Jewish and Muslim leaders met at the Hesperia Hotel in Cordoba Spain for four days of inter-religious dialogue under the auspices of the of the Inter Religious Federation for World Peace (IRFWP), from August 19 - 22, 1999.
Approximately 10 leaders and scholars from each tradition sought greater understanding by engaging in dialogue defined by the conference concept "Jewish-Muslim Encounters: History, Philosophy, Religion, Society, and the Arts."
All participants wrote scholarly papers. Conference conveners Dr. Charles Selengut (Drew University, USA), and Dr. Mumtaz Ahmad (Hampton University, USA) recommended prospective themes for contributors such as, "Religious Authority in the Two Religious Civilizations," "Law and Custom...," "A specific event and its consequences...," "Mysticism in the Two Traditions...," and many other possible topics and issues.
It is the view of IRFWP that politically pursued peace initiatives, absent the willingness to take up the difficult reality of religious difference, are fated to suffer constant setback and disruption. Lasting peace is only possible grounded in hard won mutual understanding. This Cordoba dialogue was undertaken so as to contribute from the religious side elements necessary for the construction of a far reaching and enduring political, social, and cultural accord among Muslims and Jews.
The IRFWP selected Cordoba for this conference due to its historical significance for both Muslims and Jews, as well as for the fact that the city was a site in which these communities lived in relative harmony.
Not many know that in the 11th century Cordoba was one of the most important capitals in Europe. Jews, Muslims and Christians lived peacefully together, and important philosophers, scientists and artists emerged from there.
For Muslims, Córdoba has historical interest since it was the capital of the Spanish Muslim dynasty of the Ummayads (756-1031). The Great Mosque of Córdoba (La Mezquita) was founded 785 CE. It was added to and expanded over the next two hundred years to make it the third largest structure in the Islamic world.
For Jews, one historical attraction in Cordoba is that it is the birthplace of the Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (aka Rambam or Maimonedes) (Around 1148 C.E) who wrote a renowned commentary on the Mishnah.
Indeed the very last remark in the conference deliberations, from Rabbi Elkan Levy (President Emeritus, United Synagogues of London) was to ask, "What was it about this time and this place which enabled Jews and Muslims to flourish and support one another? It would seem that we should seek to grasp and re-construct such conditions in our own time?"
The conference had six sessions during which all 20 papers were debated and discussed. The papers naturally fell into broad themes, namely: Mystical, Theological, Political, Social and Cultural, and Historical. Participants came from the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia. The engagement was respectful but straightforward. Issues were hotly and honestly debated. There was no haste for artificial concord. Rather these partners sought understanding, friendship, respect, and the founding of relationships which can contribute by example and by substantial output to future peace initiatives among the two communities.
The conference opened on the evening of arrivals with papers from Sulayman Nyang, and that of Gil Kahn who examined the issue of Democracy as it pertains to the two traditions. The morning session of the first full day of the conference included a fascinating study of Moroccan Saint Veneration among Muslims and Jews, by Janice Rosen (Archives Director, National Canadian Jewish Archives). Mustansa Mir (Youngstown University, USA) presented in the same session on the topic Kabalah and Sufism: Jewish and Islamic Mysticism. Every session proved as riveting and absorbing. No area of discussion was taboo or off bounds. Interestingly, the politics of the Middle East proved far less explosive than the discussion on gender in the two traditions.
The conversation dynamic was greatly enhanced by the presence and contributions of IRFWP veterans such as Sulayman Nyang (Howard University, USA) who wrote on Muslim-Jewish Relations in the United States of America: Convergence and Divergence, and Richard Rubenstein (President, Bridgeport University, USA) who wrote a rivetting piece of contemporary historical analysis entitled The Temple Mount and My Grandmother's Paper Bag (the bag contained dirt from Eretz Yisrael eventually used to allow her to "symbolically return home" at the time of her burial). Their familiarity with IRFWP standards and rigorous patterns of dialogue was a great support to the conveners who sought to create an ambiance conducive to frank and open discussion void of acrimony.
Some stars from the recent IRFWP, "Jewish Identity" conference (for example Gilbert Kahn, Kean University, USA, Yudit Greenberg, Rollins College, USA, Lawrence Kaplan, McGil University, Canada) once again brought their preeminent scholarly talent to the table, and altogether new faces (such as Ygal Carmon, President, Middle East Media Research Institute, and former advisor to several Israeli Prime Ministers, Irfan Ahmad Khan, American Islamic College, and Razia Akter Banu, University of Dakha, Pakistan, Eliezer Don-Yihya, Bar Ilan University, Israel) easily connected to IRFWP's trademark atmosphere of serious, purposeful, and deeply respectful dialogue. Shaykh Abdur Rashid brought a history of commitment and dialogue experience, Shaykh Nooraddeen Durkee, a lifetime of textual passion and proficiency, and Rowena Muzquiz a superb knowledge of the region and its religious and political history.
IRFWP president Reverend Chung Hwan Kwak sent a written message to be read in his absence, in which he recounted Reverend Moon's (IRFWP Founder) sacrificial history as a champion of world peace, and the latter's current initiatives for harmonizing political, scholarly, and religious leadership, most particularly through the recently founded Interreligious and International Federation for World Peace (IIFWP).
The participants did reach consensus on issuing the Cordoba Declaration, but this was not the sole objective of the encounter. More importantly the participants invested seriously in forging relationships which we pray will flourish and become the cornerstones of peace and bridge-building between these deeply related communities of believers and religious civilization and cultures.