Thursday, July 28, 2005

Fuel for antisemitism in the Qur'an

No religion perfectly mirrors its scriptures. Nonetheless, Islam's history begins with the revelation of the Qur’an to Muhammad.

Whatever is good about a faith is likely to be derived from its scriptures; whatever is bad about a faith, likewise. This is true even if the bad elements constitute a distortion or an exaggeration of the holy text.

The Qur'an is ambivalent about Jews and Christians. Some texts commend them; other texts condemn them. The contemporary Muslim community appears to be divided along similar lines. At one extreme, Islamic rhetoric actively promotes hatred of Jews and the West (note the shift from Christianity to "the West").

After 9/11, I took a good look at the Qur’an for the first time in my life. This month, because of the terrorist bombings in London on July 7, I have been revisiting the same questions that troubled me in 2001.

Muslim apologists insist that Islam is a peaceable religion, but one has to wonder:  Where does this murderous hatred of Jews and the West come from? Does the Qur’an provide any justification for it, or is it abberant behaviour on the part of a fringe group?

My studies have led me to the following conclusions:

(1) The Qur'an lays an adequate foundation for peaceful relations between Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The Qur’an recognizes the Torah and the Gospel as authentic revelations from God, and hails Jews and Christians as fellow "people of the book."

(2) On the other hand, certain texts criticize the Christians* and especially the Jews in very strong language. The texts I have in mind are bound to inflame antisemitic prejudices where such sentiments already exist.

Let me begin by quoting a text that, on the whole, is relatively favourable toward Jews and Christians:
To each of you [Jews, Christians, and Muslims]
Allah has given a law
and a way and a pattern of life.
If Allah had pleased He could surely have made you
a single people.
But He wished to try and test you
by that which he gave you.
So try to excel in good deeds.
To him will you all return in the end;
It is he that will show you
the truth of the matters
over which you are in dispute.

Judge between them in the light
of what has been revealed
by Allah, and do not follow their whims,
and beware of them lest they lead you away
from the guidance sent down to you by God.
If they turn away, then know
that God is sure to punish them for some of their sins;
and many of them are transgressors.
The criticism of Jews and Christians in this passage is quite mild. And the commendation of Jews and Christians is expressed in terms which are quite startling.

To paraphrase the text: The Torah and the Gospel are authentic revelations from Allah. There is no essential difference between Jews, Christians, and Muslims. In principle, Allah could have brought all three faiths together to constitute a single people.

On the other hand, "many" Jews and Christians are transgressors, and Muslims are warned not to be led astray by them. Muslims are to take the Qur’an as their guide where there is any disagreement with the other people of the book.

The following quote comes from an article entitled Does the Qur’an Sound Anti-Semitic? I think the article accurately describes Qur'anic texts like the one we have just considered:
Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, was in the line of previous Prophets of Allah, including Prophets Abraham, Moses and Jesus, and the Qur'ân is in the line of previous scriptures revealed by Allah. The Qur'ân does not condemn the Semitic race and, in fact, accords Jews a special status given their shared Prophetic traditions with Islam.

The Qur'ân instead criticizes those Jews who turned away from Allah's authentic message and admonishes those who scorned and ridiculed Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, and the message of the Qur'ân. Such criticism is similar to the criticism against Jews found in other scriptures, including the Bible, and should be taken by all people as a reminder and warning against forsaking and straying from the authentic message of Allah. Such specific criticism has never been interpreted by learned scholars of the Qur'ân to incite hatred against all Jewish people and should not be confused with anti-Semitism.
In particular, I wish to express my agreement with the statement, "Such criticism is similar to the criticism against Jews found in other scriptures, including the Bible."

It is a universal fact of human experience that no one lives up to his or her ideals. It is true of Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists; it is equally true of philosophers, secular humanists, etc.

According to the Hebrew scriptures, whenever the nation of Israel went astray, God sent prophets to rebuke and warn them. (I should add that the prophetic warning was invariably coupled with a message of hope and restoration to God’s favour.) Isaiah 5 is a good example of the sort of thing I have in mind.

In principle, then, the Qur'an should not be declared antisemitic merely because it contains criticisms of the Jews. Perhaps some of Muhammad's criticism was unfair. No doubt Muhammad was disappointed that the Jews rejected his message; and, no doubt, it was this rejection that led to some of the criticisms contained in the Qur’an. But such criticism is not inherently "evil" or "antisemitic", as long as it does not go beyond the sorts of remarks contained in the Jews’ own scripture.

Regrettably, this is not always the case. Other passages in the Qur’an use stronger language to criticize the Jews. Here is a notorious text:
O believers, do not make friends
with those who mock and make a sport of your faith,
who were given the Book before you
[i.e., Jews and Christians] …

Say:  "Shall I inform you
who will receive the worst chastisement from God?
They who were condemned by God,
and on whom fell His wrath,
and those who were turned to apes and swine,
and those who worship the powers of evil.
They are in the worse gradation,
and farthest away from the right path." …

Why do not their rabbis and priests
prohibit them from talking of sinful things
and from devouring unlawful gain?
Evil are the acts they commit!
The Jews say:  "Bound are the hands of God."
Tied be their own hands, and damned may they be
for saying what they say!
In fact, both His hands are open wide:
He spends of His bounty in any way He please.

