ANALYSIS: Part 1: It’s Not “All In The Koran”; Real Scholars On Islamic Antisemitism


It is a popular and widespread notion in some quarters that everything that needs to be known about Islamists and Islamism can be understood through reading classical Islamic texts. Such texts are said to represent an unchanging “Islamic Doctrine” that is at the core of not only Islamism but of Islam itself and therefore, it is argued, there is no essential difference between Islamism and Islam. Nowhere is this notion more prevalent than when it come to the issue of antisemitism in the Islamic world which is said in these same quarters to stem directly from Koranic and Islamic classic teachings about Jews. The conclusion is drawn that since these texts contain derogatory references to Jews, that Islam itself is unalterably and forever antisemitic and that Islamists simply derive their views straight from the Koran. This “It’s all in the Koran hypothesis” is central to the writings of an assorted collection of ideologues, religious zealots,  pundits,  and outright extremists who are either unfamiliar with anything resembling genuine scholarship on these issues or choose simply to ignore it for reasons of their own.

One such genuine scholar whose work is relevant to this issue is Dr. Mark Cohen, Professor of Near Eastern Studies  at Princeton University. As early as 1986, Dr. Cohen wrote a paper titled ” Islam and the Jews: Myth, Counter-Myth, History” in which he took issue with what he calls the “counter-myth” to the idea that there was an “interfaith utopia” during classical Islamic times. Dr. Cohen, clearly no pollyanna on the subject, writes:

While the myth of the interfaith Utopia was certainly in need of correction, the counter-myth, with its implicit transvaluation of the older conception of the relative status of the Jews of the West and the East, does not represent a fairer reading of the past. A more balanced approach, such as that taken by Bernard Lewis in his recent book, The Jews of Islam, or by Norman Stillman in the historical introduction to his source book, The Jews of Arab Lands is badly needed. That is because, as any careful and systematic reading of the historical sources shows, despite the theological intolerance that Islam shared with Christendom, the Jews of Islam experienced far greater security and far more integration with the majority society than their brethren in Europe.

Dr. Cohen’s paper shows not only that a different interpretation of Islamic history is possible but that the claims of inherent and murderous Islamic antisemitism dating back to classical Islamic times are not a recent phenomenon.

Another prominent exemplar of genuine scholarship is historian Dr. Martin Kramer, currently President of Shalem College, an undergraduate liberal arts college in Jerusalem, and a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, neither organization known to be a bastion of sympathy for Islamism. Dr. Kramer has had a long and distinguished academic career that includes having directed the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, teaching as a visiting professor at Brandeis University, the University of Chicago, Cornell University, and Georgetown University, and having served as a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. Dr. Kramer is also known as a harsh critic of the academic Islamic Studies programs at US universities and as somebody who is very sympathetic to the State of Israel.

So, what does such a scholar of the subject have to say about the issue of antisemitism in the Islamic world? In 1995, Dr. Kramer wrote an article for the Institute of Jewish Affairs titled “The Salience of Islamic Antisemitism” which began with a cold and sober appraisal following a terrorist incident in Argentina at the time and which breaks with what Dr. Kramer called “the long habit of emphasizing only the tolerance of Islam.” Clearly, this is no ideologue looking either to obscure the issue or to deny that it exists when he wrote:

Taking a hard look at hard evidence and assessing it soberly means breaking the long habit of emphasizing only the tolerance of Islam—a tolerance which drew so many Jewish scholars to study it in the first place. Islam today is not what it was, and nostalgia is not a very practical sentiment. Today there is Islamic antisemitism—a belief among many Muslims that Jews everywhere, in league with Israel, are behind a sinister plot to destroy Islam. Some of these Muslims believe the battleground is anywhere on the globe where Jews are organized to assist and aid in this plot. As I wrote last year in my Commentary article, ‘The Jihad Against the Jews,’ this antisemitism seems to me so widespread and potentially violent that it could eclipse all other forms of antisemitism over the next decade.

