FP: Prof. Mohammed welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Mohammed: You do me a great honor. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to introduce my views to your readers. As you know, I am interested in a moderate Islam, one that is inclusive and is concerned about all human rights. My mission is to help reclaim the beauty that once was practiced in Islam, a message not currently in fashion amongst more traditional or fundamentalist Muslims.
FP: You are yourself a Muslim and yet, quite unconventionally amongst Islamic clerics and scholars, you teach that the Koran says Israel belongs to the Jews. Can you educate us on this Islamic teaching?
Mohammed: The Qur'an adumbrates several principles that hover around a common theme: God does not love injustice and will assist those who are wrongly treated. And it focuses so much on this that the person most mentioned in the Qur'an is Moses -- who is presented as God's revolutionary, and who leads a people despised and tormented for no other reason than that they worshipped God, out of the land of bondage to the Promised Holy Land.
The Qur'an in Chapter 5: 20-21 states quite clearly: Moses said to his people: O my people! Remember the bounty of God upon you when He bestowed prophets upon you , and made you kings and gave you that which had not been given to anyone before you amongst the nations. O my people! Enter the Holy Land which God has written for you, and do not turn tail, otherwise you will be losers."
The Quran goes on to say why the Israelites were not allowed to enter the land for forty years...but the thrust of my analysis is where Moses says that the Holy Land is that which God has "written" for the Israelites. In both Jewish and Islamic understandings of the term "written", there is the meaning of finality, decisiveness and immutability. And so we have the Written Torah (unchangeable) and the Oral Torah (which represents change to suit times). And in the Qur'an we have "Written upon you is the fast"--to show that this is something that is decreed, and which none can change. So the simple fact is then, from a faith-based point of view: If God has "written" Israel for the people of Moses, who can change this?
The Qur'an refers to the exiles, but leaves it open for return...saying to the Jews that if they keep their promise to God, then God will keep the divine promise to them. WE may argue that the present state of Israel was not created in the most peaceful means, and that many were displaced--for me, this is not the issue. The issue is that when the Muslims entered that land in the seventh century, they were well aware of its rightful owners, and when they failed to act according to divine mandate (at least as perceived by followers of all Abrahamic faiths), they aided and abetted in a crime. And the present situation shows the fruits of that action--wherein innocent Palestinians and Israelis are being killed on a daily basis.
I also draw your attention to the fact that the medieval exegetes of Qur'an--without any exception known to me--recognized Israel as belonging to the Jews, their birthright given to them. Indeed, two of Islam's most famous exegetes explained "written" from Quran thus:
Ibn Kathir (d. 774/1373) said: “That which God has written for you” i.e. That which God has promised to you by the words of your father Israel that it is the inheritance of those among you who believe” . Muhammad al-Shawkani (d. 1250/1834) interprets Kataba to mean “that which God has allotted and predestined for you in His primordial knowledge, deeming it as a place of residence for you” (1992, ).
The idea that Israel does not belong to the Jews is a modern one, probably based on the Mideast rejection of European colonialism etc, but certainly not having anything to do with the Qur'an. The unfortunate fact is that most Muslims do NOT read the Qur’an and interpret it on the basis of its own words; rather they let imams and preachers do that for them.
FP: You say that when the Muslims entered the sacred land in the seventh century, “they aided and abetted in a crime.” Can you expand on this a bit? How honest is contemporary Islam with this fact?
Mohammed: How did the Jews lose their right to live in the Holy Land? All reliable reports show that it was by the looting and burning that followed from 70-135 C.E. When the Muslims entered the place in 638, liberating it from the Byzantines, they knew full well to whom it rightfully belonged. But we find that Muslim chroniclers state that the Muslim caliph accepting the surrender of the Byzantine Christian representative, Sophronius, on certain terms, one of them being that the Jews would not be permitted to enter the city. I personally have a hard time accepting this story, and aspects of its historicity because as modern scholarship has shown, Muslim reports about that time were recorded long after the fact and are not as reliable as once thought. And we know too that when the first Crusaders took possession of the place in 1096-1099, they slaughtered Jews and Muslims. If Umar had indeed signed such a treaty, what were Jews doing there?
By aiding and abetting in a crime, I refer to when Abdul Malik built the mosque there, and had false traditions ascribed to Muhammad wherein the Prophet is supposed to have said that a man should set out for a journey only for three mosques, the ones in Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. Now how could the prophet have said this when ALL Muslims agree that when the Qur’an states "this day I have completed for you your religion" (Q5:3), that Jerusalem was not within Muslim geography? The completion means just that...with the Arabic Qur'an for the Arab peoples, and the aspect of conquest of foreign territory NOT an injunction of Qur’anic Islam.
When the Muslims conquered Jerusalem, it should have been left open for the rightful owners to return. It is possible that Jewish beliefs of the time only allowed such return under a Messiah--but that should not have influenced Muslim action. And in contrast to the report of Sophronius above, there are also reports showing that Umar in fact opened the city to the Jews. If this be the case, then the later Muslim occupation and building a mosque on the site of the Temple was something that was not sanctioned by The Qur’an. How honest is contemporary Islam with this? Given the situation in the Middle East, politiking etc stands in the way of honesty.
FP: You lecture at universities exposing these politically incorrect facts. As a result, you have been frequently denounced by Muslim groups. Tell us about their criticism/harassment of you.
Mohammed: The criticism of my work is that I am out of line with the geo-political movement towards fundamentalism. What your readers must understand is that fundamentalism is rapidly becoming mainstream. Moderation is not. A perfect example is in Akbar AHmed's "Islam Under Siege," where he points out that the Taliban are no longer a fringe group in Pakistan; many Pakistanis are finding themselves drawn to their teachings.
