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Friday, December 03, 2004

Misfit at the mosque

Prof. Khaleel Mohammed is not a beloved figure among Muslim students in the United States. His visits to campuses to lecture are almost always accompanied by demonstrations of protesters condemning his opinions and his views. He has also felt hostile looks at the mosque where he used to worship in the city where he lives, San Diego, and therefore he rarely goes there. And indeed Mohammed's views are very unusual in the Arab world. His main thesis is that the Holy Land (according to most commentators, this refers to the area of Israel-Palestine) was given to the Jews. He takes this from the Koran itself, the divine book that is sanctified by Muslims, and is prepared to do battle with anyone who disagrees with him.
"O my people! Go into the holy land which Allah hath ordained for you. Turn not in flight, for surely ye turn back as losers," says the Prophet Moussa (Moses) to his people, the Children of Israel, in verse 21 of Sura (Koran chapter) 5, which is called "Al Ma'ida" ("The Table Spread"; English translation by Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, "The Meaning of the Glorious Qu'ran," 1930).

Sinful behavior

The word "ordained" is a translation of the Arabic word katab, a strong imperative that implies compulsion, orders and the determining of fate. "If Allah katab the Holy Land to the Jews, then it is theirs unless stated otherwise - and it is not stated otherwise in the Koran," explains Prof. Mohammed. The continuation of the koranic story, which is based to a large extent on the biblical story, is that the Children of Israel refused to enter the land that was promised or bequeathed to them. They were afraid to do this because it was inhabited at the time by "a nation of giants" that frightened them. Because of their refusal of Moses' call and their cowardice, the land was forbidden to them for 40 years and they lost their way without the guidance of the Prophet Moses. From that moment, they were considered a nation of criminals who defy divine will.

"[Their Lord] said: "For this land will surely be forbidden them for forty years that they will wander in the earth, bewildered. So grieve not over the wrongdoing folk" (verse 26; Pickthall). Prof. Mohammed stresses that this refers to a period of 40 years only. "They received punishment for their sins - a prohibition limited in time on their entry to the land. This makes no difference to the principle whereby the land was intended for them," he says. "The establishment of the State of Israel is the expression of the fact that the Jews desired to return to their land. The State of Israel was established thanks to the `Jewish jihad,' and the acts of terror that are being carried out by Palestinians inside Israel are not jihad because this is not their land."

The Children of Israel are mentioned in the Koran several dozen times, and usually the attitude toward them is ambivalent. The Koran respects the chosen people because Allah chose it. Allah favors the Children of Israel, sends them prophets and makes them kings, but they disobey his commandments. They are supposed to observe God's laws, believe in the law, keep the Sabbath - but they do not do this. The most flagrant act of disobedience is the refusal to enter the "holy land" that was promised to them. The sinful behavior of the Children of Israel is what causes the decline in their status.

The Koran stresses that they lose their senior status in favor of the new community that is gaining strength in the region, the Muslim-Arab community. As Prof. Uri Rubin of Tel Aviv University writes in his book "Between Bible and Qu'ran: The Children of Israel and the Islamic Self-Image" (Studies in Late Antiquity and Early Islam, Darwin Press, 1999), the Koran concentrates on the choosing of Israel only to show that the Children of Israel broke their commitment to God and thus lost their status. In order to prove this, it brings at length the biblical stories of the sins that the Children of Israel committed on their way to the promised land. In the eyes of mainstream Islam, the fact that the Children of Israel broke their commitment sufficed to deprive them of all their rights, including the rights to the Holy Land.

Not afraid

Prof. Mohammed, 40, was born in Guyana in South America, studied classical Islamic theology at Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He did his master's degree in Judaism and Islam in Canada, and afterwards completed a doctorate in Islamic law at McGill University in Montreal. He currently teaches at San Diego State University. He says he is not afraid to voice his opinions, even though they are not liked. "These are my opinions, and I am prepared to debate them with anyone. The average Muslim is not prepared to conduct a discussion about this. He needs backing from sheikhs and imams," he says. It is clear he enjoys the debate.

Prof. Mohammed is in Jerusalem as the guest of the Jerusalem Summit, an organization with a right-wing orientation that is currently holding a conference at the King David Hotel. Tomorrow morning, he will present his theories at a panel discussion on "Focusing on Elements of Tolerance and Openness in the Koran."

It is doubtful Mohammed's colleagues on the panel will accept what he has to say. General (ret.) Mansour Abu Rashid, formerly head of Jordanian intelligence, will chair the panel. He belongs to the dwindling number of Jordanians who still support peace with Israel. All he needs is for the opposition in Jordan to accuse him of collaborating with someone who brings a revolutionary interpretation of the Koran, as this involves not only political opinions but also opinions that undermine modern Islamic thought.

Prof. Yohanan Friedmann of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, an internationally respected expert on Islam who will also participate in the panel discussion, would like to take a far more cautious approach with respect to the relevant verses. "The Koran is a difficult book. It is customary to try to understand it through the various commentators who worked on it during the course of history, and the shelves are laden with books that testify to how many people have tried to do this. But it is necessary to be very careful about using the Koran for current political purposes," he says diplomatically.

Prof. Friedmann believes it is impossible to harness scripture to the political conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, because for every verse, its opposite can be found. According to him, it is possible that the Koran says that the Holy Land was given to the Jews, but it also says that they were big sinners.

No proof of ownership

Prof. Mohammed agrees that the use of koranic verses in the context of current political questions is problematic, but he says he does this because the national conflict in the region has become a religious conflict. Testifying to this more than anything is the fact that Yasser Arafat would make use of a term taken from this group of verses. He used to call the Palestinian people sha'ab al jabarin, the nation of giants, referring to the nation that the Children of Israel feared as they approached the Holy Land.

Prof. Mohammed almost sounds like he is ready to throw himself into battle. "I show Muslims who use religious arguments that they don't have a case. Even the Koran, the basis of our religion, states explicitly that this is land that belongs to the Jews." With regard to the future of the Palestinian inhabitants, Mohammed refrains from expressing a clear opinion: "They have the right to exist with honor. There must not be a situation in which they continue the terror against Israel from within their territories."

Sheikh Abdullah Nimr Darwish, the founder of the Islamic movement in Israel, disagrees entirely with Prof. Mohammed's opinion. He is very familiar with the relevant verse, and in his opinion it does not prove any ownership of the land. "The verse says that Moussa's people must enter the Holy Land. Does ownership derive from this? When I invite someone to enter my office, does the office become his? Definitely not."

In Darwish's opinion, the fact that Abraham and Jacob paid for their burial site with money shows that the land did not belong to the Children of Israel. "If we're talking about religion, then according to Islam only the prophets inherit from one another. Mohammed succeeded all the prophets who came before him, including Moussa, who is Moses, and he brought the word to all human beings. This does not mean that the Muslims are claiming the lands of others if they do not have certification of ownership in the land registry, and the use of the world katab does not justify anything," he says. According to Darwish, the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians is national and political, not religious. "The Palestinians are fighting against the occupation, not against Judaism, and therefore it is necessary to reach a political compromise with them, not a religious compromise," he explains.