by Dr. Stephen M. Kirby
Dr. Omer Salem, Islamic intellectual, makes a distinction between Jews and G-d fearing Jews, as does the group to which Rebecca Abrahamson belongs. Dr. Kirby, Islamic scholar, believes that this is a mistaken interpretation of the Koran.
Arutz Sheva has been hosting a debate between Muslims who believe that the Qu'ran wants Jews and Muslims to live in peace and those who consider this interpretation of Islam a fantasy. The following article, linked below to the previous ones on the topic, is part of this debate. Read the articles and form your opinion.
On January 13th 2016, Arutz Sheva posted an op-ed by Dr. Stephen M. Kirby entitled: “Jewish-Muslim coexistence through the Koran? Wishful thinking.” His article was a rebuttal to Rebecca Abrahamson’s op-ed entitled: “Dr. Omer Salem, A Bridge for Peace?” On January 24th, Arutz Sheva posted another article by Dr. Kirby, "Fantasy Islam," this in response to Adnan Oktar's article "A call for sanity: How the Qu'ran-abiding Muslims view the Jews," which itself was an answer to Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld's analysis and critique of the UK deciding to teach Islam in its schools.
Omer Salem responded to Dr. Kirby on January 25th in an article entitled: "Real Islam calls for peace with the Jewish people" and Dr. Kirby's response "Real Islam is not based on personal interpretations" is below.
The rapid pace of events in Israel has put off the posting of this article, but it is important - and not just for Jews - that differing views on the possibility of a modus vivendi with Islam be debated and explored with integrity and a search for truth. Arutz Sheva's op-ed section has become a forum for the exploration of that possibility.
I would like to thank Dr. Salem for taking the time to respond to my article. He and I are in agreement about the importance of improving relations between Jews and Muslims; our disagreement is over the efficacy and nature of his approach. But his response has appeared to raise more questions than it answered. The focus of my article is on addressing those questions.
Dr. Salem wrote that the Koran he used for his response was ‘Abdullah Yusuf ‘Ali’s translation: The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an (Amana Publications, 2009). For this article I use an edition of that same Koran translation printed by Amana Publications in 2004.
To understand the meaning of the Koran verses examined, I use English translations of the following Koran commentaries (tafsirs): Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Tafsir Al-Jalalayn, Tafsir Ahsanul-Bayan, Tafsir As-Sa’di.
So let’s begin.
God or Allah?
Dr. Salem uses the words God and Allah interchangeably when writing about Muslims and Jews. This is because he apparently believes that Muslim and Jews all believe in the same God, of which Allah is just another name. But what does the Muslim god Allah say about this in the Koran?
To set the stage, Allah states that the only religion acceptable to him is Islam (e.g., 3:19 and 3:85). And Allah states that Islam is to be made superior over all other religions, even if the non-Muslims don’t like it (e.g., 9:33, 48:28, and 61:9).
Allah states that he is angry with the Jews (1:7) and he curses them (9:30). Allah states that the Jews are among the worst of creatures who “will abide in the fire of Hell” (98:6), while Muslims are the best of creatures (3:110 and 98:7). He forbids Muslims from being friends with Jews (5:51). Instead, Allah commands Muslims to fight the Jews until the Jews pay the jizyah (protection tax) with willing submission and feeling themselves subdued (9:29). And Allah specifically states that the Jews are among the worst enemies of Islam (5:82).
How could one expect Jews to believe in and worship a God who hates and curses them, orders Muslims to fight them, and condemns them to Hell simply because they are not Muslims? In response, Dr. Salem talks about “God-fearing Jews” and “atheist Jews,” and he believes that such Koran verses are directed only toward the “atheist Jews.”
It is easy to understand why Jews would fear the god found in the Koran. But this is not what Dr. Salem means when he talks about “God-fearing Jews.” In his view, these “God-fearing Jews” will earn the respect of the Muslim world.
So what does Dr. Salem mean when he talks about “God-fearing Jews”?
Who are the “God-fearing Jews”?
