Is there Anti-Semitism in the Qur’an?
By Dr. Muzammil H. Siddiqi
The Jews say: "Allah's hand is tied up." Be their hands tied up and be they accursed for the (blasphemy) they utter. Nay, both His hands are widely outstretched: He giveth and spendeth (of His bounty) as He pleaseth. But the revelation that cometh to thee from Allah increaseth in most of them their obstinate rebellion and blasphemy. Amongst them we have placed enmity and hatred till the Day of Judgment. Every time they kindle the fire of war, Allah doth extinguish it; but they (ever) strive to do mischief on earth. And Allah loveth not those who do mischief.”
(Al-Qur'an, 5:64 (Al-Maeda [The Table, The Table Spread])
I am a Jew and I am reading the Qur’an. I find that the Qur’an is very harsh in its criticism of the Jewish people. For example in chapter 5:60-64 I see that Jewish people are called as those whom Allah has cursed, is angry with them and has turned them into apes and swine. This is very offensive and sounds outright anti-Semitic. How do you explain this? I shall appreciate an answer from you.
Anti-Semitism means condemning and hating a people because of their Semitic race. Anti-Semitism is bigotry and racism. It is wrong and it has no place in Islam or in Islamic scripture. The Qur’an does not allow hate against any race, nationality or color. Throughout the history of Islam, Muslims have never used passages from the Qur’an to justify acts of anti-Semitism. The ill-effects of racism, including ethnic cleaning, genocide and Holocaust, which has been suffered by Jews and non-Jews alike over the past several centuries, has never been done under the banner of any passages from the Qur’an. Jews were among the earliest converts to Islam (in Medina) and, throughout the Middle Ages, Jews found sanctuary to practice their own religion under Islamic rule. It is truly disappointing and naive to ignore 1430 years of history and learned discourse on the Qur’an and argue that the current political situation in the Middle East has its roots in passages from the Qur’an.
As with all scriptures, passages in the Qur’an must be read within the proper context. The Qur’an was not just revealed to Muslims, but to all people, including Jews and Christians. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was in the line of previous Prophets of God, including Prophets Abraham, Moses and Jesus, and the Qur’an is in the line of previous scriptures revealed by God. The Qur’an does not condemn the Semitic race and, in fact, accords Jews a special status given their shared prophetic traditions with Islam. The Qur’an instead criticizes those Jews who turned away from God’s authentic message and admonishes those who scorned and ridiculed Prophet Muhammad and the message of the Qur’an. Such criticism is similar to the criticism against Jews found in other scriptures, including the Bible, and should be taken by all people as a reminder and warning against forsaking and straying from the authentic message of God. Such specific criticism has never been interpreted by learned scholars of the Qur’an to incite hatred against all Jewish people and should not be confused with anti-Semitism.
The Qur’an speaks extensively about the Children of Israel (Bani Isra’il) and recognizes that the Jews (al-Yahud) are, according to lineage, descendants of Prophet Abraham through his son Isaac and grandson Jacob. They were chosen by God for a mission (44:32) and God raised among them many Prophets and bestowed upon them what He had not bestowed upon many others (5:20). He exalted them over other nations of the earth (2:47, 122) and granted them many favors.
Passages in the Qur’an which criticize the Jews fall primarily into two categories. First, the Qur’an speaks of how some of the Children of Israel turned away from the authentic message revealed to them. They disobeyed God and showed ingratitude for God’s favors on them. They lost the original Tawrat and introduced their own words and interpretations in the divine books. They became arrogant and claimed that they were God’s children and went about vaunting their position as His most chosen people (4:155; 5:13, 18). They also brazenly committed sins and their rabbis and priests did not stop them from doing so (5:63, 79).
God raised His Prophet Jesus among them so that he might show them several miracles and thereby guide them to the right path, but they rejected him, attempted to kill him, and even claimed that they had indeed killed him although they had not been able to do so (4:157, 158). God specifically addresses the Children of Israel in many of these passages. This is important, because it shows that the message of the Qur’an was intended for all people, including the Jews, and the criticism was directed against a specific group of people for their specific actions. This criticism should be distinguished from cursing a people merely because of their race.
The second type of criticism of the Jews is found in passages including those you referenced from Surah al-Ma’idah (5:60-64). These verses criticize the Jews and Christians who ridiculed Prophet Muhammad and his message. They made mockery and sport of his call to prayer, and they rebuked him even though he was calling them to believe in what God revealed to him and to what was revealed before him through their own Prophets. They became spiteful towards him and rejected him since he did not belong to the Children of Israel (2:109; 4:54).
The Qur’an specifically notes that such criticism is not directed against all Jews. Even when the Qur’an criticizes the Jews it always notes that “among them there are some...” who are pious and righteous people, who command what is right and forbid what is wrong and try to excel each other in acts of charity and goodness. The Qur’an says that such people are assured that whatever good they will do will not be denied them and they shall receive their reward with God (3:113-115).
Taking a few passages from the Qur’an out of proper historical and textual context will not give a proper understanding of the religious scripture. This is not only true of the Qur’an but also of the Bible. Many passages from the Bible also criticize the Jews.
Read the Hebrew Bible, particularly Micah (Chapter 3:1-12) and Hosea (Chapter 8:1-14), in which these prophets condemned the Jews “who abhor justice and pervert all equity” and who “build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong.” These prophets cursed Israel as a “useless vessel among nations,” and called for the curse of God to “send a fire upon [Judah’s] cities” and to make Jerusalem “a heap of ruins.”
Similarly, in the Book of Deuteronomy (Verses 16-68), Moses warns the Jews that God “will send upon you curses, confusion, and frustration, in all that you undertake to do, until you are destroyed and perish quickly, on account of the evil of your doings, because you have forsaken me” (28:20).
In Matthew (Chapter 23:13-39), Jesus repeatedly admonishes the Jews for their hypocrisy and injustice, and condemns them for the killing of past prophets. Jesus says, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is forsaken and desolate.”
It would indeed seem strange if, based on these passages, one were to argue that the Bible and the Hebrew Prophets were anti-Semitic and called for the destruction of present-day Israel. Yet, questioning passages from the Qur’an as anti-Semitic is similarly without merit.
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