Notes from Limmud 2009
The Qur'ān and
Sheikh Dr Muhammad Al-Hussaini
Fellow in Islamic Studies, Leo Baeck College
[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]
[There was a lot of material in this presentation, which the presenter has made available online—slides and handout—I started copying it into here, but rapidly concluded this was a waste of time; and for most of the talk I'll provide here just a few annotations to the slides and handout. I highly recommend taking the effort to read these notes alongside those sources.]
Why is the study and interpretation of the Qur'ān relevant to Jewish people? [Slide 3]
It is used as a basis for virulent antisemitics:
It is decreed upon us in the Qur'ān that we kill the Jews wherever we find them—"Truly the strongest among people in enmity to those who believe are the Jews" —Sheikh Aḥmed Yassin
But there are also more pluralistic texts, e.g. Qur'ān 5 (The Table) 60:
Truly those who believe, and those who follow the Jewish faith, and the Sabians and the Christians—whomsoever believes in God and in the Last Day and works righteousness, there shall be no fear upon them, nor shall they grieve. ان الذين امنوا والذين هادوا والصابئون والنصارى من امن بالله واليوم الاخر وعمل صالحا فلا خوف عليهم ولاهم يحزنون
The Hamas Charter was issued 18 Aug 1988. It is thoroughly steeped in Islamic scripture, opening with repeated proof-texts from the Qur'ān:
Article 8: Allah is its target, the Prophet is its model, the Qur'ān its constitution.
Article 13: Giving up any part of Palestine is like giving up its religion
Thus making a direct connection between land for peace and apostasy from Islam.
Article 11: The Islamic Resistance Movement believes that the land of Palestine is an Islamic Waqf consecrated for future Muslim generations until Judgment Day. It or any part of it should not be squandered; it, or any part of it should not be given up.
Article 16: We must train the Muslim generation in our area, an Islamic training that depends on performing religious obligations, studing the Book of Allah very well, the prophetic narration sunna...
Hamas educational material for schoolchildren portrays non-Muslims and Jews in particular as being less than human— descendants of apes and pigs—and as having disproportionate influence over the global econimic system. This leads to a recruitment to "martyrdom operations", with vivid portrayals of the aftermath of suicide bombings.
Jewish influences on Islam
- Judaism and Islam—intertwining mutuality.
- Narratives from Bible and Midrash in the Quran and hadith—eg. the story of Abraham and the idols found in Midrash Rabbah.
- Isra'iliyat and qisas alanbiya' literature fundamental to Quranic exegesis
- Jewish/Karaite exegetical and grammatical methods—Yefet ben Eli (c.10), Abu al-Faraj, Ibn Nuh (c.10) Diqduq
- Sacred language, `ijaz and linguistics—Saadiya Gaon (892-942) Kutub al-Lugha in Iraq, Judah HaLevi in Andalus
- Kalam and Philosophy—Mu'tazilism and Maimonides, Bachya ibn Pakuda, Ibn Daud
- Sufism and Hasidism—Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye (1780) Toledot Yaakov Yosef, Rabbenu Bachya Duties of the Heart
The origins of Islamic antisemitism
In Islamic history, the Jews lost: they were a routed authority. They weren't perceived as a challenge the way they were to Christians.
The continuation of a virulent judaeophobia in the Islamic world was not of the same character as in Christendom, where both laid claim to the same Scripture. That was not the case in the Islamic world.
[Continue on slide 6.]
[Quran 49:13 (slide 9)]: Kind of Noachide.
[Continue to slide 10 (Inclusion and Ambivalence)] But alongside that, if we're being honest, we need to acknowledge there is also extremely difficult material: [View slide 11 (Intolerance and polemic).]
We have a problem in how we balance out these two competing traditions, and how various factions in Islam might [lacuna: perhaps: play up the material in different traditions.] [lacuna] ownership [sc. of the text]:
What we see on the TV about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not really about Israel, but is primarily a struggle over who has control over Scripture. He who has control over the text has control over the Islamic umma.
[Note on slide 12]: In case it's not obvious, neither Hebrew nor Arabic uses the word "Christian"; instead calling them نصارى/נוצרים "Nazarenes".
[Footnote to slide 14]:
What are the differences between the outward statements, and the more obscure, allegorical statements?
Cf. Saadia and ibn Hazm (in Spain), where they come to a shared view, as a Jew and a Muslim; that reading must be pshat, but around that in concentric cicles are allegorical readings.
In Sunni Islam this is bound up with received tradition. There was a debate as to whether we can interpret the text ourselves or only via the received tradition. The Sunni tradition won out, in the earliest days of Islam—[see slide 15].
