A Conversation with Imam Shamsi Ali

By Sara Serfaty ’18

At the 9/11 program on September 8, the third chair on the stage of the Roanna Shorofsky Theater was ominously empty. Imam Shamsi Ali, the high school’s third guest in addition to Rabbi Joseph Potasnik and Reverend Brian E. McWeeney, was stuck in traffic. He couldn’t make it to the program, so we caught up with him separately. Imam Shamsi later visited Heschel as part of an interfaith delegation of Muslim students that visited Heschel on October 26.

Imam Shamsi Ali, originally from Indonesia, studied at the International Islamic University in Pakistan, earning a Masters in Comparative Religion in 1994. He moved to New York in 1996, serving in various mosques. He is currently Assistant Director and board member of the Muslim Foundation of America, Inc., Chairman of the annual Muslim Day Parade in NYC, and chairman of the Al-Hikmah mosque. Imam Shamsi is also involved in various interfaith initiatives – he serves as the Vice President and UN representative of the Asian-American Coalition USA, one of the many organizations in which he is involved and holds a prominent position.  

Sara Serfaty: How did you get in touch with Aliza?

Imam Shamsi Ali: I am an imam that has been engaged with the Jewish community for quite a long time, so I have a very broad connection with Jewish rabbis in the community. I am a friend of Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, who is the executive president of New York Board of Rabbis, so he invited me to that event. It was of course an honor for me when he invited me, because I do believe that there are not two religions that are as similar as Islam and Judaism. I do feel inclined to build a further connection with the Jewish community because I feel that we have commonalities – not only do we have common faith, but we also have a common fate. For example, look at the situation we are living in at the moment in America. Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are equally high, and I think both of our communities have a big responsibility to fight for one another. And so as a Muslim imam here in the city and in this country, I feel that it is an honor for me to engage our Jewish brothers and sisters.

SS: What are the similarities in faith that you see between Islam and Judaism?

ISA: From a theological perspective, we both believe in one God, in prophethood, and in scriptures. As a Muslim, I believe in all religious figures that our Jewish friends honor and respect. We believe in Isaac, Abraham, Moses, Solomon, David, and all the others. Even some of the rituals we practice are similar. Our Jewish friends pray three times daily, they face Jerusalem; we Muslims pray five times daily and face Mecca, which is where the prophet Muhammed was born. Down to social issues, Muslims eat halal; our Jewish friends – I’m talking about the Orthodox in particular – eat kosher food; “salaam” is similar to “shalom”…there are many. Rosh Hashana, the New Year, is called Ra’s Al-Sanah in Arabic, which means the head of the year. Because of these commonalities, I don’t have any doubt that these are the two most identical religions in the world, and that’s what that means that I visit a Jewish house of worship, I feel that I belong too.


SS: How and when did you get involved in interfaith work?

ISA: With all things that took place in 2001 because of the tragic terror attack in New York City, there are blessings in disguise, and we feel that we have been brought together by this painful tragedy. I was invited by New York City to represent the Muslim community on many occasions, and it was an opportunity for me to engage with the Jewish community. I met rabbis, I introduced myself, and from that moment we began to know one another – because the world we are living in requires us to know one another more. I was so happy that, for the first time as an immigrant who came to this country, I made Jewish friends – I’d never met any Jews in my life, and as you know, Jews and Muslims have a lot of misunderstandings – but when we know the Jewish people, it is the beginning of our journey to transform ourselves into better understanding of our Jewish friends.

SS: Has the interfaith work that you’ve been doing had an influence on the Muslim community – you mentioned before that it has changed a lot of people’s minds, but have you faced any backlash or controversy?

ISA: Yeah there are always controversial things in the community. Some people, for example, accuse me of not really being a committed Muslim because I am engaging with our Jewish friends, or that it looks like that I’m not curious about achieving peace in the middle east because I am too much in line into building dialogue with the Jewish people. But in any community, you are going to be faced with a ton of things. The Jewish rabbi that I engage with, for example, also faced the same challenge with his community. “Do you believe a Muslim? Do you really believe that they are harmless?” It was really a problem for the Muslims in the Jewish community and I think that as we continue that as we continue this journey, I can say a lot of change is happening. People are becoming a lot more trusting of one another.

SS: Has the Arab-Israeli conflict had any influence on the interfaith relationships that you’ve been trying to cultivate between Muslims and Jews?

ISA: The issue does come up, and it is a reality that we are facing. But I think what we need to do as Muslims and Jews is to think about how to use our religiosity and our religious sentiments toward a positive direction. For me, as a Muslim, what does Islam say when there is a conflict? Does Islam push me into more conflict or does Islam want me to do something to stop the conflict? I’m using my understanding and my faith to engage in a positive and peaceful way. So that’s why as religious people, to be precise, we cannot solve the problems, but we can prepare a ground for our politicians to engage politically because the Palestine issue is a political issue. I think that the only people that can solve the problem are politicians, and religious leaders can help them prepare the ground. You can imagine if today, prime minister Netanyahu and President Abbas once again tried for a peace agreement. Imagine they sign a peace agreement, but the people on the ground don’t have any trust at all – they hate each other. How do you think the peace agreement will be implemented, if the Palestinians and Israelis hate each other and want to eliminate each other? I don’t think it would be possible to implement the peace agreement. So even if the president and prime minister reached a peace agreement, I am sure it would be too difficult to implement without preparing the ground, and that ground is understanding, cooperation, minimizing suspicion, minimizing hate, and creating friendship. That is the role of the religious communities here, and I’m sure that this is of paramount importance.

SS: How do you respond to people who claim that Islam supports terrorism or wars and is not a peaceful religion?

ISA: That is absolutely ignorant. I can prove from every single thing that the religion is about peace, even when it talks about war. Any religious community believes that war is permitted when you must defend yourself, and for example, Israel defends itself. Do you want to say that Judaism doesn’t allow war? No, of course, when you have to defend yourself you have to engage in that. So Islam allows us to engage in a war that is defensive in nature. Islam never condones terrorism, because terrorism means killing or destroying human souls for violent purposes. Let’s say you are in a state of war – you are facing your enemy. At the end of the day if your enemy comes to you and says we want peace, the Quran says that you must engage in peace. It is always that ignorant people that accuse Islam in that way. If you study the history, all religions have points in their history where they are committing this kind of act (i.e. terrorism). For example, although Christians massacred Jews in Europe, it is not the religion that supports that. It might be that some people who are religious supported the Holocaust, but to say that was because of Jesus isn’t fair. Similarly, when people talk about Islam today, I think it is not a just way of seeing it – it is not fair, and I think that is ignorance. I think it is important to engage in dialogue, to minimize that kind of misunderstanding.

SS: So what do you think is the future of interfaith activity?

ISA: I’m optimistic that the environment that we have in the US will really help in expanding that dialogue for peace.

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