This week the RAC hosted Imam Umer Ahmed Ilyasi, Chief Imam of the All India Imam Organization. The All India Imam Organization is the largest imam organization in the world, representing half a million religious leaders and over two hundred million Muslims living in India. Imam Ilyasi has distinguished himself as a leader who powerfully addresses issues of religious extremism and global terrorism and frequently reaches out across religious lines. In particular, he has done considerable work bringing together Muslim and Jewish leaders in the Middle East and around the world and has been recognized internationally for his achievements in peace building and interreligious affairs.
Imam Ilyasi shared his own story of his personal experience with Jewish-Muslim relations. For his whole life, he did not understand Judaism, Israel or Jewish heritage. His only source of knowledge came from biased newspapers, influenced by radicals from the Middle East. In 2007, however, he was invited by President Shimon Peres to visit Israel. Although he hesitated to accept the invitation and knew he would face protest from his community, the visit was transformative and encouraged him to take it upon himself to spread understanding of Judaism among Indian Muslims. He arranged for a rabbi to visit a madrasa, which was heartily welcomed and soon demanded by other madrasas around the country. Imam Ilyasi is now undertaking a project to create an exchange between Jewish and Muslim religious seminaries and to foster understanding and dialogue between the communities. Even in the face of violent protests and burning effigies, Imam Ilyasi has continued with his pursuit, confident in his way forward and the path to peace.