What does the Qur’ān say about the Chosen People and Holy Land?

I published a version of this article in a volume honoring Prof. Boulatta. This was written approx.. Spring 2001 and was circulated but as far as I can recall, never published or posted on the web.

What does the Qur’ān say about the Chosen People and Holy Land?

Shaykh Abd al-Hady Palazzi and Islamic Sources on Israel

Seth Ward

The numeration of verses in not standard in all editions and translations of the Qur’ān; some do not enumerate individual verses. Therefore some of the Qur’ānic references may be approximate or may vary from verse numbers in various editions or translations. I referred to the Penguin Koran, translated by N.J.Dawood, as well as to an Arabic Qur’ān (without verse numbers) in preparing this essay.    

Today’s news carried reports indicating President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell agree with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians must resume, but not until the violence is stopped. There is much talk of economic incentives and disincentives, security issues and final status, but little talk of creating a national narrative for peace through religious values. Yet rapprochement between Israel and the Arabs is inconceivable without some justification from religious sources. Both Israeli and Arab societies include both very religious individuals and many who are profoundly secular, but both see themselves defined by religion in important ways. As long as religious sources are cited only to support a stance radically opposed to the very existence of the other side, no progress can be made. The task is especially urgent as on both sides, the violence of recent months appears to have been accompanied by arguments which use religious sources in ever more fanatic ways.

In recent weeks, Shaykh Abd al-Hady Palazzi has been in featured in the Jewish press, where he is lauded as a voice of reason in the Muslim world. Imam Palazzi is the secretary-general of the Italian Muslim Association, studied at Al-Azhar in Cairo and is reported as holding a doctorate in Islamic Sciences. He entered the news because he is the Muslim co-chair of the Islam-Israel Fellowship of the Root and Branch Associates, and gave the keynote address at its conference in Jerusalem in February of this year. He was profiled in the International Jerusalem Post (February 16, 2001, pp. 12-13), and other Jewish papers; in my city, Denver, the Intermountain Jewish News (Friday March 2), reproduced a talk he had given on similar lines in Jerusalem in 1996. His message: the anti-Israeli stance of modern Islamic politics is not supported by Qur’ān and Islamic tradition.

Much as they are trumpeted by Jews, Shaykh Palazzi’s views are of course roundly denounced by many in the Islamic world. But it seems to me that the status of Jews and Judaism in Islam has always been shaped by political realities. In this case, the reality is the ubiquity of Arab denunciation of Israel, often in terms that reshape politically-framed discourse as an Islamic responses. In contrast, Shaykh Palazzi has promoted the idea that anti-Israel fervor may instead be seen as un-Islamic, and that many of its assumptions run counter to much in the Qur’ān and Islamic tradition. Indeed, it is easy enough to find Qur’ānic verses and other Islamic sources which portray Judaism in a negative light, with the Jews as sinners and implacable enemies, and the Muslims as the true spiritual descendants of the Children of Israel and followers of the Abrahamic religion. Yet Muslims and Jews have much to gain by replacing violence on the ground with dialogue about shared values.

I am concentrating here on the Islamic side of the equation. There is much work to be done of the Jewish sources as well, and many Jews inside and outside of Israeli are involved in this work.  In Israel there are religious peace movements such as Netivot-Shalom/Oz ve-shalom, and much debate over the degree to which the teachings of Rabbis such as Ovadiah Yosef and the late Joseph Soloveitchik support various practical political steps in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations; there are few Muslim parallels to this endeavor. As noted, the matter is not so simple. Islamic interpretation tends to stress Qur’ānic verses which have a negative attitude towards Jews. Alongside scripture, Islamic teachings are shaped by ḥadīth—the traditions about what Muhammad said, did, or assented to—many of which are strongly anti-Jewish. Nevertheless, the Qur’ān can provide Islamic support to such ideas as the chosenness of Israel and God’s grant of the Land to the Israelites, and it reiterates that God may grant any land to whomever He wills.

