The Hadith and the Jews

The Hadith and the Jews January 22, 2016

I have been discussing the Islamic Hadith, and the apocalyptic traditions found in the section on “Turmoil and Portents” in the collection Sahih Muslim, “Pertaining To Turmoil And Portents Of The Last Hour” (Kitab Al-Fitan Wa Ashrat As-Sa’Ah). Specifically, I have suggested that many of these ideas stem from Christian sources, from the late seventh and eighth centuries, and that Christian converts might have imported them into the new faith.

Here, I will look at some of the most quoted anti-Jewish texts in the Islamic tradition. Beyond argument, Islam has a virulent tradition of anti-Semitism, although historically, it has been less lethal and systematic than that of the Christian world. The picture is very mixed. On plenty of occasions, Jews fled Christian persecution to seek protection from generous Muslim rulers, especially the Ottomans. On the other hand, while Western thinkers sometimes romanticize medieval Islam, Muslim-ruled Spain was the scene of savage pogroms against Jews, such as the Granada massacres of 1066. In modern times, anti-Jewish theorizing and propaganda have become very widespread and even mainstream in the Islamic world, commonly drawing on a standard body of texts. Even the ritual murder myth is widely credited in Islamic nations.

Often, these doctrines are supported by Qur’anic passages, but usually by twisting the original words to something quite beyond their original intent. I will not go into this argument in detail here, as I discuss in at length in my 2011 book Laying Down the Sword. None of the instances where the Qur’an is today cited for anti-Semitism refer to Jews as such, or else they address specific groups of Jews in a given historical context.

In that book, I discuss for instance the notorious passage in the Qur’an’s Sura 2, in which God recalls transforming sinners into despicable apes. Those who denounce the Qur’an as deeply anti-Semitic usually describe the evildoers as Jews, and many Muslims through the centuries have accepted that interpretation. But the text just does not support it. Although the story comes in a passage describing Moses and the children of Israel, the victims suffer for the sin of Sabbath-­breaking. God proclaims, “Ye know of those of you who broke the Sabbath, how We said unto them: Be ye apes, despised and hated!” For this, they are made “an example to their own and to succeeding generations, and an admonition to the God-­fearing.” They are punished for sin, not for Judaism. In fact, they suffer for a sin that centuries of rabbinic tradition categorized as grievous.

The anti-Semitic understanding stems from one tradition in the body of later commentaries, the Tafsir, which has entered folklore. The same comment applies to other instances where somebody is transformed into “apes and pigs,” as in Qur’an 5.60, where the victims are idol worshipers. In other cases too, later Qur’anic commentators have used texts to attack Jews, to present them as a condemned race, destined for hell. But in so doing, they are going far beyond the natural sense of the text.

The same defense cannot be offered of one of the ugliest Islamic passages on Jews, which stems from the Hadith. It is found in multiple versions, several of which come from the Turmoil and Portents:

Abu Huraira reported Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: The last hour would not come unless the Muslims will fight against the Jews and the Muslims would kill them until the Jews would hide themselves behind a stone or a tree and a stone or a tree would say: Muslim, or the servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me; come and kill him; but the tree Gharqad [Boxthorn] would not say, for it is the tree of the Jews.

This is a warrant for anti-Jewish violence and struggle, and as such, the text is quoted in the Charter of Hamas.

But where do we find the origins of the ideas expressed here? As I suggested, this is a major departure from the world of the Qur’an and of Muhammad’s era. Nor does it fit regularly into the history of early Islam, when many Jews welcomed the Muslim conquerors as liberators from Christian rule.

The closest parallels to the text are actually in Eastern Christian writings, either Greek or Syriac, and they abounded during the eighth century, at the time when (I have suggested) the Turmoil and Portents originated. From the fourth century onward, Eastern Christians were frequently in conflict with Jews, and a couple of incidents in particular were deeply resented. In 614, for instance, Jews took advantage of the Persian conquest of Jerusalem to massacre many local Christians. After the Muslim conquest, Jews often persuaded Muslim authorities to suppress public symbols and displays of Christianity, notably the display of the cross. In the 720s, the Byzantine Emperor Leo III tried to force all Jews within his realm to receive baptism.

