by Salim Mansur
June 19, 2014 at 5:00 am
These crises have fostered on the part of the Muslim Brotherhood and its followers a reluctance to examine any internal causes for their malaise, and has created a culture of denial that by now is part of the Muslim culture and history. It makes us Muslims refuse to take responsibility for our role in history, leading to a pathological proclivity to blame others — especially the Jews — for misfortunes that are really of our own making.
The idea that the sins of one generation, or one individual, might be visited upon another is explicitly rejected in the Quran by the following words: “And no bearer of burdens shall be made to bear another’s burdens.” [35:18] Muslims who accept the idea of abrogation use this for their own narrow, or bigoted, interests that neither their own logic not the universal message of the Quran warrants.
Just as a few drops of lemon juice curdle a bowl of milk, so Judeophobia sanctioned by the Quran and the Prophet would mean that Islam as a religion of mercy is a falsehood. Mercy is, in fact, the most important of the many attributes of Allah (God) referred to by Muslims. That Islamists have proven to be most unmerciful illustrates just how far they have strayed from God’s message as revealed in the Quran.
Islamists have shredded their “thin veneer of Islam” and displayed their “jihad” as a neo-pagan belief in a capricious tribal god governing a cult of violence. It was from such a pagan belief that Muhammad sought to lift the Arabs of the desert by having Islam bear the universal message of belief in one God, merciful and compassionate; but it is precisely this pagan cult of tribal violence that Islamists have resurrected or which , it might be said, they never really renounced.
“In Islamic society hostility to the Jew is non-theological.” — Bernard Lewis, The Jews of Islam.
The contemporary resurgence of post-Shoah anti-Semitism in Europe is an indisputable reality.1 It rides on, or is fuelled by, the even more menacing spread of global Arab and Muslim anti-Semitism – driven by anti-Jew and anti-Israeli hatred, packaged as religiously sanctioned by clerics. These include Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Qatar-based leader of the Muslim Brotherhood from Egypt, and the clerically based political leadership of the Islamic Republic in Iran. Discussing it, therefore, requires questioning to what extent it is traceable to the Quran and the life of Muhammad, and to what extent it is imported from the West and symptomatic of the deep-seated civilizational crisis within the Muslim world.
The role of the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, as Hitler’s collaborator in importing European anti-Semitism into the Middle East, is well documented.
There are a number of reasons why it is important to examine whether the Quran and the Sira (the biographical literature on the Prophet) sanction Islamic bigotry towards the Jews. If they do, there is no reprieve from the cycle of Islamic Judeophobia. It would then follow that any relationship with Israel and Israelis based on mutual respect and interest, as sought by the late President Anwar Sadat of Egypt, is forbidden from a Muslim perspective. It would also follow that opposition to Muslim anti-Semitism by Jews, Christians, other non-Muslims and even by other Muslims invariably would lead to a conflict with more or less the entirety of Islam.
If one assumes, however, that Arab/Muslim anti-Semitism is a modern phenomenon, attempts by Muslims to legitimize the politics and culture of hate by citing the Quran or the traditions of the Prophet are not merely misguided, but constitute an abuse of Islam and its sacred texts.
When non-Muslims, including Jews, give credence to Muslim hate-mongers – whose derogatory views purportedly derive from the Quran and the biography of the Prophet – they are ironically reinforcing Muslim anti-Semitism.
A text is open to many readings, and the Quran continues to be interpreted by Muslims differently. This is why the history of Islam, like that of Judaism and Christianity, is paved with many sects and schools of thought. When someone insists on a particular reading, he is seeking to impose his reading, often coercively, on others. This is what “official” Islam – that of the Muslim states represented by the OIC in international forums or the UN – has been trying to do, including to those Muslims, such as I, who reject its interpretation.
This is how the struggle for reform begins and continues. The Sufis in Islam do not accept the coercively authoritative reading of the Quran by those who hold political power in the name of Islam and who seek to bend God’s Word to their own narrow interests as do, for instance, the Wahhabi rulers of Saudi Arabia. Remember, reading the Bible was one of the triggers of the struggle Martin Luther initiated as he declared defiantly, “Here I stand.” In other words, the stand he took was in reading and interpreting the Bible according to his intelligence and conscience – contrary to that of the Vatican.
Many others in Islam also read the sacred texts of Islam contrary to the reading of Islam’s sacred text by Muslim bigots. These independent readers include the late president of Indonesia, Abdurrahman Wahid, also a genuine friend of Jews and Israelis.
The quelling of Muslim hate-mongers is inseparable from advancing modernist reform of Islam, and this is why non-Muslims are mistaken when they make allowances for the thesis of Arab and Muslim anti-Semites, or agree with them, that Islam obliges Muslims to vilify and fight the Jews as enemies of Allah.
Robert Wistrich has rightly called Muslim anti-Semites “a clear and present danger.”2 He has painstakingly described the characterizations of the Jews by Muslims. Those most forceful in spewing their bigotry against the Jews are Palestinian Arabs and their religious, political and intellectual leaders.3 The role of the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, as Hitler’s collaborator in importing European anti-Semitism into the Middle East, is well documented.4 The Mufti’s ideology and politics have never been openly or publicly disavowed by Palestinians, or by religious and political leaders among Arabs or Muslims in general. To the contrary, the Mufti’s ideology of hate-mongering against the Jews and the Zionist project has been emulated by an array of other leading Arab and Muslim intellectuals, activists, and religious leaders, including Hasan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood; Syed Qutb, the intellectual heavyweight of the Muslim Brothers; Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder of Hamas; the rulers, religious leaders and imams of Saudi Arabia; the clerics of al-Azhar, the most renowned and prestigious Sunni Muslim religious institution, in Cairo; Abul A’la Mawdudi, the Indo-Pakistani founder of the Jamaat-i-Islami; Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Iranian architect of the Islamic Republic with its current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and, notably, the former presidents Akbar Rafsanjani and Mahmoud Ahmedinejad; the leaders of Hizbullah in Lebanon; Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the popular Egyptian cleric who appears on Al Jazeera; the leadership and ranks of al Qaeda and other “jihadi” (holy war) organizations, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan; and non-clerical or secular Muslim leaders like Mahathir Mohamad, the former prime minister of Malaysia. Clearly, the front of Muslim anti-Semitism is wide and deep.
It might be supposed that so many prominent Muslims cannot all be wrong in insisting that their hatred for Jews, Zionists and Israel is sanctioned by Islam. Yet history is filled with examples of errant religious and political beliefs, which ultimately have led to unpleasant consequences. Islamic history, too, bears testimony to the wrongs committed by Muslims – wrongs for which they have suffered grievously.
From the earliest years of Islam, the relationship between Muslims and Jews has been marked by ugly quarrels. Muhammad’s engagement with the Jews of Arabia – those settled in Yathrib (which would come to be known as Medina) – culminated in their massacre and expulsion. There are references to this in the Quran and in the earliest biography of the Prophet. One must nevertheless ask if these references are evidence of the built-in hostility towards Jews that Muslim hate-mongers employ to sanctify their vilification of the Jews. According to the expert on extremism, Dr. Neil Kressel,
The problem goes way beyond the Nazi-like rants of extremist clerics. And far from being a by-product of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Jew hatred has roots in the long history and complex theology of Islam.5
In expanding his thesis, Kressel points to Sheikh Mohamed Sayyid Tantawi – the former Grand Imam and rector of al-Azhar University, who died in 2010 – as an example of a contemporary Muslim anti-Semite who validated his bigotry by appealing to traditional Muslim Judeophobia based on negative references to the Jews in the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet. Tantawi, who promoted interfaith meetings with Christian and Jewish religious leaders, was viewed by many as a liberal Muslim reformer. From his position of influence, he did condemn suicide-bombings after 9/11; defend the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty signed by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin; denounce female circumcision, common in Egypt; and support the ban on niqab [the full face cover worn by some Muslim women]. But when it came to the Jews and Israel, Tantawi revealed an anti-Semitism masked as the traditional Muslim Judeophobia prevalent across the Muslim world. As Kressel notes:
His [Tantawi’s] doctoral dissertation, written in 1969, disparaged Jews with an abundance of quotations from the Quran and other religious sources. In this lengthy theological work, he detailed the Jews’ supposedly evil ways and how they purportedly endeavored to entrap the Muslims during Muhammad’s era. Tantawi’s reading of the Quran ascribes to the Jews a slew of unflattering characteristics, including wanton envy, lasciviousness, religious fanaticism, murderousness, and a tendency toward “semantic bickering.” Jews, collectively, are accused of corrupting Allah’s word, consuming the people’s wealth, and most ominously, murdering Allah’s prophets.6
Kressel then observes, “Even if one assumes that the Quranic text offers some basis for Tantawi’s inferences, a true religious moderate might have argued that the verses in question apply only to particular Jews living in Muhammad’s day.”7 Tantawi did not. Instead, in a sermon delivered in April 2002, he called the Jews “the enemies of Allah, descendants of apes and pigs.”8 This phrase refers to a verse in the Quran (2: 65), and it is commonly deployed by Muslim hate-mongers against the Jews and Israelis.
