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Can the Torah Help Explain Jewish and Muslim Relations?

Dear Jew in the City,

Can you please explain Jewish/Muslim relations in the Torah, in particular why they’re so contentious?

Sincerely,
Itai

 

Dear Itai,
Thanks for your question. The Torah has literally nothing to say about Jewish/Muslim relations. To explain why this is, please consider the following timeline:

1312 BCE – The Torah is given at Sinai

2nd Century CE – The Mishna is committed to writing

5th Century CE – The Talmud is redacted

610 CE – Islam is founded

So, as you can see, Islam arrived on the scene too late to be discussed in the Torah, the Mishna or the Talmud!

What the Torah does discuss (somewhat) is Yishmaelim – Ishmaelites – the descendants of Avraham’s son with Hagar, Yishmael (Ishmael). Yishmaelim are highly identified with the Muslims, but there’s not a one-to-one correspondence. (It’s like not every Muslim is an Arab, and not every Arab is a Muslim.) Regardless, Tanach says precious little about Yishmaelim, too. Basically, they were involved in the sale of Yoseif (Joseph) in Genesis 37; there’s an offhand comment that the Midianites were Yishmaelim in Judges 8; Psalm 83 includes the Yishmaelim in a list of nations that want to destroy Israel. And that’s it. (The Talmud is 2,711 two-sided folio pages, typically printed in twenty large volumes. The word “Yishmaelim” appears nine times total, in three tractates. The Yishmaelim just weren’t a big concern to the Sages. The word Edom, however – representing Rome – appears a total of 169 times in 19 tractates. The Romans were a much bigger deal than the Ishmaelites!)

The Torah does have a bit to say about the person Yishmael, from whom the Yishmaelim are descended. We discussed this to a greater degree a few years ago, so we’ll just touch on the most salient points here.

In Genesis 21, Yishmael was expelled for “mocking.” There’s some discussion as to what exactly this entailed. Rabbi Akiva points out (Bereishis Rabbah 53:11) that the word used for mocking (מצחק) is also used to refer to adultery (Genesis 39:17), idolatry (Exodus 32:6) and bloodshed (II Sam. 2:14). The implication is that Yishmael was not such a good guy, to say the least.

Lest you think that this is the source of our animosity with the Yishmaelim, such is not the case. We see that Yitzchak and Yishmael were later reconciled from Genesis 25:9, in which Yishmael not only joins with Yitzchak to bury Avraham, he defers to Yitzchak as the primary heir. (See also Baba Basra 16b.)

Our first real conflict with the Yishmaelim is recorded in Eicha Rabbah 2 (cited by Rashi on Genesis 21:17): When the Jews were exiled by Nebuchadnezzar, they expected their Ishmaelite cousins to show hospitality and provide them with bread and water. Instead, the Yishmaelim fed the Jews salted fish and gave them wineskins filled with air. When the Jews thirstily inhaled this air, their stomachs burst and they died. What prompted the Yishmaelim to behave this way? I have no idea.

The historic conflict between Jews and Muslims dates to the 7th century. In extremely abbreviated form, here’s what happened: Muhammad, the founder of Islam, initially viewed Christians and Jews as potential allies, referring to them as “People of the Book.” He expected that they would support his teachings, but very few from Jewish backgrounds actually did so. Jewish tradition maintains that prophecy ceased during the Second Temple era, which would preclude Muhammad being a prophet. (The same could be said of Jesus, who also lived after prophecy is said to have ceased, and whom Islam considers a prophet.) The Jews also argued that some passages in the Qur’an contradicted the Torah. In short, the Jews actually ended up being an impediment to the spread of Islam. Muhammad ultimately became hostile towards the Jews, viewing the two religions as incompatible. 

As noted, this is a truncated version of a much longer and more complicated history; interested readers can find more about it online. What’s important to note is that Judaism doesn’t have any problem with Islam as a religion for non-Jews. We have halachic issues with idolatry and polytheism, but Islam is pure monotheism. Accordingly, it is a perfectly valid form of worship for the nations of the world. (Of course, we have issues with those who wish to kill us in the name of Islam, but we also had issues with those who wanted to kill us in the name of Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Marduk, among others.)

But I absolutely don’t believe that our conflicts with our Muslim cousins result from sibling rivalry between Yitzchak and Yishmael. Avraham had other children, with his second wife, Keturah (who may or may not have been Hagar). He sent them away to the East, and there are those who believe their descendants are the Hindus. If there’s no bad blood between us and that side of the family, I have no reason to attribute Jewish-Muslim friction to Yishmael, whom we know to have reconciled with Yitzchak.

Sincerely,

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
Educational Correspondent
Follow Ask Rabbi Jack on YouTube

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  • Avatar photo Chasya Bernstein says on January 4, 2024

    You claim there is no sibling rivalry. However, Yishmael was the elder son who got absolutely no inheritance from his father. Yitzchak was the son who was called Avraham’s spiritual heir, with sole claim to the Holy Land promised to his father. How do you think Yishmael’s descendants feel about that?
    Furthermore, Yishmael is described as ‘pere adam’, a wild thing in the form of a man. How do you think that might impact the actions he takes in response to his feelings of being disinherited?

    This might help explain the actions of those who consider themselves the spiritual heirs of Yishmael / Arabs. Though I have heard some of them claim to be the original Canaanites, in which case they think they are children of Cham, and have absolutely no claim to the Land. Unless they claim not only DNA relation but cultural connection – such as worshipping Dagan, or feeding their children to the fires of Moloch . . . .

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