Two Jewish Scholars Who Admired Islam – OpEd


In honor of Yitzhaq Yehuda’s 173 year birthday, I offer this article which originally appeared on August 17, 2021, in the well known Islamic magazine Al-Jumuah. 

Ignác/Ignaz [Yitzhaq Yehuda] Goldziher (June 22, 1850 – November 13, 1921), was a Hungarian scholar of Islam and is considered one of the three founders of modern Islamic studies in Europe. Goldziher was educated at the universities of Budapest, Berlin, Leipzig and Leiden and became a privatdozent at Budapest in 1872. In the next year, under the auspices of the Hungarian government, Goldziher began a journey through Syria, Palestine and Egypt, where he became the first European to enroll in al-Azhhar. 

In his personal journal he wrote: “In those weeks, I truly entered into the spirit of Islam to such an extent that ultimately I became inwardly convinced that I myself was a Muslim, and judiciously discovered that this was the only religion which, even in its doctrinal and official formulation, can satisfy philosophic minds. My ideal was to elevate [Orthodox] Judaism to a similar rational level.”

His admiration for Islam did not prevent Goldziher from remaining a devout Jew all his life. Indeed, Goldziher was appointed secretary of the Jewish community in Budapest. This bond to Judaism and the Jewish people was unusual for a man seeking an academic career in Europe in the 19th century. Goldziher saw Islam through the eyes of someone who refused to assimilate into contemporary Christian European culture, because he had little admiration for European Christianity.

Perhaps because of his lack of an admiration for Christianity, Goldziher was denied a teaching post at Budapest University until he was 44. As a Christian convert he would easily have received a university appointment as a full professor— but he always refused to convert to Christianity.

In his book Orientalism, Edward Said attacks western academic scholars of Islam for failing to pay sufficient attention to scholars like Goldziher.  Of five major German-speaking orientalists, Said remarked that four of them, despite their erudition, were hostile to Islam. Goldziher’s work was the one exception, for he appreciated ‘Islam’s tolerance towards other religions.’

Dr. Yitzhaq Yehuda Goldziher was a 19th century example of a Jew like Rabbi Mukhayriq, who was one of many Jews who supported Prophet Muhammad when he first arrived in Medina. Rabbi Mukhayriq, was a learned leader of the Tha’labah, a tribe made up of Jews from the land of Israel who had settled in Medina several centuries earlier, plus a large number of local Arabs who had converted to Judaism over the ensuing generations.

According to Ibn Ishaq, the first major biographer of Prophet Muhammad, Rabbi Mukhayriq: “…announced to his congregation that he would fight to protect Prophet Muhammad from his many enemies among the pagan Arabs of Makkah; stating that if he died in the battle [as he did] he wanted his estate to go to Prophet Muhammed to be distributed as charity.”

When Prophet Muhammed, who was himself seriously injured in that battle, was informed about the death of Rabbi Mukhayriq, he said about the Rabbi:”Mukhayriq is foremost among the Jews.” (Ibn Shabbah, Ta’rîkh Al-Madinah 467) In another narration, Prophet Muhammad said:”Mukhayriq was the best of the Jews.” (Ibn Sa’d, Tabaqat Al-Kubra 1535)

Ibn Ishaq also wrote that Rabbi Mukhayriq: “Recognized the Apostle of Allah by his description, and by what he found in his scholarship. However, [since] he was accustomed to his own religion, this held him back [from converting to Islam].”

But why did most Jews of Medina not support Prophet Muhammad who was just as unitarian as Moses? I think they were afraid that after the death of Prophet Muhammad, his ex-pagan polytheist followers would turn him into a son of God and worship him, just as the followers of Jesus had turned him into a Son of God; and not only worshipped him but persecuted Jews who would not worship Jesus. Thank God that did not happen.

Also, the Biblical Prophet Micah asserts that even in the peace time of the Messianic Age, “All peoples will walk, each in the [special] name of its God.” (Bible, Micah 4:5)

So the coming period of worldwide peace and religious harmony will not be the result of conformity to one universal religion adhered to by all, but will result from the harmony of many different monotheistic religions, each following its own view of the one God, respecting other monotheistic religions’ views— even while disagreeing with them.

As the Qur’an says: “For every one of you did We appoint a law and a way. If Allah had wanted, He could have made you one people, but (He didn’t) that He might test you in what He gave you. Therefore compete with one another to hasten to do virtuous deeds; for all return to Allah (for judgement), so He will let you know [about] that in which you differed.” [Sûrah Al-Mâ’idah, 5:48]

The real problem was that Greek philosophy had so influenced early Christianity that the tribal pluralism of Prophet Micah was lost and replaced by a zero-sum game concept. The resulting goal became not to modestly try to harmonize various religious perspectives regarding the one and only God, but to self-righteously exaggerate religious differences, well beyond any reasonable understanding of the two sides.

