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The religious conflict between Judaism and Islam


Many, if not most, of the concepts that Mohammad incorporated into his new religion have their origin in Judaism, although Jewish values were frequently distorted.  It is suggested that much of the turbulence engulfing the Middle East is the result of an eschatological conflict between Judaism and Islam.  Islam will only cease to be a threat to world peace when it comes to an accommodation with Judaism.







The Jews of Saudi Arabia


The Arabian Peninsula has always been important for world trade in that it functioned as a land bridge for the transport of spices and other goods between the countries of the orient, India and China, and the cities of the east, such as Constantinople, Damascus and Jerusalem.  The people of Saudi Arabia were heavily involved in trade and transportation and Jews had a major role in the economic life of the country, if not a dominant one.

The Arabian Peninsula is predominantly desert.  However, fertile land extends for about 100 miles inland from its east and west coasts and about 200 miles from its southern coast.  The main cities are located within this fertile area.  Many of them had Jewish populations.  In Medina, for example, they constituted about half the populace.  Jews were involved in agriculture and had much of the best land.  Like everyone in the country, the Jews lived as tribes.

Where did these Jews come from?  The Jews of Yemen on the southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula arrived during the reign of Solomon, and it is likely that over time they migrated up the coast into Saudi Arabia.  There was also a large migration of Jews from Iran in the 5th century CE.  

 No great scholars from Saudi Arabia are mentioned in the Jewish literature and it is likely that this was not a particularly learned community compared to the Jewish communities of Palestine, Iraq and North Africa.  Nevertheless, it was a religiously practicing community that knew the Bible well together with its midrashic commentaries.  


Midrash is the interpretations of the Bible written by different Sages of Israel, and these volumes derive ethical messages from the Bible and attempt to fill in the lacunae left by the Bible.  Midrash often strays significantly from the plain meaning of the text in order to bring completeness to Biblical events and its players.  These additional stories woven around the Biblical text were much beloved by the Jewish people and were often considered part of the Jewish oral tradition.  


Mohammed was born in Mecca in about 590 CE.  He was orphaned at an early age and brought up by his grandfather and subsequently a paternal uncle.  As were all non-Jews and non-Christians in Saudi Arabia, he was a pagan.  There were three Jewish tribes in Mecca and Mohammad learnt a lot about Judaism from his Jewish friends.  He worked as a trader, and his work would have brought him to the main cities of the Middle East where he would have come into contact with other Jews and Christians.  Mohammad was particularly intrigued by the Biblical stories, which were often told to him with their midrashic interpretations.  


Mohammed was a pensive person and he would often isolate himself in a cave to think and pray.  At age 37, while in his usual cave, he received a revelation from the archangel Gabriel.  

 Prophecy was certainly known in ancient times.  However, in the pagan world hints from the gods were usually derived from divination, so that his receiving a Divine message had a very Jewish flavor to it.  The archangel Gabriel also has Jewish origins.  He first appears in the book of Daniel and subsequently in the New Testament in the Gospel of Luke. 


Mohammad received no further communications from Gabriel for three years, but then began receiving regular communications to the extent that he considered himself a prophet in the mode of Moses and Jesus.  Indeed, he considered his revelations to be more authentic than those received by previous prophets.  These prophecies continued until shortly before his death.


Mohammed was illiterate, but his revelations were written down by his friends and these constitute the content of the Quran.  Unlike the Bible, the Quran is not a developing narrative but is written in a free flowing style and recorded in a very literary form of Arabic.  Muslims believe that the Quran is more reflective of the word of God than the Old and New Testaments.


Mohammed now began preaching to the Mecca community and began attracting followers to his new faith.  At this time he made efforts to attract the Jews of Mecca and many of the practices he adopted were designed to appeal to the Jews.  He and his followers prayed regularly in the direction of Jerusalem, did not eat pork, blood or carrion, fasted on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), and their weekly holiday was Friday, which he knew was when Jews gathered together in the evening for their Sabbath. 


It is from this “Mecca period” that one finds comments in the Quran most complementary to the Jewish people:

“O children of Israel! Call to mind My favor which I bestowed on you and that I made you excel the nations.”(Sur 2:47) 


You shall not molest them, O Believers! For it is they who are nearest to the true faith.”(Sur 1X11.13) 


Surprisingly perhaps, considering the current approach of Islam to Jewish settlement in Israel, one also finds comments in the Quran acknowledging the right of the Jewish people to live in the Holy Land: 


Pharaoh sought to scare them [the Israelites] out of the land [of Israel]: but We [Allah] drowned him [Pharaoh] together with all who were with him. Then We [Allah] said to the Israelites: 'Dwell in this land [the Land of Israel]. When the promise of the hereafter [End of Days] comes to be fulfilled, We [Allah] shall assemble you [the Israelites] all together [in the Land of Israel].” (Sur 17:102-14) 


"And thereafter We [Allah] said to the Children of Israel: 'Dwell securely in the Promised Land. And when the last warning will come to pass, we will gather you together in a mingled crowd.” (Sur 17:104)    


These statements in the Koran are of interest not only as they relate to Islam but in how they likely reflect Jewish positions on theological issues of the day.  It seems likely that the Jewish notion of returning to Israel was considered very much an eschatological venture that would only be fulfilled at the End of Days, at which time the Jewish people would gather together from all corners of the globe to live in the Holy Land.