Wistrich observes that the depiction of the Jews as loathsome by Tantawi, Khomeini9, or Syed Qutb is made “not simply to morally delegitimize Israel as a Jewish state and a national identity in the Middle East, but to dehumanize Judaism and the Jewish people as such.”10
According to Bassam Tibi, such references to the Quran and early Muslim history facilitated the Islamization of European anti-Semitism.11 In Tibi’s view, this could occur because Judeophobia was present in early Islamic history, just as it was in early European history. Genocidal anti-Semitism, however, writes Tibi, is “a specifically European, primarily German, disease that never existed in Islam before the twentieth century.”12
Wistrich similarly observes,
The persistence, integrity, and depth of this hatred should not blind us, however, to the fact that, historically speaking, anti-Semitism is a relatively new phenomenon in Arab culture and among Muslims in general. It did not exist as a significant force in the traditional Islamic world, although, as we shall see, some of the seeds of contemporary anti-Jewish attitudes can be found in the Koran and other early Islamic sources.13
Antagonism towards the Jews among Christians and Muslims in the pre-modern world was common. Both Christians and Muslims used their faith-based traditions to justify their Judeophobia.
Despite this commonality, however, the scholar Bernard Lewis has argued that a distinction needs to be made between Christians and Muslims in their attitudes toward the Jews. According to Lewis,
The story of a golden age of complete equality is, of course, nonsense. No such thing was possible or even conceivable. Indeed, among Christians and Muslims alike, giving equal rights or, more precisely, equal opportunities to unbelievers would have been seen not as a merit but as a dereliction of duty. But until fairly modern times there was a much higher degree of tolerance in most of the Islamic lands than prevailed in the Christian world. For centuries, in most of Europe Christians were very busy persecuting each other; in their spare time, they were persecuting Jews and expelling Muslims – all at a time when, in the Ottoman Empire and some other Islamic states, Jews and several varieties of Christians were living side by side fairly freely and comfortably.14
The fusion of traditional Muslim Judeophobia and fierce European anti-Semitism occurred before the rise of Nazi Germany, when the entire corpus of Russian and German anti-Semitism, from the fabricated Protocols of the Elders of Zion to the support for Hitler’s policy of extermination of the Jews, was imported to the Middle East. These were the years between the World Wars, when the victors of World War I were precariously positioned in the Middle East as the “Mandatory” powers, in the terminology of the League of Nations, while the former subjects of the Ottoman Empire restlessly aspired to their own independence and statehood.
When the Caliphate of the Ottoman Turks was abolished in 1924 by Mustapha Kemal (Atatürk) and his supporters, and was reconstituted as a modern republican state, an entirely new problem arose for Muslims. The abolition of the Caliphate by the Turkish leader meant that Muslims were faced with the problem not only of how to acquire eventual independence from European colonial rule, but also of how to restore the Caliphate in some form or other, to create a Shariah-based, Islamic state. These questions became the distinguishing features of political Islam, or Islamism, and the ideology of political movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Muslim distress that spread over the long decline of Islamic rule and the loss of lands to European powers turned greater, especially among Arabs, in the twentieth century, following several events. The first was the suggested partition of Palestine, to which the Arabs never agreed. Then came the establishment of the state of Israel, and the repeated defeats suffered by Arabs in their wars against the Jews. Arabs and Muslims view this history as insufferable and deeply humiliating – bitter feelings that find expression in the vilest denunciation of the Jews as enemies of Islam and Muslims. As Bernard Lewis wrote,
Why then this special anger in the Muslim response to the end of Palestine and the birth of Israel? Part of this is certainly due to its position, in the very center of the Arab core of the Islamic world, and to its inclusion of the city of Jerusalem, which – after long and sometimes bitter disputes – was finally recognized as the third Holy City of Islam after Mecca and Medina. But most of all, the sense of outrage, as is clearly shown in countless speeches and writings, was aroused by the identity of those who inflicted these dramatic defeats on Muslim and Arab armies and imposed their rule on Muslim Arab populations. The victors were not the followers of a world religion or the armies of a mighty imperial power, by which one could be conquered without undue shame – not the Catholic kings of Spain, not the far-flung British Empire, not the immense and ruthless might of Russia – but the Jews, few, scattered, and powerless, whose previous humility made their triumphs especially humiliating.15
This recent history partly explains the nature of contemporary Arab and Muslim anti-Semitism, and why it continues to be ratcheted up in inverse relation to the repeated failures by Arabs to defeat Israel. It is also aggravated by the continuing discord over the nature of Islamic society; by the general economic, political, and cultural malaise across the Muslim world; by the Muslim Brotherhood and its legions of Islamist followers’ discrediting secular-nationalist regimes; and by sectarian conflicts that have spilled over into civil war across the Middle East and beyond, into the wider Muslim world.
These crises have fostered an unwillingness on the part of the Muslim Brotherhood and its legions of Islamist followers to examine any internal causes for their malaise, and has created a culture of denial that by now is a part of Muslim culture and history. It makes us Muslims refuse to take responsibility for our own role in history, and leads to a pathological proclivity to blame others – especially the Jews – for misfortunes that are really of our own making.
While Arab and Muslim anti-Semitism might be explained as symptomatic of Islamic civilization in disarray, what isnot explained, and possibly cannot be explained, is Muslim bigotry against the Jews on the basis of Islam. If the argument that the Quran and the Prophet sanction Muslim Judeophobia is true, as Muslim hate-mongers insist, then what logically follows is unavoidable: Just as a few drops of lemon juice curdle a bowl of milk, Judeophobia sanctioned by the Quran and the Prophet would mean that Islam as a religion of mercy is a falsehood.
As a Muslim, I recoil at this thought, as should any Muslim reflecting upon the fallacy of the argument that those few references in the Quran about some Jews, or a segment of the Jewish population with whom Muhammad had a bitter encounter, can be read – as Muslim hate-mongers have done and continue to do – as divine wrath directed towards all the Jews until the end of time; and that it is incumbent upon Muslims to fight them as enemies of God. Such a reading of the Quran is plainly wrong and indefensible.
How, then, should the Quranic references to the Jews be read so as to be consistent with the Quran’s overall message Muslims believe is a sign of God’s mercy for mankind? Repeatedly, the Quran reminds those Muslims who take it as the Word of God that God is “ever merciful and ever compassionate” – included in the invocation with which every surah or chapter of the Quran’s 114 chapters, except one, begins.
“Mercy,” is in fact, the most important of the many attributes of Allah (God) referred to by Muslims. That Islamists have proven to be most unmerciful illustrates just how far they have strayed from God’s message as revealed in the Quran.