Dr. Salem wrote:
According to the Qur’an, People of the Book are not all the same, among them are the believer and the disbeliever.
According to Salem, the “believer” is the “God-Fearing Jew,” and the “disbeliever” is the “atheist Jew.” He wrote that there is support, in the Qur’an, for claiming that God-fearing Jews are considered people of the Book and will earn respect in the Muslim world by being viewed as People of the Book.
And throughout his article he provided the following Koran verses to support this distinction between “atheist Jews” and “God-fearing Jews,” and the purported Muslim acceptance of the “God-fearing” Jews: 2:62 (listed in the article as 2:69), 3:113, 7:159, 13:36, and 34:6. Let’s see what our tafsirs have to say about these verses and whether or not they support Dr. Salem’s claims.
Chapter 2, Verse 62
Those who believe (in the Qur’an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians – Any who believe in Allah and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.
The Tafsir Ahsanul-Bayan provides a pertinent commentary:
Some modernists advance this verse as proof that all the religions, despite their apparent diversity in beliefs and rites of worship, are in essence one, and that it is not essential to believe in the prophetic mission of Muhammad and that deliverance depends on faithfully following one's own religion and doing good works. This is an absolutely erroneous idea.
The Tafsir Ibn Kathir provided a similar explanation:
...Allah does not accept any deed or work from anyone, unless it conforms to the Law of Muhammad that is, after Allah sent Muhammad. Before that, every person who followed the guidance of his own Prophet was on the correct path, following the correct guidance and was saved.
And Ibn Kathir was very specific about the change that had arrived with Muhammad:
When Allah sent Muhammad as the Last and Final Prophet and Messenger to all the Children of Adam, mankind was required to believe in him, obey him and refrain from what he prohibited them; those who do this are true believers.
So 2:62 pertained only to good deeds done before the advent of Islam. This verse actually means that, after the advent of Islam, righteousness will be accepted only if it conforms to the commands of Allah and the Law of Muhammad.
Chapter 3, Verse 113
This verse was cited throughout Dr. Salem’s article:
Not all of them are alike: Of the People of the Book are a portion that stand (for the right); they rehearse the signs of Allah all night long, and they prostrate themselves in adoration.
Let’s start off with the editor’s comments about this verse found in ‘Ali’s translation of The Holy Qur’an, the Koran used by Dr. Salem:
This verse, according to Commentators, refers to those People of the Book who eventually embraced Islam.
The Tafsir As-Sa’di explained what is meant by standing for the right:
Allah now says about the faithful, [they are the ones] that are upright, that is, this is the group that remains dedicated to Allah’s ordained religion, obeys His commandments, and performs the devotions commanded from them.
The Tafsir Ahsanul-Bayan explained that this verse talked about “good” Jews who had converted to Islam and “who act by the shari’ah and follow the Messenger of Allah.”
The Tafsir Al-Jalalayn also explained that this verse referred to Jews who had converted to Islam and referred to them as “straight and holding firmly to the truth.”
The Tafsir Ibn Kathir explained that this verse was “revealed” about Jews who had embraced Islam, and
a party of the People of the Scripture stand for the right for they implement the Book of Allah, adhere to His Law and follow His Prophet Muhammad.
So that “portion” of the People of the Book who stand for the right are actually those Jews who converted to Islam.
Chapter 7, Verse 159
Of the people of Moses there is a section who guide and do justice in the light of truth.
The Tafsir As-Sa’di explained that among the people of Moses, “Allah designated leaders within them who guide them according to His teachings.” Meaning they guide them according to Islamic Doctrine.
The Tafsir Ahsanul-Bayan stated that this verse referred to those Jews “who embraced Islam.”
The Tafsir Ibn Kathir stated that there were some Jews “who follow the truth and judge by it, just as He said in another Ayah [verse],” and Ibn Kathir referred to 3:113. So there are Jews who follow, and judge by Islam.
We can see that this verse is understood to mean that those who guide and do justice in the light of the truth are those Jews who believed in Allah and embraced Islam.
