Quran Read-A-Long: Al-’Imran 93-101 Addresses Jewish Arguments Against Islam

Wow! Verse 93 kicked off with a fascinating topic: what Jews can and can’t eat. And why. I would concur with the Quran that Jewish dietary laws – from here forward, kashrut – were never meant to be for everyone and were only meant for the Israelites. Whether they came from God, well, that’s for each person to decide for him/herself. Do I think so? No. I think that the laws found in the Bible were a conglomeration of local Canaanite, Semitic and Ancient Near Eastern customs, which became part and parcel of Jewish law. Their ascription to Moses on Mount Sinai was an etiological way for ancient Israelites to explain why they ate what they did – or didn’t, as the case may have been – in their own time.

The Torah actually says that originally God intended for all men and animals to be vegetarians. That didn’t work, however, so then people were allowed to eat meat but not the blood. Still people kept eating the blood, which was supposed to belong to God, so eventually, if you believe the Torah, God singled out the Jewish people to be his people – the notion of chosenness arises here – so that they could do something close to what he wanted: eating only certain animals and no blood. The very notion offered in the Torah is counter to the idea that kashrut was for more than just the ancient Israelites and their descendants. That’s the very point of the book.

After protesting the universality of kashrut argued by the Jews (and it seems odd to me that any would argue that, but that’s what Asad says), the Quran insists that Mecca should be the direction of prayer, as the precursor to the Ka’aba is the oldest Temple. Since, even accepting that the Ka’aba was erected by Abraham, it would not, archaeologically speaking, be the oldest Temple, I’m going to infer that the Quran means the oldest temple set up to the one true God by a true (the first) monotheist. As a result of this prestigious designation, people should pray in that direction, instead of Jerusalem. It’s my understanding that Mohammed originally prayed towards Jerusalem, but an argument with the Jews caused him to recognize that there way was flawed and that the true direction was in Arabia: Mecca!

Obviously this section is about arguing against certain protestations put forth by the Jews.

On a separate and amusing note, I’ve begun substitute teaching at the Jewish day school that I went to kindergarten through 8th grade. Tomorrow I am substituting for the 8th grade history teacher and they are beginning their unit on Islam! That means I get to give these kids their first lesson in Islam. Admittedly, the school is very good about giving an honest portrayal of other religions, but I’m still glad I get to do it.

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Al-’Imran 93-101

93. ALL FOOD was lawful unto the children of Israel, save what Israel had made unlawful unto itself [by its sinning] before the Torah was bestowed from on high. Say: “Come forward, then, with the Torah and recite it, if what you say is true!” 94. And all who henceforth invent lies about God – it is they, they who are evildoers! 95. Say: “God has spoken the truth: follow, then, the creed of Abraham, who turned away from all that is false, and was not of those who ascribe divinity to aught beside God.” 96. Behold, the first Temple ever set up for mankind was indeed the one at Bakkah: rich in blessing, and a [/source] guidance unto all the worlds, 97 full of clear messages. [It is] the place whereon Abraham once stood; and whoever enters it finds inner peace. Hence, pilgrimage unto the Temple is a duty owed to God by all people who are able to undertake it. And as for those who deny the truth – verily, God does not stand in need of anything in all the worlds. 98. SAY: “O followers of earlier revelation! Why do you refuse to acknowledge the truth of God’s messages, when God is witness to all that you do?” 99. Say: “O followers of earlier revelation! Why do you [endeavor to] bar those who have come to believe [in this divine writ] from the path of God by trying to make it appear crooked, when you yourselves bear witness* [to its being straight]? For, God is not unaware of what you do.” 100. O you who have attained to faith! If you pay heed to some of those to whom revelation was vouchsafed aforetime, they might cause you to renounce the truth after you have come to believe [in it]. 101. And how could you deny the truth when it is unto you that God’s messages are being conveyed, and it is in your midst that His Apostle lives? But he who holds fast unto God has already been guided onto a straight way.

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9 Responses

  1. The Torah actually says that originally God intended for all men and animals to be vegetarians.

    I’m curious, is this pre- or post-Genesis 9:3-4? (“Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything. But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it.”) Or is this in a different source altogether? (Pardon my ignorance. 🙂 )

    (One of the reasons I haven’t been answering your posts as much in recent weeks is that I began working on what I hope will turn into a book about trying to understand the Qur’an. A lot of the impetus for writing the manuscript has come from our discussions here. Although I’ve written bits and pieces in a number of chapters, the first chapter I’ve been working on from start to finish is on the subject of health (I’m doing a thematic approach to the Qur’an). As it turns out, I’ve already written about verse 3:93 in the chapter.)

