James M. Arlandson
It has been bandied about in the media that Islamic fanatics shriek that Allah turned certain Jews into apes and pigs. Where does this harsh polemics come from? Do they get it from the hadith (Muhammad's sayings and deeds outside of the Quran)? From later traditions? From thin air?
Sadly, fanatics get it from the Quran itself, in three different verses: 7:166, 2:65, and 5:60.
To show how, we follow a specific method of exegesis (detailed analysis of a text), where relevant. First, the historical context of the three verses is explained, so their meaning can be made clear. Second, the literary context of each one is described, so we do not take them out of contexta frequent reflexive reaction from Muslims. Third, we quote them from a reputable Muslim translator, not a Western one, so that the Muslims speak for themselves in their sacred book. Fourth, we explain the content of the verses itself, such as key words. Fifth, we compare them with a passage or two from the New Testament, so we can put Islam into a clear perspective. And finally we look at how fanatics use the verses.
The historical context of this sura (chapter) is Muhammads persecution by his fellow Meccans before his Hijrah or Emigration from Mecca to Medina in AD 622. Still, despite this persecution, Muhammad seeks to demonstrate that his revelations are superior to the Torah and Moses, and this brings us to the literary context, which is far more revealing of the content of Sura 7:166 than the historical context.
After recounting the stories of various prophets, Muhammad comes to Moses (v. 103) and sketches out Moses mission: he liberates the Children of Israel from the grip of Pharaoh (vv. 103-137); he encounters God on Mt. Sinai on which receives the Two Tablets (vv. 142-147); and finally he confronts Israels transgression in worshipping the golden calf (148-156). Now Muhammad turns to himself and asserts that the Torah (and the Gospels) describes himself and his Quran; he is now the one who commands people to do good and forbids them to do wrong; that is, he is the one who is rightly guided and who now fulfills and completes the mission of Moses (and Jesus).
Muhammad then recounts a legendnot found in the Talmudistsabout Jews fishing or working on the Sabbath in a town that tradition says was located on the Red Sea (vv. 163-167). God made fish appear on the surface only on the Sabbath, never on weekdays. This tempted some Jewish fishermen to break their holy day of rest, ignoring their teachers warnings. The Sabbath-breakers become so arrogant and deep in their violations that God says to them in the royal "We":
7:166 But when even after this they disdainfully persisted in that from which they were forbidden, We said to them, "Become apesdespised and disgraced!" (Maududi)
The question is: should this verse be taken literally or metaphorically? That is, does this verse assume that these Jews physically transformed? This question is better answered in two later passages, chronologically speaking, in the Quran.
The historical context of Sura 2:65, as far as this can be determined, sees the founding of the Muslim community in Medina, a year or two after the Hijrah. Muhammad works hard at reconciling his message with the earlier religion of Judaismindeed, he sees himself as a reformer of both Judaism and Christianity. But the Jews do not receive his message for two major reasons: he is a Gentile, and his knowledge of the Torah is confused. But the polemics is not yet heated up, at least not as much as it will be.
Thus, the literary context of Sura 2:65, having as its background the fishermens legend in Sura 7:163-166, says that if the People of the Book (Jews and Christians, but he deals mostly with Jews in Medina) believe in Allah, the Last Day, and do good, they will not suffer at judgment. However, Muhammad issues a warning against Sabbath-breakers. Allah through Muhammad addresses the Jews as "you" and refers to himself in the royal "We":
2:65 And you know well the story of those among you who broke Sabbath. We said to them: "Be apesdespised and hated by all." 66 Thus We made their end a warning to the people of their time and succeeding generation, and an admonition for God-fearing people. (Maududi)
So the question, again, isdoes this passage support the literal or figurative transformation of the Jews?
Many modern commentators claim that this transformation is merely a metaphor. For example, M.A.S. Abdel Haleem says in his notes in his Oxford University Press translation (2004) that it is a figure of speech. The radical Egyptian Sayyid Qutb, who was tried and executed for plotting to overthrow the Egyptian government, says that one does not need to be concerned with whether the metamorphosis was physical, for the Jews minds and spirits fell into a beastly state. He is also honest enough to say, though, that the Arabic implies that it really happened physically, e.g. "Be apes," not "be as or like apes." Several commentators and apologists take it figuratively, inserting the softening word "as" in their commentary or even their translations, although it is not found in the Arabic original (e.g. Abdullah Yusuf Ali, Maulana Muhammad Ali, Muhammad Asad, Rashad Khalifa, et al.).
The early Muslim sources and classical commentators, however, largely agree that Allah transformed them literally. For example, Ibn Ishaq, an early and largely reliable biographer of Muhammad, takes the metamorphosis literally, and he has Muhammad calling the Medinan Jewish clan, Qurayzah, "brothers of monkeys." This implies that Muhammad takes the transformation physically. Medieval commentator Ibn Kathir references Ibn Abbas, Muhammads cousin, who interpreted this metamorphosis literally, again implying that Muhammad did too. The Iranian Medieval commentator Razi, widely respected even today, speculates that perhaps the "accidents" or appearances of the Jews were changed, but they kept their mental awareness. Even the Medieval mystic and commentator Ibn Arabi says that the transformation, at its base, is real and not metaphorical, though he puts mystical spins on the verse.
