Shiur #11: Rejection of Islam

  • Rav Itamar Eldar

            The principles that we saw in R. Yehuda Halevi's rejection of Christianity appear again in his rejection of Islam, with even greater clarity and with the addition of another principle.


            Like the Christian, the Moslem opens with a declaration of the fundamentals of his faith:


1)       The unity and eternity of God.[1]

2)       The creation of the world and the stories appearing in the beginning of the book of Bereishit (Adam and Noach).

3)       Rejection of the personification of God.[2]

4)       The Koran as the word of God – as is proven by the miraculous nature of the book.

5)       Mohammed as the seal of the prophets and his abrogation of all previous Divine law.

6)       The Moslem Garden of Eden.[3]


Rihal sharpens the point that we have already seen in connection with the Christian regarding the issue of the personification of God. In a methodical manner, he even brings the Moslem himself to admit to a certain conclusion that he seeks, this time on the objective plane.


The Khazar king challenges the Moslem with the principle that we saw earlier: the attempt to verify a belief or an event that clashes with the idea of the non-personification of God, or the attempt to reconcile the two, is legitimate only when the belief or event has been proven in some irrefutable manner. Here, for the first time, Rihal defines the main criterion for turning an event into an irrefutable occurrence, a criterion that Rihal will return to in many places in the book (as we have already seen):


But the human mind cannot believe that God has intercourse with man, except by a miracle which changes the nature of things. He then recognizes that to do so He alone is capable who created them from nought. It must also have taken place in the presence of great multitudes, who saw it distinctly, and did not learn it from reports and traditions. Even then they must examine the matter carefully and repeatedly, so that no suspicion of imagination or magic can enter their minds. (I, 8)[4]


            These words lead the Moslem to admit the undeniable truth of Judaism, the goal toward which Rihal is headed, as was noted at the beginning of the previous lecture. This admission comes when the Moslem mentions the exodus from Egypt and the miracles that accompanied it, the revelation at Sinai, and the miracles that were performed in the wilderness, as an appropriate fulfillment of the criterion established by the Khazar king. It is not by chance that the Moslem stops at this point. As we have already seen, the next stage is the point at which Islam (as well as Christianity) broke off from Judaism. This is a stage that lacks the decisive proof that exists with respect to the earlier events that had taken place in the presence of great multitudes.[5]


            The conclusion that follows from these words is that the other two religions' break from Judaism lacks sufficient proof to justify it. This conclusion, even before we get into the details of the substantive differences between the three religions, removes the other two religions from the agenda. The Khazar king also arrives at this conclusion:


Indeed, I see myself compelled to ask the Jews, because they are the relic of the Children of Israel. For I see that they constitute in themselves the evidence for the divine law on earth. (I, 10)


            Here ends the main course of Rihal's rejection of Christianity and Islam. In essence, both the Christian sage and his Moslem counterpart admit the truth of Judaism until the point of the breakaway. The Moslem sage goes even further when he uses the miracles of Judaism to prove the truth of his own religion.


            R. Yehuda Halevi, in his methodical manner, presents this absurdity that should lead any thinking person (and, in this case, not only a Jew) to the conclusion that one seeking the certainty of revelation, and thus the certainty of religious belief, has nowhere to turn but to Judaism – the source of all revealed religions.




            Another element in Rihal's rejection of Islam seizes a less important, but still significant place:


Although your book may be a miracle, as long as it is written in Arabic, a non-Arab, as I am, cannot perceive its miraculous character; and even if it were read to me, I could not distinguish between it and any other book written in the Arabic language. (I, 6)


            What does this mean? Once again Rihal shifts the discussion from the objective plain that applies to all people, to the personal plain of the Khazar king. Had the Khazar king happened to know Arabic, would he have been convinced of the Koran's miraculous character?


            It seems to me that here Rihal is not only speaking to the heart of his Jewish reader, but he is rather putting forward a fundamental argument, one that can be formulated in two ways.


            One way is based on the conclusion that Rihal wishes to reach, namely, that the attempt to prove the truth and Divine authorship of a particular book from its contents is illegitimate. The certainty of Israel's Torah does not follow from its exalted contents, but from the event of its giving. As we have already seen, Rihal repeatedly returns to the idea that inasmuch as the Torah was given by way of manifest miracles in the presence of the entire nation, logic dictates that it is Divine in origin and that its contents are true. For this reason, Rihal does not try to prove the truths of the contents of the Torah in and of themselves (and when he so, as was noted in previous lectures, he does it as a matter of second choice and accompanied by apologies), but based on the circumstances in which it had been given.[6]


