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The Holocaust: reflections of a Muslim.

I am honored to be included in this sad but important memorial recollection, this Yom HaShoa. While this is too overwhelming an occasion for me to say anything, much less give the main address, I am emboldened to speak when I look upon myself as a Muslim, for you and I are joined together by a braid that goes back beyond history to the beginnings of our recorded recognition of the Almighty.

Some strands of this braid are dark. Some are glistening gold - for example, when we cooperated to build an enviable intellectual edifice and civilization in Spain, counting among ourselves such luminaries as Hasday ben Shaprut (905-75), the great poet and royal physician; the philosophers Averroes (1126-98) and Maimonides (1135-1204); the great Talmudic scholar Ishak al-Fasi (d. 1103); and the founder of the scientific study of history, Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406). In unlit moments, walled in by the present, we forget the golden strands and what might yet be possible.

Being a child of revolution, when a country was divided and two peoples parted company from each other, I know something of human suffering. From both personal experience and the study of history, I have some idea of how human beings can perpetrate evil. I have tried to understand the human and religious dimensions of the Holocaust ever since my undergraduate days when I began to read about World War II. I tried to understand the Holocaust, but I could not. I tried to understand your religious community's pain, but I had only a glimmer of understanding. Though I was informed, my mind was unable to encompass this event as such, and so my understanding of the Holocaust remains wanting.

There have been many atrocities reported in history, but there is something very different about the Holocaust: the organized elimination of an entire nation. There is a "personal quality" in the Holocaust, for its perpetrators were no strangers to their victims; they were victimizing persons who had been their immediate neighbors for generations, their friends and acquaintances, the parents of schoolmates. The victims of "today" were friends of "yesterday." This and the sheer size of human loss is what makes this event different in kind from other atrocities in history. Six million Jews, and several millions others - for example, Gypsies and other "lesser beings," from the Nazi point of view - were consumed by the Nazi fires. The Nazi murder machinery was organized to murder an entire nation and peoples; the systematic, organized, planned murder of the entirety of European Jewry was to bring about the Nazi "final solution."

The Qur'an clearly states: ". . . Take not life, which God hath made sacred, except by way of justice and law; thus doth He command you, that ye may learn wisdom" (6:152).(1) The Prophet Muhammadp(2) considered murder to be one of the most hideous acts and one of the greatest of sins.(3) Anyone who follows the teachings of the Qur'an and the Sunnah (practice) of Prophet Muhammadp - that is the Muslim ethical standard - will surely condemn the perpetrators of the evil of Holocaust and genocide. Such mass murder and evil can be perpetrated only by those who believe in other-than-God. A Muslim will shudder out of fear of God in the presence of such enormous evil and ask for the Almighty's protection from such thoughts, persons, and acts.

I can only share with you my own struggle to understand this event. If I only condemn the Holocaust and express sorrow at how a number of preceding events might have conspired to bring about this particular event, I rob the Holocaust of its human meaning and treat it as something removed from me - out there in history to be "understood." By listing probable causes and sequencing them appropriately, leading up to the Holocaust, I could claim some sense of understanding its occurrence; yet, in that very process I would objectify human misery and suffering. If I stop there, I engage the scholar's and historian's art to reduce events to abstractions till only the abstractions remain. The event is understood in terms of its precedents; the finding of causes is claimed to suffice for understanding the totality of a given event. If I stop there, I am clone with it. I will fall prey to my own understanding, which, in distancing itself from an experience, eventually seeks comfort and excuse. Hence, I must move beyond understanding to a human and religious engagement with the event itself.

Let us recall our common ancestor Abrahamp and his momentous experience around the sacrifice of his son, who, according to the Muslim tradition, was Ishmaelp. The Qur'an says (37:102):

Then when (the son) Reached (the age of) (Serious) work with him, He [(Abraham)] said: "O my son! I see in vision that I offer thee in sacrifice: Now see what is Thy view!" (The son) said: "O my father do as thou art commanded: Thou will find me, If God so wills, one Practicing Patience and Constancy.