Dr. Kramer goes on to ask “What Are the Origins of Islamic Antisemitism?”, emphasizing the complexity of the question:

The question poses many of the same analytical dilemmas posed by antisemitism elsewhere. How much of it is the legacy of religious prejudice? How much is the product of modern theories of nation and race? How much is root in contemporary society, economics and politics? As any historian will tell you, it is extremely difficult to establish intellectual origins. We can only look at contemporary ideas and try to draw lines to earlier ideas, knowing that none of these lines is straight. The two most common answers—which do draw straight lines—locate the source of this antisemitism either in the essence of Islam, or in the creation of Israel. Let me begin with the first: the idea that Islamic prejudice against the Jews goes back fourteen centuries, that Islamic theology is ipso facto antisemitic. At the time of the Prophet Muhammad, relates the Qur’an, some Jews engaged in treachery against him. This is recorded in the Qur’an as God’s word. Speaking to Jewish audiences, I am often asked by those who have read certain passages of the Qur’an whether Jew-hatred is not endemic to Islam. Is it possible for any Muslim who goes back to these sources to read them as anything other than an indictment of Jewish treachery? There is a view that Islam in its very essence is antisemitic, and that the roots of the antisemitism we see today are authentically Islamic.

When Dr. Kramer describes the view “that Islam in its very essence is antisemitic” he has perfectly described the “It’s all in the Koran hypothesis”  identified above, clearly not a recent invention. Yet, having read and studied the same Islamic scriptures said by some to be the “Islamic Doctrine” on Jews, he draws a very different conclusion based on a vastly more nuanced interpretation:

This answer touches on some truths, yet it misses many others. One is that the Islamic tradition did not hold up those Jews who practiced treachery against Muhammad as archetypes—as the embodiment of Jews in all times and places. This makes for a striking contrast with a certain Christian concept of the eternal Jew, who forever bears the mark of the betrayer of Jesus. The Qur’an also includes certain verses which attest to the Prophet’s amicable relations with some Jews, and while religious supremacism always coloured the traditional Islamic view of the Jews, it also coloured the Islamic view of Christians and all other non-Muslims. In the Islamic tradition, the Jews are regarded as members of a legitimate community of believers in God, ‘people of the Book,’ legally entitled to sufferance. The overall record of Islamic civilization’s tolerance of Jews is not a bad one, especially when compared with the record of Christendom in most periods.

Having placed antisemitism in its “classical” Islamic context, Dr. Kramer goes on to point out that while contemporary Islamist antisemitism is not the same as classical Islamic scripture on Jews, those same Islamists do in fact draw upon such sources albeit in a “selective and distorting” manner:

Does that mean that today’s Islamic antisemitism has no grounding of Islam? No; there is no doubt whatsoever that the Islamic tradition provides sources on which Islamic antisemitism now feeds. Here is the mentor of Hizbullah in Lebanon, Ayatollah Fadlallah, pointing to the Qur’an as just such a source: ‘In the vocabulary of the Qur’an,’ he says, ‘Islamists have much of what they need to awaken the consciousness of Muslims, relying on the literal text of the Qur’an, because the Qur’an speaks about the Jews in a negative way, concerning both their historical conduct and future schemes.’ Today’s Muslim antisemites make very effective use of the Qur’an and Tradition of the Prophet. But it is also a selective and distorting use. For Muslims to arrive at the idea of an eternal Jew in Islam, for them to portray the Jews as ‘enemies of God,’ some additional influence must be at work.

Dr. Kramer goes on to devote substantial attention to refuting the notion, popular on the left side of the political spectrum, that it is the creation and policies of Israel that drive Islamist antisemitism. He concludes his paper by pointing out that for contemporary Islamic antisemitism to exist in its current form, “there must be more at work than Islamic tradition and Israeli policy” and that such antisemitism, as with other Islamist thought, draws heavily on Western thought, in this case Western antisemitism:

It would appear, therefore, that for Muslims to portray the Jew as the eternal Jew, for Muslims to portray the Jew as the arch conspirator, there must be more at work than Islamic tradition and Israeli policy. If these themes seem distressingly familiar, it is quite likely because they are borrowings from the canon of Western religious and racial antisemitism. The antisemitism we see today in the Islamic world owes a crucial debt to the antisemitism of the West. Like so much else in Islamist thought, it is derivative of Western ideological excess. How did it reach Muslims? I think it is highly relevant that many Islamist thinkers of the present generation have spent time in the West, collecting advanced degrees at the universities of London and Paris. There they seem to have absorbed the antisemitism of the extreme Left and Right, which they now retail as a comprehensive indictment of the Jews extending far beyond anti-Zionism. In this indictment, which purports to be the authentic voice of Islam, all manner of themes and sources jostle one another. Verses from the Qur’an mingle with quotations from the Protocols. The role of the Jews in Arabia of the seventh century is compared with the alleged international power of the Jews in the late twentieth. In this collapsing of sources and history, another distinction—between anti-Zionism and antisemitism—is deliberately lost. Islamism, then, like the foreign ideologies whose forms it mimics, requires the existence of a conspiracy. The existence of this conspiracy is necessary if Muslims are to find some external reason for Muslim weakness and dependence. In the foreign ideologies Islamism mimics—which are also antisemitic—Jews fill the role of conspirator, sapping societies of their vitality. Islamism looks at the tradition of Islam and the policies of Israel through this ideological prism—and sees a world Jewish conspiracy. Without this ideological prism, there can be no Islamic antisemitism. Islam is not inherently antisemitic. But Islamism is, and anyone viewing the world through its prism will inevitably see conspiring Jews.

