Over the years many, many people have sent in articles stating that the Qur’an actually promises the Land of Israel to the Jews, and that therefore the claims of Hamas and Hizballah et al are illegitimate on Islamic grounds. It is a comforting message that Islamic spokesmen such as Khaleel Mohammed have taken to Jewish audiences all over, reinforcing in them the idea that the Islamic jihad imperative against Israel is simply the province of a Tiny Minority of Extremistsâ„¢ among Muslims, and that the voices of reason and moderation — and Qur’anic authenticity — will eventually prevail in the Islamic world.
The only problem with this is that it isn’t true, and is based on a partial and highly misleading reading of the Qur’an. It sounds great, it makes people feel better, but what good is that if it is based on falsehood? And what could be the goal of Muslim spokesmen who promote this perspective even though they know full well the totality of the Qur’an’s teaching on the Jews?
Here is the latest example of this wishful thinking and false hope: “What the Koran says about the land of Israel,” by Simon Rocker in The Jewish Chronicle, March 19 (thanks to all who sent this in):
According to the Hamas charter, Palestine is an Islamic endowment “for all generations of Muslims until the Day of Resurrection” which no one may renounce. The Arab-Israeli conflict is seen as not just a political dispute but an implacably religious one.
But there are Muslim scholars who will tell you that this claim has no basis in the Koran: not only that, but the foundation text of Islam, in fact, recognises the special link between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. “You will find very clearly,” says Sheikh Dr Muhammad Al-Husseini, “that the traditional commentators from the eighth and ninth century onwards have uniformly interpreted the Koran to say explicitly that Eretz Yisrael has been given by God to the Jewish people as a perpetual convenant [sic]. There is no Islamic counterclaim to the Land anywhere in the traditional corpus of commentary.”
Indeed, they have so interpreted the Qur’an. Unfortunately, that is not all the Qur’an has to say about the Jewish people.
Dr Al-Husseini is a British imam who teaches a course on the Koran as part of interfaith studies at the Leo Baeck College, the Progressive rabbinic college in Finchley, north London. One of the texts he has taught is the following verse in the Koran (5:21), “O my people! Enter the Holy Land which God has decreed for you, and turn back on your heels otherwise you will be overturned as losers.”
He examines this passage through the eyes of one classic commentator of the Koran, Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari (838-923), who says the remark is “a narrative from God… concerning the saying of Moses… to his community from among the children of Israel and his order to them according to the order of God to him, ordering them to enter the holy land.”
Al-Tabari, Dr Al-Husseni [sic] says, is “our Rashi”, the founder of tafsir, “the science of exegesis” — the Arabic word is similar to pesher, Hebrew for interpretation. “One of the key rules of Islamic exegesis by which Islamic scholarship is bound is that the authority to interpret lies in the hands of the Prophet and of the Prophets’ Companions alone,” he says, “Nobody can go to the text and just freely interpret the text for their own purposes. This is really important… because if the Prophet, or one of his Companions, has given an interpretation, then we are bound by it.”
Just as you find in the Talmud that one rabbi quotes a saying in the name of one of his teachers, so al-Tabari will cite the interpretations of earlier, oral commentators in a chain going back to one of the Prophet Muhammad’s Companions, the ultimate source of authority for that interpretation….
Al-Tabari is not unique in this. Another venerable and respected Muslim commentator on the Qur’an, Ibn Kathir, says in his interpretation of Qur’an 5:21 that the Jews “were the best among the people of their time….Allah states next that Musa [Moses] encouraged the Children of Israel to perform Jihad and enter Jerusalem, which was under their control during the time of their father Ya`qub [Jacob]. Ya`qub and his children later moved with his children and household to Egypt during the time of Prophet Yusuf [Joseph]. His offspring remained in Egypt until their exodus with Musa. They found a mighty, strong people in Jerusalem who had previously taken it over. Musa, Allah’s Messenger, ordered the Children of Israel to enter Jerusalem and fight their enemy, and he promised them victory and triumph over the mighty people if they did so.”
However, that is not the end of the story. Ibn Kathir then says that the Jews “declined, rebelled and defied his order and were punished for forty years by being lost, wandering in the land uncertain of where they should go. This was their punishment for defying Allah’s command.” In contrast, “The Muslim Ummah [community] is more respected and honored before Allah, and has a more perfect legislative code and system of life, it has the most honorable Prophet, the larger kingdom, more provisions, wealth and children, a larger domain and more lasting glory than the Children of Israel.”
And the idea that the “glory” of the Children of Israel was not “lasting” is the key to seeing why the exegesis of the Qur’an that Al-Husseini is pushing forward here is partial and incomplete. He quotes Al-Tabari saying that Allah wanted the Children of Israel to enter the Holy Land, but stops there, explaining none of the rest of what the Qur’an says about them. But Al-Husseini goes on to say that this promise is lasting, basing his argument not on any Qur’an verse, but on the nature of the Qur’an itself as understood in traditional Islamic theology:
“It was never the case during the early period of Islam…that there was any kind of sacerdotal attachment to Jerusalem as a territorial claim. Jerusalem is holy but Mount Sinai is more holy. Sinai is mentioned far more often, and Jerusalem isn’t actually mentioned by name.” (Jerusalem is alluded to in the phrase “the further mosque”).
