Hamid Al-Sharifi, former Iraqi Ambassador to Kuwait, will never forget the Shabbat morning he took the pulpit at Hendon Reform Synagogue at the invitation of its rabbi, Steven Katz. It was a first for HRS and for Mr Al-Sharifi, a courageous Muslim who heads the website, liberalmuslim.org, which aims to take the message of Progressive Judaism right into the heart of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslim population.
“They invite a Muslim, a progressive liberal imam for their Shabbat service,” he says. “And that imam wore a tallit and a kippah. I was honoured to participate. I have not seen something like that in my life in any mosque.”
What moved him so deeply was seeing men and women sitting praying together. “I had tears in my eyes. Because this is my mother, my daughters, my sisters — so why do we have to separate them? I can’t see the logic .”
Progressive Judaism, he believes, is best placed to carry the message of Islamic reform to his co-religionists. “My dream is a mosque where we, men and women, do the service together. I would love to see a woman imam in my mosque and we would pray for the Queen, which is beautiful.” That’s a dream he is on the way to fulfil as he hopes to open Britain’s first self-styled liberal mosque between the end of July and beginning of August.
In fundamentalist Islamic thought, he says, men are considered superior to women, because traditionally they were the breadwinners. “But today women are barristers, solicitors, doctors, so there’s no superiority now.”
Earlier this year Pinchas Goldschmidt, chairman of the (Orthodox) Conference of European Rabbis, said Europe’s Jews and Muslims “had a common cause in resisting attacks on minority religions and defending religious freedoms.” It is this awareness, plus fear of militant jihad, that inspires moderates like Mr Al-Sharifi to call for Islamic reform. Now in London, he is an active supporter of peace between Israel and its neighbours and has visited Israel as a guest of its Foreign Ministry.
He developed his ideas some 10 years ago after leaving the diplomatic service. In 2012 he wrote articles for Arab and German newspapers, slowly shifting from politics to religion, even bringing Holocaust facts to Iraqis who had denied them. He realised: “most of our problems came from religion, so let’s do something. I saw that people were eating each other alive. Muslims were eating Muslims. I urged people to sit down and talk about it.”
His liberal Islamic thinking is not totally self-generated. He was inspired by the 11th-century Sunni Muslim scholar, Ibn Rushd, who urged both Sunni and Shia Muslims to consider the deeper meanings of Koranic texts and not follow them blindly. However a century later, this liberal thought was crushed by a fundamentalist leader, Ibn Taymyah, who insisted both Sunni and Shia follow a more rigorous and literal interpretation of their faith.
There were later precedents. Islamic Modernism, or Modernist Salafism, emerged in the 19th century and attempted to reconcile Islamic faith with modern Western values. But Mr Al-Sharifi’s concern is with rising numbers of Western-born Muslims heading towards extremism. He blames the internet because mosques, which are under the supervision of the world’s security services, offer “wonderful speakers through their loudspeakers with MI5 listening. But on the internet they says something else. My plea is for Muslims to distance themselves from fundamentalism and violence.”
His website re-interprets what he calls the most controversial verses in the Koran. It is published only in Arabic, but he now seeks funding to translate it into six or seven languages. It claims between 80,000-90,000 followers. There are “hundreds of people who criticise Islam on the internet, whether they are turban-wearing clerics or doctors in neckties.” He draws strength from these liberal, religious thinkers who reject fundamentalism, whether Muslim, Jewish or Christian. “Even those from the Gulf regimes are talking about modernisation, about liberalisation,” he says.
Surprisingly, he developed his Koranic studies at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, under Iraqi-born Jewish Professor of Arabic Studies, Shmuel Moreh, who taught him “the difficult Arabic grammar” and urged him to read five words at a time and think of their deeper meaning. “He said you are a musmih, reformist, Hamid. You are my son.”
Rabbi Steven Katz understands the difficulties for modern Islam to find real leadership. “This would need to be self-funded and unlikely to come from the Middle East,” he says, “though perhaps from like-minded Muslims in the USA who may be more inclined to soften Islam at the edges.”
Rabbi Katz believes Progressive Judaism, which is “almost global with over one and a quarter million Jews”, will help. “The issue for Hamid is not change but interpretation. He will interpret some views within the Koran which are clearly not acceptable today.”
Mr Al-Sharifi is the first to admit it will take time. “They won’t understand it immediately. We have to be peaceful and not believe in killing. I am putting all that I have into this project. Then at least I tried. I can see that success is coming.”