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The Qur’an and the Question of the Jews

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.

(I would like to give special thanks to Khalid and Sabeeha Rehman for introducing me to the illuminating translation of the Qur’an by Muhammad Asad, which is used in this article, and for deepening my understanding of Islam.)

No book in history, perhaps not even the Bible, has been the subject of more controversy than the Qur’an. One of the main charges against it is that it is anti-Semitic. I did not want to take anyone else’s word for it, so I decided to read the Qur’an for myself. As an aid to my study I downloaded a Qur’an app. I thought it would help to be able to have the Qur’an in portable, searchable form. I began reading the first sura, and I came to this (verses 6-7):

Guide us to the Straight Way, the way of those on whom You have bestowed Your grace, not (the way) of those who earned Your anger (such as the Jews), nor of those who went astray (such as the Christians).

Well that didn’t take long. Right in the very beginning, the Qur’an shows its anti-Semitism with a gratuitous attack on Jews, and Christians as well. Or so it might seem.

After I learned a little more, I discovered that those words in parentheses about Jews and Christians are not in the Qur’an. They were inserted by a commentator. Those words come not from the Qur’an but from the Hadith (Sahih Bukhari, 1:12:749), traditional sayings of Muhammad outside the Qur’an. This is a controversial topic. Many Muslims do not give the Hadith the same weight they ascribe to the Qur’an. In any case, Qur’an and Hadith should not be mixed up in discussions of a topic like this one. Our focus here will be the Qur’an.

And this particular tafsir (commentary) shows one thing: The Qur’an can seem to mean many things, depending on how one interprets it. The only way to get a decent sense of what the Qur’an means is to read all of it, and preferably in Arabic. If one does not read Arabic, then a good translation with a good commentary constitute the next best thing and, together with a study of the history of Muhammad’s life and career, can give the reader an informed opinion. And exactly the same is true of the Bible.

Yet this is not how extreme critics, and extreme partisans as well, approach the Qur’an. Both do what naïve readers are often warned not to do: lift verses and phrases out of their contexts, isolate them, and present them as representing the whole. Both enemies of Islam and “Islamists,” Islamic political extremists, engage in this practice, so these two polarized extremes exhibit a bizarre similarity.

Why? Both groups have a vested interest in presenting Islam as aggressive and intolerant, one for the purpose of vilifying Islam and the other for the purpose of justifying aggression. Meanwhile vast numbers of Muslims who do not subscribe to extreme forms of their religion are caught in the middle. When they hear their holy book chopped into many and selected disagreeable pieces and thrown at them to condemn them and their religion, they understandably experience it as an act of violence. Those who commit such acts do so out of fear and often out of reaction to what they hear from extremists. Clearly there is a need for a deeper perspective.

It is easy, through selective quotation, to make something sound like whatever you want, even hateful or evil. Qur’an antagonists take any verse containing words like “kill them wherever you find them” and “cast terror into their hearts” to make the Qur’an sound like a manifesto of war against the nonbeliever - and they receive ironic support from extremists who use the Qur’an in exactly the same way. One can do the same thing with the Bible. By selecting just the right passages from Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, and Revelation one can portray the Bible as a treatise justifying intolerance, aggression, and even ethnic cleansing and genocide. In both cases the part is taken for the whole. The Qur’an taken as a whole justifies war only in self-defense - but Qur’an’s antagonists typically omit those qualifiers.

The Qur’anic Case Against the Jews

The Jews, also called “People of the Book,” are mentioned often in the Qur’an. Muhammad’s relationship to the Jews of his time was ambivalent, and this is reflected in the Qur’an. By an unfortunate irony the harshest passages about Jews are concentrated in the first several suras (chapters) of the Qur’an, suras 2-5. This is because the suras do not appear in chronological order, but in approximate order of length, from longest to shortest. The longer suras, appearing first, come from the Medina period, during which Muhammad’s tensions with Jewish groups were most acute. So since the introductory sura 1 is only a few short verses long, Jewish readers of the Qur’an will encounter the anti-Jewish sections very quickly. By the time they finish the fifth sura (if they get that far) they may throw up their hands, dismissing the Qur’an as one huge anti-Semitic tract.