From this passage we do not know the precise length of the interval between Abraham'sp vision and his informing his son (Ishmaelp) about it. Nevertheless, who can imagine that, as a human being, Abrahamp did not tarry, did not think deeply about his vision, or was not scared. He must have suffered even from the decision to tell his son - yet he does, and prepares to act on what he has been commanded to do. That is his faith, which you and I have marvelled at since time immemorial.

And, what is his son's view? The son says, "Thou will find me, if God so Wills, one practicing Patience and Constancy [sabr]." (The Arabic "sabr" conveys the idea of both patience and constancy.) He (the son) will be patient. Patience is the stuff of understanding. Understanding demands patience: patiently considering that which has to be understood, continuously struggling with it intellectually and emotionally, trying to look at it and understand it from several different angles, and even discussing it with others. It is rare, if ever, that understanding is immediate, unless that which is to be understood be patently obvious or trite. Constancy, however, is the stuff of faith. Constancy has to do with devotion and trust, to stand together, irrespectively. Constancy is action-oriented; it is readiness to act on something taken to be the case before the full assent of the understanding; it has the simplicity, the purity, and the abandon of a child's trust in the parent that everything will work out.

The son's response, then, is to the effect of: "I do not understand, but I will be Patient; I will listen to your inner voice. I will Practice Constancy, I will keep faith with you . . . I will make it mine. And we will walk together to Mt. Moriah and I will truly say with you: 'Here I am at Thy service O! Lord; Here I am at Thy service' [as Muslims do today when they say "Labbaika Allahumma Labbaika" during the pilgrimage]. O! father Abraham," says his son, "your event is not yours, it is ours - the experience is ours." If the son were to have remained an intellectual spectator, he would have been lost.

To the extent that we remain in the realm of causation only - causes and causes of causes - we objectify the experience; we may understand many things about it, but it is always one removed from us, and its locus is in an existential context that is discontinuous from ours. Indeed, no experience that is not ours can be made to be ours per se, unless, of course, the experiencing subjects are made to be one. Nevertheless, we can try to enter into another's experiential event by trying to engage with its full human dimension, that is, trying to grasp its personal, intellectual, and emotional verity - thus bridging its existential discontinuity from us and locating the event in the same existential context as ourselves. Not that we toss out history or historical method; rather, we use history itself to transcend it: not to objectify the past but to make it feel like an "experience" in the present.

To be in touch with the present response to a "past" event considered not as past but present is to be in touch with the past not as an objective happening at that time but as one that acquires meaning in the present and involves the individual and the community in its reality. This is the essence of religious experience that is anchored in and arises from an event in history. Is that not what we do when we celebrate Abrahamic sacrifice or Prophet Muhammad'sp receiving the revelation from Allah? We enter the circle of the holy as the rituals - given in history as bridges to an event anchored in history - transform us from observers to participants and witnesses thereof and are themselves transformed from rituals to acts of remembrance, which are passages for us from a remote experience in history to our own reality.

Along with remembrance, grief is also such a transformational activity - it is also holy-making. The Qur'an (Sura xii) refers to Jacobp and his loss. His sons, out of jealousy, pushed their brother Josephp into a dry water pit. They soaked Joseph'sp shirt in animal blood and reported to Jacobp that he had been killed by a wolf. The father's loss of this son of his old age is immense, yet neither is his faith hopeless nor does his memory of Josephp ever diminish. His grief from his first loss was already so intense and his grieving tears so numerous that at the news of his second loss, the imprisonment (not real, of course) and separation of Benjamin from him, Jacobp went blind. Jacob'sp remembrance and grief were constant. It is in Jacob'sp undiminished and unswerving grief that the constancy of his faith is reflected. Even tauntings about his grief from his other sons would not stop it. Then, Josephp sent another of his shirts back to his father with his brothers. One shirt had started Jacob'sp grieving; now another signalled his triumph. The remembrance of the loss that had brought him to the ultimacy of his grief asserted his faith, as it also brought him to his transformation from blindness to seeing: a triumph for his remembrance and faith in the Almighty's special grace for Josephp.

