Polemics: Muslim-Jewish Polemics

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Down to the eighteenth century the majority of Jews lived in countries under Muslim rule, where they shared with Christians the status of "protected" minorities, tolerated on sufferance and subject at times and in certain areas to discrimination, ill will, abuse, and assault.

Arabic literature, the classical repository of theological lore in Islam, expresses and reflects the situation over centuries. While most of this lore is of Muslim origin, Jews and Christians have contributed to it upon occasion with Arabic writings added to their literary output in Hebrew and Syriac, respectively.

The vast Arabic literature that developed in the early centuries of Islam included works on religion, sectarianism, the treatment of the minorities, and so forth. Historians and travelers seeking to sketch the development of faiths, the rise of Islam, and its victorious march through countries and continents also threw light on the non-Muslims and their beliefs. Scholarly discussion concerning non-Muslims inevitably tended to indicate the miscreants' errors. Thus polemics appeared, and, as disputations took place, polemics gave rise to defensive apologetics.

Muslim Polemics

Indeed, Muslims knew from their own scripture that Islam is a continuation of earlier dispensations, and they were familiar with the Prophet's attitude toward their carriersthe Jews and Christians. According to the Qurʾān, the Jews (identified there as Yahūd or Banū Isrāʾīl, "Children of Israel") were an ancient people, descended from Abraham and later led out of Egypt by Moses. Favored by the Lord, who sent prophets to teach and guide them, they nonetheless became enmeshed in sin and disobedience, worshiping the golden calf, killing prophets, and rejecting Jesus, and were finally punished by destruction, exile, and dispersal. Further, the Qurʾān indicated that the Prophet had not only fought the pagan Arabs but also clashed with the Jews living in Arabia, especially those in Medina, and that the struggle had turned into a military clash when the Jews refused to accept the Prophet and his revelation.

These data were extended and embellished in the vast collections of traditions (adīth ) that arose in early Islam and were further enriched by an exegetical turn, as Qurʾanic allusions to biblical stories gave rise to commentaries on ancient Hebrew lore. Although the Jews had been instructed about the coming of Muammad, the Muslim commentators explained, they ignored these allusions or sought to interpret them away or to conceal them. They also fabricated stories among the Isrāʾīlīyāt (narratives set in the era of the Banū Isrāʾīl) that were apt to mislead true believers. Jewish converts to Islam also supplied informationalbeit misleadingon Hebrew lore and the Jewish past. Kaʿb al-Abār is the prototypical figure among them: a Jew from Yemen, he embraced Islam half a dozen years after the Prophet's death and was considered an expert on earlier scriptures. And presumably the anti-Jewish animus of the Near Eastern Christians percolated into Islamic circles following the Christians' conversion to Islam.

The earliest polemics, which can be traced to the eighth- and ninth-century disputations at the Abbasid court in Baghdad, are usually directed against both Jews and Christians. Only gradually does a polemical literature directed specifically against Jews emerge, beginning with special chapters on Jews and Judaism and with the writings of Jewish converts to Islam. Although such works are mentioned early on by Arab historians, the earliest surviving examples date only from the eleventh century.

Ibn azm

The earliest preserved substantial work of Islamic polemics against Jews and Judaism comes from the pen of Ibn azm (d. 1064), a leading figure of Islamic learning and Arabic literature in Spain. He dealt with the subject repeatedly and is the only major figure of Arabic letters to treat it.

Ibn azm apparently felt that his road to political success in the kingdom of Granada was blocked by the preeminence of the Jews, and in particular by their leader, Ibn Nagrela (known in the Jewish community as Shemu'el ha-Nagid, 9931056), a successful administrator, diplomat, and military commander. Both Ibn azm and the Nagid wrote on theology, and both were poets, one writing in Arabic, the other in Hebrew. They met when they were in their early twenties, but the meeting was not conducive to mutual respect and appreciation.

