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Quran’s description of Jews as ‘apes’ and ‘swine’

by Brad A. Greenberg

July 21, 2008 | 10:43 pm

Ali Eteraz writes a really good blog. At least, he did. His Internet home went dark last month. He can still be found writing for Jewcy and has a new site under construction, but that is taking a back seat to his book, “Children of Dust,” which is about freedom and fundamentalism in Pakistan. Eteraz grew up there, and two years ago today he wrote an excellent post recalling his revulsion the first time he heard Jews described as “apes” and “swine.”

The words, I believe, were spoken by his Islamic tutor, a reference to two Quranic verses that have been a historic source of anti-Semitism. Before Eteraz’s blog went offline, I saved a portion of the post, viewable after the jump:

My mother tried to give the verses a spin but when I showed her the translations cited above, she shook her head and shrugged her shoulders. A friend tried to point out that at least the animals the Jews were turned into (apes and pigs) were those with whom humans had the most genetic similarity. I appreciated his effort but this was not enough for me. It became compulsion and I decided that it was time that I stopped looking around for answers and read the Quran myself. So, instead of looking on the web for translations I went and purchased a copy of the translation of the Quran as performed by Leopold Weiss, a man who had been a Jew and then converted to Islam, eventually becoming the first citizen of Pakistan and the close friend of the late Kind Saud. Not only that, but I recalled that Leopold Weiss (Muhammad Asad as he was later called) stated in his biography that the biggest hurdle in his acceptance of Islam had been that he could not accept that Muhammad was divinely inspired. Until a few months ago, this had been my particular problem as well, and so I thought, surely a man who had the chutzpah to state openly his doubts in the Prophet and then found a way to resolve them, could be considered a serious scholar.

I started with verse 5:60 in his translation.

Say: “Shall I tell you who, in the sight of God, deserves a yet worse retribution than these? They whom God has rejected and whom He has condemned, and whom He has turned into apes and swine because they worshipped the powers of evil:” these are yet worse in station, and farther astray from the right path [than the mockers].

The first thing I noted, that I had missed the first time around when looking at this verse, was the fact that there was no mention of Jews. “They whom God has rejected and whom He has condemned” were the ones turned into apes and swine “because they worshipped the powers of evil.” Of course, that did not mean this verse didn’t refer to Jews; oh no, it did refer to them. Except, it turned out, that this verse not only referred to Jews, but also to Christians. A subsequent pharse refers to “Men of God” and “Rabbis” - with the Men of God being a reference to Christians (especially in light of the fact that in verse 66 the Gospel is mentioned explicitly). My headache wasn’t gone, but I felt a little better. A book that did not discriminate in its epithets seemed a lot more palatable than a book that seemed to single out the most persecuted group in the history of mankind. Of course, it was not exactly a relief because now I was confronted with the fact that even more people were being referred to as descendants of apes and swine!

The other two ape and swine verses were limited to Jews, but thankfully they offered a way of resolving the issue.

Here is how Asad had rendered the two verses:

7:166

and then, when they disdainfully persisted in doing what they had been forbidden to do, We said unto them: “Be as apes despicable!””‘

2:65

for you are well aware of those from among you who profaned the Sabbath, whereupon We said unto them, “Be as apes despicable!”

That “as” I knew quite well: “So am I as the rich, whose blessed key can bring him to his sweet locked up treasure” said Shakespeare. It was the “as” — the blessed “as” — of metaphor! I rejoiced a hundred times over. A metaphor means that the finality of language is absent. Being “as” something is not the same as being something. Could it be that the Quran was engaged in metaphor-making? If references to apes and swines were metaphors, it meant that the people being referred to had expressed the qualities of an “ape” and the qualities of a “pig.” Given the fact that in classical Arabic an ape was someone impulsive and a pig was someone stubborn, the metaphors seemed almost innocous (Especially since in all languages animals are used as referrants for certain qualities. Once we could learn what qualities classical Arabic invoked when referring to those animals, we could understand what the metaphor was referring to.

Before I got too excited I wanted to be certain this “as” was not a mere blip on the radar. I had too many feelings hurt to risk hurting them again. So I went and consulted another translation, this one by Shakir.

7:166

Therefore when they revoltingly persisted in what they had been forbidden, We said to them: Be (as) apes, despised and hated.

2:65

And certainly you have known those among you who exceeded the limits of the Sabbath, so We said to them: Be (as) apes, despised and hated.

Granted that the other two famous English translations (Yusuf Ali and Pickthall), did not have the metaphorical “as” in them the presence of the “as” in two of the more famous translations was enough to get my mind churning, and this time I was not reliant upon any authority except that of my God given reason. Suddenly I started to see patterns in the Quran that further cast light on these questionable (and certainly questionably used) verses.

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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