    After protesting the universality of kashrut argued by the Jews (and it seems odd to me that any would argue that, but that’s what Asad says)

    The “argument” was based upon four questions the Jewish community in Madinah posed to Muhammad (pbuh) “which only a Prophet would know.” The first question was “What kinds of food did Isra’il prohibit for himself?” Muhammad’s (pbuh) answer to the question was:

    “‘I ask you by He Who sent down the Tawrah to Musa, do you not know that Isra’il once became very ill When his illness was prolonged, he vowed to Allah that if He cures His illness, he would prohibit the best types of drink and food for himself. Was not the best food to him camel meat and the best drink camel milk?’ They said, ‘Yes, by Allah.’”

    Isra’il forbade the meat and milk of camels for himself, and his children imitated this practice after him. Even though Allah (swt) would eventually make the consumption of camel meat for the Jews haram (discussed below), this prohibition was not the original condition, as the Prophet (pbuh) pointed out.

    …I’m going to infer that the Quran means the oldest temple set up to the one true God by a true (the first) monotheist.

    Although I haven’t looked this up, I suspect this is the most likely interpretation.

    As a result of this prestigious designation, people should pray in that direction, instead of Jerusalem. It’s my understanding that Mohammed originally prayed towards Jerusalem, but an argument with the Jews caused him to recognize that there way was flawed and that the true direction was in Arabia: Mecca!

    This was (or should have been) discussed in the post on verses 2:142-45. According to the Tafsir of Ibn Kathir, the change in the Qibla wasn’t due to any specific argument with the Jews. Rather, Muhammad (pbuh) had been praying toward Jerusalem for about 16-17 months, but hoped for a change in Qibla toward Makkah. At a point, the direction for the change came about and Muhammad began praying toward the Kaaba. Word spread of this change, and people began asking about why the change had occurred. The Jewish community, which was originally pleased that the Muslims were praying toward Jerusalem, were upset at the change toward Makkah. Verses 2:142-45 were a response to that talk.

    On a separate and amusing note, I’ve begun substitute teaching at the Jewish day school that I went to kindergarten through 8th grade. Tomorrow I am substituting for the 8th grade history teacher and they are beginning their unit on Islam! That means I get to give these kids their first lesson in Islam. Admittedly, the school is very good about giving an honest portrayal of other religions, but I’m still glad I get to do it.

    So, how did it go? (One would have loved to have been a fly on the classroom wall that day. 😉 )

  2. Even though Allah (swt) would eventually make the consumption of camel meat for the Jews haram (discussed below)…

    “Discussed below.” Ignore that. 🙂 That’s from my manuscript, and doesn’t refer to the remainder of the comment.

  3. The Torah actually says that originally God intended for all men and animals to be vegetarians.

    I’m curious, is this pre- or post-Genesis 9:3-4? (“Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything. But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it.”) Or is this in a different source altogether?

    That’s a wonderful question! Genesis 9:3-4 is the conclusion of the Noah and the flood story, for those unaware of where the verse falls. Notice the words “just as” in the second sentence, referencing what came before when God gave the green plants. God’s intention for humanity to be vegetarian is found in Genesis 1:29, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.”

    And God is speaking to the man and woman that he created together (not Adam and Eve in this particular author’s story). Thus, people and animals are all meant to eat only vegetables. In this author’s view (which I’m contrasting with the other author who wrote the Adam and Eve story of Genesis 2-4 and an interwoven story of the Noah saga), the very purpose of the Noah story was to explain how it became acceptable in God’s eyes that earthly creatures ate meet. It was forbidden, but everybody was bad and did what he wasn’t supposed to: “all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth” (Gen. 6:12). It is implied that in part the “violence” that had filled the earth (Gen. 6:11) was resulting in people and animals eating flesh (and we know that people and animals did eat flesh! – this is in part an etiologial tale) which was against God’s way. Thus, God killed everybody and everything (animals died too because they were corrupt as well, eating what they shouldn’t have) except for Noah. After the flood, God knows that his expectations were too high for people and he allows them in the verse you pointed out to eat meat, but still with the restriction that there’s no blood (blood was life and belonged to God).

