Islam Without Apologetics

Andrew Bostom documents the long history of Muslim anti-Semitism.

by Bruce S. Thornton

City Journal

A review of The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism: From Sacred Texts to Solemn History, by Andrew G. Bostom (Prometheus Books, 766 pp.)

According to received wisdom, an Islamic faith that once tolerantly coexisted with Jews and Christians has been traumatized by the twentieth century and its destructive ideologies (such as fascism, communism, and nationalism), by the depredations of European colonialism and imperialism, and by the displacements wrought by globalization. These developments, according to such apologists as John Esposito and Reza Aslan, have given rise to a distortion of Islam, one manifested not just in “Islamist” terror but also in the virulent anti-Semitism visible today throughout the Middle East and in Europe’s Muslim communities. A religious culture that once embraced the kindred “people of the book” — Jews and Christians — has now been infected by European anti-Semitism, just one more way that Western cultural dysfunctions have damaged the traditions of a proud faith.

The problem with this tale, as Andrew Bostom documents in The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism, is that it isn’t true. A physician and professor of medicine at Brown University, Bostom demonstrated a doctor’s fidelity to empirical evidence in his previous book, The Legacy of Islamic Jihad, showing how violence against the infidel is central to Islamic doctrine, theology, and jurisprudence. He now performs a similar service in examining Islamic anti-Semitism, exploding the delusional myths with which too many in the West obscure the truth of Muslim Jew-hatred.

As he did in his earlier book, Bostom provides copious documentation from primary sources — including the Koran, hadith (traditional accounts of Mohammed’s deeds and sayings), sira (early biographies of Mohammed), and other Muslim texts — as well as modern scholarly commentary, including his own introduction, which summarizes his conclusions. His use of such an abundant body of scholarship makes it difficult for critics to dismiss his arguments as biased interpretations of the evidence. As he writes, “For the Muslim masses, basic Islamic education in the Qu’ran, hadith, and sira . . . may create an immutable superstructure of Jew hatred on to which non-Muslim sources of Jew hatred are easily grafted.”

Islamic anti-Semitism begins, as do all things in Islam, with the Koran — the immutable, infallible, timeless words of Allah dictated to the Prophet — in which Jews are cursed with “abasement and humiliation” and are “deserving of Allah’s wrath” because they rejected Mohammed. Jews are further characterized as corrupt, treacherous rebels and infidels whose destiny is to be the enemy of the true believers. The debased status of Jews is communicated most starkly in the Koranic verse (5:60) referring to their transformation into “apes” or “apes and swine,” a motif repeated in the early Muslim biographies of Mohammed: just before he executed the adult males of the Banu Qurayza, a Medinan Jewish tribe, Mohammed called them “brothers of apes” or, in another version, “brothers of monkeys and pigs.” This odious phrase recurs repeatedly in Muslim writings right up to the present: in a 2002 radio broadcast, Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir called for jihad against the Jews, “those apes, pigs, and worshipers of calves.” And Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, grand imam of Al-Azhar University, the most prestigious center of Muslim learning and theology, likewise has called Jews the “descendants of apes and pigs.” As the Tantawi example shows, such characterizations of Jews are not limited to fringe writers or marginalized extremists, as they are with present-day Christian anti-Semitism.

Further, Jew-hatred has been voiced over the centuries by the most respected theologians, jurists, and Koranic commentators, such as al-Tabari, Baydawi, and ibn Kathir. In the sixteenth century, the Moroccan sheikh al-Maghili’s voluminous diatribes against the Jews of the Touat oasis — “Love of the Prophet requires hatred of the Jews,” he wrote — culminated in a massacre of Touat’s Jews and the destruction of their synagogue. Closer to our own times, this tradition can be found in the writings of Sayyid Qutb, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood and prolific Koranic commentator, who was the most important theorist for modern jihadists. Qutb linked his call for a fundamentalist return to Islam to the Jews, whose “wicked nature . . . is full of hatred for Islam,” and whose defeat would come about only at the hands of Muslims who “implement Islam completely in their lives.” And modern terrorists have accompanied their murders of Israelis with similar justifications that refer to the Koran and Koranic exegetes, as in a 1968 Cairo conference that called repeatedly for forcing the Jews to return to their proper status of permanent abasement, humiliation, and wretchedness.