The Quran is also the testimony and record of Muhammad’s life. The few biographical references to him constitute both the bare outline and the core narrative of what were later embroidered and embellished by biographers. Volumes of oral reports about the Prophet, most of which were written down many years after his death, may well be unreliable or of dubious merit. If Shakespeare’s life remains contested despite the proximity of his age to ours, it is of no surprise that what we know of the Prophet with any degree of certainty is very little, given the distance in time and the fact that the Arabs of the desert, among whom he lived, are scarcely even mentioned in recorded history.16 The Quran is the most authentic source of the little we know about the Prophet, and vouchsafes the Muslim belief that the way he conducted his affairs and lived his life was consistent with the directives given to him as revealed there.
If non-Muslims do not agree with this argument, there is nothing more to be said to them; they can go ahead and deal with the Islamists and their bloody-mindedness as they have been doing, and the cycles of war in the Middle East and elsewhere will run their course.
For Muslims, however, there is a history of how the bigotry, tribalism and politics of many among us have made a travesty of God’s Word and trumped the message of Islam from its earliest years – from the time that the Prophet’s family was destroyed by Muslims to the contemporary conflicts in which we Muslims are the ever-mounting victims of our own malevolence.
Islam is not a new religion that sprouted in the relative barren soil of Arabia among a people at the margin of civilizations. It is, rather, faith in God of man – as in the Hebrew and Christian bibles – once again renewed and restated in history that is proven, providentially, by the role of the divine in human affairs. Prophetic history, whether in Hebrew tradition or as related in the Quran, is “providential:” Prophets act according to the divine instruction, guidance, inspiration and legitimacy that come from God as the Higher Power. In other words, God is not neutral – as is evident, for example, in the story of Moses taking his people out of captivity into freedom; of David confronting the enemies of his people, who have been “chosen” for their commitment, or covenant, to worship the One God of Abraham; or, in Christian history, in the age of the Apostles, when the foundations of Jesus’s church and ministry were first laid; or in guiding Muhammad to defeat his pagan enemies so that monotheism would prevail over idol-worship.
The history of Muhammad, as the Prophet and Messenger, was “providential” in that sense; and what followed, as Islam swiftly spread beyond its desert borders to become established as world religion and civilization, was “providential” as well. The idea of “providence” in Christian writings is usually limited to the history of Jesus and Christianity; and in the writings of Jewish scholars, such as Abraham Heschel, “providence” is confined to the history of the Jewish prophets. But the meaning of “providential” can be applied to all religions. Islam seized the imagination and devotion of a people, and propelled them forward into the world as a new force bearing the old message of monotheism. The manner in which events surrounding this history unfolded was so remarkable that the shockwaves from that moment, in the early decades of the seventh century of the Christian era, still resonate more than fourteen centuries later.
In Moses and Monotheism, Sigmund Freud’s last book – published in 1939, shortly before his death – he describes Judaism as a Father religion and Christianity as a Son religion. We might, then, describe Islam as a Return-to-the-Father religion. Judaism had evolved into a strict and uncompromising monotheism relative to the Christian belief in which the idea of One God was somewhat broken down, due to Greek-Roman influence. Freud, an atheist, packed his last work with striking insights as he witnessed Europe sink into a new age of barbarism. He made one reference to Islam:
[T]he founding of the Mohammedan religion seems to me to be an abbreviated repetition of the Jewish one, in imitation of which it made its appearance. There is reason to believe that the Prophet originally intended to accept the Jewish religion in full for himself and his people. The regaining of the one great primeval Father produced in the Arabs an extraordinary advance in self-confidence which led them to great worldly successes, but which, it is true, exhausted itself in these.17
Freud was not a scholar of Islam. Nor is there any indication that he ventured into any study of it. However, he may have heard of or come across the writings of Jewish scholars – such as Rabbi Abraham Geiger (1810-74) or Ignaz Goldziher (1850-1921) – who made significant contributions to the study of Islam and its sacred texts. The above quote uncannily echoed a theme advanced by Geiger in his prize-winning monograph of 1833, the title of which, in English, is, “What Did Muhammad Take From Judaism?”18
Geiger’s thesis that “Muhammad in his Quran has borrowed much from Judaism as it presented itself to him in his time”19 is not strange, given the countless references to Hebrew prophets, their stories, and the highly elevated place Moses occupies in the Quran. Indeed, it might even be said that the Quran is very much a Jewish text; the Jews were not merely a “people of the Book” (ahl al-Kitab), but the first people in the Semitic tradition called upon to worship the one and only God. The religion of the Jews and their stories were familiar to the pagan Arabs, who had lived in Arabia for nearly a millennium before Muhammad’s time.20
As Muhammad preached the message of worshipping one God – the God of Abraham – it was only natural and reasonable that he turned to the Jews, the Arabs’ most proximate neighbors, as an example of a people subscribing to a monotheistic faith.
The pagan Arabs, however, despite the length of time the Jews had lived among them, did not embrace the Jewish faith. Nor did they accept Christianity, with which they were also familiar.
It took a revelation from God to a man born among them, and who belonged to them by blood and customs, to wrench them away from polytheism and embrace the idea of one God. This was the single, unique, Lord of Mankind – Allah in Arabic – whom Abraham is said to have discovered; Moses is said to have spoken with; Jesus, by his miraculous birth, is said to be the breath or spirit of (“ruh Allah” in Arabic); and whose messenger, among the Arabs, was Muhammad.
Muslims believe that Muhammad did not borrow from Judaism or Christianity, but revealed that which came to him from the same source that the Jews and the Christians hold as truth. There is only one truth – God’s Word that there is no god but God – revealed time and again under different circumstances to different people at different places. What was revealed to Muhammad was this one truth in the circumstances of that time and place in which his divinely ordained mission occurred.
God’s revelation to Muhammad is the Quran. For Muslims, the Quran is God’s Word. Frithjof Schuon (1907-98), a German mystic and sage of “perennial philosophy,” wrote,
The great theophany of Islam is the Quran; it presents itself as being a “discernment” (furqan) between truth and error.21
Before there was a text compiled of this revelation, there was only the Word of God as heard by Muhammad, and it was through him that others received the Word. Whether or not Muhammad fabricated the Quran is an old controversy, one that surfaced even during his lifetime. The Quran states,
[They fail to understand that] thou art only a warner, whereas God has everything in His care; and so they assert, “[Muhammad himself] has invented this [Quran]!”
Say [unto them]: “Produce, then, ten surahs of similar merit, invented [by yourselves], and [to this end] call to your aid whomever you can, other than God, if what you say is true! (11: 12-13).
Fazlur Rahman (1919-88), a Muslim scholar and philosopher of Pakistani origin, proposed that the pristine Quran was Muhammad’s divinely inspired speech collected into the Uthmanic codex – the authorized text of the Quran compiled during the rule of Uthman, the third caliph and companion of the Prophet.
But orthodoxy (indeed, all medieval thought) lacked the necessary intellectual tools to combine in its formulation of the dogma the otherness and verbal character of the Revelation on the one hand, and its intimate connection with the work and the religious personality of the Prophet on the other, i.e. it lacked the intellectual capacity to say both that the Quran is entirely the Word of God and, in an ordinary sense, also entirely the word of Muhammad. The Quran obviously holds both, for it insists that it has come to the ‘heart’ of the Prophet, how can it be external to him?22
This opinion got Rahman into such deep trouble with the orthodoxy that he was forced into exile. But Rahman’s thesis – that the Quran is simultaneously divine and human – holds the key to explaining those verses admonishing the Jews in polemical tones.
