Rabbi Sacks: The Arabs Are Our Cousins, Not The Muslims
Allow me to correct Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Presumptuous of me? Perhaps. I love reading what Rabbi Sacks writes, so let me just offer a little tweak to something he wrote.
In a recent piece that he called “On Judaism and Islam“, he wrote:
Beneath the surface of the narrative in Chayei Sarah, the sages read the clues and pieced together a moving story of reconciliation between Abraham and Hagar on the one hand, Isaac and Ishmael on the other. Yes, there was conflict and separation; but that was the beginning, not the end. Between Judaism and Islam there can be friendship and mutual respect. Abraham loved both his sons, and was laid to rest by both. There is hope for the future in this story of the past.
It sounds really wonderful. But Ishmael was not a Muslim, he was an Arab.
In Israel, Jews often call Arabs “cousin” and that is because, as Arabs, they are our cousins. They are not our cousins by virtue of them being Muslims. We do not call Malaysians or Pakistanis cousin because, while they are Muslims, they are not Arabs. In short, we do not call any of the Muslims who are not Arab, cousin. And we would call any Arab, regardless of his or her religious affiliation, cousin. It is just that simple.
While Muslims around the world may consider Abraham as their spiritual father, that does not make them the offspring of Abraham, the father of Isaac and Ishmael. There were no Muslims in Biblical times. I feel I need to repeat that, in case it is not quite clear. There were no Muslims in Biblical times. Ishmael was not a Muslim. Therefore, the Ishmael that reconciled with Isaac and stood beside him at the grave of their father — he was not a Muslim.
It is a belief in Islam that any land they ever controlled must remain Muslim land forever after, regardless of who was there before and who managed to fight back and regain sovereignty afterward. Likewise, they claim ownership over people from before Mohammad ever walked the Earth. They retroactively claim Ishmael as a Muslim. Islam is their faith, and they can define it however they want. They can make it out to have been Ishmael that was about to be sacrificed rather than Isaac, too. Cousins often remember their family histories differently. They can either laugh about these contradictory stories or they can fight about them and become estranged. Families have a logic all their own.
In short, our conflict with the Arabs is a family issue.
Our conflict with non-Arab Muslims is a community issue – at most an issue of dealing with the families of in-laws, those who married into the family, so to speak. Blood connections are stronger (not always better, as anyone with a family knows, but innately stronger unless a conscious decision is taken making it otherwise).
What this means for me, reflecting on the image of Isaac and Ishmael standing together to mourn their father, is that we can work toward reconciliation with our cousins, the Arabs, and leave the rest of the Muslim world to decide how they want to relate to that. I am not really up to taking on the whole Muslim world, nor with reconciling with peoples that have decided they have a say over what happens in my house just because they joined the extended family.