Egypt, the Quran, Jericho, and Hebrew

Egypt has fallen off the front page as protests in other countries grab the media’s attention. Protests are sexier than their aftermath; they photograph better and they allow TV reporters to provide breathless running commentary.

But without diminishing the achievement of Egypt’s (and Tunisia’s) protesters, one can see a much more difficult task ahead: preparing for a democratic (or other, workable) system of government.

Some pundits in Israel and elsewhere have argued that Islam is inimical to democracy. One might say the same about Judaism, of course, but Shlomo Avineri, professor emeritus of the Hebrew University’s political science department, points out that even ultra-Orthodox Jews participate in Israeli democracy.

In any case, Avineri argues, that is not the point. The important question is the degree to which the mechanisms needed for a democratic society are in place in Egypt. This will become evident in the months to come.

A four-hour crash course on Islam and the Jews, held last week as continuing education for Israeli tour guides, was a refreshing eye-opener.

Here are just a few points, not necessarily in order of importance, made by the lecturer, Prof. Meir M. Bar-Asher, of the Hebrew University’s department of Arabic language and literature:

1) Muslim proponents of differing points of view cherry-pick supporting quotations from the Quran, just as Jews and Christians do from the Bible.

2) Parts of the Quran are associated with Muhammad’s Mecca period (610–622 CE) and parts with the Medina period (622–632 CE). The verses relating to Jews in the earlier period are mainly positive, whereas the verses from the later period are mainly negative. Take your pick.

3) The sobriquet “the People of the Book” in relation to the Jews appeared first in the Quran.

4) The Quran adopts some Old Testament terms, such as the names of paradise (Gan Eden) and hell (gehenom).

5) Jerusalem is sacred to Islam. It is not mentioned explicitly in the Quran, but sura (chapter) 17, verse 1 refers to al-Aqsa Mosque, which the commentary says is Jerusalem. Jerusalem may not have been considered sacred in the beginning, but that does not make it any less sacred now.

The presence of an 11,000-year-old stone tower has led archaeologists to call ancient Jericho the oldest city on earth, even though it was actually only a settlement of hunter gatherers at the time.

But why was the tower built in Jericho (some 24 miles northeast of Jerusalem)? Doctoral candidate Roy Liran and Dr. Ran Barkai of Tel Aviv University’s archaeology department say it was needed for protection from both physical and metaphysical dangers, but that the villagers had to be convinced to put in the huge effort required to erect it.

To that end, an individual or group of individuals exploited the villagers’ fears of the dark to get them to construct the world’s first public building, while at the same time bolstering the political and social status of the initiators.

The two researchers had previously suggested that the tower and the wall below it were cosmological markers aligned with Mt. Qarantal (the highest peak overlooking Jericho) and the shadow cast over the village on the longest day of the year.

Now, in an article published in the journal Antiquity, the authors argue that a 3-D reconstruction reveals that the shadow hits the tower before dramatically swallowing up the entire village. “The tower was built … as a guardian against the dangers present in the darkness cast by a dying sun’s last rays of light,” they say.

According to the researchers, the tower may be “the earliest example of manipulation and exploitation of primeval fears, manifested in the form of megalithic architecture.”

The Academy of the Hebrew Language needs your help, according to the daily Ha’aretz. It is stuck for Hebrew translations of “compost,” “composter,” and “composting.”

The current proposals are variations on the Hebrew three-letter root meaning “rot” or “decompose.” But according to Ronit Gadish, the academy’s scientific secretary, the negative connotations of those words get in the way of persuading the public to recycle its organic garbage.

I think the academy is working too hard. It should just consider compost as a four-consonant (oops! That’s actually five consonants, as an eagle-eyed reader pointed out) Hebrew root and decline it as we decline computer-related words we’ve taken from English, such as “click” and “format.”

The noun would remain compost, a composter (the container) would be a mecampest, and composting would be ceempoost. And once again we would prove the robustness of Hebrew through its borrowings from other languages. So simple.

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5 Responses to “Egypt, the Quran, Jericho, and Hebrew”

  1. estherhecht Says:

    Yikes! One of my faithful readers points out that compost would have five consonants in Hebrew (as it does in English). I’m grateful for such careful readers, but very embarrassed because I thought I could count beyond four.
    I don’t know of any five-letter Hebrew roots, so I guess the academy is unlikely to accept my suggestion (though I still think it’s a good one).

  2. Michael Greenwald Says:

    A marvelous morning’s miscellany of information. I enjoyed the grab bag format.

  3. Ira Says:

    I am surprised at the good professor’s error. He seems to have swallowed anti-Jewish propaganda hook, line and sinker.

