By: Rabbi Allen S. Maller
Islamophobes frequently make wild accusations blaming the Qur’an for being antagonistic toward Jews and Christians.
But the Qur’an’s many narrations of events in Jewish history, when a part of the Jewish People were disloyal to the whole nation’s covenant with God, are simply used as selected archetypal events for all humanity to learn from.
The Qur’an always states that a party of Jews were faithful to the covenant with God, while another part of the community was not: “They are not [all] the same; among the People of the Scripture is a community standing [in obedience], reciting the verses of Allah during periods of the night and prostrating [in prayer]. They believe in Allah and the Last Day, and they enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and hasten to [do] good deeds. And those [people] are among the righteous. And whatever good they do – never will it be removed from them. And Allah is Knowing of the righteous. (3:113-15)
To fully understand the Quran’s view of prior monotheistic religions we must keep in mind that the Qur’an is the only book of revelation that includes within itself a theory of prophethood: “Therefore say, “We have believed in Allah and in what was revealed to us and what was revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and their Descendants, and in what was given to Moses and Jesus and to the prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and we are Muslims [submitting] to Him.” (3:84)
This Qur’anic reference to multiple prophets, includes the many prophets of other religions. This is not just because the Qur’an, as the most recent Scripture of a world religion, can refer back to the many previous prophets of the one God and the various Sacred Scriptures that they brought to their people.
It is also due to the central teaching of the Qur’an that there have always been (since the days of Adam) people inspired by Allah who urged and warned their society to avoid destruction by turning away from their society’s corrupt and unjust ways; and turning to the One God who created all humans.
As a Jewish prophet declares to the Children of Israel: “What does the Lord require of you? (only) To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Hebrew Bible, Micah 6:8)
The Qur’an also tells us that God made a covenant agreement with all the prophets: “And when Allah took the covenant of the prophets, [saying], “I give you Scripture and wisdom, and when there comes to you a messenger confirming what is with you, you [must] believe in him and support him.” [God] said, “Have you acknowledged and taken upon [yourselves] My commitment?” They said, “We have acknowledged it.” He said, “Then bear witness [to your communities], and I will be with you among the witnesses.” (3:81)
But some people might object that another ayah just four ayahs away contradicts the above ayah when it states:“And whoever desires other than Islam as religion – never will it be accepted from him, and he, in the Hereafter, will be among the losers.” (3:85)
There is no abrogation here. The word Islam in the Qur’an sometimes refers to the beliefs and practices of members of the Muslim religious community established by Prophet Muhammad, and sometimes refers to the belief of all those who believe in one and only God; and strive to live faithfully according to teachings of their own prophet and their own Scripture.
Thus, the Qur’an states that: “Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but he was one inclining toward truth, a Muslim [a person who submits to the one and only God]. He was not of the polytheists.” (3:67)
This is why I think of myself as a Reform Rabbi and a Muslim Jew. Actually I am a Muslim or Islamic Jew i.e. a faithful Jew submitting to the will of God, because I am a Reform Rabbi.
As a Rabbi I am faithful to the covenant that God made with Abraham – the first Muslim Jew, and I submit to the commandments that God made with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai.
I think the Qur’an refers to people like me when it states: “They are not all alike. Some of the People of the Book are (also) firmly committed to the truth. They recite the Verses of Allah during the hours of night, and remain in the state of [prayer] prostration before their Lord.” (3:113 – Qadri)
As a Reform Rabbi I believe that Jewish spiritual leaders should modify Jewish tradition as social and historical circumstances change and develop. I also believe we should not make religion difficult for people to practice.
These are lessons that prophet Muhammad taught 12 centuries before the rise of Reform Judaism in the early 19th century. Reform Jews are the largest of the Jewish denominations in the U.S.
In the U.K..Reform Judaism is called Liberal Judaism.
The belief in many prophets for many peoples, is the best support for the belief in religious pluralism as the product of God’s will, as it is written in the Qur’an, “To each of you We prescribed a law and a method. Had Allah willed, He would have made you one nation [united in religion], but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you; so race to [all that is] good. To Allah is your return all together, and He will [then] inform you concerning that over which you used to differ.” (5:48)
And: “Indeed, they who have believed (in one God alone) and done righteous deeds, and humbled themselves to their Lord – those are the companions of Paradise; they will abide eternally therein.” (11:23)
The Qur’an mentions 25 prophets by name (most of them known to non-Muslims too) and Muslims believe there were one hundred twenty four thousand others, whose names are now unknown. Of the 25 mentioned by name in the Qur’an only four (Moses, David, Jesus, and Muhammad) revealed books of sacred scripture that are the bases for three religions that still flourish today.