Dr. Kramer wraps up his discussion by concluding, in stark contrast to those who believe otherwise,” that contemporary Islamic antisemitism is “not simply a continuation of tradition”:

On the question of origins, then, Islamic antisemitism is not simply a continuation of tradition or a response to injustice. Like other antisemitism, it has its origins in the anti-rational ideologies of modern Europe, which have now infected the Islamic world. If this is so, then neither a break with tradition, nor a diminishing of the injustice, will stop it. It exists above all because it is needed to complete an irrational logic.

(The remainder of Dr. Kramer’s article deals presciently with the questions of “How Widespread is Islamic Antisemitism?” and “Is Islamic Antisemitism Likely to Grow in the Future?” and can be read for historical interest.)

Then  there is Robert S. Wistrich, the Professor of European and Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the head of the University’s Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism. Dr. Wistrich, the author of 29 books, is known to be one of the world’s leading scholars on the history of antisemitism. In 2002, Dr. Wistrich authored a paper titled “Muslim Anti-Semitism: A Clear and Present Danger” in which he soberly observes that the Koranic image of the Jew was “far from harmless.” As he wrote:

…the Koranic image of the Jew, which has currently been so greatly exacerbated and radicalized in contemporary Islamic writings, was far from harmless. In the Koran there are some notably harsh passages in which Muhammad brands the Jews as enemies of Islam and depicts them as possessing a malevolent, rebellious spirit.There are also verses that speak of their justified abasement and poverty, of the Jews being “laden with God’s anger” for their disobedience. They had to be humiliated “because they had disbelieved the signs of God and slain the prophets unrightfully” (Sura 2:61/58). According to another verse (Sura 5:78/82), “the unbelievers of the Children of Israel” were cursed by both David and Jesus. The penalty for disbelief in God’s signs and in the miracles performed by the prophets was to be transformed into apes and swine or worshipers of idols (Sura 5:60/65).

Concurring with Dr. Cohen, Dr. Wistrich also notes takes issue with notion of an “interfaith utopia” in classical Islamic times:

Jews and Muslims have coexisted continuously since the emergence of Islam in the seventh century of the Christian era. There were periods when relative tolerance prevailed and Jews were able to make real intellectual advances, to enjoy economic prosperity, and occasionally even to attain some political influence under Islamic rule. However, more often than is generally acknowledged, their existence from Morocco to Iran was punctuated by misery, humiliation, and popular violence.

Yet, despite these grim observations, Dr. Wistrich agrees with the above scholars that Jews nevertheless fared relatively better under Islam than they did under Christian rule and managed to pursue both their livelihoods and their property rights. As Dr. Wistrich observes, there were also “self-confident medieval Muslims” who afforded Jews and Judaism a fair amount of relative respect:

Despite the servitude and discrimination implicit in the dhimmi status of the premodern era, Jews under Islam were nonetheless in a relatively better position than their coreligionists in Christian lands. They did not, for instance, carry the theological odium of Christ-killers as a mark of Cain on their brows. The more self-confident medieval Muslims did not feel the same compulsion as their Christian counterparts to negate Judaism as a religion, to engage in endless denigratory polemics against its validity, or to replace the “Old Covenant” with a “new” Israel of the spirit. For medieval Muslims, Christianity was, for obvious reasons, a much more serious theological, political, and military challenge than Judaism and also seemed significantly more alien. In comparison, the Jews were scarcely a threat to Muslims and were even possible allies. Moreover, dhimmi status under Islamic rule-in contrast to medieval Christendom-did not usually confine Jews in ghettos, restrict them to usury, or prevent them from owning land and practicing various crafts. The discrimination they did suffer under Islam was qualitatively far more benign than their exclusion and demonization in medieval Christianity.