The Hijra


Mecca was the main religious center of Saudi Arabia because of the Ka’ba.  This was a shrine containing many idols and for one month a year all the tribes of Saudi Arabia would gather to worship there.  Inter-tribal conflicts were set aside during this time.  This pilgrimage would have been a significant source of income to the people of Mecca, and since establishing a new religion for the entire country could only proceed if the Ka’ba became monotheistic, not surprisingly the main tribe of Mecca began perceiving Mohammad as a threat.


He now received information about a plan to murder him and he fled from Mecca.  He had already communicated with the people of Medina, a major city 210 miles from Mecca, and they were keen that he bring his supporters to live among them.  They felt he had the presence and power to unite the fractious tribes of Medina, some of who were involved in blood feuds, and that he would provide a counterweight to the religious influence of Mecca.  The flight of Mohammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina is called the Hijra. 


However, there was one group of people who were less than enthusiastic about Mohammad’s arrival in Medina and this was the Jews.  There were 3 Jewish tribes in Medina and they constituted a powerful presence in the city.  They were not at all interested in his new faith, argued with him, and in at least one instance made a treaty with the people of Mecca.  In essence, they did not trust him.  


At this time Mohammad began perceiving tribes as being either for or against him.  This was not just paranoia but likely a true reflection of the situation. Although they were ostensibly neutral, Mohammad realized that the Jews were his enemies and it is from this “Medina period” that one sees a marked change in tone in the Quran with respect to the Jews.  


There are many examples: 


“Jews are not to be befriended.” (Sur 5:51).  “They are cursed on account of their disbelief.” (Sur 2:88), and “Jews are treacherous”. (Sur 5:13)

They will reap a terrible reward in Hell: “they shall have disgrace in this world, and …. grievous chastisement in the Hereafter.”(Sur 5;41)   

“They have earned the wrath of the All-Patient, Oft-Forgiving God by the calf idolatry, breaking the Sinai covenant and mocking, humiliating and killing His spokespersons and revealers.” (Surah 2:90-96)


This last quote is of interest in that it shows Mohammad using Jewish scripture and the story of the Golden Calf as evidence that Jews were perfidious from the very beginning of their faith.


It was clear to Mohammad that Jews would not be joining his new faith, and Mohammad instructed his followers to face Mecca in prayer rather than Jerusalem.  This would also have been a political statement, indicating his intention to control the Ka’ba, the center of religious life in Saudi Arabia.


A truce existed between Mohammed and the tribes of Mecca but they abrogated this, and Mohammed marched on Mecca at the head of an army of 10,000 men.  The people of Mecca capitulated without a struggle and Mohammed was now in control of the Ka’ba.  To justify taking over a place of pagan worship, the Quran relates that this had become a monotheistic shrine when Abraham visited it with his son Ishmael and only later did it become pagan.


It has been noted that the Quran contains an evolutionary approach to paganism:1 

  •  In the early “Meccan period”, Mohammad wished to spread the Islamic message and its faith in a peaceful manner.   

  • Nevertheless, it was nevertheless legitimate to confront and argue with unbelievers in a wise and fair manner.

  • This evolved into the notion that the umma’s enemies may be fought if Muslims were unjustly wronged, although this was not to be undertaken in sacred months.

  • Finally, in the “Medina phase” he advocating waging war against unbelievers unconditionally and constantly to bring about the total victory of Islam.


Jihad is the Arabic word for struggle.  For those who consider Islam a religion of peace, it designates the internal struggle needed to adhere to the promulgates of Islam.  However, it is doubtful that this is what Mohammad intended by the term.  Rather, he envisaged all of Saudi Arabia becoming monotheistic, by force if necessary.  


This goal is clearly spelled out in the Koran:

Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them [captive] and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush.  But if they repent and establish worship and pay the poor due, then leave their way free. Lo, Allah is forgiving, merciful.” (Surah 9:5)


Jews were neither pagans nor his supporters.  They were expelled from Medina and their land taken over by the Moslems.  This would have been much appreciated by his supporters who had been exiled from Mecca.  One Jewish tribe had made a treaty with the people of Mecca and were marked for punishment.  Their men were executed and the women taken into slavery. 


His murderous treatment of this one Jewish tribe would receive Divine approbation in the Quran:


Allah turned back the unbelievers [Meccans and their allies] in a state of rage, having not won any good, and Allah spared the believers battle [q-t-l].  Allah is indeed Strong and Mighty. And He brought those of the People of the Book [Qurayza] who supported them from their fortresses and cast terror in their hearts, some of them you slew [q-t-l] and some you took captive. And He bequeathed to you their lands, their homes and their possessions, together with land you have never trodden.  Allah has power over everything.” (Sura 33:25-27)

More about Islam


Mohammed borrowed extensively from Judaism, but in many instances he misunderstood or more likely chose to ignore fundamental aspects of the ideas he was borrowing.  


There are five pillars to Islam:

  •  A declaration of faith in belief in Allah and His prophet Mohammad.

  • Obligatory pray five times a day in the direction of Mecca.

  • Compulsory charitable giving.

  • Fasting in the month of Ramadan.

  • Pilgrimage to Mecca.


To ensure a separation between Islam and Judaism, Mohammed made prayer obligatory five times a day, rather than three times a day as in Judaism.  He also directed it towards Mecca.  Prayer in Judaism is towards Jerusalem and specifically to the Holy of Holies in the Temple, which in former times was the “abode” of God.


