Religion & Beliefs

Antisemitism in Islam’s Foundational Texts

  Having introduced the living uniquely Islamic institutions of jihad war and dhimmitude in Part 1, Part 2 examines how jihad and dhimmitude operate in tandem with central Antisemitic motifs from Islam’s foundational texts. Palestinian cleric Wael Al-Zarad during a … Read More

By / November 18, 2008


Having introduced the living uniquely Islamic institutions of jihad war and dhimmitude in Part 1, Part 2 examines how jihad and dhimmitude operate in tandem with central Antisemitic motifs from Islam’s foundational texts.

Palestinian cleric Wael Al-Zarad during a television program which aired on Al-Aqsa TV on February 28, 2008 intoned the following about the Jews of Israel:

By Allah, if each and every Arab spat on them, they would drown in Arab spit. By Allah, if each and every Muslim spat on them, they would drown in saliva.

Wael Al-Zarad’s seemingly hallucinatory statement also included this allegation,

From the dome of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, they proclaim that Ezra the Scribe is the son of God.

The reference to Ezra is actually a false, intentionally defamatory Koranic accusation (Koran 9:30) against Jews, citing a claim which Jews, in fact, have never made.

But the crux of Al-Zarad’s remarks explained that the Muslims’ blood vengeance against the Jews, "will only subside with their [the Jews] annihilation, Allah willing, because they tried to kill our Prophet several times."

These allegations are part of a central antisemitic motif in the Koran which decrees an eternal curse upon the Jews (Koran 2:61/ reiterated at 3:112) for slaying the prophets and transgressing against the will of Allah. It should be noted that Koran 3:112 is featured before the pre-amble to Hamas’ foundational Covenant. This central motif is coupled to Koranic verses 5:60, and 5:78, which describe the Jews transformation into apes and swine (5:60), or simply apes, (i.e. verses 2:65 and 7:166), having been "…cursed by the tongue of David, and Jesus, Mary’s son" (5:78). Muhammad himself repeats this Koranic curse in a canonical hadith (Sunan Abu Dawoud, Book 37, Number 4322), "He [Muhammad] then recited the verse [5:78]: ‘…curses were pronounced on those among the children of Israel who rejected Faith, by the tongue of David and of Jesus the son of Mary’ ". And the related verse, 5:64, accuses the Jews-as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas did in a January 2007 speech, citing Koran 5:64-of being "spreaders of war and corruption," a sort of ancient Koranic antecedent of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

The centrality of the Jews’ permanent "abasement and humiliation," and being "laden with God’s anger" in the corpus of Muslim exegetic literature on Koran 2:61/3:112, is clear. By nature deceitful and treacherous, the Jews rejected Allah’s signs and prophets, including Isa, the Muslim Jesus. Classical Koranic commentators such as Tabari (d. 923), Zamakshari (d. 1143), Baydawi (d. 1316), and Ibn Kathir (d. 1373), when discussing Koran 5:82, which includes the statement ("Thou wilt surely find the most hostile of men to the believers are the Jews.." , concur on the unique animus of the Jews towards the Muslims, which is repeatedly linked to the curse of Koran 2:61/3:112. For example, in his commentary on 5:82, Tabari writes,

In my opinion, [the Christians] are not like the Jews who always scheme in order to murder the emissaries and the prophets, and who oppose God in his positive and negative commandments, and who corrupt His scripture which He revealed in His books.

Tabari’s classical interpretations of Koran 5:82 and 2:61, as well as his discussion of the related verse 9:29 mandating the Jews payment of the jizya (Koranic poll-tax), represent both Antisemitic and more general anti-dhimmi views that became, and remain, intrinsic to Islam to this day. Here is Tabari’s discussion of 2:61 and its relationship to verse 9:29, which emphasizes the purposely debasing nature of the Koranic poll tax:

…"abasement and poverty were imposed and laid down upon them", as when someone says "the imam imposed the poll tax (jizya)on free non-Muslim subjects", or "The man imposed land tax on his slave", meaning thereby that he obliged him [to pay ] it, or, "The commander imposed a sortie on his troops", meaning he made it their duty….God commanded His believing servants not to give them [i.e., the non-Muslim people of the scripture] security-as long as they continued to disbelieve in Him and his Messenger-unless they paid the poll tax to them; God said: "Fight those who believe not in God and the Last Day and do not forbid what God and His Messenger have forbidden-such men as practice not the religion of truth [Islam], being of those who have been given the Book [Bible]-until they pay the poll tax, being humble" (Koran 9:29)..

