As a scholar of Religion I am forced to read scripture through different lenses than does a scholar of Divinity or a believer. I examine scripture with a critical eye, often extrapolating data that seem at odds with the prevailing opinion of the faith-based scholars. I also read the Bible (both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles) and the Qur’an with the realization that a rabbi, a priest or an imam will often use the main scripture of his/her religion as if it possesses the only data on the subject being discussed—totally oblivious to the fact that the scriptures of other religions, or even apocryphal texts within his/her own religion may contain additional or even contradictory material. And it is within this framework that certain truisms come to light.
When, for example, a text makes a declaration, and is the only text making that declaration, then one may legitimately say to the believer in that faith (let us call it faith A), “To you be your belief, and to me mine; my text says nothing of the issue, and therefore I choose not to accept your view.” When, however, the same idea is reiterated in the scripture of another religion (let us call this faith B), certainly then, the faithful believers in both faiths must agree on the issue, submitting to the scripture.
This is exactly the case with Israel. For whether one likes to admit it or not, religion plays the dominant role in terms of recognition of Israel’s right to exist. Jews look to the Hebrew Bible and quote verses that manifestly buttress their position. Christians read that Bible, along with the
New Testament, and come to the same conclusion. The average Muslim however, reads the Qur’an and claims to come to a different conclusion. This difference of opinion is significant because the countries that surround and fight against Israel are overwhelmingly Muslim, and purvey ideas under the nimbus of religious authority. And the imams and preachers continue to insist that Jewish rights to the land of Israel ceased with the Muslim occupation of the Holy Land in 638, and that Islam now dictates that the Jews who currently live there are usurpers to the property of others.
The question that arises then is: from whence comes the pre- dominant Muslim opinion? There is certainly no verse in the Qur’an that says the Jews or Children of Israel have relegated the right to that land. Certainly there is the issue of how the modern state of Israel was founded, and that there have been sanguinary and often unjust occurrences that would make God-loving people weep. But this discourse is not centered on the peripheral issue of how Israel was regained; rather it deals with the crux of the matter: Does the Qur’an state that the land of Israel belongs to the Jews?
In order to answer this question, one has to understand that in reading the Qur’an, one has to approach it in a different manner to the Bible. The Qur’an, after all, is primarily a document that is an oral text, and as such, its material is delivered differently than that of a written text. One has to read the entire document, understand that its verses are not chronologically, nor even topically or thematically arranged. A matter may be discussed in one chapter, and then be followed up several chapters later. In short, one has to read the entire document to understand its worldview, and only then can one attempt an informed extrapolation.
There is also another matter that must be considered when dealing with the Qur’an. Unlike the Hebrew and Christian Testaments, the Qur’an does not focus strongly on prophecy. The reason is quite simple when one considers the time setting of the three faiths, and in the light of eschatological terminology. Judaism, the oldest of the Abrahamic religions, is said to speak of consistent eschatology. A layman’s explanation can be that as far as Judaism is concerned, in terms of the time at which it came, there is much yet to occur before the Endtimes, and so there are many prophecies to be fulfilled.
The Christian position is said to be that of realized or inaugurated eschatology. Jesus comes as the Messiah to fulfill the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible. This is only possible towards the End of Time, as evidenced by his statement, “The End is at Hand.” Are we living in the Last Days, or at the Beginning of the Last Days? Depending on how one answers the question, one may choose “realized” or “inaugurated” eschatology.
The Qur’an presupposes that its readers understand the forego ing views—for the Arabia to which Muhammad came knew both Judaism and Christianity, and was keenly aware of their beliefs. After all, the Qur’an speaks of the prophets of both religions, and of their scripture as being divine. The Qur’an, since it recognizes Jesus as Messiah, cannot help but see that the end of time is either here or has started, and therefore it does not have much to prophesize about. But on occasion, it does prophesize. Remarkably, one such prophecy is in regards to Israel. And therein lies a possible solution to the problem—at least in terms of having the Muslim understand certain realities.
In Chapter 5:21 of the Qur’an, Moses says to the Children of Israel: “O my tribe! Enter the Holy Land which God has written for you…” Now, as I have written elsewhere (see “The Koran and the Jews”, frontpagemag.com, June 3, 2004), this matter is one that means more than what is apparent to the eye: the usage of the term “written” is extremely significant. If God writes some- thing, since God is not like a fickle, fallible human, then God’s writing (i.e. God’s decree), must be seen to be permanent, and none may change it.
