August 1, 2002
The Sword of Islam
Parshat Re'eh (Isaiah 54:11-55:5)
Ever since Sept. 11, the term "jihad" has become part of America's vocabulary. So, too, have the adjectives "Militant Islam" and "Islamic Fundamentalism" become common parlance on America's talk shows and in daily conversations on the American street. To most Americans, these are all relatively new vocabulary words, and within the context of America's 226-year history, the "Sword of Islam" as a direct threat to U.S. citizens living on American soil is an issue that is less than one year old.
But in the particular historical consciousness of the Jewish people, there has always been a familiarity with "jihad" as representative of an Islamic method of conquering populations by means of the sword.
One morning late in the 15th century, Don Isaac Abravanel was sitting in his study in Monopoli, Italy, writing a detailed commentary on the Book of Isaiah. Born in Portugal in 1437, Abravanel eventually moved to Spain in 1481, where in addition to being a reputable Jewish scholar and diplomat, he served as treasurer to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Christian Spain.
Having just experienced the inquisition and subsequent expulsion of his people from Spain in 1492, Abravanel now contemplated the meaning of Isaiah's prophecies. Isaiah 54:17, which comes from this week's Haftarah, particularly intrigued him. Isaiah states: "No weapon that is forged against you shall prosper." To whom is this "weapon that is forged against you" specifically referring? asks Abravanel. Is it the Babylonians, the Romans, or, perhaps most logically, the Spanish/Catholic inquisitors from Abravanel's previous home?
Abravanel's answer surprisingly omits all of these persecutors of the Jews, and instead points toward "jihad" and "Islamic Fundamentalism."
On Isaiah 54:17, Abravanel comments: "There are religions today whose champions are not content to assert the supremacy of their faith by debate and argument, but put to death all who would repudiate their faith. The Ishmaelites/Islam fall into this category."
What prompted Abravanel, a Jewish Bible commentator, to make this statement, particularly when most historians have portrayed Islam's treatment of the Jews under their rule as generally favorable? After all, was it not in Muslim Spain that Abravanel's Sephardic ancestors enjoyed a "Golden Age"?
Abravanel was certainly aware of all of this, but he was also not blind to the early history of Islam, and its particular treatment of the Jews by its founding prophet Mohammed.
Having fled from Mecca to Medina, Mohammed tried to assert himself as the founder of a new faith, and he turned to the Jewish communities for support. When the Jews rejected his claims to prophecy, Mohammed, together with his tribes and supporters, proceeded to violently attack and subjugate the Jewish tribe of Banu Qaynuqa, murder Jewish poet Kaab Ibn Al Ashraf for speaking out against early Islam's violent methods, lay siege on the Jewish tribe of Banu-n-Nadir, murder elderly Jew Abu Rafi from Khaybar in his sleep and slaughter over 500 Jews from Khaybar. All of these (and many other) acts of violence led by Mohammed stemmed from the ugly historical reality that, as Abravanel stated, Muslims "put to death all who would repudiate their faith."
As to the "favorable status" the Jews experienced under Muslim rule, one must never forget that this Ahl al dhimmis (protected people) status granted to the Jews was within the context of the "Covenant of Omar," which levied special jiziya (poll) and kharaj (land) taxes on the Jews, forced them to wear distinctive yellow clothing and prohibited their riding horses or wearing swords. As the "Covenant of Omar" states, these measures will be continuously imposed as means of degradation against Jews "until they pay the tribute readily, offered on the back of their hands, in a state of humiliation" (Sura 9:29). In general, Jews were to always hold a position inferior to that of a Muslim, although there were favorable exceptions to this rule under certain circumstances. One can refer to the Granada Riots of 1066, when Joseph Hanagid and his entire congregation were slaughtered by angry Muslims who resented the ascension of a Jew to a political position, as an example of what "favorable status under Muslim rule" really meant.
The irony and tragedy of Abravanel's comments is that while he was commenting on words of prophecy, his own comments became a prophecy on Islam's future. Five hundred years after he made his comments on Isaiah 54:17, Abravanel's view of Islam unfortunately still stands: "There are religions today who ... put to death all who would repudiate their faith. The Ishmaelites/Islam fall into this category."
If I did not know otherwise, I would think that Abravanel's comments about Islam came from a recent newspaper column.