The Bronx and Morocco this week, and elsewhere, all over, on an ongoing basis — and why is it that fanatical Muslims so relish attacking Jews? Is it really all about Israel?
Anti-Semitism in the Islamic world has often been attributed to the baneful influence of Christianity. Many analysts assert that the Islamic designation of Jews (as well as Christians) as “People of the Book” indicates a higher level of respect for them than was manifested by Christians who derided Jews as bestial “Christ-killers.” Journalist Lawrence Wright writes in this vein in The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11:
Until the end of World War II … Jews lived safely–although submissively–under Muslim rule for 1,200 years, enjoying full religious freedom; but in the 1930s, Nazi propaganda on Arabic-language shortwave radio, coupled with slanders by Christian missionaries in the region, infected the area with this ancient Western prejudice [anti-Semitism]. After the war, Cairo became a sanctuary for Nazis, who advised the military and the government. The rise of the Islamist movement coincided with the decline of fascism, but they overlapped in Egypt, and the germ passed into a new carrier.
This is a common view, but in reality there is a strong native strain of anti-Semitism in Islam, which is rooted in the Qur’an. The Muslim holy book contains a great deal of material that forms the foundation for a hatred of Jews that exists independently of the Christian variety. It is also, in many ways, more virulent and harder to eradicate. The Qur’an portrays the Jews as the craftiest, most persistent, and most implacable enemies of the Muslims–and there is no Muslim equivalent of the Second Vatican Council to mitigate against destructive interpretations. The Qur’anic material on the Jews remains the prism through which far too many Muslims see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict–and Jews in general–to this day.
A vivid illustration of this came in 2004 from Islam Online, a website founded by, among others, the internationally influential Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi in 1997. Although al-Qaradawi has won praise from Islamic scholar John Esposito for engaging in a “reformist interpretation of Islam and its relationship to democracy, pluralism, and human rights,” that “reformist” impulse doesn’t seem to carry over to his view of Jews (he has justified suicide bombings against Israeli civilians), or the view of them he has allowed to be published on Islam Online.
In 2004 the site posted an article titled “Jews as Depicted in the Qur’an,” in which Sheikh ‘Atiyyah Saqr, the former head of the Fatwa Committee at the most respected institution in Sunni Islam, Al-Azhar University in Cairo, depicts Jews in a chillingly negative light, illustrated with abundant quotations from the Qur’an. Among other charges he levels at the Jews, Saqr says that they “used to fabricate things and falsely ascribe them to Allah”; they “love to listen to lies”; they disobey Allah and ignore his commands; they wish “evil for people” and try to “mislead them”; and they “feel pain to see others in happiness and are gleeful when others are afflicted with a calamity.” He adds that “it is easy for them to slay people and kill innocents,” for “they are merciless and heartless.” And each charge he follows with Qur’anic citations (including, among others, 3:75; 5:64; 3:181; 5:41; 5:13; 2:109; 3:120; 2:61; 2:74; 2:100; 59:13-14; 2:96; and 2:79).
Though he offers many examples of the alleged evil traits of the Jews supported by the Qur’an, Saqr doesn’t mention the notorious Qur’anic passages that depict an angry Allah transforming Jews into apes and pigs: 2:63-66; 5:59-60; and 7:166. The first of those passages depicts Allah telling the Jews who “profaned the Sabbath”: “Be as apes despicable!” It goes on to say that these accursed ones serve “as a warning example for their time and for all times to come.” The second has Allah directing Muhammad to remind the “People of the Book” about “those who incurred the curse of Allah and His wrath, those of whom some He transformed into apes and swine, those who worshipped evil.” The third essentially repeats this, saying of the Sabbath-breaking Jews that when “in their insolence they transgressed (all) prohibitions,” Allah said to them, “Be ye apes, despised and rejected.”
In traditional Islamic theology these passages have not been considered to apply to all Jews. The classic Qur’anic commentator Ibn Kathir, whose commentary is widely distributed and respected among Muslims today, quotes earlier authorities saying that “those who violated the sanctity of the Sabbath were turned into monkeys, then they perished without offspring,” and that they “only lived on the earth for three days, for no transformed person ever lives more than three days.” While parts of the Qur’an are hostile to the Jews, Muhammad’s curse, in this case, was limited to these Sabbath-breakers, not to all Jews.
However, that hasn’t stopped contemporary jihadists from frequently referring to Jews as the “descendants of apes and swine.” The implication is that today’s Jews are bestial in character and are the enemies of Allah, just as the Sabbath-breakers were. The grand sheikh of Al-Azhar, Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, the most respected cleric in the world among Sunni Muslims today, has called Jews “the enemies of Allah, descendants of apes and pigs.” Saudi sheikh Abd al-Rahman al-Sudayyis, imam of the principal mosque in the holiest city in Islam, Mecca, said in a sermon that Jews are “the scum of the human race, the rats of the world, the violators of pacts and agreements, the murderers of the prophets, and the offspring of apes and pigs.”
