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Do Some Muslims Believe Jews Came From Apes and Swine? July 29, 2006

Posted by C.A.R.D in Ape, Apes, Apes and Swine, blog, Card, Citizens Against Racism and Discrimination, Eteraz, Jew, Jewish, maulvi, Monkey, Monkeys, Muslim, Muslims, Pig, Quran, Racism, Swine, tafsir.

The Eteraz blog has written an interesting article about the belief by some Muslims that Jews came from apes and swine. Could it be true that this idea comes directly from the Quran? Story follows below:

When I was a child in Pakistan my mother and I hired a religious tutor, a “maulvi,” to come to our house and help us do exegesis (tafsir) of the entire Quran. I was nine. It was fun being a student alongside my mom because she did all the work and knew all the answers and I could zone out. The maulvi would come on his bicycle, guzzle down a gallon of butter-milk and shove down the requisite two or three potato-filled parathas and then proceed to go through the Quran with us, verse by verse, and reference the works of exegetes like Mawdudi and Ibn Kathir to tell us what each verse meant. It was an enjoyable experience until my mother told my dad that the maulvi hit on her. My mother dropped out and I had to go to the maulvi at his dingy mosque in the commercial section. A week into my solitary lessons we were discussing Moses and his people that the maulvi told me the astounding fact that once upon a time the Jews were turned into monkeys. Of course at first I didn’t believe this, but he told me it was right there in the Quran. As I was leaving he told me that some of the Jews were actually pigs (the word he used was the Urdu word “khanzeer” which is closer to “swine.”)

A few days later I too stopped going to the maulvi because I found I could use the money my father gave me to pay the maulvi and instead spend it in the toy market. The whole idea of Jews as apes and pigs was forgotten.

Many years later in America, I started noticing, especially in light of the rhetoric coming out of Palestine, that an astounding number of Muslims ascribed to the notion that Jews were the descendants of apes and pigs. On the grapevine I heard that Shaykh Tantawi, head of the Al-Azhar University, the purported fount of Sunni learning, had made public statements about the Jews being descendents of apes and pigs. I then found confirmation that other leading Muslim scholars were propounding this view, including none other than the designated Imam of the Holy Kaba in Mecca: Shaykh Sudais (who strangely weeps through his entire prayers). An uneducated, sexually frustrated maulvi in Pakistan was one thing; heads of the house of learning (Azhar) and worship (Mecca) in Islam ascribing to such ideas were quite another. I decided it was time to see for myself what was going on. I told myself, surely this is not Islam. We cannot really believe that people are descendents of animals. So I turned to the Quran, hoping that those three words “Jews,” “apes,” and “swine” were not in the same paragraph.

Much to my disappointment, they were. Verses 5:60, 2:65, and 7:166. [Following are the Yusuf Ali interpretations].


Say: “Shall I point out to you something much worse than this, (as judged) by the treatment it received from Allah? those who incurred the curse of Allah and His wrath, those of whom some He transformed into apes and swine, those who worshipped evil;- these are (many times) worse in rank, and far more astray from the even path!”


And well ye knew those amongst you who transgressed in the matter of the Sabbath: We said to them: “Be ye apes, despised and rejected.”


When in their insolence they transgressed (all) prohibitions, We said to them: “Be ye apes, despised and rejected.”

They were right there, staring me in the face. I was deflated. After a long-standing stand-off against God due to fashionable collegiate atheism, I had only recently affirmed Allah in my heart. Upon seeing the verses I felt how I felt when I saw the second plane hit the tower (because the second one confirmed premeditation). I remembered a particular scene from Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses” where Gibril and Chamcha see a group of snakes, lizards and reptiles in a jail and they wonder what has happened to them, and the reptiles reply something to the effect of, “they [jailers] described us.” Rushdie’s point is that language can dehumanize, and if language is our primary tool for knowledge, then a person described as less than a human might as well be turned into what he has been described as. There is power in words, to put it mildly.

I have a lot of respect for the Jewish tradition (whatever that is). To me, it is Moses and Maimonides and Spinoza and Marx and Levinas and Buber and Brandeis and Derrida. I have taken in as much Bellow in my life as I have Bukhari (the hadith scholar). As much Itzhak Perlman as I have Rumi. These verses represented something more than just a bump on the road to reconciliation with Islam and thus I found myself faced up against an edifice of Islamic tradition I never intended to be opposed to. Much of the tradition, on the authority of Ibn Kathir, believed that when the Quran said the Jews turned into apes and swine, that, in fact, is what happened. Literally. This view, taken to its logical conclusion led other commentators such as Qurtubi (though memory fails me at the moment), to wonder how those turned into apes and swine could have off-spring. Even the monist mystic Ibn ‘Arabi got in on the debate and concluded that those turned into animals are what gave us the animals of today.

