Bible Commentator


Rabbi Moshe Reiss

Judaic and Islamic Fundamentalism: Similarities and Differences.


Three themes that Judaic and Islamic fundamentalists share are (1) the belief in the absolute supremacy of religious law; (2) the contention that secular regimes, though they may pay lip service to religious law, have rejected this law and rely instead on outside and particularly western influences to guide the state; and (3) the insistence that the only way to restore the people to its rightful status is to wrest control and implement a "return" to the divinely-inspired code



1. God's law is supreme: Sharia vs. Halakha:

Both Judaism and Islam are religions based on rituals (‘works’ to use the Christian term) rather than faith. In this way these two religions are closer to each other than either is to Christianity.  


Both former Sephardic (Jews from Arab Lands) Chief Rabbi Mordecai Eliahu and former Chief Ashkenazic (Jews from European lands) Rabbi Avraham Shapira have called for an Israeli state governed by Halakha in the same manner that Islamists have called for Islamic states to be governed by Shari'a, Islamic law. Each group goes so far as to say that, without their particularistic imprimatur, the state has no lawful authority. So far as they are concerned these are God’s laws, and when the state doesn't live in accordance with the sacred law, state laws are not valid.


Abul A'la Maududi, a major Pakistani and Islamic leader has written: "The principle of the oneness of God altogether negates the concept of the legal and political sovereignty of human beings, individually or collectively... God alone is the sovereign and His commandments are the law of Islam... Legislation in an Islamic state will be restricted within the limits prescribed by the law of the Shari'a."


Rabbi Avraham Shapira: "All aspects of our lives are determined according to the Torah. It is clear to every Jew that religious observance is above any directive or law that contradicts Torah law... and it is unthinkable that an act forbidden by Halakha shall be made permissible because of a military order of one kind or another. In every debate between the majority and minority, the majority decides. However, in decisions which contradict Halakha, there is no force in the world which the majority can muster against the minority to compel it to act against Halakha." Rabbi Mordechai Eliahu agreed. He wrote that the state cannot pass laws that contradict the Torah, and that, in order to be considered binding, any law must be ratified by "a highly reputable contemporary Torah scholar."


Sayyid Qutb of Egypt, the second leader of the Muslim Brotherhood: "We pay little heed to our native spiritual resources and our own intellectual heritage; instead, we think first of importing foreign principles and methods, or borrowing customs and laws from across the deserts and beyond the seas... we turn our eyes to Europe, America, or Russia, and we expect to import from there solutions to our problems."


Not all Rabbis (or Sheiks) agree: Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein (son-in-law of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, perhaps the key Jewish theologian of the second half of the twentieth century) stated "one has to obey every letter of the Bible, but also has to obey every letter of the law of the land". Professor  Chaim Miliowsky,  Chairman of the Talmud Department at Bar Ilan University (the only Orthodox University in Israel) noted the right wing have ‘attempt[ed] to hijack the system of halakha for political purposes’. Rabbi Shlomo Aviner of the Ateret Cohanim yeshiva (a school dedicated to the Third Temple), and an outspoken opponent of Gaza disengagement, has strongly opposed the calls for refusing to obey State laws. "The struggle against the deportation [disengagement] was a great mitzvah (good deed). But it is forbidden to perform a mitzva by means of a transgression, which is why I forbade the refusal of orders.  The IDF remains Zionist; although it performed an anti-Zionist mission, an immoral mission, it remains important and it remains ours.” Aviner continued the state, is a good thing. It did a bad thing, but it doesn't cease to be important because of this.”



2. My land - Your land:

Relinquishing land is a very important issue for Muslims as well as Jews. Dar al-Islam [areas under Muslim control] and Dar al-Harb [areas under foreign control] are determined by control of the land. Islamists believe Muslims must first control the land and then their kind of Muslims must be in charge. Qutb wrote about the invasion of the Middle East by both the Crusaders and World Zionism.


Jews believe God gave the land of Israel to Abraham and his specific descendant Isaac. Despite Gaza not being under Jewish control even under King David’s reign some persons expelled from Gaza have noted that Isaac lived in Gaza. Moshe Feiglin founded an organization known as ‘zo artezu’ ‘this is our land’. He warned referring to the Gaza disengagement, "We are now witnessing a complete unraveling of the fabric of Israeli society," adding that "Israel's present political system has led to the deaths of thousands of Jews." 


Jewish fundamentalists concentrate their energies on the holiness of land while Islamic fundamentalists concentrate on Sharia law. It is obvious that Sharia law can only be implemented in lands controlled by Muslims.



3. Ideology:

Given the similarities it is not surprising that individuals who live their lives according to Jewish law will have ideologies that overlap with those who live their lives according to Islamic law.


Moshe Feiglin has stated "I reject this term 'Religious Zionist,' I am not 'religious' and I am not a Zionist. I am Jewish." The founder of the Muslim Brotherhood Hassan Al Banna stated:  'We are not socialist, we are not capitalist, we are Muslim."


