A Koranic reconciliation with the Jewish Return

It had to be a joke. An Egyptian lawyer, reported the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv this week, is planning to sue “every Jew in the world” for the “theft” of 1,125 trillion tons of Egyptian gold during the Exodus 3,000 years ago.

“This was the greatest act of collective deception in history,” explained the lawyer, Nabil Hilmi. He graciously offered to spread the repayment term over the next 1,000 years – with interest, of course.

But this is the Middle East, and it’s no joke. Nor is Hilmi a crackpot: He happens to be the dean of a law school in Cairo. And he’s assembled a team of 15 Egyptian lawyers to pursue the case before an international court. All in the name of justice.

The surrealistic suit says much about the quality of moral discourse in the Arab world today. That the Jews were slaves – to a pharaoh whom the Koran itself calls evil – is as irrelevant to Hilmi as the fact that the current war of suicide bombings was launched after Israel offered the Palestinians a state with east Jerusalem as its capital. In the culture of self-pity that has gripped the Arab world, justice and grievance belongs to its side alone.

Still, there is, potentially, good news in this deeply depressing story. By intending to sue “every Jew in the world” for the theft of Pharaoh’s gold, Hilmi is acknowledging that Jews are the legitimate descendants of the children of Israel.

That is by no means a given in the anti-Jewish discourse in much of the Arab world, which is currently engaged in a massive rewriting of Jewish history. According to Arab revisionism, the Jews have no roots in the land of Israel. Instead, they are an impostor people that expropriated the biblical story, just as they stole Palestine.

One highly popular Arab notion is that the Jews are descended from the Khazhars, the Asiatic Russian tribe that converted to Judaism in the 9th century. (As if that would matter: Membership in the people of Israel is determined by conversion as well as birth.)

And so Hilmi’s message is unwittingly subversive. If Jews are in fact the descendants of the children of Israel, that means they have the right to the land of Israel – according to the Koran itself. In Sura 5, verses 20 and 21 declare: “Remember when Moses said to his people: O my people, remember the favors that God bestowed on you when he appointed apostles from among you, and made you kings and gave you what had never been given to any one in the world. Enter then, my people, the Holy Land that God has ordained for you.”

I once asked a journalist from Israel’s fundamentalist Islamic Movement what he made of those verses, and he replied with a knowing smile, “Do the Jews in Tel Aviv follow God’s word? Are the Jews today Moses’ people?”

Hilmi, for one, would have to answer that they were. If Jews can be sued for the gold of the Exodus, then surely they are heirs to the Koran’s promise that the Holy Land would belongs to the people of Moses. Perhaps, when Zionists base their claims on Scripture, they should cite not just the Bible but the Koran too.

I’m not the only one who has noted this. There are brave – admittedly isolated – Muslim voices who insist that the Koran does indeed recognize the Jewish right to the Holy Land. One of them is Khaleel Mohammed, an Islamic scholar who taught at Brandeis University and will begin teaching this fall at San Diego University. I met him a few weeks ago at an interfaith seminar sponsored by “Brandeis in the Berkshires,” Brandeis’s adult education summer institute.

“As a Muslim,” he told us then, “I have no choice but to believe that God gave the land to the Jews.”

Of course there are other Koranic verses that aren’t particularly flattering to Jews or Christians (though the worst of those references are found in the Hadith, the compilation of stories attributed to the Prophet Muhammad). But theological change happens though selective quoting. Every religious person does it: You quote those verses that resonate with your own religious insights and ignore or reintrepret those that undermine your certainties. Selective quoting isn’t just legitimate, but essential: Religions evolve through shifts in selective quoting. One way the Catholic Church has justified its new theology toward Judaism and the Jewish people is by downplaying the anti-Jewish language of the Gospels and instead emphasizing philo-Judaic verses like the one in Romans that refers to Jesus’ gentile followers as a branch grafted onto the olive tree of Israel.

Khaleel – Guyana-born and of Indian descent – is one of several scholars of Islam who have rediscovered a long-forgotten debate among medieval Muslim authorities over the identity of the son chosen by Abraham for his sacrifice. Contrary to common assumption, the Koran doesn’t name the son whom Abraham placed on the altar. And initally at least, some leading Muslim scholars believed that the intended sacrificial son wasn’t Ishmael but Isaac.

According to Khaleel, opting for Ishmael – father of the Arab nation – over Isaac satisifed a political need to assert Arab preeminence in the Muslim world, as well as an Arab desire to negate the centrality of Jewish figures like Moses and Jesus in the Koran. (Moses is the individual most cited in the Koran.) It isn’t Islam that distorted the biblical narrative, insists Khaleel, but Arab interpretation of Islam.

And so, he suggests, in seeking dialogue with Muslims, Jews should look to the vast Islamic periphery outside the Arab world, where antipathy to Judaism isn’t as deeply rooted and where politics hasn’t entirely poisoned faith.

Clearly, scriptural interpretation can lead to all sorts of conclusions. I know one politically hard-line Muslim scholar in Jerusalem who accepts, on the basis of Sura 5, the right of Jews to live in the Holy Land, but not their right to sovereignty over it. The Koran, he explains, approves of Jewish immigration to the land, but says nothing about a Jewish state.

Khaleel, who happens to be an imam who studied for seven years in Saudi Arabia, would dismiss that position as sophistry.

As a Jew who loves Islam and prays for its continued evolution, all I can say is: Let the disputation begin.

The writer is a contributing editor and Israel correspondent for The New Republic. He is author of At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land.

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