Charitable giving is also part of Judaism and the following section from the Quran could equally well have come from the Bible:

“…… dispenses his wealth to his kinsfolk, to the orphans, and to the needy, and the wayfarer, and to those who ask, and for ransoming, who observeth prayer, and payeth the legal alms …….  these are they who are just and those who fear the Lord.”(Sur 1:177)


The month of fasting in Ramadan corresponds to the first month in which Mohammed received regular revelations from God. 


The pilgrimage to Mecca is to the Ka’ba shrine, formerly a pagan shrine to which people from all over Saudi Arabia would come to worship.  


Although not one of its pillars, Islam gives considerable emphasis to personal salvation in the World to Come.2 In Moslem thought, all of one’s thoughts and deeds in this world are recorded.  There will be convulsions before the time of the World to Come.  An archangel will blow a trumpet.  Everyone will die but will then arise from the dead for the Day of Judgment.  Sinners will fall into an abyss of flames and eternal punishment while the righteous will join Allah in a garden.  There, they will be served from clear-flowing fountains, be able to select the fruit of their wishes, and have female companions with beautiful, big and lustrous eyes.  


All of these steps leading to the World to Come come originally from Judaism.  On the awesome day a shofar will be blown.  Judaism believes in the resurrection of the dead as well as an eternal soul, which in the righteous will draw close to God.  Nevertheless, the sequence of events relating to the messiah (a concept missing in Islam since Mohammed took over this role), the resurrection and the Garden of Eden are not well defined.


Judaism also struck a very different balance between striving for personal salvation in the World to Come and appreciating the importance of this world.  In this delicate balance, the emphasis in Judaism has been very much on this world.  It is in this world and not the next where it is possible to serve God by performing His commandments.  There is indeed reward in the World to Come, but the Master is served not in order to receive a final reward but for the sake of doing His service.  The reward will take care of itself.  


Judaism is very much focused on improving this world rather than accepting its evil and injustice.  By contrast, the focus of Islam on serving God for the sake of the World to Come can lead to a fatalistic approach to this world and acceptance of what fate has to offer.  In turn, this can leads in modern times to a subdued response to technological advance and a non-aggressive stance to improving the conditions of society.


Similar to the Pope at the time of the Crusades, Mohammed offered a quick route to Paradise for those killed while fighting for Islam.  The following hadith talks about the final reward for martyrs:


The martyr receives six good things from Allah: he is forgiven at the first shedding of his blood; he is shown his abode in Paradise; he is preserved from the punishment in the grave; he is kept safe from the greatest terror; he has placed on his head the crown of honor, a ruby of which is better than the world and what it contains; he is married to seventy-two wives of the maidens with large dark eyes; and is made intercessor for seventy of his relatives.”


Muslims are encourage to engage in jihad by offering a quick route to the World to Come, a guaranteed place in the company of Allah, the accompaniment of 72 maidens, and even help for the person’s family.  But what it also does is to create a culture where dying in the attempt to kill others becomes the ultimate religious experience.  In this way, Islam has become a religion of death rather than one that celebrates life.


Mohammed’s distortion of the Biblical message


Mohammed was much enamored of the Biblical stories he heard from his Jewish friends in Mecca and included many Biblical characters, such as Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, Moses, David and Jesus, in his Quran.  Some of these stories were heard together with their midrashic interpretations.


Significant discrepancies are often found between the narratives in the Bible and Quran.  This could reflect Mohammed’s lack of understanding or more likely his deliberate attempts to change their focus.  Since Islam regards Mohammad as the final prophet, Muslims regard the Quran versions of these stories as being the truly authentic ones. 


Both the Bible and Quran include narratives about Noah.  In the Quran version, Noah tells the people that they will be destroyed if they persist in worshiping their ancestral gods.  However, they refuse to change their ways.  Reports reach Noah that the people are conspiring to stone him and he prays to God to destroy them.  He now builds an ark, brings in animals, and enters into the ark together with his followers.  His wife and one of his sons drown in the flood as they persist in their previous ways.  His true family becomes those who believe in the One God and submit to His will. 


In the Biblical Noah story the reason for the flood is not disbelief in One God but corruption of society.  This is very apparent from the following Biblical verse:

And the earth had become corrupt (vatishaket) ( וַתִּשָּׁחֵת) before God; and the earth had become filled with unrighteousness (hamas) (חָמָס).’” (Genesis 6:11)


The word vatishaket means corruption and according to Jewish tradition includes idolatry and immorality. (As in the verse “lest you become corrupt and make for yourselves a figure in the image of any form״ (Deut 4:16).3  The word hamas has the meaning of unrighteousness as in the following sentence describing a false witness who is party to unrighteous: 

Thou shalt not utter a false report; put not your hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness (eid chamos) (עֵדחָמָס).” (Exodus 23:1)


It is noteworthy how Noah in the Quran version of the story merges into the character of Mohammad himself.  Mohammad also called on the world to abandon idolatry. Mohammad is threatened with murder in Mecca.  Mohammad feels secure enough in his prophetic role to call upon God to destroy the world because of its pagan beliefs.  And it is Mohammad who in the guise of Noah brings his supporters into the ark.

 Mohammad’s distortion of the Biblical Noah story has ignored the true message of this story which is about the immorality and social injustice of a totally corrupted society.  Paganism alone would never be a reason for God to destroy His world.  


