In the following brief exchange, Or Rose and Homayra Ziad explore their personal reactions to the notion of chosenness in Judaism and Islam. As scholars and practitioners, they also reflect on their approach to prayer and their openness to other religions.
In thinking about the issue of chosenness, the one constructive statement I can make most confidently is that I choose to be a Jew. I love Judaism and feel blessed to be an active member of this ancient, wise, and evolving civilization, even when I am frustrated with or disappointed by certain Jewish teachings or find myself at odds with other members of my community.
Theologically, however, I do not experience God as a personal being who chooses to enter into covenantal relationship with certain individuals or groups and not with others. Inspired by various mystical and philosophical teachings — both Jewish and non-Jewish — I am more drawn to a spiritual worldview in which God is envisioned as the life force that animates, courses through, and binds all of reality. While I am by no means settled in my beliefs, this is the prevailing spiritual paradigm in my life today.
One context in which I actively engage with the language of chosenness is at prayer. Like many other worshippers over the centuries, I have developed a dynamic approach to tefilah (prayer) that involves deep listening and learning from past voices, reinterpretation, and liturgical change. In the case of chosenness, there are certain traditional formulations that I alter, using wording that affirms Jewish uniqueness and also honors both the dignity of other peoples and the wisdom of other religious and cultural traditions. Given the dark and enduring legacy of religious chauvinism, I feel the need to pay careful attention to this issue when I engage in prayer and ritual, as these sacred acts can have a profound impact on our attitudes and behaviors.
Since we work together on various interreligious and cross-cultural initiatives, I am curious about how you understand the concept of chosenness as a Muslim practitioner and educator, and about what the similarities and differences may be in our approaches to this sensitive subject.
Thank you for inviting me into this conversation. Given the limits of this format, please consider this but the beginning of a longer discussion.
I do not accept the notion that God values some people over others purely because of a label that we are born with or that we affix to ourselves. I believe that the Merciful One reveals himself to those who choose to act in ways that mirror and so invite divine mercy. The Qur’an teaches that faith and ethics are inseparable, like two sides of the same coin. It also teaches that God intends human diversity as a gift and not a curse.
It is important to note, however, that most Muslim theologians hold that salvation rests on faith in foundational Islamic doctrines. And yet, they argue, God will not punish those not reached by the Qur’an’s message. Further, only God can know who received the message in the right way. Therefore, Muslims can never claim with certainty that a person will or will not be saved. Capacious as this “mainstream” position may be, it does not fully satisfy the call of my conscience. I find comfort in a panentheistic vision of God (a personal God who is both immanent and transcendent) and an expansive Qur’anic hermeneutics that call me to honor both God’s universality and God’s particular relationship with different peoples.
Ritual prayer poses a specific challenge: For example, the salat (or namaz, for Muslims from Persian cultures) invokes blessings on the community of Muhammad (peace be upon him), and also, in the same breath, invokes blessings on the community of Abraham (peace be upon him). As a person from two diverse societies — Pakistan and the United States — who has many friends and colleagues who are not Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, I find this formulation difficult. And so, when praying, I focus on the oft-repeated phrase “Lord of all worlds, merciful and compassionate,” while reserving a special familial place for members of the Abrahamic communities.
As you said of Judaism, there are teachings and traditions in Islam with which I struggle, but I strongly believe that it provides me with a rich and wise context in which to experience God’s compassionate presence and to live a life in response to this boundless gift.
Warmly, Homayraemail print