According to the Hamas charter, Palestine is an Islamic endowment “for all generations of Muslims until the Day of Resurrection” which no one may renounce. The Arab-Israeli conflict is seen as not just a political dispute but an implacably religious one.
But there are Muslim scholars who will tell you that this claim has no basis in the Koran: not only that, but the foundation text of Islam, in fact, recognises the special link between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. “You will find very clearly,” says Sheikh Dr Muhammad Al-Husseini, “that the traditional commentators from the eighth and ninth century onwards have uniformly interpreted the Koran to say explicitly that Eretz Yisrael has been given by God to the Jewish people as a perpetual covenant. There is no Islamic counterclaim to the Land anywhere in the traditional corpus of commentary.”
Dr Al-Husseini is a British imam who teaches a course on the Koran as part of interfaith studies at the Leo Baeck College, the Progressive rabbinic college in Finchley, north London. One of the texts he has taught is the following verse in the Koran (5:21), “O my people! Enter the Holy Land which God has decreed for you, and turn back on your heels otherwise you will be overturned as losers.”
He examines this passage through the eyes of one classic commentator of the Koran, Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari (838-923), who says the remark is “a narrative from God… concerning the saying of Moses… to his community from among the children of Israel and his order to them according to the order of God to him, ordering them to enter the holy land.”
Al-Tabari, Dr Al-Husseni says, is “our Rashi”, the founder of tafsir, “the science of exegesis” — the Arabic word is similar to pesher, Hebrew for interpretation. “One of the key rules of Islamic exegesis by which Islamic scholarship is bound is that the authority to interpret lies in the hands of the Prophet and of the Prophets’ Companions alone,” he says, “Nobody can go to the text and just freely interpret the text for their own purposes. This is really important… because if the Prophet, or one of his Companions, has given an interpretation, then we are bound by it.”
Just as you find in the Talmud that one rabbi quotes a saying in the name of one of his teachers, so al-Tabari will cite the interpretations of earlier, oral commentators in a chain going back to one of the Prophet Muhammad’s Companions, the ultimate source of authority for that interpretation.
The Muslim commentators may differ over exactly where “the Holy Land” is — one says the area around Mount Sinai, another the Levant. But what is significant, Dr Al-Husseini, is that “they are pointing to the same area — it is not Egypt, Saudi or Iraq.”
The Arabic for “the holy land”, al-ard al-muqaddasa, is close to the Hebrew, eretz kodesh and refers to this piece of land rather than other sites sacred to Muslims. “During the life of the Prophet, there was an enormous territorial ambition to get Makka back from the Makkans,” he says. “There was no territorial ambition to claim Jerusalem, Palestine.
“What happens during his lifetime is what God wants to happen for the Muslim community. His prophecy and his objective was the reclamation of the Islamic holy site which is Makka. If God had decreed that His Prophet should have Jerusalem, then it would have been something that he would have been preoccupied with during his lifetime and he conquered the whole of the Arabian peninsula.
“It was never the case during the early period of Islam…that there was any kind of sacerdotal attachment to Jerusalem as a territorial claim. Jerusalem is holy but Mount Sinai is more holy. Sinai is mentioned far more often, and Jerusalem isn’t actually mentioned by name.” (Jerusalem is alluded to in the phrase “the further mosque”).
Al-Tabari’s commentary also notes that the word “decreed” — kataba in Arabic, related to katav, “written”, in Hebrew — has the connotations of “ordered”: in other words, settling the land was regarded as a mitzvah for the children of Israel. Al-Tabari also observes that the decree is confirmed in al-lawh al-mahfuz, the eternally preserved tablet” — a reference to the Islamic idea that in heaven exists a sacred blueprint from which the Muslim, Christian and Jewish scriptures emanate, hence the covenant with the Jewish people over Israel is everlasting.
Dr Al-Husseini— who stresses his support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — points out that other contemporary Muslim scholars draw attention to this tradition, such as Professor Khaleel Mohammed in San Diego (see: www-rohan.sdsu.edu/~khaleel/) and Sheikh Abdul Hadi Palazzi in Rome (http://jmm.aaa.net.au/articles/1002.htm).
But he also observes that many Muslims are unfamiliar with al-Tabari’s work because it is mostly untranslated and accessible only to an educated elite who understand Arabic. By contrast, the teachings of 20th-century radicals linked to political groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood are often widely available in English. Since the militants cannot contradict the Koranic precedent for Jewish attachment to the Land of Israel, they adopt another tactic, Dr Al-Husseini says: they argue that Jews are a wicked people who “must be punished” — hence the spread of antisemitism within the Muslim world. “But no fundamentalist, no matter how hard they try,” he says, “can overrule the existing tradition to say there is, in fact, an Islamic counterclaim to Eretz Yisrael.”
Studying Islam in a Jewish setting
Leo Baeck College, the Progressive rabbinic academy, has long been at the forefront of dialogue between Jews and members of other religions. Interfaith dialogue forms part of its rabbinic training.
Last autumn it launched a weekly, 10-part introduction to the classical study of the Koran, open not only to serving and trainee rabbis but also to Jewish community leaders. It is taught by Shiekh Dr Muhammad Al-Husseini, a Cairo-trained British imam who grew up in Hertfordshire with many Jewish schoolfriends — “I’ve been to more Jewish than Muslim weddings!” he said.
Committed to challenging antisemitism within the Muslim community, he is keen to demonstrate “the common DNA that exists between Judaism and Islam”.
His course is part of a larger Leo Baeck project, Scriptures in Dialogue, to encourage the comparative academic study of Jewish, Muslim and Christian texts. You can download his lecture and other resources from www. scripturesindialogue.org