Many readers of the Holy Koran are left with the bitter taste of anti-Semitism in their mouths. The majority of the stories in the Holy Koran recount the stories of Prophet Moses (peace be on him) and the problematic “children of Israel.” There are verses that directly condemn “the Jews” for a number of reasons, and seem to express hostility and enmity towards them.
While it is true that many Muslims are anti-Semitic, and they support their racist opinions with Koranic verses, or the sayings of Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him and his family), I would like to offer an alternative interpretation to these verses and sayings, and present the true message that is being conveyed by them.
Impressions Mould Interpretations
One of the reasons why people readily accept that the Holy Koran is promoting anti-Semitism stems from their impression of Islam as being anti-Semitic. Since they already assume that Islam promotes anti-Semitism, they interpret the Holy Koran according to their impression. The catalyst that is popularizing such an impression of Islam is the ongoing Middle East conflict, where “Muslims” are fighting against “Jews.” Most Westerners are not clear as to why there is a conflict in the first place, but they are fed the reason that it is hatred of Jews – the age-old problem of anti-Semitism. Since this problem does exist, and the world is well-aware of its devastating consequences in Europe, it doesn’t require a stretch of the imagination to accept that Muslims – and, therefore, Islam – is anti-Semitic.
Muslims, on the other hand, are also fed the belief that Jews are the arch-nemesis of Islam and the Muslims. Many Muslim scholars and Islamic groups use the verses referring to the Jews to prove that God has condemned the Jewish people, and that the present conflict testifies to their “wickedness.”
To combat the misinterpretation of these verses, it is necessary to re-visit some Islamic fundamentals, which clearly condemn racism, irrespective of the race in question.
God is not a Racist
While this may disappoint many, but it’s a fact that we have to live with: God is not a racist. This covers both the condemnation of a people based on their race, or the elevation of a race above other races. What seems odd in the problem of anti-Semitism is that it is viciously condemned by Jews as being a racist and hostile creed, only to replace it with the belief that they are God’s “chosen” people, who are regarded in higher esteem above all other races. To condemn racism, we must condemn it in all its forms, and not to be selective in choosing which “racism” to accept, and which to reject.
The reason why Islam rejects racism is because it is in conflict with the belief in God’s justice. One does not choose his race, but he is born with it, irrespective of his personal wishes or efforts to change it. To suggest that God will commend or condemn a person based on his race is to say that God will hold people accountable for something they had no control over. The belief in God’s justice asserts that we will only be held accountable for matters in which we can exercise our free will. We are, therefore, not judged on which nationality we hold, which race we belong to, who our parents are, what we look like, etc.
If we assume that God is a racist (or that God can “do whatever He wants” without any moral direction), we can entertain the idea that Islam promotes anti-Semitism. However, if we completely reject the notion of racism, and assert that God cannot be a racist, we will not even consider the possibility of interpreting the Holy Koran’s verses as anti-Semitic. We are, therefore, left with the question: What possible alternative can there be to the interpretation of the Holy Koran’s condemnation of the Jews?
An Alternative Interpretation:
As I have already noted, Prophet Moses (peace be on him) is the most frequently mentioned prophet in the Holy Koran. But why this obsession with Prophet Moses and his prophetic mission? Has God dedicated Islam’s mission to the condemnation and hatred of the Jews? Or does Prophet Muhammad hold such a strong grudge against the Jews, that he has repeatedly criticised them in his teachings?
Firstly, the fact that Prophet Moses, who is held in high regard in the Holy Koran, is a Jew proves that the condemnation of the Jews in the Holy Koran is not a racial matter. The Holy Koran has stated: “And We have created you into different nations and tribes so that you may interact with each other. Indeed, the most highly regarded in the sight of God is he who is most pious.” Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him and his family) has reiterated this teaching in his saying: “There is no discrimination between an Arab and a non-Arab, except in their piety.“
Therefore, the criteria that God holds in the Holy Koran is not the race of the individuals mentioned, but their piety and righteousness. Prophet Moses and all the Jewish prophets (peace be on them all) have been praised in the Holy Koran for their righteousness, but their communities and followers have been condemned for their immorality and disobedience.