Anti-Jewish themes were prominent in  Eastern Christian apocalyptic literature, which at so many points resembles the thought-world of the Turmoil and Portents. To take one example at random from a great many, the ninth century Apocalypse of Daniel described the rise of the Antichrist, who is strongly associated with the Jews:

And then the unclean spirits and the demons will go forth like the sand of the sea, those in the abyss and those in the crags and ravines. And they will adhere to the Antichrist and they also will be tempting the Christians and killing the babies of the women. And they themselves will suckle from them. … And then all flesh of the Romans will lament. And while there will be temporary joy and exultation of the Jews, (there will be) affliction and oppression of the Romans from every necessity of the evil demons. … And then the Antichrist will lift up a stone in his hands and say, “Believe in me and I will make these stones (into) bread.” And then (the) Jews will worship (him), who are saying, “You are Christ for whom we pray and on account of you the Christian race has grieved us greatly.” And then the Antichrist will boast, saying to the Jews. “Do not be grieved thus. A little (while and) the Christian race will see and will realize who I am.” And the Antichrist lifts up (his) voice toward the flinty rock, saying, “Become bread before the Jews.” And disobeying him, the rock becomes a dragon. And the dragon says to the Antichrist. “O you who are full of every iniquity and injustice, why do you do things which you are not able?” And the dragon shames him before the Jews.

I suggest that these strong anti-Jewish themes originated among converted Christians, possibly clergy or monks, and probably during the eighth century.

In doing this, I am not trying to minimize the toxic quality of these passages, or to underestimate their pernicious influence on extremist Islamic thought. Rather, I want to trace their origins, and to stress yet again the commonalities of Islamic and Christian apocalyptic thought.


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  • MesKalamDug

    It’s off topic but I observe that Da’ish in their magazine Dabiq has recently stated that all the apocalyptic saviour figures – Jesus, the Mahdi, the (twelfth) Imam are the same as the Dajjal. I think they also declared they are the true Wahhabis and
    the Saudis are all apostate. Maybe you can get something useful out of Muslim but I think Da’esh is a dry hole.

    Fred Donner believed that Muhammad himself believed the end was to be expected momentarily and all the elaboration came later. I think you are right to
    point to Christian responsibility for the intense anti-Jewish fervor. But seems to me
    a secondary theme in second century Islam. You will find more references, IMO, to Turks than Jews as enemies.

  • philipjenkins

    A question for you. I know that lots of such hostile sayings about the Turks are attributed to Muhammad, but not, I would have thought, among what are regarded as the earliest and most authoritative rank of Hadith. Please help me with this.

  • MesKalamDug

    I give you an answer bit-by-bit.

    If you want to stay within the bounds off orthodox Islamic thought I think your best source would be al-Bukhari’s Book of Afflictions (this is book 88 in Muhammad Muhsin Khan’s English translation which is available online). Muslim’s book is better organized than al-Bukhari but it is one generation later in content.

    But, of course, there is no reason to stay within orthodox Islamic thought. The most sophisticated work on the hadith literature as a whole would be that of G. H. A. Juynboll but his encyclopedia is arranged by presumed originator and is very hard to use to find particular material.

    I find that al-Bukhari’s Book of Jihad (Book 52) is what I as referring to. In the hadith numbered 175 I find successively – fighting with Byzantines, Jews and Turks.

    More later.

  • Liam O’Conner

    what a wonderful idea!!! two mythical religions destroying another one! a great example of why ALL religions are an abomination.

  • Veritas

    Jews were anti-Christian before Christians were anti-Jew. What does this say? That people with different philosophies of life often come into conflict. This is not limited to religions, but plays out in every political debate and sectarian conflict.
    It is human nature to oppose those with different philosophies as they are a threat to our way of thinking about things and maybe our way of life..

    A mistake is to think we are above all these traits.

  • philipjenkins

    Muslims encountered them in Central Asia in the late seventh/early eighth century at the latest, which is why that helps to date the Hadith in question. Look at

  • Pebbleson

    The suggestion that the “strong anti-Jewish themes” found in the Apocalypse of Daniel “originated among converted Christians, possibly clergy or monks, and probably during the eighth century,” seems to me a bit confusing and unclear as to what is being originated and amongst whom – is it the origination of such themes in Islam, by Christian converts to that religion in the eighth century, that is being explained, in which case how does the Apocalypse of Daniel enter into the discussion, or is it the origination of anti-Jewish themes in the Apocalypse of Daniel by converts to Christianity in the eighth century that is being explained? Probably the former is meant. So the reference to the Apocalypse would seem irrelevant.

    After all, the Apocalypse of Daniel did not originate any of those strong anti-Jewish myths. The same hatred and themes appeared in the earliest Eastern Orthodox obsessive tirades against “the Jews” found in sermons and writings by Gregory of Nyssa and St. John Chrystostom in the 3rd and 4th centuries, themselves only echoing and extending the sentiments of yet earlier Apostolic Church Fathers that shaped the Catholic tradition. These in turn were rooted in demonizations found in the last editorial revisions of the New Testament itself, mainstreamed so to speak already in the Gospels of John and Matthew, etc. There was very little that was specially worthy of notice in the Apocalypse of Daniel.

