The following is excerpted from Sons of Abraham, a book which tells the story of how Rabbi Schneier and Imam Ali became friends, and offers a candid look at the contentious theological and political issues that frequently divide Jews and Muslims. The book aims to clarify erroneous ideas that extremists in each religion use to justify harmful behaviour, while dispelling misconceptions about each religion. 

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 Part One

Who We Are


Chapter One

Child of the Soil

Imam shamsi ali


I came from a humble family in a village called Tana Toa on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. It was a very small place, very traditional. The nearest city was five hours away by car, and we had very little contact with the outside world—no cars, no TVs, no phones. People just followed the local customs. Most people in my village would call themselves Muslims, but they never studied Islam, they did not learn the Qur’an, and they held on to a lot of superstition. Some people even claimed that the Prophet Muhammad was born there in the village. And that is the reason why it’s called Tana Toa—the name means “the old land.”

My dad was a farmer and my mom was a housewife. I have four brothers and a sister; I was number three out of the surviving five. As a child, I did farmer things, playing with horses, with cows. I was barefoot almost all the time. We used to walk seven miles every day to school. I didn’t pay much attention to school as a child. When I felt lazy, I would just go do something else, and then tell my parents that I’d been to school. Some of the people in the area had graduated school and yet they just went back to work on the farm, so sometimes I’d ask myself, What is the reason to study?

I grew up rebellious, and I think it is my basic nature. I led the village kids in what some would call gangs, fighting with kids from other villages. If any kids came over and they had cows or horses, we would fight them. That is just what we did. I also think I rebelled because I wanted the village to be developed and I saw every day that nothing developed and nothing ever changed. In the city, I knew, people had electricity, cars, and phones. We had nothing. I remember there was only one truck in the whole village, and it belonged to someone who lived in the city. Some of the people in the village went to the city to work, and when they came back, they were able to purchase things that we could not, whether a house or a bicycle. They would tell us about the marvels of the city.

My father basically didn’t know anything about religion at the time. Prayer was only once a week, on Friday, but my father did not pray. He fasted during Ramadan because it was something that all people observed. The only good Islamic practice I can pinpoint with my parents was that they wanted me to learn to read the Holy Qur’an in Arabic, and so they sent me to a special teacher. They used to say, “You have to learn because this is our Muslim holy book.” I think I was six or seven when I started learning to read the Qur’an in Arabic. My teacher’s name was Puang Tambang. I was very close to him and still consider him a second father.

Around that village, some teachers were harsh—they might beat you or yell. But Puang Tambang was a very kind person. He was wise and gentle and easily got along with students. I still remember his voice was very soft. His wife was very motherly. Sometimes, if I didn’t wash my feet properly, she would take me back to her house to do it the right way. We didn’t pay the teacher anything really, but in our village it was difficult to get water from a well, so every time we went to class, we would bring water for the teacher as a charity. Puang Tambang’s house was a normal village house, very simple, made of wood. All the students would gather in one room, having the Qur’an in front of them and reading it one by one.

Why I fell in love with learning the Holy Qur’an is still a mystery to me. I didn’t like school at all—especially math! But if you gave me something easy to memorize, I would fall in love with it, and perhaps that was the key for me. Before I even started identifying the alphabet in order to read the passages, I had already memorized some short suras (chapters) from the Holy Qur’an. My teacher always praised me in front of the other students, and that pushed me to go further; I wanted to be the best. Normally the teacher would teach half a page at a time and call on the students to recite the day’s lesson. When the teacher came to me, he would realize that I knew the whole page. He would quiz me on the half page we studied, but I already knew the next lesson. So I finished learning the Holy Qur’an in a very short time. Usually, it takes two years or more, and if I’m not mistaken, I did it in about seven or eight months. When I finished, the teacher appointed me as an informal assistant and that pushed me too. I was about seven or eight years old, and he would take me to any celebration that he attended. For example, when someone died, for forty days people would gather to read the Qur’an for the deceased. My teacher used to take me to those gatherings and ask me to lead the people reading the Qur’an. I felt important, which in turn increased my love for study and my feelings of responsibility for getting it right.

But outside of madrassa, my tendency was still to be rebellious. Out of the five boys in our family, I was considered the laziest. My father would ask me to bring grass for the horses, but I would instead go out and play with the other kids. I didn’t like to work on the farm; it was hot and humid, and it was not my nature to work there. After I finished my primary school, my father was very confused about what to do with me since I was not interested in school and I was not interested in the farm.

To be continued...

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Sons of Abraham is priced at AED 75 and is available to order here.