Another Saudi sheikh, Ba’d bin Abdallah al-Ajameh al-Ghamidi, made the connection explicit: “The current behavior of the brothers of apes and pigs, their treachery, violation of agreements, and defiling of holy places … is connected with the deeds of their forefathers during the early period of Islam–which proves the great similarity between all the Jews living today and the Jews who lived at the dawn of Islam.” A 1996 Hamas publication says that today’s Jews are bestial in spirit, and this is a manifestation of the punishment of their forefathers. In January 2007, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas stated, “The sons of Israel are mentioned as those who are corrupting humanity on earth,” referring to Qur’an 5:64.
All this shows that leading Muslim authorities approach the Qur’an not as a document rooted in history, but as a blueprint for understanding the world today. Likewise, Sheikh ‘Atiyyah Saqr describes the Qur’anic teachings that because Jews “revolted against the Divine ordinances … they found no warm reception in all countries where they tried to reside. Rather, they would either be driven out or live in isolation.” Moreover, “Almighty Allah told us that He’d send to them people who’d pour on them rain of severe punishment that would last till the Day of Resurrection.” Then comes a threat: “All this gives us glad tidings of the coming victory of Muslims over them once Muslims stick to strong faith and belief in Allah and adopt the modern means of technology.”
In the 1970s Sheikh Tantawi wrote a 700-page treatise, Jews in the Qur’an and the Traditions, in which he concluded:
[The] Qur’an describes the Jews with their own particular degenerate characteristics, i.e. killing the prophets of Allah, corrupting His words by putting them in the wrong places, consuming the people’s wealth frivolously, refusal to distance themselves from the evil they do, and other ugly characteristics caused by their deep-rooted lasciviousness … only a minority of the Jews keep their word. … [A]ll Jews are not the same. The good ones become Muslims, the bad ones do not.
Nor is this just a modern view. The classic Qur’anic commentators not do not mitigate the Qur’an’s words against Jews, but only add fuel to the fire. Ibn Kathir explained Qur’an 2:61 (“They were covered with humiliation and misery; they drew on themselves the wrath of Allah”) this way: “This Ayah [verse] indicates that the Children of Israel were plagued with humiliation, and that this will continue, meaning that it will never cease. They will continue to suffer humiliation at the hands of all who interact with them, along with the disgrace that they feel inwardly.” Another Middle Ages commentator of lingering influence, ‘Abdallah ibn ‘Umar al-Baidawi, explains the same verse this way: “The Jews are mostly humiliated and wretched either of their own accord, or out of coercion of the fear of having their jizya [punitive tax] doubled.”
Ibn Kathir notes Islamic traditions that predict that at the end of the world, “the Jews will support the Dajjal (False Messiah), and the Muslims, along with ‘Isa [Jesus], son of Mary, will kill the Jews.” The idea in Islam that the end times will be marked by Muslims killing Jews comes from the prophet Muhammad himself, who said, “The Hour will not be established until you fight with the Jews, and the stone behind which a Jew will be hiding will say. ‘O Muslim! There is a Jew hiding behind me, so kill him.'” This is, not unexpectedly, a favorite motif among contemporary jihadists. On March 30, 2007, a spokesman for Hamas, Dr. Ismail Radwan, said on Palestinian Authority television:
The Hour [Resurrection] will not take place until the Muslims fight the Jews and the Muslims kill them, and the rock and the tree will say: “Oh, Muslim, servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me, kill him!”
We must remind our Arab and Muslim nation, its leaders and people, its scholars and students, remind them that Palestine and the Al Aqsa mosque will not be liberated through summits nor by international resolutions, but it will be liberated through the rifle. It will not be liberated through negotiations, but through the rifle, since this occupation knows no language but the language of force…. O Allah, strengthen Islam and Muslims, and bring victory to your Jihad-fighting worshipers, in Palestine and everywhere…. Allah take the oppressor Jews and Americans and their supporters!
