Quran says Jacob (Israel) was righteous, Bible says he was a usurper
Friday Khutba by Dr Zahid Aziz, for Lahore Ahmadiyya UK, 3 November 2023
“Say: We believe in Allah and (in) what has been revealed to us, and (in) what was revealed to Abraham, and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and the tribes, and (in) what was given to Moses and Jesus, and (in) what was given to the prophets from their Lord; we make no distinction between any of them and to Him we submit.” — ch. 2, Al-Baqarah, v. 136
قُوۡلُوۡۤا اٰمَنَّا بِاللّٰہِ وَ مَاۤ اُنۡزِلَ اِلَیۡنَا وَ مَاۤ اُنۡزِلَ اِلٰۤی اِبۡرٰہٖمَ وَ اِسۡمٰعِیۡلَ وَ اِسۡحٰقَ وَ یَعۡقُوۡبَ وَ الۡاَسۡبَاطِ وَ مَاۤ اُوۡتِیَ مُوۡسٰی وَ عِیۡسٰی وَ مَاۤ اُوۡتِیَ النَّبِیُّوۡنَ مِنۡ رَّبِّہِمۡ ۚ لَا نُفَرِّقُ بَیۡنَ اَحَدٍ مِّنۡہُمۡ ۫ۖ وَ نَحۡنُ لَہٗ مُسۡلِمُوۡنَ ﴿۱۳۶﴾
“And We gave him Isaac; and Jacob, a son’s son. And We made (them) all good. And We made them leaders who guided (people) by Our command, and We revealed to them the doing of good and the keeping up of prayer and the giving of charity, and Us (alone) they served;” — ch. 21, Al-Anbiya, v. 72–73
وَ وَہَبۡنَا لَہٗۤ اِسۡحٰقَ ؕ وَ یَعۡقُوۡبَ نَافِلَۃً ؕ وَ کُلًّا جَعَلۡنَا صٰلِحِیۡنَ ﴿۷۲﴾ وَ جَعَلۡنٰہُمۡ اَئِمَّۃً یَّہۡدُوۡنَ بِاَمۡرِنَا وَ اَوۡحَیۡنَاۤ اِلَیۡہِمۡ فِعۡلَ الۡخَیۡرٰتِ وَ اِقَامَ الصَّلٰوۃِ وَ اِیۡتَآءَ الزَّکٰوۃِ ۚ وَ کَانُوۡا لَنَا عٰبِدِیۡنَ ﴿ۚ۷۳﴾
The first verse which I read, and which occurs again in ch. 3, v. 84, says that Muslims should declare to the world that they believe in all the prophets whom God sent into the world and believe that those prophets too received revelation from God just as the Holy Prophet Muhammad received revelation from God. The verse adds the names of some leading prophets, and except for Ishmael, all the others arose among the Israelites, that is to say, the Jews. They are called the Children of Israel in the Bible and the Quran (banī Isrā’īl) because they are descended from the prophet Jacob (Ya‘qūb) and the Bible says that Jacob, after a certain incident in his life, was given the name Israel by God. This incident is related as follows in the Bible. Once when Jacob was alone, a man wrestled with him all night till the morning. The man could not defeat him, and when he wanted to leave, Jacob said he would not let him go until the man blessed him. This mysterious man then bestowed upon Jacob the name Israel, because it means: “he struggles with God”. (See Genesis, 32:24–28.)
Some believers in the Bible say that this man with whom Jacob wrestled was God Himself. Others say he was an angel, who had come from God, and therefore wrestling with this angel was the same as wrestling with God. No scholar of the Bible, nor any Jew or Christian, is sure of what this incident means. From the Muslim point of view, we could say that Jacob wasn’t wrestling with God but wrestling to reach God, and he didn’t give up until God blessed him. Of course, our interpretation would be that this wrestling did not happen physically, but was seen by Jacob in a vision. At a later time in his life, says the Bible, Jacob was directly told by God: “Your name is Jacob; no longer shall you be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name” (Genesis, 35:10).
While Jewish and Christian religious scholars say that the word Israel means “he struggles with God”, it can also have a different meaning which is mentioned by Maulana Muhammad Ali in his Urdu commentary of the Quran under verse 2:40. This is the verse where the Quran uses the word banī Isrā’īl for the first time. The Arabic word asr (اسر), letters alif-sīn-ray, means to make someone a captive or slave. In the Quran the word asīr (اسیر) is used to mean a captive or slave, where it says that the righteous people are those who “give food, out of love for Him (God), to the poor and the orphan and the captive” (76:8). This word asīr means the same as the word ‘abd (عبد). So the first part of the word Isrā’īl means ‘abd. And its second part is ’īl, which is used in the Bible to mean God. Therefore, as Maulana Muhammad Ali concludes, the word Isrā’īl literally means ‘Abdullāh. Hence the name given to the modern Jewish state, Israel, the name which is very much dominating the news these days, means Abdullah, the most widespread Muslim name. Perhaps both sides of this conflict might reflect on how to be servants of God in the real sense. Perhaps one day Israel will be Abdullah in the real sense.
Now I turn to the name Jacob. According to the Quran all prophets were totally obedient to God and did not commit any sin. It says about prophets in general that: “they are honoured servants — they do not speak before He speaks, and according to His command they act” (ch. 21, v. 27). In other words, every prophet only preached what God taught him, and he only did what God commanded him to do. In the second verse I read above, it is stated specifically about Abraham, and his son Isaac, and Isaac’s son Jacob, that they were all good and righteous, ṣāliḥ as the Quran describes them. It says that they were guides to people, and Allah revealed to them the teaching to do good deeds, keep up prayer and give charity, and they were servants (‘ābidīn, عابدین) of Allah.