    As Daniel Pipes pointed out a long ago :

    ‘When this Qur’anic passage was first revealed, in about 621, a place called the Sacred Mosque already existed in Mecca. In contrast, the “furthest mosque” was a turn of phrase, not a place. Some early Muslims understood it as metaphorical or as a place in heaven. And if the “furthest mosque” did exist on earth, Palestine would seem an unlikely location, for many reasons. Some of them:

    ‘Elsewhere in the Qur’an (30:1), Palestine is called “the closest land” (adna al-ard).

    ‘Palestine had not yet been conquered by the Muslims and contained not a single mosque.

    ‘The “furthest mosque” was apparently identified with places inside Arabia: either Medina or a town called Ji’rana, about ten miles from Mecca, which the Prophet visited in 630.

    The earliest Muslim accounts of Jerusalem, such as the description of Caliph ‘Umar’s reported visit to the city just after the Muslims conquest in 638, nowhere identify the Temple Mount with the “furthest mosque” of the Qur’an.

    ‘The Qur’anic inscriptions that make up a 240-meter mosaic frieze inside the Dome of the Rock do not include Qur’an 17:1 and the story of the Night Journey, suggesting that as late as 692 the idea of Jerusalem as the lift-off for the Night Journey had not yet been established. (Indeed, the first extant inscriptions of Qur’an 17:1 in Jerusalem date from the eleventh century.)’

    • estherhecht Says:

      Thank you for your comment. I have approved it in the interests of free speech. But I would like to respond.
      1) I seriously doubt that Prof. Meir M. Bar-Asher, whom you dub “the good professor,” has swallowed any line.
      2) Daniel Pipes writes as though all religions are static. They are not. If they were, you would be allowed to have several wives and you would be able to eat creamed chicken.
      3) As I made very clear in my summary of what was a very brief part of a very brief crash course, the Quran does not mention Jerusalem and its sanctity explicitly. The sanctity of Jerusalem is a later development.
      4) If I were a Muslim, I’d be very offended by people like Pipes who want to tell me what I believe.
      5) Because my blog is subtitled “Traveling the earth lightly,” and for me that means not getting into confrontations with people about their political or religious beliefs, I hope that this matter can be laid to rest.

  4. Ira Says:

    Pipes continues:

    ‘Then, in 715, to build up the prestige of their dominions, the Umayyads did a most clever thing: they built a second mosque in Jerusalem, again on the Temple Mount, and called this one the Furthest Mosque (al-masjid al-aqsa, Al-Aqsa Mosque). With this, the Umayyads retroactively gave the city a role in Muhammad’s life. This association of Jerusalem with al-masjid al-aqsa fit into a wider Muslim tendency to identify place names found in the Qur’an: “wherever the Koran mentions a name of an event, stories were invented to give the impression that somehow, somewhere, someone, knew what they were about.”

    Despite all logic (how can a mosque built nearly a century after the Qur’an was received establish what the Qur’an meant?), building an actual Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Palestinian historian A. L. Tibawi writes, “gave reality to the figurative name used in the Koran.” It also had the hugely important effect of inserting Jerusalem post hoc into the Qur’an and making it more central to Islam. Also, other changes resulted. Several Qur’anic passages were re-interpreted to refer to this city. Jerusalem came to be seen as the site of the Last Judgment. The Umayyads cast aside the non-religious Roman name for the city, Aelia Capitolina (in Arabic, Iliya) and replaced it with Jewish-style names, either Al-Quds (The Holy) or Bayt al-Maqdis (The Temple). They sponsored a form of literature praising the “virtues of Jerusalem,” a genre one author is tempted to call “Zionist.” Accounts of the prophet’s sayings or doings (Arabic: hadiths, often translated into English as “Traditions”) favorable to Jerusalem emerged at this time, some of them equating the city with Mecca. There was even an effort to move the pilgrimage (hajj) from Mecca to Jerusalem.

    Scholars agree that the Umayyads’ motivation to assert a Muslim presence in the sacred city had a strictly utilitarian purpose. The Iraqi historian Abdul Aziz Duri finds “political reasons” behind their actions. Hasson concurs:

    ‘The construction of the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque, the rituals instituted by the Umayyads on the Temple Mount and the dissemination of Islamic-oriented Traditions regarding the sanctity of the site, all point to the political motives which underlay the glorification of Jerusalem among the Muslims.

    ‘Thus did a politically-inspired Umayyad building program lead to the Islamic sanctification of Jerusalem.’

    And I add that any claim to the contrary is part of the non-factual propaganda used to “prove” that the Jews have no claim to Jerusalem.

    There is lots more to be read at


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