May 11, 2008
Misunderstanding Islamic Antisemitism
Last year, nearing completion of the final manuscript version of The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism, I took a brief hiatus and posed the following two questions, based upon my research, to a cadre of academics, independent scholars, theologians, journalists, and activists who opine, in writing and speech, about Antisemitism, generally, and/or within the Muslim world, specifically. I asked (via e-mail correspondence), "In your opinion, would this quote (below) exemplify racial, or at least ethnic Antisemitism? Moreover would you please hazard a guess as to where and when it was written, based upon the contents?" Here is the quote:
Our people [the Muslims] observing thus the occupations of the Jews and the Christians concluded that the religion of the Jews must compare unfavorably as do their professions, and that their unbelief must be the foulest of all, since they are the filthiest of all nations. Why the Christians, ugly as they are, are physically less repulsive than the Jews may be explained by the fact that the Jews, by not intermarrying, have intensified the offensiveness of their features. Exotic elements have not mingled with them; neither have males of alien races had intercourse with their women, nor have their men cohabited with females of a foreign stock. The Jewish race therefore has been denied high mental qualities, sound physique, and superior lactation. The same results obtain when horses, camels, donkeys, and pigeons are inbred.
Not surprisingly, the replies of my correspondents reflected the conventional academic (and journalistic) wisdom which continues to assert Muslim Jew hatred is only a recent phenomenon that began in the late 19th or early 20th centuries, and is a mere by-product of the advent of the Zionist movement, and the protracted Arab-Israeli conflict over the lands comprising the original 1922 Mandate for historical Palestine (i.e., modern Israel, Jordan, Judea, Samaria, and Gaza). Such thinking also contends that this strain of Jew hatred is a loose amalgam of re-cycled medieval Christian Judeophobic motifs, calumnies from the Czarist Russia "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," and standard European racist, or Fascist/Nazi propaganda. A prototypical assessment of this ilk was written by the journalist Lawrence Wright in The Looming Tower, his widely acclaimed investigative account of the events leading to the cataclysmic acts of jihad terrorism on September 11, 2001.
Until the end of World War II...Jews lived safely -- although submissively --under Muslim rule for 1,200 years, enjoying full religious freedom; but in the 1930s, Nazi propaganda on Arabic-language shortwave radio, coupled with slanders by Christian missionaries in the region, infected the area with this ancient Western prejudice [antisemitism]. After the war, Cairo became a sanctuary for Nazis, who advised the military and the government. The rise of the Islamist movement coincided with the decline of fascism, but they overlapped in Egypt, and the germ passed into a new carrier.
Wright's statement was not accompanied by documentation-this was the accepted wisdom after all.
The contemporary pervasiveness of Wright's flawed understanding was again manifested in the responses of my interlocutors. A representative sample of their comments demonstrates this phenomenon:
"Of course it's Antisemitism of the most vile racist stripe-which leads me to think it likely dates from the 19th century, at the earliest. It also sounds like the sort of thing one would read in the Antisemitic popular literature of the Edwardian period. So, my guess would be somewhere between 1830 and the 1920s."
"I imagine this was written under the influence of modern theories of racial inferiority."
"If I had to hazard a guess, I would say this is from a sermon in a Gaza mosque this past Friday.."
"Could be any mosque in the Muslim world, or Nazi Germany if it weren't for the first line. Definitely racial..."
"How about current Wahhabi establishment?"
"I have no idea who said it but I'll hazard a guess just for sport: the Mufti of Jerusalem, circa 1940?"
"Probably last week from one of the mullahs in the UK."
"Yes, racist to the point of being Nazi-like. I would say, the Mufti of Jerusalem or some other Islamofascist, or maybe contemporary Wahhabi."
"...it's the usual (modern) boiler plate from the Middle East."
