City of Brass

City of Brass

anti-Semitism and Islamophobia

Sumbul Ali-Karamali, author of the book The Muslim Next Door, writes of an encounter with someone who subscribes to the fallacy that Islam and muslims are inherently anti-Semitic:

I recently spoke on Islam and my new book at a local senior center. As
members trickled in, a white-haired man approached me and announced, “I
have never known an Arab or a Muslim who wasn’t anti-Semitic.”

I replied, “I’m not anti-Semitic and I have many Jewish friends.”

“Congratulations,” he said sardonically.


I sighed and smiled wryly.

“You know, ” I said, “when Arab Muslims conquered Jerusalem in 638,
they invited the Jews – who’d been banished by the former Christian
rulers – back to live and worship in the city. They left the Christians
free to live and visit the holy places, too.”

Seeing no response on his still face, I continued. “In the seventh
century, Muhammad urged his followers to fast on Yom Kippur, in
solidarity with the Jews. The Qur’an states that fasting is prescribed
for Muslims, just as it was prescribed for those (the Jews) before

After a pause, he said, “Thank you. I didn’t know that.” Turning, he shuffled to his seat.


I couldn’t spare the time then, but later I grieved that Islam is
perceived as anti-Semitic. Anti-Semitism has no place is Islam, just as
Islamophobia has no place in Judaism. For their time, these two
religions sought to decrease violence and bigotry in the world. The
weight of history, if we can but remember it, is on the side of

Ali-Karamali then goes on to point to specific examples throughout history of muslim tolerance, especially towards Jews, often in stark contrast to the Christian realms. The point here is not to point to the forgotten glories of pluralism in the past, but to recognize that the admitted fact of modern anti-Semitism by muslims is a function of the modern age and not, as her interlocutor implied, something embedded within the fabric of Islam itself.


Self-styled experts on Islam will point to various pieces of evidence from the Qur’an or historical record, of course. The most often-invoked example is the famed verse from the Qur’an which allegedly refers to Jews as “apes and pigs” (5:60). However, a simple look at the surrounding verses, even in common translation, reveals that the Qur’an makes no such insult whatsoever. Much is also made of a single Jewish tribe, the Banu Qurayza, who the Prophet SAW is said to have slaughtered; in reality, the Qurayza betrayed Muhammad SAW in an wartime alliance and conspired with his enemies to have him killed. The Prophet SAW left their fate in the hands of an arbitrator, whom the Qurayza approved. That arbitrator decided the Qurayza men would be beheaded and the women and children spared. It was brutal by our modern standards – but considering the fate of Dresden or Hiroshima, perhaps not as brutal as it could have been.


The evidence of historical muslim tolerance and pluralism, especially in contrast to  Christendom, is not a matter of debate. The historical record of Islamic tolerance towards the Jews is important to reiterate and emphasize, because it shows that a modern articulation of religious pluralism can be made within an Islamic context, and provides ammunition against those muslims who seek to use hatred and fear of Jews to their own evil ends. This is a battle you would expect Jews to support, as we mainstream muslims seek to reclaim the language of faith from an extremist minority.

Unfortunately, in that battle against muslim anti-Semitism, Jewish Islamophobia plays an obstructing role. A great example is the response to Ali-Karamali’s piece by my Beliefnet colleague, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, who accuses her of whitewashing Islamic history:


Even if one makes a solid case for the relative merits of Islam over
Christianity vis a vis the past treatment of Jews, which is entirely
appropriate, we can not ignore the second-class status imposed upon
Jews even under the crescent. Of course, as Ali-Karamali proudly points
out, Jews were honored as people of the book, but they were hardly
equal citizens. Jews were also relegated to the status of protected
minorities forced to pay a Jewish head tax.

good comparison may be to the status of Black Americans living under
Jim Crow laws in more tolerant communities. Her failure to point that
out turns her reflections on Muslim anti-Semitism into little more than
patting her own tradition on the back, and misses an important
opportunity for the kind of balanced exploration which is needed if she
wants to be heard by those she hopes to convince.