    The Jewish uprisings of 614 did not cause this Christian animosity, as the text above suggests. That puts the animosity far too late historically. Rather it was this often grotesque animosity that had already long predated that time, only deepening down through the centuries, and the all too frequent and even systemic blatant injustices, persecutions and slaughters that resulted from it, that was reflected in the events of 614 and the later rather unreliable Christian assessments of them.

    A closer examination of the almost anarchic events of the decade or so just previous to that uprising would make that background situation very clear indeed. It was a time of ceaseless warfare between various Christian regimes, Catholic and Byzantine Eastern Orthodox, and also between them and the Persian Empire. Slavonic and Avar pagan tribes took the opportunity of disunity to invade the Byzantine lands from the north and they ravaged all before them. The constant bloodshed, almost depopulating the region, would actually help to explain why when the newly Muslim armies poured out of Arabia in 632, they often found only small numbers of desperate townspeople hiding in ruined cities, most villages uninhabited, and very little effective resistance to their murderous advance through the devastated Christian lands of the Palestinian, Egyptian, Syrian and Mesopotamian regions. It was a common belief in those days that the End of Days had come, and messianic hopes were intense not only amongst Jews, but Christians and even Persian Zoroastrians as well.

    Aside from the usual bloodshed of a multitude of small armies and tribal gangs ravaging the land, civil strife over the previous generation had included crushing fines and taxes, forced conversions not just of pagans (Persian and other), but also of all the Jews of Antioch, Palestine and Alexandria, wholesale slaughters of Jews that wiped out their communities in several cities, and similar treatment of Monophysite Christians as well, along with very many other injustices. Jews understandably fought under the Persians to throw over Christian rule, and it is this that so stirred Christian condemnation and demonizations, even more than the Persian victories and slaughters themselves. Myth again operated decisively. An informative account of that period can be found in Salo Baron, Social and Religious History of the Jews, 2nd Ed. (1957), Vol. III, pp. 15-24.

    I wonder that reference to these contexts is omitted. In general organized military action was quite unusual for Jews but this does not mean that the oppression was usually really OK or even benign. They have historically been far more patient and forbearing than, say, Christian sectarians or Muslims have been in similar circumstances.

  • Pebbleson

    The nuanced discussion of Muslim antisemitism in the Qur’an makes some very good points. Yet despite this there was more of that antisemitism there than this account allows for, an antisemitism directed explicitly at the entire Jewish people who faithfully maintained their Judaism undeterred by Muslim claims. Muhammad had a big problem to explain both to himself and to his followers — why, if he was indeed the final prophet of God foretold in the Jewish scriptures and the true interpreter of Moses’s revelation, did the Jewish communities of Arabia not enroll themselves en masse in his new/old religion? After all, the Jews were the authorities on and sources for the Mosaic teachings whose beauty and truth had so deeply impressed him that he wished to claim and appropriate those sources for himself and his new movement. Moses is the most frequently mentioned person in the Qur’an: he and his doings and teachings are central to Muhammad’s own self-understanding and claims. Far from vindicating him and his claims and becoming Muslims, though, the Jewish communities persisted in their traditional faith, and some even mocked him for occasional extraordinary errors in citing Scriptures. So this was a challenge Muhammad, and his followers as well, could not ignore. It went to the root of their own self-definition. They explained it to themselves as being due to an evil and perverse spirit that had taken over the Jews, not as due in the slightest to their continuing faithfulness in all honesty and integrity to God and their own sacred tradition. But how could this be justified or made to seem at all plausible?

