9 April 2007







The Jewish Grand Sanhedrin as an example for reforming Europe’s (and other) Islam?

Pierre Akel


Last week, French Jews celebrated the Grand Sanhedrin convoked by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1807. The Emperor submitted to a gathering of 72 rabbis and Jewish notables, both “liberal” and “traditionalist” (“salafi”, in modern terms), 12 questions whose positive answers amounted to a reformation of Judaism in Napoleon’s empire and to a social and cultural revolution for the Jews of France in particular.


In an article titled “paving the way for a Muslim parallel society”, Last week’s Der Spiegel predicted that “a recent ruling by a German judge citing the Koran underscores the dilemma the country faces in reconciling Western values with a growing immigrant population. A disturbing number of rulings are helping to create a parallel Muslim world in Germany..”.  In other words, a specter of a Cold Civil War is haunting not only in Germany but all of Europe.


Der spiegel’s alarmist statement followed on a decision by a German (female) judge that “the exercise of the right to castigate does not fulfill the hardship criteria as defined by paragraph 1565 (of the German Federal Law). The judge had decided that a woman was not justified in asking for speedy divorce from a violent husband as both she and her husband wore “Moroccans”, citing a passage in the Koran that some have interpreted to mean that a husband can beat his wife!


The awareness that there is a “problem with Islam” is increasing in Europe and elsewhere. And, not only in the public opinion and among politicians and intellectuals. The Catholic Church is witnessing a rise in the traditionalist current at both grass root level (in seminaries, for instance) and at the top.



A problem with Islam there is. It is similar in many aspects to Napoleon’s problem with French Jews. Napoleon had discovered that the liberation of Europe’s Jews from their ancient Ghettos and declaring that all citizens were equal was not enough. Judaism, itself, had to undergo the cultural and religious reformation required to meet modernity. Noting the amazing number of brilliant Jewish professionals in modern France, whether in medicine, law, finance, the media, one should remember that until 1807 and for some time later: “it remained to convince the almost illiterate (Jewish) masses of the importance of scientific knowledge because centuries of marginalization had created in their midst the deeply rooted idea that all profane sciences were dangerous for their faith, or the integrity of their religion. Any sciences that did not belong to their religious texts were considered as harmful: grammar, mathematics and history were still considered “suspect” disciplines”!




“The schools, to which they sent their children, before 1789, were under the influence of such prejudices... They were organized in accordance with a carelessness that belonged to another age and managed by ignorant people who taught children Yiddish, some rudiments of Hebrew and the Talmud.


“A real and profound pedagogical effort was required to convince families to send their children t public schools and to explain that profane was not a sin...”.(1)



Islam, undoubtedly, is in urgent need of a reformation similar to the reforms enacted by the 1807 Grand Sanhedrin. Though some differences are important. While some Saudi Ulemas would consider the “profane” as “sin”, it is a fact that Muslim immigrants to Europe do send their children to public schools and are immersed in Europe’s modernity. Moreover, and paradoxically, most immigrants come from countries with a prevalent Sufi (thus, more tolerant) organization of Islam, including North African countries.



The fact that most immigrants do not come from countries known for their Islamic rigor sheds a light on a particular aspect of the “problem with Islam” in Europe. For, it could be argued that we are witnessing a “transformation” of the traditional Islam carried over by generations of Muslim immigrants into a “Brotherhood-Salafi, that is a “new” type of Islam, under the assault of organized predicators (belonging mostly to the Brotherhood) and of satellite TVs. The “dish revolution” has reached both North Africa’s traditionally Sufi-organized countries and Europe’s immigrants who come from the same countries as well as Turkey and few other countries. The Islam being vehicled by Arab Satellite TVs is both a Brotherhood Islam (al-Jazeera) and Wahhabi Islam (“Iqra”, among other channels). Its impact is devastating on populations whose knowledge of Islam was, mostly, superficial at best.



