Pope Francis Versus Sunni Muslim Pope Al-Tayeb on the Jews

Pope Francis’ “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”), a 224-page document elucidating  his views of the Church, and its mission, was just issued the week of November 24, 2013.

The Pope’s exhortation included a revitalized commitment to fostering relations between Catholics and Jews. He acknowledged the Jewish roots of Christianity, and how the Church continues to be enriched by Judaic values, while explicitly condemning the legacy of Christian anti-Jewish oppression. Sections 247-249 (pp. 184-186), entitled, “Relations with Judaism,” state, specifically:

We hold the Jewish people in special re­gard because their covenant with God has never been revoked, for “the gifts and the call of God  are irrevocable” (Rom 11:29). The Church, which shares with Jews an important part of the sacred Scriptures, looks upon the people of the cove­nant and their faith as one of the sacred roots of her own Christian identity (cf. Rom 11:16-18). As Christians, we cannot consider Judaism as a for­eign religion; nor do we include the Jews among those called to turn from idols and to serve the true God (cf. 1 Thes 1:9). With them, we believe in the one God who acts in history, and with them we accept his revealed word.

Dialogue and friendship with the children of Israel are part of the life of Jesus’ disciples. The friendship which has grown between us makes us bitterly and sincerely regret the terri­ble persecutions which they have endured, and continue to endure, especially those that have in­volved Christians.

God continues to work among the people of the Old Covenant and to bring forth treas­ures of wisdom which flow from their encounter with his word. For this reason, the Church also is enriched when she receives the values of Juda­ism. While it is true that certain Christian beliefs are unacceptable to Judaism, and that the Church cannot refrain from proclaiming Jesus as Lord and Messiah, there exists as well a rich comple­mentarity which allows us to read the texts of the Hebrew Scriptures together and to help one an­other to mine the riches of God’s word. We can also share many ethical convictions and a com­mon concern for justice and the development of peoples.

Francis’s  allusion to the Bible’s shared “Hebrew Scriptures,” which allows Jews and Christians to exchange its spiritual riches with each other, recalls an observation by Maimonides (d. 1203), the renowned Talmudist, philosopher, astronomer, and physician. Maimonides’ Teshuvot Responsa (questions and answers) includes a fascinating discussion on the matter of whether Jews should attempt to teach the Torah to Muslims, versus Christians. Although, in principle the response is negative, i.e., non-Jews were proscribed from formal study of the Torah per se, Maimonides, more than 800 years ago (in an era not marked by Christian-Jewish “comity’), made this striking distinction between Christians and Muslims, regarding the teaching of the commandments, and their explanations. Because of the unique threat posed to Jews by Muslims, due to Islam’s rigid doctrinal intolerance, Maimonides opined:

it is permitted to teach the commandments and the explanations according to [rabbinic] law to the Christians, but it is prohibited to do likewise for the Muslims. You know, in effect, that according to their [the Muslims] belief this Torah is not from heaven and if you teach them something, they will find it contrary to their tradition, because their practices are confused and their opinions bizarre mippnei she-ba’uu la-hem debariim be-ma`asiim [because a mish-mash of various practices and strange, inapplicable statements were received by them.] What [one teaches them] will not convince them of the falseness of their opinions, but they will interpret it according to their erroneous principles and they will oppress us. [F]or this reason…they hate all [non-Muslims] who live among them. It would then just be a stumbling block for the Israelites who, because of their sins, are in captivity among them. On the contrary, the uncircumcised [Christians] admit that the text of the Torah, such as we have it, is intact. They interpret it only in an erroneous way and use it for purposes of the allegorical exegesis that is proper to them Ve-yirmezuu bah ha-remaziim hay-yedu`iim la-hem [They would exchange secret signs known only to them.] If one informs them about the correct interpretation, there is hope that they will return from their error, and even if they do not, there is no stumbling block for Israel, for they do not find in their religious law any contradiction with ours.