This deeply saddens me. For a learned man such as Rabbi Hirschfield to equate the flowering of Jewish civilization in the classical Islamic period with the barbaric Jim Crow laws of the 20th century, is to betray a shocking ignorance of Jewish and American histories alike. It seems that the rabbi has been reading too many polemics by Bat Ye’or instead of gripping historical memoirs like Memories of Eden, the story of the Jews of Baghdad (recently and expertly reviewed in the London Review of Books by Adam Shatz – highly recommended). Far from Rabbi Hirschfield’s grim invocation of the dreaded Dhimmitude, Shatz points out that that the Jewish community played an outsized and prosperous role in Iraqi society:


Recent polemics – and pro-Israeli websites – have made much of the
indignities of Jewish life under Ottoman rule, seeking to expose the
‘myth’ of Muslim tolerance. This tolerance, it’s argued, is a euphemism
for dependence on the goodwill of capricious, if not cruel Muslim
overlords. The memoirs of Iraqi Jews, however, tell a very different
story: Shamash, who was born in 1912 and spent the last twenty years of
her life recording her memories of ‘my Baghdad, my native land’, is not
alone in describing her family’s life before the arrival of British
troops in World War One as ‘paradise’. Memories of Eden provides as sumptuous an account of the world of the Baghdadi Jewish elite as we’re likely to get.



Jewish life under the Ottomans wasn’t without its hardships: few
Jews lived in palaces like the Shamash family, and as members of a
non-Muslim ‘millet’ community they were obliged to pay a discriminatory
tax, but they were mostly left to look after their own affairs, and
further advance seemed inevitable. The vast majority lived in cities,
apart from a handful of Kurdish Jews. As bankers, traders and
money-lenders the wealthier members of the community had made
themselves indispensable: so much so that Baghdad’s markets shut down
on the Jewish Sabbath, rather than the Muslim day of rest. By the 19th
century, Baghdad was famous for its Jewish dynasties – the Sassoons,
the Abrahams, the Ezras, the Kadouries – with their empires in finance
and imports (cotton, tobacco, silk, tea, opium) that stretched all the
way to Manchester, Bombay, Calcutta, Singapore, Rangoon, Shanghai and
Hong Kong.


When Balfour announced Britain’s support for the
creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, leaving Mesopotamia for the
kibbutz was the furthest thing from the minds of Baghdad’s Jews. ‘The
announcement aroused no interest in Mesopotamia, nor did it leave a
ripple on the surface of local political thought in Baghdad,’ Arnold
Wilson, the civil commissioner in Baghdad, reported to the Foreign
Office after a meeting with a group of Iraqi Jewish notables.
Palestine, they had said, ‘is a poor country and Jerusalem a bad town
to live in’

What of Dhimmitude, then? was it really second-class status as the good rabbi claims? Any number of excellent historical and academic resources are available for the casual reader to inform themselves and draw their own judgments. But even the worst excesses of the dhimmi system can not, in conscience or honest sincerity, be equated even remotely to the true barbaric evil that was Jim Crow.


The truth of why the muslim world today is host to the infection of anti-Semitism is a complex one. Anti-Semitism is a European import, and the complex interplay of post-colonialism, the fall of the Ottomans, and the founding of Israel all play a role in its transmission to the muslim polity. However, while no one can or should deny that anti-Semitism is a modern problem that must be faced head-on without apology, those who insist on tying it to the Islamic faith are themselves, in a way, perpetuating this status quo. Islamophobia is no answer to anti-Semitism, but rather its ally. In this, Jews and muslims must stand together in opposition.

Related reading: excellent essay on the “new” anti-Semitism by eminent historian Bernard Lewis. Also, see the entry in Wikipedia on the Millet system in the Ottoman empire.

  • Syed Md Asadullah

    Unveiling Zakir Naik: Terror cannot be fought with Terror
    Dr Naik, don’t fool people with these extended logics. There are so many tools to fight injustices and you belong to a country which won its independence through non-violence in the face of aggressive British imperialism. Had Mahatma Gandhi also felt that terrorism was the only way to get the British out of India, we may have remained confined in the yoke of colonialism as yet.
    Dr Naik, communalism cannot be fought with communalism; the only weapon you have is secularism. Terrorism and extremism, which you justify, has to be fought with reasoning and logic and not by terror. India, our country is a glaring example of fighting terrorism for well over three decades and yet we maintained our unity, pluralism and identity.
    No Zakir Naik. Stop this non sense. You are living in pluralistic society, a nation which has assimilated so many cultures and has given you the freedom of speech and even allowed your abominable Peace TV on air. Don’t let it fritter away with your concoction and later self denials. You also live in a world which has now grown into a global village so there are rooms for everyone, every ideology to prosper. A viewpoint article by a Former editor of Delhi Mid Day S A H RIZVI
    95 Comments More.

