Special Teaching Sermon on The Middle East: On a Flight From Cairo to New York With Isaac and Ishmael
I’ve been teaching, working, and traveling, with students and adults, in the Middle East for forty-five years. My experience has included working in churches in Jerusalem and Cairo, travel and study in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, teaching Arabic, and translating materials from Arabic into English, including a full length book by an Iraqi human rights lawyer on the concept of tolerance in Islamic thought.
In a moment I’ll describe an encounter I experienced with the sons of Abraham - Isaac and Ishmael - on a flight from Cairo to New York nearly twenty years ago. Of course, I don’t mean the actual sons of Abraham, but the eponymous ones: Abraham’s spiritual descendants: Isaac for Jews and Christians and Ishmael for Muslims. By the way, Ishmael’s name in the Qur’an is Ismail, a popular name for Muslim males.
We know from Genesis that both Isaac and Ishmael were sons of Abraham: Ishmael by a slave woman named Hagar, and Isaac by Abraham’s wife Sarah. Isaac, of course, outranked Ishmael because his mother was Abraham’s legal wife while Hagar was only a slave. Ishmael and Hagar were eventually banished. Tradition says they wandered in the Arabian peninsula and wound up in Mecca where their descendant Muhammad would many centuries later introduce the world to the religion of Islam.
And so was born the rivalry between the monotheistic religions that comes down to us to this day, a rivalry not only of religion, but also importantly a rivalry over the lands and resources of the Middle East. And, as Nine-Eleven reminded us, it’s a rivalry that has spread to include much of the rest of the world, even a flight from Cairo to New York nearly twenty years ago.
So, what about that flight from Cairo to New York? In the spring of 2004, I took a group of students to Cairo to participate in a Model United Nations conference. Model UN is an international organization that brings students together from all over the world. In 2004, the conference was held in Cairo. I’ve also led my students to Model UN conferences in Amman, Doha, and Lisbon. And, I’ve taken students to Istanbul to meet and discuss international affairs with Turkish students.
The Cairo trip began with sightseeing at the pyramids, the medieval Islamic monuments and markets in the Old City, visits to museums, and a boat ride on the Nile, all of this before the conference itself where my students debated the big international issues of the times with their peers from all over the world.
When it was over and we’d boarded the plane for the twelve-hour flight back to New York, I was looking forward to a very long nap in the air. While my group was seated together several rows up from me, my seat was in the middle of a row in Coach between two strangers.
It quickly became clear there would be no napping on that flight. I discovered I was shoulder to shoulder between two men whom I silently nicknamed “Ishmael” and “Isaac,” not those rival sons of Abraham in the Book of Genesis, but the Ishmael and Isaac of the religious conflict of our own times.
“Ishmael” was an Egyptian Muslim from Alexandria and “Isaac” was an American Jew from New York City. These were men whose hatred for one another quickly became loudly apparent. And so, there I was, shoulder-to-shoulder between two of the world’s oldest and most deeply entrenched hatreds.
When “Ishmael” and “Isaac” discovered who one another was, a shouting match erupted. Muslim Ishmael, leaning across me, yelled at Jewish Isaac, “I hate Jews; I’ve always hated Jews.” I asked him why he hated Jews. He yelled, “Because my father hates Jews and all my brothers hate Jews.”
The New York version of “Isaac” hurled similar epithets across me at his Muslim enemy on my left. I helped calm them down. However, no minds were changed that day. Isaac got up and moved away to an empty seat behind us. Ishmael and I didn’t speak for the rest of the flight. My attempts to foster at least some reconciliation and understanding that day ended in failure. Needless to say, I didn’t get the nap I’d hoped for.
After returning home, I tried to make sense out of that experience. I was drawn back to the Book of Genesis and to my first trip to the Middle East in 1979. On that trip, I’d visited the Palestinian West Bank town of Hebron, which Palestinian Arabs call al-Khalil. Traditions in all three faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) say that Abraham, Sarah, and other patriarchs and matriarchs from Genesis are buried there in a cave called Machpelah. In the first century, King Herod the Great built a shrine over the cave.
When Abraham died, Genesis 25 says that both Ishmael and Isaac returned to the Machpelah Cave to bury their father – together!
Sadly, that spirit of mutuality was short-lived. Today, Israeli soldiers guard the tomb because there have been serious disturbances there, the worst, in February, 1994 when, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, an Israeli-American physician opened fire on early morning Muslim worshippers inside the shrine killing twenty-nine and wounding 125. This incident typifies tribalistic animosities that seem bent on blotting out the memory of what happened there three thousand years ago when two brothers, who had become patriarchs in their own right, buried their differences long enough so that they could come together and bury their father. The Machpelah of Genesis was sadly as far away as I’ve ever felt it on that trip home from Cairo.
So, is religion part of the problem in the Middle East? History is, after all, full of holy wars, crusades, and jihads. Is religion responsible for these divisions? To the extent that religious extremists feel free to exploit and amplify the differences between peoples in the region as they compete for land and resources, then, yes, religion is part of the problem.