The thoughts of the above scholars mesh well with those of Syrian-born scholar Dr. Bassam Tibi who has described what he calls the “pillars of Islamized antisemitism.” In a 2010 paper titled “From Sayyid Qutb To Hamas: “The Middle East Conflict and the Islamization of Antisemitism”, Dr. Tibi emphasized that contemporary Islamist antisemitism, with its “genocidal nature”,  is an import from Europe and distinct from what he calls traditional Islamic “Judeophobia”:

To be sure, the general distinction between Islamism and Islam is essential….The very notion of an “Islamization” suggests that the contemporary Antisemitism prevailing in the world of Islam rests on an import from Europe. The Islamists equate what has been Islamized with what is authentic. But Islamized Antisemitism is not authentic in Islam. Rather Antisemitism is alien to Islam. This statement is supported by Bernard Lewis (see note 1). Of course, I do not overlook the existence of a Judeophobia in traditional Islam, which is a racist prejudice, but Antisemitism is different given its genocidal nature. The argument that Jews are “evil” leads to approving a murderous Antisemitism. This ideology has been imported from Europe and then indigenized in process of Islamization. This historical fact contradicts Andrew Bostom’s contention that  “Islamic Antisemitism is as old as Islam.” This is a wrong view of the history, consequential because it closes the door to a better Jewish-Islamic understanding combined with mutual recognition.

The picture that emerges from the work of all these genuine scholars of the subject is far different and vastly more nuanced than the claims  of those in the “It’s all in the Koran” camp. This picture can be summarized as follows:

  • While the Koran does contain “notably harsh” passages about Jews, there are other passages which attest to the Prophet Mohamed’s amicable relations with some Jews.
  • While there was no ‘interfaith utopia”, Jews did manage to live and sometimes flourish within the classical Islamic world and fared better than there counterparts under Christian rule.
  • Contemporary, genocidal antisemitism could not have entered the Islamic world without the contribution of Western anti-Semites.
  • While Islamists draw upon classical Islamic sources to validate their antisemitism, they do so in a selective and distorting manner drawing also on Western sources
  • Islamist antisemitism is a 20th century development and represents a new development within the Islamic world along with Islamism itself.

What we see by examining the work of these genuine scholars is that it is possible to develop a more accurate view of the subject without having to adopt the counter views of those who deny any reality of Islamic antisemitism or who blame it on the Mideast conflict. None of this could possibly be understood by a simple reading of classical Islamic texts absent their social, political, cultural and historical contexts and especially by those with neither the Arabic-language skills nor any specialized training in this kind of scholarship. Indeed, as we have seen, the only likely outcome of such a reading project is an ideologically appealing yet vastly over simplified view suitable only for polemical purposes.

The GMBDW has chosen to begin this series of posts on Islamist ideology because we feel it is necessary to an understanding of the Muslim Brotherhood, both  the “wellspring” of Islamists and Islamism and itself a major source of Islamized antisemitism as described by the scholars cited above. Although we have focused in this post on antisemitism, we note that there is a far more pressing danger to the “It’s all in the Koran hypothesis” than just a misunderstanding of contemporary Islamic antisemitism. To argue that there is no real difference between Islamism and Islam is to confirm the Islamist claim to be the authentic voice of Islam, something that analyst Patrick Sookhdeo warned against in 2006:

Western governments have made the mistake of dealing with Islamist movements as though they are the authentic representatives of Muslim communities and of Islam in general, thus further empowering them. A better strategy would be to marginalize these groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, Jama’at-i-Islami, Deoband, and the Sala- fis/Wahhabis, as these are the movements that take the jihad passages of the Koran most seriously. Instead, groups that follow progressive interpretations that would limit the applicability of the violent passages to the early period of Islam, and that prioritize the peaceful ones as being the universal and eternal principles of Islam, should be en- couraged and supported until they become the dominant forces in the Muslim world.

Beyond strengthening the Islamist claim to authenticity, claiming that there is no difference between Islamism and Islam also confirms the Islamist assertion that the West is actually conducting a War on Islam, yet another pillar of contemporary Islamism and which appears to be the logical conclusion of the “It’s all in the Koran” hypothesis. The GMBDW believes it is the height of folly to end up aiding the Islamist cause as a direct consequence of the arguments made by those who say they are engaged in a defense of the West.

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