In Ibn azm's major work, Kitāb al-fial wa-al-nial (Book of groups and sects), a survey of theology, a section of nearly 130 pages is devoted to a critique of Jewish beliefs and texts. Passages from the Hebrew scriptures, quoted to reveal their deficiencies, are followed by counterparts from the Qurʾān, which are cited to demonstrate their excellence by comparison. Ibn azm displays a good knowledge of Genesis, but his knowledge of the rest of the Hebrew scriptures is weak, and he is unable to distinguish biblical data from later legends. It is possible that he used a list of suitable passages ("testimonies") culled for the purpose by others. He even cites a few items of Talmudic lore. He displays an interest in the origins of Hebrew words but here too falls prey to misinformation: quoting an informant, he explains, for example, that the name Israel was derived from Asarʿel ("he detained God," Gn. 32:2531, where Jacob wrestles with divine beings and prevails), thus confusing the Hebrew roots ʿsr and srh.

In his view, the Hebrew scriptures are replete with contradictions, absurdities, anthropomorphisms, and objectionable and irrelevant matter. The Muslims should feel no reverence toward the scriptures of the Jews and Christians, he argues, and should reject these faulty, distorted remnants of the true scripture. Reverence is due only to the inimitable truth and beauty of the Qurʾān.

Ibn azm is particularly eager to point out discrepancies in the biblical text, especially where numbers are involved, as with varying statements on the length of the bondage in Egypt or the population of the Israelites during the wilderness period. Other contradictions he claims to find in the text include the report in Exodus 7:2022 that after all the water in Egypt turned into blood, the native magicians repeated the deed: where, he asks, did they get the water to prove their skill? Likewise, citing Exodus 12:38, he asks where the Hebrews obtained the multitude of cattle in the desert, and further, if they had such cattle, why did they complain of lack of meat? Among the anthropomorphisms he cites are passages such as "The Lord is a man of war" (Ex. 15:3); "And they saw the God of Israel, and there was under his feet, as if it were a pavement of sapphire stone" (Ex. 24:10); and the Lord's various pronouncements in Exodus 33 where he "spoke unto Moses face to face. And he said, 'You cannot see my face. And I shall take away my hand and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen'" (vv. 11, 10, 2223).

Unlike the Qurʾān, Ibn azm argues, the Hebrew scriptures are devoid of data on reward and punishment in the life to come. Yet the Qurʾān itself refers to biblical revelation, especially to that of Moses. How is this possible? Because, he claims, there was a true revelation of the divine word to Moses, but it was not preserved. The numerous civil strifes, wars, invasions, and defeats in ancient Israel destroyed not merely the Hebrew kingdoms but also their archives and with them, the scriptures, which went up in flames. There was no continuous tradition of learning. Indeed, there was merely one copy of the scriptures remaining in the hands of the priests, who knew only chapters, fractions of it. In Babylon, Ezra the priest concocted the Hebrew scriptures from remnants of the revelation as it was remembered by other priests and from his own additions.

Here Ezra is denounced as a master of deception lacking reason and conscience (as well as a knowledge of arithmetic). Yet, Ibn azm points out, it was Ezra who shaped the new religion during the Babylonian captivity by substituting the synagogue service for the ruined Temple of Solomon. Since the days of Moses, he says, Deuteronomy 32 (Haʾazinu, The Song of Moses) is the only chapter of the Hebrew scriptures that has been taught to the people, and even this chapterwhich he quotes in fullis replete with passages that cannot be of divine origin, such as verses 2022: "God is their father." Anyone who knows the Jews, continues our author, knows they are a filthy and witless rabble, repulsive, vile, perfidious, cowardly, despicable, mendacious. Hence Muslims should seek guidance about the children of Israel not from the Ezra-produced scripture but from the Qurʾān, which also includes data about the prophets (such as Hūd and āli) who were unknown to the Jews.

Ibn azm maintains that the Jews reject abrogation of their scriptures and any suggestion of a post-Mosaic dispensation, to either Jesus or Muammad. For them the omniscient God's decree is immutable, and any change or caprice in divine will is not feasible. Without such a sudden change (badāʾ ) in divine pleasure, however, a new dispensation would not be feasible and thus, they assert, would contradict divine omniscience. But this is wrong, Ibn azm counters. Precepts are commands to perform certain acts over a limited period, beyond which time they may turn into their opposites. Circumstances in space and time are known to God, and it is his pleasure to grant life, death, and resurrection, power, decline, restoration, virtue, and evil, belief and deviation. For the Jews, work is permissible on Friday, but prohibited on Saturday, only to become permissible again on Sunday.