The dhimmis [non-Muslim tributary's] posture during the collection of the jizya- "[should be lowering themselves] by walking on their hands, …reluctantly

… His words "and abasement and poverty were imposed upon them", ‘These are the Jews of the Children of Israel’. ..‘Are they the Copts of Egypt?’…"What have the Copts of Egypt to do with this? No, by God, they are not; but they are the Jews, the Children of Israel….By "and slain the prophets unrightfully" He means that they used to kill the Messengers of God without God’s leave, denying their messages and rejecting their prophethood.

Indeed the Koran’s overall discussion of the Jews is marked by a litany of their sins and punishments, as if part of a divine indictment, conviction, and punishment process. The Jews wronged themselves (16:118) by losing faith (7:168) and breaking their covenant (5:13). The Jews (echoing an ante-Nicaean, Marcionite polemic) are a nation that has passed away (2:134; repeated in 2:141). Twice Allah sent his instruments (the Assyrians/or Babylonians, and Romans) to punish this perverse people (17:4-5)-their dispersal over the earth is proof of Allah’s rejection (7:168). The Jews are further warned about both their arrogant claim that they remain Allah’s chosen people (62:6), and continued disobedience and "corruption" (5:32-33) Other sins, some repeated, are enumerated: abuse, even killing of prophets (4:155; 2:91), including Isa [Jesus] (3:55; 4:157), is a consistent theme. The Jews ridiculed Muhammad as Ra’ina (the evil one, in 2:104; 4:46), and they are also accused of lack of faith, taking words out of context, disobedience, and distortion (4:46). Precious few of them are believers (also 4:46). These "perverse" creatures also claim that Ezra is the messiah and they worship rabbis who defraud men of their possessions (9:30). Additional sins are described: the Jews are typified as an "envious" people (2:109), whose hearts are as hardened as rocks (2:74). They are further accused of confounding the truth (2:42), deliberately perverting scripture (2:75), and being liars (2:78). Ill-informed people of little faith (2:89), they pursue vague and wishful fancies (2:111). Other sins have contributed to their being stamped (see 2:61/ 3:112 above) with "wretchedness/abasement and humiliation," including-usury (2:275), sorcery (2:102), hedonism (2:96), and idol worship (2:53). More (and repeat) sins, are described still: the Jews’ idol worship is again mentioned (4:51), then linked and followed by charges of other (often repeat) iniquities-the "tremendous calumny" against Mary (4:156), as well as usury and cheating (4:161). Most Jews are accused of being "evil-livers" /"transgressors" /"ungodly" (3:110), who, deceived by their own lies (3:24), try to turn Muslims from Islam (3:99). Jews are blind and deaf to the truth (5:71), and what they have not forgotten they have perverted-they mislead (3:69), confound the truth (3:71), twist tongues (3:79), and cheat Gentiles without remorse (3:75). Muslims are advised not to take the Jews as friends (5:51), and to beware of the inveterate hatred that Jews bear towards them (5:82). The Jews’ ultimate sin and punishment are made clear: they are the devil’s minions (4:60) cursed by Allah, their faces will be obliterated (4:47), and if they do not accept the true faith of Islam-the Jews who understand their faith become Muslims (3:113)-they will be made into apes (2:65/ 7:166), or apes and swine (5:60), and burn in the Hellfires (4:55, 5:29, 98:6, and 58:14-19).

The impact upon Jews of such distinctly Antisemitic attitudes engendered among Muslims by these Koranic (and other Islamic) motifs in the specific context of the Arab Muslim world during the high Middle Ages (circa 850-1250 C.E.) is evident in two entirely separate, but complementary sources.

