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A short history on Jewish admirers of Islam

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Rabbi Allen Maller

I neither believe nor disbelieve in the Qur’an. If I believed in the Qur’an, I would be a member of the Muslim ummah (community). But I cannot disbelieve in the Qur’an because I believe that Muhammad was a prophet and I respect the Qur’an as a kindred revelation, first revealed to a kindred people, in a kindred language.

Ignác/Ignaz (Yitzhaq Yehuda) Goldziher (June 22, 1850 – November 13, 1921), was a Hungarian scholar of Islam and is considered one of the three founders of modern Islamic studies in Europe. He was educated at the universities of Budapest, Berlin, Leipzig, and Leiden, and became a privatdozent in Budapest in 1872. In the next year, under the auspices of the Hungarian government, he began a journey through Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. In the personal journal he kept he wrote:

In those weeks, I truly entered into the spirit of Islam to such an extent that ultimately I became inwardly convinced that I myself was a Muslim, and judiciously discovered that this was the only religion which, even in its doctrinal and official formulation, can satisfy philosophic minds. My ideal was to elevate Judaism to a similar rational level.

His admiration for Islam did not prevent Goldziher from remaining a devout Jew all his life. Indeed, Goldziher was appointed the secretary of the Jewish community in Budapest. This bond to Judaism and the Jewish people was unusual for a man seeking an academic career in Europe in the late 19th century. This in part was why Goldziher saw Islam through the eyes of someone who refused to assimilate into the contemporary Christian European culture. He had little admiration for European Christianity.

Goldziher was denied a teaching post at Budapest University until he was 44. As a Christian convert, he would easily have received a university appointment as a full professor but he always refused to convert.

In Edward Said’s critical attacks on western academic scholars of Islam in his book Orientalism, Said himself reproved them for failing to pay sufficient attention to scholars like Goldziher. Of the five major German orientalists, Said remarked that four of them, despite their profound erudition, were hostile to Islam. Goldziher’s work was an exception in that he appreciated ‘Islam’s tolerance towards other religions’.

Dr. Yitzhaq Yehuda Goldziher was a 19th-century example of the famous Jew Rabbi Mukhayriq, who was one of many Jews who supported the Prophet Muhammad when he first arrived in Medina. Rabbi Mukhayriq, a learned leader of the tribe of Tha’labah, was part of a tribe that was made up of Jews from the land of Israel who had settled in Medina several centuries earlier, which included a large number of local Arabs who had converted to Judaism over the ensuing generations.

According to Ibn Ishaq, the first major biographer of Prophet Muhammad, Rabbi Mukhayriq had “announced to his congregation that he would fight to protect Prophet Muhammad from his many enemies among the pagan Arabs of Makkah; stating that if he died in the battle (as he did) he wanted his estate to go to Prophet Muhammed to be distributed as charity.”

When the Prophet Muhammed, who was seriously injured in that battle, was informed about the death of Rabbi Mukhayriq, Muhammed said about the Rabbi: “مُخَيْرِيقُ سَابِقُ يَهُودَ, or Mukhayriq is the foremost among the Jews (Ibn Shabbah, Ta’reekh Al-Madinah 467)”. In another narration, the Prophet said: “مُخَيْرِيقٌ خَيْرُ يَهُودَ, or Mukhayriq was the best of the Jews (Ibn Sa’d, Tabaqat Al-Kubra 1535)”.

Ibn Ishaq also wrote that Rabbi Mukhayriq “recognized the Apostle of Allah by his description, and by what he found in his scholarship. However, (since) he was accustomed to his own religion, this held him back (from converting to Islam)”.

Christians did not accept Muhammad as a legitimate prophet because they believed Jesus was a part of a Holy Trinity and the Qur’an explicitly states: “The Messiah (Jesus) the son of Mary, was but a messenger of Allah and His word which He directed to Mary, a soul from Him. So believe in Allah and His messengers. And do not say Three: desist! – it is better for you. Indeed, Allah is but one God. Exalted is He above having a son (4:171)”. 

But why did the Jews of Medina not support the Prophet Muhammad, who was just as unitarian as Moses? Most of them may have been afraid that after the death of Prophet Muhammad, his ex-pagan polytheist followers would turn him into a son of God and worship him, just as the followers of Jesus had turned him into a Son of God; and not only worshipped him but persecuted the Jews who would not worship Jesus.

Thank God that did not happen, but by the time Prophet Muhammad died, the three Jewish tribes in Medina had already been defeated in inter-tribal fighting and had banished from Medina.

I first studied Islam when I was a student at UCLA almost 60 years ago, and then again while I was in Rabbinical school. Over the years I continued to read the Qur’an and other Islamic books. I read these books as the Prophet taught his followers to read when seeking knowledge, “not as a believer, and not as a disbeliever”. But what does that mean?

The Qur’an, of course, is sacred scripture for Muslims. A disciple of Muhammad named Abu Huraira related: “The people of the Book used to read the Torah in Hebrew and then explain it in Arabic to the Muslims. Allah’s Apostle said (to the Muslims): ‘Do not believe the people of the Book, nor disbelieve them, but say, ‘We believe in Allah, and whatever is revealed to us, and whatever is revealed to you’ (Bukhari Vol. 9, Book 92, #460 and Vol. 9, Book 93, #632)”.

Following Muhammad’s teaching, I too neither believe nor disbelieve in the Qur’an. If I believed in the Qur’an I would be a member of the Muslim ummah (community). But I cannot disbelieve in the Qur’an because I believe that Muhammad was a prophet and I respect the Qur’an as a kindred revelation, first revealed to a kindred people, in a kindred language. In fact, the people, the language, and the theology are closer to my own people, language, and theory than that of any other on earth.

Thus, I feel that I am a Muslim Jew, i.e. a faithful Jew submitting to the will of God, because I am a Reform Rabbi. Reform Jews are also now the largest of the Jewish denominations in the United States (in the UK, Reform Judaism is called Liberal Judaism). As a Rabbi, I am faithful to the covenant that God made with Abraham, the first Jew to be a Muslim, and I submit to be bound by the covenant and commandments that God made with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai.

As a Reform Rabbi, I also believe that Rabbis should modify Jewish traditions to prevent them from making religion too difficult to practice. This important teaching in the Qur’an (7:157) was taught by Prophet Muhammad twelve centuries before the rise of Reform Judaism in early 19th century Germany.

As Abu Huraira related: “The Prophet said, ‘Religion is very easy and whoever overburdens himself in his religion will not be able to continue in that way.  So you should not be extremists, but try to be near to perfection and receive the good tidings that you will be rewarded (Bukhari book 2 #38)”. May the faithful believers of all religions commit themselves to this excellent teaching.


Rabbi Maller is a graduate of UCLA and the Hebrew Union College. Rabbi Maller is Past President of the Southern California Association of Reform Rabbis and is now President of the National Jewish Hospitality Committee.



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