Indeed, the Jews recognize that the law of Jacob differs from the law of Moses. Jacob married Leah and Rachel, who were sisters, yet the law of Moses (Lv. 18:18) proscribes such a marriage. The people of Gibeon escaped annihilation to become hewers of wood and drawers of water for the sanctuary after they fraudulently exacted a treaty from Joshua (Jos. 9). God's wrath was about to consume the Israelites, but Moses' fervent appeal made the Lord repent (Ex. 32:1014). Abraham offered curd and milk and meat to the angels (Gn. 18), but this was not a kosher diet (as set forth in Deuteronomy 14:321 and elsewhere).

Ibn azm is quick to notice irregularities attested in the lineage of biblical figures and points with gusto to the extent of bastardization among them. The lineage of the patriarchs, prophets, and kings is sullied with incest and fornication: Abraham married Sarah, his sister; Lot was seduced by his daughters; Reuben had relations with Bilhah, his father's concubine; from Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar sprang the line of David, Solomon, and the expected Messiah.

The few samples of postbiblical lore that he knew, possibly through the Karaites, horrified him as "old wives' tales": data for example, from the ancient treatise Shiʿur qomah on the measurement of the divine body; the Lord's grieving about the destruction of the Temple; reference to the angel Mearon as "the lesser Lord." He also recounts that, according to the Jews, Paul was sent to the disciples of Jesus in order to mislead them into the belief in Christ's divinity. Thus Ibn azm concludes that the Jews are liars and tricksters. This trait begins with Jacob filching Esau's birthright (Gn. 25:2934) and Isaac's blessing (Gn. 27). Though I have seen many of them, he reports, I found only two who were devoted to truth.

Although he holds that the Hebrew scriptures are forgeries and harps on the necessity of rejecting them completely and relying instead on the Qurʾān, he cannot refrain from quoting some passages that seem to fit Muslim notions. Thus he accepts Deuteronomy 33:2 ("The Lord came from Sinai and rose from Seir unto them; he shined forth from Mount Paran") as an "annunciation" of the advent of Jesus (via Seir, in Edom, later identified with Christendom, while Paran was taken to be a reference to Mecca). Likewise he finds in Deuteronomy 18:18 ("I will raise them a prophet from among their brethren like unto thee") an annunciation of Muammad's ministry, since the Arabs, the progeny of Ismāʿīl (Ishmael), are the brethren among whom a prophet was to arise.

Ibn azm also wrote a treatise against a pamphlet alleged to have been composed by Ibn Nagrela (or his son) against the Qurʾān. Although he was unable to find a copy of this text and knew of it only from a Muslim author's refutations, he nonetheless proceeded to attack the Jewish leader and the rest of the infidels who had become so arrogant. In this treatise he also inveighs against the Muslim rulers, who enjoy their luxurious palaces and forget their duty to preserve strict Muslim domination over the infidels.

The impact of Ibn azm's polemical writings is unclear. He is not quoted by later writers, and it is possible that his adherence to the āhirī school of theologya distinct minority within Sunnī Islammay have limited the spread of his views. At least one brief Hebrew tract, Shelomoh ben Avraham Adret's thirteenth-century Maʾamar ʿal Yishmaʿeʾl (Treatise on Ishmael), reproduces and refutes passages of Ibn azm's argument on forgery, however. In any case, the full scope of the Muslim-Jewish controversy was given its first systematic exposition in Ibn azm's work: abrogation (naskh ), distortion or forgery in the scripture (tarīf ), anthropomorphism (tajsīm ), the preserved annunciation of Islam and its prophet (aʾlām ).

Samauʿal al-Maghribī

The pamphlet Ifām al-Yahūd (Silencing the Jews), written in 1163 in Marāgha (northern Iran), is the most important and influential work of Muslim polemics against Judaism. Its author was Samauʿal al-Maghribī (c. 11251175), a Jew who converted to Islam and penned the pamphlet to mark his conversion. (It is not to be confused, however, with the Arabic pamphlet of Samuel Marrocanus, a convert to Christianity, which was translated into Latin and later into many Western languages.)

