Minutes of Meeting

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Date: June 5, 2005

Location: Alumni Hall RM 101

Topic: A dialogue with a progressive Daytonian Muslim couple

Speakers: Drs. Wayel and Ramzieh Azmeh

Context: Larry Briskin, a DCJD member, did a somewhat critical, perhaps polemical, presentation on Islam, supported by passages from the Koran, in October 2004. In the spirit of dialogue next on the schedule was a young Islamic teacher from an Islamic day school. The Lou Vera, the Diocese Ecumenical Officer, attended his session on November 21, 2004. He was a conservative, immersed in Islam. Dialogue members listened and asked many questions. Dr. Azmeh, one of the founding members of the Greater Dayton Interfaith trialogue, attended that evening. He subsequently asked to make his own presentation, because he did not feel the young teacher’s presentation was typical. Sunday night’s dialogue was his opportunity. Please read the following remarks and the EO’s concluding observations. 

Dr. Wayel Azmeh, an interventional cardiologist, and his pediatrician wife, Ramzieh Azmeh, emigrated to the U.S. after medical school in Syria and professional training in France. They came to the U.S. in 1985. They have lived in various places including Kansas, where Ramzieh Azmel was president of the Board of Interfaith Ministries. In Dayton they’ve been involved with NCCJ and the Greater Dayton Interfaith Trialogue.  On October 24 they will both receive NCCJ humanitarian awards.

Dr. Ramzieh Azmeh:

 With everybody who believes in dialogue we are family.

 We feel like we are on an interactive journey in which we receive and give.

 In Syria we went to the homes of Christian friends to celebrate Christmas with them. They fasted in solidarity during Ramadan and ate with us in the evenings.

Dr. Wayel Azmeh:

He has learned from phenomenology. It’s important that our understanding of our own religious teachings be logically sound but that is not sufficient. We must also ask, what does this mean to me?

What about Muslims within two standard deviations (66% and 33% of Muslims)? Progressive Muslim thinking is very common but most don’t talk about that, just like most Christians and Jews don’t talk about their take on their religions.  Currently, the medieval-sounding people in Islam get the press attention. This disturbs Dr. Wayel Azmeh.

(Explanation of Islamic regard for messengers of God, including Jesus.)

Dr. Wayel Azmeh invited questions. Questions followed in particular about freedom of religion.

“Do you believe in it for other people?”

Dr. Wayel Azmeh laid out an answer to a question previously treated in the two prior dialogues. He quoted the Koran that there can be no compulsion in religion but noted that subsequent hadiths or commentaries had advocated death as the penalty for apostasy. “We need the historical context to understand the texts.” Here there is a “clear contradiction between Islamic law and the Koran. When there is a contradiction between the Koran and the traditions of the prophet, either the conflicting tradition has to be completely rejected or (it’s judged) applicable only within a particular context. . . From the Islamic point of view (borne out over the broad swath of history) it is unacceptable to suppress other religions.”

He then used the example of three verses on the use of alcohol and gambling in the Koran. One of which attempted to balance views. He pointed out that the Koran is like the Talmud. You cannot take just one section and quote it without reference to its historical context.

Mr. Briskin then pointed out the (literary) context for the Koranic verse which forbids suppression of religion, which itself sounded suppressive to him. Dr. Azmeh noted that these verses simply condemn Jews who don’t keep Jewish law. Jerry Kotler made a well-timed crack about Reform Jews. I pointed out that literary context and historical context are two different things.

What followed were many critical comments regarding verses about ‘abrogation’ in the Koran, which I didn’t really understand. I think the concern behind the questions was, Did Muslims believe that Islam ‘replaces’ Christianity and Judaism? What policies followed from ‘abrogation?’

Dr. Azmeh: Historically, Islam has recognized that ‘every group of people has a different way of doing things.’ He pointed out that whatever theological remarks were made about abrogation of prior covenants, Jews and Christians lived under Muslim rulers. He cited Maimonides whom Saladdin sent to minister to Richard the Lion-hearted. Richard asked Maimonides to stay and be his physician. Maimonides declined.