Modern Europe most probably could not convoke something similar to the Grand Sanhedrin, which Napoleon’s genius had revived after 2000 years of abandon. Other means would have to be sought and invented. The “media effect” would have to be used to help “Islam” move in the direction of a profound “reconciliation” with modernity. Such a task would not be an “imperialist ploy” to subvert Islam. The arduous job of reforming Islam did start in the 19th century by such Imams as the Mufti of Egypt, the famous Mohamed Abdo. It is being continued today by many Muslim reformers, including Jamal Banna, Judge Saiid el Ashmawy and many others in Egypt and elsewhere.


Yet, Napoleon’s genius could still be valid in today’s Europe. Modern Islam, still, has to answer most of the 12 questions submitted by the Emperor to the Jews of the Empire. “1-Is it lawful for Jews to have more than one wife?; .. 3- May a Jewess marry a Christian, or may a Jew marry a Christian woman?; 4- In the eyes of Jews, are Frenchmen not of Jewish religion considered as brethren or as strangers?; 5- What conduct does Jewish law prescribe toward Frenchmen not of Jewish religion?; 6- Do Jews born in France and treated by the Law as French citizens, acknowledge France as their country? Are they bound to defend it? Are they bound to obey the Laws and follow the directions of the Civil Code?;”.


The decisions of the Grand Sanhedrin, formulated in nine articles and drawn up in French and Hebrew were as follows: “polygamy had been authorized but.. should cease to be .. in the West; that Jews, under Moses Law, considered that only Jews were their brothers… the Sanhedrin has decided that all men are bothers, irrespective of their religion, as long as they were not idolatrous and if Israelites, living among them, enjoyed the same rights which they themselves enjoyed; having established the fraternity between all men, Israelites had the obligation to defend the land in which they lived (even if the Law of Moses had only mentioned the duty to defend the Temple of Jerusalem); marriages between Jews and Christians are not anathema but represent a necessity to be encouraged..; a duty to hold property, etc.; and that Judaism does not forbid any kind of handicraft or occupation;...


Later decrees by the French state required Jews to have proper names- instead of a biblical name followed by “bar or ben” and the father’s name  tradition- and to give proper names to “women” who, until then, had had no names at all. But it should be underlined that the answers of the “Israelites” were not brought about by mere coercion. The Imperial power was met by Jewish “liberal” reformers who, sometimes, were tainted as non-Jewish by 19th century Jewish “salafis”!


The decisions of the Grand Sanhedrin, if adopted by today’s Muslim bodies (replacing « Israelites » by « Muslims », would usher the end of Islamic fundamentalism.


The task looks arduous in today’s Europe. Europe (and the United States), often, shy away form evoking an Islamic Reformation and they are more used to talking to official representatives of Islam or to the Powers in place. Yet, Napoleon’s recipe looks inevitable if Europe (and the the United States) are to avoid a “religious Cold War” with its sporadic outbursts of terrorist or terrorist-suicide operations- a phenomenon most observers agree is on the rise.


Muslim reformers are there. The West should listen to their cry and give them a hand.



(1) Lilly Marcou: Napoléon Face Aux Juifs, Pygmalion (2006)


Your Comments


Fri, 11 May 2007 10:46:27 +0300

From: "Yossi Amitay" <yamitay@gvulot.org.il> 


    Dear Pierre,


I have read with profound interest your review of the relationship between the Emperor Napoleon Bonapart and the French Jewish community, and its implications on current state/religion issues. I must confess I have learned from this outstanding review a lot of things I was not aware of about my own people. I salute this intellectual endeavor of yours.


Kind regards,

 Yossi Amitay



"Solomon2 Solomon2" <solomon2_2@hotmail.com> 

Date: Wed, 11 Apr 2007 21:45:21 -0400

    There seems to be a big misunderstanding here.  The Great Sanhedrin was

not an event of importance in the religious development of Jews.  It didn't

change any rules or codes about how Jews are supposed to related to

non-Jews or the State; that's how its business managed to be concluded so


Rather, Napoleon's genius in calling for a Great Sanhedrin was because

of what it meant for French non-Jews: a REPUBLICAN institution of resident

aliens who accepted the Revolution and the Code Napoleon and thus could now

be accepted as near-equal citizens - Jews still faced legal restrictions on

their activities in Alsace, where French anti-Semitism was strongest.


