In Traditional circles of Islam, Prophet Muhammad’s interactions with Jews is quite well-known. These stories are used to portray a less than positive picture of Jews. Not only that, Quran is misused to insinuate that the nation of Jews are somehow cursed by Allah. This manifests in Islamic politics today as a renewed hatred by equivocating policies of the state of Israel with Judaism as a whole.
QG proposes a different approach – that we analyse meanings of ‘Jew-related’ concepts and see if they really concord with Quran itself as a whole. In order to discover and establish this concordance, we will analyse a number of fundamental ideas and see if they fit in with the idea of fingering a particular ethnic/religious tribe. We will then explore an alternative interpretation of these ideas which fit the overall picture of Quran better , in our understanding.
A. Is there only one manifestation of islam?
This is a crucial point because it determines the very need for a singled-out tribal or religious community in Quran’s worldview. In Traditional Islam, Islam is perfected with Prophet Muhammad. The Islams before him are tribalised and confined to various tribes (like the Israelites). As mentioned above, Traditional Islam itself sees the Children of Israel as an ethnic tribe. Moses and Jesus were seen to be sent to these people.
However, there is no such restriction in Quran itself. Rather, we will find that ‘aslama’ (the obtaining of peace) is a universal principle rather than a tribal religion (3/83). Prophet Muhammad himself told believers to believe what is given to musa and isa which effectively makes one muslim (3/84). This is opposite to the teaching of Traditional Islam which states that Moses and Jesus’ ‘sharia’ were past and no longer applicable.
Although there is one universal principle of islam, there are infinite paths to achieve that principle. These are called ‘paths of peace’ (subul as-salaam, 5/15). Whoever strives under the aegis of God, will be guided on His paths , also in plural (subulana, our paths in 29/69). Each person has a given disclosure and method and they are to unite towards the good (5/48). This again coheres with the notion that Allah turns us to our own expressions so we are to strive towards the good (2/148).
From the above, we can see that there is simply no evidence to support the Traditional notion that Prophet Muhammad was the perfection of Prophethood over and above Moses and Jesus. Rather, muslims themselves are to study the personalities of musa and isa in order to deepen their islamic experience. There is a single universal principle of islam but each of us should personally discover our own paths under this principle. No ethnic or tribal entity is singled out over others.
B. Who are bani israil?
The clearest example in the Quran as to the identity of bani israil is Ch 5 Vs 27-32. In this passage, the two children of adam are talked about and due to the transgression by one of them, bani israil were obliged to follow a particular rule (the famous killing or saving a soul rule, 5/32).
Quran does not oblige one person for the sins of another (35/18). Therefore the only possible identity of bani israil are bani adam. The Children of Israel are all of us, the Children of Adam.
This would then cohere with the following analyses:
1. In Chapter 2 (Al-Baqarah) the story of adam directly precedes two consecutive calls of bani israil, which is the longest narrative directed them (2/40-103). If we were to give a high value to textual coherence, The Reader would then be given a direct link between the two entities.
2. bani israil are said to be ‘preferred over the worlds’ (2/47, 122). If we take this to mean that Allah preferred the Jews over the rest of humankind, then it will not cohere with 49/13 which tells us that mankind was created from a single pair and that the noblest among us is the one who is most preservant. This notion of nobility is also extended to bani adam and the same preferentiality is given to them (17/70). This also shows bani adam are another aspect of bani israil. Two sides of the same coin.
3. musa fought for the freedom of bani israil from the system of firaun. If musa taught the very same system which is taught to every prophetic personality (as 2/213 proves), then musa would not confine his struggle to a particular race. It would also be really unthinkable for any messenger to reject anyone who wants to join his group simply because they are not from his tribe.
Therefore, bani israil is an aspect of humanity. Quran uses a number of words to address these aspects (like adam, insan, bashar, jinn) . There are four We are addressed in the calls to bani israil to produce the society which reflects the state of adam.
C. Who are ‘alladhina haadoo’ and ‘al-yahood’ ?
The two words above are translated to mean ‘Jews’ ignoring the form and grammatical attributes attached to them. ‘alladhina haadoo’ for example is in past tense (like ‘alladhina aamanoo’ – those who believed) and would literally be ‘those who were Jewed’. Why is there a need for this nonsensical word if in normative Arabic, ‘yahod’ was already clear? Even when Quran doe use the form ‘yahood’ it uses a very specific mode which is ‘al-yahood’ denoting a very contextual meaning. Given that Quran does not pick any particular ethnic or tribal group (as proven above), we need to find a meaning for these words else our readings will contain contradiction and not being in the sight of Allah (as per 4/82).
