Allen S. Maller
Allen S. Maller

Islam and Judaism: Revelation should not be a ‘Zero Sum Game’

Atheists often say that the three Abrahamic monotheistic religions were responsible for most of Europe’s wars prior to the rise of modern nationalism because for almost 14 centuries Jews, Christians and Muslims read each others holy scriptures from an adversarial perspective.

Since all monotheistic scriptures come from the one and only God, we should view other scriptures as potentially enriching our own understanding of our own scripture by showing a different perspective. But in the middle ages almost all readers thought of revelation as a zero sum sport like tennis; rather than a multiple win co-operative sport like mountain climbing.

In a zero sum game any value or true spiritual insight I grant to another scripture somehow diminishes my own. This was the result of the widespread use of scripture for missionary purposes.

The situation has not improved much in modern times. In the last two centuries university academics have written many studies of comparative religion which they claim are objective and not distorted by their religious beliefs. Unfortunately, academics who treat other religions academically usually do not believe that other scriptures are actually Divinely inspired.

Indeed, many academics do not believe that even their own scriptures are Divinely inspired. They use the same kinds of explanation to understand religion that they would use to explain secular history and literature. I follow a different model, one I learned from Prophet Muhammed.

For example, the Mishnah (an early third century compilation of the oral Torah, states, “Adam was created as an individual to teach you that anyone who destroys a single soul, Scripture imputes it to him as if he destroyed the whole world.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) And the Qur’an states,”one who kills a human being, unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land, would be as if he slew the whole people, and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people” (Qur’an 5:32)

Academics explain the similarity of the two statements by assuming that since the Jewish statement is several centuries earlier than the Qur’an, Muhammad must have heard it from a Rabbi or other educated Jew in Medina. But if Muhammad is a prophet of God who confirms the Torah of prophet Moses, why would he need to learn this statement from another human being. Academics would reply that the statement is not written in the Torah, it is written in the Mishnah (which was written by the Rabbis more than 1000 years after Moses).

But the Rabbis maintain that the Mishnah is part of the oral Torah that was passed down from Moses throughout the generations. Indeed, the Qur’an itself introduces this statement as follows, “It is because of this that We ordained for the Children of Israel “one who kills a human being …” (Qur’an 5:32)

No prophet of God needs to be informed by another human what should be written in Holy Scripture. God is the source of Divine inspiration. There are several verses in the Qur’an that mention things from the oral Torah.

I believe that when the Furqan is mentioned in the Qur’an it is a reference to the oral Torah, which the Qur’an also confirms, by its references. My perspective is that prophets and Holy Scriptures can not oppose one another because they all come from one source. Prophets are all brothers; they have the same farther (God) and different mothers (motherlands. mother tongues, nations, cultures and historical eras).

All of these produce different rituals and legal systems, but their theology can differ only in small and unessential details. Where the Scriptures differ they cast additional light on each other. My belief is based on an important Hadith of prophet Muhammad.

A disciple of Muhammad named Abu Huraira relates, “The people of the Book used to read the Torah in Hebrew and then explain it in Arabic to the Muslims. Allah’s Apostle said (to the Muslims). “Do not believe the people of the Book, nor disbelieve them, but say, ‘We believe in Allah, and whatever is revealed to us, and whatever is revealed to you.'”

Following Prophet Muhammad’s teaching I also neither believe nor disbelieve the Qur’an. If I believed in the Qur’an I would be a member of the Muslim ummah (community). But I cannot disbelieve in the Qur’an because I do believe that Muhammad was a prophet; and I respect the Qur’an as a kindred revelation, to a kindred people, in a kindred language.

In fact, the people, the language and the theology are closer to my own people, language and theology than that of any other on earth. How does this perspective affect my understanding of their Qur’an and my Torah? This is what the Qur’an itself teaches.

