Ezra (Uzayr) The ‘Son Of God’

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Kaleef K. Karim

This article examines the alleged claim made by critics that Quran 9:30 contains a historical error. This is in regards to the Quranic passage about Jews taking Ezra (Uzair) as the son of God (Q. 9:30).

Related Article:
Quran: Mary Part Of The Trinity?

The claim by critics is summarised as such:

– Ezra has never been called ‘son of God’ by Jews
– The Old Testament never mentions anything of such.
– In addition, the verse (9:30) charges all Jews with such a belief. Therefore, the Quran is historically inaccurate to assert that Jews called Ezra the ‘son of God’.

Let us consider the following:

1. The Quran mentions nothing about all Jews believing Ezra to be the ‘Son of God’.
2. The Quran never claims that this is in the Old Testament.
3. The verse may indicate to critics that it is referring to all Jews, but this is not what the intended meaning is. For example, let’s read this verse:

Fight against those who (1) believe not in Allah, (2) nor in the Last Day, (3) nor forbid that which has been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger (4) and those who acknowledge not the religion of truth (i.e. Islam) among the people of the Scripture (Jews and Christians), until they pay the Jizyah with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued. – Quran 9:29

If one reads the above verse at face value, they would think the verse sanctions the killing of Jews and Christians at all times. However, when we read why the verse was revealed, in its historical context, the passage was sent down to Prophet Muhammed (p) in order to fight the Byzantine (Roman) empire who had mobilised troops in order to exterminate the Muslims. Read the following two articles on the verse (9:29) for more info: click here and here. Similarly, there is a verse (and other verses) in the Bible which says:

“Even one of their own men, a prophet from Crete, has said about them, “The people of Crete are all liars, cruel animals, and lazy gluttons.” – Titus 1:12

Should we say that ‘ALL’ Cretans are liars, ‘cruel animals’ throughout history to today? No, of course not. Sometimes certain words get used and it may indicate that it refers to all people, but the intended meaning is that it is only speaking to a certain, specific group of people. There are many more verses similar to the above that I can use from the Bible, but I think this verse is sufficient enough to show that a verse does not always refer to all people even if it may seem so reading it.

Now, let us turn to the term ‘Son of God’. Throughout the Old Testament, there are passages where God (YHWH) has Son(s) or even daughters. Anyone familiar with the Old Testament would come to realise that the term son of God was used frequently by Jews. Whether they took the term in its literal sense or figuratively is unclear. But what we do know as a matter of fact is that the term did not denote how Christians understood it in later centuries. Moreover, being called the ‘Son of God’ before the Christian era was a sign that the person was pious, that they were a righteous person or used for a person who has a close relationship with God Almighty. Let’s take a look at some instances in the Old Testament where the term has been used:

“When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God.” – Deuteronomy 32:8 

And

 “The LORD saw this and rejected them because he was angered by his sons and daughters.” – Deuteronomy 32:19

And

“Ascribe to the LORD, O sons of the mighty, Ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.” – Psalms 29:1 

This brings us to ask the following: If normal people are called by the term ‘son of God’, wouldn’t Ezra have more of a right to be called by that? Did he not bring the Torah back? Wasn’t Ezra held in high esteem by all Jews? Did they not compare Ezra to Moses? The Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 21b goes as far as to say that if Ezra was born before Moses, that Ezra was more worthy of receiving the Torah for Israel:

Talmud Sanhedrin 21b

“It has been taught: Rabbi Jose said: Had Moses not preceded him, Ezra would have been worthy of receiving the Torah for Israel. Of Moses it is written, and Moses went up unto God, and of Ezra it is written, He, Ezra, went up from Babylon. As the going up of the former refers to the [receiving of the] Law, so does the going up of the latter. Concerning Moses, it is stated: And the Lord commanded me at that time to teach you statuses and judgements; and concerning Ezra, it is stated: For Ezra had prepared his heart to expound the law of the Lord [his God] to do it and to teach Israel statuses and judgements. And even though the Torah was not given through him, its writing was changed through him, as it is written…”