A remarkable essay by the polymath Arabic writer al-Jahiz (d. 869) illustrates the anti-Jewish attitudes prevalent within an important early Islamic society. Al-Jahiz’s essay-an anti-Christian polemic believed to have been commissioned by the Abbasid Caliph al-Mutawakkil (d. 861), who inaugurated a literary campaign against the Christians-explores the reasons why the Muslim masses prefer the Christians to the Jews. This empirical preference (although decried by the author) is acknowledged by al-Jahiz from the outset:

I shall begin to enumerate the causes which made the Christians more liked by the masses than the Magians [Zoroastrians], and made men consider them more sincere than the Jews, more endeared, less treacherous, less unbelieving, and less deserving of punishment. For all this there are manifold and evident causes.

Al-Jahiz offers two primary explanations for this abiding hostility of the Muslim rank and file towards the Jews. First was the "rancorous" relationship between the early Muslim community, exiles from Mecca, relocated among Jewish neighbors in Medina.

When the [Muslim] Emigrants [from Mecca] became the neighbors of the Jews [in Medina]…the Jews began to envy the Muslims the blessings of their new faith, and the union which resulted after dissension. They proceeded to undermine the belief of our [i.e., the Muslim] masses, and to lead them astray. They aided our enemies and those envious of us. From mere misleading speech and stinging words they plunged into an open declaration of enmity, so that the Muslims mobilized their forces, exerting themselves morally and materially to banish the Jews and destroy them. Their strife became long-drawn and widespread, so that it worked itself up into a rage, and created yet greater animosity and more intensified rancor. The Christians, however, because of their remoteness from Mecca and Medina, did not have to put up with religious controversies, and did not have occasion to stir up trouble, and be involved in war. That was the first cause of our dislike of the Jews, and our partiality toward the Christians.

However, al-Jahiz then identifies as "the most potent cause" of this particular animus towards the Jews, Koran 5:82, and its interpretation by the contemporary (i.e., mid-9th century) Muslim masses. It is also worth noting that al-Jahiz (described as a "skeptic", who harbored "indifferent views toward religion in general") included these sociological observations which reveal the interface between Islamic religious and indigenous ethnic/racial discriminatory attitudes towards Jews expressed a millennium before any secular Western European antisemitic ideologies would be exported to the Muslim Near East:

Our people [the Muslims] observing thus the occupations of the Jews and the Christians concluded that the religion of the Jews must compare unfavorably as do their professions, and that their unbelief must be the foulest of all, since they are the filthiest of all nations. Why the Christians, ugly as they are, are physically less repulsive than the Jews may be explained by the fact that the Jews, by not intermarrying, have intensified the offensiveness of their features. Exotic elements have not mingled with them; neither have males of alien races had intercourse with their women, nor have their men cohabited with females of a foreign stock. The Jewish race therefore has been denied high mental qualities, sound physique, and superior lactation. The same results obtain when horses, camels, donkeys, and pigeons are inbred.

Al-Jahiz’s contention that the Muslims harbored greater enmity towards the Jews than the Christians is supported by the independent observations of another Arab author active during the beginning of the 9th century in Iraq, the Sufi theologian al-Harith al-Muhasibi (d. 857). He maintained that because the Jews stubbornly denied Muhammad’s truth, they were "…in the eyes of the Muslims worse than the Christians".

S.D. Goitein’ s seminal analyses of the primary source Geniza documentary record (an accumulation of almost 200,000 Jewish manuscripts that were found in the "geniza" [the store-room or depository in a synagogue, usually for worn-out Hebrew-language books and papers on religious topics] of the Ben Ezra synagogue (built 882) of Fostat, Egypt, now Old Cairo), from the same era caused him to employ the term Antisemitism,

…in order to differentiate animosity against Jews from the discrimination practiced by Islam against non-Muslims in general. Our scrutiny of the Geniza material has proved the existence of ‘antisemitism’ in the time and the area considered here…

Goitein cites as one important concrete proof of his assertion that a unique strain of Islamic Jew hatred was extant at this time (i.e., up to a millennium ago)-exploding the common assumption of its absence-the fact that letters from the Cairo Geniza material,

…have a special word for it and, most significantly, one not found in the Bible or in Talmudic literature (nor registered in any Hebrew dictionary), but one much used and obviously coined in the Geniza period. It is sin’?th, "hatred", a Jew-baiter being called s?n?, "a hater"

Incidents of such Muslim Jew hatred documented by Goitein in the Geniza come from northern Syria (Salamiyya and al-Mar‘arra), Morocco (Fez), and Egypt (Alexandria), with references to the latter being particularly frequent.

