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Intertwined Worlds: Medieval Islam and Bible Criticism

Hava Lazarus-Yafeh.
New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1992.
ISBN: 0-691-07398-8

For Lazarus -Yafeh the crystallization of every great civilization is based on its contacts, clashes and competition with rival forces, and the religious aspect of this rivalry is especially conspicuous in the Middle Ages. In this curious little volume, she investigates Muslim medieval polemic as it was directed against the Hebrew Bible to conclude that this rivalry was a continuous process, with the various communities not only picking up arguments from each other, but also from those who had preceded them, and passing them on to those who followed. Despite the rivalry that prevailed, what strikes the author is the fact that Muslim-Jewish polemic never reached the intensity it did in the conflicts that arose between Jews and other communities. Her explanation is that there was little competition between the two faiths "perhaps because of their great similarity," but also because there was a lack of response from the Jews: Jewish leaders, such as Maimonides, prohibited teaching Muslims the tenets of Judaism "because Muslims do not accept the text of the Torah as divine."(p. 8). As Lazarus-Yafeh points out, it is indeed interesting that there are no records of Jewish books ever being burned as a consequence of polimical activity.
      Of the many Medieval Muslims who have put forward criticisms of the Hebrew Bible, perhaps the most notorious is Ibn Hazm. Absurd as it may sound, his arguments display the typical syndrome of one who wants to both "have his cake and eat it". For him, the Hebrew Bible cannot be taken to represent God's word, as it has been altered. Yet for all, it is in this same "false" work that, Ibn Hazm insists, are found statements which tell of the coming of the Prophet Muhammad.
      It is significant that for many Medieval Muslims including Ibn Hazm, the altered nature of the Hebrew Bible was the work of Ezra, who is generally believed to be the same `Uzayr (acording to the author `Uzayr is the diminutive of Ezra) referred to in the Qur'ân. The Qur'ân challenges the monotheism of Judaism explaining that the Jews had taken `Uzayr to be the son of God. The subject of `Uzayr-Ezra brings up contradictory arguments as well, though this time supplied by `Alî al-Munayyar al-Shâfi`î(d. 1520). He stated that the Jews really worshiped `Uzayr, for the Qur'ân asserts it. But when responded to with the argument that the Torah does not indicate it, the lack of mention was promptly explained as a result of falsification; apparently, the words had been deleted. On the other hand there were Medieval Muslims such as Tha'labî, for instance, who claimed that Ezra's reproduction of the Torah was exact, because God had helped him, sending an angel to stimulate his memory.
      To understand the nature of Muslim polemic against the Hebrew Bible it is important to realize that there were not many translations available in the Arabic language. According to Lazarus -Yafeh, though the first Arabic translation of the Torah was probably made by Saadia Gaon(882 - 922), it was not easily available to the general public. Much of the Muslim polemic indicates that the Torah itself had not been available to the critic, and, indeed, that he had probably relied on oral transmission for his knowledge of the text, which invariably was mixed up with Midrashic material. Ibn Hazm, however, was an exception who clearly knew the actual text from a Spanish (Christian?) source rather than from the translation of Saadia; Saadia's translation is distinctive because it avoids the anthropomorphisms contained in the Bible so as to check Muslim criticism of it. Once again, Ibn Hazm's contrariness is noticeable: Having expressed his horror and disgust at expressions such as "God is a consuming fire," he had then gone on to justify the Quranic statement, "God is the light of heaven and earth." According to him "light" was in fact one of the names of Allah (!).
      Muslim understanding of the Torah was to a large extent based on oral communication. The result was that there were standard verses, supposedly from the Bible, which were communicated among the community and repeatedly used in their polemic. Many of these verses were those that dealt with the desert, and since for the Medieval Muslim the desert was equivalent with the Arabian desert, the word was immediately explained as a reference to Mecca. Ironically, Ibn Qayyim al-Djawziyya even explains Zion( which comes from the term Ziyya, meaning desert) as a reference to Mecca. Similarly the phrase, "to praise" conjurred up the image of Muhammad whose name is essentially a verbal noun based on the verb meaning 'to praise."On the other hand, Gemmatria--the art of combining the numerical value of letters--was also used. Thus `Abd al-Haqq explains: The Hebrew word yeyahelu (they shall have hope for) is the sum of Ahmad (53) plus the five daily prayers, plus Friday (the sixth day) (p. 97). Thus it was that several references to the coming of Muhammad came to be discovered in the Hebrew Bible.
      It should be pointed out that the nature of Medieval Muslim criticism of the Hebrew Torah was largely based on the fact that to them the Jewish Holy text was to the Muslim in no way comparable to the Qur'an, which by the late ninth century was protected by the dogma of i`djâz or inimitability. It is true, that in response scholars, such as Jehuda Halevi(d. 1141), enshrined the Mishna with a similar qualification: "a mortal man is incapable of composing such a work without divine assistance"(p.17). Nevertheless, the general attitude of Jews to their holy book had in fact been quite critical. Hence the question is asked in the Talmud, "Is it possible that Moses whilst still alive would have written 'so. . . Moses died there?' The truth is, however, that up to this point Moses wrote, from this point Joshua, son of Nun, wrote."
      Finally, the book contains a fascinating appendix entitled: Jewish knowledge of the Qur'an. Despite the fact that repeatedly laws were establsihed prohibiting Jews access to the Qur'an, these laws were not always maintained, and time and again we have Medieval Jews citing the Qur'an. Significantly, actual translations of the Qur'an into Hebrew are rare and late. The three manuscripts that are extant were made not from the Arabic, but rather from an early Latin translation.

Reviewed by Rizwi Faizer
Date: September 1999.

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