The sheikh smiles, waves, and then moves on.
In the 16 years I’ve lived in Israel’s Western Galilee, about 10 minutes away from Acco, I had never before met a sheikh. I have dozens of Muslim friends, but I’ve always steered clear of Islamic clerics. For one thing, they frightened me—I pictured men with long, unruly beards shouting anti-Israel slogans in packed mosques. For another, I assumed that none would even talk to me: a Jewish woman who moved from the U.S. to Israel. I might have come to further the cause of peace between Arabs and Jews—but nonetheless, my presence still meant I was staking out the Zionist dream.
I made an appointment to meet with Sheikh Samir, however, because I had heard he was an anomaly in the Middle East: a moderate in what appears to be a swell of Islamic extremists. I wanted to speak to him about ways to repair the rift between Israel’s Muslims and Jews.
Before our talk, we stopped at the Al-Jazzar Mosque, where the sheikh serves as spiritual leader.
Approximately 15,000 Muslims live in the ancient port city of Acco, and the 18th-century Ottoman-style mosque is their central sanctuary. What the Al-Aqsa Mosque is for Jerusalem, the Al-Jazzar Mosque is for Acco, a bright green dome and minaret that rises above the city’s yellowish pink stones.
I hesitated before entering the mosque, steeling myself for that uncomfortable sensation I’ve had the few times I’ve stepped inside a church. Yet the calm I felt in the cool shadows of the mosque surprised me. The lofty, cavernous space was painted all white, bare except for green and gold banners inscribed with verses from the Qur'an. Since I can’t read Arabic, the swirls, dots, and dashes looked like coded messages from the Divine.
A handful of men prayed in the middle of countless Persian rugs spread out on the empty mosque floor. On their knees, their foreheads pressed to the earth, the men faced east toward Mecca, reciting the afternoon prayers from memory, as is the custom. I thought of Yom Kippur services, the only day in the year when Jews fall down to our knees in prayer, bending in the very same way. I had never felt inspired by the posture of Muslim prayer, but now, the bowing worshipers visibly demonstrated how faith means turning our souls—and our entire bodies—over to God.
As I stood there, I realized sadly that today’s fanatic Islamic leaders have hijacked my idea of Islam—as well as Islam itself. In the mosque, however, I was astonished to feel far away from troubling world events. More importantly, I felt a sense of peace.
Stepping out of the mosque and into the bright Mediterranean sun, we headed for the sheikh’s office on the far side of the courtyard. After we sat down (with the door kept open for modesty’s sake), the sheikh offered me some grapefruit juice. Then I asked him what he thought was the most important message of Islam.
“Love,” the sheikh said.
Love? Was he kidding? The message that Islam seemed to be broadcasting these days was one of violence, jihad, and hate.
The sheikh cited a Sufi Muslim who said that if our hearts are filled with love of God, there is no room for hate. Then he quoted one of his favorite verses from the Qur'an in which God says He created all religions so that people would understand one another. The best religion of all? The one that honored the others.
Sheikh Samir did not grow up religious. But next door to his apartment in Acco—where his family has resided for generations—was a school of Sufis, the mystical branch of Islam. By the age of eight or nine, he was already spending time there, feeling drawn to a spiritual life. After high school, he studied at an Islamic madrasa, and then served as leader in a mosque in a nearby Arab village. In 1991, the Israeli Ministry of Religious Affairs appointed him imam, or sheikh, of the Acco mosque.
The sheikh said he wanted to do whatever he could to mend the relationship between Muslims and Jews. In fact, he became the first Israeli sheikh to travel to Auschwitz with a delegation of Israeli religious leaders two years ago.
“It was an honor for me as a Muslim, a religious man, but most of all, a human being, to go there,” he said. “I’m against what happened to the Jewish people. Jews know all too well about suffering. Now we need to work together to make sure that no other people suffers like that again.”