Maimonides’ admonition from eight centuries ago,  and Pope Francis’ recent ecumenical statements vis a vis Jews, provide a fitting segue to the unreformed and unrepentant canonical Islamic Jew-hatred expressed by Sunni Islam’s Papal equivalent, in an October 25, 2013 interview.

Since its founding in 973 C.E., Al Azhar University (and its mosque) have represented a pinnacle of Islamic religious education, which evolved into the de facto Vatican of Sunni Islam. Unfortunately, during that same millennium, through the present era, Al Azhar and its leading clerics have represented and espoused the unreformed, unrepentant jihad bellicosity and infidel hatred at the core of mainstream, institutional Islam.

Al Azhar’s contemporary espousal of sacralized Islamic animosity has been directed, unsurprisingly, against Jews and Israel, dating back to the 20th century origins, and ultimate creation, of the modern Jewish State. Despite nearly universal willful blindness by media, academic, and policymaking elites, this critical issue of sacralized incitement of Muslim Jew-hatred by Islam’s Sunni Muslim Vatican, remains center stage.

Ahmad Al-Tayeb, as current Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, is the Sunni Muslim Papal equivalent. During an interview with Al-Tayeb, which aired on Channel 1, Egyptian TV, October 25, 2013, the Al-Azhar Grand Imam gave a brief explanation of the ongoing relevance of the Koranic verse 5:82 (sura, or chapter 5, verse 82) has been invoked—“successfully”—to inspire Muslim hatred of Jews since the advent of Islam:

A verse in the Koran explains the Muslims’ relations with the Jews and the polytheists. The second part of the verse describes the Muslims’ relations with the Christians, and the third part of the verse explains why the Christians are the closest and most friendly to the Muslims.  This is an historical perspective, which has not changed to this day. See how we suffer today from global Zionism and Judaism, whereas our peaceful coexistence with the Christians has withstood the test of history. Since the inception of Islam 1,400 years ago, we have been suffering from Jewish and Zionist interference in Muslim affairs. This is a cause of great distress for the Muslims. The Koran said it and history has proven it: “You shall find the strongest among men in enmity to the believers to be the Jews and the polytheists.” This is the first part. The second part is: “You shall find the closest in love to the believers to be those who say: ‘We are Christians’.” The third part explains why the Christians are “the closest in love to the believers,” while the Jews and the polytheists are the exact opposite.

Grand Imam Al-Tayaeb’s assessment is upheld by a continuum of authoritative Koranic exegeses that span over a thousand years, till now. The classical Koranic commentaries on Koran 5:82 by al-Tabari (d. 923), Zamakashari (d. 1143), Baydawi (d. 1316), and Ibn Kathir demonstrate a uniformity of opinion regarding the animus of the Jews toward the Muslims, which is repeatedly linked to the curse of Koran 2:61 (i.e., for killing prophets, and transgressing against the will of Allah, repeated at verses including 2:90-91, 3:112, 3:181, and 4:155).

Maulana Muhammad Shafi (1898-1976), a former grand mufti of India (prior to the August, 1947 partition), was the author of Maariful Qur’an, which remains the best-known Koranic commentary in Urdu. He also wrote more than three hundred books, and in addition to these literary works, broadcasted his Koranic commentary on Radio Pakistan for a number of years. Mufti Shafi’s modern gloss on Koran 5:82 in Maariful Qur’an confirms its classical exegesis, noting that the vast preponderance of Jews felt an unremitting malice toward the Muslims, and a lust for the “material pleasures of mortal life”—the rare exceptions to this rule (for example, Abdullah ibn Salam), became Muslims! 

