A Jewish Perspective on God’s Presence in Islam

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Yakov Nagen


This piece was originally written in Hebrew and was translated by Rachael Gelfman Schultz.

Muslims are currently observing Ramadan which, according to their tradition, marks the beginning of the revelation of the Koran to Muhammad via the angel Gabriel in the year 610.

From a national perspective, we cannot separate the story of the Jewish people from the story of Islam, which has deeply influenced us throughout history, for better and for worse.

In our times, Jews and others have suffered from murderous terrorism in the name of Islam and from the existential conflict between Israel and its neighbors. On the other hand, many of our Jewish cultural treasures were created in the Spanish Golden Age in a Muslim environment. Furthermore, the Muslim story itself is built on the biblical story. The character who is mentioned most frequently in the Koran is Moses (more than 100 times, in contrast to Muhammad who is mentioned only four times), and the Jewish people are mentioned dozens of times. Islam, like Christianity, became a vessel for spreading the biblical story throughout the world.

In contrast to Christianity, our relationship with Islam also has an ethnic aspect, because Jews and Arabs see each other as descendants of Abraham. Indeed, our similarity, both theologically and ethnically, has led to Islam often being treated differently from other non-Jewish faiths in rabbinic sources. This may be as simple as not seeing it as avodah zarah, due to its purely monotheistic nature. For some, though, the connection goes well beyond this. Exploring some of these often-neglected sources will give us an important theological lens for understanding recent developments in interreligious relations.

One approach is to see the emergence of Islam as guided by divine providence, as part of the process of spreading the truth of Torah in the world. The first to follow this path is Maimonides. He praised Islam because it has faith in the unity of God “unblemished” (Teshuvot Ha-Rambam [Blau edition], 448). His words at the end of the Mishneh Torah (Law of Kings 11:9) are famous. He points to the development of Christianity and Islam as part of a divinely guided process, “the thoughts of the Creator of the world,” aiming to bring the entire world closer to messianic times, when all of humanity will worship God together.

Maimonides, however, did not grant legitimacy to these religions. He thought that they were mistaken and saw them only as means to fulfill a vision of the future. In short, Maimonides recognizes the value of Islam and its role in the worldwide narrative, but he does not see Islam as legitimate in and of itself.

Rabbi Yaakov Emden (1698-1776) took another step. Following Maimonides, he sees the hand of God in the spread of Christianity and Islam: “The two families that God chose to subdue many nations, to bring them under the yoke of the beliefs and positions that are necessary for settling the world and improving the national collective…” (Lehem Shamayim on Pirkei Avot 4:11). However, in contrast to Maimonides, he sees Christianity and Islam as part of fulfilling the divine ideal regarding the nations of the world. Rabbi Yaakov Emden reads the Mishnah―“Every assembly which is for the sake of heaven, will in the end endure” (Pirkei Avot 4:11)―as applying to Christianity and Islam. In his eyes, Islam, like Christianity, contains truth, and these religions are fitting for the nations of the world.

A more far-reaching approach is that of the sages who saw Islam―and particularly the Koran―not only as a product of divine providence but also of divine revelation. Rabbi Netanel Beirav Fayyumi (1090–1165) was the Nagid and leader of the rabbis of Yemen in the generation before Maimonides. In Maimonides’s Letter to Yemen, which was addressed to the son of Fayyumi, Maimonides calls Fayyumi “our teacher and rabbi.” According to Rabbi Kapah,[1] Fayyumi’s book, Garden of the Intellects, influenced Maimonides in writing The Guide for the Perplexed. 

In this book, in the sixth chapter, Fayyumi presents a systematic approach to the religions of the nations of the world: “Know, my brother, that it is not inconceivable for God to send to the world who He wants when He wants… and He, may He be blessed, already sent the nations prophets before the giving of the Torah… and it is not inconceivable for God to send who He wants after giving the Torah as well, so that the world will not remain without faith.”[2] These words are instructive. First, they unequivocally assert the importance of religions among the nations, as part of the divine goal “that the world will not remain without faith.” Furthermore, not only do other religions have a place according to Judaism; it is even possible that the source of these religions is a prophecy received by the nations from God! According to Fayyumi, every nation is obligated to accept the prophecy that is sent to them. Accepting these prophecies will lead to all of humanity worshiping God, each nation in its own way.

Fayyumi’s belief that there is a divine goal of bringing the nations to worship God, combined with his faith in certain prophecies of the nations, led him to conclude that there are religions other than Judaism that are not only legitimate but also a realization of prophetic revelation. Therefore, Fayyumi relates to the Koran very seriously, and he believes that the Koran obligates the Muslims. He analyzes the words of the Koran carefully, to such an extent that in the second chapter of his book he finds mystical meaning in the Shahada (the Muslim declaration of faith).

A substantial part of the sixth chapter of Fayyumi’s book is dedicated to analysis and interpretation of the Koran. He concludes from this analysis that Islam is not directed to the Jewish people; rather, it is intended to provide religion and faith to the nations. Its purpose is not to abolish the Torah―just the opposite: the Koran confirms the obligation of the Jewish people to keep the Torah. At the same time, Fayyumi asserts that the Koran teaches that there are additional revelations to other nations, revelations that obligate them to their own religious systems.

