May 12, 2017

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

How I learned about Islam and Arab family life

John F. FinkNafez Nazzal taught us classes on Islam during my studies at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute of Jerusalem in 1997. His wife Laila taught us about Arab society and family life.

Nafez was born and raised in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, but was educated in the United States, getting his doctorate at Georgetown Univer­sity. He had taught at Birzeit University in Palestine, where he met Laila. Then he taught in the United States, including at the University of Pennsylvania and one year at Harvard, but then he and Laila returned to Israel. Besides teaching at Tantur, he taught at the Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies, Brigham Young University.

Laila also had a doctorate, in sociology. She was a Palestinian, born in what was then Palestine, but she was educated in the United States, first at the University of Tennessee and then her Ph.D. in socio­logy and English literature at the University of Pennsylva­nia while Nafez was teaching there.

Their marriage was different from that of most Arabs in that it was not arranged by their families. Laila was an attractive woman, short and slim, with thick black hair. She wore suits, high heels, red fingernail polish and lipstick, not exactly the way most of the Palestinian women we saw were dressed.

When I asked Laila how she escaped an early marriage arranged by her parents, as happens to most Arab women, she said she did it by “going on strike.” She rejected all the men suggested for her by staying in her room because she knew that her father was wealthy enough to send her to the United States for her education.

When Nafez and Laila decided they wanted to marry, Laila again had to “go on strike” until her father agreed to the marriage, even though it was outside their clan.

I wrote two columns about Arab family life in this space back in 1997. I also wrote eight columns about Islam in 2001.

Besides teaching us about Islam, Nafez also took our class to places that only Muslims are usually permitted to go, for example, under the Al Aksa Mosque on the Temple Mount where the so-called Solomon’s Stables were. The Crusaders, not Solomon, stabled their horses there. We also visited mosques dating from the Umayyad era of the eighth century.

We also spent time in the Al Aksa Mosque itself, located where the money‑changers would have been in the ancient Jewish Temple. And, of course, the magnificent Dome of the Rock, built over the rock on which the Jews believe that Abraham was command­ed to sacrifice his son Isaac.

The Muslims believe Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son Ishmael, in Mecca. But the Dome of the Rock is sacred to the Muslims because they believe that Muhammed ascended into heaven from that spot.

I don’t know if Nafez and Laila are still teaching at Tantur. When I Google them, I see that Nafez is teaching at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I also see that they wrote a book together, Historical Dictionary of Palestine, that costs a whopping $96.

(John Fink’s recent series of columns on Church history is now available in book form from Amazon. It is titled How Could This Church Survive? with the subtitle, It must be more than a human institution.)

Local site Links:

Like this story? Then share it!