The Koranic curse (verses 2:61/3:112) upon the Jews for (primarily) rejecting, even slaying Allah’s prophets, including Isa/Jesus (or at least his "body double" 4:157-4:158), is updated with perfect archetypal logic in the canonical hadith: following the Muslims’ initial conquest of the Jewish farming oasis of Khaybar, one of the vanquished Jewesses reportedly served Muhammad poisoned mutton (or goat), which resulted, ultimately, in his protracted, agonizing death. And Ibn Saad’s sira account (i.e., one of the important early pious Muslim biographies of Muhammad) maintains that Muhammad’s poisoning resulted from a well-coordinated Jewish conspiracy.

Hartwig Hirschfeld’s detailed analysis of Muhammad’s interactions with the Jews includes this summary of the "mutual disappointment" that characterized their relationship, and the predictably disastrous results for the Jews:

The Jews, for their part, were singularly disappointed in their expectations. The way in which Muhammad understood revelation, his ignorance and his clumsiness in religious questions in no way encouraged them to greet him as their Messiah. He tried at first to win them over to his teachings by sweetness and persuasion; they replied by posing once again the questions that they had already asked him; his answers, filled with gross errors, provoked their laughter and mockery. From this, of course, resulted a deep hostility between Muhammad and the Jews, whose only crime was to pass a severe judgment on the enterprise of this Arab who styled himself "God’s prophet" and to find his conduct ridiculous, his knowledge false, and his regulations thoughtless. This judgment, which was well founded, was nevertheless politically incorrect [une faute politique], and the consequences thereof inevitably would prove to be disastrous for a minority that lacked direction or cohesion.

It is worth recounting-as depicted in the Muslim sources-the events that antedated Muhammad’s reputed poisoning at Khaybar.

Muhammad’s failures or incomplete successes were consistently recompensed by murderous attacks on the Jews. The Muslim prophet-warrior developed a penchant for assassinating individual Jews, and destroying Jewish communities-by expropriation and expulsion (Banu Quaynuqa and B. Nadir), or massacring their men, and enslaving their women and children (Banu Qurayza). Just before subduing the Medinan Jewish tribe Banu Qurayza and orchestrating the mass execution of their adult males, Muhammad invoked perhaps the most striking Koranic motif for the Jews debasement-he addressed these Jews, with hateful disparagement, as "You brothers of apes." Subsequently, in the case of the Khaybar Jews, Muhammad had the male leadership killed, and plundered their riches. The terrorized Khaybar survivors-industrious Jewish farmers-became prototype subjugated dhimmis whose productivity was extracted by the Muslims as a form of permanent booty. (And according to the Muslim sources, even this tenuous vassalage was arbitrarily terminated within a decade of Muhammad’s death when Caliph Umar expelled the Jews of Khaybar.)

Thus Maimonides (d. 1203), the renowned Talmudist, philosopher, astronomer, and physician, as noted by historian Salo Baron (from Baron’s essay entitled, "The Historical Outlook of Maimonides," in Proc of the Amer Acad for Jewish Res, vol. 6, 1934-35, p. 82), emphasizes the bellicose "madness" of Muhammad, and his quest for political control. Muhammad’s mindset, and the actions it engendered, had immediate, and long term tragic consequences for Jews-from his massacring up to 24,000 Jews, to their chronic oppression-as described in the Islamic sources, by Muslims themselves:

Following an apparently prevalent usage [Maimonides] calls the founder of Islam a "madman," [meshugga] with both religious and political aspirations, who failed to formulate any new religious ideas, but merely re-stated well-known concepts. Nevertheless, he attracted a large following and inflicted many wrongs upon the Jews, being himself responsible for the massacre of 24,000. Following his example the Muslims of the subsequent generations oppressed the Jews and debased them even more harshly than any other nation.