But what your Lord has revealed to you
will only increase
their rebellion and unbelief.
So We have caused enmity and hatred among them
(which will last) till the Day of Resurrection. …

Some among them are moderate,
but evil is what most of them do!
(5:57-66, the “Contemporary Translation” by Ahmed Ali)
It is only fair to note the beginning and the end of this passage. The beginning sets the context:  the text rebukes Jews and Christians who not only rejected Muhammad’s message, but actively mocked and opposed his mission. The end of the passage indicates that Jews and Christians are not condemned indiscriminately; "some" among them are deemed "moderate".

But, in between these two points, the language used is undeniably offensive. Some Jews and Christians were "transformed into apes and swine". (The language is presumably metaphorical:  Abdullah Yusuf Ali suggests the interpretation, "those who falsified God’s scriptures became lawless like apes, and those who succumbed to filth, gluttony, or gross living became like swine.") They are accused of worshiping the powers of evil. Their rabbis and priests are accused of condoning evil acts. They are even cursed:  "damned may they be for saying what they say!"

Finally, the text says, "We have caused enmity and hatred among them till the Day of Resurrection." This provides a pretext for Muslims to hate Jews and Christians, and regard them as enemies, from now until the end of the age.

Texts which employ such immoderate language will inflame antisemitic sentiment where it already exists. And such texts will be exploited by those who wish to stir up murderous hatred against Jews and Christians (i.e., the West).

Earlier, I quoted a Muslim scholar who adopted a conciliatory tone toward the Jews. Now I want to quote a less conciliatory scholar. In an article entitled Jews as Depicted in the Qur’an, this scholar offers a very negative interpretation of the Muslim scripture. He lists only a single verse that commends the Jews (45:16). Then he lists twenty blameworthy Jewish attributes, including:
  • They love to listen to lies (5:41).
  • They feel pain to see others in happiness and are gleeful when others are afflicted with a calamity (3:120).
  • Their impoliteness and indecent way of speech is beyond description (4:46).
  • It is easy for them to slay people and kill innocents (2:61).
  • They rush hurriedly to sins and compete in transgression (5:79).
  • Miserliness runs deep in their hearts (4:53).
Note that, for each of the blameworthy qualities, the author supplies a proof text from the Qur’an. I have verified that he quotes the texts accurately (by comparison to other English translations). However, his interpretation is sometimes forced and every quotation is divorced from its context in the Qur’an.

The reader may suppose that I am trying to be even-handed in my analysis. In fact, I am prepared to go even further; I am prepared to give Islam and the Qur'an the benefit of the doubt.

As a Christian, I have spent thousands of hours painstakingly interpreting the Bible. I am aware that many verses in the Bible are subject to several different interpretations.

I am also familiar with Christianity's ugly underbelly:  the Crusades, the Inquisition, the witch trials, etc. Moreover, I understand that the New Testament also contains texts with an antisemitic tendency. (The examples which I find most offensive are found in the Gospel of John.**)

In the end, it comes down to the attitude of the religious community. Christians who are predisposed to antisemitism will find grist for the mill in the New Testament and, historically, they have done so.

Likewise, the Qur'an is dangerously open to misinterpretation and abuse. Some Muslim scholars support an antisemitic reading. Others offer a conciliatory interpretation. The international Muslim community will determine which interpretation prevails.

Some people say that a war is being waged for the soul of Islam, and I believe it is true. Yes, Islamic extremists are waging a war against Israel and the West. But they are also precipitating a crisis within their own faith.

For the first time, here in Canada, Muslim leaders are taking a hesitant stand against other members of their own faith. (See today's Globe and Mail.)

This war, for the soul of Islam, is barely beginning. And global peace rests on the outcome.

*Christians are praised at one point in the Qur'an, in a text which sharply distinguishes them from the Jews:

You will find the Jews and idolaters most excessive in hatred of those who believe; and the closest in love to the faithful are the people who say:  “We are the followers of Christ,” because there are priests and monks among them, and they are not arrogant. For when they listen to what has been revealed to this Apostle, you can see their eyes brim over with tears at the truth which they recognize, and say:  “O Lord, we believe.” (5:82-83)

The text obviously reflects a specific occasion when Muhammad found a favourable reception among Christians.


**In John's Gospel, Jesus himself speaks disparagingly of "the Jews". At one point, he refers to "their law" (John 15:25). This is clearly unhistorical:  Jesus was a Jew, and certainly did not speak of the Jews in the third person. Their Torah was also his Torah.

In John chapter 8, certain Jews say, "Our father is Abraham". Jesus replies, "You are of your father the Devil" (8:44). Imagine how that text could be construed by a Christian antisemite who wanted to stir up animosity toward the Jews: Jesus himself says that Jews are children of the Devil


At 12:13 PM, July 28, 2005, Anonymous Sheila said...