“For every community We have appointed a whole system of worship which they are to observe. So do not let them draw you into disputes concerning this matter.” (22:67) Or as the great poet mystic of the 13th century, Jalal al-Din al-Rumi said, “Ritual prayer might differ in every religion, but belief never changes.” (Fihi Mafih 49)

Following these teachings I seek to shed the light of each revealed scripture on the other. For example, the Qur’an (verses 2:246-251) refers to events that occurred in Jewish history several generations after the time of Moses: “Have you not thought about the group of the Children of Israel after (the time of) Musa (Moses)? When they said to a Prophet of theirs, “Appoint for us a king and we will fight in Allah’s Way.” He said, “Would you then refrain from fighting, if fighting was prescribed for you?” They said, “Why should we not fight in Allah’s Way while we have been driven out of our homes and our children (taken as captives)?” But when fighting was ordered for them, they turned away, all except a few of them. And Allah is All-Aware of the Zalimoon (polytheists and wrong-doers). (246)

“And their Prophet (Samuel ) said to them, “Indeed Allah has appointed Talut (Saul) as a king over you.” They said, “How can he be a king over us when we are better fitted than him for the kingdom, and he has not been given enough wealth.” He said: “Verily, Allah has chosen him above you and has increased him abundantly in knowledge and stature. And Allah grants His Kingdom to whom He wills. And Allah is All-Sufficient for His creatures needs, All-Knower.” (247)

“And their Prophet (Samuel ) said to them: Verily! The sign of His Kingdom is that there shall come to you At-Taboot (a wooden box), wherein is Sakinah (peace and reassurance) from your Lord and a remnant of that which Musa (Moses) and Haroon (Aaron) left behind, carried by the angels. Verily, in this is a sign for you if you are indeed believers.” (248)

“Then when Talut (Saul) set out with the army, he said: “Verily! Allah will try you by a river. So whoever drinks thereof, he is not of me, and whoever tastes it not, he is of me, except him who takes (thereof) in the hollow of his hand.” Yet, they drank thereof, all, except a few of them. So when he had crossed it (the river), he and those who believed with him, they said: “We have no power this day against Jalut (Goliath) and his hosts.” But those who knew with certainty that they were to meet their Lord, said: “How often a small group overcame a mighty host by Allah’s leave?” And Allah is with As-Sabirin (the patient ones, etc.). (249)

“And when they advanced to meet Jalut (Goliath) and his forces, they invoked: “Our Lord! Pour forth on us patience and make us victorious over the disbelieving people. So they routed them by Allah’s Leave and Dawood (David) killed Jalut (Goliath), and Allah gave him (Dawood (David)) the kingdom (after the death of Talut (Saul) and Samuel) and Al-Hikmah (prophethood), and taught him of that which He willed. And if Allah did not check one set of people by means of another, the earth would indeed be full of mischief. But Allah is full of Bounty to the Alameen (mankind, jinns and all that exists). (250-1 translation by Mohsin Kahn)

Critical academic or humanist scholars have said of this passage in the Qur’an that Muhammad confused three different stories in the Bible. One is the story about Gideon, who is told by God that his army is too large and to test them by water. Reject those who kneel and lap water like a dog, and those who kneel even if they lap from their hand. Take only those who scoop water with their hand and drink standing up so as to be always ready if attacked. (Judges 7:4-7)

The second story from 1 Samuel 8:4-22 and 9:15-21 is about Samuel’s selection of Saul to be the first king of Israel. The third story relates that after several ups and downs in Saul’s rule, there was a battle that Israel won decisively because David killed Goliath I Samuel 17:1-58. These academics assume that Muhammad simply mixed up the three stories for some unknown reason.

But since I believe Muhammad is a prophet and the Qur’an is sacred scripture, I think that the Qur’an combines these three events into one archetype that stresses two themes: “God gives the kingdom to whoever God wills.” and “Many a small group has overcome a much more numerous group by God’s leave,” This is why the Qur’an’s passage ends with the battle against the Philistines, “So they (Israel) routed them (the Philistines) by God’s leave; and David killed Goliath”.

By placing the statement of Israel’s victory first and David’s second the Qur’an shows that the emphasis isn’t on David’s personal courage and skill, but on the victory of a small number of believers over a large number of non-believers. The reference to “At-Taboot (a wooden box- the ark), wherein is Sakinah” (verse 248) refers to the holy ark (a wooden box) containing inside it, the stone tablets of the ten commandments.

Physically, the ark contained both the second pair of tablets as well as the first pair of tablets that were broken (the remnant of Moses’ and Aaron’s house) because Aaron had not stopped As-Samiri from convincing some of the people of Israel to build the golden calf.

Spiritually, the ark contained the Sakinah (Hebrew-Shakhinah) the presence of God. Sensing this presence, people feel assured and at peace. In the oral Torah (the Furqan for Jews) the Shekhinah rests on people when they join with others to study God’s words, when they visit the sick, and at other special times.

Thus, since all monotheistic scriptures come from the one and only God, we should view other scriptures as potentially enriching our understanding of our own scripture.

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 450 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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