“A man of two worlds: West and East, intelligently at ease in both but at peace with neither.”

Review of “Islam and the Problem of Israel” by Isma’il Raji al-Faruqi

Islam and the Problem of Israel

Islam and the Problem of Israel” by Isma’il Raji al-Faruqi
Review by Haniffah Abdul Gafoor

The issue of Israel is an emotive one, irrespective of individuals’ affiliations (‘neutrals’ included). Bearing in mind the misrepresentation and misinterpretation of Islam today, a work analysing the two (Islam and Israel) has the potential of being an explosive read.

This new edition of Islam and the Problem of Israel is a succinct and thoughtfully organised reader. The author, though Palestinian himself, offers a reasonably fair appraisal of the issue at hand from a Muslim’s perspective. Some readers might find the strong vocabulary makes the read challenging, and this may sometimes be burdensome. The topic is approached in an organised and sequential manner. The historical, religious and political perspectives of the state of Israel are described before the relationship between Israel, Judaism, Zionism (all quite distinct entities) and Islam is discussed. The author briefly clarifies the distinction between Judaism as a religion, Zionism as a political concept of statehood (for a given race), Israel as nation-state, and the Jews as a race. He describes the problem as three-cornered, involving the Muslim world, Western Christendom, and the Jews.

The book begins with a brief historical discourse on the Jews, touching on their persecution by the Christians, their community living in ghettos, their emancipation (with the French revolution) allowing the Jews equality in European society, the assimilation of Jews in Europe, and the birth of Reform Judaism as a liberated sect of Judaism (which, among other things, legitimised liturgical use of the vernacular language instead of Hebrew, and allowed choirs and musical instruments in synagogues).

The author clarifies the fact that Muslims acknowledge the divine origin of the Torah, but also points out that this does not imply that the book that today is called the Torah is the exact and veritable Torah revealed to Moses. The content of the present-day Torah incorporates dichotomous viewpoints on the characteristics of God; on the one hand God is Master, Creator, Sustainer and omnipotent (a viewpoint which the author describes as the “universalist strand”. Paradoxically, in the same text God is described as being subject to passion and pity (Genesis 9:21); God wrestles physically with man and God loses (Genesis 32:24-30): this viewpoint is described as the “ethnocentric strand”. The author discusses, without any derogatory word or tone, the conflicting universalist and ethnocentric strands co-existing in the Torah we read today with respect to divinity, piety, religious revelation, the Day of Judgement and morality.

Four chapters are devoted to Zionism. The first gives the author’s view on the birth of Zionism, which he states is the philosophy for the creation of a place on this globe where a Jew can be both a Jew and a free man exercising his Jewish identity freely. Strong anti-Semitic sentiment, shown for instance in the sham-trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the only Jew on the general staff of the French army, convicted on the basis of forged evidence of selling secrets to Germany (Dreyfus was later vindicated and restored to full military rank), is referred to as a catalyst in the birth of political Zionism. Theodor Herzl, a journalist assigned to report the Dreyfus trial, is credited with the birth of political Zionism.

The second chapter on Zionism looks at Zionism as a religion: Zionism is said to be a programme of socio-political, economic and military action designed to enable the actualisation of Judaism, restoring to the Jews a world order in whose centre stand the Jews.

The third chapter on Zionism, Zionism as politics, inevitably describes the historical detail of the establishment of the State of Israel in the Middle East. The Balfour Declaration, the shrewd role of the British, the downfall of the Ottoman Empire and the expulsion of Palestinians by Jews are all mentioned.

The chapter on Islam and Judaism precedes the last chapter on Zionism. The author highlights the common denominators that ought to bind Muslims and Jews, namely: (1) that both are recipients of a revealed religion (deen al-fitrah); (2) both are inheritors of scriptures of divine revelation; and (3) Islam’s recognition of the Jewish line of prophets, whom Muslims recognise as prophets of God on the religion of monotheism (as referred to in the Qur’an).

The chapter on Islam and Judaism offers an insight into the Muslims’ acknowledgement, for those who are unaware of the Qur’anic revelations, that the Jews were indeed specially favoured by God (Q. 2:47 in particular). The relations between Muslims and Jews in Madinah during the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad (saw) are recounted; the freedom of religious practice offered to the Jews without coercion, the pacts of peaceful coexistence, the historically factual descriptions of treachery and treason and subsequent divine reprimand are described. Judaism then, and also later, prospered without unjust inhibition in states under Muslim rule. The author writes that Islam not only tolerated the observance of the Torah but demanded it; the ascendancy of Islam promoted respect for religion, any religion, anywhere. How far removed this is from that portrayed by today’s Islamophobic mass media!

The author ends with a chapter on Islam and Zionism, the last chapter on Zionism. As well as the predictable analysis of Zionism as an injustice to non-Jews, the author suggests also that Zionism is an injustice against Judaism. He criticises the concept of racist superiority, without consideration for righteous conduct, as discrimination against God’s creatures. The author recounts the Islamic tenets of allowing uninhibited dissemination of the word of God, the prohibition of force in this process, and the Islamic obligation to prevent and undo injustice, irrespective of the religious allegiance of the oppressed. The author then proposes a course of action that he sees as a possible non-violent solution to the problem; refreshingly, this is not based on anti-Semitism, nor includes it. Our forefathers were, after all, followers of deen al-fitrah, and so should we be.

This part of the book, more than any other, shows its age, however, as the idealistic political proposals Faruqi puts forwards have been totally overtaken by events in Palestine since it was written in the 1970s. Nonetheless, this remains a major and important work on this subject.

Crescent International, London, 16-31 May 2003.