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Despite the Troubled Times, L.a. Jews, Muslims Come Together

February 28, 2002
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It’s a distance of about 15 miles between Congregation Valley Beth Shalom in Encino and the King Fahd Mosque in Culver City, but the two places are worlds apart.

Last Friday, some 45 members of the L.A-area Conservative synagogue traveled to the mosque in search of interfaith understanding and respect.

Both sides came to the meeting with some sensitive baggage.

Hours earlier, the world had learned that Jewish journalist Daniel Pearl had been brutally murdered by Muslim extremists in Pakistan. One month earlier, two leaders of the Jewish Defense League were indicted for allegedly planning to blow up the mosque.

Yet any reservations seemed to be allayed by the warmth of the reception by the hosts and the obvious eagerness of the guests to learn more about Islam and to admire the architectural beauty of the mosque.

Completed in 1998 and funded with $8 million from the Saudi Arabian royal family, the King Fahd Mosque gleams in white marble and Arabesque tile, topped by a 72-foot minaret.

“There are no two religions as close as Islam and Judaism,” said Nazir Khaja, chairman of the Islamic Information Service, who welcomed the guests and expressed his profound sorrow for the Pearl murder.

A few visitors were quick to notice some of the similarities, from the separation of men and women during services to the absence of statues and other “graven images,” and even, one remarked jokingly, the collection boxes.

The visit had been timed for one of the most important celebrations in the Islamic calendar, the beginning of the three-day Eid al-Adha festival of sacrifice, marking Abraham’s obedience to God in his willingness to sacrifice his son.

The observance illustrates the common reverence of the two religions for the patriarch Abraham, but also the splitting of the respective ancestral lines.

According to Genesis, Abraham offered to sacrifice Isaac, his son with Sarah, while the Koran states that the intended victim was Ishmael, Abraham’s son with Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian handmaiden.

At the noon service, one of five daily prayer sessions for observant Muslims, the women in the group, their heads appropriately covered with scarves, were led to the upstairs balcony, where they engaged in lively dialogue with their Muslim neighbors.

The men observed the service in the main downstairs sanctuary, where some 500 worshipers sat and prostrated themselves on elaborate prayer rugs.

Imam Tajuddin Shuaib, a native of West Africa, stressed the common Jewish and Muslim links to Abraham. “Five times a day, we invoke the blessings of God on the progeny of Abraham,” he said.

In an informal response after the service, Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom noted that, “This has been a celebration of the common humanity underlying different theologies.

“Religion, the most powerful force in the world, has been responsible for much hatred, as shown in the slaughter of both Muslims and Jews during the Crusades. But now we must use religion to bring peace into a trembling world.”

The initiative for the visit came from Schulweis, who had invited Muslim leader Khaja to speak on Islam during a lecture on world religions.

The talk attracted an audience of 2,200 people, the largest in the series, confirming Khaja’s assertion that since Sept. 11 there has been a huge upswing of interest in Islam among Jews and Christians.

According to Khaja, the King Fahd Mosque is the largest among 70 mosques in the Los Angeles metropolitan area and serves some 5,000 West Los Angeles families.

Services on Fridays, the Muslim Sabbath, attracts 700 1,000 worshipers, while 30 50 families attend on a regular daily basis, a drop-off not unfamiliar to synagogue rabbis.

Considering that there wasn’t a single mosque in the Los Angeles area in 1966, the growth of the Muslim community has been phenomenal. Khaja said that there are now some 600,000 Muslims in the metropolitan area, roughly the same size as the Jewish community.

That is counting only the Sunni Muslims, since Imam Shuaib made it clear that he does not recognize such off-shoots as Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam as true Muslims.

Schulweis said he hoped that his synagogue’s chavurah family groups will invite Muslims into their homes to share food and conversation.

“If there is no dialogue,” he said, “there is a terrible silence, and that often leads to dislike, contempt and sometimes violence.”

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