Jews and Christians

Surah 9 (Al-Tawbah/Repentance): 30-33

30. The Jews say that Ezra is the son of God and the Christians say the Messiah is the son of God. Those are words from their mouths. They resemble the words of those who disbelieved before.

God curse them! How they are perverted!

31. They have taken their rabbis and monks as lords apart from God, as well as the Messiah, son of Mary, though they were only commanded to worship one God. There is no god but He! Glory be to Him above the partners they ascribe.

32. They desire to extinguish the Light of God with their mouths. But God refuses to do aught but complete His Light though the disbelievers be adverse.

33. He it is who sent his messenger with guidance and the religion of Truth to make it prevail over all religion though the [mushrikun] be averse.

A pan-Abrahamic movement

The Qur’an consistently presents itself as the culmination of a revelation history that had previously centred upon the Jewish people and the Qur’an incorporates many Jewish figures, stories, themes and laws. It has also been seen that Jesus, although a mere human, was born of a virgin, capable of working miracles, the messiah and ‘a sign of the Hour’, occupying a uniquely exalted place in the Qur’an’s theology, in the above ways a somewhat more impressive a figure than Muhammad who acted merely as God’s last spokesman. The covenant with the children of Israel, and the Torah and gospels are repeatedly confirmed 〈19.〉 The Qur’an’s adoption of the Jewish and Christian legacy, and use of it to promote unqualified obedience, pre-eminent virtue to Muhammad as the ‘seal of the prophets’, inevitably raises a question over the status of Jews and Christians. If Paradise is promised to those who submit to God, and the Hellfire to those who do not, how should Muslims treat those who believe and submit to the pre-Quranic revelations but reject the authenticity of the Qur’an and its announcer?

 

In many passages the Qur’an reads as an ecumenical, interfaith movement. Abraham’s faith, as a ‘hanif’, is held up as a unifying paradigm of pure monotheism before God’s people became divided by the scourge of sectarianism – ‘Abraham was neither Jew nor Christian 〈21.〉 – and both the Torah and the gospel are confirmed as not only having been ‘sent down’ from God, but continuing to be authoritative to the communities that they were sent to. A sense of ‘more that unites us’ permeates passages such as:

{29.46} ‘… Say: ‘We believe in that which was sent down unto us and was sent down unto you (People of the Book).

Our God and your God are one, and unto Him are we submitters’.’

It is significant that the Qur’an never dignifies pre-existing religious traditions with recognition as belief systems. It talks of the Children of Israel, the People of the Book, Jews or Christians, but never of Judaism or Christianity.  {2.62} and {5.69} each identify four confessional groups who are assured of God’s mercy: ‘those who believe, those who are Jews and the Christians and the Sabeans: whosoever believes in God and the last Day and whosoever works righteousness’ to whom ‘no fear shall come upon them nor shall they grieve’, with the former verse inserting the additional words ‘shall have their reward with their Lord.

 

The identification of the sabaʾiyyūn (commonly anglicised to ‘sabeans’) is not certain. Traditionally they have been associated with a people of Sheba, fancifully a group that had preserved the  monotheism from their erstwhile queen’s visit to Solomon. It is more likely, though, that the term refers to mandeans, followers of a non-Christian religious tradition in which John the Baptist features prominently (the label ‘sabean‘ likely related to the Aramaic word for baptism, subba).

 

{2.62} and {5.69} draw a distinction between ‘those who believe’ and the three named faiths, the adherents of which do not count amongst the believers , but who, like the submitting Bedouins of {49.14}, will nonetheless be rewarded. At this stage concerns over doctrinal inconsistencies are brushed away with the platitude that that wherein people differ in this life will be revealed on the Last Day

{2.113}: The Jews say: ‘The Christians stand on nothing’,

and the Christians say: ‘The Jews stand on nothing’, 

though they recite the Book … God will judge between them on the Day of resurrection concerning that wherein they differed.

In {16.92}, the Qur’an author appeals for a unity between different groups to be maintained, employing the metaphor of a person unravelling a yarn into its different threads, warning that each would be the weaker for having been separated from the whole.

Jews and Christians in history

The Qur’an recognises the Children of Israel as a people who in the past been graced with God’s special favour:

{2.47 & 122} O children of Israel! Remember My Blessing which I bestowed upon you and that I favoured you above the worlds.