As in Judaism, Abraham is a pivotal figure in Islam, since he was the father of Ishmael the predecessor of the Saudi people.  In the Quran, Abraham’s religious innovation is viewed solely in terms of his discovery and promulgation of monotheism. 


There are beautiful accounts in the midrash about Abraham smashing the idols of his father, an idol manufacturer, and how he was punished for this by being thrown into the king’s fiery furnace.  He was saved by God and walked out of the furnace unscathed.  Versions of this story are also included in the Quran.  Whether Mohammad was aware that he was quoting midrash rather than the Bible is unclear.  Most likely, he was not even aware of the difference and quoted the stories as he heard them.


But is belief in monotheism and Abraham’s devotion to God truly the sum total of Abraham’s religious revolution?  Is this alone why he was chosen at age 75 to leave his home in Mesopotamia and move to Canaan?  


It is clear from the Torah that there were additional reasons for his being chosen.  


In the Sodom and Gemorra story, God explains almost as a soliloquy an additional facet about this pivotal figure:


“And YHVH said:  Shall I conceal from Abraham what I am doing?  And Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation and all the nations of the earth will be blessed though him.  For I have a relationship with him so that he might command his children and his household after him to keep the way of God, doing righteousness (tzedaka) (צְדָקָה) and justice (mishpat) (מִשְׁפָּט), so that YKVK might bring upon Abraham that which He had spoken of him. (Genesis 18:17-19)


Two phrases in this passage warrant particular attention – “doing righteousness (tzedaka) and justice (mishpat)” and “to keep the way of God”. 


The Hebrew word tzedaka is often translated as charity – namely charitable donations to those in need.  It has this meaning in the Quran and giving charity is one of the five pillars of Islam.  However, this is not the full meaning of this Hebrew word, which becomes clearer from the following verse in Deuteronomy:


When you lend your neighbor any manner of loan, you shall not go into his house to fetch his pledge. You shall stand outside, and the man to whom you are lending shall bring the security to you outside.  And if he be a poor man, you shall not sleep with his pledge; you shall surely restore to him the pledge when the sun goes down, that he may sleep in his garment, and bless you; and for you it shall be an act of righteousness (tzedaka) (צְדָקָה) before YKVK your God.” (Deuteronomy 24:10-13)


A better translation of the word tzedaka in this context is righteousness or social justice.  Pledges are only returned when a loan is paid off.  However, social justice demands that a garment be given back to the borrower at night if he has nothing else to sleep in.  This concern for others is called tzedaka.


The situation becomes sharper by considerings the opposite of tzedaka  - in Hebrew called ze’aka, which means crying out. 


The following Biblical verse takes the same situation as previously but from the perspective of the person whose garment has been taken as a pledge (since he has nothing else to give for the loan), but who truly needs this garment at night to keep himself warm.  If his pledge is not returned at night, he will cry out in distress, a situation abhorred by God.


“If you take your neighbor's garment as security, until sunset you shall restore it unto him; for it alone is his covering, it is his garment for his skin; in what shall he lie down? So that it will be, if he cries (yitzak) (יִצְעַק) out to Me, I shall listen; for I am compassionate.”(Exodus 22:25-26)


Tzedaka is social justice.  Ze’aka or crying out is the consequence of social injustice. This is a form of word play, since the words tzedaka and ze’aka are similar in the way they sound.   


Mohammad had no appreciation that there was far more to Abraham than his realization of there being only One God.  Abraham also kept the “way of God,” the way that God Himself keeps.  He realized that God is the yardstick by which righteousness and justice should be measured.  Abraham’s mission was to raise a family that would incorporate the values of righteousness/social justice , that would practice non-corrupted justice, and that would hand over these values to a tribe and eventually to a nation.  


Certainly. Abraham was devoted to God, but this is not the only reason he was chosen.  Despite the midrash that Mohammad learnt from his Jewish friends, smashing pagan idols was not characteristic of Abraham, at least when he came to Canaan and where he lived in close harmony with his pagan friends.


The notion that God is the absolute measure of virtue is known in Latin as Imitatio Dei and is the basis of ethics in Judaism and in Christianity.  


Mohammad, however, did not recognize the Torah as being a direct prophecy from God but a distortion of God’s word.  Islam, therefore, has no concept of Imitatio Dei.  What then is the basis of Islamic ethics?  By default, the words and activities of Mohammed himself became the basis of Islamic ethics.


The words of Mohammad are known from the Quran.  Many of the activities of Mohammad, his family and his colleagues are known through what is known as the hadith.  The presumption of the hadith is that if any of Mohammad’s family or colleagues did anything he would have disapproved of, he would have corrected them.  Therefore, they can be relied upon to be the basis of human ethical behavior.


Thus it was that the ethics of an Arabian warlord engaged in a violent struggle to establish a new faith became the ethics of a new religion.  Moreover, since Mohammad did not hold by the Bible, his new religion concerned itself little with social justice and setting up a system of incorruptible justice.  


To the contrary, Islam believes in vigilante justice, namely groups or even individuals taking it upon themselves to administer Islamic justice, whether this be to women in the streets who have not covered their hair sufficiently, writers who have insulted Mohammad, or females who have dishonored their family by their sexual conduct.  