My mother tried to give the verses a spin but when I showed her the translations cited above, she shook her head and shrugged her shoulders. A friend tried to point out that at least the animals the Jews were turned into (apes and pigs) were those with whom humans had the most genetic similarity. I appreciated his effort but this was not enough for me. It became compulsion and I decided that it was time that I stopped looking around for answers and read the Quran myself. So, instead of looking on the web for translations I went and purchased a copy of the translation of the Quran as performed by Leopold Weiss, a man who had been a Jew and then converted to Islam, eventually becoming the first citizen of Pakistan and the close friend of the late Kind Saud. Not only that, but I recalled that Leopold Weiss (Muhammad Asad as he was later called) stated in his biography that the biggest hurdle in his acceptance of Islam had been that he could not accept that Muhammad was divinely inspired. Until a few months ago, this had been my particular problem as well, and so I thought, surely a man who had the chutzpah to state openly his doubts in the Prophet and then found a way to resolve them, could be considered a serious scholar.

I started with verse 5:60 in his translation.

Say: “Shall I tell you who, in the sight of God, deserves a yet worse retribution than these? They whom God has rejected and whom He has condemned, and whom He has turned into apes and swine because they worshipped the powers of evil:” these are yet worse in station, and farther astray from the right path [than the mockers].

The first thing I noted, that I had missed the first time around when looking at this verse, was the fact that there was no mention of Jews. “They whom God has rejected and whom He has condemned” were the ones turned into apes and swine “because they worshipped the powers of evil.” Of course, that did not mean this verse didn’t refer to Jews; oh no, it did refer to them. Except, it turned out, that this verse not only referred to Jews, but also to Christians. A subsequent pharse refers to “Men of God” and “Rabbis” – with the Men of God being a reference to Christians (especially in light of the fact that in verse 66 the Gospel is mentioned explicitly). My headache wasn’t gone, but I felt a little better. A book that did not discriminate in its epithets seemed a lot more palatable than a book that seemed to single out the most persecuted group in the history of mankind. Of course, it was not exactly a relief because now I was confronted with the fact that even more people were being referred to as descendants of apes and swine!

The other two ape and swine verses were limited to Jews, but thankfully they offered a way of resolving the issue.

Here is how Asad had rendered the two verses:


and then, when they disdainfully persisted in doing what they had been forbidden to do, We said unto them: “Be as apes despicable!””‘


for you are well aware of those from among you who profaned the Sabbath, whereupon We said unto them, “Be as apes despicable!”

That “as” I knew quite well: “So am I as the rich, whose blessed key can bring him to his sweet locked up treasure” said Shakespeare. It was the “as” — the blessed “as” — of metaphor! I rejoiced a hundred times over. A metaphor means that the finality of language is absent. Being “as” something is not the same as being something. Could it be that the Quran was engaged in metaphor-making? If references to apes and swines were metaphors, it meant that the people being referred to had expressed the qualities of an “ape” and the qualities of a “pig.” Given the fact that in classical Arabic an ape was someone impulsive and a pig was someone stubborn, the metaphors seemed almost innocous (Especially since in all languages animals are used as referrants for certain qualities. Once we could learn what qualities classical Arabic invoked when referring to those animals, we could understand what the metaphor was referring to.

Before I got too excited I wanted to be certain this “as” was not a mere blip on the radar. I had too many feelings hurt to risk hurting them again. So I went and consulted another translation, this one by Shakir.


Therefore when they revoltingly persisted in what they had been forbidden, We said to them: Be (as) apes, despised and hated.


And certainly you have known those among you who exceeded the limits of the Sabbath, so We said to them: Be (as) apes, despised and hated.

Granted that the other two famous English translations (Yusuf Ali and Pickthall), did not have the metaphorical “as” in them the presence of the “as” in two of the more famous translations was enough to get my mind churning, and this time I was not reliant upon any authority except that of my God given reason. Suddenly I started to see patterns in the Quran that further cast light on these questionable (and certainly questionably used) verses.