Muhammad’s brutal conquest and subjugation of the Medinan and Khaybar Jews, and their subsequent expulsion by one of his companions, the (second) "Rightly Guided" Caliph Umar, epitomize permanent, archetypal behavior patterns Islamic Law deemed appropriate to Muslim interactions with Jews. George Vajda’s seminal analysis of the anti-Jewish motifs in the hadith remains the definitive work on this subject. Vajda concluded that according to the hadith stubborn malevolence is the Jews defining worldly characteristic: rejecting Muhammad and refusing to convert to Islam out of jealousy, envy and even selfish personal interest, lead them to acts of treachery, in keeping with their inveterate nature: "…sorcery, poisoning, assassination held no scruples for them." These archetypes sanction Muslim hatred towards the Jews, and the admonition to at best, "subject [the Jews] to Muslim domination," as dhimmis, treated "with contempt," under certain "humiliating arrangements."

Two particularly humiliating "vocations" that were imposed upon Jews by their Muslim overlords in Yemen, and Morocco-where Jews formed the only substantive non-Muslim dhimmi populations-merit elaboration.

Moroccan Jews were confined to ghettos in the major cities, such as Fez (since the 13th century) called mellah(s) (salty earth) which derives from the fact it was here that they were forced to salt the decapitated heads of executed rebels for public exposition. This brutally imposed humiliating practice-which could be enforced even on the Jewish Sabbath-persisted through the late 19th century, as described by Eliezer Bashan:

In the 1870′s, Jews were forced to salt the decapitated heads of rebels on the Sabbath. For example, Berber tribes frequently revolted against Sultan Muhammad XVIII. In order to force them to accept his authority, he would engage in punitive military campaigns. Among the tribes were the Musa, located south of Marrakesh. In 1872, the Sultan succeeded in quelling their revolt and forty-eight of their captives were condemned to death. In October 1872, on the order of the Sultan, they were dispatched to Rabat for beheading. Their decapitated heads were to be exposed on the gates of the town for three days. Since the heads were to be sent to Fez, Jewish ritual slaughterers [of livestock] were forced to salt them and hang them for exposure on the Sabbath. Despite threats by the governor of Rabat, the Jews refused to do so. He then ordered soldiers to enter the homes of those who refused and drag them outside. After they were flogged, the Jews complied and performed the task and the heads of the rebels were exposed in public.

Yemenite Jews had to remove human feces and other waste matter (urine which failed to evaporate, etc.) from Muslim areas, initially in Sanaa, and later in other communities such as Shibam, Yarim, and Dhamar. Decrees requiring this obligation were issued in the late 18th or early 19th century, and re-introduced in 1913. Yehuda Nini reproduces an 1874 letter written by a Yemenite Jew to the Alliance Israelite in Paris, lamenting the practice:

…it is 86 years since our forefathers suffered the cruel decree and great shame to the nation of Israel from the east to sundown…for in the days of our fathers, 86 years ago, there arose a judge known as Qadi, and said unto the king and his ministers who lived in that time that the Lord, Blessed be He, had only created the Jews out of love of the other nations, to do their work and be enslaved by them at their will, and to do the most contemptible and lowly of tasks. And of them all…the greatest contamination of all, to clear their privies and streets and pathways of the filthy dung and the great filth in that place and to collect all that is left of the dung, may your Honor pardon the expression.

