Islam is the religion of peace, tolerance and social justice. It promotes humankind as one community and shuns racism and bigotry. But sadly some misguided elements portray it negatively and their wrong portrayal if not challenged results in creating stereotypes and prejudices.
It is vital that Muslims speak up and encounter criticisms and negative portrayals, whether they are from non-Muslim critics of Islam, or distorted and selective readings from extremists and fanatical elements within their own communities who abuse religious texts for their own vile ends .
In present times, it is the duty of Muslims who uphold the Qur’an and understand its message to reach out to communities for building bridges, creating an atmosphere of tolerance and peaceful understanding, for this has been their original tradition. They need to present their positions properly and in an authentic manner backed by evidence and proof.
Among numerous accusations that have been labeled against Islam and Muslims nowadays, and which can create negative sentiments within communities are the wrong notions that it promotes antisemitism and bigotry against people of Jewish background.
While there are differences in the theology of Judaism and Islam, there is nothing in the belief system of the Qur’an that is antagonistic to those of Jewish ethnicity.
This false claim is not only without any basis from the text of the Qur’an, but also defies logic and common sense.
It is a fact that beliefs and ideas can change, but we are not able to change our ethnic and racial features. Features, which we did not choose of our own accord but were bestowed to us from the Creator.
If the ethnicity of human beings is not of their own making but the Creator is responsible for it, it is illogical to believe that the Creator would despise or be prejudiced against something of His own doing. But sadly, this is what some people would want us to believe.
That firstly God made people of different races, and then some he chose while others of His own handiwork he despises. Such contradictory views about the Divine certainly do not have their origin in the Qur’an, which furthers the equality of opportunity of all humankind.
Every member of the human race has equal opportunity to receive divine blessings, and no racial group or tribal lineage has a preferential treatment.
Racist trends wherever they may originate from, whether aimed at blacks or whites, at Arabs or Jews, face a firm challenge from the revelation of Islam.
Although all types of racism deserve confrontation and encounter, the type under discussion here will be one which is aimed at people who are of Jewish ethnicity. Like Arabs, Jews also are an ethnic group, and not a religious one only.
Prejudice and discrimination against people who are racially of Jewish descent, does not have its origin with Islam and Muslims, who in their halcyon days have provided complete religious freedom and tolerance to Jewish communities, but its roots are more historical, centered around the Christian Gospel narratives and in the last century, Europe has been its main epicenter.
However, due to the conflict in the Middle East, Islam and Muslims have also been dragged into antisemitic discourses, and at times references are made to the Qur’an which is claimed by critics and some misguided proponents to contain antisemitic citations.
In this article, we will be discussing the subject from a purely scriptural viewpoint and analyse the Qur’anic position on race and racism and explore whether the text supports claims of antisemitism.
It is hoped that this humble attempt will remove misconceptions and bring focus and attention to the textual evidence of the Qur’an to foster peaceful dialogue and understanding between communities.
The equality of all races and tribes before God
The Qur’an does not advocate the superiority of one particular race or tribe over another; neither does it maintain the inferiority of any of them.
Considered by many to be an Arabic book, whose principle addressees are Arabs, it may come as a surprise that there is not a single direct address to Arabs in the Book, and almost all direct addresses are generic to humanity.
Within the Qur’anic text one can come across God addressing the reader in the second person as ‘O Mankind!’, ‘O Believers!’, ‘O People of the Book!’ etc, but never will we come across the address ‘O Arabs!’.
Why is that? If the Qur’an is an Arabic Book, and the Arabs are supposed to be its recipients, why are they missing from it?
Why does the Qur’an not contain anything in praise of the Arabs? The answer is in the fact that the Arabs did not write the Qur’an, but its source and origin is God who does not favour any one racial group or tribe, but promotes the welfare of all. We read:
“O Mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of God is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And God has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).” 49:13
All nations and tribes have been made by God to recognize each other. If God has made, them, then it is illogical to conclude that any one of them would be despised by him. Why would He despise someone whom He has made? The above verse refutes the view that any tribe or nation is inferior. We also read about people’s varying languages and colours:
“And among His Signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the variations in your languages and your colours: verily in that are Signs for those who know.” 30:22
To be noted that according to above, every language and ethnicity is among Ayaat ullah i.e. Signs of God. Thus, no language and no ethnicity is superior over the other and each has its own unique purpose and function.
Arabic speakers are not holier than non Arabs, and whites have no claim of superiority over blacks and vice versa. Each and every race and ethno linguistic group is equal before God, as all have been termed in the Qur’an as God’s Signs.
If all languages and ethnicities are among the signs of God, then why would He term anyone to be less holy? This verse, too, refutes the view that Qur’an favours or disfavours any particular ethno-linguistic group. Thus we can clearly observe the Quranic stance on racism. Just by these two verses it has been ruled out.