Fortunately, it is not difficult at all finding related meanings in Arabic dictionaries. Meanings connected to the H-W-D root (from which these two words spring) such as ‘crawling’ and ‘lenient’ are the most obvious. Muhammad Shiekh of the IIPC even has a lecture naming these people as the lenient folks and the Quranic personality *hood* (first mentioned in Ch 7 Vs 65) as the lenient messenger. The name *hood* also comes from the same root yet no one would translate his name to mean ‘Jew’.
QG’s view is close to Mr Shiekh’s own. We prefer to see the connection with the words ‘mahd’ or ‘mihad’ which loosely mean cradle. These words also come from the same root ‘h-w-d’ (one can easily detect the phonetic similarity). This is why for us, the words are connected with being cradled or attaining a state of comfort and ease. ‘alladhina hadoo’ given the context are people who have attained comfort or ease in something and ‘al-yahood’ are people who constantly seek ease and comfort. The Quranic personality ‘hood’ is one who seeks to provide these states for his people.
This behavioural pattern is why ‘alladhina hadoo’ are people who will not engage with the signs of Allah, as the implication of the context of 2/104-121 suggests. They however can attain salvation if they believe and act righteously (2/62, 5/69 and 22/17). Nevertheless their attitude puts them in a different camp than those who believed.
The ‘yahood’ people are those who constantly seek this state (the ‘ya’ shows a present continuous tense). These people take their honoured one (uzair) to be the means to Allah (9/30) and are considered to be the worst of enemies to believers (5/82) since they oppose the system of peace and justice (preferring instead to dominate and exploit). One can find such people in any community, including and perhaps especially Muslim ones.
D. Who are the ‘ahl al-kitab’ and the ‘alladhina ootu al-kitab’.
The above two terms are commonly used to mean ‘people of the book’ or ‘Jews and Christians’ in traditional Islam and if they are used positively, Traditional Muslim scholars would then say that these are the Jews and Christians of the past although the quote the verses which are critical to say that these refer to present day Jews and Christians.
However, it should be noted that the word ‘al-kitab’ (the book) which is connected to these terms is a relative word, that is, it’s related to the context given and is not related to any particular text necessarily. Quran uses the word ‘kitab’ in many senses even though it keeps to the basic meaning of something written down. Even natural patterns are called ‘al-kitab’.
As for the ‘ahl al-kitab’, the word ‘ahl’ (member) denotes belonging to something. The first time this word is used in 2/104 and if we read the passage contextually, it refers to the nation of israil (please see section B above for our understanding). Therefore, whoever is part of that system and who conforms to that behaviour is the one being referred to.
In the case of ‘alladhina ootu al-kitab’ , its first occurrence appears just forty verses down the line in 2/144. The phrase ‘alladhina ootu’ literally means ‘those who are given’. The context of this passage should be read from 2/142 which starts a new phase in the passage (2/142). This speaks about following the qiblah of the straight and establishing path. When they do this, they will be given the status of the middle nation (ummatan wasat – 2/143). In 2/144, Allah speaks to the Reader and affirms that He sees him looking for a qiblah and thus turns him towards masjid al-haram. He says that the ‘alladhina ootu al-kitab’ know that this is the truth. It would then be appropriate to think of ‘al-kitab’ here as the system which brings safety and security (thus haram or sanctified). The alladhina ootul kitab are given this knowledge and thus recognise it as truth. They are not an ethnic or tribal group as all human beings would have received this message (the messengers were sent to all people – 10/47).
Summary: Quran is a book whose scope is, according to itself, the entirety of humankind. This can be seen in its eschatological (judgement day) scenarios (39/68-75 is a good example). During that time the book (al-kitab) is opened and all human beings are judged alike. There is no special race being chosen and given special privileges, let alone cursed for the deeds of their ancestors. The traditional interpretation of ‘Jew’ was simply a reaction by the Arabs of the time in an attempt to co-opt Quran to become part of their racist agenda. Sadly, this has prevented us from benefitting from the universal application of Quran as a manual of human behaviour.