A remarkable essay by the polymath Arabic writer al-Jahiz (d. 869), composed in the mid 9th century C.E., illustrates how the anti-Jewish attitudes already prevalent within an important early Islamic society—the seat of the Abbasid-Baghdadian Caliphate—were influenced by Koran 5:82, and its common understanding by the Muslim masses. Al-Jahiz’s essay—an anti-Christian polemic believed to have been commissioned by the Abbasid caliph al-Mutawakkil (d. 861), who inaugurated a literary campaign against the Christians—explores the reasons why the Muslim masses prefer the Christians to the Jews. This empirical preference (although decried by the author) is acknowledged by al-Jahiz from the outset:

I shall begin to enumerate the causes which made the Christians more liked by the masses than the Magians [Zoroastrians], and made men consider them more sincere than the Jews, more endeared, less treacherous, less unbelieving, and less deserving of punishment. For all this there are manifold and evident causes.

Al-Jahiz offers two primary explanations for this abiding hostility of the Muslim rank and file toward the Jews. First was the “rancorous” relationship between the early Muslim community, exiles from Mecca, and their Jewish neighbors in Medina:

When the [Muslim] Emigrants [from Mecca] became the neighbors of the Jews [in Medina] . . .the Jews began to envy the Muslims the blessings of their new faith, and the union which resulted after dissension. They proceeded to undermine the belief of our [i.e., the Muslim] masses, and to lead them astray. They aided our enemies and those envious of us. From mere misleading speech and stinging words they plunged into an open declaration of enmity, so that the Muslims mobilized their forces, exerting themselves morally and materially to banish the Jews and destroy them. Their strife became long-drawn and widespread, so that it worked itself up into a rage, and created yet greater animosity and more intensified rancor. The Christians, however, because of their remoteness from Mecca and Medina, did not have to put up with religious controversies, and did not have occasion to stir up trouble, and be involved in war. That was the first cause of our dislike of the Jews, and our partiality toward the Christians.

However, al-Jahiz then identifies as “the most potent cause” of this particular animus toward the Jews, Koran 5:82, and its interpretation by the contemporary (i.e., mid-ninth-century) Muslim masses.

The travelogue accounts of Edward William Lane (originally published in 1835), a great Arabic linguist, record Lane’s observations of Egyptian society, including his testimony on the difference between the attitude of Egyptian Muslims toward the Jews and the Christians.  One thousand years after al-Jahiz, Lane re-affirms the prominent, ongoing influence of Koran 5:82:

They [the Jews] are held in the utmost contempt and abhorrence by the Muslims in general, and they are said to bear a more inveterate hatred than any other people to the Muslims and the Muslim religion. It is said, in the Koran [quoting 5:82] “Thou shalt surely find the most violent all men to those who have believed to be the Jews . . . ”

Lane further notes:

It is a common saying among the Muslims in this country, “Such one hates me with the hate of the Jews.” We cannot wonder, then, that the Jews are detested far more than are the Christians. Not long ago, they used often to be jostled in the streets of Cairo, and sometimes beaten for merely passing on the right hand of a Muslim. At present, they are less oppressed: but still they scarcely ever dare to utter a word of abuse when reviled or beaten unjustly by the meanest Arab or Turk; for many a Jew has been put to death upon a false and malicious accusation of uttering disrespectful words against the Koran or the Prophet. It is common to hear an Arab abuse his jaded ass, and, after applying to him various opprobrious epithets, end by calling the beast a Jew.

A century after Lane’s observations were published, the ex-Mufti of Jerusalem, pre-eminent Muslim leader of his era, and founder of the jihadist Palestinian Muslim movement, Hajj Amin el-Husseini, issued a 1937 proclamation seeking to galvanize the global Muslim umma (community) for a jihad to annihilate Palestinian Jewry, and abort a modern re-establishment of the pre-Islamic nation of Israel on any portion of the Jews’ ancestral homeland. As I document in my newly released monograph, The Mufti’s Islamic Jew-Hatred,  el-Husseini ends his own litany of Jew-hating motifs from the Koran in the 1937 proclamation with this same verse, Koran 5:82.