The chosenness of the Israelites is a theme in a number of passages, most often in the context of the Exodus. In the times of Moses, son of ‘Amram (Arabic: ‘Imrān), the Israelites were saved from Pharaoh, witnessed miracles and prostrated themselves before God in true worship. We read in the Qur’ān that God was gracious to Adam and to those with Noah. His grace extended to "the descendants of Abraham, of Israel, and of those whom we have guided and chosen, for when the revelations of the Merciful were recited to them they fell down to their knees in tears and adoration" (19:59). "God exalted Adam and Noah, Abraham’s descendants and the descendants of ‘Imrān, above the nations" (3:32). Here, ‘Imrān is probably the father of Moses, although in the next verse of the Qur’ān, ‘Imrān appears as the name of the grandfather of Jesus. (Most Muslims do not believe that the Qur’ān considers Mary mother of Jesus to be the same as Miriam, sister of Moses, although in the Qur’ān both are Maryam the daughter of ‘Imrān). "We saved the Israelites from the degrading scourge, from Pharaoh, who was a tyrant and a transgressor, and chose them knowingly above the nations. We showed them miracles which tested them beyond all doubt" (4:30).   "O Children of Israel: remember the favor I have bestowed upon you and that I exalted you above the nations" (2:122). In each of these verses, the Qur’ān refers to Israel as chosen.

The grant of the Land to the Israelites is also found in the Qur’ān:  "We said unto the Israelites: ‘Dwell securely in the Land. When the promise of the hereafter comes to pass, we shall assemble you all together’” (17:104). This verse comes in the chapter entitled “The Night Journey.” According to Islamic tradition, Muhammad was miraculously transported from Mecca to Jerusalem and thence to Heaven. This chapter provides the only Qur’ānic reference to this story; it begins: "Glory to Him who made his servant go from the Sacred House to the farther Temple (al-masjid al-aqṣā), whose surroundings we have blessed, that we might show him of our Signs" (17:1). There is considerable academic discussion about the whether al-masjid al-aqṣā in this verse refers to the Jewish Holy Temple, the place from which Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven—in other words, the Rock underneath today’s Dome of the Rock—or is a reference to Jerusalem in general. Some scholars assume that in its original context, it is a reference to the furthest heaven, and does not refer to Jerusalem at all. As for today’s Al-Aqsa Mosque (Arabic: masjid al-aqṣā, as in the verse), in the early days of Islam, the Muslims in Jerusalem gathered for prayer at the southern end of the Temple Mount enclosure, the side closest to Mecca; when the mosque was built, its name recalled the verse.

The “blessed land” is no doubt a reference to the land in which the Israelites were settled by God. It was already blessed in the days of the Patriarchs: "We delivered [Abraham] and [his nephew] Lot to the land which We have blessed for the nations" (21:71). Later, it became the land of the Israelites: "We settled the Israelites in a blessed land and provided them with good things" (10:93). Again, this came as a result of the persecutions of Pharaoh and the exodus from Egypt: "We gave the persecuted people dominion over the Eastern and Western Lands, which he have blessed” (7:137). The “Holy Land” (al-arḍ al-muqaddasa—etymologically similar to Hebrew ha-aretz ha-qedosha) refers to the land of the Israelites. In a passage referring to the "words of Moses to his people," encouraging them when they were afraid of giants in the promised land, we read: "Remember my people, the favor which God has bestowed upon you. He has raised up prophets among you, and made you kings, and given you that which he has given to no other nation. Enter, my people, the Holy Land, which God has assigned you" (5:20).