Like the Koran, the deeds and sayings of Mohammed collected in the hadith justify Muslim hatred of Jews. Mohammed repeatedly defines the proper behavior of Muslims by contrasting it with the customs and practices of the Jews. In the hadith, Jews are treacherous, envious, and spiteful. They alter the sacred scriptures to remove references to Mohammed; cast evil spells on Muslims; poison Mohammed; and reject spitefully Mohammed’s revelation and status as “seal of the prophets.” This alleged Jewish hostility toward Muslims justifies Muslims’ obligation to subdue and humiliate Jews. A seventeenth-century Yemenite ruler, Imam al-Mahdi, desired to fulfill Mohammed’s deathbed charge, as recorded in a canonical hadith, that “two religions shall not remain together in the peninsula of the Arabs,” so he exiled the Jews of Yemen to the desolate plain of Tihama, destroying synagogues and desecrating Torah scrolls. Only 1,000 of the original 10,000 Jews survived the ordeal.

In traditional biographies of Mohammed, the Jews appear as rivals to the new faith who must be conquered and displaced in order for Islam to advance. According to the eighth-century biographer ibn Ishaq, the Jews of Medina harassed Mohammed “out of jealousy, envy, and malice because Allah Exalted had conferred distinction upon the Arabs by choosing him as His messenger.” In point of historical fact, the Medina to which Mohammed repaired after leaving Mecca was home to three Jewish tribes whose rejection of Mohammed impeded his ambitions and whose ridicule of his exegesis of Jewish scripture aroused in him something akin to Harold Bloom’s “anxiety of influence” — a humiliating reminder of how much of the Koran was plagiarized from Jewish sacred writings. What followed was a campaign of assassinations of Jewish poets and leaders — ibn Ishaq quotes the Prophet as saying, “Kill any Jew that falls into your power” — and raids on Jewish caravans. This escalating aggression culminated in an attack on the Banu Qaynuqa tribe, whose members were despoiled and expelled from Medina. Next was the turn of the Banu Nadir, who were also expelled, their property distributed to Muslims. The last tribe, the Banu Qurayza, held out for a while behind their fortifications; when they finally surrendered, 600 to 900 men were beheaded, their women and children were sold into slavery, and their possessions were distributed, again, to Muslims. Subsequent Islamic exegetes (Abu Yusuf and al-Mawardi, for example) pointed to the extinction of the Banu Qurayza as a model for Muslim treatment of infidels who stand in the way of Islam’s ambitions by refusing the call to convert.

Bostom links this tradition to Muslims’ later treatment of Jews in Palestine, Spain, Turkey, and Iran. The doctrine of jihad is crucial to the story, for it links the goal of conquest to the protocols for treatment of Jews and Christians, who as dhimmi must live at the sufferance of their Muslim overlords, subjected to humiliating restrictions on their lives and payment of a poll tax. Contrary to the apologists and their fantasies of ecumenical tolerance in historic Islamic states, Bostom’s history is filled with massacres, enslavement, dispossession, and plundering of Jews, all justified by the Koran and Mohammed’s own behavior. This pattern extends to the present. Yasser Arafat, for example, appeared to the West in the guise of a secular nationalist, but his “core ideology,” Bostom writes, “remained . . . rooted in jihad.” Thus Arafat wrote to the Ayatollah Khomeini, “I pray Allah to guide your step along the paths of faith and Holy War in Iran, continuing the combat until we arrive at the walls of Jerusalem.” After the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993, which provided the Palestinians with a golden opportunity to realize their goal of an independent state — the presumed motive for their violence against Jews — Arafat said, “The jihad will continue.” And Hamas, of course, continues the long tradition of Jew-hatred and jihad today.

Bostom sees the same pattern of faith-sanctioned Jew-hatred and violence in Muslim Spain and Ottoman Turkey, both frequently extolled by apologists as oases of Islamic tolerance for Jews. Those who believe in the “golden age” of Andalusia should remember the slaughter of 3,000 to 4,000 Granadan Jews in 1066, a massacre preceded by the polemics of ibn Hazm, who repeated the traditional calumnies characterizing Jews as liars, tricksters, and the “filthiest and vilest of peoples, their unbelief horrid, their ignorance abominable.” So, too, the verses of Abu Ishaq, ibn Hazim’s contemporary, which sounded all the traditional notes of Islamic Jew-hatred, particularly the “humiliation and abasement” due to “apes.” Since this linkage of traditional rhetoric with violence continues in our own time, we must take such utterances seriously and not dismiss them as Muslim frustration with neocolonialism or Israel’s so-called occupation of Palestine.

Based solely on the historical evidence, Bostom’s survey and 500 pages of supporting documentation sweep away what he calls the “false pillars” of current apologies for Muslim anti-Semitism: that Muslim hostility to Jews is not grounded in Islamic theology, and that Jews living in historic Muslim societies were not subject to subservience and persecution. For Westerners doubtful of their own culture’s rectitude and unsure about what to believe, it might be pretty to think that Islam is just another Abrahamic path to God that shares the values of Christianity and Judaism. But the facts that Bostom collects tell another tale, one we should heed if we are to prevail against jihadist terror.

©2008 Bruce Thornton

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