According to the Qur’an, every nation in the world receives at least one prophet who speaks to it in its own language. However, one nation, the Children of Israel, has received a great many prophets. The Qur’an doesn’t explicitly tell us why so many prophets arose within the Children of Israel, but this is what I learned years ago from a profound and enlightening essay by Irfan Ahmad Kahn in a book entitled Jewish-Muslim Encounters, edited by Charles Selengut.
Almost all prophets, according to Kahn, are like Hud who was sent to Ad or Salih who was sent to Thamud. They come to warn their own people of their impending destruction due to their corrupt and immoral ways, and to call them to repentance.
However, the prophets of the Children of Israel are different in two ways. First, Abraham is the only prophet we know of whose two sons, Isma’il (Ishmael) and Ishaq (Isaac), are also prophets. Indeed, Abraham’s grandson Ya’qub (Jacob) and great grandson Yusuf (Joseph) are also prophets. Thus starting with Abraham, Allah established a family dynasty (descendants) of prophets.
With Joseph and his brothers (the tribes) the extended family of descendants became the 12 tribes of Israel or as they are usually called the Children of Israel/Ya’qub.
The Children of Israel were blessed with many prophets who were the descendants of the Children of Israel/Ya’qub who generation after generation urged all parts of the Jewish people to stay firm in their covenant with God.
This prophetic ongoing concern is expressed in the Qur’an “When death approached Ya’qub, he said to his sons, ‘Who will (you) worship after I am gone?’ They answered, ‘We will worship your God, the God of our forefathers, Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, the One God. Unto Him we will surrender ourselves’” (2:132)
Second, when Musa (Moses) is sent by Allah, he comes not primarily to warn or rebuke the Children of Israel (his own enslaved people); but he is sent “to Pharaoh” ( 20:24, 51:38, 73:15 and 79:17), “to Pharaoh and his chiefs” (al-mala) (7:103, 10:75, 11:97, 23:46, and 43:46) “to Pharaoh and his people” (27:12).
Musa is sent to Pharaoh to warn him of the destruction that will fall on Egypt if Pharaoh doesn’t stop setting himself up as a God, and doesn’t let the Children of Israel go free. (2:53; 2:87; 6:84; 6:154; 7:160; 17;2; 21:48; 23:49; 40:53; 41:45)
Musa came to rebuke Pharaoh and to rescue the Children of Israel. Only when the Jewish nation is free from Egyptian bondage, do they and Moses receive the Torah directly from God, without mediation of any angel.
This very enlightening essay by Irfan Ahmad Kahn stimulated me, as a Reform Rabbi, to a new realization. As I already wrote, some people accuse the Qur’an for being antagonistic toward Jews and Christians. But the Qur’an’s many narrations of events in Jewish history, when a part of the Jewish People were disloyal to the whole nation’s covenant with God, are selected archetypal events for all humanity to learn from.
The Qur’an always states that a party of Jews were faithful to the covenant with God, while another part of the community was not: “They are not [all] the same; among the People of the Scripture is a community standing [in obedience], reciting the verses of Allah during periods of the night and prostrating [in prayer].
They believe in Allah and the Last Day, and they enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and hasten to [do] good deeds. And those [people] are among the righteous. And whatever good they do – never will it be removed from them. And Allah is Knowing of the righteous. (3:113-15)
The history of the Children of Israel as a religious community continuously striving, with some parts of the people often failing, to live up to its covenant with God, was so well known in Arabia that the Qur’an uses the ups and downs of Jewish history an excellent example for others.
As a Rabbi I believe that the many prophets Allah sent to the Children of Israel are a sign of the ongoing covenant between Allah and the Children of Israel.I know Muslim interpreters interpret 2:63-64 to mean that the favours mentioned in these verses were conditional with a certain period of time when the Divine trust—the representation and promotion of God’s eternal religion—rested on the shoulders of the Children of Israel.
The biblical religious tradition claims this trust is an “ongoing covenant” between God and the Children of Israel. Clearly many Jews, as is true for all religious communities, do not live up to God’s trust, but the commitment is ongoing for the whole community of those who do.