This type of vigilantism is supported by the Quran:


Let there arise out of you a band of people inviting to all that is good, enjoining what is right, and forbidding what is wrong, and believing in Allah.” (Surah 3:104)

You are the best of peoples, evolved for mankind, enjoining what is right, forbidding what is wrong, and believing in Allah” (Surah 3:110)

The Believers, men and women, are protectors one of another; they enjoin what is just, and forbid what is evil.” (Surah 9:71) 


Yet justice without the safeguards of a judicial system is an open invitation for injustice.

 It can be asked - do Judaism/Christianity and Islam worship the same God?  At first glance this seems an absurd question.  How can the One God be different for two religions, especially when one religion received much of its inspiration from the other?  


However, when Muslims acting in the name of Islam commit atrocities such as beheading combatants or even civilians, make women into sex slaves, and randomly kill innocent civilians, and especially when there is a wall of silence among other Muslims with respect to these atrocities, it is legitimate to ask whether Moslems worship the same God as Jews and Christians. 


Judaism and Islam do indeed have different Gods.  They may have the same name – Allah in Islam and Elohim in Judaism - but the values of these two Gods are very different.  The God of Islam is a war-God who wishes to bring to the entire world, by force if necessary, submission to Himself and His law (shariah) as revealed to Mohammad in the 7th century CE and subsequently developed by the hadith.  The God of Judaism is a God of social justice and non-corruptible societal justice.  These two Deities are polar opposites.


A further point.  Mohammad claimed that the Quran was revealed to him by the angel Gabriel.  This book includes distorted versions of the Bible.  Since the Torah predated Mohammad, the presumption must be that Mohammad copied it.  The onus is on his followers to prove that he did not engage in inaccurate plagiarism. 


In actuality, there can be no doubt that Mohammad took most of his religious principles and many of the stories included in the Quran from the Bible.  This has to be the case when one takes into account midrashic interpretations found within the Quran.  There has never been any notion in Judaism that midrashic stories are divine.  For Mohammad to suggest that the archangel Gabriel provided him with Divine messages that included Jewish Biblical interpretations is pushing human credibility.


Jewish-Islamic relationships in Arab lands


Mohammed doubtless felt he had solved Islam’s Jewish problem by expelling Saudi Arabia’s Jews, but in actuality he had no more than sweep the problem under the rug.  After his death, warriors swept out of Saudi Arabia and over the next century conquered a vast territory for Islam stretching from Spain to Central Asia.  Europe itself would have been conquered had not the Arab advance been halted in France.  The territories captured by the Arabs included Jews and Christians.  


These people believed in monotheism, but Jews in particular were a cursed and despised people.  What to do with them?  


This problem was resolved by Mohammed’s successor, the caliph Omar, who promulgated a charter containing twelve rules by which a dhimmi, a non-Muslim, would be permitted to live among believers.  If any of these conditions were abrogated, his life would be forfeit.  These conditions included the following:

  • Jews were forbidden to touch the Quran.

  • They were obliged to wear a distinctive habit with a sash.

  • They had to wear a yellow piece of clothing as a badge - for Christians this was blue.

  • They were not allowed to practice their religion in public.

  • They were not permitted to own a horse.

  • They were not permitted to drink wine in public.

  • When they buried their dead they were not allowed to express their grief in a way that would be heard by Muslims.


There is a general belief in the Western world that prior to Zionism, relationships between Muslims and Jews in Islamic countries were extremely cordial and that Jews were well accepted in Islamic lands.  It is only Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians that has changed this relationship to one of hostility.  While it is indeed true that the Palestinian problem has increased Islamic hostility to Jews, the notion that Jews were well treated in Islamic lands is not at all accurate.  


Nevertheless, the subject is a nuanced one.  Jews were always regarded as second-class citizens, but the degree to which they were oppressed depended very much on the country, the period in question and the ruling authority.


The reality is that the Jews were often able to thrive in Moslem countries despite their inferior status.  In fact, they much preferred to live in Islamic lands where their presence was accepted, rather than in Christian and Byzantine countries where often it was not.  


The acceptance of Jews was due to a number of factors.  The Moslems themselves were often a minority in their empire and needed the support of the Jews – which they obtained.  Over the centuries the Jews became very influential in trade and banking.  Although not officially permitted to be involved in the administration, this restriction was often not adhered to.


Nevertheless, their situation was sometimes precarious and there were a number of periods of oppression with forced conversions.4


Non-Muslims were obliged to pay a special dhimmi “protection” tax in addition to other regular taxes, an obligation drawn directly from the Quran:

Fight against those [Jews and Christians] who believe not in Allah … . until they pay the tribute readily, being brought low.” (Surah 9:29)


This tax was enforced in Muslim countries until the early 1900’s.  It was a significant sum of money and was beyond the ability of many Jews to pay. 


Jews could also not expect full justice in Arab lands.  The punishment for killing a Jew was not the death penalty but monetary compensation.  Even this punishment was unlikely, since it was rare for two Moslems to testify against a fellow Muslim for the sake of an infidel. 


In sum, Jews in Muslim lands were despised second-class citizens.  Nevertheless, only rarely was there a question as to whether they were entitled to live in Muslim countries and practice their faith.  This would change with the advent of Zionism, and the person most responsible for this change was the Palestinian leader Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem.  Hei initiated a new approach to Jews and Judaism that became and has remained widely accepted in the Muslim world.

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The influence of Haj Amin al-Husseini


Al-Husseini was appointed to the position of mufti of Jerusalem by the British during the British mandate period.  His position was a religious one, but he was as much a politicial as religious leader and he used his position to consolidate his power in Palestine.  He was the person who defined the Palestinian response to Zionism and in particular to Jewish immigration.  


