Twelver (Eṯnā ʿAšari Emāmi) Shiʿite polemics refer here to arguments gleaned from compositions written by Shiʿites; they do not usually have original and specifically Shiʿite characteristics that separate them from their Sunni counterparts. Polemical arguments are scattered in commentaries on the Qurʾān, in the Hadith, heresiographies (melal wa-neḥal literature), anti-Christian polemics, books on theology, law, and history; and texts specifically inveighing against Judaism. Various religious, socio-political, and personal reasons in different times account for the writing of anti-Jewish texts.

Among the most common anti-Jewish contentions were the following six: First, the Jewish oral law is nothing but innovations—additions to or omissions from the Torah—which made the Jews stray from God’s path. Second, the Torah foretells Muslim—including Shiʿite—history and beliefs, and predicts Islam’s superiority. Third, at a certain time the Torah was repealed (nasḵ) by later revelations; the Torah is therefore not eternal. One nuance of this concept is that the Torah cannot be applied outside the land of Israel after the destruction of the Temple. Fourth, the Torah sanctified by the Jews is not the one originally revealed. Certain parts were added to or omitted from the original Torah in various times, including during the days of ʿOzayr (Ezra). The Torah had been subjected to alterations (taḡyir) as shown from discrepancies found in it as well as irrational themes (e.g. anthropomorphic depictions of God) and stories (e.g. stories ascribing sins to prophets) in the Torah. Taḡyir occurred also through the misleading teachings and commentaries of the rabbis. Fifth, even if the Jews had been God’s Chosen People, this privileged status had ended long ago. Sixth, the Jews hold erroneous practices and tenets.

Whereas specific references to Shiʿite polemics against Judaism are scarce compared to those against Christianity, Shiʿite tradition records some real or fictitious exchanges between Shiʿites and Jews from the earliest days of Islam. ʿAli b. Abi Ṭāleb (d. 661) is said to have answered questions put to him by a certain leader of the Jewish community (Ebn Bābawayh, Ketāb al-ḵeṣāl, pp. 364-82; Modarressi, I, pp. 59, 206). Another case elaborates on questions asked by a Jew relating to Moḥammad’s position vis-à-vis other prophets; ʿAli thus proved that Moḥammad’s status was superior (Ṭabresi, Eḥtejāj, pp. 210-26). In another instance, ʿAli satisfactorily answered questions asked by a Jew (Ṭabresi, Eḥtejāj, pp. 226-27). In all the above cases the Jew is said to have ultimately embraced Islam. Another incident is the polemic between the eighth Imam, ʿAli al-Reżā (d. 818), and a Jewish Exilarch (raʾs al-jālut), in the course of which the Imam proves the prophecy of Moḥammad from Jewish sources (Ebn Bābawayh, Ketāb al-tawḥid, pp. 440-44; Ṭabresi, Eḥtejāj, pp. 421-24; Wasserstrom, pp. 113-16. There is apparently a philosophical-mystical interpretation of this text by Saʿid al-Qommi, Al-Fawāʾed al-rażawiya as referred to in Ṭehrāni, XVI, pp. 340-41). It seems that one of the earliest texts directed specifically against Judaism was written by Abu Sahl Esmāʿil b. ʿAli al-Nawbaḵšti (d. 924), who is credited with a Refutation of the Jews (Radd ʿala al-yahud) (Najāši, I, p. 121; Newman, p.21).

Arguments often adduced what was viewed as Jewish Scriptures to prove the veracity and superiority of Islam. One tradition ascribes to Moḥammad the statement that the first passage of the Torah says that he is the messenger of God (Kister, p. 222). The twelve sons of Ishmael (Genesis 17:20; 25:12-16) are viewed as the twelve Shiʿite Imams (Kohlberg, XIV, p. 527; Rubin, pp. 278-80). Whereas this equation may have been rooted in the wish to validate the doctrine of the Twelve Imams, it also served to prove to the Jews that a major tenet of Shiʿite dogma is found in the Jewish scriptures themselves.

The Jews criticized the concept of abrogation (nasḵ), arguing that it implies badāʾ in the sense of a divine change of mind, ascription of which to God demeans Him. While Al-Šarif Mortażā (d. 1044) replies to this by contending that badāʾ and nasḵ are two different things, the rejoinder of Ebn Bābawayh (d. 991) is based on his perception that badāʾ and nasḵ are closely related, but that badāʾ does not involve a change of God’s mind. According to him, the doctrine of badāʾ is “a refutation of the Jews, for they say that God has finished with ordering, while we say that every day God is engaged in giving and taking away life, nourishing, and doing what He wills (McDermott, pp. 333-34, 392-93).”