Dr. Azmeh cited a contemporary scholar, Bowersock, whom I myself have read: for the first 300 years Muslims were a minority in the city of Damascus.

There was a subsequent question about the treatment of dhimmis or Christians and Jews and one about whether Christians were still taxed. The answer to the latter is no. An Islamic tax is no longer collected from Muslims by governments, therefore a compensatory tax on Christians is also not collected in the Arab Muslim countries with which Dr. Azmeh is familiar.

 Dr. Azmeh went on to point out:

 --In Syria highly placed Baath party officials are Christians

--Christians are in the parliament in Egypt

--He had a Jewish medical school classmate

--You were not permitted to leave the country if you got a medical school education, whether you were Muslim or Jewish.

--Now that Syrian passports have been revised, the one country Syrians are officially not allowed to go to is Iraq, because Iraq has/had a rival Baathist party.

--All citizens are drafted into the Syrian army without distinction.

Therefore the verses (referring to non-Muslims) in the Koran, just like those in the Bible, have to be put into historical context. He repeated: “Interpretation of texts cannot be dissociated from historical context. You need to ask, ‘What is the modern expression?’”

Dr. Azmeh: Lesser jihad  refers to self-defense; Islam is not a pacifist religion.

He spoke appreciatively about a book The Myth of the Bible. “I think everything this book says applies to the Koran. . . .We have to focus on the meaning of the texts to find ourselves closer to God.”

My turn came. First I thanked him for helping to found the Greater Dayton Interfaith Trialogue (GDIT), with which I was delighted and now sorry that I could no longer attend. I wanted to support him in his portrayal of the complex Christian situation in Arab lands.  For instance, I noted that Christians in Iraq have been fleeing to Syria and Jordan for safety which they wouldn’t do unless those two countries were somehow havens to them.  Still I needed to ask a question which my archbishop would want me to ask and that was about the status of Christian churches in places such as Egypt and other Muslim lands, in which existing congregations had to get scarce permissions to repair or renovate (per Charles Sennott’s The Body and the Blood) and certainly could not build new churches. Churches are very important to Catholics, I noted. Moreover, Christian communities could not follow the exhortation of the Gospels and evangelize. I noted that both Muslims and Christians are missionary peoples. What about the freedom of Christians to engage in mission?

“The Egyptian government, not a democracy, tries to prove its Islamic credentials in ways that are very easy to do but very, very Machiavellian. . . .I deplore restrictions on building churches.  . . It is contrary to Islam.”

Both Drs. Azmeh pointed out that if you build a mosque in Syria you present it like a gift to the government, which then sends out one each mosque singer and imam. The former are not very good. Their point was that the system in place is controlling of Muslims as well.

“Our task now is to make more concrete the American Muslim identity. The American context is so unique and so rich. A very modern expression of American Islam will shine forth from this country.”

There were more questions about the certification and education of imams.

Dr. Azmeh pointed out, “Who comes to America? Open-minded people. People ready to change. The fanatics are reductionists. There are all kinds of Muslims back in Syria, including Sufis.”

“The Arab countries are not democracies, it’s true. The lack of democracy is terrible.” To his mind Turkey is “evolving beautifully.”

Conclusion: Dr. Azmeh is unusual in his willingness to learn in a multidisciplinary fashion. I’ve never met a Muslim who read phenomenology for fun. In fact, I’ve rarely met a Christian or a Jew who knew about ‘phenomenology,’ much less read it. Most people in Christian-Muslim dialogue, where I have a  rather small experience, do not meet Muslims who critically attend to history and historical context, as we understand it in the modern world. It therefore seems important for Jews and Christians to be in dialogue with Muslims like Dr. Azmeh and the many other progressive Muslims he knows.

Respectfully submitted,

Louise Barnes Vera

Member, Dayton Christian-Jewish Dialogue

Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations,

Archdiocese of Cincinnati

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