Those to whom We have given the Book rejoice at what hath been revealed unto thee: but there are among the clans those who reject a part thereof. Say: “I am commanded to worship Allah, and not to join partners with Him. Unto Him do I call, and unto Him is my return.”
The Tafsir Ahsanul-Bayan explained that some commentators believed “the Book” pertained to the Koran and this verse referred to Muslims rejoicing over that; other commentators believed that “the Book” referred to the Torah and Bible and those rejoicing were Jews and Christians who had become Muslims.
The Tafsir Al-Jalalayn explained this verse in terms of those Jews who had converted to Islam being the ones rejoicing.
The Tafsir As-Sa’di explained that those who reject a part thereof are those who reject parts of the Koran “and do not attest it.”
The Tafsir Ibn Kathir explained that “the Book” was the Koran, and among the clans those who reject a part thereof refers to Jews and Christian who reject “the truth” that was sent down to Muhammad.
So we have another verse that is talking about Jews converting to Islam and rejoicing, while other Jews reject Islam.
And those to whom knowledge has come see that the (Revelation) sent down to thee from thy Lord – that is the Truth, and that it guides to the Path of the Exalted (In Might), Worthy of all praise.
The Tafsir Al-Jalalayn explained that this verse referred to People of the Book who had converted to Islam, and the Revelation that had been sent down to them was the Koran.
The Tafsir Ahsanul-Bayan explained that the Truth was what Allah had revealed to Muhammad, and those receiving this knowledge were those among the People of the Book who had converted to Islam, and all Muslims in general.
To sum up,:Dr. Salem has used these five Koran verses to support his claim that the Koran distinguishes between “atheist Jews” and “God-fearing Jews,” with animosity in the Koran only toward the former. Based on these verses, it appears that the “atheist Jews” are those who do not believe in Islam or reject it; the “God-fearing Jews” are those who convert to Islam. This throws a new light on Dr. Salem’s statement:
According to the Qur’an, People of the Book are not all the same, among them are the believer and the disbeliever.
The word “believer” is commonly used in the Koran to refer to a Muslim; the word “disbeliever” is commonly used to refer to a non-Muslim. This explains why Dr. Salem claims that verses of the Koran that refer to Jews in negative ways are directed only at “atheist Jews” (his examples included 5:51, 5:82, and 9:29), and why he claims that the hadiths I cited that were hostile toward the Jews were directed only against “atheist Jews.” “God-fearing Jews” are believers, those who have converted to Islam and thus earned the respect of the Muslim world; “atheist Jews” are those who are still Jews, or disbelievers, and, inter alia, among the worst enemies of Muslims (5:82).
Greater Jihad versus Lesser Jihad
In my article I stated that there is no basis in Islamic Doctrine for the claimed distinction that Muhammad supposedly made between a “greater jihad” (an inner struggle) and a “lesser jihad” (armed fighting in the cause of Allah). Dr. Salem disagreed and quoted Meccan verse 25:52:
Therefore listen not to the Unbelievers, but strive against them with the utmost strenuousness, with the (Quran).
Dr. Salem wrote:
It is clear from this Meccan verse that Allah is instructing the newly found Ummah to strive in the path of Allah, not by the sword, but by the Qur’an—that is Jihadul Nafs.
Dr. Salem is correct in the message of this verse. But the Tafsir Ahsanul-Bayan made a crucial observation about 25:52: This verse “was revealed in Mecca and Allah had not yet given the command to the Muslims to fight the pagans.” This means that at that time in Mecca the only way the Muslims were allowed to “strive against” the non-Muslims was verbally and by teaching the verses that had been “revealed” to that date. It wasn’t until around the Fall of 622 that Allah “revealed” verses to Muhammad that allowed the Muslims to engage in armed fighting against non-Muslims (e.g., 22:39). So up until that time the Muslims were simply not allowed by Allah to engage in armed combat. This changed with the “revelation” of verses such as 22:39.
