The Children of Israel in the Qur’an — i
By Rabbi Emeritus Allen S. Maller
Temple Akiba, Culver City, CA
The Qur’an is the only book of revelation that includes within itself a theory of prophethood: “Mankind was one community; then Allah sent the prophets as bringers of good tidings and warners; and sent down with them the Scripture in truth to judge between the people concerning that in which they differed. And none differed over the Scripture except those who were given it - after the clear proofs came to them - out of jealous animosity among themselves. And Allah guided those who believed to the truth concerning that over which they had differed, by His permission. And Allah guides whom He wills to a straight path” (2:213).
This reference to multiple prophets, also includes the many prophets of other religions. This is not just because the Qur’an, as the most recent Scripture of a world religion, can refer back to the many previous prophets of the one God. It is also due to the central teaching of the Qur’an that there have always been (since the days of Adam) people inspired by Allah who urged and warned their society to avoid destruction by turning away from its corrupt and unjust ways; and turning to the One God who created all humans.
As a Jewish prophet declares the Children of Israel: “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Hebrew Bible, Micah 6:8).
The Qur’an also tells us that God made a covenant agreement with all the prophets: “And when Allah took the covenant of the prophets [saying], ‘I give you Scripture and wisdom, and when there comes to you a messenger confirming what is with you, you [must] believe in him and support him.’ [God] said, ‘Have you acknowledged and taken upon [yourselves] My commitment?’ They said, ‘We have acknowledged it.’ He said, ‘Then bear witness [to your communities], and I will be with you among the witnesses’” (3:81).
Thus the Qur’an directs Muslims: Say, “We have believed in Allah and in what was revealed to us and what was revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Descendants, and in what was given to Moses and Jesus and to the prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and we are Muslims [submitting] to Him”(3:84).
But some people might object that the very next ayah contradicts the previous ayah when it states: “And whoever desires other than Islam as religion - never will it be accepted from him, and he, in the Hereafter, will be among the losers” (3:85).
There is no abrogation here. The word Muslim in the Qur’an sometimes refers to a member of the Muslim religious community, and sometimes refers to all those who believe in one God; and strive to live faithfully according to the teachings of their prophet and their Scripture. Thus, the Qur’an states that: “Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but he was one inclining toward truth, a Muslim [a person who submits to Allah ]. He was not of the polytheists” (3:67).
This is why I think of myself as a Reform Rabbi and a Muslim Jew. Actually I am a Muslim Jew, i.e., a faithful Jew submitting to the will of God, because I am a Reform Rabbi. As a Rabbi I am faithful to the covenant that God made with Abraham - the first Muslim Jew, and I submit to the commandments that God made with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai. I think the Qur’an refers to people like me when it states: “They are not all alike. Some of the People of the Book are (also) firmly committed to the truth. They recite the Verses of God during the hours of night, and remain in the state of [prayer] prostration before their Lord” (3:113).
As a Reform Rabbi, I believe that Jewish spiritual leaders should modify Jewish tradition as social and historical circumstances change and develop. I also believe we should not make religion difficult for people to practice. These are lessons that Prophet Muhammad taught 12 centuries before the rise of Reform Judaism in the early 19th century. Reform Jews are the largest of the Jewish denominations in the US. In the UK Reform Judaism is called Liberal Judaism.
The belief in many prophets for many peoples is the best support for the belief in religious pluralism as the product of God’s will, as it is written in the Qur’an, “To each of you We prescribed a law and a method. Had Allah willed, He would have made you one nation [united in religion], but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you; so race to [all that is] good. To Allah is your return all together, and He will [then] inform you concerning that over which you used to differ” (5:48).
Therefore: Say, “We have believed in Allah and in what was revealed to us and what was revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Descendants, and in what was given to Moses and Jesus and to the prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and we are Muslims [submitting] to Him.” (3:84). And: “Indeed, they who have believed and done righteous deeds and humbled themselves to their Lord - those are the companions of Paradise; they will abide eternally therein” (11:23).
The Qur’an mentions 25 prophets by name (most of them known to non-Muslims too) and Muslims believe there were one hundred twenty four thousand others whose names are now unknown. Of the 25 mentioned by name in the Qur’an only four (Moses, David, Jesus, and Muhammad) received books of sacred scripture that are the bases for three religions that still flourish today.
