And he twists himself, as well as the Qur’an, into pretzels to make his case. “Rabbi Reuven Firestone is Professor of medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles and Senior Fellow of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California. He is author of Jihad: The Origin of Holy War in Islam and is President Elect of the International Qur’anic Studies Association.”
This is a good example of how someone who must be deeply familiar with the contents of the Qur’an convinces himself that he doesn’t see what he sees, or that he does see it but it doesn’t matter, despite the fact that Muslims worldwide behave as if they read the Qur’an as anti-Semitic every day. They’re just more misunderstanders of Islam, and Reuven Firestone is here to set them straight. Notice, however, that he isn’t talking to them; rather, he is writing in the Jewish Daily Forward to attack Pamela Geller and our AFDI ad that asserts that Islamic Jew-hatred is in the Qur’an. In other words, he is not trying to convince anti-Semitic Muslims that they’re misreading the Qur’an; he is just trying to reassure Leftist Jews that they need not subscribe to a view that in their eyes is ipso facto “racist” and “bigoted.” Comments interspersed below.
“No, Pamela Geller, the Qur’an Is Not Anti-Semitic,” by Reuven Firestone, Jewish Daily Forward, September 29, 2014:
Soon you will see ads, courtesy of Pamela Geller, in the New York City subway system that state, “Islamic Jew-Hatred: It’s in the Qur’an.”
Is she right?
It’s easy to understand why many Jews might think so. Anti-Semitism has become a frightening force in much of the Muslim world, and a recent Anti-Defamation League study has shown that anti-Semitism is more common in Muslim majority countries than in any other region identified by religion, culture or geography. Muslims need to address this problem for many reasons, not least of which is that anti-Semitism reflects deep ignorance and a willingness to be manipulated by simplistic propaganda that is harmful to Muslims as well as Jews.
But anti-Semitism is not found in the Qur’an.
So if anti-Semitism is not found in the Qur’an, what accounts for all this anti-Semitism? Why has anti-Semitism “become a frightening force in much of the Muslim world”? If it isn’t religion-based, it must be because of Israel. This is a clue as to why American Jews overwhelmingly supported Obama in two presidential elections, despite his obviously negative view of Israel: they accept “Palestinian” propaganda, believe that Israel is guilty of atrocities, are embarrassed by that fact, and genuinely believe that if Israel is pressured and makes concessions to the “Palestinians,” peace will ensue. The idea that there will never be peace between Israel and the “Palestinians” because of core Islamic beliefs rooted in the Qur’an is to their mind bigoted and racist (again), and thus not even to be considered.
This may be difficult to fathom given the recent heated public discussion. Some people cite what appear to be obviously angry and seemingly hateful negative references to Jews in the Qur’an. Others argue that these verses are taken out of context. They cite counter-verses from the same Qur’an that appear to respect Jews and even refer to Jews using the same positive language reserved for followers of Muhammad.
Firestone decries simple answers, but unfortunately, the answer to his conundrum here is simple: the Qur’an speaks positively about Jews who accept Muhammad as a prophet and become Muslims, and negatively about those who don’t. The Qur’an makes this clear when it says that “those who disbelieve, among the People of the Scripture and the idolaters, will abide in fire of hell. They are the worst of created beings” (98:6). Who are “those who disbelieve, among the People of the Scripture”? They are the Christians and Jews who do not become Muslims. The Tafsir al-Jalalayn explains: “Before his [that is, Muhammad’s] arrival they had all agreed to believe in him when he would come; then those who disbelieved in him from among them became envious of him.” The passages about Jews and Christians being saved refers to Jews and Christians who become Muslims, while those who remain Jews and Christians are “the worst of created beings.” In his commentary on 5:69, Ibn Kathir makes this clear, telling Jews and Christians that they will have “no real religion until you adhere to and implement the Tawrah [Torah] and the Injil [Gospel]. That is, until you believe in all the Books that you have that Allah revealed to the Prophets. These Books command following Muhammad and believing in his prophecy, all the while adhering to his Law.”
So what’s the real story? As usual, the issue is not so simple, and many on both sides of the debate do us all a disservice with their hyperbole and naïve arguments.
I have no doubt whatsoever that Rabbi Firestone will ignore this post, but it would be refreshing were he to explain how the simple explanation I have just given above for the differing tone of various references to the Jews in the Qur’an is wrong, and show where the Qur’an speaks positively about Jews who do not accept Muhammad as a prophet. In fact, he confirms my argument as he goes on, for he explains at some length how the Qur’an’s negative passages toward the Jews stem from their rejection of the new religion:
Yes, the Qur’an contains verses that refer negatively to Jews. In order to understand these verses, we must read them both in relation to the fullness of the scripture in which they are located (synchronically), and also in relation to how other scriptures treat non-believers (diachronically).
Let’s start with the synchronic reading. Negative references to Jews in the Qur’an occur in relation to negative references to other communities, all of which opposed the emergence of the new Arabian prophet and his revelation. The Jewish communities of Arabia, like the Christian, Zoroastrian and native polytheist communities, did not accept the prophetic status of Muhammad. A few individual Jews and Christians joined his movement, but when they did they voted themselves out of their native religious communities.
This is a natural occurrence. No established religion is willing to discard the canon of its own scripture in order to accept a new prophet with a new revelation. Islam fits into this pattern as well, since it refuses to accept the prophetic status of new divine messengers who emerged out of its own tradition, such as the prophets of the Baha’i faith or the Ahmadiyya.