So let us examine these verses more closely, taking their full context into account, beginning with sura 2. There is a lengthy address to the Jews in verses 40-103, beginning with “Oh children of Israel!” seeming to address the people as a whole without exception. It recounts the history of Israel’s sins as recorded in its scriptures. Here are some excerpts from the address:

Do you bid other people to be pious, the while you forget your own selves - and yet you recite the divine writ? Will you not, then, use your reason? (2:44)

Ignominy and humiliation overshadowed them, and they earned the burden of God’s condemnation: all this, because they persisted in denying the truth of God’s messages and in slaying the prophets against all right: all this, because they rebelled [against God], and persisted in transgressing the bounds of what is right. (2:61)

We accepted this solemn pledge from [you,] the children of Israel: “You shall worship none but God, and you shall do good unto your parents and kinsfolk, and the orphans, and the poor; and you shall speak unto all people in a kindly way; and you shall be constant in prayer; and you shall spend in charity.” And yet, save for a few of you, you turned away: for you are obstinate folk! (2:83)

Is it not so that every time an apostle came unto you with something that was not to your liking, you gloried in your arrogance, and to some of them you gave the lie, while others you would slay? (2:87)

Why, then, did you slay God’s prophets aforetime, if you were [truly] believers? (2:91)

Is it not so that every time they made a promise [unto God], some of them cast it aside? Nay, indeed: most of them do not believe. (2:100)
There is more, but this gives an idea.

Continuing, in 3:71ff Jews as “followers of earlier revelation” are castigated for being deceitful and untrustworthy.

Further: “Among those of the Jewish faith there are some who distort the meaning of the [revealed] words, taking them out of their context and saying [as it were,] ‘We have heard, but we disobey’” (4:46). This is clearly an ironic play on Exodus 24:7.

In sura 5 a number of problematic verses have been used against Jews:

O YOU who have attained to faith! Do not take the Jews and the Christians for your allies: they are but allies of one another and whoever of you allies himself with them becomes, verily, one of them; behold, God does not guide such evildoers. (5:51)

Say: “O followers of earlier revelation! Do you find fault with us for no other reason than that we believe in God [alone], and in that which He has bestowed from on high upon us as well as that which He has bestowed aforetime? - or [is it only] because most of you are iniquitous?” (5:59)

Say: “Shall I tell you who, in the sight of God, deserves a yet worse retribution than these? They whom God has rejected and whom He has condemned, and whom He has turned into apes and swine because they worshipped the powers of evil: these are yet worse in station, and farther astray from the right path [than the mockers].” (5:60)

For, when they come unto you, they say, “We do believe”: whereas, in fact, they come with the resolve to deny the truth, and depart in the same state. But God is fully aware of all that they would conceal. (5:61)

And thou canst see many of them vie with one another in sinning and tyrannical conduct and in their swallowing of all that is evil. Vile indeed is what they do! (5:62)

Why do not their men of God and their rabbis forbid them to make sinful assertions and to swallow all that is evil? Vile indeed is what they contrive! (5:63)

And the Jews say, “God’s hand is shackled!” It is their own hands that are shackled; and rejected [by God] are they because of this their assertion. (5:64)

INDEED, We accepted a solemn pledge from the children of Israel, and We sent apostles unto them; [but] every time an apostle came unto them with anything that was not to their liking, [they rebelled:] to some of them they gave the lie, while others they would slay. (5:70)

In these passages we can find themes that have nourished anti-Semitism throughout the ages, including:

The Qur’an did not invent this material, and the influence of Christian sources is apparent. The charge that Jews killed their prophets is an exaggeration to the point of distortion of selected passages from the Hebrew Bible. It appears first in the New Testament (Luke 11:47, Luke 13:34, Acts 7:52, 1 Thessalonians 2:14-15). Long before the Qur’an, Christians used all of the themes enumerated above to delegitimize Jews and Judaism. The image of Jews killing their prophets, together with other common anti-Semitic themes having scriptural roots, has fueled centuries of violent attacks against Jews, mostly from Christians but also at times from Muslims. What this image is doing in the New Testament is a topic for a separate occasion. Right now our concern is that readers of the Qur’an should be aware of the full historical context

