Jews or Muslims? The Chicken or the Egg?
Muslims often claim that Judaism is inferior to Islam because the Qur’an teaches that even the Biblical prophets who predated Muhammad were muslims – even Adam! But Jews, they contest, originated from the tribe Judah, son of Jacob. Their claim rests on the meaning of the word Muslim. Islam means ‘surrender’ or ‘submission.’ In the context of the Qur’an, islam is the surrender or submission to the Creator. A muslim is one who surrenders or submits. When we take the literal meanings of Islam and Muslim into consideration, one cannot deny that the Biblical prophets were indeed muslim – individuals who surrendered to the Creator. The error in this claim is threefold:
- 1) Admitting that the Biblical prophets were muslim according to the literal meaning of the word, ie: they surrendered to the Creator, it is still a leap to conclude that this means they practiced the unique practices of the organized religion established under the leadership of Muhammad, now officially termed Islam. In fact, it is apparent from the Qur’an itself that the Israelite prophets were prohibited from some things that were later permitted by Muhammad’s prophecy. Additionally, there are practices taught in the Hadith, based on the actions of Muhammad, that are not mentioned in either the Qur’an or in the Bible. It is unreasonable to conclude, based on semantics alone, that the Biblical prophets were Muslim in the way that the term is understood today, any more than sincere individuals of any monotheistic faith who surrender to the Creator could accurately be described as muslim.
- 2) In the same way that the word muslim literally means one who surrenders or submits, the term Yehudi (יהודי), which is usually transliterated as ‘Jew,’ literally means one who acknowledges, praises, and proclaims the One LORD. In fact, this is the very reason why Judah, son of Jacob, was given the name Yehuda (Judah). Genesis 29:35 states, “She conceived again, and bore a son; and she said: 'This time will I praise the LORD.' Therefore she called his name Yehuda (יהודה);” The verse explicitly states that she named him Yehuda because she praised the LORD. The root of the word for praise in this verse is hud (הוד). This Hebrew root word also means to acknowledge and to profess. And as widely known, the word for ‘the LORD’ is actually YHWH (יהוה). The name YHWH is the Creator’s most holy name in the Hebrew language. This is because the name YHWH does not refer to the Creator from the perspective of man, such as Mighty or Merciful. Rather, YHWH refers to the unknowable essence of the Creator, which is singularly independent and unchanging. Thus, while Yehuda conveys that ‘she acknowledged, praised, and professed YHWH, the One LORD,’ the word Yehudi literally means ‘one who acknowledges, praises, and professes YHWH, the One LORD.’ Certainly we can’t deny that the Biblical prophets acknowledged, praised, and professed the One LORD. Therefore, all the prophets were yehudi (Jewish) according to the literal meaning of the word – even before Judah, son of Jacob, was born. Of course, when we say that the early prophets were yehudim (Jews), we do not mean that their religious practices were entirely the same as those called Jews in the modern era, any more than we should think that the early prophets, who certainly also submitted to the Creator, practiced their faith in the same manner as those called Muslim in the modern era. The entire argument that Islam is superior to the Jewish faith because the Biblical prophets were muslims, according to the literal meaning of the word, is built on inconsistent semantics and ignorance as to the meaning and origin of the term Yehudi (Jew).
- 3) Some claim that since there was an ancient location in the territory of Dan called Yehud (Josh. 19,25), it must be that the term Yehudi (‘Jew’) originally meant that someone was from this location. While it is true that, according Hebrew grammar, someone from that location could hypothetically be called a Yehudi, ie: one from the town of Yehud, there are no recorded examples of such use of the term. One might also claim that the term Yehudi (‘Jew’) didn’t originate from the word Yehuda (Judah), but it did originate from another man whose name was actually Yehudi (Jer. 36,21). The problem with these claims is that, besides being very presumptuous, they also ignore the fact that all these names were given because these names have a meaning, as already explained. Unlike most English names, names in Hebrew actually mean something in the Hebrew language, just as the English name Rose means rose. Additionally, the same claim could be made regarding the term ‘muslim.’ Aside from numerous other similarities between Judaism and Islam, the terms m’shulam and mushlam are actually used in ancient Jewish literature to describe the relationship between a Jew and the Creator. M’shulam conveys the idea of being entirely dedicated or entirely given over to G-d, and mushlam similarly means one who is wholly devoted to G-d or wholehearted with Him. Consequently, there are around 21 examples of people named M’shulam in the Jewish Bible. With the same presumptuous reasoning, we could conclude that modern Muslims are named after a man – a Jewish man, no less. If it were reasonable to reject the Torah faith (‘Judaism’) due to speculation as to the origin of the term Jew, then logical consistency would demand that we reject the Muslim faith for the same reason. What’s more? If it were reasonable to reject a faith on these premises, it would be Islam that is threatened, not the Torah faith (‘Judaism’), being that Muslims’ sacred scripture officially authorizes the terms Islam and muslim, whereas neither Torah nor Jewish law require that those who join our faith be called Jews, nor do our sacred texts designate ‘Judaism’ as the official term for our religion.
R' Yosef Eliyah
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