Samir Assi is an Islamic sheikh. Willowy and slender, he appears to be in constant motion except when he is engaged in conversation, and then a calm resolve washes over him. He is in his mid-40s with a dark, close-cropped beard and equally dark, earnest eyes. The heady aroma of cologne wafts around him, almost in contradiction to his traditional outfit: a white-turbaned hat with a burgundy center and a knee-length black robe over his shirt and pants. When he walks through the city of Acco, Israel, people sitting in outdoor cafes call out to him, “Ya, Sheikh Samir!”

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.”

Since his pivotal visit, Sheikh Samir has been trying to jump-start dialogue among Acco’s approximately 47,000 Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Druze residents. The city is one of the few in Israel with a mixed religious population, and he would like to organize more interfaith activities, especially for Acco’s youth.

The city’s population is impoverished, however, and he struggles to raise funds. Guarding the mosque’s spiritual independence as well as his own, he refuses donations from religious or political organizations. He even turned down a discount on the mosque’s city taxes: he does not want to be beholden to anyone. Besides, he said, it’s politics, and not religion, that causes the problems.

I mentioned to him the irony that Christians, who shared a grim history with the Jews, now sponsor a wide range of interfaith exchanges, while the Muslims, who once shared an age of enlightenment with the Jews, now have a turbulent present. The sheikh said that our linked past could be—and should be—the basis for future relations.

What about troubling stories of the Bible that seem to drive a wedge between our peoples? For example, the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son, whom the Jews believe to be Isaac. Islam, hundreds of years later, reclaimed the story as its own, substituting for Isaac the boy Ishmael, who in the Bible is Abraham's illegitimate son, the offspring of his wife's handmaid Hagar. In the Qur'an, Ishmael becomes the father of the Muslim people. Sheikh Samir explained that when God told Abraham to take his only son, “the only son at the time was Ishmael.”

We sat for a moment in awkward silence and I feared that we had reached a religious impasse. Were our problems too contentious to be resolved? Yet in the quiet, I came to understand that the principle of the story was more important than the personalities within it. There is no way to reconcile the way Abraham’s two sons will forever compete for center stage in the same tale. But both Jews and Muslims can share the story. It serves as testimony of Abraham’s faith—and Abraham is the father of us all.

“Surely,” I said after a while, “Muslims must be angry with Abraham’s wife Sarah.” In the Biblical story, Sarah, the mother of the Jews, banished Ishmael’s mother, Hagar, mother of the Muslims, and sent her into the desert with her young son. “Why should we be angry?” he asked. “It’s only natural for Sarah to be jealous of Hagar. She wanted Abraham all to herself.” He recounted that when a Muslim woman told him the other day that she named her baby Sarah, he blessed the newborn by saying he hoped she would become as strong and disciplined as the Biblical Sarah was.

I brought up another problematic issue—the law of Dar El-Islam, the Muslim belief that any land that has ever been under Islamic rule must revert to Islamic rule, thereby threatening Israel’s existence.

“Human life is more valuable than land,” he replied. “There are many problems between Israel and the Palestinians, but I believe that we can find a solution. I also hope that Israelis take into account the vast majority of Muslims who really want peace.”

“What about suicide bombers who kill in the name of Islam?” I asked.

“Kill?” the sheikh repeated animatedly, losing his composure for the first time. “Religious people can’t even think about killing! I’ve spoken about this often in my Friday sermons and to our young people. The Prophet Mohammad said that even in the time of war, we can’t kill women, children, or the elderly, so how can a man board a bus and blow himself up?”

He shook his head in disbelief.

I told him that few other sheikhs have risked saying that in public.

“There are many clerics who agree with me—unfortunately, there are others who stand against me. But what should I do?” He paused. “I have to get my message out. I can’t stay here and hide, can I?”

All I could offer in response was a story I had heard from Rabbi Abraham Twerski of Pennsylvania, in which he spoke about the difference between a religious person and a spiritual one: A religious person is someone who is afraid of going to hell. But a spiritual person has already been there. “If we understand that,” I said, “Then religious people can work together on spiritual principles.”

Listening intently, Sheikh Samir nodded. “And even if the spiritual person had to stay in hell,” he said, “he would still believe in God. His love of God would be so strong that he would accept where he was. He wouldn’t even feel like he was in hell.”

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