The history of Jews who lived under Muslim rule is a more or less unbroken record of theologically sanctioned humiliation and wretchedness. Although, like the Christians, Jews were allowed to practice their religion within restrictions, they were seldom allowed to forget their humiliation. Although the strictness with which the laws of dhimmitude (the subservient status of Jews and Christians) were enforced varied, they were never abolished, and during times of relaxation the subject populations always lived in fear that they would be enforced with new stringency. Muslim rulers did not forget that the Qur’an mandates that both Jews and Christians must “feel themselves subdued.” One notable instance is recounted by the Arab historian Phillip Hitti: “The caliph al-Mutawakkil in 850 and 854 decreed that Christians and Jews should affix wooden images of devils to their houses, level their graves even with the ground, wear outer garments of honey color, i.e. yellow, put two honey-colored patches on the clothes of their slaves, … and ride only on mules and asses with wooden saddles marked by two pomegranate-like balls on the cantle.” A millennium later, in 1888, little had changed. A Tunisian Jew noted:
The Jew is prohibited in this country to wear the same clothes as a Muslim and may not wear a red tarbush. He can be seen to bow down with his whole body to a Muslim child and permit him the traditional privilege of striking him in the face, a gesture that can prove to be of the gravest consequence. Indeed, the present writer has received such blows. In such matters the offenders act with complete impunity, for this has been the custom from time immemorial.
In 1291 Isaac ben Samuel, a noted Kabbalist and Palestinian Jew, sought refuge in a Christian-controlled area of Spain after the collapse of the last Crusader kingdom in the Levant. He explained, “For, in the eyes of the Muslims, the children of Israel are as open to abuse as an unprotected field. Even in their law and statutes they rule that the testimony of a Muslim is always to be believed against that of a Jew. For this reason our rabbis of blessed memory have said, ‘Rather beneath the yoke of Edom [Christendom] than that of Ishmael [Islam]. They [the rabbis] plead for mercy before the Holy One, Blessed be He, saying, ‘Master of the World, either let us live beneath Thy shadow or else beneath that of the children of Edom’ (Talmud, Gittin 17a).”
Ben Samuel’s choice of Christian Spain is paradoxical, as Muslim Spain was supposed to have been a famous exception to the oppression of Jews that prevailed elsewhere among both Muslims and Christians. Islamic apologist Karen Armstrong enunciates the common wisdom when she says that “until 1492, Jews and Christians lived peaceably and productively together in Muslim Spain–a coexistence that was impossible elsewhere in Europe.” Even the U.S. State Department has proclaimed that “during the Islamic period in Spain, Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived together in peace and mutual respect, creating a diverse society in which vibrant exchanges of ideas took place.”
Yet the philosopher Maimonides, a Jew who lived for a time in Muslim Spain and then fled that supposedly tolerant and pluralistic land, remarked, “You know, my brethren, that on account of our sins God has cast us into the midst of this people, the nation of Ishmael, who persecute us severely, and who devise ways to harm us and to debase us….No nation has ever done more harm to Israel. None has matched it in debasing and humiliating us. None has been able to reduce us as they have….We have borne their imposed degradation, their lies, and absurdities, which are beyond human power to bear.”
Notably, Maimonides directed that Jews could teach rabbinic law to Christians, but not to Muslims. For Muslims, he said, will interpret what they are taught “according to their erroneous principles and they will oppress us. [F]or this reason … they hate all [non-Muslims] who live among them.” But the Christians, he said, “admit that the text of the Torah, such as we have it, is intact”–as opposed to the Islamic view that the Jews and Christians have corrupted their scriptures. Christians, continued Maimonides, “do not find in their religious law any contradiction with ours.”
Even MarÃa Rosa Menocal, in her romantic and fantastic hagiography of Muslim Spain, The Ornament of the World, acknowledges the second-class status to which Jews and Christians were relegated there. “In return for this freedom of religious conscience the Peoples of the Book (pagans had no such privilege) were required to pay a special tax–no Muslims paid taxes–and to observe a number of restrictive regulations: Christians and Jews were prohibited from attempting to proselytize Muslims, from building new places of worship, from displaying crosses or ringing bells. In sum, they were forbidden most public displays of their religious rituals.”
According to historian Richard Fletcher, “Moorish Spain was not a tolerant and enlightened society even in its most cultivated epoch.” On December 30, 1066, about four thousand Jews in Granada were murdered by rioting Muslim mobs–more than would be killed in the Crusaders’ infamous Rhineland pogroms of the mid-twelfth century. What enraged the Granadan Muslims was the political power of the Jewish vizier Samuel ibn Naghrila and his son Joseph: the mob resented the fact that these men had authority over Muslims, which they saw as a “breach of sharia.” The mob was incited to kill the Jews by a poem composed by Muslim jurist Abu Ishaq: “I myself arrived in Granada and saw that these Jews were meddling in its affairs. … So hasten to slaughter them as a good work whereby you will earn God’s favor, and offer them up in sacrifice, a well-fattened ram.”
The mob heeded his call. A Muslim chronicler (and later sultan of Granada), ‘Abd Allah, said that “both the common people and the nobles were disgusted by the cunning of the Jews, the notorious changes they had brought in the order of things, and the positions they occupied in violation of their pact [of second-class status].” He recounted that the mob “put every Jew in the city to the sword and took vast quantities of their property.”
“Strongest among men in enmity to the believers wilt thou find the Jews…” — Qur’an 5:82.