Essay: Verses and Reality
Dec 3, 2018 | Israel Shrenzel
What the Koran really says about Jews
The question of the Koran’s attitude toward Jews is not merely a theoretical-academic matter. Because of the centrality of the Koran in the life of the Muslim and of Muslim communities past and present, this question has had, and still has in our day, a fundamental influence on the formation of attitudes toward Jews. True, this is not the only factor and more everyday ones also come into play. But the topic remains an important one to study.
This article will begin with the history of the first – and very problematic – chapter in Muslims’ relations with the Jewish groups in Arabia, particularly in the city of Medina. It will then present selected verses of the kind – and they are the majority – that propound a negative and hostile attitude toward Jews, along with verses from which a tolerant attitude can be derived. Finally, I will show the potential for a creative modern interpretation that bolsters the tolerant attitude, an interpretation that is now undergoing a certain revival against the backdrop of the struggles between extremists and moderates in the Islamic world.
The Jews in Medina before the Hegira
In the year 622, Muhammad, with his few believers, moved to the city of Medina. More than 10 years of preaching to the residents of his own city, Mecca, had reached a dead end and he had been harshly persecuted. There is no credible information on Muhammad’s relations with Jews before the Hegira, but he may have encountered Jews in his journeys as a trader, which was his profession until he began to prophesise at the age of 40. It is clear, however, that the consent of several individuals and sub-tribes to receive him in Medina stemmed from these people’s exposure to a Jewish-monotheist influence; there was a significant Jewish presence in the city and its environs.
Three prominent Jewish tribes were in the city at the time of the Hegira: the Qaynuqa, Nadir, and Qurayza. Recent research suggests that their weight in the city was considerable; they dominated commerce, agricultural land, fortresses, and weapons. They were allies (not wards) of the two dominant Arab tribes, the Aws and Khazraj.
In the first period of his stay in Medina, Muhammad made great efforts to persuade the Jews to recognise him as a prophet and join his camp. To that end, he was prepared to order his believers to pray in the direction of Jerusalem and to adopt Yom Kippur (referred to as the tenth day of the year) as a fast day. But his efforts were totally rebuffed. The Jews (with just a few exceptions) adhered to the rule that prophecy had already been annulled at the beginning of Second Temple days, and, at most, agreed that Muhammad may have been sent to spread a monotheistic message to non-Jews only.
The traditions and the verses of the Koran show that the response to the Jews’ obduracy was a dramatic intensification of the polemics against them, centring on the accusation that they had distorted their own books, which, the Muslims claim, presage Muhammad’s revelation.
This polemical escalation led to a staged process of removing the Jews, some of whom were deported and others killed. This process was reinforced by a gradual yet rapid joining of Muhammad’s ranks by non-Jewish residents of Medina.
Already in 624, about two years after the Hegira, Muhammad laid siege to the strongholds of the Jewish tribe the Qaynuqa and deported them to Syria. They left all their weapons and all their property behind them.
About a year later, the members of the Nadir were also deported after Muhammad’s forces had cut down their date orchards, the source of their livelihood. The most dramatic events occurred in the year 627, when the men of the Qurayza tribe were massacred and the women and children were sold into slavery. The anti-Jewish campaign concluded with the conquest of the Khaybar oasis north of Medina in 628, the deportation of some of its residents, and the turning of others into tenant farmers. The slogan heard until today (for instance in Hamas processions) is “Khaybar, Khaybar, ya Yahud, jish Muhammad sa Ya’ud!” (Khaybar, Khaybar, o Jews! The army of Muhammad will return!). It has become a symbol of the Jews’ subjugation in Arabia only six years after the Hegira.
Alongside the physical struggle against the Jews, Muhammad removed Jewish elements from his new religion: the direction of prayer reverted to Mecca instead of Jerusalem; the month of Ramadan replaced Yom Kippur as the primary time of fasting; and other steps were taken to emphasise Islam’s more independent and elevated status.
Some Koranic “Jewish” Verses
When the Koran refers explicitly to the Jews, it uses three different terms: Children of Israel, “Banu Israil;” the Jews, “al-Yahud;” and “Ahl al-Kitab”, the People of the Book,” a term that refers to Jews and Christians alike. The first category concerns the biblical Israelites and almost always echoes the biblical story, in many cases adding materials from the immense Jewish literature of interpretations and legends that do not appear in the Bible.
The vast majority of the verses are pejorative and it is easy to understand why and how they have been used to justify Muslim antisemitic attitudes past and present. The stories stress the grave sins of the Israelites, mainly their disobedience of God and their prophets, and the harsh punishments that were their lot throughout their long history of suffering. Some of the punishments will haunt them forever, according to some verses. The tales are shaped to maintain a similarity between the fate of the biblical prophets and the situation of Muhammad vis-à-vis the heathen Arabs and the Jews who rejected him. This setting puts Muhammad on an equal footing with Moses and Jesus, for example, and also provides him with a divine promise that, notwithstanding all the hurdles, his way and message will finally prevail.