Chapter 17 begins with the reference to Muhammad’s night journey; then it continues with a discussion of Moses’ Book. This Book reminds the Israelites that they are descendants of those whom God carried on the Ark with Noah, a motif we have seen from passages elsewhere in the Qur’ān. Moses’ Book—presumably a reference to the Torah—contained a promise about the Land. Although the text of the promise is not mentioned at this juncture, when the chapter returns to a discussion of Moses near the end, we find the verse quoted above, "dwell securely in this Land” (17:104) which fits the context quite well. The Qur’ān notes that Moses’ Book contains predictions that twice the Israelites will commit evil in the land (17:5). Possibly this is a reference to the two passages of reproof (tokaḥa, Lev. 26:14-41, Deut. 28:15-68) read in synagogues, according to today’s standard reading cycle, shortly before Shavu‘ot and Rosh Hashanah). The prediction was fulfilled: the Qur’ān reviews the history of God’s punishment, referring to two formidable armies who punished Israel. The first army "ravaged the land and carried out the punishment with which you had been threatened" (17:5). But God granted victory to Israel, and again Israel became rich and numerous (17:6). Then the prophecy of a second transgression was fulfilled, and God "sent another army to afflict you and to enter the Temple (al-masjid) as the former entered it before, utterly destroying all that they laid their hands on" (17: 7). The verses refer to the destruction of the First and Second Temples, in 586 BCE and 70 CE. Moses’ scripture had predicted that God would scourge the Israelites twice; the Qur’ān envisions future forgiveness and renewal—again punishable by destruction. "God may yet be merciful unto you, but if you again transgress, you shall again be scourged. We have made Hell a prison-house for unbelievers" (17:8). As noted above, the end of chapter 17 returns to an account of Moses. The process of forgiveness and victory, transgression and destruction is to cease when the promises of the hereafter come to pass, and the Israelites will be gathered together in the Land (17:104). The chapter ends with a call to all mankind to pray to God, calling him God or the Merciful or by whatever name, praying with neither too loud nor to soft a voice, and proclaiming His oneness and his greatness.

Even had there been no promise, God’s ability to offer any land to anyone whom He chooses is underscored by the Qur’ān: "Lord, you bestow sovereignty on whom you will and take it away from whom you please" (3:26). "The earth is God’s, He gives it to whosoever He choses" (7:136). And similarly, God bestows favor on whom He will and takes it away from whom he will (e.g. 3:74).  We have seen that the Israelites were offered the "Eastern and Western Lands," but the Qur’ān reminds us that "The East and West are God’s, He guides whom he wills to the right path" (2:142). God can thus offer sovereignty to anyone He wishes. Indeed, any current sovereignty (including Israeli sovereignty, presumably) exists only by Divine favor.

Thus we see that there is much material in the Qur’ān which links Israelites to the "blessed" or "holy" Land.  Abraham came to this land when he first left his homeland; the Israelites came to this Land when God brought them out of Egypt; the Temple of the Israelites stood in this Land.  Moreover, God may at any moment give a land to whomever He chooses, and God promised that the Israelites will be gathered together in the land just before the end-times.

Many of these passages are associated with the revelations of the Meccan period, i.e., before Muhammad emigrated to Medina in 622 CE. Other passages in the Qur’ān, many associated with Muhammad’s Medinan period, are far less favorable to the notion of Israelite land and have a negative attitude towards the Jews; sometimes the verses cited above themselves appear in such contexts.  Even "Dwell securely in this land" (17:104) may be ambiguous.

Jewish discourse takes it as a given that there is an unbroken continuity from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to the ancient Israelites to the Jewish people of Roman times, Muhammad’s times and our own days. In the Bible, Jacob is renamed Israel, and Jacob’s descendants—the twelve tribes—are known as the Children of Israel, who recognize the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The Qur’ān does not read the biblical narrative the same way. Ishmael joins the others as an ancestor—the tribes swear loyalty to the God of Jacob and of Jacob’s “forefathers, Abraham, Ishmael, and Isaac.” His descendants promise to surrender themselves to God, i.e., to be Muslims (2:132), and we read in the next verse that this people—the Israelites—is no more. Abraham himself is not seen as the progenitor of the Israelites, or even of the Israelites and the Arabs. Instead, "Abraham was neither Jew nor Christian. He was an upright man, one who surrendered himself to God" (3:66).  Thus "those who are nearest to Abraham"—the true inheritors of Abraham’s promises—are those "who follow him, this Prophet (i.e. Muhammad) and the true believers" (3:68).  God was gracious to the descendants of Abraham, and Israel; but God’s grace also included "those whom [He] has guided and chosen" (19:59), and moreover, "the generations who succeeded them neglected their prayers and succumbed to their desires. These shall assuredly be lost" (19:60), and cannot demand Divine favor: "Let the People of the Book know that they have no control over the grace of God" (57:29). In short, they have become enemies—and they have become unbelievers. Like the idolaters, they associate others with God, and even consider humans to be Divine: the Qur’ān says that Jews believe Ezra to be the son of God (9:30). The Qur’ān teaches that the promises and revelations Jews claim for themselves are forgeries, and that Jews have broken their bonds with Allah (2:83). This passage refers to shedding kinsmen’s blood and turning them out of their homes (2:84). Moreover, the covenant does not apply to evil-doers (2:123). Perhaps such verses explain why Islamic discourse must focus so much on proclaiming the State of Israel to be guilty of evictions and atrocities. The Qur’ān even recounts the Divine prerogative to reward the Muslims at the expense of the People of the Book: "He made you masters of their land, their houses, and their goods, and of yet another land on which you had never set foot before" (33:27). The context is no doubt that of Medina, the city of Muhammad, and the oasis of Khaybar in what is today NW Saudi Arabia. In both places, the peoples of the book referred to were Jews, some of whom were dispossessed, expelled or slaughtered.[SW1]  Possibly the verse about Medina and Khaybar refers to a one-time dispossession, but another well-known verse may be said to imply continuing struggle.  "Fight those to whom the Book has been given, who believe not in God and the Last day, who forbid not what God and his Apostle have forbidden, and do not embrace the true faith, until they pay tribute out of hand and are utterly subdued” (9:29).