    Christian teachings repeated by fiery monks in the Arabian desert, and by Christians Muhammad met in his caravan trips to the Fertile Crescent, offered the obvious way out of his dilemma. After all, did not the New Testament Christians also have the same problem with the Jews of their time and right up to the time of Muhammad? They were the enduring people of Biblical Israel, the very source from which Jesus and the later Church spoke and in terms of which he and they taught, yet the Jews as a people were not swayed: they refused to abandon their own tradition and faith and join the Christian sect instead. Their own religious authorities, the Pharisees and later Rabbis, in particular posed a deep challenge. If they, who were so manifestly good, devout and learned in the Torah, did not validate Christian claims, who could believe those claims? The reason was given in the Gospels themselves: those authorities, admittedly so beautiful and righteous in apparent behaviour (Matt. 23:27f.), must have really been sheer hypocrites and only pretended to worship God — actually, it is said, they worshipped Satan instead, and even knowingly conspired to kill God, that is, Christ (John 8). They were no longer authentic expositors of their own religion or scripture but liars and outright enemies of God and of Scripture as well. Authority therefore had passed from them to the Church. The more pious and loyal to their faith they were, the more false and evil they had to be, as admitted descendants by blood of those who had persecuted and killed all the prophets. This theme of the Jews as an entire people perversely rejecting God and Moses himself, persecuting and murdering the prophets and therefore naturally and inevitably also murdering Jesus, God’s Messiah/Son, is so frequently invoked it becomes a main theme in the N.T. (Matt. 23:29-33; Luke 11:47-52; John 8:31-38 and following; Acts 7:3553, etc — famously dramatized in the parable about the tenants of the vineyard highlighted in three of the gospels). This explanation of the distinction between Jews and Christians, also defines Christianity itself as on God’s side, justifies the Christian appropriation of the treasure of Jewish Scriptures, and is fundamental to Christian self-definition henceforth. That crucial dynamic also helps to explain why there has been a veritable Christian negative theological obsession with Jews down through the ages, even in the absence of Jews. On this, and its ramifications through the Middle Ages and even into post-Enlightenment philosophies and ideologies central to the modern world-view, see David Nirenberg, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition (2013)..

    It was a very convenient explanation that Muhammad could easily apply to his own situation: it suited all his requirements and even helped to strengthen his own claims. He, Muhammad, continued the same witness modelled by the earlier prophets and by Jesus himself. Jewish enmity was therefore a divine testimony to his own authentically godly and prophetic claims, rather than a disproof of them. Just as the Christians claimed, the Jews were a people who seek to persecute and kill all the prophets, that is why they sought to crucify Jesus, and naturally they had to reject Muhammad as well. The disconfirmation they posed to Muhammad’s claims was turned on its head, and became polemically decisive confirmation of those claims, but this obviously required (as it had already done in Christianity) the constantly repeated negative imaging of Jews and their religious integrity as such which we find running through the Qur’an and elaborated on in later commentaries. This was reinforced by political and other factors in Muhammad’s own time. The Jews of Arabia were his chief and most dangerous opponents, certainly, both theologically and socially. They undermined his call for the allegiance of all Arabia simply by their perseverance, and they also resisted his armies, but this same perseverance and resistance could now be readily explained as a testimony to and evidence of his own divine mandate. Triumphalist mockery of them as a whole people echoes through the surahs. The Qur’an keeps returning to the Jewish question, although more allowance is generally made for exceptions, righteous Jews who acknowledge God and by implication Muhammad, than is apparent in some very striking and influential portions of the Gospels, for example chapter 8:31ff, of the Gospel of John or chapter 23:29ff or 27:24ff of the Gospel of Matthew. It is also in consonance with this that it became a Muslim belief that not only Muhammad himself, but also Ali and most other first and second generation sectarian or mainstream heroes of the new Muslim faith had been treacherously killed by Jews, even when it is evident on the face of it that the claims are very far-fetched indeed. We are already in the realm of necessary myths.

    It is worth pointing out, however, that the claim about the Jewish people and their mainstream authorities and piety being constituted by rejection of Moses, persecution and even murder of the prophets, etc., is a manifest self-contradiction. Merely the existence of Christianity and Islam themselves disproves that claim. If the charges about mainstream Jewish community values were really true, the Torah and prophets would not have been lovingly preserved and obeyed by the Jewish people down through the centuries, and they themselves would have disappeared as such since they arose from and were grounded in the Mosaic tradition that they rejected. The very recollection of that tradition, and the group identity it defined, would have disappeared many centuries before the Graeco-Roman period, for the Jews would have melted into the Canaanite pagans and other surrounding peoples probably without any trace at all, especially after being exiled, in this being like all other exiled peoples of deep antiquity. That being the case, there would have been no possibility for the rise of Christianity or of Islam.

    So the treatment of Jews and Judaism in the later hadith and Sira (biographies of Muhammad) reflect very early basic issues relating to Islamic theology and self-definition, and as such are grounded in the Qur’an itself. Later discussions in the Muslim tradition just elaborate on what is there. See for a devastating account of all this and its later ramifications within mainstream Islam, Andrew Bostom, ed., The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism: From Sacred Texts to Solemn HIstory (2008), which not only includes the source texts and extensive extracts from later mainstream commentaries down through the ages, but also over 20 learned articles on specific related issues by many of the leading Western academic authorities of our time on Islamic religion.

