According to the Qur’an, every nation in the world receives at least one prophet who speaks to it in its own language. However, one nation, the Children of Israel, has received a great many prophets. The Qur’an does not explicitly tell us why so many prophets arose among the Children of Israel, but a careful reading of the Qur’an reveals an answer. This was what I learned from a profound and enlightening essay by Irfan Ahmad Khan in a book entitled Jewish-Muslim Encounters edited by Charles Selengut (Paragon House 2001). The book is a collection of eleven papers given at a conference in Cordoba, Spain, sponsored by the Inter-Religious Federation for World Peace.
Almost all prophets, according to Khan, are like Hud who was sent to the people of Ad or Salih who was sent to the people of Thamud to warn them of their impending destruction due to their corrupt and immoral ways and to call them to repentance. However, the prophets of the Children of Israel are different. First, Abraham is the only prophet we know of whose two sons, Isma’il (Ishmael) and Ishaq (Isaac), are also prophets. Indeed, Abraham’s grandson Ya’qub (Jacob) and great grandson Yusuf (Joseph) are also prophets. Thus, starting with Abraham, God established a family dynasty of prophets. With Joseph and his brothers (the tribes) the extended family became the twelve tribes of Israel, or as they are usually called the Children of Israel/Ya’qub. The Children of Israel were blessed with many prophets inviting them to stay firm in their faith to God; this is expressed in various places in the Qur’an: “When death approached Ya’qub, he said to his sons, ‘Who will (you) worship after I am gone?’ They answered, ‘We will worship your God, the God of our forefathers, Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, the One God. Unto Him we will surrender ourselves.’” (2:132)
Second, when Musa (Moses) is sent by God he comes not primarily to warn or rebuke the Children of Israel (his own people) but he is sent “to Pharaoh” ( 20:24, 51:38, 73:15 and 79:17), “to Pharaoh and his chiefs” (7:103, 10:75, 11:97, 23:46, and 43:46), “to Pharaoh and his people” (27:12). Musa is sent to Pharaoh to warn him of the destruction that will fall on Egypt if the Pharaoh does not stop setting himself up as a God and does not let the Children of Israel go free. Musa comes to rebuke Pharaoh and to rescue the Children of Israel. Only when the nation is free from Egyptian bondage do they receive the Torah from God, by the hand of Moses without any mediation of an angel.1 This very enlightening essay by Irfan Ahmad Khan stimulated me as a Reform Rabbi to realize that, as opposed to the accusations of some who blame the Qur’an for being antagonistic toward Jews, there are many narrations in the Qur’an, which present events from Jewish history as archetypal events for all humanity to draw lessons from. Perhaps the fact that the spiritual history of the Children of Israel was so well known is a simple explanation of this. As a Rabbi I believe that the many prophets God sends to the Children of Israel is a sign of the ongoing covenant between God and the Children of Israel.2 The Qur’an narrates Prophet Musa speaking to his people as follows: “O my people! Remember God’s favor upon you, for He appointed among you Prophets, and appointed (among you) rulers, and He granted to you favors such as He had not granted to anyone else in the worlds” (Maidah 5:20).
The principle that God can make a covenant with a whole people, and not just with those who are faithful believers, also helps me understand a powerful verse where the Qur’an narrates that at Sinai, before God gives the Torah to the Children of Israel, He makes a covenant with them. God raises the mountain above the whole people saying, “Hold firmly to what We have given you (the Torah) and remember what is in it” (2:63). The whole nation’s fate stands under the shadow of Mount Sinai, and this explains the miracle of all Israel agreeing to the covenant. This may be the reason why Musa is the only prophet whose book comes not from an angel but directly from God. Individuals who hear a prophet may choose to believe or disbelieve, but in this case God Almighty makes “an offer that you cannot refuse,” so, as far as Judaism is concerned, everyone of the Children of Israel has to struggle for all generations to come with living up to the covenant they chose to enter into. This concept, of a chosen (by being pressed into choosing) people, can lead-and among many ultra orthodox Jews has led-to exaggerated and self-righteous feelings of pride. Thus, when the Qur’an (A’raf 7:171) mentions another time the same event, when the Mount was moved above the Children of Israel, this verse is followed by a reminder in 7:172 that the “children of Adam” were all made bear witness against their own souls: “‘Am I not your Lord?’ They said ‘Yes, we do bear witness.’” God Almighty made a covenant with all individuals “lest [they] should say on the Day of Resurrection, ‘We were indeed unaware of this.’” This reminder by the Qur’an that no religious community should be self-righteous is similar to that of prophet Amos who tells the Children of Israel, “’Are you not like the Children of Ethiopia to me, O Children of Israel?’ says God. ‘Did I not redeem Israel from Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Syrians from Kir?’” (Amos 9:7).
Thus, although the covenant was made with the whole community of Israel, this community like all other nations, also had people among them whose hearts are like rocks that spring forth streams, while others only yield water when split, and others sink for fear of God (2:74). It is this last segment of the Children of Israel that Prophet Muhammad refers to when he rebukes the Children of Israel. The Qur’an correctly understood does not attack all of Israel. Every community, including the Muslim umma, contains groups of faithful believers and a party who disbelieve. This has always been true and sadly will remain true until the end of time when Judgment Day will occur.
There are ten other papers in this book which will be informative and enlightening to most people; one of them is a stimulating comparison of the similarities and differences between Sufism and Kabbalah mysticism. I recommend the volume to both Jews and Muslims who would like to get an insight into a neighbor’s religion as well as a new insight into one’s own religion.
Allen S. Maller is the former Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, California. He has authored several books and is currently the editor of a series of prayer books for the Jewish High Holy Days.
1. See A’raf 7:143–145 for information on God’s speaking to Prophet Moses and the Tablets being entrusted to him.
2. Editor’s note: With all respect to the author’s religious tradition claiming an “ongoing covenant” between God and the Children of Israel, which he further expounds on in the paragraph that follows in his interpretation of the Qur’anic verse 2:63 extending the said covenant to cover all generations of the Children of Israel, Muslim interpreters have commented on this verse and 2:64 arguing that favors mentioned in these verses were related to a certain period when the Divine trust-the representation and promotion of God’s eternal religion-rested on the shoulders of the Children of Israel. Muslim commentators point out that the Children of Israel had great power as a leading nation of human civilization even before Prophet Moses, especially in Egypt during and after the time of Prophet Joseph.