Moreover, the Qur’an repeatedly addresses all mankind as one Ummah i.e. one nation or community and in one instance, the very purpose of creation is described as humanity becoming one nation:
“If thy Lord had so willed, He could have made mankind one people: but they will not cease to dispute. Except those on whom thy Lord hath bestowed His Mercy: and for this did He create them..” 11:118-119
If this is the position of the Qur’an, namely that all humanity is to be one, that all languages and races are signs of God, and that every nation and tribe has been made just to recognize each other then how can it be said that the Qur’an discriminates against one group of people i.e. people of the Jewish race?
Distorted readings are creating divisions
Actually, the problem lies in not approaching the text of the Qur’an holistically. Any reading of the text which ignores the context and inflection of verses and is cherry picked to prove a point, or is presented in an emotionally vouched and distorted language is not valid. We need to study the Qur’an carefully, paying special attention to the theme under study in all locations and passages of the book, and once we have this holistic view, only then can we come to the conclusion about the Qur’anic position pertaining to a subject.
Sadly, in popular discourse this is not the case. People quote the Qur’an out of context, using distorted translations and cherry pick words adding popular connotations to them, resulting in misguiding the masses. When the Qur’an has itself ruled against racism, then would it become racist itself and discriminate against people of Jewish ethnicity? That is certainly not the case.
Condemnation of beliefs and behaviours, and not of ethnic origins
It should be understood that the personalities of the Qur’an are not tribal or geographical but atemporal and archetypal. When it addresses people, then it is not people of a particular ethnicity or nationality that are being addressed, but the behavior and traits inherent in them.
The principle addressee of the Qur’an is Al-Insan (the human being), and he in turn has been described to posses certain distinctive behavior patterns and personality traits. The human being can choose to become a Momin (believer), a Muslim (Submitter), a Salih (Reformer), and so on but he could also willingly be a Munafiq (hypocrite), a Kafir (Rejecter), a Zalim (oppressor) and so on.
When the Qur’an addresses or describes Munafiqeen (Hypocrites), then this does not mean that we are reading about certain individuals that dwelled in seventh century Arabia only, but what we are studying is the atemporal and ahistorical behavior and personality of those among human beings who have chosen to have a hypocritical stance towards God, and it is their behavior that is under discussion, and not their national or ethnic affiliation.
That is why the Qur’an is said to contain Zikrukum i.e. your own mention:
“Verily We have revealed to you a Book – in it is your own mention (Zikr-ukum). Will you not then use your reason?” 21:10
We are mentioned in the Book by virtue of our beliefs, behaviours and traits and not by our ethnicities, nationalities or tribal affiliations.
In the same manner the Qur’anic terms Yahood, Hood and Hadoo which are usually translated loosely as Jew in commonly available translations, though the lexical meaning is much deeper, also depict a particular manner in which certain human beings have chosen to behave in relation to God, His messages and mankind.
Just like when we read about a Momin or a Muslim in the Qur’an, we are not necessarily reading about a Pakistani or a Tunisian, but about behavior and psychology of certain individuals who may be living in any time and location, when we read Qur’anic reprimands concerning Yahood, then this does not mean that it is speaking against our contemporaries of Semitic origin or people of Israeli nationality, but against particular beliefs, behaviors and mentality that can be found in human beings residing in any time, era and locality.
Therefore it is extremely important that a distinction be made between the ethnic or racial affiliation of an individual, and the beliefs and character traits under discussion.
Criticism of Yahoodi beliefs and behavior
There are reprimands issued about Yahood in the Qur’an. But these are not aimed at people who do not contain the said characteristics – no matter what labels they are known by in the world. God of the Qur’an is not an unjust God, punishing people for sins they never committed.
It is only if the conscious behavior is inherent in them, that they are the target of this condemnation. But what exactly is this behavior that the Qur’an condemns?
The sins include: presenting falsehood as the truth, corrupting God’s message, willingly and knowingly disobeying God, and taunting people in religion (see 4:62, 6:146), falsely claiming to be God’s representatives, falsely presenting themselves as custodians of God’s religion, but in reality opposing people from God’s path, while cheating them of their wealth (5:41, 62:6), engaging in such wrongdoing, yet considering salvation and divine pleasure to be their exclusive right (2:111, 2:120, 2:113, 5:18), introducing blasphemous teachings, serving scholars instead of God (9:31).
More serious are their crimes against humanity in spreading hate and showing animosity towards those who hold a view different from their own (5:82) and kindling fires of conflict, instead of working towards peace among mankind:
“…whenever they kindle the fire of war, God extinguishes it. And they strive to do corruption on the earth, and God loves not the corrupters.” 5:64
It is such war mongering bigots and religious extremists who posses the above traits that the Qur’an condemns. Individuals, who display the said extremist tendencies can exist in any time, era or locality.
Even within certain communities that may label themselves as Muslim, we find individuals with the said traits and this is not particular to religious group or nation.
However if such individuals desist from the above cited extremist behavior, amend conduct and return to the moderate and balanced lifestyle of the Qur’an, then they have an opportunity to win back God’s good pleasure:
“But those among them (The Yahood) who are well-grounded in knowledge, and the believers, believe in what hath been revealed to thee and what was revealed before thee: And (especially) those who establish regular prayer and practise regular charity and believe in God and in the Last Day: To them shall We soon give a great reward.” 4:162
What type of behavior do human beings choose to do, why they do what they are doing and what will be the consequences of those actions – this is in essence to be seen whilst undertaking a study of the Qur’an.
