Comments on Mahmoud Ayoub's essay

'Uzayr in the Qur'an and Muslim Tradition*

Ernest Hahn

In the following brief statement point two is especially related to the article under consideration. The other two points, though raised by the author and peripheral to the main argument of the article, are cogent for anyone seriously concerned with Christian-Muslim relations.

1. The author accepts the traditional Muslim understanding that 'Uzayr is the Biblical Ezra. In establishing a context for the Quranic verse 9:30: "And the Jews say: Ezra is the son of Allah ...", the author first notes the nature of Muhammad's attitude towards the People of the Book (the Jews and the Christians). He writes:

Muhammad's attitude toward the People of the Book, and notably the Jews, was ambivalent, and remained so in spite of the sharp conflicts between the two communities in Madina. This ambivalence, moreover, tended to be benign. The Qur'an generally distinguishes between the Jews (al-Yahud) of Madina and the children of Israel. ... (p. 3)

True, the Qur'an generally distinguishes between the Jews of Madina and the children of Israel. But only between the Jews of Madina? What about the Jews outside Madina?

Likewise, no doubt, Muhammad's attitude towards the People of the Book (Jews and Christians) was ambivalent. But could not, should not, Ayoub have mentioned the Qur'an's ambivalence also? The reason for stating this is the assumption of some Muslims and Christians that the Qur'an measures what Muslim attitudes towards the Jews and the Christians are, could be or should be, and the consequently unfortunate tendency among both Muslims and Christians at times to become selective in their citations of Quranic passages referring to the Christians and the Jews, whether in approving or condemning one or both of these communities. Some presentations read as if the Qur'an has only nasty things to say about Christians and Jews. Other presentations would suggest that the Qur'an instructs Muslims to view Christians and Jews, or at least Christians, as their good friends. In fact the Qur'an speaks favorably and unfavorably about Jews and Christians, its judgements upon both generally becoming harsher as time moves on — this despite Ayoub's statement about Muhammad's ambivalence towards the People of the Book "tending to be benign".

Briefly, Muslims and Christians should act according to the Golden Rule when citing their own and other' Scriptures.

2. The Quranic verse that especially concerns us here ("The Jews say: Ezra is the Son of God ...") and the Qur'an's recognition that the blasphemous confession calls for a militant response from God and the Muslim community, as the surrounding verses indicate, is a case in point of the Qur'an's growing harsher judgement upon the People of the Book. (Surah 9 is considered by Muslims to be one of the latest surahs.) A similar judgement is made in the same verse against the Christians who speak about Jesus as the Son of God. In Quranic and traditional Islamic understanding both Jews and Christians are therefore guilty of the unforgivable sin, i.e., calling someone the son of God and, hence, associating someone with God.

Muslims, of course, had no trouble in demonstrating that Christians everywhere confessed Jesus as the Son of God, whatever the designation meant to them or to Muslims. But they have had a problem in demonstrating that Jews have spoken of Ezra as the Son of God. And hence Ayoub's article in reviewing this difficulty.

Ayoub does recognize the problem and even connects it with two other statements which the Qur'an attributes to the Jews and which according to Ayoub, like 9:30 "cannot be historically substantiated" (p. 5): "Allah, forsooth, is poor, and we are rich!" (3:181); "The Jews say: Allah's hand is fettered. ..." (5:64). His article covers an impressive number of references to ‘Uzayr (Ezra) in both Sunni and Shi'i commentaries, noting indeed "the early realization by Muslim traditionists and heresiographers that this claim (that Ezra is the son of God) has no basis in the Jewish scriptures or tradition" (p. 10). For him, as for some others who have grappled with the issue, the easiest solution to the problem is to claim that "The Jews said ..." need not refer to all Jews. (A. Yusuf Ali's commentary on this passage, p. 448, does not really reflect such problems at all!)

Whether or not the confession of Ezra as son of God can legitimately be limited to one or a few Jews (9:30; 5:64), Ayoub does note how the Quranic verse (9:30) has offered "Muslim polemicists a good prooftext for attributing to both Jews and Christians, their chief rivals, one major and unforgivable sin" (p. 15). Moreover, the article tends to leave one wondering if Ayoub himself is sure about this limitation. In any case, the questions about the correctness of the text; the possibility that it may mislead its readers; the suggestion, assuming the validity of the limitation, that the limitation could be more correctly and clearly indicated in the Qur'an do not arise. He does, however, note the comment on the subject by the famous Qur'an commentator, al-Razi (whom in general he appears to highly respect) as simply polemical: "The fact that the Jews deny such a belief proves nothing because God's report concerning them is more true (than their denial)" (p. 12).

3. No doubt, point 2 above is the heart of Mahmoud Ayoub's article. Yet he does make a statement, while discussing "The Children of Israel and the Jews in the Qur'an", on the subject of tahrif (alteration or corruption of the Bible) which will summon sufficient interest among Muslims, Christians and others concerned with the need for a more objective reading of the Bible by Muslims to warrant singling it out here:

Contrary to the general Islamic view, the Qur'an does not accuse Jews and Christians of altering the text of their scriptures, but rather of altering the truth which those scriptures contain. The people do this by concealing some of the sacred texts, by misapplying their precepts, or by "altering words from their right position" (4:26; 5:13, 41; see also 2:75). However, this refers more to interpretation than to actual addition or deletion of words from the sacred books. The problem of alteration (tahrif) needs further study. (p. 5)

Does the problem of alteration need further study? There is little purpose in modifying Ayoub's suggestion by noting that other competent Muslim scholars in the past have made the same observations about tahrif, and that some Christians familiar with the issue of tahrif have wondered whether Muslims, even while charging the People of the Book with "wholesale tahrif", themselves commit tahrif against the Qur'an.

So when Ayoub suggests that Muslims review this subject, we can only applaud and ask that he would assist. In fact, we may even be grateful that he has had the courage to raise this subject also. For many a Muslim controversialist will not be happy to be questioned by other Muslims about "the general Islamic view" (see above quote) of tahrif, his trump card, against the People of the Book, or possibly even to be dispossessed of it. He finds it more convenient in dealing with the Jews and Christians to assume that they are "People of the Corrupted Book" and to ignore what the Qur'an plainly means when it designates them as "The People of the Book".


* Studies in Islamic and Judaic Traditions, ed. W.M. Brenner and S.D. Ricks, The University of Denver, 1986, pp. 3-18.

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