Secondly, it is important to realise that the verses of the Holy Koran were revealed based on the circumstances and events surrounding Prophet Muhammad and the early Muslims. The Holy Koran was never intended for campfire chats and bedtime stories. It was not revealed separately from the experiences of the Prophet and the Muslims, where they would be engaged in one problem, and the verses revealed would address a totally different issue. Revelation came as guidance in the face of the adversities the Muslims faced and the inquiries and the experiences the Muslims and non-Muslims had and went through.
Many Muslim scholars have pointed out the similarities between the lives of Prophet Moses (peace be on him) and Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him and his family). The nature of revelation, as I have explained, proves this similarity, since the Holy Koran was recounting the story of Prophet Moses in the light of the experiences of Prophet Muhammad. What the Holy Koran was essentially saying: “What you are experiencing now, O Muhammad, is what Moses before you has gone through, in such and such an incident.”
The question we should ask now, and which will reveal the purpose for the Holy Koran’s mention of the condemnation of the Jews, is: If the life of Prophet Moses parallels the life of Prophet Muhammad, then who do the Jews represent in the life of Prophet Muhammad?
In their Footsteps
While the Muslims may boast about their superiority over the Jews, since the latter have been condemned in the Holy Koran, little do they realise that the condemnation is equally targeting them! The condemnation of the Jews in the Holy Koran isn’t intended to mark the Jews with the label “Condemned” and, in effect, label the Muslims as “Saved.” All the stories of the Holy Koran regarding the Jews and every other community mentioned are not intended to curse the peoples spoken about, but to act as a warning to the Muslims, that they should not walk in their footsteps.
What the Holy Koran is essentially condemning are the traits the Jews had and the decisions that they made, which are transferable, and can be adopted by the Muslims. In many cases the Holy Koran was giving warnings (e.g. what the Muslims will do in the absence of the Prophet, related to the story of Prophet Moses’s absence) and in many cases it was condemning what they were doing to the Prophet (e.g. disobeying his commands).
Imam Al-Baqir (peace be on him) is narrated to have said: “Had the Holy Koran been limited to the people it was revealed about, it would be dead by now.”
A suitable example of this principle is the verse likening the Jews (or Jewish scholars) to a donkey carrying volumes of books on its back, because of their treatment of the Torah (i.e. they were not making use of its teachings). This condemnation – and analogy – can easily apply to Muslims for not applying the teachings of the Holy Koran to their lives. It is not a condemnation exclusive to the Jews, or targeting the Jews as a people. What is being condemned is the act that they committed.
Prophet Muhammad has several sayings in which he warns the Muslims from following in the footsteps of the religious communities that came before them (namely the Jews and the Christians). Some sayings are not even worded as warnings but as prophecies: “You will follow in the footsteps of those before you…” Of course, such sayings do not mean that the Muslims are destined to repeat the same mistakes as those before them, but that they will default to such actions if they do not resolve to make the right decisions.
There are many parallels between Muslims today and the Jews condemned by the Holy Koran. Therefore, Muslims should neither boast nor feel assured that they are on the safe side nor consider condemning the Jews, when they are included in the condemnation.
It is important for Muslims to realise that the Holy Koran is a book of moral guidance. We should learn to correct our own actions with every story that is mentioned, and not to project criticisms towards others while pretending that we are free from any faults. The Holy Koran does not teach hypocrisy, and we should not be practicing it. We should learn to follow the example of the prophets and their righteous followers, and to adopt their characteristics; and to cleanse ourselves from the characteristics of their disobedient followers and those who rejected them.
Racism is the the reassurance of the ignorant and the delusional that condemnation is reserved to a particular race, or that praise is reserved for a particular race. God has repeatedly warned the Muslims (and Arabs, in particular) that if we do not live up to our religious obligations, He will replace us with a more obedient group.
It is time that we heed God’s warnings.