We will find utility in the Qur’an upon relating its narratives within our own self and in our own lives, to weigh truthfulness in its descriptions, for this is the very purpose for its revelation.
The Qur’an is also critical of some Muslims, does it make it an Islamophobic text?
Those who claim that Islam’s holy book is prejudiced against people of Jewish origin overlook the fact that the book also contains negative references about certain type of Muslims.
It is critical of those who visit Mosques yet are devoid of guidance (see 9:19), it is also speaking against those Muslims who although have the Qur’an in their homes, yet remain heedless to its application (25:30) and also those Muslims who although perform the daily prayers five times a day, yet are heedless of its true spirit (107:4-7).
Does this mean that each and every person who goes for Salat (the Muslim prayer in the Mosque) or has a Qur’an in his home is in the line of fire? Or that God is condemning people of Arab, or Turkish origin? Certainly not, to say that because the Qur’an is against the behavior and practice of those who apply the label of Muslim on themselves, therefore it is anti-Muslim is to demonstrate one’s own narrow mindedness about the subject.
Such critics repeatedly retort about negative references for Jews in the Qur’an, but are silent about the exact behaviour that makes individuals deplorable within the text.
Pointing to behavior or being critical of religious beliefs of anyone does not mean being racist or anti Semitic. Racism is specific to the ethnicity of an individual, and ethnicity is unchangeable, while beliefs and behaviours on the other hand can be modified.
Qur’anic teachings are aimed at the beliefs and actions of people and are never concerned with their ethnicity. The problem is that due to cultural programming when people come across citations from the Qur’an they think that probably it is speaking about the behavior of Saudis when it speaks of believers or Americans when it talks of unbelievers.
That is not at all the case. What the Qur’an discusses is behavior and actions – conduct – good and bad, and not tribes or nations.
If a person born in a particular country has that behavior within himself, which the Qur’an condemns then he is in the line of fire – as is a sinner dwelling in any other part of the world for that matter, and is not saved just because he carries a certain label or adheres to a particular dogma or creed or belongs to a nationality.
He is condemned because of his actions, and nothing else. That a person, on account of actions will be recompensed, is the central theme of the Qur’an:
“On that day men shall come forth in sundry bodies that they may be shown their works.” “So. he who has done an atom’s weight of good shall see it.” “And he who has done an atom’s weight of evil shall see it.” (99:6-8)
In worldly terms, a man may style himself as a very pious Muslim, but if he has the behavior and personality in his character that is representative of the people that the Qur’an terms as Yahood, and displays such character traits in life, then he is merely deceiving himself that he is a Muslim – his actions show who he really is.
Our actions denote the personality types we are, and not how we may wish to style ourselves. Mr Smith, the habitual thief is not really Mr Smith, but in reality he is Mr Thief, because his actions show his real identity.
Similarly, when the Qur’an speaks of Yahood, then it is talking about people who possess the character traits of Yahood and not necessarily somebody of Jewish lineage, who may or may not have those characteristics. The law of God is equally applicable on all. Goodness, whether done by any person – of any belief or identity whatsoever will be rewarded – while wrongdoing, done by any individuals of any colour, creed or caste will be chastised. Our actions are our true identities.
We have clearly seen that the Qur’an does not support the view that any one race or ethnic group is superior or inferior to another. This being the case, people of Jewish ethnicity are not the target for Qur’anic reprimands, but only people who have the Yahoodi behavior and traits that it is critical of, and such behavior can be manifested in a person belonging to any racial group, tribe or nationality and is not solely present in people of Semitic origin.
The only criterion of acceptance before God is righteous deeds and moral conduct, which can be adopted and displayed by any person of any ethno-linguistic group in any time, era or geographical location.
The exhortations of the Qur’an are towards the behavior within individuals and not towards racial groups.
Furthermore, it is only if unacceptable traits are inherent within people that they are reprimanded. When the traits and immoral behavior is not inherent within a person then he is not the addressee of those reprimands, and to conclude as such would be logically flawed.
Antisemitism or any other form of racial and ethnic discrimination is un-Islamic given the clear cut injunctions of the Qur’an. To insist that the Qur’an supports racial discrimination against people of Semitic origin is not to present the true picture in its entirety.
The Qur’an contains negative references against the immorality inherent in people and is critical of religious beliefs and does not condemn people on account of their ethnicity. It also mentions Yahood who are moral and good according to its criterion.
Therefore to conclude that it is an antisemitic text is unwarranted and unfounded.
Preceding was reprinted with permission from the blog of Kashif Shahzada.
The writer is a researcher and consultant who helps organizations implement communication campaigns and social cohesion programmes aimed at diverse communities and faiths. His specializations are in the areas of diversity, UK black and minority ethnic communities, faith and interfaith engagement, entrepreneurship, social marketing and sports.