However, it is unfortunate that the Bible portrays the character and behaviour in life of Jacob as being quite the opposite of good and righteous. According to the Bible, Jacob was born as a twin. His twin brother was called Esau, and as Esau came out of his mother’s womb first, before Jacob, he was the elder brother with birth-right of succession to the father. The story of Jacob in the Bible contains incidents which present Jacob as always trying to rob his older twin brother Esau of his birth-right by means of blackmail, deceit and falsehood.
Jewish and Christian scholars of the Bible, who believe in the Bible as the scripture of their religions, say that the very name Jacob indicates a deceiver and usurper, who tries to take away someone else’s rights for himself.[*] On one occasion when Esau returned from doing hard labour in the fields, and was exhausted and starving, Jacob refused to give him food unless Esau gave him his birth-right. It says in the Bible: “Esau said, ‘Look, I am about to die; so what use is a birth-right to me?’ Then Jacob said, ‘Swear to me first.’ So he swore to him, and sold his birth-right to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and stew of lentils…” (Genesis, 25:34).
On another occasion, it is recorded that when their father Isaac, a prophet of God, was on his deathbed, and was blind, he told Esau that he wanted to pass on Divine blessings to him and that he should bring him some meat to eat, and he would pass on those blessings to him. In the religion of the Israelites, prophethood went from the father to a son, so Isaac wanted to pass his prophethood and succession to Esau, as being the elder son. Their mother Rebekah overheard the conversation between Isaac and Esau, and when Esau went to the field to hunt an animal to bring meat, she told Jacob to bring food and meat to Isaac and pretend to be Esau and receive the blessings intended for Esau. But Jacob pointed out a problem with this plan. He said to his mother:
“Esau my brother is a hairy man, and I am a smooth-skinned man. Perhaps my father will feel me, and I shall seem to be a deceiver to him; and I shall bring a curse on myself and not a blessing”.
The mother solved this problem in this way. She took Esau’s best clothes and got Jacob to put those on, and she covered his hands and neck with goat skins. Jacob then went to his blind father and said to him: “I am Esau your firstborn”. Isaac felt Jacob’s skin and said: “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau”. But Jacob falsely confirmed to him that he was Esau. So Isaac blessed him and prayed for him. But shortly after this, Esau returned in order to get the blessing, and discovered that the father had already given it to Jacob. The father said:
“Your brother came deceitfully and took your blessing.” Esau replied: “Isn’t he rightly named Jacob? This is the second time he has taken advantage of me: He took my birthright, and now he has taken my blessing!” (See Genesis, 27:1–36.)
In regard to Esau’s statement, “Isn’t he rightly named Jacob?”, the Jewish and Christian scholars of the Bible say that the word ‘Jacob’ means ‘he grasps the heel’, and it is a way of saying that ‘he takes advantage of’ someone or ‘he deceives someone’. But the description of Jacob in the Quran is the opposite. It mentions Abraham, Isaac and Jacob by name all together and says about them in one place: “Each did We guide” (6:84), and in a second place which I read out above: “And We made them all good” (21:72), and in a third place: “We indeed purified them by a pure quality, the keeping in mind of the (final) abode. And surely they were with Us, among the elect, the best” (38:46–47).
Again, according to the Quran, Jacob once said to those of his sons who were errant and sinful, about keeping your word: “Allah is Guardian over what we say. … Judgment is only Allah’s. On Him I rely, and on Him let the reliant rely” (12:66–67). If he himself had lied to his own father and deceived him, could he teach his sons these values? He also said to them, on two occasions, about what to do in a state of loss: “patience is best” — fa ṣabr-un jamīl (12:18, 83). That is what the father Israel advised his sons, and it has perhaps a lesson for Israel today.
The Quran thus fully exonerates Jacob of committing any kind of falsehood and deceit. And now just look at the wonderful interpretation given by Lahore Ahmadiyya scholars to the meaning of his name: ‘he grasps the heel’. We say this doesn’t mean he pulls someone down from behind by his heel in order to take his place. It means he grasps the heel of his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham in order to follow them in righteousness. In the Quran, it says that when Abraham’s wife thought that she was unable to bear children, Allah “gave her the good news of Isaac, and coming behind Isaac (wa min warā’ Isḥāq, Ya‘qūb), of Jacob” (11:71).
It is perhaps the supreme irony in the religious history of the world that the man, Jacob, who was given the name Israel, after which the people and the state of Israel are named, is presented in their own scripture as a deceiver, liar and usurper, but that same man is declared in the scripture of the Muslims as pure, innocent and guided by God! This is the favour done by the Quran to the Jews and a free gift offered to them by the religion of Islam.
If the Holy Prophet Muhammad had been a self-seeking man, he would have exploited this portrayal of Jacob’s character in the Bible, as well as the similar negative portrayal of many other major prophets in the Bible, for his own ends. He would have used these events to claim that the founders and great figures of previous religions were false, and these religions were false from the very beginning. But God revealed to him the truth, that the past prophets of other religions before him were true and sincere, just like him, and that it was their followers who had deviated from the teachings of these holy men. It seems that they had imputed these false incidents of unlawful behaviour to their prophets in order to justify their own misbehaviour of committing wrongdoing, usurping others’ rights and other acts of injustice.
The message of Islam to them is: Your founders were righteous messengers of God, and this Messenger Muhammad has arisen to show you what they were really like, and not as in your stories. I conclude with the prayer that God may turn the hearts of all people towards the real examples set by all the prophets, both Israelite prophets and non-Israelite prophets — Ameen.