Indeed, Allah has blessed us with Prophet Muhammed (p). If we as Muslims are uncertain of a verse in the Quran, and what it means, God Almighty orders us to go and find out what Prophet (p) had to say (Q. 16:44 and 16:64), so as to get a better understanding. The Hadith (saying of Prophet Muhammed) is clear that this verse was only referring to some group of Jews that had such a belief. Prophet Muhammed (p) says in the following Hadith:

“…Somebody will then announce, ‘Let every nation follow what they used to worship.’ So the companions of the cross will go with their cross, and the idolators (will go) with their idols, and the companions of every god (false deities) (will go) with their god, till there remain those who used to worship Allah, both the obedient ones and the mischievous ones, and SOME OF THE PEOPLE OF THE SCRIPTURE. Then Hell will be presented to them as if it were a mirage. Then it will be said to the Jews, ‘What did you use to worship?’ They will reply, ‘WE USED TO WORSHIP EZRA, THE SON OF ALLAH.’” (Sahih al-Bukhari Vol. 9, Book 93, Hadith 532)

Prophet Muhammed explains in the above Hadith what will happen to those that followed the truth and those who associated partners with God on the day of judgement. Careful reading of the above Hadith proves that only some people of the scripture will be punished and sent to the hell fire for ascribing the abilities of God to Ezra. The report goes on and mentions that the Jews (people of the scripture) will be asked what they used to worship and they will say they “used to worship Ezra the son of Allah”. Reading the above report carefully, it shows that only some people of the scripture (people of scripture refers to Jews and Christians) will be punished for idolatry.

This hadith proves that only some Jews used to worship Ezra. When I say ‘worship’, I don’t mean in its literal sense such as praying and bowing down, but in the sense of Jews following the judgement Ezra over God’s verses.

This is why the Quran warns Muslims not to act like the people of prior scripture (Ahlul Kitab), for they took their Rabbis and Priests as Lords (Quran 9:31). Not in the sense of literally worshipping them, but because they took their words, interpretations and teachings over what God Almighty revealed. This is what is meant by the verse (9:30) under discussion.

One of the most well-known stories among Christians and Jews is the story of how the Israelites started worshipping a calf. The excuse of the followers was that Moses was taking too long to return and they started wondering if he were ever to return. According the Exodus, the followers of Moses started turning to Aaron and said:

“It appears as if your little brother is not going to return, would you fashion some new gods for us to worship?”

And Aaron obeyed their command and answered them back by saying:

“Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.” – Exodus 32:2-5

Why can critics not grasp the fact that there were some Jews who exalted and worshipped Ezra (Uzayr)? Reading Exodus 32, Moses wasn’t even too long away when his followers ended up worshipping a calf. The Jews were with one of the greatest Prophet’s ever lived. Yet, despite this closeness, they had fallen to paganism so quickly, drifting away from the path of monotheism.

In addition, besides the above evidence on Ezra, classical to contemporary commentaries on the Quran have all stated that this belief was only held by some Jews, that the verse (9:30) does not charge all Jews with this. Let’s now turn to the commentaries for the verse:

Classical and Contemporary commentaries on the verse

Ibn Abbas:

“Sallam b. Mishkam, Nu’man b. Abi awfa, shas b. Qays, and Malik al-sayf [Jews] came to the Prophet  Muhammad (p) and said: ‘How can we follow you if you renounce that which came before you. You do not think that Ezra is the son of God?’ So Allah revealed to him the verse.
Arabic:
قوله تعالى : ( وقالت اليهود عزير ابن الله وقالت النصارى المسيح ابن الله ) روى سعيد بن جبير وعكرمة عن ابن عباس قال : أتى رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم جماعة من اليهود : سلام بن مشكم ، والنعمان بن أوفى ، وشاس بن قيس ، ومالك بن الصيف ، فقالوا : كيف نتبعك وقد تركت قبلتنا وأنت لا تزعم أن عزيرا ابن الله؟ فأنزل الله عز وجل : ( وقالت اليهود عزير ابن الله ). (Tasfir al-Baghawi (4/36), online source, http://islamport.com/l/tfs/799/1238.htm )”

Qurtubi:

“‘The Jews say’ is general but it means something more specific because not all of the Jews say this, as when God says: ‘Those people who say’ it does not mean all people. What is meant by the Jews here is Sallam b. Mishkam, Nu’man b. Abi Awfa, Shas b. Qays, and Malik b. al-sayf. They said this to the Prophet Muhammad. Naqqash says there no more Jews remaining who say this, for they died out.”