The Doctrine of Abrogation is important to addressing this issue. There is an important significance to where a verse or chapter was "revealed." While in Mecca, the religion of Islam was just starting and it was generally not well received. Perhaps as a result of this, the verses of the Koran “revealed” in Mecca were generally more peaceful and accommodating toward non-Muslims than the verses later “revealed” in Medina. The verses from Medina have a general tendency to be more belligerent and intolerant, and more inclined to make sharp differentiations between Muslims (believers) and non-Muslims (disbelievers).
This can lead to a conflict between the message of a Meccan verse and that of a Medinan verse addressing the same general topic. But how can there be such a conflict if the Koran is the infallible, eternal, “revealed” word of Allah? This was covered in Medinan verse 2:106 that introduced the concept of “abrogation”:
None of Our revelations do We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, but we substitute something better or similar: Knowest thou not that Allah hath power over all things?
Abrogation therefore means that if there is a conflict between the messages of two “revelations” in the Koran, then the most recent “revelation” is the one to be followed. Consequently, a “revelation” made in Medina would supersede a similar, earlier “revelation” made in Mecca if there was a conflict between the messages of the two.
Chapter 9 of the Koran was the last chapter to be “revealed,” so Allah’s commands found in the verses of that chapter are the final words in terms of the topics covered. So here is Allah’s final command in terms of general armed fighting in His Cause, jihad:
9:5: But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent [by accepting Islam], and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity, then open the way for them: For Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.
There are numerous peaceful-sounding verses in the Koran, such as 25:52. But they are mainly Meccan verses. So when there is a conflict between the message of a peaceful-sounding Meccan verse and that of a belligerent-sounding Medinan verse, the Meccan verse is abrogated. The Meccan verse is still in the Koran, because it consists of the words of Allah. But it is the Medinan verse that is carrying the doctrinal authority: 9:5 abrogated 25:52.
Chapter 9, Verse 29
In 9:29 Muslims are commanded to fight Jews and Christians until the Jews and Christians pay the jizyah (a protection tax):
Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the Religion of Truth, from among the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizyah with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.
Dr. Salem wrote that this verse was directed only against the “atheist Jews.” He said it was not directed toward the “God-fearing Jews.” He concluded:
This verse proves my thesis that “Jews cleaving to the laws of Moses will be respected by Muslims” they [sic] will not have to pay Jizyah in a Muslim state.”
So what do our tafsirs have to say about 9:29? In a paragraph titled The Order to fight People of the Scriptures until They give the Jizyah, Ibn Kathir explained the meaning of this verse:
Therefore, when People of the Scriptures disbelieved in Muhammad, they had no beneficial faith in any Messenger or what the Messengers brought. Rather, they followed their religions because this conformed with their ideas, lusts and the ways of their forefathers, not because they are Allah's Law and religion. Had they been true believers in their religions, that faith would have directed them to believe in Muhammad...Allah commanded His Messenger to fight the People of the Scriptures, Jews and Christians...
In a paragraph titled Paying Jizyah is a Sign of Kufr [disbelief] and Disgrace, Ibn Kathir explained that if the Jews and Christians chose not to embrace Islam, they would have to pay the Jizyah "in defeat and subservience," and feel "disgraced, humiliated, and belittled." 
This was affirmed in the Tafsir Al-Jalalayn when the Jizyah section of 9:29 was being discussed:
...until they pay the jizya with their own hands - meaning the Jews and the Christians who must pay it in submission or directly with their actual hands - in a state of complete abasement - humble and subject to the judgements of Islam.
The Tafsir Al-Jalalayn also pointed out that the Jews and Christians were to be fought if they did not accept Muhammad and did not accept Islam as their faith.
This was also noted in the Tafsir Ahsanul-Bayan:
The command to fight the pagans was already given. Now Allah commands the believers to fight the Jews and Christians (if they do not accept Islam) until they pay the jizya and live under the rule of the Muslims.
