Jewish Muslim Encounters

                  Jewish-Muslim Encounters                    by Rabbi Allen S. Maller


The Qur'an is the only book of revelation that includes within itself a theory of prophethood which includes other religions. There have always been (since the days of Adam) people inspired by Allah who urged their society to avoid destruction by turning away from its corrupt and unjust ways and turning to the One God who created all humans. The Qur'an 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 Qur'an 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 Qur'an, 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 Qur'an doesn't explicitly tell us why so many prophets arose within the Children of Israel but a careful reading of the Qur'an reveals an answer. This was what I learned from a profound and enlightening essay by Irfan Ahmad Kahn in a book entitled Jewish-Muslim Encounters edited by Charles Selengut (Paragon House 2001). The book is a collection of 11 papers given at a conference in Cordoba, Spain, sponsored by the Inter-Religious Federation for World Peace.

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 of prophets. With Joseph and his brothers (the tribes) the extended family 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 the Jewish people to stay firm in their covenant with God. This prophetic ongoing concern is expressed in the Qur’an “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, Issac, 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 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 he doesn't stop setting himself up as a God, and doesn't let the Children of Israel go free. Musa comes to rebuke Pharaoh and to rescue the Children of Israel. Only when the nation is free from Egyptian bondage do they receive the Torah from God, by the hand of Moses without any mediation of an angel. This very enlightening essay by Irfan Ahmad Kahn stimulated me as a Reform Rabbi to realize that, as opposed to the accusations of some who blame the Qur’an for being antagonistic toward Jews, the many narrations in the Qur’an present events from Jewish history as archetypal events for all humanity to draw lessons from. The Qur'an stresses again that one part of the Children of Israel was faithful and another party was not. This was also stressed by the Prophets of Israel. Perhaps the fact that the spiritual history of the Children of Israel was so well known in Arabia is a simple explanation of this. Or perhaps the Qur'an views the Jews as an ongoing illustration of a religious community striving to live up to its covenant with God. The Hebrew Scriptures contain the words of many prophets (including the Psalms of David) delivered over at least 7 or 8 centuries, so they reflect not only the generation of the prophet, but also the failings of many subsequent generations to abide by the words of their messenger. This is like the failure of so many caliphs after the first four rightly guided ones to establish a true Muslim government.

As a Rabbi I believe that the many prophets Allah sends to the Children of Israel is a sign of the ongoing covenant between Allah and the Children of Israel.  I know Muslim interpreters interpret 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 not all Jews live up to this 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 remain loyal to their spiritual relationship with God. I believe wisdom dictates that we follow the Qur'an's (22:67) 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.” The Qur’an relates this ongoing concern when Prophet Moses speaks to his people as follows: “O my people! Remember God’s favor 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” (Maidah 5:20).

The principle that God can make a covenant with a whole people, and not just with those who are faithful believers, also helps me understand a powerful verse where the Koran narrates that at Sinai, before Allah gives the Torah to the Children of Israel, He makes a covenant with them. Allah raises the mountain above the whole people saying, “Hold firmly to what We have given you (the Torah) and remember what is in it” (2:63). The whole nation's fate stands under the shadow of mount Sinai, and this explains the miracle of all Israel agreeing to the covenant. This may be the reason why Musa is the only prophet whose book comes not from an angel but directly from Allah. Individuals who hear a prophet may choose to believe or disbelieve, but in this case God Almighty makes “an offer that you can't refuse,” so, as far as Judaism is concerned, everyone of the Children of Israel has to struggle for all generations to come, with living up to the covenant theyir ancestors chose to enter into. This concept, of a chosen (by being pressed into) choosing people, can and among many ultra orthodox Jews has, lead to exaggerated and self-righteous feelings of pride. Thus, when the Qur'an (A’raf 7:171) mentions another time the same event, when the Mount was moved above the Children of Israel, this verse is followed by a reminder in 7:172 that “children of Adam” were all made bear witness against their own souls: “‘Am I not your Lord?’ They said ‘Yes, we do bear witness.” God Almighty made a covenant with all individuals “lest [they] should say on the Day of Resurrection, ‘We were indeed unaware of this'”. This reminder by the Qur'an that no religious community should be self-righteous is similar to that of prophet Amos who tells the Children of Israel, “Are you not like the Children of Ethiopia to me, O Children of Israel? says God. Did I not redeem Israel from Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Syrians from Kir?” (Amos 9:7) Indeed, the Rabbis taught that God had made a prior covenant with Noah and all his decedents that applies to all humanity.

Thus, although the covenant was made with the whole community of Israel, this community like all other nations, also had people among them whose hearts are like rocks that spring forth streams, while others only yield water when split, and others sink for fear of Allah (2:74). It is this last segment of the Children of Israel that Prophet Muhammad refers to when he rebukes the Children of Israel. The Qur'an correctly understood doesn't attack all of Israel. Every community, including the Muslim ummah, contains groups of faithful believers and a party who disbelieve. This has always been true and sadly will remain true until the end of time when Judgment Day will occur.

There are ten other papers in this book which will be informative and enlightening to most people; one of them is a stimulating comparison of the similarities and differenced between Sufi mysticism and Kabbalah mysticism. I recommend this book to both Jews and Muslims who would like to get an insight into a neighbor's religion as well as a new insight into one's own religion.

Rabbi Allen S. Maller, Temple Akiba Culver City, CA

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