Jewish Influence on Islamic Beliefs
The conflict between Judaic and Islamic beliefs is of the class that makes it impossible to claim that any one borrowed anything from the other. It can be safely said that, in matters of faith and beliefs, Islam confronts Jewish beliefs, writes SYED IQBAL ZAHEER.
Shmuley Boteach is a British Rabbi and an erudite author who brings modern learning to Judaic studies. He teaches at the prestigious Oxford University and also lectures extensively spreading the wisdom of Torah, Talmud, Mishna and Kabbalist studies. He first won acclaim when, keeping with the modern, Western, civilizational, (although not civilizing) spirit, he produced a book called “Kosher Sex.” It proved to be a best-seller.
Although it could be accidental, but the truth is, any talk, show, or writing on sex in our times fetches buyers as no other merchandise does. Look for a common denomination in writings that win Western prizes, whose recipients invoke a six-minute handclapping, and you will discover that it is sex.
Our concern at the moment is Boteach’s another book, (a Basic Book publication of year 2002), called ‘Judaism for Everyone.’ It is a readable, interestingly written treatise that tells its readers how they can renew their lives through the vibrant lessons of the Jewish faith! The claim on the title page is followed up with bigger claims inside the book. Some are of the kind that freeze any informed person’s interests. A few are, in a Muslim’s opinion, appalling.
It is these appalling ideas – those that pertain to God – that invoke our response, for, in the light of Boteach’s another claim, namely, Islam is a byproduct of Judaism, silence would imply, not the acceptance of a historical untruth, but consent to what the Muslims think as preposterous ideas about God.
Writes Boteach about Jewish influence on Islam:
“Directly through the propagation of ethical monotheism, and indirectly through Judaism’s daughter religions, Christianity and Islam, the Jews have made God the most potent and important concept in the history of the world. Even in today’s world, there is no one word that is as powerful and mysterious as the name of the deity. Nor is any other subject more discussed and debated. The influence of the Jews is astonishing. A nation that began as a small Middle Eastern tribe ended up becoming the most influential and longest-enduring nation in all history.”
Although it is true that after the initial decade of military conflict with the Jews, there was never any conflict between Islam and Judaism (until the modern state of Israel was created, through the displacement of the Palestinians), and so, ways were open for Jewish influence on Islam, especially when many of them occupied high positions in Muslim Spain, (culminating in what the Jews remember as their Golden Age), yet it is a recognized fact that the ideological conflict that started with Judaism – right from the first day of the Prophetic mission – has lasted to this day. This has effectively closed all avenues for Jewish influence on Islamic ideology. Islam gave a concept of Divinity that is uniquely its own, neither found in Jewish literature nor Christian.
The Qur’an did not use allegorical language to describe God, His Attributes, and His ways with humanity. Its narratives about God are not concealed behind a mass of words dealing with mundane topics, nor in allegories of ambivalent content. God being the main topic of the Qur’an, (the divine Names or Attributes appearing some 3000 times in it), discussions about various aspects of Divinity are embedded in every little passage. The descriptions are strikingly direct, expressed in lucid syllables, and completely devoid of any ambiguity. Any contact with the Qur’an, however brief, leaves the impression on a reader, Muslim or non-Muslim, that the concepts set forth here are totally different from those that Jewish or Christian sources offer. The claim, then, that Islam is a daughter religion of Judaism is as fanciful a notion as it is inscrutable.
Below we shall take up a few opinions of the author in refutation of his claim that Islam was born out of Judaism. However, at this instance, we shall deal with only those pertaining to Islamic beliefs about the Deity. And, perhaps to the consternation of some readers who do not like long quotes, we shall quote him in extensively, to avoid any misunderstanding or misrepresentation. Boteach states (unless mentioned, all italics is by us for emphasis):
“Rabbi Harold Kushner’s best-seller, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, describes God as being subject to the laws of nature. Thus, though He, indeed, commiserates with our suffering and offers us comfort in moments of woe, there is little He can do to save the righteous man from a hurricane or a volcano. Even God is subject to nature’s laws. This vision seems to have brought comfort to millions of readers.”
But, we must point out that we Muslims do not share this “vision.” To us, God is above all and everything. Nothing is beyond His power. The Qur’an refutes the idea in unequivocal terms. One of its constant refrain is, “Verily, Allah has power over everything.”