Right here in the US, I present a problem to those at mosques who use social pressure to coerce others into accepting their extremism. On the personal level with my family: when my wife, after years of research, decided that she no longer felt that the head covering was mandatory, and chose to venture forth without it, many of the Muslim "sisters" she greeted refused to respond--without even checking on her interpretation. Many Muslims stand against me for no other reason than I say that Israel has a right to exist.
Overall, the criticism of me follows a strange pattern: they are upset that I should give any legitimacy to Israel, assuming that in doing so, I am denying the rights of Palestinians. My answer that I in no way deny that Palestinians have rights. But this is generally not considered by those that criticize my position: because for them, it is either all or nothing.
At a recent lecture in Santa Cruz, Muslim groups put up posters saying that I claim that the Qu'ran says bad things about Jews. In fact this was a gross misrepresentation of facts: I admit that the Qur'an has verses that are polemic, but my view is that the Qur'an in fact respects the Jews (which explains Moses being so often mentioned)...but that it is the oral traditions of Islam (the hadith) that demonizes the Jews. For many Muslims, this is a hard pill to swallow because for almost 12 centuries, they have been taught that acceptance of oral traditions are a creedal element of Islam.
Often, they try to argue with selective quotes from the Qur'an--and here they lose out, because when it comes to exegesis, I have spent years studying that. And then there is the "challenge" aspect...at Santa Cruz they said that they wanted to debate. I agreed on one condition: that such debate be in public. They did not show up. In fact, the few Muslims who were present and had the patience to listen to me, could not find how I had misinterpreted or misrepresented Islam.
In Montreal, I was accused of being racist when I said that 95% of contemporary Muslims are exposed to anti-Semitic teachings. My answer, which the Montreal Gazette refused to print, was that every Muslim had to answer a simple question. Honestly. What is the interpretation of the final two verses of the first chapter of the Quran? "Guide us to the straight path--the path of those upon whom you have bestowed your bounty, not those who have incurred your wrath, nor those who are astray."
This verse has nothing about Jews or Christians...yet, almost every person learns that those who have incurred divine wrath are the Jews, and those who are astray are Christians. What is more problematic is that the average person learns this chapter and its interpretation between the ages of 5-8. And we know that things learned at this stage of life become ingrained, almost to the point of being in one's DNA, if I may put it that way.
I felt that my answer was self-evident. Do you know what the result was? Some of my closest colleagues DENIED that they had been taught this. This was more painful to me than the rejection of some Muslim leaders--for I always ask that if we deny things publicly, at least in private we admit the truth. And when in privacy, my fellow Muslims could not bring themselves to admit that which was obvious to anyone, that was in itself testimony as to how low we have sunk.
Yet, on the issue of criticism and harassment--I must state that it is only in the form of argument, without threats of any physical nature. Whatever problem my fellow Muslims have with my views, they are aware that I am a Muslim. I do not deny my religion, and therefore we can argue. Here at San Diego State University where I teach, the local MSA attempted to have me disciplined for having accused them of anti-Semitism and homophobia. They did not pursue the issue--an astute decision for they would have looked very foolish. Their answer was that they too are Semites, (the writers of the letter were by the way not even Arabs), and that they could not be homophobic since their neighbors are gays and lesbians!
FP: If Islam is going to have a reformation, from what roots will it originate?
Mohammed: The reformation will come from Muslims based in the West, and the voices of women will be loud and pivotal in that reformation. Let us look at some names that are as yet unknown to many, but names that have done so much for changing Islamic thought...names of people who may disagree vehemently with each other, but names of people who, for all their difference have done much to purge Islam of the male chauvinism that has afflicted it for centuries: Fatima Mernissi, Azizah al Hibri, Amina Wadud Muhsin, Irshad Manji, Rifat Hasan, Asma Jahangir. Not that all reform minded people are women: there is Khalid Abou al Fadl, Abdallah al-Naim, Sa'd al din Ibrahim etc. Note that they are, with one exception, all now in the West, and that they have all had a western education.
FP: Prof. Mohammed, it was an honor to speak with you and we would like to thank you for being such a brave voice within the Islamic community, where honest dialogue, unfortunately, is often stifled. We encourage you to keep fighting for a moderate Islam that is compatible with Western democracy -- and we hope your voice will have an increasing impact.
So to finish this interview, why don’t you briefly sum up for our readers -- and for many Muslims who will hopefully read this interview – how Islam actually teaches that Israel belongs to the Jews and that Muslims are obligated, by the Qur’an itself, to accept its existence.
Mohammed: The Qur'an states at the very beginning of the second chapter "this is a book wherein there is no doubt, a guide for the God-conscious." Its contents are therefore to be seen by every Muslim as being divinely ordained, and to be followed. The verses on Israel as in 5:20-21 are not there just to be read; they are there to be followed. In Islam also, there is the elemental maxim "Calamity must be removed" (al darar yuzal). Muslms must face up to reality--in the years since Israel has been established, the focus of the region has been to seek to have it removed. And they have been unsuccessful, and there seems to be no hope for success. The pragmatic, proactive thing to do would be to come to grips with reality: Israel is there to stay, and it can exist in a state of peaceful coexistence, or in a stage of bellicosity. The Qur'an tells Muslims that God will not change their position until they change it themselves--and this is a classic example for putting that edict into effect. Only when MUSLIMS themselves accept Israel will they be following their Qur'an. Israel will negotiate from a position of guaranteed security, and while there may be tension from time to time, at least peace will be the norm.
FP: Prof. Mohammed, thank you for joining us today.
Mohammed: It was my pleasure, thank you for having me here.
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