Muslim anti-Semitism existed long before the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, on which it is often blamed. The Christian persecution of Jews throughout Europe is well known. While Jews generally fared better under Muslim rule, conditions were still far from ideal. The Jewish status of dhimmi (“protected minorities”) in Arab lands carried with it restricted civil rights and an experience of subservience and humiliation. In parts of the Muslim world, notably North Africa, Jews were subject to massacres and ghettoization. In some Arab countries, synagogues were destroyed and Jews forced to convert to Islam or be killed. The great Jewish sage Maimonides faced this dilemma when he was compelled to flee “Golden Age” Spain after the Almohads took control. And no doubt a deep-seated anti-Semitism was a huge motivator of the Arab rejection of the 1947 United Nations partition plan that would have created a Jewish and a Palestinian state and might well have averted the intractable contention between Israelis and Palestinians that plagues the region today. Jews were supposed to be subordinate, dhimmi, and so the notion of a sovereign Jewish state in the heart of the Muslim world was for many Muslims simply intolerable. This is not the place to debate the intricacies of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, which has created much suffering on both sides. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that an obsessive anti-Semitism in much of the Muslim world has been one of the key factors instigating and perpetuating this conflict.

Anti-Semitism did not suddenly spring full-blown from either the New Testament or the Qur’an. It grew in stages as Christianity and Islam separated themselves from Judaism and formed their own religious identities. Eventually it went far beyond anything that can be found in scripture, but did often rely on scripture for justification, so that it is impossible today to read certain parts of either the New Testament or the Qur’an without in some way being affected by the role they played in encouraging anti-Jewish sentiment.

As Christianity and Islam separated from Judaism they needed to explain why Jews, the people of the Abrahamic revelation, did not join them. Some Christians and Muslims felt this necessary to safeguard the integrity of their own respective faiths. And so a broad outline of the anti-Semitic thought process developing in the birth of new religions inspired by Judaism might go something like this:

  1. There is a new revelation, based upon that given to the Jews.

  2. Jews do not accept this new revelation.

  3. Jews have always turned away from the truth. They even admit it.

  4. Their own prophets condemned them, so they killed the prophets.

  5. Therefore God has rejected them.

  6. And since rejected by God, they are less than fully human.
The culmination of anti-Semitism is dehumanization. The Qur’anic verse about “apes and swine” has frequently been used to suggest that Jews are subhuman, and to justify terrorism. The Nazis also dehumanized Jews, and even today some Jews carry a bitter memory of the alliance between Nazis and Arabs during the Holocaust.

And today, the nativist Republican Administration in the United States has inspired a reawakening of Christian anti-Semitism even to the point of open violence. Ironically, this has been bringing Jews and Muslims together.

Putting it in Context

What we have considered so far may make it seem that anti-Semitism is intrinsically a part of Islam. But when we view this material from a broader perspective, taking into account the full historical and religious context, we will see this is not the case. It will be a challenge both to Muslims and non-Muslims to approach the Qur’an in this way, since we have much in the conditioning of history to overcome. Accepting this challenge is a spiritual task especially for this time.

Let us begin with the second sura, al-Baqara. Here we find the lengthiest passage criticizing the Jews. We need to consider what precedes and follows it.

Before addressing the Jews, the Qur’an begins at the beginning, with the story of Adam. It recounts the creation of Adam and his wife, their blessing by God and placement in a beautiful garden, their disobedience and their fall.

Then the Qur’an recounts the history of the Jewish people, their disobedience and their fall.

After that, the Qur’an calls all believers to faith. One must live a life of patience, kindness, and justice, forsaking any authority other than God and any messages other than God’s messages. There is a strong echo of the Hebrew prophets in these passages, as they call upon proper care for the poor, the orphan, and the wayfaring stranger.

This sura is doing two key things:

  1. It is establishing a spiritual history of humanity.

  2. It is calling people to turn to the original Abrahamic faith.
Jews are singled out not because they are worse than anyone else, but because their story, preserved in their scriptures, is the human story. It begins with Adam and his flawed nature leading him into sin. It continues by showing how the same tragedy played out in the history of the Jewish people. By their uncompromising self-criticism and willingness to record their story with all its flaws, the Jews performed a great service to humanity in redirecting us to the proper path.

Jewish scripture records that the Jews strayed often, but there were many movements toward reform. There were the reforms of King Josiah in the seventh century BCE, marked by the rediscovery of the “Torah” (possibly the book of Deuteronomy) and return to its teachings. There were the great prophets before and during the exile, most notably Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. There were the leaders of the return from exile, Ezra and Nehemiah.

None of these reforms was permanent. Moving forward in scriptural tradition, Jesus came as a new reformer, resisting the corruption of the religious institutions of his day and calling the people back to prophetic faith. But this reform also was not complete.

