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The Qur’an View Of Banu Israel – OpEd

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This article of mine about Banu Israel in the Qur’an was published on the web site Qur’an al-Mubeen and later republished in my book Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms. I have added some extra material for Euraisa Review readers.

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Islamophobes frequently make wild accusations blaming the Quran for being antagonistic toward Jews and Christians. But the Quran ‘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 Quran 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. Allah Knows the righteous. (3:113-15)

To fully understand the Quran’s view of prior monotheistic religions we must keep in mind that the Quran 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 Quran ic reference to multiple prophets, includes the many prophets of other religions. This is not just because the Quran, 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 Quran 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.

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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.” (Micah 6:8)

The Quran 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 Quran 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 the one and only God; and strive to live faithfully according to teachings of their own prophet and their own Scripture.

Thus, the Quran 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)

Prophet Abraham is called a Muslim in the Arabic Qur’an; and in the Hebrew Bible he is called a Hebrew [speaker] and a Babylonian immigrant who crossed over the Jordan River.

The term ivri (the Hebrew) first appears in the Torah, when Prophet Abraham is called “the Hebrew: “And it was told to Abram the Hebrew” (Genesis 14:13) Prophet Joseph also uses the name as both a geographical and an socio-ethnic term: “I was kidnapped from the land of the ivrim” (Genesis 40:15), and “The Egyptians could not eat with the ivrim, since that would be an abomination” (Gen. 43:32)

The word Muslim is a religious identity term that refers to faithful monotheistic believers. The word Hebrew is a linguistic, geographical and ethnic identity term like German [a language], Germany{a country] and Germans [a people]. The word descendent is a biological inherited birth identity term like nobility or tribe.

Islam was a religion designed by God to overcome all other self-identities: “O mankind, We created you from male and female, and made you (into) peoples and tribes, that you may know (respect) one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.” (Quran 49:13)

“Once all humans were but a single community; then they disagreed (formulating different beliefs and rites). Had it not been that your Lord had already so ordained, a decisive judgement would have been made regarding (the truth of) their disagreements.” (10:19) In those generations all human communities created different religions of their own with different creeds and ways.

Now, if you desire that Allah Himself should uncover the truth and present it to you to enable you to decide which religion is the true one, you should know that this will not be done in this lifetime, because God now requires you to decide this yourself by using your own intelligence and kindness. This worldly life is a trial to see whether or not you yourselves recognize truth by competing in doing acts of kindness, toleration and welcoming others who are different into your lands.

This is why the Qur’an declares: “Let there be no compulsion in Religion: truth stands out clear from error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah (one God) has grasped the most trustworthy unbreakable hand hold: Allah hears, and knows all things.” (2:256)

And: “Who is better in religion than one who submits himself to Allah while being a doer of good and follows the religion of Abraham, inclining toward truth? And Allah took Abraham as an intimate friend.” (4:125)

I think the Quran 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 translation)

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 Quran, “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 Quran 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 Quran 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 Quran, 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 Quran 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 Quran. “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)

Musa came to rebuke Pharaoh and to rescue the Children of Israel. Only when the Jewish nation is free from Egyptian bondage, can they agree to receive the Torah directly from God, without the mediation of any angel.

As I already wrote above, some people accuse the Quran of being antagonistic toward Jews and Christians. But the Quran ‘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 religious humans to learn from.

The Quran 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 Quran 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 Qur’an 2:63-64 to mean that the favors 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 Quran’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 Quran 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 favors 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 Quran 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.

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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