Jews have a wealth of sacred passages to point to when arguing for a Jewish right to Palestine. But what about the Quran (Koran)? Does it claim an equal Islamic right to Palestine?
Not according to Dr. Khaleel Mohammed. In fact, according to this professor of religious studies at SDSU, the Quran grants Jews sacred right to the land of Palestine. This controversial thesis has predictably made him few friends in the Muslim community.
Born in the South American republic of Guyana and educated at Montreal's McGill University, Dr. Mohammed believes that the Quran unambiguously says that the Holy Land belongs to the Jews. He'll go to any mosque and debate any doubting imam. He hasn't received any death threats from fanatic Muslims, but he has gotten some bitter emails. Those don't frighten or deter him from his mission: to combat the growing tide of Islamic political radicalization by teaching what the Quran actually says – not how the Islamic holy text is interpreted by imams.
"We should do everything possible to encourage… moderates like him to step forth and speak out," says Rabbi Efraim Warshaw, who runs Star Speakers, a speaker bureau that represents Dr. Mohammed. "If they are the majority in the Moslem community, as is so often claimed, America needs to hear from them and learn what they think and believe."
So what's the reason for Dr. Mohammed's support for Israel? Chapter 5, verse 21 in the Quran offers proof of a divine promise to the Jews of a land of their own in the Holy Land:
"Moses said to his people: O my people! Remember the bounty of God upon you when He bestowed prophets upon you, and made you kings and gave you that which had not been given to anyone before you amongst the nations. O my people! Enter the Holy Land which God has written for you, and do not turn tail, otherwise you will be losers." According to Dr. Mohammed, if God has "written" that the land is for the Jews, what human can erase His handwriting?
Dr. Mohammed also cites chapter 2:40, which says, "O children of Israel! Call to mind My favor which I bestowed on you and be faithful to (your) covenant with Me, I will fulfill (My) covenant with you."
Although the Quran never says point-blank, "Israel belongs forever to the Jews, Dr. Mohammed thinks these verses are unequivocal in God's commandment that Israel be the religious homebase for the Jews. Even Medieval-era Islamic scholars such as Ibn Kathir and Muhammad al-Shawkani recognized this right. Al-Shawkani interpreted "That which God has written for you" as "that which God has allotted and predestined for you in His primordial knowledge."
Furthermore, Dr. Mohammed contends the Quran never mentions Jerusalem as a holy city.
As Dr. Mohammed leans back in a chair in his SDSU office, where the walls are lined with religious texts and posters of Bob Marley and Muhammad Ali, he explains that, contrary to popular opinion, history backs him up. "If you're going to take it from a secular point of view," he says, "you must involve history, which states very clearly that in 70 A.D. the Temple burned, and in the year 135 the Jews were exiled. And in 638 the Muslims full well knew whom the land rightly belonged to…. Muslims left the borders of Arabia to enter a land that according to their own scriptures, belongs to the people of Moses." He likens Muslim occupation of the land – and failure to help Jews reacquire the land – to complacency in the face of a crime.
But a Muslim could claim that Muslims controlled the Holy Land for centuries under the Ottoman Empire, a lot longer than modern Jews have controlled Israel.
Doesn't matter, according to the professor. "It's in the Muslim consciousness that the land first belonged to the Jews. It doesn't matter if the Jews were exiled 500 years or 2000 years, the Holy Land, as mentioned in Quran belongs to Moses and his people, the Jews." Dr. Mohammed says the conditions of the birth of the State of Israel – which included the violent displacement of some Arabs – are irrelevant.
So why is it that most Muslims, not even the scholars, don't see things the professor's way? Naturally, politics and greed play a crucial role in fomenting hate, but a major reason is the hadith, commentaries on the Quran that are somewhat akin to Judaism's Talmud. Dr. Mohammed says you must look at the context of the hadiths' origins. They were conceived during medieval times, when Jews were demonized.
Dr. Mohammed doesn't dismiss all hadith out of hand, but he has problems with inserted comments that change the meaning of the original text. For example, after the passage "Enter the Holy Land which God has written for you," a hadith adds "…but not after Moses died." "Allah tells Muslims that the Quran is perfect," says Dr. Mohammed.
Dr. Mohammed says he has convinced many of his Muslim students to see things his way. But they tell him they are afraid of speaking up at their mosque. "In a mosque, I always win an argument," he claims.
In essence, Dr. Mohammed sees politics, not religion, as the culprit for the radicalization of Islam. It is not that radical Islam flowers naturally from the Quran, but rather that it was borne out of the resentment and turmoil of numerous Muslim defeats: the end of the Ottoman Empire, the foundation of Israel, the Six-Day War, the fall of Iraq.
In an effort to shift the Muslim consensus, Dr. Mohammed recently started the Foundation for the Abrahamic Study of the Religion. He says he's gotten interest from students as far away as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. These students, although he's never met them, seem to possess a more open-minded interpretation of Islam, rather than a strict and violent one.
"Islam sees itself as something of a continuation of the Abrahamic message," says the professor. "Christianity and Judaism don't deny democracy. In Quran, the prophet Mohammed says ‘Consult the people' and therefore, Quran doesn't deny the development of human thought and a world in which we can respect one another for our differences and come up with new ideas to make a better world."