  • Pebbleson

    The Jews were not anti-Christian before Christians were anti-Jew. Quite the contrary. It is true that the claim of hostility by “the Jews” as such is made in the final gentile revisions of the New Testament (exonerating the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, portraying him as a righteous but helplessly weak man strangely powerless to resist the Jewish crowd, thus symbolically putting the blame for Jesus’s crucifixion solely on the entire Jewish people and all later Jewish generations – Matt. 27:24-6, also see John 8:31-38, etc. – but crucifixion, the regular sadistic Roman way of treating insurrectionists, was and is forbidden outright in Jewish law, while the real Pilate, we are told by Josephus, Antiquities, Book XVIII, Chap. 4, was so oppressive in Judea, slaughtering large numbers and taxing so extortionately it caused constant unrest and rebellion throughout the country, forcing the Roman authorities to recall Pilate in disgrace).

    According even to the New Testament, Jesus was eagerly followed by crowds who hoped he was a possible messiah or perhaps only forerunner of the eventual messiah. He is quoted as denying any claims of messiahship for himself, which, being so uncomfortably unlike the later claims made for him is likely to be the historical truth too well attested for the later editors simply to eliminate those passages — but elsewhere he is made to hint he is indeed the messiah, and in yet other places he forthrightly claims to be God per se: there are lots of contradictions in the Gospels! The Jewish followers did not of course think he was divine (neither, in some quotations, did he: Matt. 19.16ff., 24.36, 27:46, Luke 18.18ff., Mark 10.17ff., etc.): that is unthinkable in the Jewish religion for several reasons. So there is nothing in his better attested teachings that were not already fairly standard Rabbinic views of the time. His own brother, James, led the most devoted believers in his messianic role after his death, hoping for his imminent second coming, and had high honor amongst other Jews; we read in Josephus (Antiquities, Book XX, Chap. 9) that when the Sadducean High Priest appointed by Albinus, the then ruling Roman Procurator, high-handedly and without any consultation with the Procurator had James arrested and executed, the leading figures of Judea were deeply outraged by this manifest injustice and made a strong complaint about it to King Agrippa, who passed on the complaint, with his own endorsement, to Albinus, leading to the dismissal of the High Priest from his office — the Procurators generally cared nothing for the feelings or sensitivities of those they oppressed but here Albinus evidently felt he had to make it clear that his ultimate authority in all important matters had to be recognized and approval obtained even by the High Priests who slavishly followed Roman policies.

    The Book of Acts in the N.T. also tells us that Rabbi Gamaliel, the leading Rabbinic/Pharisaic authority in the period of the 40s of the first century, when messianist followers of Jesus were being tried by the Great Sanhedrin, did not endorse any persecution at all of the new sectarians, since, he sensibly said, if the promised messianic return and inauguration of the messianic age occurred, all would see it and rejoice, while if it did not and the new messianist sect was wrong, everyone would see that too. So it was OK to leave it in the hands of God. The Sadducean-dominated Great Sanhedrin, rather unwillingly it seems, accepted the force of this argument, and the Jewish messianists therefore went free (cf. Acts, 5:17ff.). It is revealing, by the way, that shortly afterward Paul, who boasted that he was before his adoption of the beliefs of the Jesus movement a completely committed and “blameless” disciple precisely of Rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 22:3ff, 26:4ff, Philippians 3:5ff), nevertheless (in the only instance given in the N.T. of his actual behaviour relating to Gamaliel’s teachings) he directly disobeyed those explicit orders and sought on his own hook actually to lead the persecution of the new sectarians, rushing off to Damascus to do so (carrying a letter of endorsement not from R. Gamaliel at all, we notice, but from the Roman-appointed Sadducean High Priest: Acts 9:1ff.). In his later attempted justifications for this persecutory zeal) he actually boasts that this stemmed from his Pharasaic piety even in the course of admitting that he acted on “the authority from the chief priests” (Acts 26:10; see also Acts 22:3-5, Phil. 3:5f.)! This tendency to blame and traduce the Pharisees in season and out certainly runs through Paul’s entire Christian polemical writings.

    It is certainly not a crime in the Jewish religion to be the messiah, and generation after generation has hoped that they will see a true messiah, but it is taught that (assuming the aspirant’s impeccable Torah-observant character) events alone will decisively validate this claim, or will not, as God wills. False messiahs, however, can do a lot of harm. The Romans are said to have executed over 20 messianic aspirants in the early first century C.E., and eventually the eagerness of the people to follow such leaders encouraged a general uprising against Roman oppression that brought an end to the Jewish state for two millenia.

  • Hillary Spragg

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