Samauʿal's father was a minor Hebrew poet who had presumably fled Morocco during a wave of persecution, settled in Baghdad, and married a woman of a distinguished family. Samauʿal, who studied under the eminent philosopher Abū al-Barakāt (also a Jewish convert to Islam), won fame as a mathematician and physician. His Jewish training seems to have been limited. In an autobiography added to his pamphlet in 1167, he claims that he was moved to convert by rational thinking along mathematical lines. Although he also describes visions of the prophets Samuel and Muammad, he still insists that purely logical arguments prevailed in his mind. A note of self-admiration is evident throughout:

Then, after I had trained my mind on mathematical studies, especially geometry with its demonstrations, I asked myself about the differences in religious faiths and tenets. I realized that reason is the supreme arbiter and that its rule should be established generally in our world. We realize that reason does not oblige us to accept ancestral tradition without examining it as to its soundness. Mere reference to fathers and ancestry, however, is no proof. I realize that the Jews had no proof about Moses other than the evidence of the chain of transmission, which is available for Jesus and Muammad just as it is for Moses then all three are true prophets. I have not seen Moses nor have I witnessed his miracles, nor those of any other prophet. A sensible person cannot believe one and disbelieve another of these prophets. Rather, it is rationally incumbent either to believe all of them or to reject all of them. As for disbelieving all, reason does not dictate that either. For we find that they all preached lofty morals, advocated the virtues and fought the vices, and regulated the world in a fashion beneficial to mankind.

In Samauʿal's view, the record of the Jews in scientific advancement cannot compare with that of the Greeks and others; likewise, the literature of the Muslims is overwhelmingly superior.

The key issue of abrogation is demonstrated both logically and historically. Jewish legists, he says, offered discordant views on problems; how can they all be of divine origin? Indeed the law itself abounds in contradictions: in Exodus, for example, all the firstborn are consecrated to worship (13:2); in Numbers, only the Levites (8:18). As purification with the ashes of the red heifer (Nm. 19:11, 19:16, 19:17) is no longer available, he contends that the Jews must consider themselves impure. Prayers on exile, dispersion, and hope of restoration are clearly of late origin, yet they should not have been introduced at all in view of the injunction against adding to or diminishing from the divine word (Dt. 13:1).

An array of arguments is cited to prove that Jesus and Muammad were announced in the scriptures: Deuteronomy 18:15 announces a prophet from among their brethren; in Genesis 17:20, God promises to multiply Ishmael (here the letters of the Hebrew words for "exceedingly," bi-mʾod meʾod, numerically equal 92, which is the numerical value of the name Muammad); Genesis 21:21 deals with three revelations, the last in the abode of Ishmael, which is that of the Arabs.

The critique of the scripture follows. According to Samauʿal, it perished long ago owing to the vicissitudes in the history of the Hebrews. King Saul (1 Sm. 22:1620) massacred the line of Aaron. Centuries passed before Ezra, of the priestly Aaronids, reconstructed the scripture. As the priests begrudged authority to royalty, he added two stories derogatory to the lineage of David. One, that of the daughters of Lot (Gn. 19), establishes the origin of Moab and thus the illegitimacy of Ruth, the ancestor of the House of David, nay, of the expected messiah. The other story (Gn. 38) indicates that Boaz, husband of Ruth, was born of the union of Judah with Tamar.

Among other criticisms, Samauʿal also charges that the law is oppressive and a burden (ir ), as demonstrated by the dietary rules that separate Jews from non-Jews. Jews, he points out, call Muammad a fool and a raving madman (meshuggaʿ, cf. Hos. 9:7) and also "unfit" (Heb., pasul, rhyming with rasūl, Arab., "messenger," a name for the Prophet as Messenger of God); likewise they refer to the Qurʾān as "dishonor" (qalon ).

No doubt there is a similarity between the arguments of Ibn azm in the eleventh century and those of Samauʿal in the twelfth. Here it is probable that both were reproducing older material concerning the scriptural passages and the theory that Ezra authored the Pentateuch (the hypothesis of Ezra's role in the history of the scripture goes back to late Hellenistic texts; see Edmund Stein's Alttestamentliche Bibelkritik in der späthellenistischen Literatur, Lwów, 1935).

Samauʿal's tract in turn proved very influential as a quarry for Muslim authors over the centuries. His arguments reappear in Al-ajwibah al-fākhirah (The Perfect Replies), written by the Egyptian al-Qarāfī (d. 1285), and in works by Ibn Qayyim al-Jawzīyah (d. 1350). In copying Samauʿal's original pamphlet, which contained Hebrew passages in Hebrew characters followed by Arabic transliteration and translation, later scribes omitted the alien Hebrew characters. The tract was printed in Egypt in 1939 and again in the 1960s.