And so Muhammad, clearly influenced by Jewish scripture and monotheism, came as another reformer in the tradition of the ones who preceded him. His revelation places the Jewish experience in the context of spiritual history. He even uses Jewish prophetic language to call people from polytheism to the true faith in one God originally revealed to the Jews.

And there is another critical point of commonality between Jesus and Muhammad: Not only were they both reformers of the religion of their day, they both extended the Jewish Covenant to people outside of Judaism.

Islam recognizes all these previous movements of reform and incorporates them into itself:

Say: “We believe in God, and in that which has been bestowed from on high upon us, and that which has been bestowed upon Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and their descendants, and that which has been vouchsafed to Moses and Jesus; and that which has been vouchsafed to all the [other] prophets by their Sustainer: we make no distinction between any of them. And it is unto Him that we surrender ourselves.” (Qur’an 2:136)

Islam recognizes the authority of all of these prophets without distinction, and there is room within Islam to see Moses as prophet to the Jews, Jesus as prophet to the Christians, and Muhammad as prophet to Muslims and all who would submit themselves completely to the one true God.

The anti-Jewish passages in the other suras can be similarly understood, though one in particular bears special comment because of the frequency and manner in which it has been used: Qur’an 5:60, “They whom God has rejected and whom He has condemned, and whom He has turned into apes and swine.”

If we take this verse in context, it is clear that its referent is not the Jewish people as a whole. Qur’an 2:65 specifically refers this criticism to those who violated the Sabbath. There is also more detail here:

And ask them about that town which stood by the sea: how its people would profane the Sabbath whenever their fish came to them, breaking the water’s surface, on a day on which they ought to have kept Sabbath - because they would not come to them on other than Sabbath-days! Thus did We try them by means of their [own] iniquitous doings. And whenever some people among them asked [those who tried to restrain the Sabbath-breakers], “Why do you preach to people whom God is about to destroy or [at least] to chastise with suffering severe?” - the pious ones would answer, “In order to be free from blame before your Sustainer, and that these [transgressors, too,] might become conscious of Him.” We saved those who had tried to prevent the doing of evil, and overwhelmed those who had been bent on evildoing with dreadful suffering for all their iniquity; and then, when they disdainfully persisted in doing what they had been forbidden to do, We said unto them: “Be as apes despicable!” (Qur’an 7:163-166)

The passage refers not to Jews as Jews but to people who willfully and repeatedly violate the will of God, in this case fishing on the sabbath, thus placing material gain over spiritual value. It is a graphic condemnation of the behavior of Sabbath breaking. It is not a declaration that Jews are animals.

The best evidence that the Qur’an does not mean to condemn the entire Jewish people is found in these positive verses, which seem to be rarely quoted:

VERILY, those who have attained to faith [in this divine writ], as well as those who follow the Jewish faith, and the Christians, and the Sabians - all who believe in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds - shall have their reward with their Sustainer; and no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve. (2:62)

For, verily, those who have attained to faith [in this divine writ], as well as those who follow the Jewish faith, and the Sabians, and the Christians - all who believe in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds - no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve. (5:69)

The ultimate criterion of divine favor is not whether one is Jewish or Christian or Muslim, but whether one submits totally to the one and only God.


It is possible to understand why the Qur’an would incorporate these portions harshly critical of Jews without attributing them to anti-Semitism. The Qur’an’s purpose was to reform the polytheistic religion of its day and replace it with submission to the one true God. This God was revealed to the world through the Jews in the Hebrew scriptures. By recording their own flaws so meticulously in their scriptures, the Jewish people have furnished the world with an example of the tragedies that can occur when one strays from God and the values God commanded. The Jewish prophets also exemplify the reforms that will always be needed, since no human society, not even one founded on God-given values, is immune to corruption.

Muhammad wanted what the Hebrew prophets wanted. They shared a common goal: to create a just society conforming to the nature of the one God who is real, replacing the false gods humans manufacture that always lead us astray and towards disaster. Muhammad therefore needed Jewish sacred history. He had to show how God works in the life of a people, how things can go wrong, and what we must do to keep things right. This is all recorded in Jewish scripture. Muhammad’s recounting of Jewish history, including all the people’s flaws, should be seen as his acknowledging the Jewish roots of the faith that he was bringing to his people. The correct Muslim response to the Jewish people on hearing and learning from Muhammad’s pronouncements about the Jews should therefore not be condemnation but gratitude.