Nature is no exception. God’s power is overwhelming and irresistible. What is nature after all? It is merely a set of laws that operate the world. God controls this body of laws to such supreme degree that the most minute things do not miss Him. The Qur’an states, “With Him are the keys to the Unseen. No one knows them except He. He knows what is in the land and in the sea. Not a leaf falls but He knows it, not a grain (is there) in the dark (crevices) of the earth, nor a fresh thing or withered, but it is (recorded) in a Clear Book.” (Ch. 6: 59)
God’s control extends to such a degree that, without His leave, humans would not even be able to hear or see. The Qur’an asks: “Say, ‘Who provides you out of heaven and earth? Or who owns the hearing and sight? And who brings out the living from the dead, and brings out the dead from the living? And who controls the affair?’ They will surely say, ‘Allah.’ Say then, ‘Will you not fear?’” (Ch. 10: 31)
“Indeed, Allah is the Splitter of the grains and the date‑stone; He brings forth the living from the dead and the dead from the living. That is your God. Where then, are you being driven? The Splitter of the dawn (from the night)…” (Ch.6: 95-96)
Indeed, the Qur’an informs us that not only all that exists is subjugated to God, He even makes and breaks the laws. It says,“Allah erases what He will, or confirms.” (Ch. 13: 39)
It should be obvious that so far as ideas about God are concerned, Jewish thoughts could not have influenced Muslims who firmly believe in the meaning and implication of above Qur’anic descriptions, which are but a few from a vast number in the Qur’an.
While dealing with Divine Attributes, the author expresses the Jewish opinion that there are masculine and feminine aspects to the Qualities of God. He writes,
“The common denominator of all these names and convictions is that they convey either the idea of God’s awesome might (e.g., King of Kings), that which the Kabbalists would describe as the masculine energy of the Godhead, or God’s nurturing or mothering instincts (e.g., The Merciful), conceived by the Kabbalists as the feminine energy within the Godhead. The masculine aspect of God is the immanent God of history, demonstrating peculiarly male-aggressive characteristics. This is the aspect of God that is like a disciplinarian father, rewarding and scolding mankind in accordance with its actions. Represented in the Kabbala by a line because of this divine energy’s tendency to descend from above to below in a direct column (masculine physiology), it is the God who comes down into the earth to interact with human affairs. It is the God who uses the stick to educate man to turn from his foibles and embrace sanctified living. It is the stern God of justice.
“But there is also the feminine God of creation, represented by an all-encompassing circle (feminine physiology), who hovers above creation like a protecting angel, nurturing man through the endless struggle of life, always patient even in the face of human corruption and darkness, awaiting man’s repentance and embracing of the light. Like a mother who loves her children whether they are deserving or not, this God is prepared to forgive man even in his moments of extreme ugliness. This is the infinite side of God, capable of giving birth to universes and endowing all creation equally with life, regardless of merit. The feminine God is the God of compassion. Placed together, the linear and the circular light represent God in all His perfection. A line and a circle together form the number ten (10), representing fullness and completion. Indeed, the Kabbalists maintain that God manifests Himself through ten channels, or sefirot, which represent the full panoply of celestial attributes.” (p. 87-88)
The author also asserts that man carries a sign of God on His reproductive organ when he undergoes circumcision. He writes,
“The sign of circumcision for the Jew is the equivalent of a heavenly ‘Congressional Medal of Honor.’” (p.387)
“This is why God commanded that on the reproductive organ – man’s greatest symbol of his creative energy and his infinite capacity for Godly emulation – there must be a sign of God to teach man discipline.” (p. 387)
