Does the Koran Promote Anti-Semitism?

Roundup: Talking About History

From (June 25 2004):

Does Islam’s holy book promote anti-Semitism? To discuss this issue with us today, Frontpage Symposium has assembled a distinguished panel:

Prof. Khaleel Mohammed, Assistant Professor at the Department of Religious Studies at San Diego State University. Bat Ye’or, the author of three major books on dhimmis, jihad, and dhimmitude ( and On May 1, 1997-- after the publication of The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam. from Jihad to Dhimmitude (1996) -- she testified at a Hearing of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs on 'Religious Persecution in the Middle East' ("An Historical Overview of the Persecution of Christians under Islam. PAST IS PROLOGUE: The Challenge of Islamism Today"). Her latest study is Islam and Dhimmitude. Where Civilizations Collide (2002); see “Eurabia: The Road to Munich.” National Review Online, October 9, 2002;"European Fears of the Gathering Jihad." FPM, Feb. 21 2003.


Robert Spencer, the director of Jihad Watch and the author of Onward Muslim Soldiers: How Jihad Still Threatens America and the West (Regnery Publishing), and Islam Unveiled: Disturbing Questions About the World’s Fastest Growing Faith (Encounter Books).

FP: Prof. Khaleel Mohammed, Bat Ye’or and Robert Spencer welcome to Frontpage Symposium.

Prof. Khaleel Mohammed, you are on the record for maintaining that the Qur'an respects the Jews. Yet isn’t it clear that the Qur’an attributes so many negative characteristics to them, like “falsehood" (Sura 3:71) and “distortion” (Sura 4:46)? Among other things, the Qur’an teaches that the Jews have been cursed by Allah, as well as by David and Jesus. (Sura 2:61/58, Sura 5:78/82) And Allah was so disgusted with Jews that he transformed them into apes and pigs. (Sura 5:60/65, 2:65 and 7:166). What conclusions is a faithful Muslim supposed to reach here?

Mohammed: That is a rather simple question to answer if one takes principles of exegesis into consideration. First of all, the Qur’an has to be explained in totality rather than by isolated verses. Secondly, we have to remember that the Judaism of Muhammad's time was not a monolithic construct -- as it is not even up to today.

The Qur'an respects certain groups of Jews, and seems to think certain other groups (of Jews) are not observing Judaism. In fact, many scholars, among them Goitein, Lazarus-Yafeh, feel that the Qur’anic positions often reflect disputes between Jewish groups. Others such as Menachem Kister et al have shown that the Jewish tradition(s) tremendously influenced Islam, and as such a lot of the imagery of the Qur’an is based on Judaic paradigms. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that many Jewish oral traditions have not reached us, but a familiarity with them is assumed in the Qur’an.

Thirdly, the aspect of the Qur'an"picking" on certain groups of Jews is not something peculiar to Islam--every new religion establishes its" correctness" by pointing out the perceived problems of older established religions. Judaism, according to the Torah, talks of the older religions and other peoples in horrible terms, and we have the story of the Moabites as a single example. Christianity does the same, with Jesus likening his own people to swine and dogs (Matthew 7:6, 2 Peter 2:22 ).

Fourthly, the Qur'an is primarily an oral document, put together in a way unlike a scriptural text. And so, unlike a book, wherein there must be cohesion between a page and its preceding and subsequent pages, this is not an elemental aspect of the Qur’an. It jumps from topic to topic, and one set of verses can cover several topics...the connection between the topics requires familiarity with the contents of the entire document, which is why memorization is such a cherished prerequisite for exegesis. Having outlined these few basics, let us take each part of the question

How can I say that the Qur’an respects the Jews: let us examine: Q2:47, Q2:62, Q3:33, 5:20: those verses certainly do respect the Jews, in fact, telling them that they are entitled to the kingdom of heaven. The Qur’an refers to the Torah as a book of light (Q5:44)--and the foregoing are only a few examples of the respect of Judaism and its Scripture.

On the issue of falsehood, such as in Q3:71: based on what I have explained, how can we say that this is for ALL Jews? And is the Qur’an saying something that Jews did not say about themselves? Let us examine Jeremiah 8:8, Deut 31:29. The Qur'an was quite familiar with these charges made by Jewish groups against each other, and simply used the arguments. For distortion, as in Q4:46, the same argument applies. The discussions in the Talmud often focus on how words are to be again, this is not something peculiar to the Qur’an.

