This message is for Muslims who want to follow the Koran and the dictates of Islam to create a better and more equitable world for all, and for Jews and Christians who want to live in peace and understanding to create that better world. While angry rhetoric between religious leaders divides the world today, we believe that knowledge of our sacred texts can triumph over ignorance and lead us to a better understanding of our respective religions. What does the Bible teach us about Muslims and Islam, and what does the Koran teach us about the Jewish people and Judaism? We will use the example of Ishmael (Isma’il), a biblical personality common to both Jews and Arabs, to explore common ground shared by the Bible and the Koran.
At the beginning of their High Holidays, on the first day of Rosh Hashana, Jews throughout the world will gather to reflect on the year that has gone by and pray for God’s blessings in the year to come. The reading from the Torah will be Genesis 21, the story of how Ishmael, son of the first Hebrew and monotheist Abraham, is sent, to Abraham’s sorrow, out into the desert. God sends an angel and miraculously saves the boy and his mother, Hagar, assuring them that Ishmael will have a great destiny and his descendants will become a great nation, who we know to be the Arab peoples. On the second day of Rosh Hashana, the reading will be Genesis 22, in which God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, a father of the Jewish people, on a mountain. God sends an angel to tell Abraham that he must not kill his son; Abraham sacrifices a ram instead, and father and son descend the mountain, together.
On the Muslim holidays Waqfat Arafat and Eid al-Adha, Muslims from around the world gather to reflect on the year that has gone by and pray for God’s blessings in the year to come. The reading from the Koran will be portions of chapters 2, 22 and 37, the story of how Ishmael, son of the father of the Muslim people (Ibrahim), is about to sacrifice his son. God sends an angel and miraculously ransoms the boy with a momentous sacrifice, assuring them that Ishmael will have a great destiny and his descendants will become a great nation, who we know to be the Arab peoples.
There are both positive and negative references to Ishmael in Genesis. When Abraham pleads for Ishmael’s primacy, God responds: “As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold; I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation” (Genesis 17:18-20).
Ishmael is blessed by God who promises to make him the fertile father of 12 princes – a great nation. When God makes a covenant with Abraham that will ensure the fertility of his descendants, Ishmael is included in the commandment of circumcision: “And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin” (Genesis 17:25). The commandment of circumcision in this passage sets the stage for this practice among Hebrews, Arabs and Muslims to this day. We learn about the peaceful relationship between Ishmael and his younger brother Isaac. Together, they both bury their father, Abraham: “Isaac and Ishmael buried Abraham in the cave of Machpelah” (Genesis 25:9).
On the negative side, Genesis 16:12 is an oft-cited verse describing Ishmael as “wild,” with his “hand against everyone.”
One could view this “wild” quality as that of a free spirited, independent and uninhibited man. As to his hand being raised “against everyone,” this can be interpreted that his life was filled with complex interrelationships.
God ordered Abraham to send Ishmael out into the desert so that he would not compete with Isaac for the leadership of the people (Genesis 21). Ishmael is not to clash with his brother Isaac for primacy because each son has a different role to play in the world.
Thus while the Bible has no direct comment about the arch-prophet of the Muslim people, Muhammad (Muslims say: peace be upon him), who appeared many centuries after the closing of the biblical canon, the prophecies about the father of the Arab people, Ishmael, demonstrate that God speaks about him in complex ways, perhaps reflecting the potential for both positive and negative relationships between Jews and Muslims.
The Koran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad not to refute, but to affirm the Bible. The qualities mentioned in the Bible about Isma’il are affirmed in the Koran. God revealed: “Also mentioned in the Book [the Torah] the story of Isma’il: He was true to what he promised, and he was a messenger, a prophet” (Koran 19:54). To highlight the favor God bestowed on Isma’il, we read: “And Isma’il and Elijah, and Jonas, and Lot: God gave them favor above the nations” [Koran 6:86]. We would expect to find praise of Ishmael, but what is remarkable is that there are no fewer than 15 references to Isaac, father of the Jews, in the Koran. He is “a prophet, of the righteous,” and “God blessed both Ishmael and Isaac” (Koran 37:12).
The Koran describes Isaac as a man of knowledge (51:28) and describes Ishmael as a man of forbearance (37:101).
Isaac is often described as a “gift” to Abraham (6:84; 19:49- 50; 29:26-27). The Koran states that Abraham praised God for giving him his two sons Ishmael and Isaac in his elder years (14:39-41). And about the Jews, the Koran states: “Not all of them are alike; a party of the people of the Scripture stand for the right, they recite the Verses of Allah during the hours of the night, prostrating themselves in prayer, they enjoin what is right and forbid evil and they hasten in good works; and they are among the righteous.
And whatever good they do, nothing will be rejected of them; for Allah knows well those who are the pious” (Qumran, 3:113-115; 3:199).
And yet, in the Muslim world today, the phenomenon of “abrogation,” (Arabic: naskh) of rendering null and void some 600 verses from the Koran such as the one just cited, is an attempt by radicals to establish one voice and one language for Allah, a voice that speaks negatively about non-Muslims and insists that there is only one language with which to worship God. Abrogation has the audacity to select one message and to say that this is the only thing Allah and Muhammad wanted to say.
Are there condemnations of Jews in the Koran? Yes. But there also are condemnations of Arabs and Muslims in the Koran. In fact, about two-thirds of the Koran’s verses refer directly or directly to Ahlul Kitab, the “People of the Book,” a term that encompasses both Jews and Christians.
The familiar narrative that often is proclaimed about the Koran by non-Muslims, that Muhammad was positive at the beginning and negative after he realized that the Jewish people would not become Muslims, is a chronological take on a non-chronological book. There are both positive and negative statements about Ahlul Kitab. That there are some negative statements should not negate the positive statements.
Does the Bible not contain multiple prophetic denunciations of the Jewish people for social injustice and ritual hypocrisy? No one would suggest that these statements mean that the Bible requires Jewish people to treat Jews in a way other than as they would want to be treated themselves.
These condemnations are filled with the demands of God for justice and mercy.
According to the Bible and the Quran, God spoke one common message to all humanity, but in different tongues and languages (Genesis 11:7 and Koran 14:4). God’s voice calls for humankind to love God and other human beings (Deuteronomy 6:5, Leviticus 19:1-8 and Koran 3:31).
According to Judaism, God’s voice speaks different messages in the Bible about the Arab world and, according to Islam the Koran speaks different messages about the Jewish people. The interrelationships between people of different religions are complex, and our religious texts have presented us with different messages over the centuries.
We must not emphasize the negative messages of rejection and strife. Those who strive to listen to the voice of God must accentuate the positive messages of reconciliation and respect.
Omer Salem is a Senior Fellow at FRD, the director of the International Organization for Peace and the author of
The Missing Peace.
Rabbi Benjamin Scolnic is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Sholom in Hamden, Connecticut, teaches at Southern Conn. State University and is the author of
Conservative Judaism and
The Faces of God’s Words.