From somewhat different circumstances came Abū Zakarīyāʾ Yayā al-Rāqilī's tract Taʾyīd al-millah (Support of the Faith), written in Huesca in 1360 and directed against Jews and Christians. Living in the Spanish kingdom of Aragon after the Christian reconquest, he expressed bitterness over the degradation of Islam, as Muslims fell from a position of domination to that of a tolerated minority, and especially over the treatment of Muslim peasants by Jewish officials and tax agents on behalf of the crown. Reading the biblical texts in translation, he "extracted from them passages and evidences with which to refute the Jews." God had chastised them, he observes, with permanent dispersion (al-ghalūth al-dāʾim ) and humiliation. He mentions disputations and arguments (al-munāarāt wa-al-itijāj ) and hopes that God "may take us out of the country of polytheism to the lands of the Muslims."

The Hebrew scriptures, he says, show that the Jews were a rebellious, unfaithful, ungrateful, accursed breed. They transgressed against every one of the Ten Commandments. According to al-Rāqilī's historical reconstruction, Hagar, the mother of Ishmael, was Abraham's wife, not his concubine. She was not a mere slave but the daughter of an Egyptian prince, and in any case, even a slave could be a prophet, as with Joseph, who was Potiphar's slave. God ordered Abraham to sacrifice his son, then prevented the patriarch from doing so. This, al-Rāqilī concludes, is an evident case of abrogation. But even though the Jewish scriptures are not reliable, he cites Isaiah 21:7 ("a troop of asses, a troop of camels") as an annunciation of the prophethood of Jesus and Muammad, respectively.

Al-Rāqilī's pamphlet belongs to a lower level of disputation conducted between two oppressed communities under Christian domination. Also within this category of less sophisticated works, appealing more to the common Muslim reader, are two pamphlets by fourteenth-century Jewish converts to Islam. One came from the pen of Saʿīd ibn asan of Alexandria, who, in 1320, while living in the Great Mosque of Damascus, wrote an account of his conversion. Dangerously ill and expecting to die, he suddenly heard a voice urging him to read a surah of the Qurʾān. He complied and was miraculously saved. He became such a fervent believer that he turned against the Jewish and Christian unbelievers and in his tracts, which quote biblical texts, demonstrates no qualms about distortions and absurdities.

Such is also the case with ʿAbd al-aqq al-Islāmī from Ceuta, who wrote toward the end of the century. In addition to relying on gimariyyah, the argument from the numerical value of names and words, he accused the Jews of fire worship, considered Ahab the transgressor (1 Kgs. 1618) a righteous king, nay, a Muslim believer, and presented the Hebrew phrase "The gentile is like a dog" as an authentic text.

Jewish Apologetics

Jewish writings, in Arabic and in Hebrew, attempted to present a defense against Islamic attacks. They were apologetic replies to Muslim arguments and to an extent constituted an effort to reinterpret the Jewish cause in the light of the new intellectual atmosphere under Islam.


Although Moses Maimonides (Mosheh ben Maimon, d. 1204) warned against engaging in disputations with the Muslims, because they did not accept the Hebrew Bible as a revealed text and thus shared no common ground, his Epistle to Yemen is virtually a polemical treatise. Its purpose was to prepare the synagogue public to counter Muslim arguments: "Some hearts have gone astray faith weakened," he tells his readers. "Ours is the true and authentic divine religion revealed to us through Moses. In assaults upon us some use brute force; others, controversy. Christianity and Islam combine the two methods."

The Muslim polemicists, he continues, claim to have found Muammad's name and country in Hebrew scriptures (Gn. 17:20; Dt. 33:2, 18:15). Jewish converts to Islam (presumably Samauʿal) quoting these verses cannot really believe in them; their true purpose is to win favor in the eyes of the gentiles. Muslims, unable to indicate a single verse, accuse the Jews of having altered or concealed the text. In fact, he points out, the scriptures had been translated into Greek, Aramaic, and Latin centuries before Muammad appeared.