Thus we have seen that the Qur’ān describes God’s election of Israel, and the divine land grant to it, but sees contemporary Jews and Christians as no longer believers and followers of the true prophets. Instead, they have fallen away from the true path, pervert scriptures, do evil and fight the Believers; God has made the Believers masters of their lands, and authorizes battle with the People of the Book until they submit.

‘Ikrima al-Ṣabrī, the current Muftī of Jerusalem, asserts that there is no connection between Judaism and the Ḥaram al-Sharīf—the Temple Mount. This flies in the face of the Qur’ān, which tells the story of the destruction of both Temples, as we have seen. But the Qur’ān does not give the details, and even if it did, the Qur’ān may also be read to show a sense of discontinuity between Israelites of old and the Jews of today. Shaykh Palazzi referred to the detailed accounts of the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem recorded by al-Qurṭubī (d. 1273), [SW2] citing al-Ṭabarī (d. c. 921 CE.), usually considered among the most reliable and important of the classic Islamic historians and Qur’ān-commentators. I recall well, however, from my own experience how such material may be taken. In a classroom discussion about Salman Rushdie’s controversial book The Satanic Verses, I read al-Ṭabar­ī’s account of the verse Satan was supposedly able to place on Muhammad’s tongue. One of my Arab students was perplexed, and told me that he was disappointed in al-Ṭabarī, who must not have been a good Muslim if he recounted such a story, which was not complimentary to Muhammad and must be untrue. He hoped that I would not use al-Ṭabarī’s works in the future.

As Imam Palazzi says, there is much in the Qur’ān and in Islamic tradition which allows for dialogue and common ground. We have looked only at a selection of Qur’ānic verses; Palazzi also refers to the qibla, the direction faced in prayer. At first, Muslims faced Jerusalem, and often this is considered to be an argument for the sanctity of Jerusalem in Islam. In fact, Islamic tradition considers early attempts to set up prayer locations such that the Believer faced both the Ka‘ba and the Rock to be “following Jewish practice,” and rejected them. In Jerusalem, Al-Aqṣā is on the side of the Ḥaram which is closest to Mecca, thus the Dome of the Rock is behind those who worship. Whatever direction is faced, according to Palazzi, it is antithetical to Islam to prevent anyone from prayer to God, anywhere, and he rejects as un-Islamic any Muslim prohibition of Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount. (He might also mention the Western Wall, where prayer to God has been prevented several times by rocks being thrown from the Temple Mount above.)  The qibla also figures in a well-known ḥadīth. In general, traditions of Muhammad collected in ḥadīth paint an even more problematic picture than the Qur’ānic material. This one lacks some of the vehement anti-Jewish tone sometimes found in this literature, but illustrates how this material is sometimes used. Some sources ascribe to Muhammad the tradition "Two directions in prayer may not exist in one land." It is the basis of severe restrictions on non-Muslim presence within the sacred area around Mecca—but as understood by some, it justifies expelling Jews, Christians and any other non-Muslims from all lands in which Muslims ever became dominant. Other traditions attest to the accuse Jews of enmity to Muslims, of blasphemy, polytheism, falsification of scriptures, readiness to murder Muslims, and other evil-doing. Such material may be placed in historical context by the ḥadīth traditions themselves, and in the case of Qur’ānic verses, by the branch of Islamic traditional studies called asbāb al-nuzūl, “the occasions for revelation.” But all too often, these passages are considered as describing an eternal condition, not merely a particular historical situation.