The Quran describes itself as revelation that “makes things clear.” (15:1) Nevertheless, it is difficult to grasp the full meaning of any divine texts. Referring to the Bible, Schuon wrote:
The seeming incoherence of these texts – for instance the Song of Songs or certain passages of the Pauline Epistles – always has the same cause, namely the incommensurable disproportion between the Spirit on the one hand and the limited resources of human language on the other: it is as though the poor and coagulated language of mortal man would break under the formidable pressure of the Heavenly Word into a thousand fragments, or as if God, in order to express a thousand truths, had but a dozen words at his disposal and so was compelled to make use of allusions heavy with meaning, of ellipses, abridgements and symbolic syntheses. A sacred Scripture – and let us not forget that for Christianity Scripture includes not only the Gospels but the whole Bible with all its enigmas and seeming scandals – is a totality, a diversified image of Being, diversified and transfigured for the sake of the human receptacle; it is a light that wills to make itself visible to clay, or wills to take the form of that clay; or still in other words, it is a truth which, since it must address itself to beings compounded of clay, has no means of expression other than the very substance of the nescience of which our soul is made.23
In other words, how to read the Quran – how to distinguish between what is the universal and timeless truth embedded in the particular; how to go beyond the explicit (zahir) statements and grasp or discover their implicit or hidden (batin) meaning; how not to misuse and abuse its allegorical language for partisan purposes – has been disputed ever since the Prophet’s demise.
From the earliest discord that ruptured the community of believers Muhammad left behind – from the sectarian conflicts, which eventually led to the massacre of his family; to the proliferation of sects among Muslims; to the tribal wars fought in the name of Islam, all the way to the raging conflicts across the Arab-Muslim world in our time – the history of the House of Islam reflects abiding disagreements among Muslims over how the Quran is read. These differences have all too frequently led to violence. Ironically, Islam’s success in history only exacerbated them. When recently converted Muslims, who had been pagan Arabs, carved out a vast empire, and their tribal chiefs emerged as imperial rulers in the manner of the Byzantine and Persian oriental despots, politics corrupted faith.
Differences among Muslims, especially the ulema [religious scholars], also stimulated the variety and richness of Muslim learning during the expansive phase of Islamic civilization in its first five hundred years. The innumerable commentaries on the Quran produced during this period indicated the need to make non-Arab Muslims familiar with the language of the sacred text they were required to learn, and to understand what they were reading.
Yet regardless of how the text was read, the Quran – revealed in a world filled with strife – teaches that man can find the path to repose, equilibrium, peace, and blessings despite all conflicts, provided he bears witness to one God. And His message is that there is no god but Allah (what is called Yahweh [or YHWH] in Hebrew.)
The word “conflicts” here refers to the generic nature of conflicts in which man is entrapped in this world; it does not refer to particular conflicts between Jews and Christians, Christians and Muslims, Jews and Muslims, etc. The “peace” in this sentence, too, means the generic peace man seeks, the peace inside oneself that leads to inner tranquility. One who has sensed such tranquility is not caught in the web of sectarian or inter-religious conflicts.
The Quran warns, reminds, explains and provides lessons from history, but it is not vindictive, because God, as the Quran repeatedly affirms – in every chapter but one, as mentioned – is ever merciful. Hence, the seeds of contemporary anti-Jewish attitudes found in the Quran should be read, as these verses were understood when revealed to the Prophet, as lessons to be learned when a people (in this instance, the Jews) break the trust placed in them by God – if, for example, they work on the Sabbath or worship a golden calf. Any disapproval refers only to those incidents at those times in those places.
The few negative references to the Jews in the Quran tell how a segment among them in Arabia mounted opposition against Muhammad, and how he responded. These were Jews from the tribe of Banu Qurayza, located in Medina, who colluded with the Meccan enemies of the Prophet and were then severely punished. Had they succeeded, it would have meant defeat, death and the end of Muhammad’s divinely ordained mission. The particular events involving the Banu Qurayza are the only ones alluded to. And they are elliptical, which means they may be understood with reference to the early oral history that supplied material for the earliest biographical sketches of the Prophet and the Hadith literature. These, as mentioned, can themselves be weak or questionable.
The universal lesson to be drawn from such references in the Quran is that wrongdoing will result in harmful consequences. Such references constitute parables about ethics – that no evil goes unpunished and no good goes unrewarded.
Moreover, the Jews specifically addressed in the Quran – those in the time of Muhammad who opposed him – understood the allusions made in these verses to their own sacred text.
The Quranic admonishment, “Be ye apes, despised and rejected,” that is hurled by Muslim hate-mongers at the Jews, is found in the verse that reads in Muhammad Asad’s translation as follows:
[F]or you are well aware of those from among you who profaned the Sabbath, whereupon we said unto them, “Be as apes despicable!” ― and set them up as a warning example for their time and for all times to come, as well as an admonition to all who are conscious of God (2: 65-66).
This admonition is figurative, not literal. The Muslim hate-mongers’ “you” – Jews or others – cannot turn into “apes.” Rather, the behavior of those who have broken God’s law, such as by profaning the Sabbath, have behaved as less than human, more like an unthinking beast. God’s speech or sacred texts – as Schuon says – is in language that is figurative, unless He is commanding something explicit, such as “Thou shalt not kill.”
The reference to the Mosaic Law that condemns those Jews who violate the Sabbath to death in Exodus 31:1424was also used in the Quran as a warning to those Jews who opposed Muhammad, with a reference to their own Scripture: a reminder of what befalls those who turn away from righteousness after God has shown mercy to them. This lesson is also emphasized in preceding verses of the Quran. Verse 2:62, the most significant in this section – the second and the longest chapter in the Quran called “Al-Baqarah” (The Cow) – states in Asad’s translation:
Verily, those who have attained to faith [in this divine writ], as well as those who follow the Jewish faith, and the Christians, and the Sabians – all who believe in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds – shall have their reward with their Sustainer; and no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve.
In his commentary on this verse, Asad writes:
The above passage – which recurs in the Quran several times – lays down a fundamental doctrine of Islam. With a breadth of vision unparalleled in any other religious faith, the idea of “salvation” is here made conditional upon three elements only: belief in God, belief in the Day of Judgment, and righteous action in life.25
As Asad explains, this verse refers to any and all people, without discrimination, who believe in One God and the Day of Judgment (accountability), as well as those who do the right thing – and that such people have nothing to fear. It is the bigots – whether Muslims, Christians, or Jews – who turn God into a sectarian identity, as if God is only concerned about Muslims, or Christians, or Jews. They thus turn God into an idol. Rabbi Heschel famously wrote, “Any God who is mine but not yours, any god concerned with me but not with you, is an idol.”26 Heschel was stating in a different context what Asad says in his commentary on verse 2:62: that the message of the Quran is universal and that the God of the Quran is universal. Hence, there is not, nor can there be, any dispute between what is universal as stated in the Torah, or in the Gospels, or in the Quran. Dispute arises only out of the desire in man to particularize the universal.
It is easy to refer here to Asad’s translation of the Quran and the accompanying commentary because of his excellence in both Arabic and English, and his personal history. Asad (1900-1992), named Leopold Weiss at birth, was a Polish Jew and grandson of a rabbi. As an adult, he became a Muslim, lived in Saudi Arabia and later in Spain, and devoted his life to the study of the Quran and Islam.27 In his prologue to The Message of the Quran, he wrote, “It is axiomatic from the Islamic perspective that the Quran cannot be translated, because theform of God’s revelation, that is the Arabic itself, is not merely incidental to its meaning, but essential to it… A rendering into another language, therefore, is not and never can be the Quran as such, but merely an interpretation of it.”
Asad devoted his life to learning the Quran’s Arabic, or the closest living approximation to it, spoken among those dwindling numbers of Bedouins of the Arabian Desert still not assimilated into the rapidly changing world around them. These were people who had not been reached by the “modernized” Arabic of radio and television, broadcasted from the urban centers of the Arab world.
With Asad’s commentary, verse 2:62, above, bears the universal message of the Quran. It belies any justification of Muslim anti-Jewish bigotry; it nullifies any suggestion that the Jews, as a result of opposition by some of them against Muhammad, are condemned as enemies of God and the Prophet.
