The Jews and the Muslims have a common past on the Iberian Peninsula, particularly in Portugal, of peaceful cohabitation until 1496, the year D. Manuel unexpectedly ordered their expulsion.
It is hardly surprising that nearly 460 years later, these two communities should meet again in Portugal, or that they have been on excellent terms ever since.
The Jews returned to Portugal in the 19th century although the community was only officially recognised much later, in 1912. The Muslims, on the other hand, only began arriving in the late 1950s, with the major inflow occurring after 1975, due to decolonisation.
I was one of the first Muslims to arrive. My first contact with the Jewish Community of Lisbon took place in about 1956, when I arrived from Mozambique to continue my studies in Portugal. As far as I recall, there was only one other Muslim student, Suleimane Valy Mamede. The Islamic Community was only incorporated in 1968, the result of the enthusiasm and initiative of some twelve or so young Muslims.
Lacking any support, living in an unknown city, and notwithstanding the goodwill of my colleagues who always nurtured and helped me find a fair balance in a completely different environment to the one I was used to, I found it hard, at first, to abide by the rules and regulations of Islam with any strictness. Daily prayers were no problem, but the Friday prayer as well as eating meat were impossible. Fortunately, I found a kosher butcher, the Talho Kosher de Lisboa!
As a student, I met members of the Jewish community, some of whom were also students, and our relations were cordial.
However, it was in my capacity as President of the Islamic Community of Lisbon, in the late 1980s, that my relationship with the Jewish community became closer.
Jews, Christians and Muslims all descend from Abraham, they are the “three people of the Book”. For generations, the relations between these three monotheistic religions and particularly between Jews and Muslims were strongly affected by territorial misunderstandings and above all, historic resentments. Yet, in Portugal they lived and worked side by side. Their children studied together. The moment had come to reclaim the common legacy of religions that believe in one God. It was therefore necessary to retrieve, even if only symbolically, a common spiritual heritage.
To that end, it was vital to establish a basis for genuine and sincere dialogue between the members of the two communities and extend it to the Christian communities. This would lead to a positive acknowledgement of the difference, plurality and solidarity between believers of different faiths. I would like to quote the example of the meeting on Interreligious Dialogue at the Central Mosque of Lisbon on the occasion of the visit of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Portugal in 2007.
Openness and dialogue happened gradually, through cultural and social sessions and seminars that helped to understand the importance of respect for each one’s convictions and to realise that, in the end, it is more important to accept the similarities between us than to insist on the differences that separate us.
A number of events were then organised by these communities. These included solemn ceremonies at the synagogue and at the mosque in Lisbon, which also included guests of many beliefs.
At the same time, we took part together in meetings and conferences on specific themes, sometimes related to tragic events that shook the world and which in one way or another involved these two communities.
It was mainly after 9/11 2001, however, that we were confronted by various institutions that felt the need to know and understand Islam through the Muslims, but also to hear the other religions talk about the contribution of religions to the construction of a more tolerant and fraternal world.
So, at the invitation of a number of institutions, religious or otherwise, I was pleased to participate as a speaker, in the company of Drs. Joshua Ruah, Samuel Levi, Esther Muznic and José Carp, among other members of the Jewish Community, in conferences, debates and meetings on themes such as “Bridges between the great “Religions of the Book” (Terraço - Centro do GRAAL); “Dialogue between Civilisations: the Contribution of Religions” (Fórum Lisboa); “Religions/Freedom, Fanaticism and Tolerance – Development and Solidarity” (Grémio Universalis); “Forum for Peace: Globalising Peace, Building a Just World” (National Commission for Justice and Peace); National Conference to Commemorate 25 years of Family Action in Portugal: “Family – for the Third Millennium, always” (CNAF – National Confederation of Associations for Family Action); “Religions and Peace in the Middle East” (Catholic University of Portugal); “Promoting Tolerance in Religion (Palácio Foz); “PEACE, TOLERANCE and DIALOGUE in the three Abrahamic religions” (National Defence Institute). I could list many others, but I chose the ones that seem to me to provide a good idea of the diverse themes that aroused more interest.
The two communities were also instrumental in revising the Law on Religious Freedom in 2001, led by Dr. José Vera Jardim.
I should also mention that, in 2006, the two communities co-founded the Abrahamic Forum, a Christian community whose principal aims were, among others, to deepen points of dialogue between the Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions, make the three religions known and highlight their affinities and similarities, that is to say, the bridges linking these three religions as revealed through the Torah, in the person of Jesus, and in the Koran. I would also like to mention that the Forum’s symbol of three clasped hands was designed by Helena Carp.
We hope that we have managed to convey to future generations that it is in fact through inter-religious dialogue that we also learn the meaning of our own faith in greater depth. We understand the strength of solidarity and compassion and how important it is to look at tomorrow differently, accepting that it does not matter if we are better or worse, equal or different, what matters is that we are children of the same Father, motivated by the same force that will, one day, mean that I and the Other look at each other in peace and harmony.
I would like to conclude with these words written in the 13th century by the great Persian poet Jalaluddin Rumi.
“What is to be done, O Muslims? for I do not recognize myself.
I am neither Christian, nor Jew, nor Garb, nor Muslim.
I am not of the East, nor of the West, nor of the land, nor of the sea;
I am not of Nature’s mind, nor of the circling heaven.
I am not of earth, nor of water, nor of air, nor of fire;
nor of the empyrean, nor of the dust, nor of existence, nor of entity.
I am not of India, nor of China, nor of Bulgaria, nor of Saqsin;
I am not of the kingdom of Iraquain (the two Iraqs), nor of the country of Khorasan.
I am not of this world, nor of the next, I am, nor of Paradise, nor of Hell;
I am not of Adam, nor of Eve, nor of Eden and Ridwan.
My place is the Placeless, my trace is the Traceless;
Tis neither body nor soul, for I belong to the soul of the Beloved.
I have put duality away, I have seen that the two world are one;
One I seek, One I know, One I see, One I call.
He is the First, He is the Last, He is the Outward, He is the Inward;
I know none other except Ya Hu and Ya man Hu (O You, Who is What He Is.
Shalom and Waleikum Assalam