And when the Jews were perceived as having exceeded the rightful bounds of this subjected relationship, as in mythically "tolerant" Muslim Spain, the results were predictably tragic. The Granadan Jewish viziers Samuel Ibn Naghrela, and his son Joseph, who protected the Jewish community, were both assassinated between 1056 to 1066, and in the aftermath, the Jewish population was annihilated by the local Muslims. It is estimated that up to four thousand Jews perished in the pogrom by Muslims that accompanied the 1066 assassination. This figure equals or exceeds the number of Jews reportedly killed by the Crusaders during their pillage of the Rhineland, some thirty years later, at the outset of the First Crusade. The inciting "rationale" for this Granadan pogrom is made clear in the bitter anti-Jewish ode of Abu Ishaq, a well-known Muslim jurist and poet of the times, who wrote:

Bring them down to their place and return them to the most abject station. They used to roam around us in tatters covered with contempt, humiliation, and scorn. They used to rummage amongst the dung heaps for a bit of a filthy rag to serve as a shroud for a man to be buried in…Do not consider that killing them is treachery. Nay, it would be treachery to leave them scoffing.

Abu Ishaq’s rhetorical incitement to violence also included the line,

Many a pious Muslim is in awe of the vilest infidel ape

Moshe Perlmann, in his analysis of the Muslim anti-Jewish polemic of 11th century Granada, notes,

[Abu Ishaq] Elb?r? used the epithet "ape" (qird) profusely when referring to Jews. Such indeed was the parlance.

Perlmann then cites the related Koranic passages (i.e., 2:65, 5:60, and 7:166) upon which such "nomenclature" was based.

The Moroccan cleric al-Maghili (d. 1505), referring to the Jews as "brothers of apes" (just as Muhammad, the sacralized prototype, had addressed the Banu Qurayza), who repeatedly blasphemed the Muslim prophet, and whose overall conduct reflected their hatred of Muslims, fomented, and then personally lead, a Muslim pogrom (in ~ 1490) against the Jews of the southern Moroccan oasis of Touat, plundering and killing them en masse, and destroying their synagogue in neighboring Tamantit. An important Muslim theologian whose writings influenced Moroccan religious attitudes towards Jews into the 20th century, al-Maghili also declared in verse, "Love of the Prophet, requires hatred of the Jews."

What follows is but an incomplete sampling of barely known pogroms and mass murderous violence against Jews living under Islamic rule, across space and time, all resulting from the combined effects of jihadism, general anti-dhimmi, and/or specifically Antisemitic motifs in Islam: 6,000 Jews massacred in Fez in 1033; hundreds of Jews slaughtered in Muslim Cordoba between 1010 and 1015; 4,000 Jews killed in Muslim riots in Grenada in 1066, wiping out the entire community; the Berber Muslim Almohad depredations of Jews (and Christians) in Spain and North Africa between 1130 and 1232, which killed tens of thousands, while forcibly converting thousands more, and subjecting the forced Jewish converts to Islam to a Muslim Inquisition; the 1291 pogroms in Baghdad and its environs, which killed (at least) hundreds of Jews; the 1465 pogrom against the Jews of Fez; the late 15th century pogrom against the Jews of the Southern Moroccan oasis town of Touat; the 1679 pogroms against, and then expulsion of 10,000 Jews from Sanaa, Yemen to the unlivable, hot and dry Plain of Tihama, from which only 1,000 returned alive, in 1680, 90% having died from exposure; recurring Muslim anti-Jewish violence-including pogroms and forced conversions-throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, which rendered areas of Iran (for example, Tabriz) Judenrein; the 1834 pogrom in Safed where raging Muslim mobs killed and grievously wounded hundreds of Jews; the 1888 massacres of Jews in Isfahan and Shiraz, Iran; the 1910 pogrom in Shiraz; the pillage and destruction of the Casablanca, Morocco ghetto in 1907; the pillage of the ghetto of Fez Morocco in 1912; the government sanctioned anti-Jewish pogroms by Muslims in Turkish Eastern Thrace during June-July, 1934 which ethnically cleansed at least 3000 Jews; and the series of pogroms, expropriations, and finally mass expulsions of some 900,000 Jews from Arab Muslim nations, beginning in 1941 in Baghdad (the murderous "Farhud," during which 600 Jews were murdered, and at least 12,000 pillaged )-eventually involving cities and towns in Egypt, Morocco, Libya, Syria, Aden, Bahrain, and culminating in 1967 in Tunisia-that accompanied the planning and creation of a Jewish state, Israel, on a portion of the Jews’ ancestral homeland.

[Note: Bostom's third and final installment will be published Wednesday.]