The idea that the sins of one generation, or one individual, might be visited upon another is explicitly rejected in the Quran by the following words: “And no bearer of burdens shall be made to bear another’s burden.” (35:18) Those who claim that this passage is abrogated by later ones need to be reminded that a universal principle cannot be abrogated by any jurist or political agitator. Many Muslims do not even accept the idea of abrogation. But those who do, use this idea for their own narrow, or bigoted, interests that neither their own logic of abrogation nor the universal message of the Quran warrants. So such argumentation is polemical; and polemics, by nature, are sectarian. The Quran and the Prophet do not – cannot – sanction Jew hatred of any sort. And though the devil can always cite the Bible for his purposes, the ill will towards the Jews in the pre-modern world could not be derived from the Quran.
Many Muslims – followers of a faith that turned triumphantly imperial and yet was open and inviting to non-Muslims – nonetheless viewed the Jews negatively: as devout Muslims, they could not, and possibly still cannot, understand why the Jews as a people did not embrace Islam.
The story about the Jews of Banu Qurayza – their collusion with the Meccans; the resistance they offered after the pagan confederates were beaten; their surrender; and their punishment – is referred to in the Quran briefly as follows: “…[A]nd He brought down from their strongholds those of the followers of earlier revelation who had aided the aggressors, and cast terror into their hearts; some you slew; and some you made captive.” (33:26)
Ibn Ishaq, the first biographer of the Prophet, writing some 145 years after the events relating to the Banu Qurayza, embellished this brief reference in the Quran by gathering together oral reports of what presumably occurred. According to Ibn Ishaq, following the judgment of the arbitrator, Sa’d b. Mu’adh – that the men of Banu Qurayza be put to death and the women and children sent into slavery – Muhammad oversaw the carrying out of the verdict. The estimates for the men killed on that day vary between 400 and 900. The validity of this story, the veracity of Ibn Ishaq, and the meaning of this event in relation to the Prophet and his teaching have all been disputed.28
From the present day view, the judgment seems harsh – but was it so according to the customs of the time? Although the story of Banu Qurayza will stand as a rebuke of the Prophet among his critics, the explanation is neither difficult nor anti-Jewish. But this is the story that both non-Muslim enemies of Islam use to launch their tirades against the Prophet and Islam, and that the Islamists use to justify their war against the Jews. The Meccans were defeated by the Prophet, and then he turned to punish the Jews of Banu Qurayza for their collusion with his enemies. What is disputed, as I mention and footnoted, is what has been recorded in the earliest history of the period written some 145 years after the events and the death of the Prophet. The stakes were immensely high, and the leaders of Banu Qurayza were fully aware of the potential outcomes of their actions.
It seems ironic that the Jews of Banu Qurayza, a people of the Book and monotheists, colluded with polytheists against Muhammad, who was also bearing a monotheistic message to the pagan Arabs. But, as the First Commandment of the Jews states, “Thou shalt worship no other god before me,” some Jews may have regarded Muhammad’s entreaties as an attempt to lure people away from their traditional Hebraic belief. Indeed, people often harbor their own particular fears, as some have done in our time, especially since 9/11.
Muhammad was bearing the message of worshipping One God to the pagan Arabs; just as some Jews (not all of them) did not accept Jesus, some Jews (not all of them) sided with the pagans against Muhammad and the message he was bearing. Those Jews were punished. For Muslim bigots to refer to this episode in the Prophet’s life and Islam’s earliest history as justification for their hate mongering against Jews is reprehensible.
From the Quran’s point of view, it was providential that Muhammad prevailed, thereby teaching a timely lesson to those still maintaining their hostility to his message and mission. Moreover, the punishment meted out to the men of Banu Qurayza was also in keeping with the tenets of the Hebrew Scripture. Here reference might be made to the judgment Moses delivered when he came down from Mount Sinai and saw his people worshipping a golden calf sculpted out of their jewellery, engaging in idol worship after being delivered from Egypt by God. Moses called upon the Levites, and ordered them to draw their swords and slay the men who had done wrong; and some three thousand were put to death.29
Moses is the towering presence in the Hebrew Scripture, as he is in the Quran. “And since we know that behind the God who chose the Jews and delivered them from Egypt stood the man Moses, who achieved that deed, ostensibly at God’s command, I venture to say this: it was one man, the man Moses, who created the Jews,” wrote Freud.30 Muslims revere Moses and refer to him as “kalimullah,” the one who spoke with God. The reference to Moses and the punishment he meted out to those responsible for making and worshipping an image is relevant in discussing the penalty carried out against the Jewish men of Banu Qurayza. Moses’s draconian punishment of the idol worshippers would likely have been readily understood at the time by all involved in the supposed Banu Qurayza massacre.
If the story of Banu Qurayza had been so out of proportion to the norms of the time, it would have reverberated beyond the confines of Arabia and been reported, or at least taken note of, in the contemporary chronicles recorded in Jewish and Christian centers of Byzantium and Persia. Yet there is no independent record of the story of Banu Qurayza outside of Muslim sources, beginning with Ibn Ishaq’s first biography of the Prophet.
The earliest notice of Islam in Christian records is found in the History of Heraclius. Prepared by the Armenian bishop Sebeos, it was completed around 661, less than thirty years after Muhammad’s death. In it, Sebeos recorded that the Jews sought the assistance of Arabs in the defense of Edessa from the Byzantines. He also referred to the Arabs as the children of Ishmael and mentioned that Muhammad preached to them about the God of Abraham and the connection of Islam’s origin to the Jewish faith. Sebeos made no mention of Banu Qurayza, or of any other event or matter relating to Islam that displayed Arab hostility to the Jews. Instead, as John Moorhead noted: “Sebeos’ evaluation of Islam was positive.”31
Arabs defeated the Byzantines, captured the area known as Palestine, and took control of Jerusalem, which was surrendered to the Arab armies. Jews of the region celebrated the fall of the Byzantines. This is because the Jews had been driven out by the Roman ancestors of the Byzantines when the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, slaughtered the Jews, and exiled the rest out of Palestine in the first century of the Christian era. Since that time, the Jews had been kept out of Jerusalem by the Romans, who later came to be known as the Byzantines once the Roman Empire split into two, the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) and the Western Roman Empire. With the fall of Jerusalem to the Muslims in 638, Jews were allowed or invited by Muslims to re-enter and reside in their holy city. The Jews viewed this as positive change for their own situation in the land of their ancestors. Such a receptive attitude by the Jews towards Arabs would have been at best odd, even scandalously hypocritical, if they had known about Banu Qurayza. This indicates that the story was probably not known to the Jews outside of Arabia, and the Jewish celebration of Arab victory over the Byzantines meant that the Jews did not view the Arabs as negatively as they did the Byzantine Christians who held them responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus.
As W.N. Arafat has indicated32, until Ibn Ishaq narrated, and very likely embellished, the event surrounding the Jews of Banu Qurayza, there was no mention of it other than the Quranic reference that might have alarmed the people outside of Arabia. Yet there was no such alarm; and the Jews, despite their long tradition of recording events that affected them for good or ill, did not record it.
Are there any lessons in such events as recorded in scriptures beyond the generic rule that men are answerable for their deeds? For believers in God, history can be providential; and yet even the prophets made mistakes. King David, for instance, was an adulterer, and also accused of committing murder. Moses was rebuked for his errors and, as a result, never entered the Promised Land with his people after fleeing Egypt. There are episodes in Muhammad’s life, too, when he was rebuked, as in the story in the Quran when he ignored the blind man who came to him for comfort. Jesus was tempted by devils. We are all, therefore, accountable for our errors on the Day of Reckoning. Lesser men should not presume to act as divine agents. In Islam revelation came to an end with Muhammad as the last of God’s prophets, and any Muslim claiming to emulate the Prophet, or to act as if he has God’s sanction, is simply presumptuous and delusional. Aspiring to piety, righteousness, and devotion to God’s message is the only form of emulation of the Prophet to which Muslims, as mere mortals, may aspire. To suggest that an individual can judge, punish, or wage war on others on the basis of the argument that he is emulating the Prophet is presumptuous and delusional – regardless of claims to the contrary, such as those made by Iran’s ayatollahs or Sheikh Qaradawi.