The quote in fact derives from a remarkable essay by the polymath Arabic writer al-Jahiz (d. 869), illustrating the anti-Jewish attitudes prevalent within an important early Islamic society, and composed over a millennium earlier than suspected by these interlocutors. It is also worth noting that al-Jahiz (described as a "skeptic," who harbored "indifferent views toward religion in general") included sociological observations-the quote cited above-which reveal the interface between indigenous ethnic/racial discriminatory, and Islamic religious (i.e., the essay's major emphasis, described below) attitudes towards Jews, expressed a thousand years before any secular Western European Antisemitic ideologies would be exported to the Muslim Near East
Al-Jahiz's full essay was actually an anti-Christian polemic believed to have been commissioned by the Abbasid Caliph al-Mutawakkil (d. 861), who inaugurated a literary campaign against the Christians. The author examines why the Muslim masses prefer the Christians to the Jews. This empirical preference (although decried by the author) is acknowledged by al-Jahiz from the outset:
I shall begin to enumerate the causes which made the Christians more liked by the masses than the Magians [Zoroastrians], and made men consider them more sincere than the Jews, more endeared, less treacherous, less unbelieving, and less deserving of punishment. For all this there are manifold and evident causes.
Al-Jahiz offers two primary explanations for this abiding hostility of the Muslim rank and file towards the Jews. First was the "rancorous" relationship between the early Muslim community, exiles from Mecca, relocated among Jewish neighbors in Medina.
When the [Muslim] Emigrants [from Mecca] became the neighbors of the Jews [in Medina]...the Jews began to envy the Muslims the blessings of their new faith, and the union which resulted after dissension. They proceeded to undermine the belief of our [i.e., the Muslim] masses, and to lead them astray. They aided our enemies and those envious of us. From mere misleading speech and stinging words they plunged into an open declaration of enmity, so that the Muslims mobilized their forces, exerting themselves morally and materially to banish the Jews and destroy them. Their strife became long-drawn and widespread, so that it worked itself up into a rage, and created yet greater animosity and more intensified rancor. The Christians, however, because of their remoteness from Mecca and Medina, did not have to put up with religious controversies, and did not have occasion to stir up trouble, and be involved in war. That was the first cause of our dislike of the Jews, and our partiality toward the Christians.
However, al-Jahiz then identifies as "the most potent cause" of this particular animus towards the Jews, Koran 5:82 ["Thou wilt surely find the most hostile of men to the believers are the Jews and the idolaters; and thou wilt surely find the nearest of them in love to the believers are those who say ‘We are Christians'; that, because some of them are priests and monks, and they wax not proud."], and its interpretation by the contemporary (i.e., mid-9th century) Muslim masses. It is important to note also that the gloss on Koran 5:82 in the classical Koranic commentaries by al-Tabari (d. 923), Zamakashari (d. 1143), Baydawi (d. ~ 1316), and Ibn Kathir (d. 1373), demonstrate a uniformity of opinion about the confirmed animus of the Jews towards the Muslims, which is repeatedly linked to the central Antisemitic motif in the Koran (verses 2:61/ 3:112) -- their eternal curse for transgressing the will of Allah, slaying Biblical prophets, and resultant condemnation to permanent humiliation. Tabari, for example, states:
In my [Tabari's] opinion, [the Christians] are not like the Jews who always scheme in order to murder the emissaries and the prophets, and who oppose God in his positive and negative commandments, and who corrupt His scripture which He revealed in His books.
Moreover, the basic contention in Al-Jahiz's essay that the Muslims harbored greater enmity towards the Jews than the Christians is supported by the independent observations of another Arab author active during the beginning of the 9th century in Iraq, the Sufi theologian al-Harith al-Muhasibi (d. 857). He maintained that because the Jews stubbornly denied Muhammad's truth, they were "...in the eyes of the Muslims worse than the Christians."
The impact upon Jews of such distinctly Antisemitic attitudes by Muslims in the specific context of the Arab Muslim world during the high Middle Ages (circa 950-1250 C.E.) is evident in S.D. Goitein' s seminal analyses of the primary source Geniza documentary record. Goitein's research caused him to employ the term Antisemitism,
...in order to differentiate animosity against Jews from the discrimination practiced by Islam against non-Muslims in general. Our scrutiny of the Geniza material has proved the existence of ‘antisemitism' in the time and the area considered here...
Goitein cites as one important concrete proof of his assertion that a unique strain of Islamic Jew hatred was extant at this time (i.e., up to a millennium ago) -- exploding the common assumption of its absence -- the fact that letters from the Cairo Geniza material,
...have a special word for it and, most significantly, one not found in the Bible or in Talmudic literature (nor registered in any Hebrew dictionary), but one much used and obviously coined in the Geniza period. It is sin'ūth, "hatred", a Jew-baiter being called sōnē, "a hater".