Dr. Muhammad Mohar Ali

“It is to be noted that this ayah is unanimously regarded as Madinan. Hence the silence of the Jews of the place on the matter is suggestive enough, particularly as they were avowed critics of the Prophet. Not only Al-Baydawi but also other commentators mention that the ayah refers to the views of a particular group of the Hews. For instance, Al-Tabari gives a number of reports together with their chains of narrators specifically mentioning the leading Jews of Madina who considered Uzayr a son of God. The most prominent of those Jews were Finhas, Sullam ibn Mishkam, Nu’man ibn Awfa, Sha’s ibn Qays and Malik ibn al-sayf.” [1]

Maulana Muhammad Ali

“That there was a sect among the Jews who raised Ezra to the dignity of godhead, or son f God, is shown by Muslim historians. Qastalani says, in the Kitan al-Nikah, that there was a party of Jews who held this belief. Nor did the Jews deny this allegation. The Qur’an, too, mentions it only here in connection with the Christian doctrine, never blaming the Jews directly in the many controversies with them in the earlier chapters, and this shows that the Jewish nation as a whole was not guilty of entertaining this belief. Another explanation of the statement made here is the free use of the word son. Elsewhere the Qur’an says of the Jews and Christians that they call themselves the sons of Allah and His beloved ones (5:18), the meaning only being that they considered themselves special favourites of the Divine Being. Hence the belief regarding Ezra may be interpreted in the same light, for there is clear evidence that the Talmudists used very exaggerated language concerning him. Among the prophets of Israel, Ezra was specially honoured. In Rabbinical literature Ezra was considered ‘worthy of being the vehicle of the law, had it not been already given through Moses’. He is regarded and quoted as the type of person most competent and learned in the law. The Rabbis associate his name with several important institutions’ (Jewish Encyclopaedia).” [2]

The Message of The Quran – Muhammad Asad

“As regards the belief attributed to the Jews that R=Ezra (or, in the Arabicised from of this name, ‘Uzayr)) was ‘God’s son’, it is to be noted that almost all classical commentators of the Qur’an agree in that only the Jews of Arabia, and not all Jews, have been thus accused. (According to a tradition on the authority of Ibn Abbas – quoted by Tabari in his commentary on this verse – some of the Jews of Medina once said to Muhammad, ‘How could we follow thee when thou hast forsaken our qiblah and does not consider Ezra a son of God?’) On the other hand, Ezra occupies a unique position in the esteem of all Jews, and has always been praised by them in the most extravagant terms. It was he who restored and codified the Torah after it had been lost during the Babylonian Exile, and ‘edited’ it in more or less the form which it has today; and thus ‘he promoted the establishment of an exclusive, legalistic type of religion that became dominant in later Judaism’ (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1963, volume. IX, page 15). Ever since then he has been venerated to such a degree that his verdicts on the law of Moses have come to be regarded by the Talmudists as being practically equivalent to the law itself: which, in Qur’anic ideology, amounts to the unforgiveable sin of shirk, inasmuch as it implies the elevation of a human being to the status of a quasi-divine law-giver and the blasphemous attribution to him – albeit metaphorically – of the quality of ‘sonship’ in relation to God. Cf. in this connection Exodus iv, 22-23 (‘Israel is My son’) or Jeremiah xxxi, 9 (‘I am a father to Israel’): expressions to which, because of their idolatrous implications, the Qur’an takes strong exception.” [3]

