The Origins and Inspirations of Islamic Antisemitism
Islamic leaders have frequently stated that Islam holds no ill will toward Jews and that any conflict is solely with Israel and Zionists. In a January 1998 interview with CNN, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami called antisemitism a “Western phenomenon” with “no precedents in Islam or in the East. Jews and Muslims have lived harmoniously together for centuries.” This does not match the tone of Islamists who regularly and specifically single out Jews as a whole. In 2009, for example, Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Yusuf Qaradawi described the Holocaust as “divine punishment” for the Jews—whom he described as “Allah’s enemies”—and prayed that their next divine punishment would be at the hand of the Muslims. Qaradawi is but one of many religious propagandists from the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda, Hamas, and other Islamic extremist groups who have labeled Jews as enemies of Islam and Allah. This extreme interpretation of the Jews and their relationship with God can also be found in Islamic texts.
The Quran acknowledges that God sent down the Torah and the Christian Bible and encourages Christians and Jews to practice their religions. Muslims believe that the angel Gabriel revealed the Quran to Muhammad in the seventh century of the Common Era. But the Quran also contains multiple passages that describe Jewish rejection of God’s laws and God’s subsequent rejection of the Jews, which includes the famous comparison of Jews to apes and pigs that frequently is repeated in antisemitic diatribes by Islamist radicals. In April 2018, 300 high-profile French leaders called for the removal of outdated sections of the Quran that encouraged antisemitic and Islamist violence. French Muslims rejected the call as blaming the entire religion of Islam for the statements and actions of the extremist minority. The following section will examine some of the most widely cited passages and how they have been used to form the basis for antisemitism within Islam.
The Status of Jews Within Islam
Unlike Christianity, Islam did not directly spring from Judaism. The Quran contains several—some contradictory—passages about the Jews and their covenant with God. Early on in Sura 2, the Children of Israel are exhorted to “remember how I blessed you. Honour your pledge to Me and I will honour my pledge to you.” Later on, however, the Quran is explicit that Muslims have become the successors to the People of Israel because Jews failed to heed God’s messengers and laws:
Before you people, we destroyed whole generations when they did evil—their messengers brought them clear signs but they refused to believe. This is how we repay the guilty. Later We made you their successors in the land, to see how you would behave.
The passage is clear that Muslims are “successors” to those past generations that received prophecies. This is clearly a reference to the Jewish people, as the Quran speaks elsewhere of how Jews rejected divine warnings and prophecies.
Jews have a protected status within Islamic scripture and are known as People of the Book. This moniker typically refers to Jews and Christians but has been applied to other religions as well throughout Islamic history. Indeed, the Quran begins with an address to the Children of Israel, encouraging them to maintain their faith in what they have been given. When living under the rule of Islamic law (“dar al-Islam”), the People of the Book are referred to as ahl al-dhimmah (“people of protection”) or dhimmi (“protected person”). It is necessary to understand what this means in both theory and in practice, which have often been inconsistent.
According to the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought in Jordan, ahl al-dhimmah encompasses two general categories: those living amongst a Muslim population in an Islamic state under the laws and customs of that population; and those living in an autonomous area with their own laws and customs but still under the broader aegis of an Islamic state. In the first case, dhimmis are subject to the dominant civil laws but are generally left to manage their own religious affairs. They are not required to serve in the military to protect the Islamic state. They are, however, subject to a separate tax known as the jizyah, which is a poll-tax in exchange for not providing military service. The jizyah is based on the Quran’s Sura 9:29, which calls for Muslims to fight those who do not believe in Allah or hold by one of the faiths of the People of the Book until they “give the jizyah willingly while they are humbled.”
In the case of dhimmis residing in autonomous areas, the people agreed not to join the enemies of the Islamic state in exchange for living autonomously. This largely resulted in Jews living relatively peacefully in Islamic-ruled areas, although the results also included bloody conflicts and massacres carried out against Jews.
In the early days of Islam, Muhammad himself entered into a contract with Jewish tribes as Islam expanded out from Mecca. Shortly after Muhammad arrived in the city of Medina in 622 C.E., he and his followers entered into the Constitution of Medina with local tribes there, representing the first multi-religious contract under Islamic authority. Under the terms of the contract, non-Muslims could freely practice their religion while living under the civil laws of the new community and did not have to fight in the religious wars of the ruling Muslims. They did, however, have to fight in any civil military conflict. The constitution makes several specific references to Jews, guaranteeing that no Jew will be wronged for being a Jew, that those Jews who accept Muslim rule will receive civil benefits, and that no aid would be given to the enemies of Jews who accept Muslim rule. Despite these assurances, Jews living in Muslim countries were subjected to numerous restrictions. In Yemen, for example, Jews could not build their houses higher than a Muslim’s house. Synagogues were also required to be constructed lower than mosques.