  • Ricardo

    Wow what a lovely fairy tale you told that poor guy. I hope he wasn’t spending anytime in India this week when your friends came for all the Jews and Christians. You should have mentioned Sura 5:51 “O you who believe! do not take the Jews and the Christians for friends; they are friends of each other; and whoever amongst you takes them for a friend, then surely he is one of them; surely Allah does not guide the unjust people.”
    or Sura (5:80) – “You will see many of them befriending those who disbelieve; certainly evil is that which their souls have sent before for them, that Allah became displeased with them and in chastisement shall they abide.” Those Muslims who befriend unbelievers will abide in hell.
    Sura (3:28) – “Let not the believers Take for friends or helpers Unbelievers rather than believers: if any do that, in nothing will there be help from Allah…”
    Sura (3:118) – “O you who believe! do not take for intimate friends from among others than your own people, they do not fall short of inflicting loss upon you; they love what distresses you; vehement hatred has already appeared from out of their mouths, and what their breasts conceal is greater still; indeed, We have made the communications clear to you, if you will understand.” This verse not only warns Muslims not to take non-Muslims as friends, but it establishes the deep-seated paranoia that the rest of the world is out to get them.
    Sura (9:23) – “O ye who believe! Choose not your fathers nor your brethren for friends if they take pleasure in disbelief rather than faith. Whoso of you taketh them for friends, such are wrong-doers” Even family members are not to be taken as friends if they do not accept Islam. (This is the mildest interpretation of this verse from the 9th Sura, which also advocates “slaying the unbeliever wherever ye find them”).
    Sura (53:29) – “Therefore shun those who turn away from Our Message and desire nothing but the life of this world.”
    Sura (3:85) – “And whoever desires a religion other than Islam, it shall not be accepted from him, and in the hereafter he shall be one of the losers.”
    Sura (3:10) – “(As for) those who disbelieve, surely neither their wealth nor their children shall avail them in the least against Allah, and these it is who are the fuel of the fire.” Those who do not believe in Muhammad are but fuel for the fire of Hell (also 66:6, 2:24. 21:98).
    Sura (7:44) – “The Companions of the Garden will call out to the Companions of the Fire: “We have indeed found the promises of our Lord to us true: Have you also found Your Lord’s promises true?” They shall say, “Yes”; but a crier shall proclaim between them: “The curse of Allah is on the wrong-doers” Muslims in heaven will amuse themselves by looking down on non-Muslims in Hell and mocking them while they are being tortured (see 22:19-22.
    Sura (1:5-7) – “Show us the straight path, The path of those whom Thou hast favoured; Not the (path) of those who earn Thine anger nor of those who go astray” This is a prayer that Muslims are supposed to repeat each day. “Those who earn Thine anger” specifically refers to Jews and “those who go astray” refers to Christians (see Bukhari (12:749)).
    or the Hadith
    Muslim (1:417) – Taken to mean that one’s own relatives should not be taken as friends if they are not Muslim.
    Abu Dawud (41:4815) – “The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: A man follows the religion of his friend; so each one should consider whom he makes his friend.”
    Bukhari (59:572) – “O you who believe! Take not my enemies And your enemies as friends offering them (Your) love even though they have disbelieved in that Truth (i.e. Allah, Prophet Muhammad and this Quran) which has come to you.”
    Ishaq 262 – “Some Muslims remained friends with the Jews, so Allah sent down a Qur’an forbidding them to take Jews as friends. From their mouths hatred has already shown itself and what they conceal is worse”
    Ishaq 252 – The story of a young man who converts to Islam after hearing Muhammad. He then tells his own father that he can no longer have anything to do with him because, “I have become a Muslim and follow the religion of Muhammad.” (To maintain a relationship with his son, the father “converts” as well). This is an important passage because it establishes that the principle of shunning is based merely on the status of non-Muslims as unbelievers, not on their relations toward Muslims. In this case, the father desperately loved his son and meant him no harm.
    Additional Notes:
    Even though they are explicitly kufr (unbelievers, Sura 5:17, Sura 4:44-59) Jews and Christians are given special status in Islam. So, if Muhammad warned believers against taking them as friends, then it surely is not permissible for Muslims to befriend atheists or those of other religions.
    Some Muslims interpret this to mean that they should not even act friendly toward nonbelievers. (Most, fortunately, do not).
    Some Muslims are embarrassed by verse 5:51 and have gone to elaborate lengths to modify its intent by interpreting the word ‘friend’ as “guardian” or “protector” – which are just two of several legitimate translations of the Arabic word. According to these apologists, the verse is referring to a Muslim’s allegiance to a non-Muslim government (which is not all that comforting either). This appears to be refuted by the verse itself, which distinguishes between friends and protectors and instructs Muslims to avoid both.
    Other apologists point to (Sura 60:8-9) which says that Allah doesn’t necessarily forbid showing kindness to unbelievers, but to shun the ones “who warred against you on account of religion and have driven you out from your homes and helped to drive you out.” This is a definite reference to the Meccans, whose leaders expelled Muhammad and his handful of followers from Mecca (following his declaration of war against them). The verse was narrated shortly after their arrival in Medina, when is was necessary for the Muslims to build alliances with non-Muslims in order to survive. The verses quoted above from Suras 9 and 5 are given much later, when Muslims had power, and they expand the scope of unfriendliness to include those who are not Muslim.
    Modern apologists such as Jamal Badawi try to cloud the straightforward interpretation of verse 5:51 by pointing out that Muslims are allowed to take non-Muslims as marriage partners, thus implying friendship. In fact, verse 2:221 explicitly forbids Muslims from marrying unbelievers, even though verse 5:5 allows it (Allah’s change of mind corresponded somewhat curiously with Muhammad’s own desire to marry a non-Muslim woman). Yusuf Ali reconciles the contradiction by saying that non-Muslims wives are “expected” to become Muslim.
    In any event, only Muslim men are allowed to marry outside the faith. The women they marry relinquish control over their own lives, even to the extent that they cannot raise their own children in their own faith. All children must be raised Muslim. The non-Muslim woman also agrees to a lifetime of sexual servitude, and may be beaten if she does not submit.
    This certainly doesn’t sound like friendship to the rest of us. If your local Muslim cheerleader tries to pretend otherwise, then simply ask if a non-Muslim man may enter into this sort of “friendship” with a Muslim woman… then sit back and watch the backpedaling.
    On the whole, Islam is very clear in teaching that there is no equality between believers and unbelievers, and hence no basis for a relationship of peers. Those who do not profess Muhammad are intended to exist in subjugation to those who do, then spend eternity in Hell. This does not preclude Muslims from acting friendly toward others, of course, but this does not constitute friendship as it is generally understood in the modern world.
    or Tell the poor Jew just look anywhere in the world where there is conflict you will find the followers of mohammad on the otherside trying to spread the peace by killing anyone who isn’t a devoted muslim.
    I leave you with two words. Abed and Crusade. Abed muslims refer to blacks and slaves with the same word. Crusade mohammid in 630 launches the Tabuk Crusades against Christians not until 1095 did Pope Urban II preach the first crusade and they captured back Jerusalem in 1099. Do the math you moron. How many year before an answer to the many atrocities that make jim crow look like strawberry shortcake. Face it islam was always spread by the sword and is more of a political system and a sick cult then anything resembling a religion of peace.