Current Al-Azhar Grand Imam al-Tayeb’s invocation of Koranic Jew-hatred  (especially, 5:82) represents a modern historical continuum from Hajj Amin el-Husseini, and more directly his immediate predecessor, the late Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi—Grand Imam of Al-Azhar from 1996, till his death in March, 2010. My extensive and fully representative extracts in The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism from Tantawi’s magnum opus—an utterly vile 700 pp. tract glorifying Islam’s incomparable output of doctrinal Jew-hatred from its core texts, i.e. the Koran, most important Koranic commentaries, and Sunna (i.e., alleged “traditions” of Islam’s prophet Muhammad and the nascent Muslim community)—is irrefragable proof of his convictions. Here an extract that bears repeating (from p. 394):

the Jews always remain maleficent deniers….they should desist from their negative denial…some Jews went way overboard in their denying hostility, so gentle persuasion can do no good with them, so use force with them and treat them in the way you see as effective in ridding them of their evil. One may go so far as to ban their religion, their persons, their wealth, and their villages.

Tantawi also wrote these words in his 700 page treatise—originally, his Al-Azhar University Ph.D. thesis—rationalizing Muslim Jew-hatred:

[The] Koran describes the Jews with their own particular degenerate characteristics, i.e. killing the prophets of Allah [Koran 2:61/ 3:112], corrupting His words by putting them in the wrong places, consuming the people’s wealth frivolously, refusal to distance themselves from the evil they do, and other ugly characteristics caused by their deep-rooted lasciviousness…only a minority of the Jews keep their word…[A]ll Jews are not the same. The good ones become Muslims [Koran 3:113], the bad ones do not.

Tantawi was apparently rewarded for this scholarly effort by subsequently being named Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University. These were the expressed, “carefully researched” views on Jews held by the nearest Muslim equivalent to a Pope—a man who for 14 years headed the most prestigious center of Muslim learning in Sunni Islam, which represents some 85 to 90% of the world’s Muslims. And Sheikh Tantawi never mollified such hatemongering beliefs after becoming the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar as his statements on “dialogue” (January 1998) with Jews, the Jews as “enemies of Allah, descendants of apes and pigs” (April 2002), and the legitimacy of homicide bombing of Jews (April 2002), made clear.

Tantawi’s statements on dialogue, which were issued shortly after he met with the Israel’s Chief Rabbi, Israel Meir Lau, in Cairo, on December 15, 1997, provided him another opportunity to re-affirm his ongoing commitment to the views expressed about Jews in his Ph.D. thesis:

…anyone who avoids meeting with the enemies in order to counter their dubious claims and stick fingers into their eyes, is a coward.  My stance stems from Allah’s book [the Koran], more than one-third of which deals with the Jews…[I] wrote a dissertation dealing with them [the Jews], all their false claims and their punishment by Allah.  I still believe in everything written in that dissertation. [i.e., Jews in the Koran and the Traditions, cited above]

Sadly, Tantawi’s antisemitic formulations are well-grounded in classical, mainstream Islamic theology. However, understanding and acknowledging the Koranic origins of Islamic antisemitism is not a justification for the unreformed, unrepentant modern endorsement of these hateful motifs by Tantawi—with predictably murderous consequences. Within days of the Netanya homicide bombing massacre on a Passover seder night, March 27, 2002, for example, Sheikh Tantawi issued an abhorrent sanction (April 4, 2002) of so-called “martyrdom operations,” even when directed at Israeli civilians.

And during November, 2002 (“Tantawi: No Antisemitism” Associated Press 11/19/2002; also archived here), consistent with his triumphant denial, Sheikh Tantawi made the following statement in response to criticism over the virulently antisemitic Egyptian television series (“Horseman Without a Horse”), based on the Czarist Russia forgery, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”:

Suppose that the series has some criticism or shows some of the Jews’ traits, this doesn’t necessitate an uproar…The accusation of antisemitism was invented by the Jews as a means to pressure Arabs and Muslims to implement their schemes in the Arab and Muslim countries, so don’t pay attention to them.