Here we come to a sensitive point. When Jews have complained about their negative portrayal in the Qur’an, the most common response from Muslims has been some version of this: “What are you complaining about? The Qur’an doesn’t say anything about Jews that Jews don’t say about themselves in their own Bible. Even your own prophets condemned you.”

This is the wrong response. It is not only defensive, it is anti-Semitic. The Hebrew Bible gave to the world something both unique and unprecedented: a detailed record of national self-criticism. No other nation has done this. And this example is a call to the world to engage in similar self-criticism. There is nothing people hate more than criticizing themselves. So the easiest way to deflect this challenge is to turn Jewish self-criticism back on the Jews: “See, you are a stubborn and stiff-necked people. Look at what your own prophets say about you!” The resentment of Jews for bringing the challenge to self-criticize, the fear of self-criticism and the need to keep it a strictly Jewish problem is the psychological underpinning of much anti-Semitism. This became a very common theme in both Christian and Muslim anti-Jewish invective throughout the centuries. It is an effective way of escaping the call to self-criticism, but at the expense of fomenting hatred against Jews.

We have already considered a better response: Muslims can reassure Jews that their tradition is not anti-Semitic by thanking Jews for furnishing the example of their history from which everyone can learn. For who knows but on Judgment Day anyone, including Muslims, might find themselves castigated for straying from the true path. Recounting the Jewish experience therefore should not separate us; it should bring us together.

This is also an example from which Christians can learn. There are anti-Jewish passages in the New Testament, most seriously in the Gospel of John but in other places as well, and good Christian theology must not ignore them but find a way to deal with them. The Qur’an, properly understood, might possibly show such a way.

At this point some readers may feel I have neglected something important: I have not discussed in detail the political relationships between Muhammad and the Jewish groups of his time, which have also played a role in the formation of Muslim attitudes toward Jews. This area is fraught with controversy and to enter it would necessarily take us outside the Qur’an, to the Hadith (reported sayings of Muhammad) and the Sira (the classic Arabic biographies of Muhammad), which together constitute the sunna, the tradition supplementing the Qur’an on which most Islamic theology is based. The complications are enormous: Muhammad’s treatment of the Jews as recorded in the Sira is morally indefensible; however, while those stories greatly influenced Muslims’ perceptions of Jews, some scholars today believe they are fabrications, reflecting the anti-Jewish feeling of the time in which they were written. And many Muslims do not ascribe authority to the Hadith and Sira comparable to what they give the Qur’an. Therefore the scope of this article is the Qur’an only, Islam’s highest and undisputed authority. My purpose has been to present an understanding of the Qur’an that is valid and internally consistent and that promotes religious tolerance. An anti-Semitic interpretation of the Qur’anic passages about the Jews is not consistent with the Qur’an’s inclusive statements quoted above.

Holy scripture is powerful and must be handled with care. There will always be those who quote it selectively and use it for an incendiary purpose. Individual Muslims may continue to interpret the Qur’an anti-Semitically, just as individual Christians may continue to interpret the New Testament anti-Semitically. But in both cases such interpretations are inconsistent with the overall message. Abrahamic faith moves toward justice and compassion, and it is in the light of that standard that all fundamentalist forms of that faith should be judged. The scriptures of all three Abrahamic faiths - the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Qur’an - all contain problematic passages that can easily be interpreted in ways that set one group against another. Whether Christian, Muslim, or Jew, we all need to be vigilant about this tendency and find ways to confront it. We cannot allow the fundamentalists to own our scriptures.

The dramatic increase in attacks on Jews in the United States today shows that anti-Semitism is still a real problem. It should also be a call to all religious traditions to examine themselves and remember their reformers. The increased targeting of Jews and Muslims since the current administration took power has at least had the effect of bringing these two groups together in mutual support. This has the potential to become a tremendous blessing. But the problem of anti-Semitism is historic, even corrupting the interpretation of sacred texts, and it will not go away by itself. It must be recognized and must receive a theological response, based upon interpretation of scripture consistent with the faith that first inspired it. And if, as we repeatedly are told, we all really do worship the same God, the one God who created us all, then faith in that God should be a uniting, not a dividing force. And that will be the test of this faith’s veracity.

Niovember 2018