Jewish Rejection of God and Islam
Like within Christianity, Islamic antisemitism draws upon the concept of Jewish rejection. Multiple passages of the Quran speak to Jewish rejection of past prophets and God’s laws. According to the Quran, God has rejected the Jews who have rejected Him. Sura 2:87-89 describes this punitive rejection by God.
Several passages of the Quran describe the Jewish rejection of God’s laws as handed down through the Israelite prophets. In turn, Sura 2:61 relays that God rejected the Jews, who “rejected his messages and killed prophets” and “disobeyed and were lawbreakers.” For this, the rebellious Jews were “struck with humiliation and wretchedness, and they incurred the wrath of God….” While Islam does not elevate Jesus to as high a level as does Christianity, it does view him as one in a line of prophets that also includes Abraham, Moses, Isaac, and Joseph. Like the Bible, the Quran takes a hardline view of the Jewish rejection of Jesus:
Those Children of Israel who defied [God] were rejected through the words of David, and Jesus, son of Mary, because they disobeyed, they persistently overstepped the limits, they did not forbid each other to do wrong. How vile their deeds were! You [Prophet] see many of them allying themselves with the disbelievers. How terrible is what their souls have stored up for them! God is angry with them and they will remain tormented. If they had believed in God, in the Prophet, and in what was sent down to him, they would never have allied themselves with disbelievers, but most of them are rebels.
The very next verse states that Muslim believers, Jews, Christians, and “all those who believe in God and the Last Day and do good—will have their rewards with their Lord.”
Nonetheless, the Quran continues to expound on the idea of Jewish rejection of God and warns that Jews may attempt to lead Muslims astray. Sura 3:69 cautions against “[s]ome of the People of the Book” who “would love to lead you astray….”
The language is similar to that used in the Old Testament regarding Pharaoh. God “hardened” the hearts of the Jews, just as with Pharaoh when he disobeyed God by refusing to release the Israelites from slavery. This can reinforce the interpretation of the Quran that concludes Jews have become the enemy of God, just as had Pharaoh. This theme is reinforced elsewhere in Sura 5, where Muhammad is instructed that he is “sure to find that the most hostile to the believers are the Jews and those who associate other deities with God….”
Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb commented on Sura 5:51-52 in the fourth volume of his The Shade of the Qur’an book series. He wrote that “Jews are mentioned ahead of the idolaters in being most hostile to the believers, and their hostility is open and easily recognized by anyone who cares to pay attention….” Qutb wrote that by mentioning the Jews first, the Quran emphasizes “the fact that the Scriptures have not changed the Jews and that they are just the same as the unbelievers in their ardent hostility towards the believers.” According to Qutb, the Jews are even more hostile toward Muslims than idolaters. Qutb accused the Jews of scheming against Muslims and waging an “unabated war” against Islam, Muhammad, and the Muslim community that has continued for more than 14 centuries.
Qutb goes on to accuse Jews of breaking their agreements with Muhammad, rejecting God’s laws, and waging an ideological war against Islam on the scale of the Crusades. He blamed Jews for the sexual revolution and atheism, adding that the “most evil theories which try to destroy all values and all that is sacred to mankind are advocated by Jews.” While Qutb repeated various antisemitic tropes about Jewish power and global domination conspiracies, he cited Quranic support for his assertions, such as Sura 5:82, which declared the Jews “the most hostile to those who believe….” Qutb went on to declare that only “Islam and its followers” could defeat the “wicked and most vile nature” of the Jews throughout history, and only the full implementation of Islam in people’s lives will save the modern world from the “wicked nature.”
Interpreted literally without textual or historical context, certain passages of the Torah and the Talmud can be used to draw negative conclusions about how the Jewish people view and interact with gentiles. But just as these sections do not represent the views of Jews, neither do controversial sections of the Quran represent the views of all Muslims. Nonetheless, extremists will comb their religion’s primary sources for anything that may justify their actions. In this way, Islamists have used the Quran to argue that the Jews are enemies of Islam and all Muslims.