January 22, 2008, it was reported that Tantawi cancelled what would have been an historic visit to the Rome synagogue by the imam of Rome’s mosque (Ala Eldin Mohammed Ismail al-Ghobash). The putative excuse for this cancellation was Israel’s self-defensive stance—a blockade—in response to acts of jihad terrorism (rocket barrages; attempted armed incursions) emanating from Gaza. The Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, commenting aptly about these events, observed that the cancellation proved, “…even so called Muslim moderates share the ideology of hate, violence and death towards the Jewish state.” Al Azhar, Corriere della Sera, further argued, which constituted a “Vatican of Sunni Islam,” had in effect issued “a kind of fatwah.” The paper concluded by noting that “What the Cairo statement really means is that Muslim dialogue with Jews in Italy is only possible once Israel has been eliminated.”

Much as current Pope Francis’ sentiments stand in stark contrast to those openly enunciated by his Sunni Muslim equivalent, Al-Azhar Grand Imam al-Tayeb, the late Sheikh Tantawi’s virulently antisemitic writings and fulminations were antithetical to his contemporary, the recently retired Pope Benedict XVI.  

On his initial papal trip abroad, in August 2005, Benedict visited a synagogue in Cologne, Germany, that had been destroyed by the Nazis. Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Wiesenthal Center, noted appositely, on that occasion, “The fact that in his very first foreign visit as Pope he went to the Cologne Synagogue is an indication of the importance that the Church attaches to its relationship with the Jews.” Within a year later, Benedict’s May 2006 address while visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp included a blistering rebuke and condemnation of those who would persecute Jews, and a lucid presentation of the phenomenon of anti-Semitism, particularly as it was manifested in the unspeakable horrors of Auschwitz:

Deep down, those vicious criminals, by wiping out this people, wanted to kill the God who called Abraham, who spoke on Sinai and laid down principles to serve as a guide for mankind, principles that are eternally valid.

Earlier, writing in December 2000, the future pope (then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) affirmed his close alignment with the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, and the ecumenical thought of his predecessor and dear friend, Pope John Paul II. Ratzinger’s statement reiterated this “new vision of Jewish-Christian relations,” and even acknowledged a role for Christian antisemitism in the Holocaust itself:

Down through the history of Christianity, already-strained relations deteriorated further, even giving birth in many cases to anti-Jewish attitudes, which throughout history have led to deplorable acts of violence. Even if the most recent, loathsome experience of the Shoah was perpetrated in the name of an anti-Christian ideology, which tried to strike the Christian faith at its Abrahamic roots in the people of Israel, it cannot be denied that a certain insufficient resistance to this atrocity on the part of Christians can be explained by an inherited anti-Judaism present in the hearts of not a few Christians.

He (Ratzinger/Benedict XVI) then implored that a new relationship be forged between the Church and Israel out of the tragic ashes of the Holocaust, based upon overcoming “every kind of anti-Judaism,” and engaging in sincere, meaningful dialogue.

Former Pope Benedict XVI, and current Pope Francis have openly expressed their ecumenism toward Jews and Judaism, while acknowledging Christianity’s indebtedness to Jewish ethical values. This ecumenical message has been coupled to frank, mea culpa-based contrition for the tragic legacy of Christian antisemitism. The disparity between their attitudes and their two contemporary Sunni Muslim equivalents, Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi and Ahmad Al-Tayeb—the latter having emphatically and triumphantly re-asserted the modern relevance of canonical Islam’s conspiratorial Jew-hatred—could not be more striking.

Both Tantawi’s and his successor Ahmad Al-Tayeb’s career trajectories to the pinnacle of Sunni Islamic religious education, despite their own public endorsements of virulent, if “sacralized” Islamic Jew-hatred, reflect the profound moral pathology at the very heart and soul of mainstream, institutional Islam.

Andrew G. Bostom is the author of The Legacy of Jihad (Prometheus, 2005) and The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism " (Prometheus, November, 2008) You can contact Dr. Bostom at @andrewbostom.org

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