the people, the language and the theology are closer to my own people, language and theology than that of any other on earth. Of course, more than eighty percent of Muslims in the world today are not of Arab decent. But Arabic is their sacred language and the tradition that Arabs and Jews are cousins is widely accepted. This makes the present conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis especially tragic. It is very important to realize that the conflict is a political one and not a religious one. There can be no religious conflict between religions like Judaism and Islam because neither of them declares that their scriptures are the only ones from God. The strong support that the Qur’an gives to religious pluralism is a lesson that is sorely needed by the religious fundamentalists of all religions in the world today.


  1. The tradition of building mosques next to graves, or the other way round is a common practice. However, Muslims do not have the intention of worshiping the deceased saints. Muslims worship and petition God, and God only. Besides, there are practical reasons, like performing funeral services more easily and praying for one’s deceased. (Ed.)
  2. Female genital mutilation (or female circumcision) has nothing to do with any Islamic practice. It is a custom in some parts of Africa and the Middle East. In Islamic sources, there is no absolute prohibition, nor is there any kind of encouragement regarding this practice. This practice is also considered reprehensible since it carries a risk to the girl’s future ability to enjoy sexual relations with her husband. (Ed.)
  3. This hadith refers to the fact that as a part of the Islamic creed, Muslims have to believe in all the Prophets and revelations sent to them. Muslims believe the previous scriptures have not remained in their original state. Since it is not certain how much these scriptures have been changed, the Prophet enjoins Muslims not to accept or deny completely the message of these scriptures. (Ed.)
  4. “We have not sent you but as an unequalled mercy for all the worlds” (Anbiya 21:107). The Prophet Muhammad’s mission, peace be upon him, is not restricted to Arabs only. Arabs today comprise not more than twenty percent of the entire Muslim population around the world. Belief in the Prophets and previous revelations are two of the six pillars of faith in Islam. Likewise, the Qur’an is the final revelation that was sent after the Torah, Psalms, and Gospels. Its message is universal and does not cover one specific nation only. (Ed.)