Incidents of such Muslim Jew hatred documented by Goitein in the Geniza come from northern Syria (Salamiyya and al-Mar‘arra), Morocco (Fez), and Egypt (Alexandria), with references to the latter being particularly frequent.
One thousand years later, various eyewitness accounts written throughout the 19th century illustrated the prolonged historical continuity of this theological Islamic Antisemitism. Edward William Lane, the renowned Arabic lexicographer, recorded his observations of Egyptian society in 1835. Lane's testimony on the difference between the attitude of Egyptian Muslims toward the Jews and the Christians again highlights the influence of Koran 5:82:
They [the Jews] are held in the utmost contempt and abhorrence by the Muslims in general, and they are said to bear a more inveterate hatred than any other people to the Muslims and the Muslim religion. It is said, in the Koran [quoting 5:82] "Thou shalt surely find the most violent all men to those who have believed to be the Jews..."
Lane further notes,
It is a common saying among the Muslims in this country, "Such one hates me with the hate of the Jews." We cannot wonder, then, that the Jews are detested far more than are the Christians. Not long ago, they used often to be jostled in the streets of Cairo, and sometimes beaten for merely passing on the right hand of a Muslim. At present, they are less oppressed: but still they scarcely ever dare to utter a word of abuse when reviled or beaten unjustly by the meanest Arab or Turk; for many a Jew has been put to death upon a false and malicious accusation of uttering disrespectful words against the Koran or the Prophet. It is common to hear an Arab abuse his jaded ass, and, after applying to him various opprobrious epithets, end by calling the beast a Jew.
Subsequent 19th century accounts validate and expand upon Lane's narrative. For example, the French surgeon A.B. Clot who resided in Egypt from 1825 to1848, and served Muhammad Ali as a medical adviser, earning the honorific title, "Bey," made these confirmatory observations written in 1840, five years after Lane's travelogue first appeared in 1835:
The Israelite race is the one that the Muslims hate the most. They think that the Jews hate Islam more than any other nation...Speaking of a fierce enemy, the Muslims say: "He hates me the way the Jews hate us." During the past century, the Israelites were often put to death because they were accused rightly or wrongly to have something disrespectful about the Koran.
A mid-19th century eyewitness account from Jerusalem by the missionary Gregory Wortabet, (published in 1856) captures these routine sentiments, which Wortabet attributes to Koranic verses referring to the Jews as apes and pigs (Koran 2:65, 5:60, and 7:166), as well as the canonical hadith about Muhammad's reputed poisoning by an ancient Khaybar Jewess:
The Jew is still an object of scorn, and nowhere is the name of "Yahoodi (Jew)"more looked down upon than here in the city of his fathers. One day, as I was passing the Damascus gate, I saw an Arab hurrying on his donkey amid imprecations such as the following:"Emshi ya Ibn-el-Yahoodi (Walk, thou son of a Jew)! Yulaan abuk ya Ibn-el-Yahoodi (Cursed be thy father, thou son of a Jew)!"I need not give any more illustrations of the manner in which the man went on. The reader will observe, that the man did not curse the donkey, but the Jew, the father of the donkey. Walking up to him, I said, "Why do you curse the Jew? What harm has he done you?""El Yahoodi khanzeer (the Jew is a hog)!", answered the man."How do you make that out?", I said. "Is not the Jew as good as you or I?""Ogh!", ejaculated the man, his eyes twinkling with fierce rage, and his brow knitting.By this time he was getting out of my hearing. I was pursuing my walk, when he turned round, and said, "El Yahoodi khanzeer! Khanzeer el Yahoodi! (The Jew is a hog! A hog is a Jew!)"Now I must tell the reader, that, in the Mahomedan vocabulary, there is no word lower than a hog, that animal being in their estimation the most defiled of animals; and good Mahomedans are prohibited by the Koran from eating it. The Jew, in their estimation, is the vilest of the human family, and is the object of their pious hatred, perhaps from the recollection that a Jewess of Khaibar first undermined the health of the prophet by infusing poison into his food. Hence a hog and a Jew are esteemed alike in the eye of a Moslem, both being the lowest of their kind; and now the reader will better understand the meaning of the man's words, "El Yahoodi khanzeer!"