The Tafsir As-Sa’di explained this verse:
The command to fight the disbelievers includes the Jews and Christians who do not believe in Allah…They assume that they have a religion, but their religion is not the true religion for it has been changed and modified, and is not the one that Allah had originally ordained. Or are they following a religion that now stands revoked, meaning, it was first ordained by Allah but has now been replaced with the one sent to Prophet Muhammad.
This tafsir expounded on the nature of the jizyah:
These people are to be fought against until they pay the jizyah, which is the payment made to the Muslims in exchange for the right to live in the Muslim land and for security of their life and wealth…When this becomes their condition that they agree to pay the jizyah to the Muslims, live under their rule, refrain from creating chaos and mayhem, and accept whatever terms and conditions the Muslims have applied on them, which indicates their submission and is an end to their self-rule…
There is nothing in these tafsirs about differentiating between “atheist Jews” and “God-fearing Jews.” And in fact, these tafsirs directly refute Dr. Salem’s claim that 9:29 proves his “thesis” that “Jews cleaving to the laws of Moses will be respected by Muslims” and “they will not have to pay Jizyah in a Muslim state.” Jews who do not accept Islam will be fought against until they pay the Jizyah, with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.
98:6 - Among the worst of creatures
Dr. Salem wrote:
Dr. Kirby cited 98:6 saying that: “if the People of the Book don’t believe in Islam, then they are among the worst of creatures and they will abide in the Fires of Hell.” Again this is part of a verse that should be considered in context, it should be read with the verse before it and the verse after it as one unit to get to the intended meaning. Here is what the verse says:
“Those who reject Truth, among the People of the Book and among the Polytheists, will be in Hell-Fire, to dwell therein. They are the worst of creatures.”
Please note the conjunction “among.” It is clear that the verse does not say that “all People of the Book will be in hell fire,” it says that “Those who reject Truth, among the People of the Book… will be in Hell-Fire.”
Dr. Salem is correct in terms of the wording of 98:6, but incorrect in terms of its meaning. The Tafsir Ahsanul-Bayan explains that the Truth this verse is talking about is the religion of Islam, the Koran, and Muhammad.
And no devout Jew or Christian, by definition, accepts the religion of Islam as their faith, and therefore they will be consigned to Hell-Fire. This was reiterated by Dr. Salem’s prophet Muhammad:
It is narrated on the authority of Abu Huraira that the Messenger of Allah (SAW) said: By Him in whose hand is the life of Muhammad, he who amongst the community of Jews or Christians hears about me but does not affirm his belief in that with which I have been sent and dies in this state (of disbelief), he shall be but one of the denizens of Hell-Fire.
Now for comparison’s sake, let’s look at the following verse, 98:7:
Those who have faith and do righteous deeds – They are the best of creatures.
The Tafsir Ahsanul-Bayan explained that “those who have faith” believe “in the Oneness of Allah, and in His Messenger (Muhammad) including all obligations ordered by Islam.” In other words, they are the Muslims.
Ibn Kathir pointed out that some Muslim scholars had used this verse
as a proof that the believers [Muslims] have a status among the creatures that is better than the angels. This is because Allah says, “They are the best of creatures.”
To sum it up, Jews and Christians, who by definition do not adhere to the Religion of Islam, are among the worst of creatures; Muslims, by definition, are the best of creatures.
Dr. Salem’s quest to improve relations between Jews and Muslims revolves around his distinction between “God-fearing Jews,” who he claims will earn the respect of the Muslim world, and “atheist Jews,” who will not. He claims there is support in the Koran for such a distinction, and we looked at five Koran verses he used to support this claim.
What we found was that the distinction these verses made focused on those Jews who had converted to Islam and those Jews who had rejected Islam. These converts appear to be the “God-fearing Jews” Dr. Salem is talking about, who earn the respect of the Muslim world; those Jews who reject Islam and remained Jews appear to be the “atheist Jews” who, according to Dr. Salem, are the sole targets of the negative verses in the Koran about Jews.
Dr. Salem stated that his “interpretations” were supported by the four Koran commentaries (tafsirs) he had mentioned; but of his 25 endnotes, only five made any reference to these four tafsirs.
