A Tradition of Bogus Scriptures

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America has no shortage of scriptures. Apart from the Bible, religious entrepreneurs through the centuries have composed their own texts, attributing the words to divine or angelic figures, and we are free to accept those claims if we wish.

Quite apart from those writings though, we also have an ugly and continuing tradition of pseudo-scriptures, wholly bogus and malicious compositions designed to stir ill feeling against rival faiths.

In the 1930s, Jews were the prime targets for the process of invention. Amongst other forgeries, America's thriving anti-Semitic underground circulated extracts from a pseudo-Talmud, citing forged passages in which rabbis allegedly made hateful statements. These supposed authorities ruled, for instance, on the age at which a Jew could properly molest a Gentile child -- should she be six, or were younger girls acceptable?

That insane (and wholly false) precedent comes to mind when we look at the pseudo-Qur'an that has become such a mainstay of anti-Islamic activism. Internet activists regularly quote Qur'anic passages to characterize the whole Islamic faith as rooted in hatred, terror and violence, and specifically a brutal anti-Semitism. Far from being the incidental deviations of modern-day traitors to the faith, they suggest, such atrocities are entirely rooted in its most fundamental scripture, in words allegedly delivered by God himself.

The problem, though, is that the texts usually cited are spurious. Either they do not occur at all in the Qur'an, or else they are quoted in a sense radically different from their actual meaning. Just how these pseudo-texts came into being is mysterious. In some cases, activists might have invented them wholesale, while later readers pass them on in the sincere belief that they are authentic. Alternatively, perhaps genuine passages were perverted in the course of transmission. Whatever explanation we choose, there is no reason to suggest that individuals citing the alleged passages are conscious of any kind of deception: they are telling the truth as they understand it. Unintentionally, though, they are peddling harmful misinformation.

One of the most-cited texts is, on its surface, hair raising: "Sufficient for the Jew is the flaming fire!" A quick Google search suggests it is a popular favorite with those who regard the Qur'an as the Islamic version of Mein Kampf. The passage is cited as Quran 4.54-55, but referring directly to that passage suggests a quite different interpretation. God recalls the gifts he gave the House of Abraham, including the Scripture and the divine Wisdom. Among those Jews "were [some] who believed therein and of them were [some] who disbelieved therein. Hell is sufficient for [their] burning." Jews will be condemned to Hell if they fail in faith or righteous action, but will be richly rewarded if they hold fast. These are precisely the same terms offered to believers of all traditions, including Muslims.

That example is easy enough to confront because it distorts a genuine text. Much tougher is a rant like this: "The Jews are devoid of sense. There is a grievous punishment awaiting them. Satan tells them not to believe so they will end up in Hell." This verse is commonly cited as "Qur'an 59.14," which is useful to know, as otherwise it would be impossible to find any similar words in an actual text of the scripture. Sura 59 condemns those People of the Book who stubbornly fight the Muslim community after they have been defeated and driven out. This mule-headedness proves, says the Qur'an, that they must have no sense. At best, the quoted verse is a very rough abridgment of the whole Sura, rather than any specific verse, with the word "Jew" substituted for the more general non-Muslim enemy implied here. (The term People of the Book, Ahl-e-Kitab, is a standard Qur'anic term for Christians and Jews together, and is never applied to Jews alone). The passage condemns neither Jews or Christians or such, but rather those particular groups around 620AD who chose to war against Muhammad.

Does the Qur'an not teach that "humiliation and wretchedness" were stamped on the Jews so that they were visited with Allah's wrath, as is decreed in Sura 2.61? No, it does not. Using a common literary device of the time, the Qur'an contrasts the fate awaiting different groups, and a lengthy passage begins by condemning those Jews who spurn God's will, and who will face a dreadful future. Their fate is indeed humiliation and wretchedness. And then we move to the parallel blessing, in which God promises that "those who believe in that which is revealed unto thee, Muhammad, and those who are Jews, and Christians, and Sabaeans, whoever believeth in Allah and the Last Day and doeth right, surely their reward is with their Lord, and there shall no fear come upon them neither shall they grieve." Depending on their beliefs and their deeds, Jews, like Muslims, face heaven or hell. So much for what is commonly cited as the foundational text of Islamic anti-Semitism.

I am not denying that Islamic writings contain expressions of religious and racial hatred, and the Hadith attributed (on whatever authority) to Muhammad himself includes some horrendous examples. The Qur'an itself, though, has nothing of the sort.

Fortunately, you don't have to take my word for that. If you find a Qur'anic passage cited on any subject, you can instantly check what it says by referring to an easily searchable version of the scripture (in several translations) provided by Islamicity.com. Yes, that's a Muslim site, but in case I need to add this, I have never seen them misquoting or altering the translations they include. See for yourself what the text says, being sure to read it in context. Make your own judgments. If you then start finding an activist or a site repeatedly peddling bogus passages on the theme of Islamic violence and hatred, that should give you a good idea of how reliable their statements are likely to be on any topic whatever.

To paraphrase Ira Gershwin: those things that you're liable to read in the Qur'an? They ain't necessarily so.

Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University.

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