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Why I Chose Islam Instead of Judaism

Stephen Suleyman Schwartz is executive director of The Center for Islamic Pluralism, and a supporter of the Jewish people and Israel. Rabbi Kerry Olitzky is executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, which brings Judaism to interfaith families and the unaffiliated.

In the first installment of their dialogue, Schwartz explains how he, as the spiritually hungry child of a Jewish father and Protestant mother, found his home in the Islamic faith that accepted him, rather than the Jewish faith that didn’t.

From: Stephen Schwartz To: Kerry Olitzky Subject: Finding Islam


I have publicly discussed my journey to Islam only in a limited way before.

I was not born Jewish. I was born in the American heartland (Ohio) of a Jewish father and a Christian mother. My mother was the daughter of a Protestant preacher, and I was baptized as an infant in the Presbyterian church. But both of my parents were radical leftists and quite antireligious. As a child I received no religious instruction, and was not informed that I was half-Jewish until late in childhood.

So I did not “convert” to Islam because “conversion” means a change in religions, and I did not have a religion from which to change.

My mother and maternal grandmother were the most important influences in my early development, and to the extent that I learned anything about religion it was from them. However, at age eight I knew I believed in God. Perhaps it was normal for me to rebel against leftist parents by becoming religious. I later discussed religion at great length with my mother but never told my father I believed in God, because his reaction would have been too extreme. He died, I am sorry to say, without knowing this about me.

As a teenager I saw the similarity in sociology—but not in ethics—between radical religion and Communism. I remained politically affiliated with Leninist Communism until 1984, when (at age 35) I simply could no longer stand any involvement with it. I was a hidden believer; a crypto-theist among the atheists.

The first actual faith community I examined and studied was Reformation Protestantism. Then, at 17, I engaged with Catholic spirituality. I attended mass and prepared to convert to the Catholic faith, but the reaction of everyone around me (in San Francisco in 1966) was so hostile and cruel I decided to keep the whole matter personal. This was a major setback in my religious life.

At the same time, I was personally mentored by the poet Kenneth Rexroth, who greatly furthered the influence of Buddhism in America, and I learned to recite the Heart Sutra from Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder. I visited Jap
an and Korea and observed Shinto and Zen first hand. I found much that was admirable and inspiring in Buddhism but finally concluded that a Westerner cannot really become Buddhist.

Catholic spirituality led me to my earliest contacts with Sufism, through the writings of the Catalan preacher and philosopher Ramon Llull, who explicitly took the Sufis as his model in his style of religious exposition.

I researched the interfaces between Sufism and shamanism in north central Asia (a subject on which, at one time, I considered getting a PhD), but also went out to encounter surviving indigenous American religious phenomena such as the shamanism of the Pomos in California, and the elaborate religions of the Hopis and Zunis in the southwest, as well as indigenous Mexican communities such as the Yaquis, Mayos, and Coras.

I was not “shopping for God,” as we say in California. My approach was always based on a search for authenticity, which is why I was perhaps the first writer in the U.S. to openly denounce Carlos Castaneda as a fraud—I knew real Yaquis and their religion had nothing in common with his fantasies.

I remained more influenced by Catholicism than by any other tradition for quite a while. I researched
Catholic-indigenous syncretism among Brazilians and Cubans, in Nicaragua, and again in Mexico. I worked with Catholics—in particular, I assisted the exiled Albanian Catholics after 1990—and attended numerous masses but did not take Communion, as I was not confirmed in the faith. I also attended Jewish services as a friendly and curious observer; nobody then asked about my Jewishness or lack thereof.

My serious interest in Judaism began in 1979 in Paris, where I found a volume titled The Zohar in Moslem and Christian Spain. The author was a Jerusalem-born Kabbalist, Ariel Bension. I turned toward Kabbalah and Sephardic Judaism with great interest, but held back from “joining.”

At the end of 1997, in Sarajevo, I recognized Islam as the religion in which I believed. After that came a complete spiritual revolution in, of all places, a Zen temple in Korea—where I perceived that I had to leave my career as a newspaper reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, after working there eight years and becoming secretary of the local Newspaper Guild. One world had ended for me, and a new world was mine. I made shahada, the Islamic profession of faith.

What was missing at each of the preceding steps? What made Islam my ultimate choice?

Communism fought against God; I finally could not accept that.

Protestantism lacked spiritual depth.

I loved Catholicism but could not accept the divinity of Jesus.

Nor could I accept Buddhism, in which God was absent.

Nothing was missing in Judaism—except that I was not halakhically Jewish.

I will try to explain intellectually, with the greatest possible respect, moderation, and sincerity, why I chose Islam rather than conversion to Judaism.

In Islam I found simplicity. I am traditional as a believer and the weight of 613 mitzvot seemed too much for me; indeed, as moderate Muslims, if we “criticize” Judaism it is mainly because its demands on its members are extreme. We believe religion was sent to humanity to make life easier, not harder. And, by the way, we do not believe in original sin or the Fall of Mankind.

I was attracted to Islam’s rigorous refusal to anthropomorphize God. In Judaism, this refusal is also evident in the work of Judeo-Islamic theologians such as Sayyid al-Fayyumi (Saadiah Gaon), Bahya ibn Paquda (author of the great Duties of the Heart which was written in Arabic and which should be read by every Muslim), and Maimonides. Without anthropomorphism ther
e is no barrier between faith and science.

In Sufi Islam, in particular, I found the wisdom of popular religion from Bosnia to Kazakhstan, Morocco to Indonesia. Christians argue that their community represents “Judaism for the whole world.” Moderate Muslims believe this to be much truer for Islam.

Finally, I believed Muslims needed me more than Catholics or Jews did. Catholics were persecuted in many places, but had power and friends; Jews have Israel and, even after the Holocaust, a better-developed history in the West.

What would I say to Jews who seek to answer the question, “What kind of human does Judaism want us to become?” As a Muslim, I would offer three counsels to the House of Israel:

· Study and defend Torah, which is a precious gift to you and to all monotheists.

· Reject any and all attempts to anthropomorphize God.

· Try to be kind and sympathetic to those of us in the ummah of the blessed Prophet Muhammad aleyhisalem, who are working so hard for mutual respect and peace between believers. Now is a difficult time for both of our communities. Your understanding of our difficulty will be rewarded, of this I am certain. Remember that we both suffered great evil at the hands of those who hated us for our devotion to our covenant, which in many ways is a common one. Please remember that the Righteous Among the Nations, honored at Yad Vashem, include Bosnian Muslims.

The great Hungarian-Jewish scholar of Islam, Ignaz Goldziher, wrote that when he prayed as a Muslim in a mosque in Cairo, never in his life was he more devout. I can say that never in my life have I felt more devotion to the faith of Islam, to Quran al-qerim, to the ummah of the blessed Prophet Muhammad aleyhisalem than when I work with, speak with, and assist Jews.


Next: Can We Create a "Big Tent Judaism"?

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