In other words, it wasn't French Jews who evolved, but the rest of

France.  The Grand Sanhedrin simply made it clear that the Jews could conform to

these changes easily, after they had already occurred.


Islam, of course, has not reached such a stage of development; indeed in

gatherings such as last month's Riyadh Conference the only united

statements that seem to emerge are non-negotiable demands stating how the rest of

the world must change if it is to sufficiently accomodate an aggressively

colonizing Islamist culture.   Only if Muslims abandon such "punitive"

Islam do I see a day when an "Islamic Sanhedrin" can accomplish anything




- Solomon2




Wed, 11 Apr 2007 11:06:54 +0200 (Egypt Standard Time)

From: "Samir Ragheb" <samirragheb@hotmail.com


    Dear Pierre:

Your article sheds light on the core of the problem, and explores the dark corners that politicians and decision makers fail to see. However, Islam, as we know it today, is on a collision course with the entire world thanks to the Wahabi concepts being exported to every country on the face of our planet through satellite TV channels.


It is quite true that there are many reformers and intellectuals who can completely reverse the tide, and change that ugly picture that the world has of us, but those people are not given the opportunity to do so. Our regimes prefer to play it safe. They satisfy the majority of simple minded masses in order to remain in power. Our leaders do not have a real and genuine motivation to reform anything, they are so happy with the status quo. Appeasement is the name of the game!

Now, one last question: Do you think the problem lies with the people ( ruled and rulers ) or with the book, which - I think - is quite beyond repair?

 Samir Ragheb



Mon, 09 Apr 2007 13:30:25 -0400 (Eastern Daylight Time)

From: "Naim S. Mahlab" <nsm@videotron.ca> 


    I wish we could legislate an end to religious and racial prejudices. Unfortunately, early indoctrination of the children by parents or schools

has a tendency to be deep rooted in the person's psyche.

When I think of the unfavorable changes that have taken place in my own life time, I shudder at what the future can hold.

When I was a child, I remember that, at the end of passover, our Moslem friends sent us a tray full of the foods that we were not allowed

to eat during the feast.

We always exchanged good wishes to each other during Moslem and Jewish festivals. But relations soured in the thirties, and collapsed after the creation of Israel. I recall visiting a friend of mine who had a senior position in the government. When I walked into his office he greeted me warmly and introduced to those present as 'the ustath Naim, not mentioning my family name which could have identified me as being Jewish.

My father lived in Kuweit for some time. I recall his telling me that they had a neighbor who finished his evening prayers with the phrase,

'May God bring his wrath on the Christians, then on the Jews, and then again on the Christians.'

My father who was a friend of Sheikh Mubarak Al Sabah, inquired whether this phrase was part of Moslem ritual. Sheikh Mubarak suggested that he talk with the local Mullah, which he did. The neighbor dropped his version of prayers.

I, personally, always enjoyed my friends of different background. I spent some time in a Catholic boarding school in India. I got along extremely well with all, including the Irish Brothers who ran the school.

In 1945 , I was running after a beautiful girl I met, and ended up in Jerusalem. While there, I wanted to visit the Temple Mount. Relations between Moslems and Jews were not the best. I phoned a Moslem friend who was with me at the AUB and asked him if he would accompany me. He accepted warmly. All my Jewish friends told me that I cannot trust him. I replied that I do and that I consider him a friend. We visited

The Dome of the Rock and the rest of the compound. Everyone was greeting us warmly as my friend was a member of a prominent Jerusalem Moslem family. It was a very pleasant visit.

I think it is extremely sad that this warm relationship has turned into hatred.

If people can only learn to enjoy diversity in people, then life can be much more enjoyable.

Naim S. Mahlab.