Harsh allegations are also directed against the Jews who confronted Muhammad and refused to join his new religion. These are basically verses of bitter polemic against the beliefs and actions of those Jews.
As a rule, the Koran lacks any mention of the specific context of the revelation. Nevertheless, the “Jewish” verses usually conform to the basic historical sequence laid down by Muslim tradition and widely accepted today by Western scholarship. So, roughly speaking, we find a few tolerant verses, probably dating to the period when Muhammad still hoped to gain the Jews’ support and/or lacked the power to act directly against them using violent means. These verses are also relevant to the period when he sought to convince his own Meccan tribe that he was God’s messenger. Even then, and also in later stages, negative verses about the Israelites are also included.
The following is a small selection of relevant verses, each preceded by a short summation. (All translations from Arberry, AJ., The Koran Interpreted, London, Oxford University Press, 1964)
The Jews are accused of unbelief and of killing their own prophets:
So, for their breaking the compact, and disbelieving in the signs of God, and slaying the Prophets without right, and for their saying, “Our hearts are uncircumcised” – nay, but God sealed them for their unbelief, so they believe not, except a few.… (4:154-155)
A clear reference to the destruction of the two temples and a warning for the future:
And We decreed for the Children of Israel in the Book: ‘You shall do corruption in the earth twice.…’ So, when the promise of the first of these came to pass, We sent against you servants of Ours, men of great might, and they went through the habitations, and it was a promise performed.
Then We gave back to you the turn to prevail over them.…
Then, when the promise of the second came to pass, We sent against you Our servants to discountenance you, and to enter the Temple, as they entered it the first time. (17:4-7)
The major allegation of falsification, which is much repeated in the Koran:
People of the Book, now there has come to you Our Messenger, making clear to you many things you have been concealing of the Book, and effacing many things.… (5:19)
Part of the sinfulness of the Jews is their adherence to their sages and not directly to the Torah:
The Jews say, ‘Ezra is the Son of God’; the Christians say, ‘The Messiah is the Son of God.’…God assail them! How they are perverted!
They have taken their rabbis and their monks as Lords apart from God. (9:30-31)
Jews are hostile to Muslims:
Thou wilt surely find the most hostile of men to the believers are the Jews and the idolaters. (5:85)
One of the harshest verses, describing some Jews as apes and swine:
Say: ‘People of the Book, do you blame us for any other cause than that we believe in God, and what has been sent down to us, and what was sent down before, and that most of you are ungodly?…’
Whomsoever God has cursed, and with whom He is wroth, and made some of them apes and swine, and worshippers of idols – they are worse situated, and have gone further astray from the right way. (5:64-65)
An indication of the battles against the Jews, and a divine authorisation to kill them:
And He brought down those of the People of the Book who supported them from their fortresses and cast terror in their hearts; some you slew, some you made captive. And He bequeathed upon you their lands, their habitations, and their possessions, and a land you never trod. God is powerful over everything. (33:26)
If God had willed, He would have made you one nation; but that He may try you in what has come to you. So be you forward in good works; unto God shall you return.… (5:54)
No compulsion is there in religion. Rectitude has become clear from error. So whosoever disbelieves in idols and believes in God, has laid hold of the most firm handle, unbreaking…. (2:257)
Against the Mainstream: Muhammad Abduh’s Reading of Q1:7
Egyptian scholar Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) is a well-known figure in Muslim circles and beyond. Suffice it to mention that he is considered the founding father of Islamic Modernism, a school of thought that called for a profound reform of the dominant attitudes of Muslims so as to significantly narrow the gap between Islamic values and Western thought. Abduh was prepared to borrow ideas and practices from the West such as democracy, the rule of law, educational reform, free thought and research, an improved status for women, and relations with believers from other faiths.
He was a graduate of Al-Azhar University and then a senior instructor in that institute, and in his final years also the Mufti of Egypt. An important pillar of his project was to prove that all these changes were authorised and even compelled by Islamic sources – the Koran, the Hadith, and the forms of behaviour exemplified by the Salaf, the ancient fathers of Islam, roughly the first three generations after the Prophet. Those sources were to undergo a process of ijtihad or reinterpretation; they would then be totally competent to deal with the challenges confronting Muslims in the modern era.
Abduh’s main tool to spread his views was the periodical al-Manar, “The Lighthouse,” established by his disciple Rashid Rida in 1898. After Abduh’s death al-Manar continued its regular publication until Rida’s death in 1935. Rida became a very important scholar in his own right.