On account of our sins God has hurled us into the midst of this people, the Arabs, who have persecuted us severely and passed baneful and discriminatory legislation against us. Never did a nation molest, degrade, debase, and hate us as much as they. No matter how much we suffer and elect to remain at peace with them, they stir up strife and sedition, as David predicted (Ps. 120:7): "I am all peace, but when I speak, they are for war."

He concludes with a warning about the danger involved in reading his epistle, but he hopes that "the secret of the Lord may be entrusted to those who fear him (Ps. 23:14)."

Ibn Kammūnah

In a class by itself stands Tanqī al-abāth fī al-milal al-thalāth (Critical Inquiry into the Three Faiths), written in Baghdad in 1280 by Saʿd ibn Manūr ibn Kammūnah. With the caliphate under Mongol rule, Islam could no longer be regarded as the faith of the ruler but remained the predominant faith of the masses. A review of Ibn Kammūnah's book in a sermon before a Friday mosque audience produced an angry mob assault, and the author had to be carried out of town hidden in a trunk.

The work begins with a brief discussion of religion in general, followed by chapters on the three monotheistic faiths. Two-thirds of the book is devoted to Islam and is based on Muslim texts; it is written in an unusually dispassionate spirit. Nonetheless, while Islam and its prophet receive a fair treatment, the cumulative impression is not favorable.

The chapter on Judaism contains a brief survey of biblical data and Jewish beliefs, followed by seven objections culled from Samauʿal al-Maghribī. These are rebutted in turn with arguments reflecting the views of Yehudah ha-Levi and Maimonides.

Ibn Kammūnah points out that communities may live side by side for centuries and yet know each other only slightly:

But the contact of Muslims with Jews does not necessitate a Muslim inquiry into what the Jews assert, especially since the Jews are prevented from declaring their creed, and their [canonical] books are in a tongue the Muslims do not understand. The contact of a minority with a majority affects the majority and the minority differently. Thus, when a linguistic minority is in contact with a linguistic majority, the minority learns the language of the majority while the majority does not learn the language of the minority or, at best, learns it much later. Moreover, despite numerous contacts of the bulk of the Jews with the Muslims, many Jews still do not know the basic Islamic tenets known by the rank-and-file Muslims, let alone the elite. It is even more natural that a similar situation should obtain on the Muslim side, or, at the very least, that both sides should be equal [in mutual ignorance].

Moreover, the Muslims are split into various factions anathemizing one another. He lists the Christians' internal dissensions and remarks:

I did not find most of these retorts in discussions by Christians; I supplied these retorts on behalf of the Christians, and in supplementation of the investigation into their belief.

This evoked the admiration of a Christian opponent.

In discussing the Muslims' factions and their respective claims, he notes:

There is room for speculation in this matter. Namely, many a person will, for worldly goals and motives, do things for which, as he most assuredly knows, the founder of his respective religion has threatened severe punishment in the hereafter. This belief will not prevent a man from perpetrating that forbidden evil. Such is the case of the adulterer, wine-imbiber, and slanderer. In the quest for victory over opponents, human nature will urge the fabrication of reports favoring one's religion. Ignoring the prohibition against lying, a man will sometimes fabricate such a report in the [mistaken] belief that he will merit reward therefor. It may also be fabricated by one who joined a faith opportunisticallywithout inner conviction but rather in the quest for success, like many who nowadays join the faith of Islam in order to prevail over rivals, although they are not believers by conviction. If your assertion were true, no Muslim would ever have fabricated a false tradition; the contrary, however, is the case.

Summarizing the arguments for Muammad's prophethood, he contends that they remain unproven and remarks:

That is why, to this day, we never see anyone converting to Islam unless in terror, or in quest of power, or to avoid heavy taxation, or to escape humiliation, or if taken prisoner, or because of infatuation with a Muslim woman, or for some similar reason. Nor do we see a respected, wealthy, and pious non-Muslim well versed in both his faith and that of Islam, going over to the Islamic faith without some of the aforementioned or similar motives.

Likewise, he rejects the argument that victory and power are proof of divine support:

How, since the dominion of idol-worshipers and fire-worshipers continued for thousands of years in numberless countries throughout the world, can a multitude of followers be proof of a claim? I found they had no rebuttal to these arguments beyond the claim that the Islamic faith obviously excels over other faiths, and that it combines a maximum quantity and quality of perfection not attained by any other known faith. But he who, in rancor, makes this claim will never be able to present proof of it.