The political aim of eal-Husseini and like-minded colleagues was to create a pan-Islamic state in the countries then occupied by Britain and France.  Jews were to have no place in this state and he vehemently opposed all Jewish immigration to Palestine.  He organized large scale Arab riots in 1929 and 1936 during which hundreds of Jews and Arabs were killed with the aim of changing British policy.  


In the early days of its mandate, Britain’s policy had been to encourage Jewish immigration to Palestine as laid out in the Balfour Declaration.  However, by the end of the Mandate, as a result of Arab pressure, this had changed to a far more restrictive policy.


Al-Husseini was eventually thrown out of Palestine because of his role in promoting anti-Jewish riots, but with the advent of World War II he saw the possibility of achieving Islamic aims by allying the Arab world with the Axis powers.  Despite his Semitic ethnicity, Hitler appreciated his potential usefulness and invited him as a distinguished guest to Germany.  From Munich he made radio broadcasts to the Arab world to enlist their support for German war aims. 


While in Germany he became familiar with the Final extermination Solution for the Jews.5  The extent to which he was involved in the Final Solution is unclear, but there is no doubt that he was intimately familiar with it, was friendly with German commanders such as Adolf Eichmann who were perpetrating the Final Solution, and that he provided them with advice.  He also recruited an Islamic SS battalion that was active in Bosnia killing Jews.  Sufficient evidence existed to bring al-Husseini to the Nuremberg Trials for his role in the Holocaust, but he was never brought to trial as the Allies thought this might adversely affect their relationship with the Arab world.


Al-Husseini developing a new Islamic approach to Jews and Judaism.  It was no longer a matter of tolerating Jews wherever they lived.  The goal for many Muslims was now total annihilation of the Jewish people, and in particular those Jews living in Palestine.  In effect, al-Husseini had identified not only Zionism but Judaism itself as a threat to the goals of Islam.  His solution was genocide of the entire Jewish people.


It was a close call.  If Rommel had defeated General Montgomery at the Battle of El Alamain during World War II, the Germans would have taken over the Middle East empire of the British and entered Palestine.  With them would have come SS troops who were waiting in Greece.  A blood bath would have ensued and the Yishuv would have been overwhelmed by German might and destroyed.  Al-Husseini would then have been appointed caliph of a large Judenfrei Islamic empire in cooperation with the Nazis.  


But Rommel did not defeat Montgomery and British and French influence in Arab lands remained intact.  After the relief of the siege of Jerusalem during Israel’s War of Independence, any political influence that al-Huseini had on the Arab struggle was sidelined by the surrounding Arab countries.


Nevertheless, al-Husseni’s influence on Islamic ideas continues to this day.  He was a close friend of the founders of the Moslem Brotherhood and together they formulated the basic concepts underlying Radical Islam.  Murdering Jews became acceptable in Islam.  Inflammatory statements about Jews found in the Quran became part and parcel of Islamic education in many countries, particularly those in the Middle East.  Anti-Semitic books such as Mein Kampf and the Protocols of Zion became best sellers in Muslim countries.  


Yassar Arafat was a distant cousin of al-Husseini and he regarded al-Husseini as his mentor.  Non-reconciliation with Israel and terror became the response of the Palestinian movement to all Israeli peace initiatives, thereby making a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem impossible.  


The notion that Jews are a threat to the vision of Islam is encapsulated by a hadith found in the charter of Hamas, the rulers of the Palestinian enclave in the Gaza Strip:

"Judgment Day will come only when the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them, until the Jew hides behind the tree and the stone, and the tree and the stone say: ‘Oh Muslim, Oh servant of Allah , there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.’”


This would appear to be an isolated statement on the topic, but its significance cannot be underestimated.  This hadith is saying that the eschatological vision of Islam, the coming of Judgment Day that will usher in the World to Come, cannot proceed unless Moslems kill Jews and eradicate them.


Is this a genuine hadith and where does it come from?  Even Muslims acknowledge that their oral traditions have been corrupted and volumes have been written to gather together hadiths that possess a reliable chain of tradition.  

 It seems unlikely that Mohammad would have said such a hadith, since there is nothing like this in the Quran, even in the “Medina phase” of his sayings.  He would certainly have agreed with attacking Jews if they actively opposed him but not wholesale genocide of an entire religious community.  Nevertheless, the sentiments expressed by this hadith are widely accepted by many Muslims.


Moreover, just as the Zionist state was seen as a threat to the formation of a pan-Islamic state, so also were Great Britain and later America so perceived by the proponents of Radical Islam.  There were even those in the Moslem Brotherhood who viewed the whole structure of Western liberal culture as a threat to the goals of Islam.  So just as Jews could be murdered with impunity in the cause of Islam so also could non-Muslims in the Western world.  So it came about that terror invented in Palestine and initially directed against Jews now became directed against innocent people in the West in the cause of pan-Islamism. 

 Were al-Husseini’s fears about Zionism and Judaism justified?  Is Judaism really a threat to pan-Islamism? Are Judaism and Islam locked in an eschatological conflict for which the winner takes all?


Many Israelis would be horrified by the notion that their version of Zionism be considered a messianic movement.  Nevertheless, there has always been a significant number of religious Jews who consider themselves to be living in the footsteps of a Messianic period and that the Jewish Temple will soon be rebuilt.