Maududi is a modern scholar who agrees with the classics: "In my opinion their bodies were transformed into those of apes, but their human minds were left intact in order to subject them to extreme torture." He says of the Arabic wording: "The words of the Quran ... indicate that it was not a moral but a physical metamorphosis."
More important than all of these is Muhammad. Did he take this transformation literally or metaphorically? A hint is found in v. 66. He needs to hold over the heads of his enemies (and the God-fearing people) this miraculous act and threaten them with the same punishment. It is a very special historical case designed to warn people. It must be seen as an object lesson, and in this case the objects are the literally changed Jews.
Also, Muhammad is constantly incorporating tall tales into his Quran, which too often make Jews look bad, such as the fiction about Moses and Khidir, a servant (so named in Islamic tradition, but not in the Quran). Khidir leads Moses around by the nose, so to speak, revealing to the baffled prophet the divine purposes of Allah (Sura 18:60-82). The clear message: Muhammad is better than Moses. Hence, a physical metamorphosis in v. 65 would fit with such passages that make Jews look bad.
Thus, it is Ibn Ishaq, Muhammads cousin Ibn Abbas, the classical commentators, and Maududi, agreeing with Muhammad, who correctly interpret these verses, not the modern apologists.
The historical context of Sura 5:60 is difficult to pin down. It may have been revealed five to seven years after the Hijrah, or some scholars place it a year or two later. Whatever the exact timeframe, Muhammads polemics against the Jews heats up, since time has elapsed after his Hijrah, and the confrontations have increased. In fact, he has expelled by now two major Jewish clans from Medina, the Qaynuqa and the Nadir; and if the later date of Sura 5 is acceptable, then he has beheaded around 600 male Jews of the Qurayzah clan. (For more information on these violent expulsions and this atrocity, see the article Seeds of Jihad , The Spirit of Islam, the series on Muhammad's treatment of the Jewish clan of the Banu Qurayza.)
Thus, the literary context of Sura 5:60, having as its background the fishermens legend in Sura 7:163-166, sees Muhammad exhorting his Muslims not to take as allies those who ridicule his religion and make fun of itwhether they are People of the Book or unbelievers (v. 57). This verse reflects historical reality, for sometimes a few Jews and unbelievers would in fact make fun of his revelations. He then issues another warning, similar to the one in 2:65, against the Jews who are on the verge of being severely punished, just as the Jews in the past were, when they were transformed into apes and pigs. Allah is commanding his prophet to "say" the following:
5:60 Then say: "Should I inform you [People of the Book] of those, who will have even worse recompense from Allah than the transgressors? They are those whom Allah has cursed; who have been under His wrath; some of whom were turned into apes and swine; who worshipped taghut [the devil or idols]; those are the people who are in a far worse plight and who have turned farthest away from the Right Way." (Maududi)
The Jews are said to be turned into apes and swine for generally disbelieving in Allahs revelationsin this case warning them for resenting Muhammad and his Quran (v. 59). The wording of this verse differs from the previous two verses, for here Muhammad matter-of-factly reports that Allah was angry with certain ones, "transforming" them into apes and swine; he does not give the command, "Be apes!" This report should leave no doubt that Muhammad believed that this actually happened physically as a warning and an object lesson.
Finally, we can get a clearer perspective on Islam if we compare it with Christianity.
To begin with, Yusuf Ali in his commentary on Sura 5:60 is terribly mistaken when he compares the Quranic verse with Matt. 8:28-32, in which demons went into swine, after Jesus cast them out from two poor, possessed men. Jesus commanding demons to go into a herd of swine is far different from Allah turning Jews into apes and swine. But Yusuf Alis comparison shows how far Muslim apologists will go in order to defend the problems in their sacred book.
Next, Jesus calls Jewish religious leaders a "brood of vipers" (Matt. 12:34) and "snakes" and again a "brood of vipers" (Matt. 23:33), but the differences between Muhammads epithets and Christs are profound.
First, on an historical and sociological level (setting aside theology), Jesus himself was a Jewish religious leader, beginning a new "movement" within Israel, so he was dealing with his own community. Muhammad, on the other hand, was an outsider to Judaism, not a Jew, but a Gentile. Thus, an insider (Jesus) speaking emotionally to his own household is different from a stranger (Muhammad) storming into the house and forcing his own concept of holiness onto the occupants.
