Religion 101

Concluding my five-part overview of ten striking similarities and prominent parallels between Judaism and Islam, which some who are unfamiliar with either faith might find rather surprising:

9.  Jews and Muslims both observe religiously mandated dietary rules and regulations.   Most people who know anything at all about Judaism have at least heard about the fact that observant Jews “keep kosher,” mainly meaning that they eat only “kosher foods.” Pork, for example, is avoided, because pork is “not kosher.”  In a similar manner, Muslims are also required to eat only certain kinds of food (known as “halal” foods), and to avoid certain other kinds of food (“haram” foods). In the U.S., when passing through neighborhoods with a significant Jewish or Muslim population, one may often see signs in shop windows advertising themselves as “kosher butchers” or “halal grocers,” for instance.

The term kosher means “ritually correct.” Jewish religious laws, derived from the Torah (the first section of the Hebrew Bible), mandate that both food selection and food preparation be “ritually correct.” In practice, this can get quite complicated, but observant Jews are religiously obligated to abide by all of the specific food laws –which are collectively known as the laws of kashrut (“correct,” “proper”) — that are enumerated in the Torah.

Certain kinds of food are forbidden altogether, such as pork and shellfish, because they are “ritually impure.” Other kinds of food must be prepared in certain ways that are deemed “ritually correct”; for example, all blood must be drained from meat before it is cooked or eaten (kosher butchers can help with this), and meat and dairy products must not be intermixed or eaten together (so a hamburger is okay, but a cheeseburger is not kosher).

Many Jewish households keep entire separate sets of pots, pans, utensils, sometimes even sinks and refrigerators, with one such set used exclusively for meat and the other for dairy, just to ensure no intermixing of the two occurs. Of course, not all Jews strictly follow all of these dietary laws; most Orthodox Jews do keep kosher, whereas many Reform Jews may be more lenient in the degree to which they adhere to the rules.

In Islam, there are also a number of religiously mandated dietary restrictions. The Quran expressly forbids both eating pork and drinking wine (a prohibition which Muslims understand extends to drinking any sort of alcoholic beverage). Islamic religious law has sifted further through the Quran and extracted additional guidelines, working out a basic division between types of foods which are classified as either halal (“permitted”) or haram (“forbidden”). Alcohol, pork, blood, improperly slaughtered animals, and a number of other types of food are classed as haram or impermissible.

There are both similarities and differences between kosher and halal lists of foods. For example, both Jews and Muslims are forbidden to eat pork. On the other hand, Jews cannot eat shellfish, but most Muslims can (depending upon the specific sect); by contrast, Muslims cannot drink alcohol, but Jews can (so long as the beverage is kosher; some drinks may contain non-kosher ingredients).

10.  Jews and Muslims both traditionally segregate men and women during worship services.  Within Judaism, this practice of separately seating male and female worshippers varies by branch or denomination. In Orthodox synagogues, Jewish men and women sit in separate areas of their own (there is often an upstairs gallery for women), whereas in Reform synagogues the sexes are not separated from each other.

In Islam, segregation of the sexes during prayer also prevails, but specific customs vary from culture to culture and place to place. Often only Muslim men pray at mosques, while women are expected to pray at home; elsewhere, Muslim women may pray at a mosque, but generally do so either in the rear of the prayer hall (behind the men) or else in an altogether separate area of their own, sometimes hidden from view by a partition, or in an upstairs gallery or a different room.

There are, of course, numerous additional similarities between Judaism and Islam that could further extend this list. For both religions, a “day” technically begins or ends at sunset, rather than at midnight or at dawn. Each religion has its own unique lunar calendar, differing from the widely accepted standard Western or “Gregorian” calendar, and each numbering its years according to its own scheme. Observant Jewish and Muslim males both frequently wear, as an act of piety, somewhat similar skullcap-like head coverings — yarmulkes (the Yiddish term) or kippahs (the Hebrew term) for Jewish men, and the often somewhat larger kufi or taqiyah “prayer cap” for Muslim men.

But hopefully a sufficient number of similarities has already been outlined to adequately underscore just how much in common Judaism and Islam actually share with each other. In some ways, the two faiths are perhaps not so radically different from each other as newcomers unfamiliar with either of them might have expected them to be.



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