It is this presumptuousness and delusion that fill the minds of the intemperate and self-described “jihadis” or “holy warriors” in the ranks of Al Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hamas, the Taliban, and others who selectively seize hold of verses from the Quran as sanction for their violence. Islamists in recent years have prioritized the Quran’s Chapter 9 – “At-Tawbah” or “Repentance” – as God’s sanction to wage war on the infidels, including the Jews and the Christians. The verse, variously known as the War Verse or the Sword Verse, invoked by Islamists, reads as follows (in Asad’s translation):
[And] fight against those who – despite having been vouchsafed revelation [aforetime] – do not [truly] believe either in God or the Last Day, and do not consider forbidden that which God and His Apostle have forbidden, and do not follow the religion of truth [which God has enjoined upon them], till they [agree to] pay the exemption tax with a willing hand, after having been humbled [in war] (9: 29).
According to the Franco-Tunisian scholar Abdelwahab Meddeb, this verse was “invoked, for example, by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) terrorists who massacred the monks of Tibhirine in Algeria in 1996. The same verse is said to grant religious legitimacy to the suicide bombers in Israel. The same reference may well have been involved in galvanizing the criminals responsible for the horrifying attacks on September 11, 2001, in New York and Washington, D.C.”33
There is little that can be done to prevent those Muslims and their hate-mongering teachers, such as Hasan al-Banna, Syed Qutb, Khomeini, Qaradawi or Mullah Omar, from citing the Sword Verse or similar ones as an excuse to justify violence. However, the traditional exegesis of Chapter 9, which contains the Sword Verse, was overwhelmingly one of caution. As Asad notes, “It must be read in the context of the clear-cut Quranic rule that war is permitted only in self-defense.”34 Here it should be noted that the wars Israel fought since 1948 were largely defensive and, therefore, consistent with the Quranic directives. If any of the wars Israel fought against Arab states and terrorists had ended in a loss, it would have been an existential defeat for the Jewish state.
Moreover, within the Muslim community, the authority responsible for initiating war in self-defense must also be legitimate, or seen to be legitimate, by a majority of Muslims. Only a properly constituted authority can declare war, engage in war, and bear the consequences of war. Since the Prophetic era ended, the arc of Muslim history has had to cope with a crisis of legitimacy. This crisis deepened with the end of the Caliphate – the only properly constituted authority according to traditionalists in Islam. The resulting void created is at the heart of the immense conflict raging between those Muslims holding authority, as for instance in Egypt, and Islamists, who do not recognize these Muslim rulers as legitimate and are at war with them. For the Islamists these Muslim rulers are illegitimate – as was President Anwar Sadat of Egypt murdered by them – as they hold and promote values contrary to their “jihadi” (holy war) ideology, and their goal to re-constitute the Caliphate or, at a minimum, a Shariah-based state.
During the age of Islamic expansion in the early centuries of Islam, the Sword Verse was invoked to justify instituting the exemption tax or jizya on the Jews and the Christians living among Muslims. But that period of Muslim history ended a long time ago. In the post-Caliphate age, the historic religious-political challenge for Muslims lies in constructing the basis of a legitimate order consistent with democracy, freedom, human rights, gender equality, and science. The universal message of the Quran that would assist Muslims to meet this challenge is not found in the verses Muslim fanatics extol; it is found in those verses that these fanatics seek deliberately to downgrade, or even go so far as to declare abrogated.
The Sudanese reformer, Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, proposed the universal message of Islam was yet to be fully understood by Muslims. Taha saw the modern age as a propitious time for Muslims to begin to appreciate the universality of Islam and proceed to a comprehensive reform of Shariah. Taha explained his views in The Second Message of Islam. His message was built around the proposition that there is a natural progression in Muslim understanding of the Quran that obligates the Prophet’s followers to evolve in their thinking to grasp the universal message revealed to him. Taha was hanged for this “apostasy” in 1985, by the regime of Sudanese dictator President Gaafar Numeiri.
Taha’s execution illustrates the immense peril faced by Muslim reformers. Reform of Islam means, in effect, either reforming the Shariah code – the corpus of Islamic laws derived from the Quran; the hadith or traditions of the Prophet and the ijma or consensus of the ulema [religious scholars] – or setting it aside entirely and beginning afresh in the light of a modern legal-political philosophy, hermeneutics [the theory of textual interpretation], comparative religion, theology, and cosmology.
In Sunni Islam, to which the overwhelming majority of Muslims belong, the Shariah is a fixed and inviolable code of laws, based on the accumulated wisdom, knowledge and consensus of the ulema from the classical period of Muslim history during the first three centuries of Islam. The need for ijtihad, independent reasoning, which scholars had used to formulate the Shariah, was declared closed by a consensus of Sunni ulema either in the twelfth century, after the death in 1111 of Al-Ghazali, the revered scholar-jurist turned mystic35, or, at the latest, in the thirteenth century, following the sack of Baghdad by the Mongol armies in 1258. The Sunni leader, the Caliph of Islam, held, as urged by the Sunni ulema, that there was no more need for ijtihad because there were no new insights to be added to the existing corpus of laws. Consequently, Muslim scholars were obligated to replace independent reasoning with taqlid, or imitation, in the application of the Shariah. As Robert Reilly has shown, this closing of the Muslim mind effectively doomed Islamic civilization once Europe emerged from its own relative state of backwardness into making the modern world.36
The prerequisite to the reform of Islam, as Taha maintained, requires reading the Quran anew, in keeping with the spirit of the age in which people live. The Quran, which is literally God’s Word to Muslims, cannot be a closed or frozen text with a fixed meaning, determined by the dead weight of men from another time long gone. The necessity of reading the Quran with fresh eyes and insight is, understandably, threatening to the orthodoxy, the Islamists, the defenders of the status quo and to all Muslims who dread or disapprove of change and openness in closed societies.
A reading of the Quran that relies only, as Islamists insist, on the explicit and literal meaning of the text will fail to see the essential unity of the Quranic message, due to the prevalence of apparent contradictions scattered across the text. It is only by openness to reading the Quran as a text with a hierarchy of implicit meanings that Muslims can be prepared to understand and set its universal message apart from the subsidiary meanings in the text.
In the surah/chapter “Al-Maa’idah” or “The Repast” (Chapter 5 in the Quran), we read, “O You who have attained to faith! Do not take the Jews and the Christians for your allies” (5:51). Like the Sword Verse in Chapter 9, this is another favorite passage of Islamist and fundamentalist Muslims. It happens that “Al-Maa’idah” is one of the last chapters of the Quran revealed in Medina sometime after the Prophet’s farewell pilgrimage, a decade after thehijra (flight) from Mecca to Medina, or in the tenth year of Islam. This chapter also contains the verse declaring: “Today have I perfected your religious law for you, and have bestowed upon you the full measure of My blessings, and willed that self-surrender unto Me [al-Islam] shall be your religion” (5:3). As we read further in “Al-Maa’idah,” we come across, “[V]erily, those who have attained to faith [in this divine writ], as well as those who follow the Jewish faith, and the Sabians, and the Christians – all who believe in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds – no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve” (5:69). Thus what we have in “Al-Maa’idah ” – revealed after the Sword Verse found in “At-Tawbah” – is an earlier, negative, reference to the Jews and the Christians that is then set aside by the inclusive and clearly stated universal message.