            The second way - and it seems to me that this is what the Khazar king means - is based on another dialogue found elsewhere in the book:


Had he [Moses] said: 'I was sent to guide the whole world in the right path,' and would only have partially fulfilled his task, his message would have been deficient, since the divine will would not have been carried out completely. The perfection of his work was marred by the fact that his book was written in Hebrew, which made it unintelligible to the peoples of Sind, India, and Khazar. They would, therefore, be unable to practice his laws till some centuries had elapsed, or they had been prepared for it by changes of conquest, or alliance, but not through the revelation of that prophet himself, or of another who would stand up for him, and testify to his law. (I, 100)


            The Khazar king asserts, based on his own logical reasoning, that if a prophet is sent to guide all the people on earth, but his words reach only part of them, his prophecy and especially his prophetic mission enter the realm of uncertainty. The Khazar king lists the factors that might prevent the words of a prophet from reaching the entire world, at the top of which is the language in which his words are formulated. It is impossible, argues the Khazar king, that words that were meant for the entire world should be delivered in a language that is understood only by some, and a very small number at that. On the surface, the Khazar king is attacking Judaism, and the prophet to whom he refers is Moshe, but in fact his words are directed at Islam and not at Judaism. The Rabbi immediately points out to him that his assertion that the prophet (in this case, Moshe) wanted to guide the entire world is founded on error:


The Rabbi: Moses invited only his people and those of his own tongue to accept his law, while God promised that there should at all times be prophets to expound His law. This He did so long as they found favor in His sight, and His presence was with them. (I, 101)


            The Khazar king is right, according to the Rabbi, that the Torah and its prophets must direct themselves to the audience which they wish to guide.[7] In the case of Judaism, the target audience of Moshe and his Torah was the Jewish people alone, and therefore the Torah was composed in their language.


            This is not true of the Koran and its prophet Mohammed, as is testified by the Moslem himself:


Our prophet is the Seal of the prophets, who abrogated every previous law, and invited all nations to embrace Islam. (I, 5)[8]


            It turns out, then, that the words of the Khazar king against Judaism with respect to the language in which the Torah had been given are an attack not against Judaism, but rather against Islam and the Koran.[9] This is what the Khazar king means when he says that he does not understand the language of the Koran and therefore he cannot be impressed by its miraculous character.


            A fitting summary of Rihal's attitude toward Christianity and Islam is found in a dialogue concerning the establishment of religion:


The Khazar king: Let us now return to our subject, and explain to me how your belief grew, how it spread and became general, how opinions became united after having differed, and how long it took for the faith to lay its foundation, and to be built up into a strong and complete structure. The first element of religion appeared, no doubt, among single individuals, who supported one another in upholding the faith which it pleased God should be promulgated. Their number increases continually, they grow more powerful, or a king arises and assists them, also compels his subjects to adopt the same creed.

The Rabbi: In this way only rational religions, of human origin, can arise. When a man succeeds and attains an exalted position, it is said that he is supported by God, who inspired him, etc. A religion of divine origin arises suddenly. It is bidden to arise, and it is there, like the creation of the world. (I, 80-81)


            In these words, Rihal outlines the fundamentals of his understanding of the difference between Judaism and the other two religions.


            Christianity and Islam are religions based on the intellect and founded by human beings. Through the power of persuasion and the charisma of their founders, they spread further and further, and with help of leaders with military forces at his disposal, they captured the world. Their size, strength and distribution, however, cannot hide the fact that they are a human product.


This is not the case with Judaism. The aforementioned sociological analysis cannot explain the moment that Judaism broke forth into the world - in a single moment, and not in a gradual process. This moment that was based not on persuasion, not on charisma, and not on military power. "Because He said, and it was."


The difference between that moment – the revelation at Sinai – and the process through which the other religions came into being, is similar to the difference between the creation of the world by the word of God and Darwin's theory of evolution.


And just as the difference between Darwinism and the story of creation is the difference between a natural, orderly process and a Divine, miraculous process, so, too, the difference between the other two religions and Judaism is the difference between a Divine, miraculous religion, and a natural religion. "Blessed be our God who has created us for His glory, and has separated us from those who go astray; who has given us the Torah of truth and planted eternal life in our midst."


(Translated by David Strauss)



[1] Some suggest that with this statement, Rihal sharpens the first difference between Christianity and Islam – the unity of God. The Christian Trinity is the main reason that most halakhic authorities regarded Christianity as idol worship, which was not the case regarding Islam. The passage cited in the previous lecture (IV, 13), however, contradicts this suggestion, for Rihal groups the two religions together, as being closer to Judaism than the sect of Jeroboam in that they rejected images. Their distance from Judaism relates primarily to their abrogation of the received mitzvot. It follows from this that Rihal, as opposed to the aforementioned position, did not see Christianity (and certainly not Islam) as an idolatrous religion.

