Why Christians, but not Muslims, can be taught Torah
Over the past few months I have been corresponding via email almost daily with an Iranian Muslim man. Our conversations drift from religion to politics and back. When one talks with a Muslim about religion it quickly comes to the surface that Islam, while referring to Jews (and Christians) as “people of the Book” (the book being the Bible), considers the Jewish scriptures (including Torah and other books of the Hebrew Bible) as having been thoroughly corrupted over time and even willfully adulterated by Jews, all in an effort to supposedly to edit Muhammad and Islam out of them.
As it says in the following hadith (quoting Muhammad):
Narrated ‘Ubaidullah bin ‘Abdullah: ‘Abdullah bin ‘Abbas said, “O the group of Muslims! How can you ask the people of the Scriptures about anything while your Book which Allah has revealed to your Prophet contains the most recent news from Allah and is pure and not distorted? Allah has told you that the people of the Scriptures (Jews and Christians) have changed some of Allah’s Books and distorted it and wrote something with their own hands and said, ‘This is from Allah, so as to have a minor gain for it. Won’t the knowledge that has come to you stop you from asking them? No, by Allah, we have never seen a man from them asking you about that (the Book Al-Qur’an ) which has been revealed to you. (Bukhari Volume 9, Book 93, Number 614)
In other words, Koran teaches that the Jewish Bible, while may still hold some hints of once being revealed by G-d, is now completely unreliable. Such a stance almost immediately puts brakes on finding common scriptural ground between Jews and Muslims; arguing finer points and meanings of scripture is out of the question. Things like biblical prophecies about the glorious future of Israel are completely meaningless to a Muslim person (and even infuriating, since they contradict Islam’s own prophesied conquering of the world) as are Jewish biblical claims to the Land of Israel.
Having completely cut themselves off from Jewish scriptural sources (while claiming to have based itself on them), it is little wonder then that Islam is yet to do any soul searching about their own version of Replacement Theology as well as the pervasive anti-Judaism and antisemitism in the Muslim society. Muslims are generally silent about the evils done to Jews in the name of their religion from its very inception, something that many Christians have been doing for many decades since the Holocaust. Christians respect the Jewish scriptures as the holy Word of G-d and for some of them this reverence permits to re-examine their own Christian beliefs and test them against the Hebrew Bible.
These different approaches to the Jewish scriptures did not go unnoticed by Rambam (Maimonides), one of the greatest Jewish commentators on the Torah and philosophy.
Halachically, because of their worship of a man as god, Rambam viewed Christians as idol worshipers. He wrote in his interpretation of Mishna, tractate Avoda Zara 1:3:
Know that this Christian nation, who are making the claim of a messiah, with all their many different sects, are all idol worshipers and all their holidays are forbidden, and we deal with them regarding religious issues as we would pagans. Therefore one must know that in every one of the Christian nation’s cities which has an altar, meaning their house of worship, it is a pagan house of idolatry without any doubt.
In Hayad Hachazaka (Hilchot Avoda Zara 9:4), Maimonides put forth the following edict:
The Christians are idol worshipers and Sunday is their religious holiday, therefore in Eretz Israel we may not trade with them on Thursday and Friday of every week, and needless to say on Sunday, which is forbidden [for trade with Christians] everywhere.
His view of Christianity as idolatry was unflinching. Living outside of Christendom and away from Church censors allowed him to speak far more freely about Christianity than his European brethren could ever do. On the other hand, Rambam viewed Islam (among which he lived) as a non-idolatrous faith, since it, unlike Christianity, did not ascribe any partners to G-d nor did it venerate statues or images of any deities or holy persons (as was common within most known Christendom before the Protestant Reformation). For this reason, Islam, with its rejection of idolatry, held a preferential place for Rambam among all non-Jewish religions (all of which he still saw as false). He wrote in his letter to Obadiah the Proselyte:
These Ishmaelites are not idol worshipers in the least, and [paganism] has been long since cut off from their mouths and their hearts, and they worship the singular God properly and without any blemish.
Nevertheless, while granting Islam monotheistic status, Maimonides ultimately didn’t have a very high regard either for Islam or its founder, calling Muhammad a “false prophet” and a “madman”, writing in his Epistle to Yemen:
“After [Jesus] arose the Madman who emulated his precursor [Jesus], since he paved the way for him. But he added the further objective of procuring rule and submission [talb al-mulk; pursuit of sovereignty] and he invented what was well known [Islam].”
Both Christianity and Islam were to him false religions, but for Maimonides Christians had one tremendous advantage over Muslims. Quite remarkably considering his low opinion of Christianity, Rambam clearly thought that it was the Christians, and not the purely monotheistic Muslims, who had a far greater chance to discover the truths locked in Torah and other Jewish scripture. This was all due to the fact that Christians, unlike Muslims, viewed the Jewish scriptures as having a continued validity, not having been corrupted by Jews but instead supernaturally preserved by G-d Himself. (Although it must be noted that historically some Christians did accuse Jews of corrupting their own scriptures to write Jesus and Trinity of out of them, and preferred “superior” Church-authored Greek or Latin translations, eschewing the Hebrew text in use by Jews). Because Muslims rejected the Jewish scriptures as authentic, as forgery and lies, but Christians granted them great respect and veneration, Rambam gave his approval to teaching Torah and Judaism to Christians but not to Muslims (on whom such efforts would be wasted), thus permitting to draw Christians closer to the Jewish faith:
It is permitted to teach the commandments to Christians and to attract them to our religion, and it is not permitted to do the same with the Ishmaelites
The infinitely more reverential view of Jewish scriptures within Christianity helps explains the far greater numbers of Christians becoming converts to Judaism or embracing Noahide Laws as interpreted by the rabbis and it also helps explain Evangelicalism’s support of Israel.