Second, not even a wisp of a faint hint suggests that Jesus took his denunciation literally. He is simply following a tradition of prophetic denunciations. After all, in Matt. 23:27part of the literary context of 23:33he likens the religious leaders to whitewashed tombs, but he does not believe that they literally are. Furthermore, in a gentler metaphor he refers to his people as sheep (John 10:14), but he does not believe that they literally are. Muhammad, on the other hand, indicates by his wording in Arabic and by the literary context that some Jews were actually and literally turned into apes and swine as a special punishment, to warn people. Thus, the original Greek in the Gospel of Matthew does not say, "Be a brood of vipers!" Rather, Jesus uses a straightforward epithet, "You brood of vipers!" The Quran, in contrast, says: "Be apes!" as in "presto-change-o!"
The language supporting a literal transformation by the same verbal command is found in Sura 2:117, which has the same historical context as 2:65 (cf. 3:47 also). The literary context reveals that Allah has not adopted a son; rather, he is so far above such things that all he has to do is the following:
2:117 ... He is the Creator of the heavens and the earth: when he decrees a thing, He merely says, "Be," and it is done. (Maududi)
Thus, when Allah decrees somethinganythingit is done the moment he speaks. Likewise, by a simple decree he transformed some Jews into apes and swine, using the same verbal command. Again, Muhammad sees their case as historically special and very real in order to warn succeeding generations not to disobey Allah or him. Otherwise, they too may be turned into apes or pigs.
In contrast, no reputable priest or pastor or scholar today in Christianity ever discusses whether the Jewish religious leaders whom Jesus addresses were actually turned into snakes and vipersor whether the common people were turned into sheep. However, in Islam today, scholars discuss this precisely because of the Arabic in Suras 2:65-66, 5:60, and 7:163-166 (cf. 2:117), and because the literary context of each passage indicates an actual, physical metamorphosis.
This brings us to the last and most important point. All of the discussion over whether the transformation was literal or figurative, according to the moderns or the earlier commentators and Maududi, is really academic, for the terrorists and non-violent fanatics shriek that the transmogrification dehumanizes Jews todaya replay of Nazi propaganda.
At the Sheikh Ijlin Mosque in Gaza, Sheikh Ibrahim Mudeiris, employee in the Religious Affairs Ministry in the Palestinian Authority, uses the Battle of Badr (AD 624) as a rallying cry for his fellow jihadists to fight the Jews, who are the descendants of apes and pigs.
Then came the great battle of Badr, where the Muslims grew stronger. This brought the third stage of dealing with the Jewish existence in Al-Madina. We have tolerated you for a long time - you offspring of apes and pigs! We have tolerated you for a long time. (Source)
The Imam of the Al-Haram mosque in Mecca, Sheikh Abd Al-Rahman Al-Sudayis, explained in one of his sermons:
Read history and you will understand that the Jews of yesterday are the evil forefathers of the even more evil Jews of today: infidels, falsifiers of words, calf worshippers, prophet murderers, deniers of prophecies ... the scum of the human race, accursed by Allah, who turned them into apes and pigs ... These are the Jews an ongoing continuum of deceit, obstinacy, licentiousness, evil, and corruption ... (Source)
At the same link, Sheikh Muhammad Al-Saleh Al-Athimein said in a sermon at the Great Mosque in Al-Unayza, Arabia:
O Muslims, the Jews are treacherous and deceitful people over whom lies the curse and anger of Allah. They permitted what Allah forbade, with the lamest of excuses; therefore, He cursed them and turned them into apes and pigs. Allah sentenced them to humiliation anywhere they might be ...
Note how the Sheikh draws the inference for today: "Allah sentenced them to humiliation anywhere they might be." This means the Jews of today.
Finally, it is not all bad news in the Muslim world. The editor of an Egyptian weekly condemns an exhibit that placed the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" next to the Torah. The "circles" are the ideologues and journalists who present the Middle East conflict by using Medieval anti-Semitic legends:
[These circles] do not flinch from disseminating, espousing, and publishing all the legends that were common in medieval Europe in order to justify Europe's persecution of the Jews because of their monopoly in financial activity and money-lending, one of which was the "matza of blood" that the Jews [allegedly] prepare on Passover from the blood of a gentile child. These circles disseminate among Muslims the perception that all the modern Jews are the offspring of the Jews who violated the word of the Prophet Moses, whose prayer Allah then answered and turned [the Jews] into apes and pigs. [These circles also say] that the Jews are responsible for their forefathers crime, the crucifixion of Jesus. They embraced, and still warmly embrace, the stupid book "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," fabricated by the advocates of the Czarist tyranny in Russia to arouse hatred of the Jews because many of them were participating in revolutionary activity against the [Czarist] empire. (Source)
However, in another place in the article the editor still believes that the Palestinians are oppressed, while the Israelis are the oppressors, so the positive article goes only so far.
Can the Islamic world be reformed? It seems that (semi)moderate voices like this Egyptian editors are rare. But the liberation of Iraq, as well as of Afghanistan, is encouraging. Maybe in a few decades when (or if) a free press soaks the dry ground, we will hear more moderate views, and maybe they will prevail.
Further reading on this topic:
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