This Greek influence even entered into Jewish thinking; and when the Qur’an revealed different perspectives of Biblical events, some Jews denied and disbelieved, refusing to accommodate the Qur’an verses, although they knew that the rabbis also offered different glosses of Biblical texts.

In a zero-sum game any value or true spiritual insight I grant to another scripture somehow diminishes my own. Something is either true or it is false. There is no other option. If two propositions contradict one another, one or both of them must be false. They cannot both be true.

Yet if one believes that there is only one God, who is revealed by many different inspired prophets, then we should be able to learn more about God’s will by gaining insights into our own unique revelation, from other revelations of that one God. Since all monotheistic scriptures come from the one and only God, we should view other scriptures as potentially enriching our understanding and appreciation of our own scripture.

Thus, the Qur’an states that only a minority of Medina’s Jews opposed Prophet Muhammad:  “A faction of the people of the Scripture wish they could mislead you. But they do not mislead [anyone] except themselves, and they do not perceive [it]. O People of the Scripture, why do [some of] you disbelieve in the verses of Allah while you witness [it]? O People of the Scripture, why do [some of] you confuse the truth with falsehood and conceal the truth while you know [it]?  [Sûrah Âli ‘Imrân, 3:69-71]

Say, “O People of the Scripture, come to a word that is equitable between us and you – that we will not worship except Allah, and not associate anything with Him, and not take one another as lords instead of Allah.” But if they turn away, then say, “Bear witness that we are Muslims.” [Sûrah Âli ‘Imrân, 3:64]

The Jews in Medina who did not worship anyone except Allah, and did not associate anything with Him, and did not take one another as lords instead of Allah —they should have supported Prophet Muhammad as an authentic prophet of monotheism, but most did not because of their political alliances with the two much larger pagan Arab tribes in Medina.

I studied Islam at UCLA 63 years ago, and then again while I was in Rabbinical school. Over the years I continued to read the Qur’an and other Islamic books. I read these books as the Prophet taught his followers in a Hadith: “not as a believer, and not as a disbeliever.” What does that mean?

The Qur’an, of course, is sacred scripture for Muslims. A disciple of Muhammad named Abu Hurayra related, “The people of the Book used to read the Torah in Hebrew and then explain it in Arabic to the Muslims. Allah’s Apostle said [to the Muslims]. “Do not believe the people of the Book, nor disbelieve them, but say, ‘We believe in Allah, and whatever is revealed to us, and whatever is revealed to you.'” (Saḥîḥ Al-Buhârî 7362)

Following Muhammad’s teaching I likewise commit neither to believing nor disbelieving in the Qur’an. If I believed in the Qur’an, I would be a member of the Muslim Ummah (community). On the other hand, I cannot disbelieve in the Qur’an because I believe that Muhammad was a prophet and I respect the Qur’an as a kindred revelation, first revealed to a kindred people, in a kindred language. In fact, the people, the language and the theology are closer to my own people, language and theology than that of any other on earth.

Thus, I feel that I —in the spirit of Goldziher and Mukhayriq— am an Islamic Jew, meaning that I am a faithful Jew submitting to the will of God, in keeping with being a Reform[i] Jewish Rabbi. As a Rabbi I am faithful to the covenant that God made with Abraham, the first Jew to be a Muslim, and I submit to be bound by the covenant and commandments that God made with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai.

Furthermore, as a Reform Rabbi I believe that Rabbis should modify ancient Jewish traditions to prevent them from making religion hard to practice.

This important teaching in the Qur’an was taught by Prophet Muhammad twelve centuries before the rise of Reform Judaism in early 19th century Germany:…In the Law [Tawrah] … He commands them what is just and forbids them what is evil; he allows them as lawful what is good [and pure] and prohibits them from what is bad [and impure]; He releases them from their heavy burdens and from the yokes that are upon them.   [Sûrah Al-A’râf, 7:157]

As Abu Huraira related, the Prophet said, “Religion is very easy and whoever overburdens himself in his religion will not be able to continue in that way.  So you should not be extremists, but try to be near to perfection and receive the good tidings that you will be rewarded….” (Saḥîḥ Al-Bukhârî 39) May the faithful believers of all religions commit themselves to this excellent teaching.

[i] Reform Jews now constitute the largest of the Jewish denominations in the U.S. In the U.K. Reform Judaism is called Liberal Judaism.

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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