The late Israeli-American Rabbi David Hartman thinks monotheistic religions deserve a big share of the blame for the animosity and violence between people who really do have more in common than they acknowledge. He used to say, "The one god of monotheism is an indicator not of unity but of division between and among people. The message throughout monotheism is sometimes one of intolerance. When occupation and ownership of land become linked to monotheistic religion, the message seems to be, ‘There's only enough for one.'”
This is especially the case, Rabbi Hartman says, in the Bible. In the Old Testament in particular there is a deep sense of scarcity. Adam has two sons: Cain and Abel. Abel gets his father’s blessing; Cain doesn’t. Abraham has two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. Isaac gets the blessing, Ishmael doesn't. Isaac has two sons, Jacob and Esau. Jacob gets the blessing, Esau doesn't." There never seems to be enough for everyone (in the Old Testament at least).
Rabbi Hartman argues that if pluralism and inclusivism don’t replace exclusivism in the Middle East, then everything is going to be lost for everybody. Sadly, a portion of the exclusivism in the Middle East is being practiced by Americans, like my seat partner Isaac on that flight from Cairo: he belongs to that faction of evangelical Jews and Christians who believe that the Messiah will not come until Israel is a secure Jewish state and all challenges to Israeli sovereignty over all of Palestine are removed.
But, while religion may be part of the problem, it can also be part of the solution. To the extent that religion encourages people to bury their differences, as Isaac and Ishmael did when they buried father Abraham, it can be a powerful force for hope and change in the world. For every vengeful soul in the Middle East who chooses violence (and in spite of what we see in the media, the number is actually quite small) there are many more who have chosen the way of peace and are working hard to make peace happen. Ishmael and Isaac saw their pasts come together and intertwine at that cave south of Jerusalem. As their pasts intertwined, my hope is that eventually so, too, will their futures.
There are good reasons for holding onto that hope. Historically, Middle Eastern adherents of all three monotheistic sects have for the most part been good neighbors with one another: for millennia, they’ve attended one another’s worship services in the synagogues, churches, and mosques, and celebrated one another’s weddings, funerals, and other religious festivals together with mutual joy and good will.
I’ve worshiped in a synagogue in Jerusalem made up of an interfaith Jewish and Christian congregation.
I’ve known Muslims who routinely attend services or prayers of all three faiths: they go to mosques on Fridays, synagogues on Saturdays, and churches on Sundays.
During a sabbatical year in Cairo, I served on the clergy staff of the Anglican All Saints Cathedral under Egyptian Bishop Ghais Abdel Malik and his Provost, The Very Reverend Philip Cousins, now retired and living in his hometown of York, England.. Services were held in both English and Arabic. On Pentecost, to honor the many tongues spoken on the first Pentecost day, scripture readings were both in Arabic and English. Meetings of the clergy staff with both Egyptian and non-Egyptian clergy together, opened with all of us reciting the Lord’s Prayer in both English and Arabic.
The cathedral sexton was an Egyptian Muslim named Mustapha. His is one of the most revered nicknames of the Prophet Muhammad in the Qur’an: it means “the chosen one.” Mustapha put all of us to shame because he’d memorized the entire Eucharistic service and other large portions of the Anglican prayer book. What some might call doctrinally incorrect behavior included Muslim Mustapha coming to the rail and crossing himself before receiving the bread and wine. I’m reminded of those services in Cairo each time Heather or Molly says just before communion is distributed, “No exceptions!”
There are many examples of people of all faiths who as I speak are working tirelessly for peace in the Middle East. But, let me close by mentioning a personal and somewhat unusual experience. I spent two summers working on the archaeological dig at Tel Miqne, the site of the ancient city of Ekron, a Philistine city mentioned in First Samuel 17 in the story of David and Goliath. I made friends on that dig with a Palestinian Muslim college student named Talal Nasrallah. Talal lived in Gaza, just a few miles away.
To pass the time, Talal and I discovered we liked to sing rock ‘n’ roll oldies (in my late teens, I played in a rock band on the Eastern Shore of Delaware and Maryland. I still occasionally do public gigs with another veteran of ‘60s era rock bands). One of Talal’s favorite American groups was the Beach Boys. Never in my life did I expect a bond would be forged between an American Episcopal Priest and a Palestinian through singing Beach Boys songs together, but that’s what happened: “Isaac” and “Ishmael” singing rock ‘n’roll songs together while digging up biblical history on steamy hot summer days in Israel/Palestine! Go figure! God works in mysterious ways.
In today’s New York Times, British author Karen Armstrong says her understanding of religion has been influenced by the renowned medieval Muslim scholar and mystic Ibn al-Arabi (1165-1240). He says in his Fusus al-Hikam (“The Seals of Wisdom”) that he felt at home in all places of worship because no faith has a monopoly on truth:
He wrote, “Do not praise your own faith so exclusively that you disbelieve all the rest. If you do this, you will fail to recognize the real truth of the matter. God, the omnipresent and omnipotent, cannot be confined to any one creed, for he says, ‘Wheresoever ye turn, there is the face of Allah.’ (Qur’an 2:115).”
And with that, I want to close with a traditional Arabic blessing. It goes,
السلام عليكم ورحمة الله وبركاته
As-salaamu alaikum wa rahmatu Allahi wa Barakatuhu!
May the Peace, Mercy, and Blessings of God be upon you!
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