    Of course, there’s much more to the Noah story when read in conjunction with the other author’s tale (which is about God’s need for sacrifice, disturbingly enough), but the Priestly author (P), is very concerned with this element of who eats what and what God says we can eat, because as I mentioned before, things are narrowing down as people are disobedient all the way to the Israelites who have even stricter laws of eating than everybody else, and then the priests especially who have to remain ‘clean’ all the time in their consumption. That’s why a priestly author would be obsessed with this idea because for him, the story of God’s relationship with humanity (as eventually expressed in the Bible) is about the path from God’s narrowing selection of humanity to the Levitical priestly line of the Israelites and their elitism.

    Also, that’s awesome that in part the discussions here have led you to write a book on how to read the Quran. Very exciting. I can’t wait to read more!

    As for my class, sadly, it didn’t happen. That morning I got to teach the same teacher’s 8th grade history class in which I discussed the French Revolution, but she came 5 minutes before the class on Islam began. I was really disappointed, but I hope I’ll get my shot again in the future. I can hardly hope that she’s absent again because that means her 3-year-old son is sick, but perhaps a conference will call her away and I’ll get to discuss Islam with these bright-eyed and remarkably ignorant youngsters.

  4. JD–How wonderful that you are writing a book! It is a blessing to be able to share knowledge and I wish you much success.

    Jay–thankyou for your explanations–it was an interesting read.
    God’s need for sacrifice—If people were meant to be vegetarians—how does that work out with the Cain and Abel sacrifice story?—or should they be unrelated?
    Stricter laws—Does that mean that the Torah/Judaism views “laws” as punishments?
    God’s narrowing selection of humanity—I suppose from a Jewish perspective, the fact that they are blessed with more guidance would naturally lead to the conclusion that they are “chosen”. But such a conclusion may lead to a misunderstanding of the “nature” of God?—that God is arbitrary and unjust? Therefore, if we assume that arbitrariness and injustice cannot be attributed to God, and the fact remains that Jews have been blessed with guidance—then we have to also assume that the reason for this would be based on other principles—such as justice, compassion…..?—-and—if Judaism has misunderstood God—should they not correct this misunderstanding?

  5. kaba/bakka—there is mention of a valley of baka in Psalm 84:5-8 (Yusuf Ali)

  6. If people were meant to be vegetarians—how does that work out with the Cain and Abel sacrifice story?—or should they be unrelated?

    Precisely the last thing, Kay: they should be unrelated. As I’ve mentioned, there were multiple authors to the Pentateuch (the 5 Books of Moses, or the Torah). The same author who had the conception about the vegetarianism originally (we’ll call him P for the Priestly author) did not have the conceptions about God’s need for sacrifices: that was J, or the Yahwist (because he uses the name Yahweh – Jehovah – long before others do).

    J wrote the Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel stories, and it is precisely God’s predilection for sacrifices that created the problem with the brothers. We don’t really know, in the Bible, why God is pleased or displeased with either sacrifice. He just is. That’s the way God is here – inexplicable, in this right. Similarly, at the end of only one of the two Noah stories told by either author is there a sacrifice. In J, Noah sacrifices to God at the end and it was very pleasing to God. God hadn’t gotten sacrifices in a long time because of people being bad and the flood and when Noah finally did it it was a huge relief. That was the point of the story – to renarrow humanity to a group of people that would provide God with his necessary sacrifices.

    By contrast, P ends his story by having God change the dietary restrictions for people because He knew they couldn’t meet the rigors of vegetarianism.

    No, Judaism definitely doesn’t view laws as punishments. Mitzvot, or commandments (but commonly misinterpreted as good deeds), are what God has asked Jews to do to serve Him. In a sense, though a yoke in the sense of pulling an ox (the yoke of the commandments) they are also a blessing because they allow Jews to serve God.

    That said, think about the transformation from biblical laws – many of which are not and cannot be done anymore and are no longer relevant anyway – and rabbinic law, which sought to create an entire code of living (location nonspecific, at that) for Jews everywhere. Those laws are practical (in a certain sense) and largely civil, despite deriving from a religious book. Those are not punishments but for religious Jewish communities, a way to live life more akin to the Quran’s civil dimension than to the Bible (not because the Bible’s laws didn’t have a civil dimension as much as because that civilization was very time and place specific – hard to have good foresight in 1000 BCE).