[Note on slide 21]:
The early tenth century commentator Al-Tabari, also referred to as Umm Hani, is Islam's equivalent of Rashi or Rambam . He wrote the first commentary on the Qur'ān, and his commentary is venerated so highly that his interpretation cannot be overruled.
What does the Qur'ān say about Eretz Yisrael:
[Note on slide 22]:
The text discussed here is Qur'ān 17:1, talking about al-masjid al-aqsa "the furthest mosque":
Praise to Him who made His Servant to travel by night from the mosque of sanctuary [ḥarām] to the furthest mosque, whose surroundings have We blessed to show him of our signs; indeed it is He who is the All-Hearing, the All-Seeing. سُبْحَٰنَ ٱلَّذِىٓ أَسْرَىٰ بِعَبْدِهِۦ لَيْلًۭا مِّنَ ٱلْمَسْجِدِ ٱلْحَرَامِ إِلَى ٱلْمَسْجِدِ ٱلْأَقْصَا ٱلَّذِى بَٰرَكْنَا حَوْلَهُۥ لِنُرِيَهُۥ مِنْ ءَايَٰتِنَآ ۚ إِنَّهُۥ هُوَ ٱلسَّمِيعُ ٱلْبَصِيرُ
As the slide explains, the text has no reference to Jerusalem; it's interpreted according to one tradition as referring to Jerusalem; according to another to the mosque in heaven.
Jerusalem is called al-Quds (the Holy City)/bait al-maqdis (the Holy House, same as Hebrew בֵּית הַמִּקְדָשׁ, viz. the Temple). It was the first of the two qiblas [received direction of prayer; later superseded by that towards Mecca]; and the third of the three sanctuaries.
[Note on slide 24]:
Al-Tabari's commentary says this is clearly a dream.
Jewish settlement of the land—Qur'ān 5:21 and 17:104
[The text is in Arabic on slide 28, and transcribed into Judaeo-Arabic (i.e. in Hebrew letters) on handout p. 14; al-Tabari's commentary begins on p. 15 of the handout.]
These commentaries are not generally available in English; they remain untranslated, as the belief is they remain in the hands of the scholarship. Many questions are intimate questions of Arabic grammar, which cannot really be translated anyway.
[Note to handout p.15:] Mujāhid: An immediate companion of the Prophet].
[Note to handout p.16, after ‘The holy land’ he said, “It is al-shām”:] Where the Holy Land is is contested, but none of them are saying it's Egypt or Saudi Arabia.
[Top of p.17:] Then it moves to the question of why's it called the Holy Land.
[Note to handout p.17:] Al-lawḥ al-maḥfuz: This is the blueprint from which emanated all Divine revelations—the Torah, Qur'ān, the Scrolls of Abraham. They all come from this, the Preserved Tablet, in Heaven.
[Note to foot of p.17:] And if any says "So how can He say 'Which God has decreed for you' while you know that they did not enter it by reason of His saying, 'So indeed it is forbidden upon them'". This is because of the episode of the spies.
[Note to p.18:] If it is is written it is forever written. "Which God has decreed for you"
The meaning of كَتَبَ kataba [he wrote= he drecreed] in this context is أمر 'amara [he ordered, he commanded].
This is why there was a furious reaction against the Israelites for not obeying God and declaring jihad against the Canaanites. The criticism is that the Jews have become non-Torah observant, and their lack of courage in fighting the inhabitants of Canaan is cited as evidence of this. Hence Jews must claim this land, as G-d has ordered them to do so.
This text remains the authoritative commentary from the earliest commentator on this subject. The speaker wrote a paper on this, putting it that the strength of this commentary is amplified because the commentators are so anti-Jewish in other respects—[criticising] their not observing Shabbos, their not stoning people, their lack of Torah observance.
By virtue of this, the commentators remaining forensically committed to being totally observant to shari'a, that they must observe the settlement of the Holy Land.
How dare you supersede the word of the Prophet...
A later commentator:
"So go you, you and your Lord and the two of you fight. We are sitting here." And this is their refusal of jihad and disobedience of their Messenger, and dereliction of fighting the enemies.
In Islam, you cannot override what has come before, even more so than in Orthodox Judaism; nowhere does anyone dare to override the assignment of the Holy Land to the Jews.
No one will dare tell you about this nowadays. The argument used [instead by anti-Zionist Muslims today] is that no one today [of the Jews] is of Israelite origin; they're all Khazars or Poles. The claim can only be bypassed by delegitimising the connection between the ancient Israelites and Jews today. (Or: One Egyptian writer tried to pretend that the Land of Israel was elsewhere: Because there is no reference in the Pharaonic literature to the Jews having been in Egypt, the whole episode must taken place elsewhere.)