When Feiglin rails against the government, its military might and its "corrupt" leaders, for example, he uses the same language that Abul A'la Maududi used in urging an Islamic political revolution in Pakistan. When he calls for "an authentically Jewish reality in Israel" ruled by a Torah-motivated leader and free of foreign ideological influences, he mimics the battle cry of the Egyptians Al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, the key thinkers behind the Muslim Brotherhood, in their rejection of "anti-Muslim Western" political systems and its agents.


While these sentiments are similar to other, non-religious revolutionary ideologies, they are unique in that they present Judaism and Islam as comprehensive political, rather than religious systems. They claim that the modern secular societies are sick and inherently evil, and that the only solution is a state guided by religious elites who can put it on track toward a messianic utopia.


Maududi and Qutb both blame the state and its institutions for every ill in society, from the lack of physical security to all kinds of moral depravity


Feiglin stated: "The Zionist movement, which founded the modern State of Israel, [based] itself on secular 19th-century Western values. Geo-politics has ruled its every move... acceptance by the world has received the highest order of priority . . . It negates holiness [and] in doing so, it has stripped itself of the tools necessary to reflect the Jewishness of Israel and its ultimate holy purpose. There is only one way to truly imbue the State of Israel with the meaning it deserves and needs: to promote an alternative leadership for the State of Israel that is based on Jewish belief. Only leadership motivated by an authentically Jewish vision will be capable of meeting all the challenges currently facing the State of Israel and the Jewish people. Only leadership of this kind will be capable of reinvigorating the State of Israel and the Jewish people and leading it toward the realization of the vision of the prophets."


Qutb: "We should not despair of the ability of the Sharia to govern modern society. Rather, our summons is to return to our own stored-up resources... Our mission is to call for a renewal of Islamic life, a life governed by the spirit and the law of Islam, which alone can produce that form of Islam that we need today, and which is in conformity with the genuine Islamic tradition."




There are differences; Gilles Keppel, a French expert on the modern Middle East identified three core groups that are vital to the success of political Islam (Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam). "Islamist movements are in fact clusters of different social groups with different social agendas. They are strong when they manage to mobilize or coalesce these different components, until they actually seize power . . .  [But] the Islamist groups will never seize power if they cannot unite these social groups."


The first group Keppel cites is the young urban poor – people who have been exploited by their own ‘establishments’.  In Arab countries, the jobless and restless young people provide an impressive mass from which an anti-government revolution can draw strength.


In Religious Zionism most of its modern proponents are well-educated, social elites of the middle class. The settlements have never been portrayed or perceived as magnets for the poor or disenfranchised. If anything, Israel's Jewish lower class – mostly the Ultra-Orthodox who don't work or the poorly educated from the periphery – are more likely to support a populist government than a zealous Religious Zionist one.


The second group Keppel designated are the westernized middle-class Muslims. What makes them incompatible with the equivalent Religious Zionist demographic group is that their dissatisfaction stems from undemocratic regimes based on patronage and family ties. In Israel, despite similar complaints of cronyism and corruption, citizens do not need turn to drastic measures. They can rely on democratic means to depose elected officials.


The far right wing of Religious Zionism also have a difficult time trying to make the case that Judaism itself is being repressed by the government. It would be difficult for any Jew to condemn Sharon’s Jewishness. Killing other Muslims as apostates is valid for fundamentalist Islam; it does not apply in Judaism. Osama bin Laden has even condemned to death his Wahhabee religious associates in Saudi Arabia as apostates.


Keppel's third group is the religious intelligentsia – people like Rabbis Shapira and Eliahu and Feiglin who can be compared to Qutb and Maududi. The difference and it is significant is the Rabbis (with very rare exceptions) do not preach violence.


One of the root causes of fundamentalist behavior is feelings of humiliation. How can those blessed by God as His holy remnants not be understood by all the world? What they cannot understand is that God’s logic has no relation to human logic. Why did God let his favorite person in the world Job suffer and his ten children die? Why did God let Rabbi Akiva, one of his favorite Sages, be horribly tortured and martyred? We cannot know, but that is not acceptable to fundamentalists; they insist on not only understanding God’s logic but that His be theirs.
Fundamentalism, whether violent or not, is a political ideology and not a religion. Religion, at least those descended from Abraham believe in a Universal God who created the world and all of its children. Why He should choose one religion to give his Truth and to the others Falsity seems beyond Reason. There are those in each religion who recognize that Truth comes from many sources. The great Jewish scholar Maimonides accepted that Aristotle (whom he read in Arabic translation) had Truth to offer the world. He also became a doctor studying medicine from Arabic sources.


Fundamentalists from all religions exhibit a similar mutant strand of a religious disease, a virus which sometimes seems like a pandemic. In Christianity this virus became anti-Semitism; in Islam they became suicide bombers. The reason different strains of fundamentalism seem so alike is to paraphrase Louis Claude de Saint- Martin they speak the same language because they come from the same country.