  • To Ricardo

    Hi Ricardo,
    I’ve to make 4 points.
    Abed or Abd means slave and many muslim men have the name Abed. Abdullah is the most common among its different variations. It means slave of Allah. We all are Abdullah or Amatullah (for females). The first person to ever utter the call of prayer when Macca was conquered without any bloodshed was a former black slave, Bilal. Sorry, his name was not Abed.
    You’ve to study the Quran in light of Tafseer and Hadiths. You’ve to study each and every verse in light of Tafseer and Hadiths. If you don’t, well than you sound like you did.
    As muslims are commanded in the Quran to study it in the light of other texts such as tafseer and Hadiths, they find it very easy to dismiss all your accusing references to the Quran.
    Amusingly, it is also mentioned in the Quran that opposing forces will seek to refer to its individual ‘ayahs’ (sentences) with a goal to invalidate its positive message.
    So well, I’m amused with all your negative references. If you need help, here is a site:
    Secondly, I urge you to study history in terms of who started the crusades and for what. You’ll not be amused when you read about the greed of European churches and their misleading of the European people.
    Thirdly, I urge you to conduct yet more research and find out how Islam came to the Turks, people of China, people of Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Uzbekistan, etc.
    Indonesia, by the way, is the country with the largest number of muslims.
    But China may have the most number of muslims than anywhere in the world. They haven’t been counted yet because of the communist governments influences.
    I googled ‘why people embrace islam’ and found this interesting link.
    there were many others. Feel free to google it yourself and read all (the positive and the negative).
    Knowledge is power. So read, read often and read a variety of materials.

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