But, apart from the fact that the simile he draws (“feminine physiology,” and, “the sign on the reproductive organ”) are quite revolting to Muslim mind, Islam strictly prohibits any similes drawn for God. This is so well-known among the Muslims, that even the most poorly educated of them will hasten to declare that Islam does not tolerate any such similitude. The Qur’an has taught its adherents:“Do not strike similitude for Allah.” (Ch. 16: 74)
According to the Qur’an, Allah (swt) is unlike anything that a similitude could be struck for Him. It asserts, “There is nothing like unto Him.” (Ch. 42: 11)
Accordingly, it has forbidden that any likeness is expressed for Him but for the most profound one. The Qur’an said,“And for Allah is the Most Profound example.” (Ch. 16: 60)
The Jews have been in a dilemma since two thousand years. On the one hand, they believe they are the chosen people of God. In Boteach’s words,
“Biblical references abound of God as the bridegroom of the nation of Israel and the Jews as his chosen bride.” (p. 99)
He quotes Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman, (from Disputation in Barcelona, 1263):
We Jews, you say, are proud and an elite because we reckon ourselves the chosen people of God, but for what were we chosen? To show all nations an example of a people who is not afraid to stand upright on the earth, to regard no man as God, to look even God in the face and not be overwhelmed. This is why we are the chosen people of God, for God does not want us human beings to be wretches and cowards who dare not stand on our own feet.” (p. 261) [Emphasis by author]
Such are the Jewish opinions about themselves. But the Qur’an disagrees with their beliefs and offers them a litmus test to prove their claim by aspiring to meet God. It says, “O those who have adopted Judaism, if you claim that you are God’s beloved ones, apart from other people, then, wish for death if you are truthful.” (Ch. 62: 6)
The Jews respond by saying that they do not believe in rising up to God. The Torah has scant mention, if any, of the Hereafter. In the words of Boteach himself:
“There are two principal ways for man to bridge the chasm separating him from his Creator. Man can attempt to ascend to the heavens or to bring the Almighty down into this world. And it is precisely this issue that distinguishes Judaism from other world religions. Whereas other religions teach the individual to shed his physicality and ascend to the heavens, Judaism strives to reveal God’s glorious presence in the midst of our shared physical world. Whereas other religions beckon man to leave the earth behind and ascend to the heavens, Judaism enjoins man to create heaven on earth.” (p. 43)
“It is in this world that God is to be found, and it is in this world that man must live a Godly life. Holiness must pervade his every action, for no realm of existence is outside God’s dominion. Judaism declares that the rejection of the physical world is essentially a rejection of God’s omnipresence. The great medieval Jewish philosopher, Rabbi Judah Halevi, wrote in his magnum opus, the Kuzari: ‘The servant of God does not withdraw himself from secular contact lest he be a burden to the world, and the world to him; he does not hate life, one of God’s bounties to him … On the contrary, he loves this world and wishes for a long life.’”
Thus, there is no need for the Jews to take the litmus test. They love a long life, and do not aspire to the Heaven. How can then anyone imagine that Islam has been influenced by Judaic thought? The Qur’an reminds us in several places, “Nay, you prefer the life of this world, but the Hereafter is better and longer-lasting.” (Ch. 87: 16-17)
To come back to the main theme, the opinion held by the Jews, vis. a. vis. “the chosen people of God,” puts them in a dilemma. If that is what they are, why did God allow their persecution (at the hands of the Christians) for two thousand long years? Why were they so harshly treated in the Western hemisphere where they were forced to live in walled ghettoes, which they could not leave after nightfall, were forced to wear identification collars, and disallowed from doing any but meanly business? Notwithstanding all this, they were the objects of pogroms that resulted in massacres, that were organized against them from time to time. It culminated in the Nazi atrocities. Why did God not act? Why did He abandon His chosen people? These are questions that have driven away many Jews from Judaism.