“[I]t is here,” according to Meddeb, “that the ethical vocation becomes the criterion for salvation, beyond any consideration of belief in any so-called true religion.”37 It is here, too, and even more importantly, that the Quran’s universal message nullifies the angry rigidity of fanatical monotheists (be they Muslims, Christians, or Jews) who insist their religion is the only true belief. And to emphasize this universal message – so that there is no mistaking that ethical conduct is the measure of the quality of faith – the Quran states in “Al-Maa’idah” that differences among faiths exist by heavenly design:
Unto every one of you have We appointed a [different] law and way of life. And if God had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community: but [He willed it otherwise] in order to test you by means of what He has vouchsafed unto you. Vie, then, with one another in doing good works! Unto God you all must return; and then He will make you truly understand all that on which you were wont to differ. (5:48)
Moreover, according to the methodology of traditional exegesis, the Sword Verse is abrogated by the relevant verses of “Al-Maa’idah.” This principle of abrogation (naskh) was developed by early Muslim jurists as a remedy for apparent inconsistencies in the Quran, by giving precedence to a verse revealed later over one revealed earlier. As Carl Ernst explains, the “harmonizing approach acknowledges a chronological dimension to the unfolding of the Quran, as is evident from the traditional labelling of suras as belonging to the earlier Meccan period or the later Medinan period.”38 While both “At-Tawbah” containing the Sword Verse and “Al-Maa’idah” were revealed in Medina, the latter was revealed in the final year of the Prophet’s life and, consequently, takes precedence over the former. And while the idea of abrogation is faulty, as Asad argued39, and goes against the spirit of the Quran, as Taha proposed40, it remains a traditional methodology in Islamic jurisprudence – which, by its own reasoning, must conclude that the Sword Verse was abrogated by the universal message reiterated in “Al-Maa’idah.”
Thus, in spite of the fact that Islamist hate-mongers habitually insist upon the principle of abrogation when it serves their purposes and void it when it does not, there is no justification even in pre-modern times for anti-Jew bigotry among Muslims in Quranic references to the Jews. In explaining Muslim Judeophobia in pre-modern history, then, we are left with the pathology of tribalism and tribal conflicts that have remained with Muslims to this day.
Violence is not specific or limited to Islam and Muslims. It is embedded in what Immanuel Kant called “the crooked timber of humanity” – adopted by Anglo-Jewish philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin as a motif of his work – that religion, ethics, moral philosophy, and education seek to remedy. On the basis of psychoanalytic theory, Freud explained that civilization is coercion writ large. The “replacement of the power of the individual by the power of a community,” Freud wrote, “constitutes the decisive step of civilization.”41 Violence is contained, repressed, and re-directed as civilized life evolves. According to Freud, the grand project of civilization may only be realized, if at all, at some future date, when men shed their illusions about “religious ideas in the widest sense” and bring about a re-ordering of relations that would make coercion unnecessary, leading to its renunciation.42
Freud held that civilizations differ as a result of the specific history of each people and what recourse they have sought in striving for a legitimate and just socio-political order. Islamic history stands apart from that of the Jews and the Christians by the manner in which its founding drama unfolded, and in its emergence as a global power within the first century after Muhammad’s death in 632. The speed with which the frontiers of Islam spread at that time seems to have fostered among Muslims a deliberate forgetfulness of the tribal conflicts and violence that shaped the future of Muslim history with its interminable violence, and the reliance on authoritarian politics as the means by which to contain it.
Like the Hebrew Scripture, the Quran is filled with general warnings about man’s forgetful and ungrateful nature, and his disposition to follow the instincts of his lower self. But there was also a specific warning to the Prophet about the tribal Arabs who, after having been finally defeated in their campaigns against him and his followers, came to swear allegiance to him in person. The relevant verse is as follows:
The Bedouin say, “We have attained to faith.”
Say [unto them, O Muhammad]: You have not [yet] attained to faith; you should [rather] say, ‘We have [outwardly] surrendered’ – for [true] faith has not yet entered your hearts.” (49: 14).
Beyond its concrete warning, the verse also underscores the dangers posed by hypocrites. Though eventually exposed by their conduct, the damage they render in the meantime can be immensely costly.
The dispute over leadership of the Muslim community at the time of the Prophet’s death marked the beginning of the war within Islam. Those involved were companions of the Prophet, yet they displayed an insufficiency of belief or rightful conduct by their intemperate behavior, which ignited wars and violently severed the unity of the believers in Islam. This blood-soaked history has haunted Muslims from their earliest times to the present.43
Tribalism remained deeply embedded among the first generation of Muslims among whom the Prophet was born and to whom he brought Islam. Political power passed into the family of the Prophet’s most ardent foe when Abu Sufyan’s son, Mu’awiya, seized the Caliphate after the murder of Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law. Mu’awiya founded the Ummayad dynasty, based in Damascus. His son, Yazid, approved of the murder of Muhammad’s grandson, Hussein – the son of his only surviving daughter Fatima, married to Ali – when he asserted his claim to succeed his father as the Caliph. Hussein was brutally killed in Kerbala, Iraq, in 680, by Yazid’s men. His body was disfigured by horses made to trample over it, and his severed head was carried at the point of a lance to the Caliph’s palace. In her account of the killing of Hussein and the great schism in Islam based on the earliest Muslim sources, Lesley Hazleton writes:
As with the death of Christ, the death of Hussein soars beyond history into metahistory. It enters into the realm of faith and inspiration, of passion both emotional and religious.44
But Hussein’s murder was also much more; it was a crime of such proportion that Muslims buried their grief and shame within themselves even as they became divided. A minority became partisans of the family of the Prophet through Fatima and her sons, Hasan and Hussein, and came to be known as Shi’a. The majority, known as Sunni, preferred to accept the authority of the Ummayad dynasty rather than deepen further the violent tribal discord that had seized the rapidly growing Muslim community. The Sunni majority came to look down on the Shi’a minority as responsible for perpetuating discord and undermining the unity of the believers, while the actual crime of the massacre of members of the Prophet’s family was set aside as too painfully self-incriminating to confront.
The pathology of violence among Muslims and against non-Muslims might be traced back to the wars and tribal conflicts culminating in Hussein’s murder. In Moses and Monotheism Freud wrote:
We must not forget that all the peoples who now excel in the practice of anti-Semitism became Christians only in relatively recent times, sometimes forced to it by bloody compulsion. One might say they all are “badly christened”; under the thin veneer of Christianity they have remained what their ancestors were, barbarically polytheistic. They have not yet overcome their grudge against the new religion which was forced on them, and they have projected it on to the source from which Christianity came to them. The facts that the Gospels tell a story which is enacted among Jews, and in truth treats only of Jews, has facilitated such a projection. The hatred for Judaism is at bottom hatred for Christianity, and it is not surprising that in the German National Socialist revolution this close connection of the two monotheistic religions finds such clear expression in the hostile treatment of both.45
Freud touched a raw nerve that is readily inflamed in speculating on the origins of genocidal European anti-Semitism. This hatred was imported into the Middle East, and Muslim anti-Jew bigotry, present from pre-modern times, “Islamized” it.
Though there was no basis for or record of the sort of anti-Judaism in Islam or among Muslims that existed beneath the “thin veneer of Christianity” in Europe, the phenomenon of “badly christened” Christians has its parallel in the Islamic history of Bedouin Arabs, who outwardly accepted Islam but “without faith entering their hearts,” just as the Prophet was warned.
The lesson from the Quran’s reference to Bedouin Arabs might well be true of Muslims in general; their hypocrisy is writ large across the Muslim world, despite repeated warnings about it in their sacred texts. And despite their forceful conversion and repression in the war against apostasy launched by Abu Bakr after the Prophet’s death, the Bedouin Arabs have remained unreformed in their customs.
The Bedouin mentality seems to have left its pagan mark on the body politic of Islamic civilization – beneath the “thin veneer of Islam.” Bedouin culture is the ultimate expression of tribal culture, of tribe against tribe, which we are witnessing now in Syria and elsewhere in the Arab-Muslim world. Bedouin culture does not and will not recognize “individual” thought or preference as legitimate or as taking precedence over the collective values of the tribe. Hence, there will not and cannot be any acceptance of universal values above the particular values, or idols, of the tribe. Bedouin culture may thus outwardly reflect the universality of Islam, as in Saudi Arabia, but it lacks an inward acceptance of the universality of Islam as presented in this paper. Bedouin culture, therefore, will be at war with anyone and everyone seen as an outsider. This could mean Christians, Jews, Hindus, Baha’is, and even more so Muslims with similar views to mine.