Decline of the Genre

After 1400, Muslim polemics were largely reiterations of earlier arguments presented in insignificant pamphlets. One noteworthy exception is a disputation conducted in 1796 by a Persian scholar, Sayyid Muammad Mahdī abāabāʾī; known through an account in Arabic, this event appears to have been characterized by uncommon mildness and magnanimity. Within the Ottoman empire, probably from Christian circles, it was charged from time to time that the Jews used (Christian) blood to bake the unleavened bread for Passover. This "blood libel" emerged in Damascus in 1840 and resurfaced repeatedly thereafter.

In the nineteenth century, anti-Jewish moods and arguments began to penetrate the Muslim world from Western sources, at first especially through French anti-Semitism. In the twentieth century, the conflict in Palestine and the rise of Zionism were bound to rekindle the embers of the medieval controversy as a religious appendage to the conflict. But the literature of the religious aspect has proven extremely poor in content, confined to reiteration of arguments from the eleventh and twelfth centuries: passages from the Qurʾān and the traditions, a flood of epithets characterizing the Jews as eternally vicious fiends against the Muslims, against Muslims and Christians, and indeed, against all humanity, as enemies ever plotting against what is human and good, for the sake of world domination by Jewry and Israel.

All in all, Islamic polemics directed against Jews are an arid area of insubstantial writing, of minor interest to the Muslims themselves. For their part, the Jews kept a low profile and preferred not to retort. But many allusions to the Muslim arguments can be found in medieval prayers, as well as in exegetical and theological works.


The classic compendium on Arabic-language polemics among Muslims, Christians, and Jews is Moritz Steinschneider's Polemische und apologetische Literatur in arabischer Sprache, zwischen Muslimen, Christen und Juden (1877; reprint, Hildesheim, 1965). Other early studies include several by Ignácz Goldziher in his Gesammelte Schriften, 3 vols. (Hildesheim, 19671970), and Martin Schreiner's "Zur Geschichte der Polemik zwischen Juden und Muhammedanern," Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft 42 (1888): 591675.

Salo W. Baron addresses the subject, with extensive bibliography, in A Social and Religious History of the Jews, 2d ed., rev. & enl., vol. 5 (New York, 1957), pp. 82108. I have also written a survey, "The Medieval Polemics between Islam and Judaism," in Religion in a Religious Age, edited by S. D. Goitein (Cambridge, Mass., 1974).

For specialized studies, see Jacob Mann's "An Early Theologico-Polemical Work," Hebrew Union College Annual 13/14 (19371938): 411459; Emilio García Gomez's "Polémica religiosa entre Ibn azm e Ibn al-Nagrila," Al-Andalus 4 (1936): 128; Miguel Asín Palacios's "Un tratado morisco de polémica contra los Judios," in Mélanges Hartwig Derenbourg (Paris, 1909), pp. 343366, reprinted in his Obras escogidas, vols. 23, De historia y filogogia arabe (Madrid, 1948); Joseph Perles's R. Salomo ben Abraham ben Adereth: Sein Leben und seine Schriften (Breslau, 1863); and ʿAfīf ʿAbd al-Fattā abbārah's Al-Yahūd fī al-Qurʾān (Beirut, 1966). An Israeli view of modern developments is Yehoshafat Harkabi's Arab Attitudes to Israel, translated by Misha Louvish (New York, 1972).

A number of the original sources are also available in translation. Among the Muslim writers, Ibn azm's Kitāb al-fial wa-al-nial, 5 vols. in 2 (1903; reprint, Baghdad, 1964), has been translated by Miguel Asín Palacios in volume 2 of his Abenházam de Córdoba (Madrid, 1927), and I have edited and translated Samauʿal al-Maghribī's Ifām al-Yahūd: Silencing the Jews (New York, 1964). The early formulations of the debate from the Jewish perspective are reflected in the third treatise of Sa'adyah Gaon's The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, translated by Samuel Rosenblatt (New Haven, 1948). Other Jewish texts include Moses Maimonides's Epistle to Yemen, edited by Abraham S. Halkin and translated by Boaz Cohen (New York, 1952), and Ibn Kammūna's Examination of the Three Faiths: A Thirteenth Century Essay in the Comparative Study of Religion (Berkeley, 1971), which I have edited and translated.

Moshe Perlmann (1987)