First, I noticed that 2:65 was part of a flashback sequence beginning at 2:47 where the Quran was addressing the Jewish and Christian communities in the time of Muhammad and asking them to revisit their own theological histories and their relationship with God. In other words, the addressees were the Jews and Christians of that time (those alive in the life of Muhammad). This is an important distinction because the Quran treats the time during which Muhammad was alive, different than all other times. Things that were allowed, or done, during the life of Muhammad, were often not allowed, or done, after his passing. Consider: Muhammad was allowed to have nine wives, but all other Muslims can, at most, have up to four (and even there the Quran question whether one can act favorably). Muhammad was required to stay up and pray all night; all later Muslims are not so required. Muhammad was the one allowed to exact jizya from the dhimmis; after his passing the distinction was to be abolished (but sadly was not — more on this some other day). Thus, the fact that the Quran directly addressed only those Jews and Christians alive in Muhammad’s time, was significant.

Then, far more astoundingly, I noticed that the sequence starting at 2:47 actually opened with the incredible assertion:

“O children of Israel! Remember those blessings of Mine with which I graced you, and how I favoured you above all other people.”

Pardon? This seemed to me like the clearest case of the Quran picking favorites, and the presence of verses that spoke favorably of Jews and Christians at the opening of the passage soothed me somewhat further. It more firmly established the conversational nature of the discussion in the Quran. I also recalled the hadith of the Prophet which stated that of all the Prophets, Moses was God’s favorite.

At this point, I wondered whether there were other cases of “animalization” in the Quran. Whether one could truly conclude that the verses that bothered me were metaphors. While others may be aware of more, I found a couple of astounding ones.

In Surah Fil, the Chapter of Elephant, in reference to an attack made upon Mecca before the birth of Muhammad, the Quran says, referring to those that fought the invading army from Yemen:


let loose upon them great swarms of flying creatures

Some Muslim commentators, the same ones that thought that ape and pig were references to literal transformation, have interpreted this verse to mean that a swarm of flying creatures, literally, were let loose upon the invaders. However, when considered in light of classical Arabic, we realize that the idea of a “great swarm of flying creatures” was a metaphor popular among the poets in the day to refer to the state of utter decimation wrought by a group of brave warriors (the metaphor was likely popular because birds (kites and vultures) often hung out near battle-fields).

Another metaphor about animals was popular among poets of pre-Islamic Arabia. Although not in the Quran, this was the notion of the hamstrung camel, which was a metaphor for exile and loneliness. While the hamstrung camel does not appear in the Quran, the pregnant, kneeling, camel does (in the thirtieth Juz), and refers to a feeling of alienation.

In any case, in the Chapter of the Elephant, in a non-Jewish/Christian context, the Quran had animalized a group of people (namely, the Quraysh which included the Prophet’s grandfather). This gave me further proof that the reference to apes and swines was a metaphorical representation of the qualities that certain group of historical people exhibited which were like the qualities exhibited by certain animals familiar to the Arabs and was not a suggestion that Jews or Christians were the descendants of such animals, nor was it meant to read that they were animals to this day. Under classical Arabic, anyone could be an ape (if they were stubborn) just as anyone could be a hamstrung or pregnant camel (if they were lonely).

However, we must not stop here. We must not make theoretical arguments and then be satisfied. Anti-semitism is rife in the Muslim world. It is rife in European Muslim youth. In Iran and Pakistan. Muslims have to take accountability for this. They have to excavate and upturn their tradition to rid it of the strangehold of the maulvis who do not have the intellectual facility, or interest, to assure that Islam conforms to its humanistic impulse. Free it from those who turn metaphors into literalism. The Jews are the most persecuted race on the face of the earth. Yet, that has not stopped the Jews from extending a helpful and supportive hand to all other races. I freely admit that part of the impetus in writing this article has been the friendship of Jewish people such as Annie. In my opinion, no people have had more moral clarity than the Jews. While Muslims are free to disagree with Jews upon matters of politics and policy, they must not compromise their integrity, nor compromise the humanity of the Jews. As I have demonstrated, a little use of one’s mind, will show one a clear path out of the stultification of the intellectual night. The fact that the interpretation of the verses I have set forth is not popular is not an indictment of the Quran; it is an indictment of all Muslims everywhere who have perpetuated dangerous literalism. There are men and women in the tradition who have read these verses as I have. The jurists Mujahid, Asad and Ghamidi being some of them. But it is insufficient for a handful of scholars to believe such things. Our aunts and uncles, neighbors and maulvis, must be taught better.

God gave reason to the Muslim; it is the Muslim who has forgotten what he possesses. Almost seems at times that some magician has said to the Muslim “Be you stone.”

Source: Eteraz Blog

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