    You mention the notion of misunderstanding God, which I think is important. Personally, I don’t believe in the concept of chosenness at all. I think it’s ridiculous and preposterous. As for Jews believing in it and the way that belief affects an understanding of God, that’s still conceptually important.

    In the BIble, God isn’t always just. I know that in Islam God is seen as the ultimate in Justice, but, when you consider the concept of mercy, by its very nature, that is an unjust concept. If one shows mercy, he does that in spite of what justice suggests – otherwise it’s not mercy. It’s justice! Mercy is not doing what is called for because one would rather be nice. For God to be merciful is for God to be unjust. I can’t speak to the way that Islam rectifies that issue, but I can for Judaism. It doesn’t.

    God is multifaceted, and a large reason for that is because there are so many authors to the Bible and each of them conveyed his own understanding of God. For instance, the story of the book of Kings and the story of the book of Chronicles, for all intents and purposes here, are the same story. However, they’re both in the biblical cannon. That said, they convey totally different messages. In Kings, the Israelites are bad but God keeps not destroying Jerusalem until 586 BCE. Why? Because he’s behaving mercifully, according to the author. On the contrary, the author of Chronicles has a strict concept of justice and every time anyone does anything bad that person is immediately punished so that the destruction of the Temple is made to appear like a reaction to one single bad thing that was done rather than the long-term execution of accumulated badness that had been mercifully set aside for 400 years. The reasons that either behaves thusly are complex and we can discuss them if you’re interested (though I may have some Fun with the Bible posts on them – I don’t recall), but needless to say, there are a diversity of understandings about God because of the numerous authors whose hands are in the Bible.

    As for the arbitrariness of God’s selection of the Jews, that is the very point the Bible is making. Everything is Gods, the BIble says, and therefore, God can do what he wants with it all – arbitrarily. That includes not having given the Israelites their own land in the Bible (according to the Bible the world was divided into 70 and each people was given its own place), but later deciding that he wanted to do so because the Canaanites were bad and needed to be ejected from the land. God is arbitrary but He has that right – He’s God! In the Bible, Abraham was not picked for any reason. He was not a monotheist. God just spoke to him. It’s random and seemingly arbitrary.

    As for Judaism correcting a misunderstanding, it’s spent centuries doing just that. It’s called rabbinical Judaism. Rabbinical Judaism and the Israelite religion of the Bible are remarkably different things. Rabbinism is legalism and the brilliant melding of reason and religion. The rabbis attempted for centuries to harmonize all of the seeming contradictions in the Bible (and what they came up with is truly incredible) and they applied endless reason to what seemed arbitrary (including coming up with many of the explanations you find in the Quran for, say, why Abraham was chosen by God and a monotheist and what he was doing – but 400 years before Mohammed and earlier). They couldn’t deal with what bothers us: injustice, arbitrariness and conflicting ideas. So they spent nearly 1000 harmonizing it: it’s called the Talmud. The Talmud is the premier text of Judaism and the one that governs Jewish behavior for the last 1400 years (and conceptually for 500 years before that). The Talmud is at the center of Judaism and is precisely the attempted rectification of any misunderstandings we are here grappling with.

    Whew! That may have been a lot, but I thought I’d try to flesh some of this out as best I could in the comment section of my blog. Hope that made sense. Was anything unclear or unanswered.

  7. JD–How wonderful that you are writing a book! It is a blessing to be able to share knowledge and I wish you much success.

    Thank you to you both, but I would also say in all seriousness, “don’t congratulate me just yet.” This manuscript has been a long, difficult slog so far, and I don’t think the writing will be any easier in the future (although I hope it is, insha’allah). Many nights, after several hours of work, I might get a grand total of one or two paragraphs written (and you both know that I can write a decent-length comment – and fairly quickly). But I have been trying to be meticulous in my research, which is why, in roughly 22 pages of text, I have ten footnotes and 168 endnotes, which by themselves take up over nine pages so far. And this is for a chapter I, at first, thought would be one of the easier to write. So don’t be surprised if this “book” takes several years to complete, if it ever is, insha’allah. (This particular chapter I’ve actually felt I was racing through, treating the topics somewhat superficially, and yet I expect the chapter length will be somewhere between 25-30 pages. I’ve been thinking that the chapter by itself, if written more fully, could be its own thin book.)

  8. Wow—Jay–that was fabulous!!!!I would’nt mind more such insights from you. It does help understand some verses of the Quran better because Jewish people and their concerns are addressed in the Quran—and for average muslims who are not familiar with the Torah/Talmud—such insight can give another dimension to understanding what concerns the verses are addresssing.