To these God had sent the Torah, the ark of the covenant and the many prophets that the Qur’an devotes so much of its content to recalling. The Qur’an author accepts that the Torah contained separate laws to the Qur’an, implying a special relationship between God and the Jews: eg {5.48} and {16.124}, see 〈97.〉 below. Moreover, God had specified this favour by conferring upon them the right to live in Holy Land:

{5.21}: (Moses said:) ‘O my people! Enter the Holy Land which God has prescribed for you’, and

{17.104}: ‘And We said thereafter unto the Children of Israel: ‘Dwell in the land…’

See also {10.93}.

 

However, the Israelites had thereafter been smitten by four divine punishments. The first occurred prior to their entry into Canaan and came in the form of a thunderbolt, for their worshipping of the golden calf, {2.55} and {4.153}. A second disaster is told in {7.163-168} and was a punishment for some Jews having broken their sabbath by gathering fish that God sent to tempt them, for which they were turned into apes 〈90.〉 At {17.4-7}, the Qur’an describes the two occasions upon which the Jerusalem Temple had been destroyed, (phrased as the recollection by God of a warning He had issued after the end of the Babylonian captivity, as though the destruction of the temple in AD 70 by Rome lay still in the future).

{17.4} And We decreed for the Children of Israel in the Book ‘Surely you will work corruption on the earth twice.’

{17.5} So when the promise of the first of these came to pass, We sent against you servants of Ours, possessed of great might, and they ravaged your dwellings, and it was a promise fulfilled.

{17.6} Then We gave you a turn against them, and We aided you with wealth and children, and We made you greater in number.

{17.7} If you are virtuous, you are virtuous for the sake of your own souls, and if you commit evil, it is for them.

So when the other promise comes to pass, they will make wretched your faces, and enter the Temple as they entered it the first time, and utterly ruin whatsoever they overtake.

 

The first three punishments of the Jews had been limited in their scope, but there is, in {17.6-7}, an air of finality as the Jews of the Qur’an’s time are told that their people’s infidelity has finally exhausted God’s patience and that they now face ‘utter ruin’. Whilst the destruction of the Jewish temple by the Roman Empire was presented as God’s punishment of the perfidious Jews, the later conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity is likely the event referred to as the prevailing of the ‘believing’ Jews in {61.14}:

{61.14} … Just as Jesus son of Mary said to the apostles: ‘Who are my helpers unto God?’ The apostles replied: ‘We are helpers unto God.’

Then a group from the Children of Israel believed and a group disbelieved. So We strengthened those who believed against their enemies, and they came to prevail.

This apparently fulfils the promise made by God to Jesus at {3.55}: ‘I shall … place those who followed thee above those who disbelieved until the Day of the Resurrection.’

 

In its celebration of the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity, as with its hope that the Byzantines would come to prevail over the Sassanians 〈1.〉, the Qur’an associates itself with Byzantine Christianity in a way that is surprising . The Qur’an is explicit in condemning the Christian doctrines of the incarnation and the trinity as false, and yet Christians, when they are identified as such, do not ever receive the same detailed, collective condemnation that is applied to Jews. The sin for which Christians are most reproached is their division (a fair criticism given the recent history), which presented in {5.14} as God ‘stirring up enmity and hatred’ between them to punish them for forgetting their covenant with Him.

 

The ‘naāra

The adoption of this relatively indulgent approach is assisted by the word used in the Qur’an to refer to Christians, ‘naṣara’, which requires some explanation. The Hebrew word ‘nezer’ (literally ‘separation’ or ‘consecration’) is used for the anointing of priests, who must be of the tribe of Levi (Leviticus 21.12 ). Numbers chapter 6 establishes an institution, the nazirite vow, whereby any Israelite may commit, temporarily or permanently, to live a life according to the some of the Torah’s priestly restrictions, in particular the avoidance of wine, strong drink or any grape-produce, contact with corpses and cutting one’s hair. A process is also fixed for bringing the vow to an end involving the sacrifice of two lambs and a ram and the offering of cakes of unleavened bread at the tent of tabernacle. The two most prominent Old Testament figures to take this vow are Samuel and Samson , and the existence of nazirite-oath takers is attested in the Bible as late as 1 Maccabees 3.49 . The name of Jesus is frequently associated in the gospels with the words ‘Nazarēnos’ and ‘Nazōraios’. All four gospels explain these epithets by the tradition that Jesus was raised in the town of Nazareth in Galilee and consequently these words are commonly translated as ‘of Nazareth’ and ‘the Nazarene’, respectively. But the term is given a prominence in the Gospels that seems to carry a greater significance than merely identifying Jesus by his hometown. In the Acts of the Apostles, 24.5 , St Paul is accused as being ‘a troublemaker … a ringleader of the sect of the Nazoreans’. In the fourth century St Epiphanius of Salamis casts a little light on the term and explains how the term came to be used to describe a particular group of Jewish-Christians:

At that time (after Jesus’s resurrection but before the writing of the gospels) all Christians were called Nazoraeans in the same way. They also came to be called Jessaeans for short while before the disciples began to be called Christians at Antioch… So in that brief period when they were called Jessaeans … certain other persons seceded though they were followers of the apostles. I mean the Nazoraeans whom I am presenting here. They were Jewish, were attached to the law and had circumcision…

By hearing just the name of Jesus, and seeing the miracles the prophets performed, they came to faith in Jesus themselves, But they found that he had been conceived in Nazareth and brought up in Joseph’s home and for this reason is called Jesus the Nazoraean in the gospels as the apostles say ‘Jesus the Nazoraean, a man approved by signs and wonders.’ Hence they adopted this name so as to be called Nazoreans.

 

The existence of a Jewish-Christian sect called the Nazareans that venerated Jesus whilst observing the Jewish law including circumcision is known to have survived until the early fifth century. Some have speculated that this Jewish-Christian sect had gone to ground in Arabia and had survived into the sixth/seventh century and been a source of inspiration for Muhammad’s religious movement . However, the simpler answer may be that the Qur’an’s author chose the biblical term applied to the followers of Jesus, as being deliberately anachronistic. By using this term, he would be able to incorporate Christians into his pan-Abrahamic vision, without having to endorse the later dogmas of trinitarian Christianity or Christianity’s abandonment of the Mosaic law.

 

There may have a second layer of meaning to the adoption of the term ‘naṣara’ for Christians. Islamic tradition has it that after making the hijra, Muhammad and his followers arrived in Yathrib as destitute refugees. Here they were supported by the Medinan-based converts whom Ibn Ishaq refers to collectively as the ‘anṣār’ meaning ‘helpers’. But the use of the term implies that these ‘helpers’ were not believers themselves, whereas it makes little sense, within Ibn Ishaq’s story, that Muhammad’s Medinan benefactors should not have been full members of his believing community themselves. The word ‘anṣār’ appears only twice in the Qur’an, in contexts traditionally associated with Muhammad’s Medinan helpers:

{9.101} (As for) the foremost, the first among the emigrants and the helpers (‘anar’) and those who followed them with virtue God is content with them

{9.117} God indeed has relented unto the Prophet and the Emigrants and the helpers (‘anar’) who followed him in the difficult hour after the hearts of a group of them nearly swerved.

 

However, the triconsonantal root n-š-r that is rendered ‘anṣār’ (‘helpers’) in {9.101 & 117} is the same root that elsewhere gives the word ‘naṣara’. Moreover, in two instances, the word (‘helpers’) is specifically linked to the followers of Jesus. In both {3.52} and {61.14}, Jesus asks his disciples: ‘Who are my helpers unto God?’ to which they reply in the former instance: ‘We are God’s helpers. We believe in God. Bear witness that we are submitters (‘muslim’)’ and in the latter: ‘We are helpers unto God’. The shared root and the use of the word ‘helpers’ to describe the disciples is unlikely to be a coincidence, and so must be regarded as deliberate wordplay.

 

Moreover, in {5.82-83}, the Qur’an, presents Christians as ‘closest in affection’ to the Quranic community:

{5.82} Thou wilt surely find the most hostile of men towards those who believe to be the Jews and those who ascribe partners unto God. And thou wilt find the nearest of them in affection towards those who believe to be those who say: ‘We are Christians.’

That is because amongst them are priests and monks and because they are not arrogant.

{5.83} And when they hear that which was sent down unto the Messenger, thou seest their eyes overflow with tears because of the truth they recognise.

They say: ‘O Lord We believe so inscribe us amongst the witnesses.’

 

One may wonder whether it is possible that Muhammad had in fact at Yathrib found sanctuary and material support by a Christian community, whose doctrinal differences were overlooked for a while and whose confessional identity was later disguised as anonymous ‘helpers’ through a fortuitously-possible shifting of vowels. At the time, the pun may even have carried a nod and a wink, that the Christians were being tolerated for reasons of pragmatism; a seventh century indication of a role that in the twentieth might be conveyed in the phrase ‘useful idiots’.

 

Jews: from unity to enmity

Both the Jews and the Christians of the Qur’an undergo a process of alienation, but for the Jews this is more pronounced. In some earlier verses, the Qur’an author invites listeners who doubt the authenticity of the revelation to confirm it through by consultation with the people who were given revelations previously: {10.94}: ’So if thou art in doubt concerning that which We have sent down unto thee, ask those who were given the Book before thee.’ Similarly {21.7}, see also {2.146} and {6.20}.