Although many Christians claim the new covenant replaces the old covenant for all Jews, and Muslims say the Jewish covenant has expired for all Jews, faithful Jews continue to remain loyal to their spiritual relationship with God. As a Rabbi I believe wisdom dictates that we follow the Qur’an’s advice: “For every community We have appointed a whole system of worship which they are to observe. So do not let them draw you into disputes concerning this matter.” (22:67)
The Qur’an relates this ongoing concern when Prophet Moses speaks to his people as follows: “O my people! Remember God’s favour upon you, for He appointed among you Prophets, and rulers, and He granted to you favours such as He had not granted to anyone else in the worlds” (5:20).
The principle that at least once, God make a covenant with a whole people, and not just with those who were faithful believers, also helps me understand a powerful verse where the Qur’an narrates that at Sinai, before Allah gave the Torah to the Children of Israel, He makes a covenant with them. Allah raises the whole mountain above all the Jewish people saying, “Hold firmly to what We have given you (the Torah) and remember what is in it” (2:63).
This Jewish experience at Sinai is also referred to in the Oral Torah. When God offered all the newly freed slaves the Torah, a party of them hesitated. Most of our rabbis could not conceive that the Jewish people could hesitate when offered the opportunity to commit themselves to God.
But the Torah itself faithfully records the frequent mood swings and ambivalences felt by both small and large parts of the Jewish people. God’s proposal of a covenant partnership was the most awesome offer the recently freed slaves had ever received. If many people in the Western World today have a problem making a long term marriage commitment, what about people who had been slaves in Egypt only three months earlier.
Some of the Jewish People said yes right away. Others thought about it for many hours and then decided. but a few were still undecided. A small minority were afraid to commit. So would the fear of making a commitment by an ambivalent few, keep everyone else from accepting God’s proposal of a lifetime partnership?
Fortunately, according to Rabbi Avdimi, God came to the rescue: “The Holy One, blessed be He, lowered the [uprooted] mountain over them like a bucket, and said to them, ‘If you accept the Torah, fine; but if not, there will be your grave.” (Talmud Shabbat 88a) Sometimes, the ardor of the proposal makes all the difference.
This explains the miracle of all Israel agreeing to the covenant. It may have been the only time in 4,000 years of Jewish history that all Jews agreed on something.
This may be one of the reason why Musa is the only prophet whose book comes not from an angel, but directly from Allah. Individuals who hear a prophet may choose to believe or disbelieve, but in this case God Almighty makes “an offer that you can’t refuse,” so, as far as Judaism is concerned, everyone of the Children of Israel has to struggle for all generations to come, with living up to the covenant their ancestors chose to enter into at Mount Sinai.
This concept, of a chosen (by being pressed into) choosing people, can and among many ultra orthodox Jews has, lead to exaggerated and self-righteous feelings of pride. Thus, when the Qur’an (7:171) mentions in another place the same event, when the Mount was lifted above the Children of Israel, this verse is followed by a reminder in 7:172 that “children of Adam” were all made bear witness against their own souls: “‘Am I not your Lord?’ They said ‘Yes, we do bear witness.” God Almighty made a covenant with all individuals lest [they] should say on the Day of Resurrection, ‘We were indeed unaware of this’”.
This reminder by the Qur’an that no religious community should be self-righteous is similar to that of prophet Amos who tells the Children of Israel, “Are you not like the Children of Ethiopia to me, O Children of Israel? says God. Did I not redeem Israel from Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Syrians from Kir?” (Amos 9:7)
Indeed, the Rabbis taught that God had made a prior covenant with Noah and all his decedents that applies to all humanity. Thus, although the covenant God made at Sinai was with the whole community of Israel, the Jewish community, like all other religious communities, including the Muslim community, always has various parties within it.
Some people within the Jewish community had [good] hearts like rocks from which spring forth streams, while others only yield water when split, and others sink for fear of Allah (2:74). It is this last segment of the Children of Israel that Prophet Muhammad refers to when he rebukes the Children of Israel.
The Qur’an correctly understood doesn’t attack all of Israel. Every community, including the Muslim ummah, contains groups of faithful believers and a party, or parties, who disbelieve. This has always been true and sadly will remain true until the end of time when Judgment Day will occur.
As the rabbis themselves said, “The Torah was not given to perfect angels (Talmud Yoma 30a).” The Torah, the Pslams, the Gospel and the Qur’an were given to fallible, imperfect, yet striving for improvement human beings.
Rabbi Maller is Past President of the Southern California Association of Reform Rabbis and is now President of the National Jewish Hospitality Committee.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of MuslimVillage.com.