One of the prominent sources in the Koran that support this approach is the fifth sura, the sura of the “Table Spread,” which is considered the last sura of the Koran (the Koran is not in chronological order). These verses affirm the revelations that came before the Koran:

Indeed, We revealed the Torah, containing guidance and light, by which the prophets, who submitted themselves to Allah, made judgments for Jews. So too did the rabbis and scholars judge according to Allah’s Book, with which they were entrusted and of which they were made keepers… We have revealed to you this Book with the truth, as a confirmation of previous Scriptures and a supreme authority on them… To each of you We have ordained a code of law and a way of life. If Allah had willed, He would have made you one community, but His Will is to test you with what He has given each of you. So compete with one another in doing good. (Sura 5:44-47)

This interpretation of the Koran is seen by many scholars as the simple understanding of its words.[3] Today, there are voices of learned Muslims who call for a return to this original approach. For example, Professor Tamer Metwally, in his book, Bias against Judaism in Contemporary Writings,[4] points out that Islam branched off from the Jewish story, and any insult to Judaism and the Torah ultimately undermines Islam itself, while respect and legitimization of Judaism actually strengthen the foundations of Islam.

Rabbi Netanel Fayyumi’s approach seems to be unusual in the landscape of Jewish thought. Still, we can find similar ideas in a less sharp formulation in the thought of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. He also raises the possibility that prophecy is the foundation of other religions. In his book, For the Perplexed of the Generation,[5] Chapter 52, Rav Kook writes:

In general, the essence of faith does not contain any opposition to other religions. As we said already, it is possible that the abundance of knowledge and prophecy or Divine spirit or other Divine assistance will influence nations according to their situation and value, through the good and righteous among them.

Rav Kook presents a wide variety of possibilities―from “abundance of knowledge and prophecy” to “other Divine assistance”―which are at the foundation of other religions for the nations of the world.

Many years ago, at my first meeting with Muslim sheikhs, I was surprised to discover that in the eyes of the Koran, Muhammad is not considered the greatest of the prophets! According to the Koran, this description is reserved for Moses, and, as we said, he is the figure mentioned most frequently in the Koran. The uniqueness of Muhammad, according to the Koran, is that he is the last prophet. As we said in our opening, the Muslim tradition is that the Koran was revealed to Muhammad via the angel Gabriel, and there is even a tradition that Muhammad received his first revelation in a dream.

As we can learn from a number of our sources, there are many different levels of divine revelation to people. For example, Maimonides (in The Guide for the Perplexed II:45) enumerates two levels of holy spirit, and above them nine levels of prophecy. The following words of the sages are famous (Berakhot 57b): “A dream is one sixtieth of prophecy.” The holy Zohar (on Genesis 183a) includes these words when describing the levels of prophecy. The Zohar there discusses dreams, which he identifies as the sixth level of prophecy―at great length―and he explains that prophetic dreams come via the angel Gabriel.

As we said, the Koran itself recognizes the levels of prophecy, and it presents itself as a revelation via the angel Gabriel. The fact that the Zohar connects dreams―which are a universal phenomenon―to the possibility of prophecy via the angel Gabriel, illuminates and explains the words of Rav Kook that we mentioned regarding the possibility that the source of the nations’ religions is true revelation.

We do not need to choose one position or another from among the wide range of approaches that we saw regarding the place of Islam in the divine narrative of the world. Just recognizing that there is something divine in this story enables us to have respectful dialogue with Muslim believers. This dialogue can be based on the general direction of these approaches, our ethnic connection, the assumption that God directs reality, and the place of revelation to the nations.

Though its ethnic and theological similarities with Judaism are not as strong as those with Islam, there are those who see a special role for Christianity in God’s plan for history as well. As I hinted to above, R. Yaakov Emden shows from his reading of the New Testament itself that Christianity does not come to abolish the Torah and Judaism. Rather, Christianity is based on the recognition that the Jewish people have an eternal covenant with God, and the purpose of Christianity is to spread religion to the nations of the world. In effect, R. Emden’s reading of the New Testament is parallel to R. Fayyumi’s reading of the Koran.

Astoundingly, in the last several decades this approach has become accepted in Christianity as well. In 2015, for example, the Vatican published a document entitled, “The Gifts and the Calling of God Are Irrevocable,” which officially declares that the Church is ceasing from missionizing Jews, due to the recognition that the divine covenant with the Jewish people still exists.

One and a half years ago, the unbelievable happened when there was a series of peace agreements with Muslim countries, which were named for our shared identity: “The Abraham Accords.” We should hope that interreligious dialogue will enable Islam to undergo a similar process to that of Christianity and will recognize that the Koran itself obligates the Jewish people to Judaism. I believe that we should also act to realize this hope.

Divine providence presents us with a challenge. Whether we want it or not, we are in a space that is surrounded by believers in Islam.

As part of our task of bringing the words of God to the world, we are invited to discover the paths through which they are revealed to the world. This understanding, together with the ability to tell this story anew in a way that unites rather than separates, creates new possibilities. At the same time, it challenges us, through this approach, to create the continuation of the story leading to the world’s redemption.

[1] See his notes in his translation of Iggerot Ha-Rambam, at the very beginning of Letter to Yemen.

[2] Translated into Hebrew by Rabbi Kapah. Gan Ha-Sikhlim (Kiryat Ono, Israel: Makhon Mishnat Ha-Rambam, 1984), 114-115.

[3] See for example Joseph Lumbard, “The Quranic View of Sacred History and Other Religions,” in The Study Quran, ed. Seyyed Hossein Nasr (New York: Harper Collins, 2015), 1765-1774.

[4] Tamer Metwally, Bias against Judaism in Contemporary Writings (Al Sadiqin Press, 2020).

[5] Abraham Isaac Kook, For the Perplexed of the Generation (Tel Aviv: Yediot Sefarim, 2014).

Yakov Nagen is the Director of Ohr Torah Stone's Blickle Institute for Interfaith Dialogue.