Of course, those were events of our forebears, we believe, arranged so by God; the Holocaust was perpetrated by people who affirmed other-than-God. We can learn something from the constancy and faith of Jacobp, who kept the remembrance of his son Josephp ever alive and thus kept the son also ever alive to him. We can keep the event of the Holocaust in the present as he did the event of his son. The triumph is in the remembrance itself. A triumph is present in the implicit morality of remembrance, for example, when some Jewish communal leaders were the first to recognize publicly the "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia for what it is and to speak out against it, not only with an open letter in the New York Times and the Washington Post(4) but also in the person of Elie Wiesel at the dedication of the Holocaust Museum on April 22, 1993, in Washington, DC.(5) Whence this abhorrence of "ethnic cleansing" and whence the courage to speak out against it if not from a people's collective remembrance? As a Muslim I am grateful for that remembrance. The greatest triumph of the victims in Auschwitz, Treblinka, Babi Yar, and other horrible places is to be a collective and ever-present remembrance to all the children of Abrahamp.

As a Muslim, I take the event of the Holocaust as the highest moral negation of the Ruler of All. These evil perpetrators denied the Almighty. There have been others who denied the Almighty - for example, the fool in Ps. 16 who affirmed in his heart that there was no God, but the fool never claimed that he believed in other-than-God. The Nazis went an enormous step beyond, for they asserted that they were God; they played God. In Islam, coming into being and passing away, life and death, condemnation and salvation, establishment and destruction of nations are only for God to command, not for human beings to decide. No person has the right to limit another's humanity. Anyone who supererogates that to her or himself is impious to the highest degree, for that amounts to both blasphemy and idolatry, an act not forgiven by God and one that will be around the necks of the perpetrators on the Day of Judgment.

May we, the children of Abrahamp, always remember and jointly raise our hands and voices to proclaim our remembrance against such evil's happening to any peoples ever again!

This essay was originally an address presented at Temple Israel, Silver Spring, Maryland, on April 8, 1994, in an interfaith Yore HaShoa (Holocaust) Commemoration Service planned jointly with the Silver Spring Presbyterian Church. The two congregations have taken turns in hosting these services for ten years.

1 A. Yusuf Ali, tr., The Holy Qur'an: Text, Translation, and Commentary. Printed in the United States by McGregor & Werner, Inc., n.d. ([C]1946 by Khalil Al-Rawaf).

2 The letter "p" as a superscript after a name is used here as an abbreviation for "peace be upon him," a phrase Muslims use after the name of every prophet as a salutation and sign of respect.

3 Muhsin M. Khan, tr., Sahih al-Bukhari: The Translation of the Meanings of Sahih al-Bukhari (Chicago: Kazi Publications, 1979), vol. 9, p. 5, Hadith no. 10.

4 See the New York Times, May 6,1993, p. A18; and the Washington Post, May 6, 1993, p. A20.

5 His remarks were reported in the New York Times on April 23, 1993, pp. A1 and A24.

Sanaullah Kirmani (Muslim) has been a visiting professor in management science for the School of Business and Public Management, George Washington University, Washington, DC, since 1990. He taught at Harvard University, 1987-89, in its Education Technology Center; at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1979-80, in the Laboratory for Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence and the Media Laboratory; at Colgate University, 1974-77, in the Dept. of Philosophy and Religion; and at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, in the Dept. of Philosophy, 1969-74. Since 1982, he has held managerial and training positions in the computer industry in software and operating-system research and design. He holds a B.A. and an M.A. from Michigan State University; did research and study in Islamic and Jewish philosophy at Harvard's Center for the Study of World Religions, 1966-69; and received a Ph.D. in epistemology/mathematical logic from Michigan State University in 1974. A member of the Jewish/Christian/Muslim Trialogue at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics from 1978 to 1982, he has been active in interfaith dialogue and related activities in the Washington. DC, area.
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Author:Kirmani, Sanaullah
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Date:Mar 22, 1997
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