The Qur’an answered in its characteristic, simple, logical and eloquent manner. It said, although in a slightly different context, “And the Jews and Christians claim, ‘We are children of God, and His beloved ones.’ Say, ‘Then why does He punish you for your sins?’ But rather, you are a people, just as any other people that He created. He forgives whom He will and punishes whom He will.” (Ch.5: v.18)
Thus, the dilemma is solved. The Jews are not a chosen people, but subject to same Divine laws as any other people. However, since such an answer is unacceptable to the Jews, the questions remain and disturb every Jew. Boteach offers several solutions. E.g.,
“There are moments when God temporarily abandons the world, suspends His active surveillance. This concept is almost never applied in a general defense of God’s goodness in the face of evil, but rather as a response to a particular catastrophe, like the Holocaust.” (p. 194)
But this is an entirely non-Qur’anic concept. The Qur’an tells us about God, “Verily, Allah holds the heavens and the earth lest they deviate. But if they deviated, there is no one to hold them after Him.” (Ch. 35: 41)
God then, according to Islamic concepts, has whole of the universe in His control, and regulates its every part in accordance to His will. He does not tire, nor take rest, short or long, and does suspend His active surveillance for a moment. The Qur’an stated (Ch.2, v.255),“Allah! There is no deity but He: the Living, the Self‑subsisting by whom all subsist. Slumber does not overtake Him nor does sleep.” (Ch. 2, v.255)
“Indeed, not away from (the notice of) your Lord is (anything) as much as the weight of an atom, whether in the earth or in the heavens, smaller than that or bigger…” (Ch. 10, v.61)
But, since the Jews are not ready to let go the central pillar of their beliefs, the dilemma remains and Boteach informs us how the Jews should respond by enumerating how renowned Jewish scholars responded. One of them is Elie Wiesel. He writes about him:
“When I first had the privilege of hosting Elie Wiesel to lecture to Oxford’s students in March 1990, he was asked by a student whether he still believed in God after the Holocaust. He responded, “Of course I believe in God after the Holocaust, and my belief in Him has not wavered one bit. But because I believe in Him, I am very angry with Him.” (p. 192)
Boteach’s own recommendations include:
“The Jewish response to suffering is to struggle with God, to wrestle with the divine. Since man is in a relationship with God, he has the right to make certain demands that are necessary for the health of the God-man relationship.” (p. 195)
“Why God brings suffering upon mankind, especially on the righteous, is something that transcends human comprehension. Moreover, it is none of our business. God must pursue His plan. But human beings are charged with the eternal pursuit of love and justice, even if it means sparring with the Creator. These are the legitimate roles that may often conflict…”
“The question to pose in such a case is not, ‘Please, God, explain to us why bad things happen and how it fits into Your overall plan for creation,’ but rather: ‘Master of the Universe, how could You allow this to happen? Was it not You who taught us in Your magnificent Torah that life is sacred and must be preserved at all costs? Where is that life now? Was it not You who promised that the good deserve goodness and not pain? Where is Your promise now? By everything that is sacred to You, I demand that this cease.’ Far from being an affront to divine authority, these words are part of the human mandate. Remaining passive in the face of human suffering is a sin against both man and the Creator.” (p. 199)
But this response runs counter to what the Qur’an would allow. It asserts that God is the absolute Sovereign, the Monarch, Ruler, King, Judge – whatever word you may use, each of which is inadequate to express God’s absolute power over all things. No one can disagree with Him, far from dreaming of confronting Him, struggling with Him or making any demand on Him. The Qur’an says, “He cannot be questioned for what He does, but rather, they will be questioned.” (Ch.21: 23)
It also says “Say, ‘In whose hand is the dominion over everything, and He protects and protections is not given against Him – if you know?’” (Ch. 23: 88)
But Boteach asserts that,
“God does not expect man to remain silent in the face of seeming divine injustice, and the tradition of challenging God in the face of apparent divine indifference to human tragedy goes back to Judaism’s earliest days.” He also quotes Elie Wiesel, another contemporary Jewish scholar as saying, “Serious discussions of divine reward or the afterlife have little place in Judaism; God is involved in man’s destiny – good or bad. To thank him for Jerusalem and not question him for Treblinka is hypocrisy.” (p. 96) [Emphasis by the author]
“Man Need Not Bow His Head in Submission in the Face of Seeming Divine Injustice, and Humans Must Never Accept the Suffering of Their Fellowmen in Silence. Man’s highest calling is wrestling with God. We are invited to enter into a real relationship with God, involving give and take, not merely bowing and submission. This idea, found only in Judaism, traces its origin to the name Israel (Yisrael), literally, “he who wrestles with God,” as well as to the giants of Jewish history, like Abraham and Moses, who contended with God about punishing sinners.” (p. 18) [Emphasis by the author]
