Address by His Royal Highness Crown Prince El Hassan bin Talal
of the
Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan

"TOWARDS A CONVERSATION BETWEEN MUSLIMS AND JEWS"

at the
Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies
22nd. May, 1997
Oxford, UK

Dr. Wasserstein,
Distinguished guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is my great pleasure to address such an illustrious gathering of scholars, in a no less distinguished university, so rightly, considered a focus for scholars from all over the world. I have tried to encourage and support dialogue between believers in the three great monotheistic faiths for many years. It is my belief that such a dialogue leaves the participants with more knowledge about the fundamental unities that exist between the faiths and their traditions.

Throughout history, religions have been exposed to the awareness of the existence of each other, through expansion, through accounts of travellers, but most importantly, through what can be termed as cultural contacts. Also, there have always been religious fanatics who felt that the "other" must be either suppressed or eliminated. The spectre of the rise of extremism in our own age cannot be defeated by ignoring the whole phenomenon. Rather, we must confront it collectively, by allowing our respective traditions to engage openly on the nature of our faiths' universality, absoluteness, or even unique viability in a process of probing dialogue rather than polemics; and in the spirit of sharing and not disputation. For each to be given their due, humility is the most essential pre-requisite for any cultural contact.

Muslims are frequently depicted as warriors or war-like. There are many who claim that the imagery of the Quran is inspired by conflict. They forget that Islam was born in a world of constant turmoil, and did not invent strife. The Holy Quran is imbued with a tone of powerful serenity. If there are elements of polemic in Islamic literature whether concerning Judaism, or Christianity, it may be because Islam came after these religions, and was consequently, obliged to enunciate a perspective which made it possible to go beyond some of the formal aspects of the two preceding monotheisms.

Islam offered a form of historical self-consciousness, that in a Quranic context as a (Din) religion which is scripturally based, and is a continuation of the monotheistic tradition embodied in Judaism and Christianity, as opposed to the previous pre-Islamic (Jahili) system of beliefs. In the process of formulating and projecting its own identity, Islam simultaneously reconstructed its relationship with Jews and Christians, who as People of the Book, or Ahl al-Kitab, enjoy a privileged relationship as fellow monotheists.

Islam's mode of narrative derives from the first human couple, Adam and Eve. It thus emphasises the common destiny of humankind. Adam is regarded as the first Muslim - that is, a person submitting to the will of God. This usage of the universal discourse, which begins with the first human couple, marks the beginning of the humanitarian saga towards the creation of an ideal society on earth. With that also, there is a recognition of universal moral norms that touch all human beings, even when they follow their own particular revealed paths.

The Quran (5:48) states "To every one of you [religious communities] we have appointed a law and a way [of conduct]. If God had willed, He would have made you all one nation; but [He did not do so] that He may try you in what has come to you; therefore, be you forward in good works. Unto God shall you return altogether; and He will tell you [the truth] about what you have been disputing". The Muslim (Umma) community was thus defined by an increasingly pluralistic milieu, with a broad cultural discourse.

These notions of faith and tradition, and their conceptual importance, are best illustrated in Yehuda Halevi's work "the Kuzari", in which reference is made to a conversation between the King of Khazars and a Rabbi. The King asks the Rabbi about his faith. The Rabbi answers by referring to the opening verse of the Decalogue, stating that he believes in the Lord God, who delivered his ancestors out of the house of bondage in ancient Egypt. The King is hardly impressed with a story about an ancient event in the life of some people's ancestors. He expected a declaration of faith in an Almighty that has created everything. The Rabbi responds that this would be speculation, as no-one was present at the time of creation. However, the belief he is professing is born out of experience.

It is particularly this experience, of alienation and vulnerability, that has shaped the Hebrew concept of "Ger", translated into Arabic "Jar", and subsequently the "protected stranger". The Book of Exodus (29, V3) says: "You shall not oppress the stranger. For you know the soul [feelings] of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt". The same message is repeated in the Book of Leviticus (19, V.34): "The stranger you shall not afflict... You shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt, I am the Lord your God". The profound effect of the exodus experience, seems to have shaped the historical development of the terms "Ger Tosheb", the resident alien, and "Ger Zedeq", the righteous proselyte who adheres to the Seven Commandments of Noah, which came to ensure that humans would never descend to an antediluvian level of violence and immorality.

Judaism and Islam share a common idiom. This idiom which is divided into a primary moral discourse at the universal level, creates interactive strategies for co-operation between the particular community and the wider social universe, and a secondary language that is derived from ways of conduct that create an interactive system within the community.

It is most important to utilise these factors, inherent in the traditions of our faiths, in the era of increasing globalisation of our cultures, and in the midst of the ongoing revolution in communications. We must push for allowing truth to emerge in our common traditions of faith. At a time when migration and mobility have turned traditions into anguished questions of collective identity, we must uphold the truth in our common traditions of faith.

There are no straightforward solutions, nor easy answers, but we can all collectively activate the universal idiom that would permit co¬operation among us, without denying the fundamental source of our religious and cultural identification. Inter-faith dialogue has been ongoing between Jews and Christians for some time, while the Christians and Muslims have found a modus operandi for coexistence and understanding. However, paradoxically, while Muslims and Jews share the glorious heritage of Al Andalus and Sepharad, their relationship suffered great set¬backs in the 19th century, which developed into outright enmity in the 20th.

This shared heritage embraced the glorious poetry of Solomon ibn Gabirol, Moses ibn Ezra, and Judah ha-levi; the philosophical treatises of ibn Daud, and ibn Paqud; the scientific treatises of Abraham bar Hiyya, and Abraham ibn Ezra. These were all works of intellect, sensitive to every ripple of Arabic culture, and infused with its love of beauty and knowledge.

The work of Moses Maimonides (ibn Maimoun), the earliest systematic codification of all Jewish Law, remains an epitaph to a glorious cross-culture which requires rediscovery and recognition, in order to build on its past achievements.

We can do much to mitigate conflict by understanding each other's faiths and traditions. We must rationalise our pain and suffering in the context of our historical encounter. In this way, we may one day be able together to renew the Islamic-Jewish heritage of old.

Thank you very much Ladies and Gentlemen.