[2] It stands to reason that here Rihal wishes to sharpen the difference between Christianity and Islam on the issue of God's embodiment in a human body. This argument is strengthened by the fact that the rejection of God's personification advocated by the Moslem is not philosophy's rejection of personification; the Moslem also believes, as we shall see, in all of the revelations described in the Torah and by the prophets. The emphasis placed here on the care taken by Islam on the issue of personification must therefore be understood as directed at the words of the Christian.

It should be noted that this remark does not contradict the one in the previous note. In my opinion, Rihal sees the issue of God's embodiment in flesh and blood as distinguishing between Christianity and Islam. Whereas my first comment dealt with the issue of God's unity, my second remark deals with the issue of His embodiment in flesh and blood – the acceptance of which does not necessarily cast the religion into the category of idol worship.

[3] Rihal's reservations about and critique of these descriptions of the Garden of Eden and Islam's understanding of reward and punishment appear later in the book (I, 106-109; III, 20-21). It is not on this basis that he chooses to reject Islam. Once again, Rihal adopts the method of choosing to distinguish between arguments against another religion that remove them from the agenda, and those arguments that are true, but not acute; the latter are not mentioned at the beginning of the book, when the other religions are pushed aside in favor of Judaism.

[4] An allusion to this is found in the words of the Christian, as well: "Signs which cannot possibly be disputed, because they are generally known as lasting, and have been revealed before a vast multitude" (I, 4).

[5] It should be noted that Rihal opened with the same approach regarding Christianity, but in the end veered from it in favor of the personal position of the Khazar king; here, Rihal sticks to his approach to the end, where an objective conclusion is stated that is not dependent upon the subjective position of the Khazar king or the Jewish reader of the book.

Two explanations of this distinction may be offered.

First, it may be argued that the alienation from Christianity allows Rihal to create in the reader the feeling suggested above regarding the absurdity of forsaking Judaism in favor of foreign religions that offer no philosophical advantage over Judaism; he can suffice with this to reject it. However, the greater intimacy of the people of his time and place with Islam and its sages forces Rihal to reject it in a more objective manner.

Second, the rejection of Islam may be seen as applying to Christianity as well. The similarity between the formulations regarding the clash between rational speculation and religion allows us to cast the words of the Khazar king against the Moslem also upon the Christian. Questioning the point of breakaway from Judaism owing to the absence of proof applies to both the Moslem break and the Christian break.

[6] The following is exceptional: "The details of these regulations would fill volumes. He who studies them carefully will see that they are not of human origin. Praised be He who has contrived them: 'He has not dealt so with any nation; they are judgments which they knew not' (Tehillim 147:20)" (II, 56).

"I perceive that your law comprises all sorts of profound and strange sciences, not to be found in other codes" (II, 63).

Here too, however, Rihal does not say these things as a condition for accepting the principle of "Torah from Heaven," but merely as support for it.

It is unnecessary to note what Rihal would say about certain modern tendencies to find signs in the patterns of the letters of the Torah, in gematriyot, in the initial letters of series of words, and the like. It is quite possible that Rihal would be impressed by these things, and cry out, "Praised be He who has contrived them," but he would certainly not lend support to those circles for whom such techniques are used to prove the Divine authorship of the Torah.

[7] It should be noted that this assumption proposed by the Khazar king and accepted by the Rabbi is based on Rihal's fundamental assumption, common, according to him, to all the revealed religions, and against the view of the philosophers, that obligation to God can only grow out of God's revelation to man. Let us recall the Khazar king's first question, in the wake of the parable of the king of India: "If this be so, then your belief is confined to yourselves?" (I, 26). This question was posed after the Rabbi had established that religious obligation results from revelation. One who has not merited revelation is not obligated. Now the Khazar king adopts this position, and even expands it beyond the very fact of revelation to the language in which the revelation occurred.

[8] The Christian espouses similar sentiments, and over the course of history, Christianity, even more so than Islam, was a missionary religion, which tried to bring the entire world under its wings.

[9] The argument that the Khazar king's words are actually directed by Rihal at Islam is supported by what he says at the end. He notes that the acceptance of the Torah by nations that did not understand its language – whether by force, following defeat in war, or willingly, as a result of an alliance – was not through the revelation of the prophet himself. To the best of my knowledge, no nation ever adopted Judaism as a result of defeat in war, and not even as a result of an alliance. Hence, what is stated here appears to be directed at Islam and its wars during the days of Rihal.