    You bring up some good points……..

    misunderstanding God—I was actually going to comment further on that post—Should misunderstandings be corrected?…..this is what the Quran is trying to do….the word “Allah” is the arabic word for God and was also used by arabic speaking Christians of the area. However, this word God/Allah had attached to it many concepts such as the Pagan arabs attaching the idea of daughters…etc to God. Instead of using a totally different word for the concept of God, Quran chooses to use Allah and uses many arguments to “correct” the existing concept of God (seems almost Rabbinic!)—it is in this context that Jewish concerns and the retelling of the stories of the Prophets are addressed.—-as you pointed out previously—there are 2 ways to to correct a theology in which misunderstandings have crept in,—one is to chuck the old one in favour of a better system—or to reform the old one to make it compatible with the better system. In my opinion—as far as the Quran is concerned,—it asks that whichever path we choose—we do it sincerely and willingly—and not pick and choose only what is convenient. —Another interesting choice of words in the Quran is when it says something like —we have completed your religion for you….I don’t have the exact words…..the use of “completed” is very interesting in a broader context. If one looks at “religions” including Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism…etc…The concepts in the Quran corrects and adds new dimensions to them so that they can be more “complete”/wholistic.—for those religions that are heavily ritual based—the concepts in the Quran add another dimension of purspose and spirituality—for those that are very spiritual, the Quran adds the dimension of practicality and for those that are already practicle at an individual level, the Quran completes it by bringing in the dimensions of ethical economics, responsible governance, social justice and the pursuit of knowledge.
    —-“If one shows mercy, he does that in spite of what justice suggests …” It is true that the concepts of the Quran have a lot of nuance and also, they don’t stand alone—for example–with the concept of liberty/freedom is also attached the concept of responsibility/accountability–likewise, with the concept of Justice is attached compassion/mercy. The purpose of justice is not punishment itself—but to bring peace and remove hatred from the heart of the one to whom an injustice has been done.–punishment is a means to attain this end.—however this can also be accomplished by mercy/forgiveness. Those persons(can apply to societies) who are (spiritually) able to forgive/have compassion—they can choose to do so–this is because they do not have hate/anger for what happened and so they can have peace of heart by the (formal) act of forgiveness/compassion and close this incident/chapter.—this way, an act of compassion/mercy does not negate justice but serves it.
    —Arbitrary God—The reason why this would be different from the Quran’s concept of God—is that God is purposeful —all of creation has been created for a purpose—including us. That is why there is balance and harmony in creation (except where man wreaks havoc). To have a concept of God that is “less” than this (imperfect), is to misunderstand the “nature” of God.
    —Choseness—If properly understood, there is nothing wrong with “choseness”—In the Quran, chosenness is paired with obligation. Thus, choseness is not a mark of superiority(egoic) but of obligations/responibilities that need to be discharged.
    —-God can do what he wants—it is an interesting point and one I cannot argue with—however, if we have the intellectual ability to reason and logic and define/select a concept of God—why not prefer one that has the highest ideals that we can try to strive for ourselves?
    Torah/Talmud/Rabbinical Judaism—thankyou for clarifying and adding depth. My impression had also been that Judaism was concerned with Justice in its laws—I am not as familiar with Rabinical works pre-Islam but there was plenty of dialogue later between Islam and Judaism and some of those works such as those of Maimonides are very interesting.
    I gotta go…but just wanted to add—I am allways very interested in what you have to say and since the Quran is always in dialogue with the “People of the book” any insights you can offer will always be very helpful—so discuss away!.
    JD—breaking down the book into smaller volumes is a good idea—you can always publish the full version later—that way, readers can have options.

  9. The purpose of justice is not punishment itself—but to bring peace and remove hatred from the heart of the one to whom an injustice has been done.–punishment is a means to attain this end.—however this can also be accomplished by mercy/forgiveness.

    As I’m sure Kay knows, this touches on the concept of qisas, the punishment of the perpetrator (“punishment is a means to attain this end”); however, as Kay also points out, “this can also be accomplished by mercy/forgiveness.” There are several verses that touch on both qisas and forgiveness, notably 2:178-79 and 17:33. Although the victim or heir to the victim is given the choice as to how to deal with the perpetrator (given several sets of limits), forgiveness is encouraged over punishment.

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