The Jews of Arabia were greatly respected and influential in Arabia during Muhammad’s lifetime. Because of their status, their refusal as a community to acknowledge his prophethood was a major impediment to the new movement and was condemned by the Qur’an as obstinacy, and hard-headedness. The Qur’an criticizes local Jews, for example, when it states, “Many of the People of the Book would like to turn you back to unbelievers after your having believed, because of envy on their part after the truth has become clear to them” (Q.2:109).
Established religions are never welcoming to new religions, and the disappointment, resentment and anger of newly emerging religions toward established religions that refuse to embrace them is found in all monotheistic scriptures. Many are familiar with the negative references to Jews in parts of the New Testament such as Matthew 23 and John 8. As in the Qur’an, these texts reflect the shock and resentment of those believing in a new redemptive and charismatic leader. They simply could not understand why members of established religions would refuse to join their program.
Negative references to Jews in both scriptures reflect reactive anger and zealous resentment. They do not represent a program to vilify, demonize or scapegoat Jews.
Yet throughout the history of Christianity, some Christians have taken passages of the New Testament precisely as constituting “a program to vilify, demonize or scapegoat Jews.” They always faced opposition, and finally when the Catholic Church definitively rejected anti-Semitism at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), which was itself the culmination of centuries of intellectual and spiritual evolution on this issue, these interpretations became far less prevalent than they once had been. And certainly throughout the history of Islam, some Muslims have taken passages of the Qur’an as constituting “a program to vilify, demonize or scapegoat Jews.” Not only has no significant Muslim authority ever repudiated these interpretations, but they have been reinforced in modern times. Andrew Bostom notes:
Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi wrote these words in his 700 page treatise rationalizing Muslim Jew hatred, Banu Isra’il fi al-Qur’an wa al-Sunna [Jews in the Qur’an and the Traditions], originally published in the late 1960s, and early 1970s, and then re-issued in 1986/87:
[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. (Qur’an 3:113)
Tantawi was apparently rewarded for this scholarly effort by being named Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University in 1996, a position he still holds. [Tantawi died in 2010.]
When people with such great influence and authority as the leaders of the Catholic Church say the New Testament has no program to vilify, demonize or scapegoat Jews, many Christians listen. When people with such great influence and authority as the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar say that the Qur’an has a program to vilify, demonize or scapegoat Jews, many Muslims listen.
Jews are naturally sensitive to negative references to Jews in other scriptures, but are usually unaware of the same phenomenon of othering in their own scripture. The Hebrew Bible is full of reactive anger and zealous resentment toward competing religious communities. Canaanites, Egyptians and other members of established religious peoples are depicted repeatedly in the Hebrew Bible as spiteful, wicked and mortal enemies of ancient Israel. But most of those portrayed as evil opponents were simply members of established religions who felt threatened by Israelite successes in conquest and expansion. Like the Jews and Christians of Arabia, they opposed the emergence of a new, competitive religious community. The Israelite claims to being God’s chosen people with an exclusive relationship with the one God of the universe (who happened to be called the God of Israel!) could only have added to the tension.
This is just special pleading. The Jewish scriptures contain no open-ended, universal command to believers to wage war against and subjugate unbelievers, comparable to the Qur’an’s command to Muslims to fight and subjugate the “People of the Book” (9:29).
These are all cases of the natural tension that occurs with the birth of new religions. Established religions resent and oppose them — just think of “cults” as new religions in order to understand the mindset. Like the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, the Qur’an includes material that reflects this frustration. It does not express anti-Semitism, Jew-hatred or racism.
The Qur’an says that Allah transformed the disobedient Jews into apes and pigs (2:63-65; 5:59-60; 7:166) and that unbelievers are like animals (8:55) and the most vile of created beings (98:6). There are no comparable statements about the unbelievers being vile in Jewish or Christian scriptures. It is hard to read such passages and not think that they inculcate anti-Semitism, Jew-hatred and racism, and when we see Islamic spokesmen referring to Jews as “apes and pigs” or “sons of apes and pigs” (including Egypt’s former Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi), it is clear that all too many Muslims today read them that way as well.
Anti-Semitism is caused by different forces, which scapegoat Jews by manipulating people through deceitful deflection of criticism onto Jews. Those who engage in the deception use anything they can to further their aims, including scripture. Negative scriptural references to non-believers exist in all scriptures, and they are sometimes cited and manipulated by hateful people to encourage violence and even slaughter of the religious other. But it’s important for Jews to understand that anti-Semitism is no more basic to Islam than hatred of all non-Jews is basic to Judaism, an old anti-Semitic screed that was often claimed by citing scriptural citations from the Hebrew Bible.
Once again, it would be refreshing if Rabbi Firestone would back up this claim by producing a passage from the Hebrew Bible comparable to Qur’an 9:29, in commanding believers to fight against unbelievers and make them submit to the believers’ hegemony, or anything in Jewish tradition comparable to this hadith: “Abu Huraira reported Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: The last hour would not come unless the Muslims will fight against the Jews and the Muslims would kill them until the Jews would hide themselves behind a stone or a tree and a stone or a tree would say: Muslim, or the servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me; come and kill him; but the tree Gharqad would not say, for it is the tree of the Jews.” (Sahih Muslim 6985)
Many writings single out and disparage particular communities, and any kind of “othering” is problematic. We need to be able to distinguish between normal even if problematic cases, and those that are truly hateful and absolutely unacceptable cases of racism, anti-Semitism or Islamophobia. Reacting to every negative reference to Jews as anti-Semitic is unwise, simplistic and dangerous. Don’t be fooled by frightened people into the naïve and simplistic conclusion that any negative reference to Jews is anti-Semitism.
“Islamophobia.” Using a trumped-up propaganda term that Muslim Brotherhood entities in the U.S. use in order to intimidate people into thinking that there is something wrong with resisting jihad terror doesn’t speak well of Firestone’s judgment.