This is a really informative post. I think that the reason the Koran can be dangerously misintrepreted is more about the fact that every Imam gets to tell his followers what to believe. As you say there are zealous Imams and moderate ones saying very different things. In the Catholic church there is one person (the Pope) setting the philosophy for everyone. Most other Christian churches don't stray too far from that reading, but interpret moral questions with a bit more flexibility and allow for a bit more individual bible study.

At 1:11 PM, July 28, 2005, Blogger Jack's Shack said...

Hi Q,

Good job as usual. There certainly are problems in all faiths and ways that the adherents can twist and distort things to make them fit their needs.

I agree that there is an internal conflict within Islam that needs to be resolved.

From a logical standpoint it appears that the numbers suggest that there is a minority committing horrific acts and that we should not blame or condemn all for the actions of a few.

But what I find difficult about this is that there are still very few voices coming from within that rail against these actions.

There are still too many excuses being made for why people commit acts of terror and it makes me wonder.

I'd also like to offer you a website to review that you might find to be of interest, assuming that you are not already familiar with it.
The Middle East Media Research Institute

The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) explores the Middle East through the region's media. MEMRI bridges the language gap which exists between the West and the Middle East, providing timely translations of Arabic, Farsi, and Hebrew media, as well as original analysis of political, ideological, intellectual, social, cultural, and religious trends in the Middle East.

Founded in February 1998 to inform the debate over U.S. policy in the Middle East, MEMRI is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit, 501 (c)3 organization. MEMRI's headquarters is located in Washington, DC with branch offices in Berlin, London, and Jerusalem, where MEMRI also maintains its Media Center. MEMRI research is translated to English, German, Hebrew, Italian, French, Spanish, Turkish, and Russian.

The videos are quite interesting and somewhat chilling.

At 3:47 PM, July 28, 2005, Blogger snaars said...

Bravo, good and even-handed approach, as usual. Wherever do you find the time?

Whatever is good about a faith is likely to be derived from its scriptures; whatever is bad about a faith, likewise.

In my opinion, your phrasing is right on the money. I really admire your way with words. It doesn't sound like you're blaming the scripture itself, the actual words. It's the interpretation of a work that causes good or evil. No matter what the intention of the author is, it is the reader's responsibility to evaluate and accept or reject the ideas he or she receives. Too many people are conditioned to read these texts in a particular way, and they don't know the history or the context in which it was written, and they don't stop to question whether their interpretation is reasonable or warranted.

On the other hand, you're not afraid to criticise the plain meaning of the text when the author's thoughts really are probably immoral/mistaken.

At 4:53 PM, July 28, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

This is a really informative post.

Thanks! I am always a little self-conscious about the length of the things I post on my blog. But I've been working away on this subject, from time to time, for three years, so a lot of thought has been condensed here.

And I think the subject warrants the lengthy treatment I gave it. But I'm grateful for the affirmation!

I think that the reason the Koran can be dangerously misintrepreted is more about the fact that every Imam gets to tell his followers what to believe.

This is a good point. Since imams have so much independence, there's a lot of responsibility on the community to be careful who they follow. It's not like a hierarchical denomination where someone with unorthodox ideas can be disciplined.

As a result, it comes back to the people: which imams are they going to support, the zealots or the moderates?

There is a minority committing horrific acts and we should not blame or condemn all for the actions of a few.

I greatly admire your nuanced response, Jack.

What I find difficult about this is that there are still very few voices coming from within that rail against these actions.

Exactly. I'm pleased to see some Canadian imams taking a stand. At the same time, it's discouraging to see that some of them still don't get it. They need to condemn the suicide bombers, and the terrorists who incite and equip them, boldly and unequivocally. No other response is adequate.

Wherever do you find the time?

In this case, by working at the subject incrementally over a long time … and by giving up my sleep last night.

Too many people are conditioned to read these texts in a particular way, and they don't know the history or the context in which it was written, and they don't stop to question whether their interpretation is reasonable or warranted.

Back to what I said in response to Sheila — the international Muslim community bears a huge responsibility for finding its way forward in this ugly situation.

For me, the enemy is ideology. It doesn't matter whether the ideology is Christian, Muslim, or atheist, Democrat or Republican, feminist or chauvinist, or whatever. We all need to be on the side of truth, even if our ideology takes a beating sometimes.

When it comes to scripture, too many believers refuse to admit the harmful implications of their sacred texts. Christians certainly have very little excuse. St. Paul wrote, "the letter kills but the spirit gives life" (2 Cor. 3:6), so Christians ought to be sensitized to the harmful consequences of a rigidly literal interpretation of the Bible.

But many still aren't.

At 4:55 PM, July 28, 2005, Blogger Jack's Shack said...


No admiration is necessary. I am just doing the right thing and that means that I look at the broad and specifics.

I should be doing more.


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