Polemical contentions—including the prediction of Moḥammad in the Bible—were occasionally mentioned almost in passing (e.g. in Mirḵānd, II, pp. 41-45; Ṭehrāni, XI, p. 296 argues that Mirḵānd (d. 1498) was a Twelver Shiʿite; Moreen, 1992, p. 193), whereas the genre of texts composed specifically against Judaism continued. In 1622-23 Aḥmad ʿAlawi wrote Ṣawaʿeq al-raḥmān fi’l-radd ʿala al-Yahud wa-itṯbāt taḥrif tawrātehem (God’s Lightning Bolts in Refuting the Jews and Proving the Corruption of their Torah) (Ṭehrāni, XV, p. 94; Abisaab, pp. 168, 199). In the days of the Ṣafavid Shah Solṭān Ḥosayn (r. 1694-1722) ʿAli-Qoli Jadid-al-Eslām wrote his Persian Sayf al-moʾmenin fi qetāl al-mošrekin (Sword of the Believers in Killing the Polytheists) against Jews and Christians (Ṭehrāni, XII, pp. 289-90; Dānešpajuh, III, p. 585).

Towards the end of the 18th century there is some evidence of polemical exchanges. Such is Baḥr-al-ʿOlum’s supposed debate with Jews of Ḏu’l-Kefl, Iraq, in Ḏu’l-Hejja 1211/1796. The arguments raised were “not original,” but based on medieval polemical writings (Moreen, 1999, p. 575). A much more elaborate and highly significant attempt at refuting Jewish tenets was offered by a religious scholar of a lower caliber, Ḥājj Bābā Qazwini Yazdi, in his Maḥżar al-šohud fi radd al-Yahud (The Court for Refuting the Jews), composed in Ramadan 1211/1797. Apparently, Qazwini Yazdi was the first to use not only the Bible but also Nevuāt ha-Yeled (The Prophecy of the Child), a Jewish text written in Aramaic (Tsadik, 2004, pp. 5-15), for anti-Jewish polemical reasons; Qazwini Yazdi also organized meetings of a polemical nature with the Jews of Yazd (Tsadik, 2005, p. 98).

Whereas texts addressing Judaism among other religions were still being composed—such as Moḥammad ʿAli Kermānšāhi’s Rādd šobohāt al-koffār (Refutation of the Infidel’s Doubts) in 1800-1 (Tsadik, 2005, p. 100; Purjavady and Schmidtke, 2006, pp. 69-94)—specifically anti-Jewish text were also written; for example, the Tehran Jewish convert Moḥammad Reżā(ʾi) Jadid-al-Eslām’s extensive Manqul-e Reżāʾi ([The Sayings] Transmitted by Reżā[ʾi]) from the early nineteenth century. Around a half a century later this book was enlarged, and published in 1875-76. Beyond the literary criticism of Judaism, there is evidence of nineteenth century live disputations of Shiʿites with Jews. It should be noted, however, that Iranian Jews were mostly afraid to engage in polemics with Muslims, and if they took part in theses disputations, it was usually after they were forced to do so (Tsadik, 2005, pp. 104-7).

In later years, based on earlier literature, some anti-Jewish arguments continued to surface by Shiʿites (e.g. Tājpur, 1344, pp. 24-36) and even by secular Iranians (e.g. the contention that the Torah was forged by ʿOzar; Soroudi, 1998, p. 161). Polemical exchanges failed to disappear even in the days of the supposed national co-existence under the Pahlavis: the Jew Benayahu Ṣaddiq remembers how his fellow soldiers serving in the Iranian army at the time of Mohammad-Reza Shah believed that he and his ilk were followers of a distorted Torah, falsified during the times of ʿOzayr (Ṣaddiq). Occasionally, Shiʿites continued to challenge Jews with questions on the Torah or asked them to state their view on polemical anti-Jewish texts (Shofet, 2000, pp. 106, 351). At other times, however, some of them, notably Āyat-Allāh Kāẓem Šariʿatmadāri, would praise Judaism and the Jews (ʿEzri, 2001, p. 237; of relevance Ibid, pp. 224, 232-33, 243).