Ironically, it is the rejectionist attitude of the Palestinians that has provided the greatest support to Jewish messianic views.  If the Palestinians had compromised and split the land of Palestine into two countries for two peoples, these Messianic ideas would have been squelched.  Palestinian terror, rejection of peace and uncertainty regarding the final status of Judea and Samaria have been the factors most conducive to the spread of these ideas.  Al-Husseini was the first to recognize the existence of a struggle between two Messianic movements, and ironically the person most responsible for its continuation. 


The Sunni branch of Radical Islam of which al-Husseini was a member has been much weakened by the West and Arab leaders, but the Iranian branch of Shi’ism is every bit as radical and messianic as ISIS and Al Qaeda.  


The Iranian leaders also believe that a Jewish state in the center of the Islamic world cannot be and that its annihilation is a prerequisite to the coming of the World to Come.  Many of their power plays in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, are preparation for the final Armageddon confrontation with the Jewish state.  Shi’ite radicalism is now far more dangerous than Sunni radicalism.  The Iranian leaders realize that terror attacks at bus stops, airports and in city centers accomplish no long-term political goal.  But atomic bombs, long-range missiles and armies are another matter entirely.  This makes them a formidable foe of the Jewish state – and of the world.


Where do we go from here?


Where do we go from here?


One way is to deny there is a problem.  This was the approach of former President Obama and his administration.  The word “Radical Islam” was never mentioned.  There were only “terrorists”. 

 A number of reasons have been mentioned for why he did this.  It is possible that Obama recognized the association between being Radical and practicing Islam, but did not wish to add fuel to a religious war between Islam and the West.  It has also been mentioned that he did not want to offend Arab allies, such as Saudi Arabia.  However, this is a rather weak argument since he had no problem in annoying them in other ways, particularly with regard to his policies towards Iran.  Obama may also have seen himself as the person to bring Islam into the community of nations and bring about reconciliation between Islam and the Western world.  Alternatively, he admired Islam so much that he was blind to its darker side.


Nevertheless, it was a lie, and most people recognized it as such.  It is impossible to deny the existence of Radical Islam and to ignore the fact that it enjoys wide support in the Islamic world.  Obama was doing no favor to the world, or to Islam for that matter, by giving Radical Islam a free pass.


That Islam is in need of reform is evident to many people, including Muslims.


The following critique of radicalism within Islam was made by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the President of Egypt, in 2015 at the Egyptian Al-Azhar University, one of the most prestigious religious institutions in Islam.   

Is it possible that 1.6 billion people [Muslims} should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants – that is 7 billion – so that they themselves may live? Impossible! 


I am saying these words here at Al-Azhar, before this assembly of scholars and ulema…. All of this that I am telling you, you cannot feel it if you remain trapped within this mindset. You need to step outside of yourself to be able to observe it and reflect on it from a more enlightened perspective.


I say and repeat it again that we are in need of a religious revolution. You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move .. . Because this umma is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost – and it is being lost by our own hands.”


Admittedly, el-Sisi is currently defending his country against a war with fundamentalist Islam, but nevertheless it is difficult not to feel the pathos in his speech.


The popular writer about Islam, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, suggests the following steps are necessary for the reform of Islam:6

  •  Ensuring that Mohammad and the Qur’an are open to interpretation and criticism.

  • Giving priority to this life and not the afterlife.

  • Shackling sharia and end its supremacy over secular law.

  • Ending the practice of “commanding right, forbidding wrong” (i.e. vigilante justice).

  • Abandoning the call to jihad.


Non-Muslims would find it difficult to argue with any item in this list, but most practicing Muslim would find these points quite problematic.  He or she might agree to abandon the call to jihad, and even agree to end the supremacy of sharia over secular law when it does not already exist, but most would find it extremely difficult to accept that Mohammad and the Qur’an be open to interpretation and criticism.   This could lead to acceptance of the fallibility of Mohammad and questioning of the authenticity of his Quran.  Most Moslems will not permit this path, since they have no way of knowing or controlling to where it will lead.  


There are also inbuilt reasons why Islam would find it difficult to change emphasis.  The Sunni world has no central authority and this makes it almost impossible for any leader to bring about change.  Egypt’s Al-Azhar University may be an extremely prestigious institution but it has no way of influencing the direction of Sunni Islam.


This essay proposes a new way forward which avoids the issue of the fallibility of Mohammad.  This is to admit there was evolution during the development of Islam due to the historical circumstances in which Mohammad found himself and his desire to promulgate his faith.  This is evident in the contradictions found within the Quran.  Islam needs to return to its Mecca phase when Mohammad was accepting of other faiths, when his relationship with Jews and Christians was cordial, and when the concept of jihad to convert the world was not even on the horizon.  


This is not to negate the truth of the second Medina phase of Islam, but rather to admit that this is not the reality in which Islam finds itself.  The world today is not against Islam.  All that it wishes is for Islam to be a peaceful religion.  Attempting to convert the world by force to Islam is a prescription for global violence and chaos in which the whole world is a loser. It also has no chance of succeeding.

 It may seem surprising to say this, but the Palestinians may be the ones who can open this Pandora’s box.  


The Palestinians


The Palestinians must surely be the most religiously confused people in the world.  Their Quran tells them that the Jews are a despised people and they should have as little contact with them as possible.  Their leaders such as al-Husseini and Yasser Arafat told them that Jews are a people who can and should be murdered at will.  Hamas and Iran tell them that the Jews are interlopers who will eventually be annihilated.  


