Conventional wisdom among many American citizens, as well as numerous journalists, politicians and media anchors, has it that anti-Semitism in the Islamic world constitutes a not unreasonable reaction to the late 19th c. Zionist movement which led to the creation of the state of Israel right after World War II. In this view, were Israel to totally withdraw from the West Bank (and other disputed Arab territories), enact the “right of return” and compensate displaced Palestinians, anti-Semitism in the Islamic world would dissipate like a mirage.
Unfortunately, hatred of Jews runs much longer than a century or so into the past. In fact, it originates not only in the actions of the founder of Islam himself, but also in the eschatological belief-system of the world’s second-largest religion.
In 622 CE the nascent Muslim community under Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, left Mecca in Arabia and headed north to the city of Yathrib. Part forced emigration, part prearranged political move, this hijrah not only marked the beginning of the Muslim calendar but the transition of the Muslims from oppressed minority to ruling majority. The newly-renamed Madinat al-Nabi, “city of the prophet,” became—in its shortened form, Madinah—the capital of an expanding religious, political and military movement that would encompass the entire Arabian peninsula, including Mecca itself, within eight years and then, of course, after another century conquer lands from Iberia to the borders of India.
In the process of the Islamization of Arabia, and a few years before Mecca fell to the Muslims in 630, a paradigm of Muslim-Jewish conflict was established. Several of the tribes of Madinah were Jewish, and refused to accept the prophethood of Muhammad. In fact the leaders of one tribe, the Banu Qurayzah, were reported to have been plotting to have Muhammad killed. After some negotiations and inter-tribal machinations—which included, portentously, Muhammad branding the Qurayzah “brothers of monkeys”—Muhammad allowed “one of [their] own number,” one Sa`d bin Mu’adh, to pronounce judgment on them. His verdict: “the men should be killed, the property divided, and the women and children taken as captives.” The narrative continues:
Then the apostle went out to the market of Medina…and dug trenches in it. Then he sent for them and struck off their heads in those trenches as they were brought out to him in batches….There were 600 or 700 in all, though some put the figure as high as 800 or 900….This went on until the apostle made an end of them.[…] Then the apostle divided the property, wives, and children of B. Qurayza among the Muslims….
Now, this was a brutal time and a brutal society, in many ways. And in his treatment of “unbelievers” Muhammad is not unlike some of the divinely-sanctioned rulers in the Hebrew Scriptures, such as Joshua or David. (He is, however, most unlike the Jesus of the New Testament.) Nonetheless, there is no getting around the fact that the man whom Muslims believe to have been God’s last spokesman on Earth not only denigrated, but ordered the slaughter of, his fellow monotheists—and this long before Theodore Herzl, David Ben-Gurion or Ariel Sharon ever existed.
This pattern set by God’s prophet is particularly influential upon the jihadist wing of world Islam, for whom the example of the early Islamic community is supremely normative. However, there is a powerful eschatological motif in Islam which also contributes immensely to the acrimony that too many Muslims, even non-jihadist, feel towards the Jews: that of al-Dajjal.
The Dajjal, or “The Deceiver,” is one of five major end times actors according to Islamic teachings, and the chief embodiment of evil. In the anti-God camp with him will be the rapacious hordes of Yajuj and Majuj, as well as al-Dabbah, the “Beast.” Opposing these will be the returned `Isa, or Jesus, and al-Mahdi, the “rightly-guided one.” Jesus, Yajaj and Majuj, and the Dabbah have both Qur’anic and hadith sourcing (hadiths are extra-Qur’anic sayings attributed to Muhammad); however, the Dajjal and the Mahdi appear nowhere in the Qur’an, but only in hadiths—curious, considering that in many ways they are the two most important eschatological figures in Islam.
What has this to do with anti-Semitism in Islam? The main role of the returned (Muslim) prophet Jesus and the Mahdi will be to defeat the evil forces of unbelief and usher in a global Islamic caliphate. And the forces that the Dajjal will lead forth to battle the Muslims will be…Jewish! The Dajjal himself is usually described, drawing upon relevant hadiths, as corpulent and/or tall, frizzy- (perhaps red-)haired, one-eyed, able to perform sham miracles, having the Arabic linguistic root for “unbelief”—K-F-R—tatooed on his forehead. And while he is actually not described as Jewish himself, the hadith accounts of his Jewish supporters have provided plenty of ammunition for Muslim exegetes to assume he, too, will be Jewish and—of course—linked to Israel. For example, the K-F-R on the Dajjal’s brow is said to be the same symbol used on the tail fins of Israeli fighter jets. But the Jewish component is not the only one of the “Dajjal system,” for that system is truly the one of unbelief—a rubric under which both science and Christianity should be subsumed. While the hadiths suggesting that the Dajjal will be Jewish go back, in some cases, to the 9th century CE/3rd century AH, the recent upsurge in eschatological anti-Semitism probably dates to about 20 years ago, when the Egyptian writer Sayyid Ayyub began publishing works in Arabic claiming that the Dajjal was already active on Earth and that he was Jewish. And this view is not active only in the Arab Muslim world, in the “front-line” states bordering Israel. A recent Indian Muslim writer is convinced that “the Jews are waiting impatiently for the coming of Dajjal, their beloved king,” for:
Zionists in their bloodthirsty lust for power are not satisfied with Palestine. In their arrogance, they openly admit that they want all Syria…Lebanon…Jordan…Iraq…Iskenderun…the Sinai…the Delta area of Egypt and the Upper Hejaz and Najd….They even want the holy Madinah [sic]….Their main aim is to exterminate Islam [emphasis added].
This writer goes on to repeat the hadith that the Jews will get their comeuppance before the end, when in the final battles “they will not be able to hide behind any stone, wall, or animal or tree without it saying ‘O Muslim, servant of Allah, here is a Jew, come and kill him.” The Dajjal will actually be killed by Jesus, and the Dajjal’s dispirited army of Jews, unbelievers and “Magians” will then be defeated by the Mahdi and his army of Muslims. Afterwards peace will reign under the global rule of the Mahdi and/or Jesus for some time (the hadiths are not harmonious on just who will be superior and who will live longer), before both great Muslim leaders die and unbelief again proliferates. Thereafter, at some point, will come the true end of time and the Judgment.
Islamic eschatology has seen a resurgence in recent years, owing to the turn of the (Christian) millennium, the inability of the Islamic world to deal effectively with modernity and the perception among many Muslims that the ummah, the Islamic “nation,” is not only in dire straits but is under attack from the West in general and the U.S. in particular. A powerful yearning for the Mahdi to come and deliver the ummah has grown among both Sunni and Shi`i Muslims, and the eschatological play cannot be acted out until the Dajjal comes, as well. Hugo Chavez may see President Bush as “El Diablo,” but for many in the Muslim world this figure of evil is “the Jew,” particularly in his armed-and-dangerous incarnation as “the Zionist entity”—Israel. If even a small percentage of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims are influenced by such a belief, as well as by the undeniable anti-Semitic example of their own founder—and all indications are that this is indeed the case—then it’s naïve at best and dangerous at worst to expect that any sort of political or territorial concessions on the part of the Israelis will enervate such rancor. Jimmy Carter and James Baker, among others, would do well to factor that into their future policy recommendations.