The polemics were one channel through which communication and discourse, of a certain kind and at a certain level, existed between the disputant communities. Still, the polemics were indicative of, and added to, the onerous socio-cultural pressure imposed upon the Jews by some Muslims. To preserve their community’s cohesiveness, Jews responded to the Muslim criticism. Jewish anti-Muslim argumentation is few and far between; those arguments leveled specifically against Shiʿites are fewer in number also when compared to Shiʿite anti-Jewish polemics. Written in a Muslim milieu, Jewish contentions were only rarely explicit. Implicitly rejecting the Muslim polemical view of Ezra (ʿOzayr), the 14th century, Šāhin says that after the Torah was burnt by Nebuchadnezzar Ezra wrote it “as it was at first; not a jot or little of it was changed” (Moreen, 2000, pp. 110-12). Occasionally, Moses is depicted as “superior” to Moḥammad, as by ʿEmrāni (q.v.; d. 1536; Yeroushalmi, 1995, p. 85. Other examples: Moreen, 2000, pp. 272-74, 300). In his Ḥōvōt Yehūda (Duties of Judah), the 17th century Rabbi Yehuda b. Elžazar emphasizes that the prophecy of Moses is higher than the rest of the prophets and that the Torah is not abrogated (mansuḵ); he addresses the charge of falsification (taḥrif; Yehuda b. Elžazar, 1995, p. 171 [tr. p. 391], p. 226 [tr. p. 459], p. 232 [tr. p. 467]; Moreen, 2003, p. 165). Apparently addressing general Muslim contentions that view Genesis 17:20 (“And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make of him a great nation.”) as a major proof text for Ishmael’s and the later Muslims’ preponderance over the rest, he seeks to explain the verse in a way which would render it harmonious with Jewish beliefs. Most probably attempting to discredit the Shiʿite contention that reads into this verse a prediction of the emergence of the twelve Shiʿite Imams, he says that these twelve “princes” were simply the sons of Ishmael who were explicitly named elsewhere (Genesis 25:13-14) (Yehuda b. Elžazar, 1995, p. 538. Further polemical contentions: ibid, p. 78 [tr. p. 286], pp. 217-18 [tr. p. 449], pp. 539-40). Beyond these arguments, Jews viewed themselves as the “offspring of the Chosen people” (Moreen, 1990, p. 103, [tr. p. 53]). In his Ḥayāt al-ruḥ (The Life of the Spirit), Rabbi Siman-Tōv Melammed (d. 1800?) argues for the superiority of Moses above all prophets, and possibly alludes unfavorably to the Prophet Moḥammad, and, while citing the Qurʾān 7:144, he emphasizes that the contemporary Torah is the Torah that was given from heaven; it cannot and will not be changed for the sake of another one; it is eternal (Melammed, TaRNaḤ/1898, pp. 81b-82b, 117b-26b; Netzer, 1999, pp. 83-84, 87-88). Shiʿites of the time responded to Melammed’s arguments in a literal form (Qazwini Yazdi, pp. 142-43, 188) and possibly also in live disputations (Patai, 1997, pp. 168-70; Fischel, 1971, p. 1276).

In his Dereḵha-Ḥayim (The Way of Life), the Tehran Rabbi Ḥayim Mōreh (see ḤAIM, Moreh) discusses in 1921 the prophet that is promised in the Torah to come after Moses. Probably seeking to refute the Muslim belief that this prophet is Moḥammad, Mōreh emphasizes that the prophet is to be from the offspring of Israel (Deuteronomy 18:15-17) and is Joshua b. Nun. He explicitly says that some persons hold that Deuteronomy 33:2 speaks of different divine “manifestations” (maẓāher; prophets) who were manifested for people in different periods, alluding to a common Muslim reading of the verse, and maintains that the verse actually deals with revelations to the Israelites while in different locations in the desert. He rebuffs the possibility that the Torah went through falsification (taḡyir; taḥrif) (Mōreh, TaRžaṬ, pp. 67-70, 194-98, 200). Implicitly alluding to the Qurʾān 9:30, he asserts that “we do not view ʿEzrā as the son of God,” and declares again that the Torah was not falsified (taḥrif) (Mōreh, TaRPaD, pp. 354, 359, 430). Dealing mainly with Christian criticism, Mōreh still addresses the question common in Muslim polemics of how could the Biblical Jacob marry two sisters (Mōreh, TaRPaZ, p. 278).



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April 7, 2008

(Daniel Tsadik)

Originally Published: April 7, 2008

Last Updated: April 7, 2008