Besides the above factual evidences presented, there indeed existed a community of Jews which exalted Ezra to such a degree that Allah declared them to be polytheists. The only people who have a problem with the Quranic verse are those who want to undermine the religion of Islam by spreading falsehood to doubt people’s faiths. On the other hand, truthful, honest Jewish scholars do not have a problem with what the Quran charges against the Jews of Arabia. Here are two Jewish Scholars commenting on the verse:

Professor Rabbi Reuven Firestone

“While it is clear that Judaism as a religious civilization does not accept the view that God has partners or children, it is probable that some fringe groups pushed the limits of acceptable belief with the important figure of Ezra. Two ancient and originally Jewish books, for example, associate a near-divine or angelic status to the biblical personages of Ezra and Enoch. These are 4 Ezra, also known as 2 Esdras 14:9, 50 and 2 Enoch 22:11. Although composed by Jews, both of these books were rejected by Judaism and did not become part of its canonical literature. However, because of their parallels with Christian beliefs, some Christian groups adopted and preserved them. It appears as if some members of a Jewish sect espousing these beliefs were living in Medina at the time of the Prophet and expressed such views, which were immediately rejected and countered through the revelation of the Qur’anic verse.” [4]

Professor Moshe Idel

“Indeed in the Qur’an 9:30, some Jews were described critically as believing in a form of sonship relating to the mysterious figure of Uzair, who was designated as the Son of God, and Muslim authors even reported that some Jews worshipped him as such. This means that long before the emergence of the Ashkenazi esoteric literatures to be discussed below in chapter 2, concerning a hypostatic versus a national understanding of sonship, some Jews entertained concepts of or even practiced worship related to figure described as a Son of God. Do these two references to sonship reflect a broader historical situation? At least in principle, we should be aware of the possible role played by the vast poetic literature written in the land of Israel in the early Middle Ages, and its impact on southern Italian poems since the ninth century, and also of the role played by Ashkenazi religious poetry in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, in transmission of mythologoumena from East to West. Since those literatures are quite abstruse, and many of them have not yet been analysed from the conceptual point of view, they may constitute another potential bridge between continents and historical periods.” [5]

In conclusion, the Quranic text 9:30 is in itself an historic proof of the reality that there was a Jewish sect that exalted Ezra (Uzayr) and indeed he was called by the term ‘son Of God’, for why would the Quran speak of something if it never existed? Chapter 9:30 must be accepted at least as an eyewitness in history that there existed a Jewish group which had such beliefs. One must remember that Prophet Muhammed (p) had many enemies, and it would have been not difficult for his enemies to point out that this accusation against Jews in Madina was not true; hence the whole faith (Islam) would have been destroyed. But yet we cannot find a shred of evidence either from Muslim or non-Muslim sources which says anything against the verse. Moreover, the silence of the Jews (living amongst the Prophet) against the verse (9:30), where they resided in Madina is another indicator that this belief was held by them. I propose this question: why isn’t there any book from the time of Prophet Muhammed (p) when he was alive or after his demise (when the companions of Prophet Muhammed was alive) which criticises this verse, by non-Muslims?

References:

[1] The Qur’an And The Orientalists: An Examination of their Main Theories and Assumptions – By Dr. Muhammad Mohar Ali Page 66
[2] The Holy Quran Arabic Text with English Translation, Commentary and comprehensive Introduction by Maulana Muhammad Ali [Year 2002 Edition] page 404 – 405
[3] The Message of The Quran – By Muhammad Asad page 381
[4] Children of Abraham: An Introduction to Judaism for Muslims [Copyright 2001 American Jewish Committee] By Professor Rabbi Reuven Firestone Page 35 – 36
[5] Ben Sonship and Jewish Mysticism [Shalom Hartman Institute – Continuum] by Professor Moshe Idel Page 54 – 55

 

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7 Responses »

  1. I truly enjoy reading what you write brother. Salam Alakium. You make it so logical like Islam is meant to be understood. MashAllah. I will hit you up on fb in a little bit inshallah

  2. Great going Kaleef!! MashAllah.

  3. Some errors but still useful and worthy enough to read.

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