It may be argued that if this were so, then the Jews would not have been twice exiled from the Holy Land. The argument is a shallow one: exile from the Promised Land does not change ownership. It may be contended that exile does in fact indicate that God wants to change ownership, and that such exile then negated Jewish sovereignty to the Holy Land. The fact is that the Jews certainly have not seen it this way, and neither did the medieval Muslim exegetes. They argued that exile as punishment, or delay in bringing about physical possession does not negate ownership. As Tabari, Ibn Kathir and other exegetes argued, God’s keeping the exodus survivors from the Land for forty years was in return for their wrongdoing when ordered to fight for their land: and as such, their taking possession was merely delayed, not annulled.
Nonetheless, for a Muslim, the fact remains that the Jews were exiled twice, and that after the second exile, the land was occupied by others who happen to be Muslim and Christian, with the majority being Muslim. The fact remains too that the average Muslim does not read the Qur’an and understand that document in terms of its text: rather s/he reads it through the perceptions of medieval exegetes whose writings have in some cases truly explicat ed, and in others, warped the clear meaning of the scripture. The farther away they were removed from the time of Muhammad, the more refracted their exegeses became, to the point where the idea of exegesis evolved into not faithfully expounding the text, but rather protecting what had become the dominant creed.
And what the Muslims knew was that after 638 C.E., Muslim forces wrested the land from the Byzantine occupiers. And in the light of such physical possession, and with the passage of time, Muslim perceptions of their scripture changed. The average Muslim looks at the text I quoted earlier and, despite its clarity, finds fault with the interpretation that I give: that it makes clear the land belongs to the Jews. So how then do I respond? I refer to one of the oldest exegetical works in Islam, one predating that of al-Tabari (d. 923), the most famous of exegetes. I use rather the work of Muqatil b. Sulayman (d. 767), whose exegesis is one of the oldest extant (I am aware of the issue of reliability of provenance, and feel that the document is to be seen as genuine). He explains Q5:21 as referring to Jericho and Palestine, and that God has ordered the Jews to enter the land.
He continues: This is because God said to Abraham, when he was in the Holy Land, this land where you are now today, is the inheritance for your son after you. And when God sent forth Moses from Egypt with the children of Israel, and parted the sea, and sent down the Torah, Moses ordered them to enter the Holy Land. They went forth until they came to the river Jordan in the mountain of Jericho. In Jericho there were 1,000 villages, in each village, a thousand gar- dens, and they were afraid to enter it…
The issue then, is not in anyway changed by the exile. But for the believing Muslim, the closer is the verse of prophecy in Q17:104 which reads:
And after him, we said to the Children of Israel: Dwell now in the land—and remember that when the promise of the Last Day shall come to pass, we shall bring you forth together.”
Once again, Muqatil b. Sulayman interprets this text in light of the beliefs that are presupposed by the Qur’an, based on Biblical stories. He explains that this occurred after the death of Pharaoh, and that it means the obvious: that towards the Endtimes, God will bring the people of Moses to that land.
The issue for a believing Muslim then is simple: does s/he stand in the way of God’s promise? The answer is clear, and only those who are arrogant and bedeviled may claim to not know what to do. The answer does not in any way negate the rights of Palestinians to a human existence in that land: the Torah orders the rightful owners of that land to treat ALL with humaneness and dignity. There is no issue then of Bible vs. Qur’an on the issue of Israel; both documents are in agreement.
“Rather I am Muslim, and I do what I do for the plea- sure of my Lord, and to use the knowledge that I have painstakingly pursued, for the benefit of my fellow Muslims.”
Why have I written this piece? Or rather, what agenda do I have? I am not Jewish, so it may not be assumed that I am dispensing pro-Israel propaganda. I am not Christian, so it may not be assumed that I am thinking of fulfilling Christian prophetic ideas regarding the parousia. And I certainly do not care whether the Jews or Christians regard my scripture as a “genuine one.” Rather I am Muslim, and I do what I do for the plea- sure of my Lord, and to use the knowledge that I have painstakingly pursued, for the benefit of my fellow Muslims.
As one who believes in his holy text, I find that it clearly states that Israel must be. To deny this would be to deny God’s decree. If all my fellow Muslims were to stand against me (God forbid!), my answer would be to quote, in addition to the verses already cited, that of Q 6:162: Say ‘Truly my prayer and my rituals, my life and my death are all for God, the Cherisher of the worlds.”
Conventional wisdom says that it is the sacred duty of every Muslim to drive the Jews of Israel into the Mediterranean. Dr. Khaleel Mohammed, however, reveals that this is not at all what Islam teaches. The idea that the land of Israel does not belong to the Jews, he says, is a modern one.
Dr. Mohammed is Asst. Professor of Religious Studies at San Diego State University, specializing in Islam, Islamic Law and Comparative Religion, and his mission is “to help reclaim the beauty that once was practiced in Islam, a mes- sage not currently in fashion amongst more traditional or fundamentalist Muslims.”