This article is extracted and adapted from the chapter “Scriptural Names of the Israelites” of the book The Mystery of Israel in Ancient Egypt: The Exodus in the Qur’an, the Old Testament, Archaeological Finds, and Historical Sources
The Hebrew word for “Jew” is Yehudi. Scholars believe that this term is derived from the name of one of Jacob’s twelve sons, Yehudhah (Judah). According to the Bible, the child’s mother chose this name to praise the Lord. The New English Translation Bible states that the name means “he will be praised.” Yehudi, thus, is taken to have originally referred to a member of the tribe of Judah. This etymology is reiterated by some Muslim writers as well.
The term was then applied to the inhabitants of the southern kingdom of Judah or Judea, which consisted of the tribes of Jacob’s sons Judah and his half brother Benjamin. It is in this broader sense of an inhabitant of the kingdom of Judah that the term “Jew” makes its first appearance in the Bible late in 2 Kings 16:6.
The popular explanation of how the term “Jew” came to denote all adherents of Judaism is based on the Biblical narrative. When the Assyrians attacked the northern state of Israel in 721 BCE after its revolt they took its inhabitants captives and scattered them (2 Kings 18:9-11). The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar attacked Judea three times in the first two decades of the 6th century BCE and took captives to Babylon (Jeremiah 52:28-30). Half a century later the two captive tribes of Judea were allowed to return to their homeland by the Persian king Cyrus. Judea was reestablished. The scattered ten tribes of Israel did not have such luck because they had already been assimilated by other peoples and were lost. So the inhabitants of Judea in exile were the only Israelites who retained their distinctive identity.
In the Qur’an, the Arabic masculine singular for “Jew” is Yahudi, whose plural cases are Yahud or Hud. But the Qur’an gives Yahudi a different etymology. The verb is hada which means “repented” or “returned to the right path.” This name comes sometimes in the plural verb form of Allathina hadu which means “those who repented.”
The Qur’an implies that the term “Jew” did not exist before Moses or, more precisely, the Torah. In other words, it was coined by God Himself, as He coined the term “Muslim” (22.78). The following verses confirm this fact by stressing that neither Abraham nor any of his sons and grandsons, including Israel (Jacob), could have been a “Jew” or Nasrani (Christian), because both the Torah and the Injil, where these terms came from, were revealed after them:
O People of the Book! Why do you argue about Abraham, when the Torah and the Injil were not sent down till after him? Have you no sense? (3.65) You have argued about things that you have knowledge of, so why do you argue about what you have no knowledge of? Allah knows and you do not know. (3.66) Abraham was not a Jew or Christian, but he was upright, a Muslim (someone who surrenders to God), and he was not one of the polytheists. (3.67) The people who are most worthy of Abraham are those who followed him, this Prophet (Muhammad), and those who believed [in Muhammad]. Allah is the patron of the believers. (3.68)
They said: “Be Jews or Christians so that you may be guided.” Say [O Muhammad!]: “Not so, but follow the religion of Abraham who was upright and was not one of the polytheists.” (2.135)
Or do you [O People of the Book!] say that Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Asbat (Jacob’s sons) were Jews or Christians? Say [O Muhammad!]: “Do you know best or Allah does?” And who is more of a wrongdoer than he who conceals a testimony that he has from Allah? Allah is not unaware of what you do. (2.140) This is a nation that has passed away. Theirs is what they gained, and yours is what you gain. You shall not be asked about what they have done. (2.141)
For more about the term Nasrani (Christian), see our article The Name of the Followers of the Messiah in the Qur’an and New Testament.
The fact that the forefathers of the Israelites were not “Jews” leaves no doubt that this term, unlike “Children of Israel,” is not gentilic. It is a name for those who believed in Moses’ message and embraced his religion, regardless of their ethnic origin. Although Moses’ main goal was to deliver the Israelites and take them out of Egypt, his prophetic mission had a wider scope and his religious message did not target the Israelites only. Non-Israelite people in Canaan, for instance, would have converted to the new religion of Moses and become as much Jews as the Israelite believers. The domain of the activity of any prophet might well be limited for practical reasons, but not so as a matter of principle. For example, when two prison inmates in polytheistic Egypt asked prophet Joseph to interpret their dreams he started first by preaching about his monotheistic religion, obviously hoping to convert them (12.35-41). The Qur’an also tells us, in addition to Pharaoh’s wife (66.11), of an Egyptian man who believed in Moses:
A believing man from Pharaoh’s people who concealed his faith said: “Will you kill a man for saying ‘my Lord is Allah’ when he has come to you with manifest proofs from your Lord? If he is a liar then his lie would be against him, and if he is truthful then some of what he has threatened you with would fall on you. Allah does not guide one who is an extravagant liar.” (40.28)
Significantly, the Qur’an does not describe this non Israelite who believed in Moses’ message as a “Jew” but rather a “believer.” Even more telling is the fact that throughout Moses’ struggle with Pharaoh, only the term “Children of Israel” is used for Moses’ people. At no point during the confrontation the Israelites were called Jews. This is due to the fact that the Torah had not been revealed then so those who believed in Moses had not been called Jews yet.
The earliest historical event in which the Qur’an calls the followers of Moses “Jews” is after the exodus when seventy of Moses’ people went with him to the mount where he used to converse with God in order to hear His words. A verse in one of the two accounts of this event reveals the Qur’anic etymology of the word “Jew”:
Moses chose from his people seventy for our appointment. When the earthquake overtook them he said: “My Lord! Had you willed, you could have killed them and me before. Would You kill us for what the fools among us have done? This is not but Your trial with which You send astray whom You will and guide whom You will. You are our guardian, so forgive us and show mercy to us, and You are the best of forgivers. (7.155) Write down for us good in this world and in the hereafter. We have repented to You.” He said: “I will strike with My torment whom I will, and My mercy embraces everything, so I shall write it down for those who are pious, give alms, and believe in Our signs.” (7.156)
In 7.156, Moses prays to God saying inna hudna ilayka which means “we have repented to You.” According to the Qur’an, this event occurred after Moses’ reception of the “Tablets” which were inscribed by God. In his appeal to God, Moses used a term that was already coined by God in the Torah.