On the other hand, their experience, especially if they live in Israel, provides them with a totally different message.  They notice a country of stability and economic dynamism, unlike the failed Islamic states around them that are engulfed in violence.  They find a place of social justice in which all minorities, including the 20% of its population who are Arab, have a guaranteed place.  They see a country free of hate among a sea of hatred.  They can but notice that it is a country that wishes for peace while surrounded by countries that espouse violence.  They experience a country where there is non-corruptible justice, including for Arabs.  And they can see for themselves that it is country where they can live comfortably and financially secure without fear of violence.


How do the Palestinians deal with these contradictions?  


Many put off the day of reckoning to some future date.  Just as the Crusaders were eventually driven out of the country, so the Jews will one day be forced to leave.  It may take centuries, just as it took centuries for Saladin to drive out the Crusaders, but eventually the Arabs will be sufficiently united to defeat the Jews and return an Islamic land to the Arab people.  Meantime, one has to live and the Jews are the ones who can provide the jobs. 


Meanwhile, the Palestinians will not, indeed cannot, come to an official accommodation with the Jews.  An accommodation is not theirs to give.  The Palestinians were the ones who first promoted the idea of a pan-Islamic state, and neither their leaders nor the Arab world will let them agree to the presence of a Zionist state in the heart of the Arab world.  The Palestinians are the sacrificial lamb for the notion of a pan-Islamic world, or at least a pan-Islamic Middle East.


But in reality the Palestinians are fighting a losing battle – not only a territorial battle which they have already lost - but also a religious one.  The process is slow, because the obstacles are so great, but gradually the barriers to day-to-day interaction between Jews and Palestinians are being broken down.  It is almost complete among Israeli Arabs, is becoming more complete among the Arabs who were incorporated into greater Jerusalem after the Six Day War, and will gradually encompass more and more Palestinians as Israel makes greater inroads into Judea and Samaria.


Israel has relationships with Arab countries such as Jordan and Egypt, but the peace with these countries is wafer thin.  Connections are between leader to leader and not between people to people.  Religious hatred is so great that inter-personal contact barely exist.  Only the Palestinians have connections with the Jewish people, albeit connections that tear their minds apart.  


Just as it was the Palestinians who saw the Jewish people as a threat to the ideas of a pan-Islamic world and came to the conclusion that genocide was their only solution, so also it will be the Palestinian people who in time will further the idea of cooperation with the Jewish people.  


And once Jews are no longer perceived as a threat, so also the Western world will not be perceived as a threat and all Moslems will be able to live together harmoniously with all other faiths.  The threat of Islamic terror will disappear.


 Reconciliation between Judaism and Islam


The Bible was written about 3,500 years ago, yet many of the characters it described are still around today.  The offspring of Isaac still exist.  So too the seed of Ishmael.  It could be argued that the genetic stock of Isaac and Ishmael are no longer pure, and this is certainly the case.  Nevertheless, anyone who is Jewish has accepted upon himself or herself the nation and religion of Isaac and the values of his nation’s book the Bible.  Similarly, anyone who accepts the values of the Quran, an Arabian document written in Arabic, accepts that the Saudi’s are of the stock of Abraham and Ishmael and has accepted upon him or herself the values of the Arabian people.  The Muslims come from a variety of genetic backgrounds but culturally they can all be considered Ishmaelite.


The Bible has a high regard for the Ishmaelite people.  Comparing the events that transpired to the two brothers Isaac and Ishmael one notices something surprising.  There is an exact correspondence between the two siblings:

  • God gives both Isaac and Ishmael their names.

  • Abraham then gives both children the name God has chosen.

  • God promises both these two children nationhood.

  • The Bible describes 12 princes or tribes arising from Ishmael and 12 from Isaac.  The twelve tribes of Israel continued as a fixture of Biblical history until the time of the monarchy.

  • Both Isaac and Ishmael experience a near-death experience as a result of the actions of Abraham.

  • Both children are rescued from this experience by an angel of God.


Why this correspondence?  The Bible provides the answer.  Both are children of Abraham and because of this both receive special favor from God.  The children of Isaac were promised the Land of Canaan and were to have a special relationship with God.  Ishmael and his mother leave Abraham’s house and wend their way into the desert.


The Bible never envisaged everlasting enmity between Judaism and Islam.  When Abraham died, both siblings came together to bury their father in Hebron in the land of Canaan.

 Similarly, in the future, Islam will visit the Holy Land to pay its respects to the memory of Abraham – his tomb in Hebron and also the spiritual legacy he left the world, a legacy perpetuated by the Bible  - but not the Quran.



1. “The Quran on Justice and Jihad” in Opening the Koran: Introducing Islam’s Holy Book by Walter H. Wagner, Notre Dame 2008.

2. “End of This World and Life in the Hereafter” in Opening the Qur’an: Introducing Islam’s Holy Book by Walter H. Wagner, Notre Dame 2008.

3.  Also Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 57a.

4. One of these periods was during the Almohad persecutions which engaged in forced conversions.  The Almohads conquered North Africa and Spain during the 12th century.  Nevertheless, this was a non-Arab Berber sect from North Africa. 

5. Icon of Evil. Hitler’s mufti and the Rise of Radical Islam by David G. Dalin and John F. Rothman. Transaction Publisher, New Bruswick and London, 2009.

6. Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Harper 2015.

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