Such hateful attitudes directed at the Jews specifically, persisted among Egyptian Muslims, as recorded in 1873 by Moritz Lüttke:
The Muslim hates no other religion as he hates that of the Jews...even now that all forms of political oppression have ceased, at a time when such great tolerance is shown to the Christian population, the Arabs still bear the same contemptuous hatred of the Jews. It is a commonplace occurrence, for example, for two Arabs reviling each other to call each other Ibn Yahūdī (or "son of a Jew") as the supreme insult...it should be mentioned that in these cases, they pronounce the word Yahūdī in a violent and contemptuous tone that would be hard to reproduce.
Jacob Landau's modern analysis of Egyptian Jewry in the 19th century elucidates the predictable outcome of these bigoted archetypes "constantly repeated in various forms"-the escalation from rhetorical to physical violence against Jews:
...it is interesting to note that even the fallāhīn, the Egyptian peasantry (almost all of them Muslim) certainly did not know many Jews at close quarters, but nevertheless would revile them. The enmity some Muslims felt for the Jews incited them to violence, persecution, and physical assault, as in 1882...Hostility was not necessarily the result of envy, for many Jews were poverty-stricken and even destitute and were sometimes forced to apply for financial assistance to their co-religionists abroad.
Thirty-fours years ago (1974) Bat Ye'or published a remarkably foresighted analysis of the Islamic antisemitism and resurgent jihadism in her native Egypt, being packaged for dissemination throughout the Muslim world. The primary, core Antisemitic and jihadist motifs were Islamic, derived from Islam's foundational texts, on to which European, especially Nazi elements were grafted.
The pejorative characteristics of Jews as they are described in Muslim religious texts are applied to modern Jews. Anti-Judaism and anti-Zionism are equivalent -- due to the inferior status of Jews in Islam, and because divine will dooms Jews to wandering and misery, the Jewish state appears to Muslims as an unbearable affront and a sin against Allah. Therefore it must be destroyed by Jihad. Here the Pan-Arab and anti-Western theses that consider Israel as an advanced instrument of the West in the Islamic world, come to reinforce religious anti-Judaism. The religious and political fuse in a purely Islamic context onto which are grafted foreign elements. If, on the doctrinal level, Nazi influence is secondary to the Islamic base, the technique with which the Antisemitic material has been reworked, and the political purposes being pursued, present striking similarites with Hitler's Germany.
That anti-Jewish opinions have been widely spread in Arab nationalist circles since the 1930s is not in doubt. But their confirmation at [Al] Azhar [University] by the most important authorities of Islam enabled them to be definitively imposed, with the cachet of infallible authenticity, upon illiterate masses that were strongly attached to religious traditions.
The uncomfortable examination of Islamic doctrines and history is required in order to understand the enduring phenomenon of Muslim Jew hatred, which dates back to the origins of Islam. Even if all non-Muslim Judeophobic themes were to disappear miraculously overnight from the Islamic world, the living legacy of anti-Jewish hatred, and violence rooted in Islam's sacred texts - -Koran, hadith, and sira -- would remain intact. The assessment and understanding of Islamic antisemitism must begin with an unapologetic analysis of the anti-Jewish motifs contained in these foundational texts of Islam. We can no longer view Muslim Jew hatred -- including annihilationist strains of this apocalyptic hatred -- as a "borrowed phenomenon," seen primarily, let alone exclusively, through the prism of Nazism and the Holocaust, the tragic legacy of Judeophobic Christian traditions, or "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" from Czarist Russia.
And the jihad against the Jews is but one aspect-albeit primal-of the jihad to establish global Islamic hegemony.
Julien Benda, in his classic 1928 La Trahison de Clercs (The Treason of the Intellectuals), decried with prophetic accuracy how the abandonment of objective truth abetted totalitarian ideologies, which led to the cataclysmic destruction of World War II.. La Trahison de Clercs of our time remains the nearly complete failure of Western intellectuals to study, understand, and acknowledge the heinous consequences of the living institution of jihad war, and the intimately related doctrine of Islamic antisemitism.
Andrew G. Bostom is the author of The Legacy of Jihad (Prometheus, 2005) and The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism (to be published later this month).