Again, such a sense of tribal envy and superiority is contrary to the teachings of Islam. It is always convenient to find an excuse to blame others for our own failings as Muslims, and to look for some conspiracy on the part of outsiders supposedly working against us. This consists of idealizing the notion of Muslim unity, while denying the bleak reality of our own, self-generated tribal conflicts.
The world of Islam stretches far beyond the Arab region, or the Middle East, with its diverse ethnicity of Afghans, Arabs, Berbers, Kurds, Iranians, Turks and more. The largest concentration of Muslims is in South Asia; the largest Muslim country is far from the Middle East, in Indonesia. Most Muslims outside the Middle East have little or no personal contact with Jews, and only know of them through the lens of the religious-based history that they were taught in the confines of their local religious schools and mosques, devoid of any critical assessment or inquiry.
In modern times, Arab and Muslim anti-Semitism has been exported from the Middle East to the wider world of Islam, and it is basically religious propaganda sweetened by the largesse of petrodollars. Just as non-Arab and non-Middle Eastern Muslims defer to Arabs on Islam, so they have also readily absorbed, without questioning, the entire filth of anti-Semitism propagated by Arab hate-mongers. The result is the deplorable extent to which Muslim Judeophobia, fused with genocidal European anti-Semitism, has become part of contemporary Islam or Islamism.
Islamism is a pathology propelling a significant segment of the global Muslim population into conflict with others – most prominently the Jews – all of whom are viewed as enemies. What seems like an inner compulsion of Islamists to wage war has also historically turned into Muslim-on-Muslim violence: a raging sectarian conflict of Sunnis against Shi’ites, tribes against tribes, and nations against nations. Islamists have shredded their “thin veneer of Islam” and displayed their “jihad” as a neo-pagan belief in a capricious tribal god governing a cult of violence. It was from such a pagan belief that Muhammad sought to lift the Arabs of the desert by having Islam bear the universal message of belief in one God, merciful and compassionate; but it is precisely this pagan cult of tribal violence that Islamists have resurrected or which, it might be said, they never entirely renounced.
The world at the end of the twentieth century was not prepared to encounter Islamism as an ideology of hate and terror. The terrorist acts of war unleashed by Islamists on September 11, 2001 came as a shock. Since that day, the world has been informed about Islamists and now needs to recall from history how violence born of Jew-hatred or anti-Semitism does not end with the Jews; nor is it only about the Jews. Anti-Semitism was, and remains, a plague that endangers us all. There is an urgent need to quell, rather than appease, Muslim anti-Semitism. The suicidal acts of terrorism, in which Islamists have engaged before and since the 9/11 attacks, demonstrate their willingness – should they acquire the weapons – to bring about their own version of Götterdämmerung in their fanatical and pagan desire to destroy the enemy. The world stands warned.
Note: A version of this paper was read at a meeting of the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP) at McGill University, Montreal, in December 2013
1. See EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, Discrimination and hate crime against Jews in EU Member States: experiences and perceptions of anti-Semitism. November 2013.
2. Robert S. Wistrich, Muslim Anti-Semitism: A Clear and Present Danger. The American Jewish Committee, 2002.
3. See David Pollock, Beyond Words: Causes, Consequences, & Cures for Palestinian Authority Hate Speech. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2013 (available as pdf document at www.washingtoninstitute.org).
4. See, for instance, David D. Dalin and John F. Rothmann, Icon of Evil: Hitler’s Mufti and the Rise of Radical Islam. New York: Radom House, 2008.
5. Neil J. Kressel, “The Sons of Pigs and Apes”: Muslim Antisemitism and the Conspiracy of Silence, p.1. Washington, D.C, Potomac Books, 2012.
6. Ibid., pp. 3-4.
7. Ibid., p.4.
9. See references to the Jews by Khomeini in Islam and Revolution: Writings and Declarations of Imam Khomeini. Translated and Annotated by Hamid Algar. Berkeley: Mizan Press, 1981.
10. Wistrich, op. cit., p. 4.
11. See B. Tibi, Islamism and Islam, p. 56. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2012.
12. Ibid., pp. 55-56.
13. Wistrich, op.cit., p. 5.
14. B. Lewis, “The New Anti-Semitism,” in The American Scholar, Winter 2006.
15. B. Lewis, “The New Anti-Semitism,” in The New York Review of Books, April 10, 1986.
16. See Clinton Bennett, In Search of Muhammad. London and New York: Cassell, 1998; also Tarif Khalidi,Images of Muhammad: Narratives of the Prophet in Islam Across the Centuries New York: Doubleday, 2009.
17. Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism, p. 118. New York: Vintage Books, 1967.
18. Geiger’s monograph was translated into English by F.M. Young in 1896 in Bangalore, India, and published two years later. This same edition was re-issued as Judaism and Islam (New York: Ktav Publishing House, 1970).
19. Geiger, Judaism and Islam, p. 1.
20. See Gordon D. Newby, “The Jews of Arabia at the Birth of Islam,” in Abdelwahab Meddeb and Benjamin Stora (eds), A History of Jewish-Muslim Relations: From the Origins to the Present Day, pp. 39-51. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2013.
21. Frithjof Schuon, Understanding Islam, p. 39. Bloomington, Indiana: World Wisdom Books, Inc., 1994.
22. F. Rahman, Islam (Second Edition), p. 31. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
23. Schuon, op. cit., pp. 40-41.
24. See Exodus (31:14), “Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore; for it is holy unto you: everyone that defileth it shall surely be put to death: for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.” The Bible, Authorized Version. Bible Society, Stonehill Green, Westlea, Swindon. Printed in Great Britain.
25. Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Quran, p. 21, footnote 50. Bristol, England: The Book Foundation, 2003.
26. A.J. Heschel, The Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence, p. 86. New York: Schocken Books, 1972.
27. See “Berlin to Makkah: Muhammad Asad’s Journey into Islam,” by Ismail Ibrahim Nawwab in the magazineSaudi Aramco World, pp. 6-32, January/February 2002.
28. See, for instance, W.N. Arafat, “New Light on the Story of Banu Qurayza and the Jews of Medina,” in theJournal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, No. 2 (1976), pp. 100-107; and M.J. Kister, “The Massacre of the Banu Qurayza: A re-examination of a tradition,” in Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam, Vol. 8 (1986), pp. 61-96.
29. See Exodus, 32: 26-28.
30. Freud, op. cit., p. 136.
31. See John Moorhead, “The Earliest Christian Theological Response to Islam,” in Religion (1981), vol. 11, pp. 265-274.
32. See Arafat, fn. 28.
33. Abdelwahab Meddeb, Islam and the Challenge of Civilization, p. 14. New York: Fordham University Press, 2013.
34. Asad, op. cit., p. 295, footnote 40.
35. See, for instance, Sadakat Kadri, Heaven on Earth: A Journey Through Shari’a Law from the Deserts of Ancient Arabia to the Streets of the Modern Muslim World, pp. 99-105. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.
36. See Robert R. Reilly, The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis. Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2010.
37. Meddeb, Islam and the Challenge of Civilization, p. 30.
38. Carl W. Ernst, How to Read the Qur’an: A New Guide, with Select Translations, pp. 16-17. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011.
39. See Asad, The Message of the Quran, footnote 87, p. 31.
40. Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, The Second Message of Islam. Translation and Introduction by Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1987.
41. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, p. 47. New York & London: W.W. Norton & Co., 1961.
42. See Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, pp. 7-8. New York & London: W.W. Norton & Co., 1961.
43. See Wilferd Madelung, The succession to Muhammad: A study of the early Caliphate. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Also see Lesley Hazleton’s book based on early Muslim sources, After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split. New York: Random House, 2009.
44. Hazleton, op. cit., pp. 191-192.
45. Freud, Moses and Monotheism, pp. 116-117.