Al-Tabari’s commentary also notes that the word “decreed” — kataba in Arabic, related to katav, “written”, in Hebrew — has the connotations of “ordered”: in other words, settling the land was regarded as a mitzvah for the children of Israel. Al-Tabari also observes that the decree is confirmed in al-lawh al-mahfuz, the eternally preserved tablet” — a reference to the Islamic idea that in heaven exists a sacred blueprint from which the Muslim, Christian and Jewish scriptures emanate, hence the covenant with the Jewish people over Israel is everlasting.
In reality, Islamic tradition teaches that the Christian and Jewish scriptures have been corrupted, and only the Qur’an is a faithful copy of the eternal and heavenly book. In any case, it is all very well to say that the Qur’an is eternal, but that doesn’t in the least mean that the command for the Jewish people to possess the Holy Land is likewise understood as eternal by mainstream Muslim exegetes. There is, as we shall see, too much more that the Qur’an says about the Jews for that to be the case.
It would be nice if it were true that the Qur’an teaches that Allah gave the Land of Israel to the Jews, but one might wonder in that case why the Islamic world from Morocco to Indonesia manifests such hostility to Israel. Are Al-Husseini, Khaleel Mohammed and Sheikh Palazzi the only Muslims who have ever noticed that Allah actually wants the Jews to possess the Land of Israel?
And if Al-Husseini really believes this, why does he support a two-state solution? What claim can the Palestinians make to this land that he apparently believes was promised to another people?
Dr Al-Husseini– who stresses his support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — points out that other contemporary Muslim scholars draw attention to this tradition, such as Professor Khaleel Mohammed in San Diego and Sheikh Abdul Hadi Palazzi in Rome.
Anyway, Al-Husseini goes on to suggest that the Muslims who oppose his perspective have no Qur’anic case:
But he also observes that many Muslims are unfamiliar with al-Tabari’s work because it is mostly untranslated and accessible only to an educated elite who understand Arabic. By contrast, the teachings of 20th-century radicals linked to political groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood are often widely available in English. Since the militants cannot contradict the Koranic precedent for Jewish attachment to the Land of Israel, they adopt another tactic, Dr Al-Husseini says: they argue that Jews are a wicked people who “must be punished” — hence the spread of antisemitism within the Muslim world. “But no fundamentalist, no matter how hard they try,” he says, “can overrule the existing tradition to say there is, in fact, an Islamic counterclaim to Eretz Yisrael.”…
Actually, the Qur’an says that the Jews who reject Muhammad as a prophet are accursed of Allah. One verse scolds them for rejecting the Qur’an, even though it (in the Muslim view) confirmed the Torah: “And when there comes to them a Book from Allah, confirming what is with them, although from of old they had prayed for victory against those without Faith, when there comes to them that which they (should) have recognised, they refuse to believe in it but the curse of Allah is on those without Faith” (2:89).
Another passage tells the Muslims that they are the best of the world’s people, in contrast to the People of the Book (primarily Jews and Christians), most of whom have rebelled from Allah and incurred his curse: “Ye are the best of peoples, evolved for mankind, enjoining what is right, forbidding what is wrong, and believing in Allah. If only the People of the Book had faith, it were best for them: among them are some who have faith, but most of them are perverted transgressors. They will do you no harm, barring a trifling annoyance; if they come out to fight you, they will show you their backs, and no help shall they get. Shame is pitched over them (like a tent) wherever they are found, except when under a covenant (of protection) from Allah and from men; they draw on themselves wrath from Allah, and pitched over them is (the tent of) destitution. This because they rejected the Signs of Allah, and slew the prophets in defiance of right; this because they rebelled and transgressed beyond bounds” (3:110-112).
So the Jews and Christians who do not believe in Muhammad will find “shame” in this life “wherever they are found” — unless they’re “under a covenant” from Allah. This most likely refers to the covenant of the dhimma, the contract of protection under which Jews and Christians live as subject peoples under the rule of Islamic law. However, even if one understands it to refer to the covenant that Allah made with the Jews to give them the Land of Israel, the Qur’an also says that they broke their covenant with Allah:
“And because of their breaking their covenant, We have cursed them and made hard their hearts. They change words from their context and forget a part of that whereof they were admonished. Thou wilt not cease to discover treachery from all save a few of them. But bear with them and pardon them. Lo! Allah loveth the kindly” (5:13).
Being thus accursed according to the Qur’an, the Jews are not the legitimate inheritors of the promise made in Qur’an 5:21. The ones who are the inheritors of that promise are those who have remained faithful to Allah (i.e., the Muslims), not those whom he has accursed (i.e., the Jews).
This is why you never hear mainstream Muslim voices or prominent Muslim leaders ever invoking Qur’an 5:21 to argue that Muslims ought not to be waging jihad against Israel. This is simply not a mainstream view, or one that anyone who is actually familiar with the totality of the Qur’an would ever advance. It gives Jews and all supporters of Israel hope, yes. But I would not give you false hope.