By Akbar Ahmed
We live in contradictory and confusing times: on the one hand, we have the cases of widespread murder and mayhem on the basis of religion and race and, on the other, the truly inspirational men and women leading inter-faith understanding. The former capture the headlines, the latter are often overlooked.
Dr. Edward Kessler of Cambridge University is a star of interfaith dialogue. Described by The Times Higher Education Supplement in 2007 as “probably the most prolific interfaith figure in British academia,” Dr Kessler is the Founder Director of the Woolf Institute at Cambridge, which aims to study relations among and between Jews, Christians, and Muslims. An expert on relations between the Abrahamic faiths, Dr Kessler has written or edited more than a dozen books and countless articles and partnered with such senior faith leaders as the Pope and the Chief Rabbi of the UK on a number of initiatives. He has received numerous prestigious awards and sits on many important committees. Dr Kessler is also a respected visitor in the Arab world, welcomed by scholars and sheikhs. They recognize in him a kindred spirit. Describing Judaism and Islam as ‘incredibly close and intimate religions,’ Dr Kessler considers the founding of the Woolf Institute in 1998 to be his most significant accomplishment. He is particularly proud of the new building the Institute has just opened this term, a feat rare on the hallowed grounds of Cambridge: ‘The first new building devoted to interfaith relations for a generation at a time when society most needs it.’
Dr Kessler and I together launched the popular online course ‘Bridging the Great Divide: the Jewish-Muslim Encounter’ several years back and continue to teach it jointly representing our respective universities. The course studies historical and contemporary relations between the faiths and seeks to provide a space for members of the Jewish and Muslim communities, among others, to transcend their differences and explore paths to building bridges. I have come to truly believe that learning with members of different communities has a profound effect on students, and seeing strangers come together across faith lines during the course of the term and shift their perceptions of the other is one of the greatest and most satisfying joys I can experience as a teacher. I know Dr Kessler views the experience with similar enthusiasm.
My daughter, Dr. Amineh Hoti, has had the great privilege of working with Dr Kessler in Cambridge over the years as well. Having received her PhD from Cambridge, Dr Kessler requested Amineh to serve as the founding director of the first-ever such centre in Europe, the Centre for the Study of Muslim-Jewish Relations, and an extension of his established Centre for Jewish-Christian studies, shortly after 9/11.Through her courses, lectures, articles and books, she was thus able to bring an Islamic perspective to the teaching of religion in Britain. Rabbis, Imams and priests attended her courses. During her five-year tenure, she made great strides in strengthening relations between the Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities. As a result of activist scholars like her and Dr Kessler, the perspective of society as Judeo-Christian was seen increasingly as Judeo-Christian-Islamic, which directly challenged the growing Islamophobia. Dr Kessler, in an extended interview for my Journey into Europe study, explained how modern Judaism has gained significantly from Islamic philosophy: “I’d say that the whole of medieval Jewish philosophy could not have come into existence without Islamic philosophy. The rules of literature and grammar are basically taken from Muslim grammarians.”
Dr Kessler also noted the similarities between the Muslim and Jewish experience in the West today, “I think Muslims are still seen as an ‘other.’ And Jews understand this because we have been another for a very long time and remain so. And there is a sense of otherness of Islam. And it beholds, I think, the Muslim community to strive to get across the values of Islam and how it very much fits into the religious landscape of this country.” Among the many figures who inspire him, Dr Kessler looks to such key historical leaders in his work as Ibn Averroes ‘because of his willingness to engage with Christian and Jewish interlocutors’ and Pope John Paul XXIII ‘because he showed how one leader can encourage over a billion followers to engage in dialogue with Jews and Muslims and others.’ Dr Kessler is presently pursuing a new project titled “Fundamentalism Uncovered,” a two-year research project which aims to explore how fundamentalism is expressed in different faith traditions, Abrahamic and non-Abrahamic alike, as well as the similarities within fundamentalist faith traditions. It is the first project of its kind to be pursued in more than two decades.
Ultimately, Dr Kessler finds that for Jews and Muslims to come together, healthy dialogue, with respect and understanding, must be fostered. But dialogue needs to be approached with patience and empathy for the other. Dr Kessler recently told me of a powerful metaphor for promoting relations across faith lines. As a parent of three children who ‘are very different from one another,’ he notes that each child has different needs which he and his wife must respond to accordingly. “If we favoured one at the cost of the others, we would have failed as parents.” He then applied the argument to theology: “If that is true of human parents, how much more is it true of God?”
The writer is an author, poet, filmmaker, playwright, and is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University in Washington, DC. He formerly served as the Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland. He tweets @AskAkbar