Dr. Salem stated that his “interpretations” were supported by his professors at Al-Azhar University; but he did not list any such professors in his article or indicate the extent of that support, and from whom, for any of his “interpretations.”
In his article he relied extensively on 3:113 of the Koran to show that the People of the Book were not all alike and to support his differentiation between “God-fearing Jews” and “atheist Jews.” But in the tafsirs I use, and even in the translation of the Koran Dr. Salem used, we find that 3:113 was understood to refer to those Jews who had converted to Islam.
It would be very enlightening if perhaps Dr. Salem would devote an article just to his concept of “God-fearing Jews,” defining his terms, presenting criteria for determining who is a “God-fearing Jew” and who is an “atheist Jew,” presenting the supportive Koran verses with specifically referenced supportive tafsirs (with quotes translated into English when necessary), and commentary from identified professors who support his particular interpretations.
The quest for peaceful relations between Muslims and Jews is too important to leave unanswered questions, and perhaps some confusion, about the basis for that quest.
 Tafsir Ahsanul-Bayan, trans. Mohammad Kamal Myshkat (Riyadh, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: Darussalam, 2010), Vol. 1, p. 71.
 Tafsir Ibn Kathir (Abridged), trans. Jalal Abualrub, et al. (Riyadh, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: Darussalam, 2000), Vol. 1, p. 249. This ten volume collection is the most popular interpretation of the Qur'an in the Arabic language, and the majority of the Muslims consider it to be the best source based on Qur'an and Sunni Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Vol. 1, p. 5
 Ibid., p. 250.
 The Meaning of The Holy Qur’an, trans. ‘Abdullah Yusuf ‘Ali (Beltsville, Maryland: 2004), p. 156. n. 437
 Tafsir As-Sa’di, trans. S. Abd al-Hamid (Floral Park, New York: Islamic Literary Foundation: 2012), Vol. 1, p. 274.
 Tafsir Ahsanul-Bayan, Vol. 1, p. 350.
 Tafsir Al-Jalalayn, trans. Aisha Bewley (London: Dar Al Taqwa Ltd., 2007), p. 147.
 Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Vol. 2, p. 246.
 Tafsir As-Sa’di, Vol. 2, p. 66.
 Tafsir Ahsanul-Bayan, Vol. 2, p. 234.
 Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Vol. 4, pp. 185-186.
 Tafsir Ahsanul-Bayan, Vol. 3, p. 106.
 Tafsir Al-Jalalayn, p. 532.
 Tafsir As-Sa’di, Vol. 2, p. 362.
 Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Vol. 5, pp. 294-295.
 Tafsir Al-Jalalayn, pp. 915-917.
 Tafsir Ahsanul-Bayan, Vol. 4, p. 425.
 Ibid., p. 36.
 Due to space constraints, this is only a general overview. For a more detailed look at the Doctrine of Abrogation, see Abu Ammaar Yasir Qadhi, An Introduction to the Sciences of the Qur’an (Birmingham, UK: Al-Hidaayah Publishing, 1999), pp. 232-256.
 Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Vol. 4, pp. 404-405.
 Ibid., pp. 405-406
 Tafsir Al-Jalalayn, pp. 404-406.
 Ibid., p. 404.
 Tafsir Ahsanul-Bayan, Vol. 2, pp. 345-346.
 Tafsir As-Sa’di, Vol. 2, p. 137.
 Ibid., p. 138.
 Tafsir Ahsanul-Bayan, Vol. 5, p. 742.
 Sahih Muslim, trans. Abdul Hamid Siddiqi (New Delhi: Adam Publishers and Distributors, 2008), Vol. 1, p. 103, No. 153.
 Tafsir Ahsanul-Bayan, Vol. 5, p. 743. Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Vol. 10, p. 554. That Muslims have a higher status than angels was also noted in Tafsir Ahsanul-Bayan, Vol. 5, p. 743.
Dr. Stephen M. Kirby
Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.