A major allegation raised against the Holy Qur’an by detractors is that it contains verses promoting anti-semitism and supremacy of Muslims over other religious adherents. This is sometimes put out as a sweeping condemnation of the Holy Qur’an with the assertion that Muslims should denounce and disregard such verses.
A glance at history reveals that scriptural authority has little to do with terrorism and extremism. For example, the first Christian Crusades launched under Pope Urban II saw its mission to recapture Jerusalem from the Muslims. They were successful. What followed was utterly bizarre. In one of the worst massacres of history, after conquering Jerusalem, the crusaders deemed it their religious duty to slaughter defenceless Muslims and Jews in an act that seems to run contrary to the New Testament theology of forgiveness and turning the other cheek.
On the other hand, when the Muslim Commander Saladin captured Jerusalem back from the Crusaders, he offered protection and safe passage out of the city for every Jew and Christian wishing to leave.
Extremism tends to be a product of political and economic realities as much as ideological dogma. Interestingly, low self-esteem and economic stress are reported to have existed with both Pope Urban’s blood-thirsty Crusaders from a millennium ago and extremist Muslims today. Impoverishment and a damaged sense of pride will easily give way to demagoguery, and eventually extremism, whether scripture can be quoted or not.
The Alleged Verses
Still, let’s scrutinize these alleged verses as well as historically contextualize them. The Holy Qur’an makes references to Muslims, Jews and Christians in a manner similar to how people generally do in a day-to-day sense. Religious identity is widely understood to be a social identity too. We broadly assign communities and nations as Muslim, Christian or Jewish. Yet, there are murders and rapists in those nations whose names are Muhammad, Jesus and Abraham. But the social identity of a Muslim or Christian sticks, even with hardened criminals.
Similarly, the Qur’an makes references in a sense of social identity as well as in a strictly religious sense, but it does draw the distinction clearly. For example, verse 49:15 states that the Arabs announced their belief in Islam, but the verse cautions not to take their acceptance of Islam as true belief—echoing the conventional wisdom that knowing the path and walking the path are two different things.
Verse 9:29 is certainly one exmple from the Holy Qur’an that allegors of Muslim supremacy call into question. It reads, “Fight those from among the People of the Book (Jews and Christians) who believe not in Allah, nor in the Last Day…”. Now, we know that, generally speaking, Jews and Christians believe in God and the Day of Judgement. So what does it mean to say those Jews and Christians who do not believe? This can be answered by looking at Verse 2:63 which states, “Surely, the believers, and the Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabians, whichever party believes in Allah and the Last Day and does good deeds shall have their reward with their Lord”. Here, the Jews and Christians are distinguished from the ones in 9:29 as believers, meaning they act in accordance with their scripture by promoting peace, justice and freedom of religion. Conversely, the non-believing Jews and Christians of verse 9:29 act contrary to these values.
Despite the claims of some media commentators, verses like 9:29 and 2:63 are not inconsistencies, nor do they require contextualizing to understand the distinction therein. Still, historical and political context is helpful here.
Historical and Political Context
The Islamic movement was born into the throes of a raging regional theater of war between the superpowers of Rome and Persia who asserted their power based on notions of religious supremacy, breeding intolerance and persecution. Historian Peter Frankopan, Director of Byzantine Studies at Oxford University, in his best-seller The Silk Roads writes: Muhammad actively sought to fuse the many tribes of southern Arabia into a single block. The Romans and Persians had long manipulated local rivalries and played leaders off each other. As the Islamic movement grew, the opposition raised a large confederate army for an all-or-nothing showdown with the Muslims known as the Battle of the Trench (a large trench was dug around the city of Medina in a bid to survive the massive onslaught).
The Jewish Banu Quraizah tribe, under pact with Muslims and other tribes as co-citizens of Medina, apparently did not expect Muslims to be able to mount a defense and entered league with the enemy. However, the ditch-stratagem worked. The Confederates were unable to breach it and eventually retreated. The Banu Quraizah were subsequently tried and some were executed for high treason during a mortal attack by the enemy. This event is often alleged as a basis for extremist anti-Semitic ideology, but but the punishments for high treason against the state were justified.
Muhammad, The Savior of the Jews
Historical record reveals that generally Jews welcomed the new Muslim rule in the region and the wide relief it brought from Roman-Christian persecution. Peter Frankopan writes: an unmistakable and striking theme can be consistently teased from the literature of this period, Muhammad and his followers went to great lengths to assuage the fears of Jews and Christians.
In fact, Muhammad even came to be debated in Jewish writings as the messianic fulfillment of prophecy who delivered the Jewish people from the tyranny of Rome—they were saying that the prophet had appeared, coming with the Saracens (Arabs), and that he was proclaiming the advent of the anointed one, the Christ that was to come (Seeing Islam as Others Saw It: A Survey and Evaluation of Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian Writings on Early Islam).
When the Caliph Omar (Second Successor to Muhammad) conquered Jerusalem, he removed Roman Emperor Heraclius’s ban on Jews from entering the city.
And, a remarkable text from the time reports on how Rabbi Shimon Ben Yohai, grief-stricken by Roman Emperor Heraclius’s persecution of Jews, received a vision in which an angel reassures him: Fear not, for God is bringing about the kingdom of Arabs for the purpose of delivering you from the wickedness of Rome. Per Dr. Frankopan, recent research on Greek, Syriac and Arab sources provides corroborating evidence that Jews welcomed Muslim rule, which is unlikely if the early Muslims were promoting anti-semitism or Muslim supremacy.
Therefore, the wider source of historical material in Jewish and other non-Muslim writing confirms that the early Muslims did not promote an objectionable sense of Muslim supremacy, nor did they enforce religion upon anyone. Jewish communities and leaders widely celebrated Muslim rule and the relief it brought in the region with the end to the Roman-Persian wars and Roman anti-semitism. If the Holy Quran’s verses had been understood by Muslims to be villifying non-Muslims, then we would not see such historical affirmation of freedom of religion under Muslim rule.