Palazzi is not alone in his fight against a political interpretation of Islam that stresses armed struggle and rejects terror and hatred as un-Islamic. The liberal tradition of modern Islam also has deep roots developed over nearly two centuries, although in contrast to political Islam, it usually is nearly invisible to outside observers. Many Muslims stress that today, Muslims must put aside the lesser jihād (literally "exertion") of armed struggle to join in a “greater” and more holy struggle against the evil which lurks within ourselves. Muslims justify marriage to Christian and Jewish women not only because the Qur’ān allows them to do so but because these communities are fundamentally monotheistic (if they really practiced polytheism, how could religious Muslims allow their wives to continue to practice these religions?).

One can only hope that Palazzi’s approach gains more adherents. Islamic attitudes to Israel and to Judaism must come to stress the brotherhood of ancestry and belief, to see the State of Israel in terms justified by Islam, and to interpret the negative material in the Qur’ān as reflecting particular occasions in the past. As we have seen, the Qur’ān provides ample scope for such interpretations. Jewish-Christian relations have shown much success in concerted effort on both sides to find teachings consistent with religious values which overcome both Christian triumphalism and charges of deicide, and Jewish teachings about the proverbial hatred of Esau—symbolizing Christianity—for Jacob. Perhaps there is hope in finding Islamic rulings supporting his approach to understand Qur’ān and hadīth from the other two sources of Islamic legal guidance: qiyās "reasoning by analogy" and by ijmā‘ "consensus." As noted by Palazzi, it is wrong to think that the “Islamic consensus” refers to the consensus of contemporary practice, rather, it refers to the consensus of the traditional legal traditions. Thus popular anti-Jewish attitudes do not form a legal consensus, and are to be opposed when they are variance with agreed-upon understandings or values. Moreover, among the rules of reasoning which may be applied, some legal traditions recognize that rulings may be issued on the basis of maṣlaḥa: what makes life better or more suitable for the Muslims. Certainly, under the concept of maṣlaḥa, much benefit would accrue to Muslims by emphasizing Qur’ānic elements allowing for a peaceful coexistence with an Israeli state. This would remove a cause of much death and destruction, liberating energy to concentrate on economic advancement and intellectual development—and leaving more time and ease for prayerful devotion to the Almighty.

There can be no progress towards stopping violence without a framework for societal justification for doing so. For Arabs and Israelis, the Muslim and Jewish traditions provide important societal grounding, but the religious sources are being used—often incorrectly—to support highly rejectionist viewpoints. To succeed, any peace process must re-focus use of religious sources to promote a religious justification to reject bloodshed in favor of prayer, service and harmony among men.

"Lord, make this a land of peace and bestow plenty upon its people" (2:125).  The Qur’ān’s blessing applies to the Ka‘ba in Mecca. May it be God’s will that the blessings of peace and prosperity apply also to the Land called Holy and Blessed in the Qur’ān, the Land of Abraham and Israel.

Seth Ward

Page: 8
 [SW1] Take not the Jews and Christians as friends (5:51) Regarding “those who have received a portion of the Scripture…” i.e. the People of the Book, they purchase error, and “God knows best who your enemies are” (4:44-46)

Indeed you will find that the vehement of men in enmity to those who believe are the Jews and polytheists” (5:82)

Page: 9
 [SW2]Muhammad b.Ahmad.

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One Response to What does the Qur’ān say about the Chosen People and Holy Land?

  1. Pingback: Qur’an, Chosen People and Holy Land | Coffeecups

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