Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

The Qur'an's Covenant with the Jewish People

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

The Qur'an's Covenant with the Jewish People

Article excerpt

Jewish claims to the Holy Land rest in passages of the Torah, in which the land is given to the Children of Israel in fulfillment of God's promise to them. In the book of Genesis, God promises the Holy Land to Abraham and his descendants unequivocally. Addressing Abraham, God says: "For all the land which you see, to you will I give it, and to your seed for ever" (Genesis 13:15). The promise is repeated to Abraham's son Isaac: "To you and your descendants I will give all these lands and will confirm the oath which I swore to your father Abraham" (Genesis 26:3).

Muslims today derive meanings from the Qur'an that censure the Jews and exalt the city of Jerusalem through reference to the "Night Journey" when the Prophet Muhammad is said to have traveled from Mecca to Jerusalem in a single night and then ascended to heaven to come before God. Chapter 17 of the Qur'an ("The Night Journey") refers to this event: "Glory be to Him, who carried His servant [Muhammad] by night from the holy mosque to the further mosque [al-Masjid al-Aqsa]" (Qur'an 17: 1).1 This "further mosque" is generally interpreted as Jerusalem or a place within it, often claimed to be the site of Al-Aqsa Mosque, built after Muhammad's death in 632.

Until now, there has been no proper dialogue about these founding texts. But a dialogue is possible, first by recognizing that the Qur'an does, in fact, confirm the Biblical promise, then by re-reading commentaries on the Qur'anic text where the Jewish claim is strengthened. Beyond that, although the Jews come in for severe criticism in the works of Muslim apologists and theologians, there are no grounds in religious law to entertain the conceit that God's promise to the Children of Israel has been broken, and none to support the view that Israel is now the property of the Muslims. This effort involves an approach to the analysis of texts that requires Muslim scholars to take lessons from modem Biblical interpretation as practiced by Christian and Jewish exegetes working singly and together. If dialogue at this level were to become widely possible, the long-term implications for peace in the Middle East might be considerable.


Illustrative of the powerful ambivalences and loose ends in Islamic interpretation is the Qur'anic commentary on the verse in Surat al-Ma 'ida (Qur'an 5:21) concerning the Israelite settlement of the Holy Land, an issue which is addressed in some detail by the classical commentators:

O my people, enter the Holy Land which God has prescribed for you, and turn not back in your traces, to turn about losers, [ya qawmi udkhulu ?-ardal-muqaddasa aUatikataba 'llah lakum wa la tartadu 'ala 'adbarikum fatanqalibu khasirina.]2

Islamic commenta- tors simultaneously dis- dain and revere the Jew- ish roots of Islam; still some Muslim interpreters unambiguously under- stand the sacred territory as an Israelite inheritance through Islamic law. This kind of thinking is not uncommon. The Qur'an itself, divided between Meccan and Medinan verses, early and late, presents numerous contradictory statements that interpreters have found ways to reconcile.

In both Judaism and Islam, the status and legal rights of a Gentile or stranger dwelling among Israel, or of the non-Muslim People of the Book, are all matters governed by sacred law. These rulings fall wholly within the purview of practical jurisprudence, not theologies concerning their salvation standing with God. Among rabbinic tractates, Avodah Zarah is replete with condemnation of the idolatrous worship of Christians and pagans,3 Tosefta Shabbat4 and Sanhédrin5 excoriate the falsity of the New Testament while at the same time, the rights and property of the stranger are protected and made sacred in Jewish law.6

For its part, the Qur'an clearly includes polemic against the Christian Trinity:

They are unbelievers who say, "God is the Third of Three." No god is there but One God. …

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