 

Later, clearly in the face of some opposition, the Qur’an becomes more discriminating, referring to ‘the disbelievers amongst the People of the Book’,{2.105},  those (sometimes ‘many’, sometimes ‘a group’) of the People of the Book who ‘wish to turn you back into disbelievers’, {2.109},  ‘wish to make you go astray’, {3.69}, ‘knowingly conceal the truth’, {2.146}, and ‘have lost their souls’, {6.20}. Later, clearly in the face of some opposition, the Qur’an becomes more discriminating, referring to ‘the disbelievers amongst the People of the Book’, ‘many of the People of the Book‘ who ‘wish to turn you back into disbelievers’, ‘a group amongst the People of the Book who) wishes to make you go astray’, {3.69}.

{3.76} Among the People of the Book is one whom were you to entrust to him a quintal [presumably something of great value] would render it back to you. And among them is one who, were you entrust to him a dinar would not render it back to you, unless you were standing over him.

See also {3.78, 113-115 & 199} and {5.57}.

 

Meanwhile, the Qur’an degrades the children of Israel as a whole. They are now only a people who have been given ‘a portion of the Book’, {3.23} and {4.44 & 51}. In {22.17} a similar list of religious affiliations to that in {2.62} and {5.69} is given but on this third occasion the list mixes the believers, Jews, Christians and Sabeans with the ‘mushrikun’ and the ‘Majusa’ or Magians – for the latter of whom, sometimes linked with the Magi of the Gospel of St Matthew; sometimes with Zoroastrians – {22.17} is their only reference in the Qur’an. At the conclusion of this final list, there is no reassurance of salvation for all, but only an ominous warning that ‘God will judge between them on the Day of Resurrection’. Based upon {2.62}, {5.69} and {22.17}, these three verses read together it is often said that in Islam, the People of the Book for whom salvation is promised, although they are not believers, are Jews, Christians, and the unknown Sabeans; with Zoroastrians occupying a precariously uncertain position. However, it may be more realistic to think of {22.17} as part of a process of ‘walking back’ from earlier guarantees of heavenly rewards for the members of all three creeds. In {2.134-140} the ‘hanif’ faith of Abraham is no longer seen as a unifying foundation for believers, Jews and Christians but as the pure faith ‘of a community that has passed away’: the fidelity of past prophets will not avail the current generation of their descendants:

{2.135} And they say: ‘Be Jews or Christians and you shall be rightly guided’.

Say: ‘Rather ours is the hanif of Abraham and he was not one of the idolaters’

 

Verses {2.136} and {3.84} are virtually identical: each requiring the audience to recite the list of past prophets, Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and Jesus leading to a commitment to submit. The former is followed by:

{2.137} And if they believe the like of what you believe in, then they shall be rightly guided.

And if they turn away then they ae merely in schism and God will suffice you against them…

 

The Qur’an, having relied so deeply upon Jewish lore for its theology, comes to turn against Jews, often now referred to not using the term Children of Israel (‘banu Isrā’il’) that associates them with the patriarchs of the Torah, but instead as Jews (‘al-yahūd’) marking them as a separate and wayward sect. They face a generalised litany of accusations, or as we would say today, antisemitic tropes. The Jews are said to:

  • engage in usury (’devour wealth’), {4.161} and make illicit gains, {5.41}, and they ‘would not give men so much as the speck on a date stone’, {4.53},

 

  • be hypocrites and unreliable allies, {59.11-12},

 

 

 

  • desire to turn believers away from belief, {2.109}, and wish them ill, {3.120},

 

  • have killed their prophets, {2.61, 87 & 91}, {3.21, 112, 181 & 183}, {4.155} and {5.70} (an accusation taken from Jesus’s reported words in Matthew 23.34-38 and Luke 11.47-51 – see also Romans 11.3 , for which the Hebrew bible contains little or no justification),

 

  • falsely boast of having killed Jesus {4.157}, slander Mary, {4.158}, and say that ‘God’s hand is shackled’, {5.64},

 

  • and – in apparent conflict with {2.47 & 122} – falsely claimed to be favoured by God, {62.5}.

 

They are a people who instead of saying ‘We hear and we obey’ say ‘We hear and disobey‘, {2.93 & 285}, {4.46} and {24.51}. They boast that their hearts ‘are uncircumcised’, {2.88}, and these same hearts ‘have been made hard’, {5.13} (see also {2.74}) and ‘sealed with disbelief’, {2.7}, {4.155}, by God. As a result of this they have been cursed by God ’with wrath upon wrath’, {2.88-90}, and compared by God to asses and (even for an unfortunate few, transformed into) apes, see 〈90.〉

 

Christians are never subject to this same level of vitriol. In Surah 5 believers are warned against taking either Jews or Christians as their allies: ’They are friends one to another. Lo! Allah He among you who taketh them for friends is (one) of them,{5.51}. But a little later in the same surah comes the reference to Christians being ‘the nearest in affection towards those who believe’, see above.