From time to time al-Manar also published Abduh’s lectures on the first four suras of the Koran. After Abduh’s death, Rida continued the tafsir (exegesis), and his work is now well known as Tafsir al-Manar.
In line with his lifelong project, Abduh’s preface to the Tafsir states: “This is the only tafsir that combines tradition and rational thought… that clarifies that the Koran is the guide for humanity at all times, and evaluates the situation of the Muslims in current times, including their deviation from the rightful guidance of the Koran.”
Abduh’s ideas were not fully accepted even by those who saw him as their mentor or wished to portray him as such. Two trends can be traced among them: one adopted a very pro-Western, even secular approach; another, most prominent among whose supporters were Rida himself and the Muslim Brotherhood, took a very suspicious attitude toward Western values, rejected what they regarded as the “Western cultural invasion,” and prioritised the jihad against colonialism and Zionism over internal reforms and changes. In recent years, against the backdrop of the great ideological and political turmoil in the Arab and Muslim world, and more than a hundred years after Abduh’s death, his outlook is undergoing a certain extent of revival. There is now, as we will see, a growing readiness to reconsider his moderate ideas.
Surat al-Fatiha: Main Features
1.In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate
2. Praise belongs to God, the Lord of all Being
3. The All-merciful, the All-compassionate
4. The Master of Day of Doom
5. Thee only we serve, to Thee only alone we pray for succour
6. Guide us in the straight path
7. The path of those whom Thou art blessed, not of those against whom Thou art wrathful, nor of those who are astray
Centuries of analysis, both Islamic and non-Islamic, have pointed to the unique characteristics of this sura. The suras of the Koran are largely organised from longest to shortest, with some minor exceptions; but al-Fatiha, though very short, is the first one. It is actually a prayer to God, even though the belief that the whole Koran is God’s word is a basic pillar of Islamic doctrine. Hence the obligatory Muslim explanation is that the sura reflects God’s command to Muslims on how to pray to Him in the proper way. As Muslims do not have a prayer book like the Siddur in Judaism, al-Fatiha is the main part of the Muslim daily prayer and is also recited on many other occasions in individual and community life.
Regarding its content, the first six verses are quite clear. They are a direct speech to God, praising Him and asking for His help and guidance in the straight path.
The main exegetical task concerns verse 7: Who are the three groups that are mentioned there? The majority of Muslim exegetics, from Tafsir al-Tabari in the 10th century, the most esteemed in Arab Muslim tradition, through the short and very popular Tafsir al-Jalalayn in the 15th century, adopt the following categorisation: the “blessed ones” are the Muslims, those who have suffered God’s wrath are the Jews, and those who are astray are the Christians.
Accordingly, every Muslim begs God to enjoy His grace that is allocated specifically to Muslims, and to differentiate Him sharply from the past and future of Jewish and Christian history and destiny.
This explanation is popular among modern scholars as well, especially those who belong to the fundamentalist-radical circles. Most prominent among them is Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), widely considered the “spiritual father” of all jihadist movements including al-Qaeda and Islamic State.
If we ask the ordinary Muslim for the meaning of the verse, it is likely that he will cite the meaning just presented.
On the other hand, in classical Islam, the non-exclusive and non-self-praising explanation of the verse was, though espoused by a clear minority, not absent altogether. Especially in Sufi circles, well exemplified in the writings of Abu-Hamed al-Ghazali (d. 1111) and Ibn al-Arabi (d. 1260), a more universal, ecumenical approach was adopted.
Abduh’s Commentary on 1:7
Abduh begins by presenting the popular explanation of the verse and then asserts that this sura was the first of God’s revelations to the Prophet Muhammad. He bases this claim on a tradition attributed to Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and later his son-in-law. Abduh knew, of course, that this was not the mainstream view, which usually regards sura 96 as the first one, but his assertion is essential to his argument: namely, that this sura was revealed very early in the development of Islam, so it is impossible that the prayer is ordered to ask God to lead him in the Muslim path. At that time the Muslim path was making its first hesitant steps, and was, of course, very far from coherent; it would crystallize only later after many further revelations.
So it is clear, says Abduh, that the “blessed ones” are not the Muslims; instead the verse refers to the “prophets, righteous men, and the martyrs from previous nations, that preceded Islam.” He notes that three-quarters of the Koran is dedicated to stories that relate to these nations; hence careful study of their beliefs and heresies will lead to the straight path. Therefore, those who suffered God’s wrath and those who went astray were to be identified with individuals from “previous nations,” but not with large collective groups. In other words, they could be Jews and Christians, but not the Jews and the Christians as unified, collective entities.