On the aspect of the Jews being cursed by Allah: Once again, not ALL, but those who committed certain transgressions. Throughout the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, do we not find such references to those whom God can and does curse? Does Jewish tradition not teach that the reason why the Jews have suffered so much is because they have transgressed against the covenant? Are there not Jews who teach--whether rightly or wrongly is besides the point--that even the Shoah is because of God's displeasure with them? And according the Christian testament did Jesus not address words of rejection and anger towards the Jews? And if Jesus, a Jew could do this, I don't think we can argue if David could.

Allah turning Jews into apes and swine. Let us examine the phraseology of the verses that are referred to in the question:

5:60: This is in polemic, simply addressed to those who were making fun of Islamic beliefs. The story of God transforming those with whom he is angry is a well-known motif in midrashic work: check tractate sanhedrin in the Babylonian Talmud wherein some of those who attempted to build the tower of Babel were transformed into apes. While I have not come across a mention of transformation to swine, I would hazard a guess by saying that given that with which the pig is associated in Judaism, it could have been an oral tradition known to Arab Judaism. Leviticus Rabbah 13:5 puts the pig as the example of hypocrisy: it looks kosher by outward appearance, but its actions are not kosher (it does not chew the cud). Considering the date of redaction of this document--circa 5th century--as well as the Matthew7:6 verse presented earlier, the pig image for those who disobey seem part of the general area concept rather than just Qur'anic.

On the verses in 2:65 and 7:166, the structure of the verses clearly show Jewish provenance:"And you know well those who transgressed among you on the matter of the Sabbath...: Muslims do not observe a Sabbath, and so those being addressed are clearly Jews. Next it says"you know well" showing that the Q is presupposing knowledge of a tradition known to the Jews. Also, it says"those who transgressed among you" showing not ALL transgressed...and so the verse is an indictment not of all Jews, but of those who violated the Sabbath. 7:166 elucidates the nature of the transgression: that of netting fish on a Saturday.

The Sambatyon narratives in Jewish lore add credence to the provenance that I have suggested: Jewish oral tradition. Let us not forget that the importation of Jewish lore was so well-accepted among Muslims that a specific genre of literature was coined for this"isra'iliyaat"--and only later did this literature become frowned upon. As Kister has shown, it was accepted among early exegetes. And the medieval Muslim historian, Ibn Khaldun, has stated in his Muqaddimah, that when the pre-Islamic Arabs wanted to know anything about the past, they went to the Jews. Q 21:7, 16:43 seems to support this. When we see charges in the Qur'an that identifies certain Jews therefore, in many cases we have to examine Jewish sources for provenance.

All of this being said, I am aware that many Muslim preachers use the verses in a manner that is totally wrong, demonizing all Jews. And I have offended some of those preachers by pointing out that one of Muhammad's wives was Jewish--safiyyah bint Huyayy--and if Muslims are to believe the Jews are descended from apes and swine, then Muhammad was married to a descendant of such creatures. Of course this is unacceptable to Muslim sensibilities.

You asked about a faithful Muslim and what conclusion s/he is supposed to reach from these verses: your choice of wording is significant, and points the problem out."faithful" is often seen as a substitute for"discerning"...the average faithful Muslim will follow the imam's interpretation--which is generally influenced by current anti-Jewish polemic, or by medieval exegesis which bought into demonization of Jews as an entire group. A discerning Muslim will hopefully see the verses in context the way I have.

Spencer: It was kind of Professor Khaleel Muhammad to remind us of the principles of interpretation and exegesis of sacred texts. It is indeed true that “the Qur’an has to be explained in totality rather than by isolated verses.” Unfortunately, using this standard, many influential Muslim authorities would regard his conclusions here as almost entirely erroneous.

While there may be some Muslims who view the Qur’an’s statements about Jews the same way Professor Muhammad does here, they are not at this point mounting an effective refutation of the radical interpretation, which draws on numerous traditional sources. Conversely, however, radical exegetes would have little trouble poking holes in Professor Muhammad’s analysis -- a fact with sobering consequences for Israel and the world at large....

comments powered by Disqus