The Qur’an will not accept ideas of this sort from a Muslim. It tells us that God is the Supreme, ultimate in wisdom, and does what He will. He cannot be challenged. It says, “Say, ‘Have you seen: If Allah destroyed us, along with those with me, or shows mercy, who then can save the unbelievers from a painful chastisement?” (Ch. 67:28)
In other words, even the Prophet and his Followers enjoyed no power against Him and could not have made any demand on Him. On the other hand, Boteach’s concept of confrontation with God is well-developed in the book. The following can be quoted:
“Judaism begins with the premise that man needs health, happiness, and financial sustenance in order to serve God. Those who lie in hospital beds or have lost a child harbor too broken a spirit to offer meaningful service to their Creator. Judaism does not seek a response to suffering, so much as its alleviation. The biblical patriarchs and matriarchs never sought an explanation from God as to why people suffer. Rather, they demanded of the Creator that He cease visiting any pain on humanity, whatever His higher purpose might be. Therefore, through torture, inquisitions, pogroms, crusades, massacres, and the Holocaust, the Jewish spirit has never broken and the Jewish flame has never been extinguished. Through every plague that God has visited on the earth’s inhabitants, the threefold Jewish response has been (1) to beseech and demand from God a cessation of the plague; (2) to devote their energies, through medicine and technology, to finding a cure; and (3) to pray for the speedy arrival of the Messiah, who would bring redemption to mankind and an end to the earth’s imperfections.” (p. 195-6)
“God must pursue His plan. But human beings are charged with the eternal pursuit of love and justice, even if it means sparring with the Creator. These are two legitimate roles that may often conflict.” (p. 199)
“The question to pose in such a case is not, ‘Please, God, explain to us why bad things happen and how it fits into Your overall plan for creation,’ but rather: ‘Master of the Universe, how could You allow this to happen? Was it not You who taught us in Your magnificent Torah that life is sacred and must be preserved at all costs? Where is that life now? Was it not You who promised that the good deserve goodness and pain? Where is Your promise now? By everything that is sacred to You, I demand that this cease.’ Far from being an affront to divine authority, these words are part of the human mandate. Remaining passive in the face of human suffering is a sin against both man and the Creator.” (p. 199)
And, (on page 207),
“When God came to Abraham and informed him that He would crush Sodom and Gomorrah, cities that Abraham himself knew were deserving of punishment for their unparalleled iniquity, did Abraham bow his head and accept divine judgment? In one of the most dramatic moments recorded in the Bible, Abraham shook his fist at the heavens and demanded, ‘You are the judge of the whole earth. Shall You not practice justice?’” (Gen. 18:25)
All these ideas are anathema to Islam. Anyone who holds such opinions is not a Muslim. God says about Abraham that he had whole-heartedly submitted to Him, and held no opinion of his own against that of God. Far from shaking his fist at the heavens, he surrendered when commanded,“(And recall) when his Lord commanded him, ‘Surrender,’ he said, ‘I have surrendered to the Lord of the worlds.” (Ch. 2:131)
Boteach expresses the opinion on behalf of the Jews that the world is deeply flawed. God has, so to say, made a mess of it. He illustrates this with the help of a joke,
“A man brings some material to a tailor and asks him to make a pair of trousers. When he comes back a week later, they are not ready. Two weeks later, they still aren’t ready. Finally, after six weeks, the trousers are ready. The man tries them on. They are beautiful and fit perfectly. Nonetheless, when it comes to pay, he can’t resist a jibe at the tailor.
‘You know,’ he says, ‘it took God only six days to make the world. But it took you six weeks to make just one pair of trousers.’
‘Ah!’ the tailor says. ‘But look at this pair of trousers, and look at the world.’
“It is true. The world is deeply flawed. Even the greatest optimist cannot help but notice the prevalence of injustice and suffering.” (p. 217-18)
There is no place in Islamic literature for this. Anyone who cracked such a joke will be hounded by the Muslims and will have to eat his word under threat of boycott. The entire Islamic literature of 1500 years is free of one instance of such a joke, or any joke involving God. The Qur’anic teaching is that God created a world that is without a flaw therein, “He (it is) who created the seven heavens in layers. You will see no imperfection in the creation of the Merciful. Return (your) gaze. Do you see any flaw?” (Ch. 67: 3)
Our discussion, though long for a lead article, demonstrates that so far as beliefs about the Deity are concerned, Islam owes nothing to Judaism.
To be sure, if we look into statements about God in the best-selling books on Judaism that are now appearing in quick succession, we can conclude with certainty that the conflict between Judaic and Islamic beliefs is of the class that makes it impossible to claim that any one borrowed anything from the other. It can be safely said that in matters of faith and beliefs, Islam confronts Jewish beliefs.