He then poses a crucial question: “How could it be that God commands us to follow the way of those who preceded us, while we now have legal commandments and guidelines that they did not have, and therefore our laws should be considered more perfect and more suitable to our times than theirs?”
His answer is very clear:
The Koran itself relates to that question by explicitly stating that the religion of God is one in all nations, and that the legal commandments change from one religion to another only in detail, according to the change of times, but there is no change in the foundations, in the basic principles – belief in God and in the Prophets, in rejecting evil, and striving toward the best of virtues is similar in all religions.
And the resulting conclusion is clear:
God ordered us to look carefully at the history of these people, the “blessed ones,” and to imitate them according to the principles of the Good. The details of their general commandments are to be learned from our law and from our Prophet.
It is worth noting which Koranic verses Abduh presents to corroborate his arguments. The first one is a divine command to say directly to the Jews and to the Christians:
Say, People of the Book! Come now to a word common between us and you, that we serve none but God, and that we associate not with Him, and do not some of us take others as Lords apart from God.” (3:56)
The second one contains the most detailed list, in one verse, of biblical figures whom the Koran regards as prophets and messengers:
We have revealed to Thee as We have revealed to Noah, and the Prophets after him, and We revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, Jesus and Job, Jonah and Aaron and Solomon and we gave David the Psalms, and Messengers we have already told Thee of before, and Messengers we have not told Thee of.” (4:162)
The choice of the two verses speaks for itself: it combines a very positive attitude toward previous prophets, as they are probably, according to the author, the “blessed ones” mentioned in sura one; and a plea for a common denominator with the other monotheistic faiths, a notion Abduh regarded as relevant to his own times as well.
Abduh’s Presence in the Current Religious Debate in Egypt
The one-hundredth anniversary of Abduh’s death in 2005 went almost entirely unnoticed, even in his homeland, Egypt. But he and his ideas returned to the public sphere after the Arab Spring of 2011, and specifically in Egypt after Abdel Fatah el-Sisi took power as president in 2013. One of Sisi’s slogans, and activities, after consolidating his power was “the renewal of religious discourse” (tajdid al-hitab al-dini). As part of a very intensive campaign to uproot the Muslim Brotherhood, regarded very pejoratively by the regime, Sisi and his aides recruited Abduh’s moderate approach to various issues as an alternative model. Evaluating the success of these relentless efforts is premature and outside the scope of this article; it appears that the jury is still out.
Curiously enough, the very issue of Abduh’s commentary to sura one surfaced in the Egyptian popular media during 2017. Some prominent journalists noted that booklets distributed regularly in funerals and in mourning assemblies contain the al-Fatiha with the traditional interpretation of the verses discussed here. Moreover, the preface stipulates that al-Azhar authorised these booklets. These journalists did not hide their harsh opinions about these booklets and criticised al-Azhar for authorising them, noting that even past scholars and deans of the university had voiced their reservations about the traditional, exclusivist frame of mind regarding those verses. They also urged the adoption of Abduh’s interpretation as the correct one and as most suitable for the modern era; namely, that people will be judged according to the quality of their deeds and not according to their religious affiliation.
One of the pundits asked, for example, whether it is not more appropriate to understand the verse as promising that God’s wrath will be directed against Muslims who burn churches or indulge in drinking and gambling. “Why do we dismiss ideas of light and openness in favour of extreme and dark ones?” asked another article. The following assertion sums up the spirit of the protest: “All religions should lead to the purpose for which they were revealed: to foster peace, compassion, co-existence and acceptance of the other.”
Another example of Abduh’s reemergence in Egyptian discourse is his recurring mention, usually combined with his photo, in the pages of the monthly al-Hilal, one of the most important Egyptian intellectual organs over the past 125 years. Several articles in 2017 portrayed him as a prototype of a scholar and clergyman that should be emulated in our times, in stark contrast to the Muslim Brotherhood and other “extremists”.
Given that there is a contradiction between the content and message of the two groups of verses – those hostile to Jews and those tolerant toward them – the question is, which group is to be adopted nowadays by the Muslim scholars and masses. The more dominant view adheres to the first group. This is based on the fact that tradition maintains, though not unanimously, that the more tolerant verses (like those about the details of jihad that impose limits on its implementation) were abrogated by the more militant ones.
The other view, still a minority one, believes that the more tolerant verses are to be adopted and are best suited to the current reality. They anchor their views in the diversity of opinions on exactly which verses abrogated others, and in their assertion that new interpretations are needed and can be produced by going back to the text, re-reading it with a rationalist attitude, and independently understanding the actual needs of the Muslim nation.
Abduh’s reading, as presented in this article, is an integral part of that second attitude, which this author like many others, Muslims and non-Muslims, hopes will become the dominant Muslim approach to the non-Muslim “other.”