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A Day of Deep Sorrow: An Imam’s Reflections on Yom Hashoah

Imam Abdullah Antepli is a Fellow on Jewish-Muslim Relations at the Shalom Hartman Institute and Co-Director of the Muslim Leadership Initiative. He is on the faculty at both Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and Duke Divinity School, where from 2008–2014 he served as the university’s first Muslim chaplain, one of only a handful of full-time Muslim chaplains at U.S. colleges and universities. He was recently recognized as one of the most influential Muslims

Article originally appeared in the Huffington Post

This is the first Holocaust remembrance day (Yom Hashoah) since I, together with seven other Muslim American leaders, visited various Nazi concentration camps in Germany and Poland last summer. The trip came in response to my years of prayers. As someone who is a recovering anti-Semite pained by the current Jewish-Muslim relations here in the U.S. and globally, and as someone for years who has been trying hard to improve these relationships, I was convinced that there is a real communication problem between Jews and Muslims today.


We Muslims in general do not receive and decode the message we receive from our Jewish brothers and sisters and our messages do not go through and register with many Jews for the most part. Often I felt we are looking at different maps and trying to find an address. I was convinced long before this trip that no real in roads to understand contemporary Jewish world and Jewish psyche is possible without studying and understanding the Holocaust and the kind of collective trauma that it has created in the hearts and minds of the world Jewry today.

We visited the camps Dachau in Munich, Germany and Aushwitz and Birkenau in Krakow, Poland. We talked to a handful of Holocaust survivors. I confess in all sincerity that the whole trip experience came as a slap in the face. I thought I knew something about the Holocaust, Jewish history and pain. I guess it is something to read a few books and watch some Spielberg movies, but it is another thing to face the experiential reality of the tragedy as I tried to walk in the shoes of millions of innocent people in that couple days.

What I saw and witnessed was beyond horrible and tragic. It is horrible is if unethical soldiers, in the heat of a war, do ugly things or if angry mobs attack and kill innocent people. But the Holocaust was nothing like that, for two main reasons:


Firstly, I never quiet understood how very well thought,”ingeniously” designed, and efficiently and successfully carried out the death and destruction plan of the Holocaust was until this trip. It wasn’t only Nazi soldiers committing these atrocities; millions of others from different parts of the European societies were on board with them as the Holocaust went on. The death camps got so efficient in the last three years of Holocaust that they were able to turn any one into ashes in less than three hours after they got out of their train in such a shameful and deceitful fashion.

Secondly, I never quiet understood the scale and the size of destruction of the Holocaust. Twelve million people were killed, 6 million of which were innocent Jews, making up about one third of the world’s Jewry. There were 3.5 million Jews living in Poland before WWII. Poland was one of the main centers of Jewish learning with important yeshivas and learning centers for more than a thousand years. Fewer than 200,000 were left by the end of the war and today the most generous numbers say there about 1,000 Jewish families in Poland. All the existing Jewish heritage and civilization was completely wiped out. I couldn’t help but do the math as I went through several sleepless nights after this trip. If you compare this for Muslims, it would mean 400 million to 500 million Muslims killed in six years and all the great learning institutions of the Muslim civilizations wiped out at the same time.

With out realizing and emphatically relating to the scale of destruction and its caused trauma of the Holocaust, it is almost impossible to understand the Jewish psyche and Jewish world today. Because the present-day Jewish map and Jewish institutions are all designed in response to this calamity, in response to this trauma.

We Muslims should not hesitate to condemn this horrific destruction in the strongest possible words. First of all, we have nothing to do with this evil act which took place at heart of “civilized and enlightened” Europe. On the contrary, there are numerous accounts that Muslims of Albania, Turkey, Bosnia, Morocco and many others saved thousands of Jewish lives.

Many things are just not the same after this trip for me. In all honesty, I used to receive many Jewish reactions to overtly anti-Semitic statements, such as the crazy Ahmadinejad of Iran claiming that Israel should be wiped out from the world map, as overreactions if not unnecessary exaggerations. I used to say: “Come on, he is a nut case. Why is this too much anxiety and fear?” As a result of this trip, I don’t take those Jewish reactions in the same way any more. I share their anxiety and fear and see their point.

I lost taste of many things as a result of this trip as my trust in the innate good in humanity was fundamentally challenged. The most important one is very personal. One of the most powerful images was seeing the hills of human hair in Auschwitz and Birkenau. They used to shave people after they gassed them and sell this human hair to various factories for commercial use. I can never forget those hills of human hair. My 9-year-old little daughter has beautiful, long, thick hair. I used to find some much comfort, therapeutic peace in running my fingers through my daughter’s hair after a long and tiring day. I lost taste for that as whenever I touch her hair those horrific images rush through my mind.

This Holocaust remembrance week and Yom Hashoah is a period of very painful reflection. I hope we will do more than just remembering. I pray that we will subscribe to the message of NEVER AGAIN wholeheartedly and be determined to do what ever it takes to achieve it.


The following is the official statement from the imams who visited the concentration camps.

“O you who believe, stand up firmly for justice as witnesses to Almighty God.” —Holy Quran, al-Nisa, “The Women” 4:135

On August 7-11, 2010, we the undersigned Muslim American faith and community leaders visited Dachau and Auschwitz concentration camps where we witnessed firsthand the historical injustice of the Holocaust.

We met survivors who, several decades later, vividly and bravely shared their horrific experience of discrimination, suffering and loss. We saw the many chilling places where men, women and children were systematically and brutally murdered by the millions because of their faith, race, disability and political affiliation.

In Islam, the destruction of one innocent life is like the destruction of the whole of humanity and the saving of one life is like the saving of the whole of humanity (Holy Quran, al-Ma’idah, “the Tablespread” 5:32). While entire communities perished by the many millions, we know that righteous Muslims from Bosnia, Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco and Albania saved many Jews from brutal repression, torture and senseless destruction.

We bear witness to the absolute horror and tragedy of the Holocaust where over 12 million human souls perished, including 6 million Jews.


We condemn any attempts to deny this historical reality and declare such denials or any justification of this tragedy as against the Islamic code of ethics.

We condemn anti-Semitism in any form. No creation of Almighty God should face discrimination based on his or her faith or religious conviction.


We stand united as Muslim American faith and community leaders and recognize that we have a shared responsibility to continue to work together with leaders of all faiths and their communities to fight the dehumanization of all peoples based on their religion, race or ethnicity. With the disturbing rise of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and other forms of hatred, rhetoric and bigotry, now more than ever, people of faith must stand together for truth.

Together, we pledge to make real the commitment of “never again” and to stand united against injustice wherever it may be found in the world today.


Imam Muzammil Siddiqi, Islamic Society of Orange County, Calif., and chairman of the Fiqh Council of North America
Imam Mihamad Magid, All-Dulles-Area Muslim Society; President Elect, Islamic Society of North America, Washington, D.C.
Imam Suhaib Webb, Muslim Community Association, Santa Clara, Calif.
Ms. Laila Muhammad, daughter of the late Imam W.D. Muhammad of Chicago, Ill.
Shaikh Yasir Qadhi, Dean of Academics for the Al Maghrib Institute, New Haven, Conn.
Imam Syed Naqvi, Director of the Islamic Information Center in Washington, D.C.
Imam Abdullah T. Antepli, Muslim Chaplain, Duke University
Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed, Director, Interfaith & Community Alliances, Islamic Society of North America

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