According to the Qur’an, every nation in the world received at least one prophet who spoke to it in its own language. However, one nation, the Children of Israel, has received a great many prophets. The Qur’an doesn’t explicitly tell us why so many prophets arose within the Children of Israel, but this is what I learned years ago from a profound and enlightening essay by Irfan Ahmad Khan in a book entitled Jewish-Muslim Encounters, edited by Charles Selengut.
Almost all prophets, according to Khan, are like Hud who was sent to ‘Ad or Salih who was sent to the Thamud. They came to warn their own people of their impending destruction due to their corrupt and immoral ways, and to call them to repentance.
However, the prophets of the Children of Israel are different in two ways. First, Abraham is the only prophet we know of whose two sons, Isma’il (Ishmael) and Ishaq (Isaac), are also prophets. Indeed, Abraham’s grandson Ya’qub (Jacob) and great grandson Yusuf (Joseph) are also prophets. Thus starting with Abraham, Allah established a family dynasty of prophets.
With Joseph and his brothers (the tribes) the extended family became the 12 tribes of Israel or as they are usually called the Children of Israel/Ya’qub.
The Children of Israel were blessed with many prophets who were the descendants of the Children of Israel/Ya’qub who, generation after generation, urged all parts of the Jewish people to stay firm in their covenant with God. This prophetic ongoing concern is expressed in the Qur’an as follows: “When death approached Ya’qub, he said to his sons, ‘Who will (you) worship after I am gone?’ They answered, ‘We will worship your God, the God of our forefathers, Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, the One God. Unto Him we will surrender ourselves’” (2:132).
Second, when Musa (Moses) is sent by Allah, he comes not primarily to warn or rebuke the Children of Israel (his own enslaved people); but he is sent “to Pharaoh” ( 20:24, 51:38, 73:15 and 79:17), “to Pharaoh and his chiefs” (al-mala’) (7:103, 10:75, 11:97, 23:46, and 43:46) “to Pharaoh and his people” (27:12).
Musa is sent to Pharaoh to warn him of the destruction that will fall on Egypt if he doesn’t stop setting himself up as a God, and doesn’t let the Children of Israel go free. (2:53; 2:87; 6:84; 6:154; 7:160; 17;2; 21:48; 23:49; 40:53; 41:45)
Musa came to rebuke Pharaoh and to rescue the Children of Israel. Only when the Jewish nation is free from Egyptian bondage, do they and Moses receive the Torah directly from God, without mediation of any angel.
This very enlightening essay by Irfan Ahmad Khan stimulated me, as a Reform Rabbi, to a new realization. Some people make accusations blaming the Qur’an for being antagonistic toward Jews and Christians. But the Qur’an’s many narrations of events in Jewish history, when a part of the Jewish People were disloyal to the whole nation’s covenant with God, are selected archetypal events for all humanity to learn from.
The Qur’an always states that a party of Jews were faithful to the covenant with God, while another part of the community was not: “They are not [all] the same; among the People of the Scripture is a community standing [in obedience], reciting the verses of Allah during periods of the night and prostrating [in prayer]. They believe in Allah and the Last Day, and they enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and hasten to [do] good deeds. And those [people] are among the righteous. And whatever good they do - never will it be removed from them. And Allah is Knowing of the righteous” (3:113-15).
The history of the Children of Israel as a religious community striving, and sometimes failing, to live up to its covenant with God, was so well known in Arabia that it makes the ups and downs of Jewish history an excellent example for others.
As a Rabbi I believe that the many prophets Allah sent to the Children of Israel are a sign of the ongoing covenant between Allah and the Children of Israel. I know Muslim interpreters interpret 2:63-64 to mean that the favours mentioned in these verses were conditional with a certain period of time when the Divine trust-the representation and promotion of God’s eternal religion-rested on the shoulders of the Children of Israel.
The biblical religious tradition claims this trust is an ‘“ongoing covenant’” between God and the Children of Israel. Clearly many Jews, as is true for all religious communities, do not live up to God’s trust, but the commitment is ongoing for the whole community of those who do.
Continued in the next issue