Shoddy and inaccurate?


Juan Cole, the University of Michigan professor and blogger, fancies himself a fact-checker who uncovers hidden truths via the Arabic press. He attempted this most recently in a post entitled “Did the Muslim Brotherhood Threaten to Kill ‘All Jews’?”

His target was a report from Cairo by the Israeli journalist Eldad Beck, written for the Israeli daily Yedi’ot Aharonot (Ynet). The English-language version of Beck’s report, referenced by Cole, carried this headline: “Cairo rally: One day we’ll kill all Jews.” It described a rally held on November 25 and organized in cooperation with the Muslim Brotherhood at Al Azhar Mosque in Cairo. The report included this line: “Time and again, a Koran quote vowing that ‘one day we shall kill all the Jews’ was uttered at the site.” Some newspapers and many blogs recycled Beck’s report.

Cole sprang into action. First, he unearthed a short Arabic press report of the same event, “clearly written by a reporter on the scene,” and announced this discovery: “It does not say anything about the speakers or the crowd threatening to kill all Jews, and I don’t believe any such threat was made.” Cole then added that no Qur’anic verse speaks of killing the Jews: “The Qur’an doesn’t call for all Jews to be killed, and neither did the Muslim Brotherhood last Friday.” Beck, he declared, “clearly does not know what he is talking about”; his reporting of the rally was “shoddy and wholly inaccurate.” Cole capped his reprimand with an accusation: “If Beck had simply said that the Muslim Brotherhood crowds want Jerusalem back for Islamdom and evinced hostility toward Israelis, he would have been right. But his breathless exaggeration slides over into Islamophobia.”

Cole thought he’d exposed a case of journalistic incompetence, but I wondered. Eldad Beck is a serious correspondent. He did a degree in Arabic and Islamic studies at the Sorbonne, and is renowned for traveling to Arab and Muslim countries on a European passport to report from places Israeli journalists dare not tread (e.g., Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan). Cole referenced Beck’s report in English, but it originally appeared in Hebrew, and I suspected the Hebrew original might be more precise. So I consulted it.

It’s a more detailed report than the English translation of it. In the key passage, Beck wrote the following (my own translation from the Hebrew):

Brotherhood speakers and their guests from “Palestine” called explicitly for a jihad to liberate all of Palestine. Again and again, the quote was referenced, according to which “the day will come and we will kill all the Jews until even the stones and trees will say to us: ‘a Jew hides behind us, kill him!’”

So that’s it. Beck had heard speakers recite a well-known canonical hadith (a saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad), about an event that will signal the imminence of Judgement Day. It goes like this (with only the slightest variations depending on the hadith collection):

The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “The Hour will not come until the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them. When a Jew hides behind a rock or a tree, it will say, ‘O Muslim, O servant of Allah! There is a Jew behind me, come and kill him!’”

Note that Beck didn’t attribute this “quote” to the Qur’an. That (erroneous) attribution was apparently introduced into the English translation by a Ynet translator. And Beck did label it a “quote.” Precisely.

In the comments section of Cole’s post, someone actually did speculate that perhaps the “hiding Jew” hadith was recited at the rally. Cole dismissed this: “The Arabic accounts don’t report that one [hadith] chanted at al-Husayn [Square, i.e., Al Azhar].” Well, those accounts (actually, Cole linked to only one) are incomplete. At least two speakers at the Azhar rally recited the hadith.

One was Abd al-Rahman al-Barr, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood Guidance Bureau. If you know Arabic, you can watch him recite it, at minute 8:10 of this clip filmed inside the mosque. (Clicking will take you right to the moment.)

And he wasn’t the only one: Shaykh Muhammad Mukhtar al-Mahdi, professor at Al Azhar and head of the Islamic Law Society, did so too at minute 8:05 of this clip, also filmed inside the mosque. (Clicking will take you directly to that moment.)

So Beck did hear the hadith recited at least twice, and he reported that fact.

In response to that same reader who guessed at the “hiding Jew” hadith, Cole made another off-base rejoinder. “There are thousands of hadith,” he huffed in a comment on the comment. “Most Muslims don’t accept the weak or obscure ones.” Well, it’s true that there are thousands of hadiths, but Islamic scholarship has a methodology for determining the weak ones. The “hiding Jew” hadith is included in the most canonical hadith collections (Bukhari and Muslim) as sahih, “authentic,” and is classified as marfu’, “elevated”—a hadith traceable in an unbroken line back to the Prophet Muhammad. It’s rated triple-A. Nor is it obscure. In fact, it’s one of the most quoted Jew-related passages in the Islamic canon. It figures most notably in the Hamas covenant (art. 7), and you can watch the late Osama Bin Laden recite it too (min. 6:20).

As to the substance, I suppose there is some difference between Muslim extremists vowing to “one day kill all Jews,” and their quoting an end-of-times prophecy that Muslims will one day kill the Jews with the help of rocks and trees that will betray the stragglers. I’m just not sure how much of a difference it is. In any case, though, the hadith predates the State of Israel by well over a millennium, so it certainly can’t be attributed to Israeli provocation. Those who invoke it—the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Bin Laden—root their hatred of Israel in a much deeper stratum of Islamic animosity toward the Jews. Those who downplay that sort of Judeophobia just help to perpetuate it.

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