 

In {3.110} it is said that salvation is still possible for individual People of the Book who believe, ‘but most are iniquitous’. The condemnation is not absolute until the very end:
The Jews say that Ezra is the son of God

 

The culmination of this growing enmity comes with the twin denunciations in {9.30}, that ‘the Jews say that Ezra is the son of God and the Christians say that the Messiah is the son of God.’ Both denominations are consequently ‘mushrikun’: associators of partners unto God. Given the Qur’an’s condemnation of the belief in Jesus as the Son of God, the charge of shirk against Christians is the less surprising. In fact the more curious feature is that such an accusation had not been made explicit from the outset. But for fourteen centuries, the accusation that this verse levies against the Jews has caused genuine bemusement, since, although Ezra is revered in Judaism as a wise and devout scribe, there is no historical account of any Jew ever having asserted that he was anything other than a mortal man.

 

The most likely explanation may be that the Qur’an author had used the name of Ezra in place of that of Enoch. It has already been seen 〈14.〉 that a Jewish mystical movement had developed focussed upon the mysterious but exalted figure of Enoch, who is described in apocryphal scripture as having ascended to heaven. Following the destruction of the Jewish Temple by Rome, a second collection of tracts on Enoch was produced, and by the time of the Qur’an a Third Book of Enoch developed the story to an even grander level, describing how Enoch had been transformed by God into the most powerful angel of all and that, now going by the name Metatron, he sat upon a throne ruling the heavens and the earth as God’s vice-regent. Scandalously, in Enoch 3, he was even described, as a ‘Lesser Yahweh’. We know that the Qur’an author was attracted by Jewish mysticism, as shown by the Qur’an’s allusion to Harut and Marut 〈14.〉 and the inclusion of the ‘test of water’ in the story of the Queen of Sheba 〈23.〉, but also that he was a strict monotheist. It is easy to imagine that seeing Jews revering a book containing such a blasphemous passage might have outraged his sensibilities as much as paganism or the Christian doctrine of the incarnation.

 

If the charge of idolatry against the Jews does indeed relate to the veneration of Enoch, this leaves the change of name from Enoch to Ezra to be explained. Whilst no compelling explanation is immediately forthcoming , it should be born in mind that it is not unusual for the Qur’an to be creatively unorthodox, to say the least, with its biblical names.

Saul appears in the Qur’an with the otherwise unknown name of Talut 〈23.〉 (see also 〈2.〉),

Jesus is given the Quranic name, Isa, which is closer to Jacob’s brother Esau than it is to Yasu by which name Jesus is generally known to Arabic-speaking Christians 〈25.〉,

Mary’s father is given the name of Imran, certainly a variation on Amran the father of Moses – rather than Joachim, 〈25.〉, and

Abraham’s father appears as Azar which bears no similarity to the biblical Terah 〈19.〉

‘A common word’

In 2007, as a response to a controversial lecture addressing Islam and Byzantium given by Pope Benedict XVI the previous year, an open letter entitled ‘A Common Word Between us and You’ was signed by 138 prominent Islamic scholars, said to represent ‘every denomination and school of thought in Islam’, addressed to the world’s Christian leaders. This letter sought to ‘declare the common ground’ between Christianity and Islam. The letter begins with an English translation of {3.64}, a verse that is traditionally believed to have been revealed when Muhammad was visited by a delegation of Christians from Najran, in Yemen.

{3.64} Say: ‘O People of the Scripture! Come to a common word between us and you: that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him, and that none of us shall take others for lords beside God.’

And if they turn away, then say ‘Bear witness that we are they who have surrendered (unto Him)’.

 

However, it has been objected that the word ‘sawā’ that is generally translated as ‘common’, literally means ‘level’, ‘sound’ or ‘central’, and idiomatically ‘the right way’ rather than a shared ‘common ground’ as the letter seeks to imply . The former better fits the overall message of the verse, since it links its call to a ‘sawā’ word to the rejection of ‘ascribing any partner unto’ God – an obvious reference to a repudiation of Christian belief in the divinity of Jesus. The verse read as a whole demonstrates that the ecumenical interpretation put upon the verse by the Muslim scholars was not one that was originally intended by the verse’s author.