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Feb 15, 2024

The Sin of Cosmocide

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Juan Cole

University of Michigan

Juan Cole is Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan.

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The Sin of Cosmocide

For Jews and Muslims, Killing a Soul Means Killing All of Humanity

The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans under the Command of Titus, AD 70, David Roberts, 1850

The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans under the Command of Titus, AD 70, David Roberts, 1850

Killing an entire world is the ultimate act of villainy in science fiction. The most memorable such fictional atrocity occurs in George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977), when the Galactic Empire’s imperial officer Grand Moff Tarkin fires a fatal beam from the newly constructed Death Star at the planet Alderaan, “the bright center of the universe,” to demonstrate its awful power to captive rebel leader Princess Leia Organa. Jedi Master Obi Wan Kenobi, in transit to Alderaan aboard the Millennium Falcon, senses the enormity of this casual murder of two billion individuals. He remarks, “I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened.”1 The Empire had committed what we might term cosmocide, or the extermination of an entire world. Although it may risk trivializing the massive atrocities our world has witnessed in the past century to evoke them through a Hollywood fantasy, we should also acknowledge that the pulverizing of Leia’s (and Luke Skywalker’s) home world has shaken millions of filmgoers sheltered by selective media journalism from exposure to the real thing.

Lamentably, cosmocide in the full sense of the destruction of a whole planet became a possibility and not merely the stuff of speculative fiction on July 16, 1945, when the first nuclear device was detonated. On that day, as physicist (and Sanskritist) Robert J. Oppenheimer witnessed the first successful test of the atomic bomb he had fathered, he famously quoted the Bhagavad Gita, verse 11:12 (referring to Krishna): “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once in the sky, that would be the splendor of the mighty One.” He further recalled in this connection verse 11:32, translating it as, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”2

Today, a massive exchange of thermonuclear weapons could plunge the earth into long-term darkness, killing most life. Even short of such a planetary slaughter, nuclear-armed states, and even those with extremely powerful conventional weapons, can wipe out “worlds,” in the sense of entire cities or regions. We have beheld such orgies of desolation in wars in the Middle East in the twenty-first century that have leveled cities in Syria, Sudan, Gaza, and Israel.


Si Kaddour Benghabrit (center) at the inauguration of the Grand Mosque of Paris in 1926 / Wikimedia Commons

Si Kaddour Benghabrit (center) at the inauguration of the Grand Mosque of Paris in 1926 / Wikimedia Commons

Both the Jewish and Muslim spiritual traditions refer to cosmocide, and interestingly enough, both equate it with the killing of even one human being. In the Qur’an’s chapter of The Table, 5:32, it is written,

For this reason, We ordained for the children of Israel that whoever kills a single soul (except for executing a murderer or a brigand in the land), it is as though that person had killed the whole world. And whoever saves a soul, it is as though that person had saved the whole world. Our messengers came to them with clear signs, but many of them transgressed in the land even after that.

The Islamic scripture here contains an explicit reference to a passage of the Mishnah, the rabbinical oral tradition about Jewish law. Just as the Jewish sages themselves believed that this interpretation flowed inexorably from biblical verses, so too is God depicted in the Qur’an as endorsing the passage as rooted in revelation. The passage was incorporated into the Jerusalem Talmud, completed around 400 CE, which is certainly the edition referred to here in the Qur’an. The later Babylonian Talmud, likely completed sometime in the mid-to-late seventh century—after the Qur’an—contains an alternative version of this sentiment, specifying that killing a Jew is like killing all humankind. The Babylonian Talmud takes precedence for most Orthodox Jews, but the historically minded understand that the earlier text is more primary.

This reference to Judaic lore is only one of many in the Qur’an, where we find numerous episodes from the Hebrew Bible, retold to emphasize distinctive spiritual insights. This scriptural overlap presaged many centuries of fruitful interactions between the scholars and sages of the two religious communities. Despite the conflict between Muslims and Jews over territory in the Holy Land in the past century, the two have historically sometimes had warm, if complicated, relations. Before the twentieth century, Muslim rulers sometimes had Jewish ministers in their government, as with the Sassoon family, who served as treasurers for the Mamluk dynasty that ruled over Ottoman Iraq in the eighteenth to early nineteenth century. Jewish and Muslim thinkers debated ideas and learned from one another. Some Jewish thinkers in Muslim lands wrote important works in Arabic. I once visited the Spanish Synagogue in Prague, built by Jewish modernists in 1868 in what was called the “Moorish style,” referencing Andalusia. It was a paean by members of the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah) to the relative tolerance and ecumenicism of the Umayyad era in southern Spain. And even if Andalusia has been romanticized (the later Almohad era was brutal and intolerant), the Jews of Prague were not entirely mistaken. Talmudic scholar Samuel ibn Naghrillah (d. 1056), for instance, rose to become the first minister of the post-Umayyad Muslim statelet of Granada.

The universalistic and spiritual implications of the Qur’anic verse (5:32) were explored by the great ecstatic Sufi thinker Rūzbihān Baqlī (d. 1209) of Shiraz. He said the verse shows that God

created souls from a single handful, gathering them together. Then he separated and differentiated them and related them to one another regarding their capacities and creativity. So whoever kills one of them, that murder affects all souls whether they know it or not. And anyone who saves a believing soul with the mention of God and his unity and the description of his beauty and glory—so that he comes to love its creator—and saves it by virtue of his knowledge and the beauty of his witness—then this restored life and its blessings have an impact on all souls. So it is as though he saved the whole world.3

Baqlī pointed to the common origins of all people in God’s act of creation, to their subsequent diversification, and to the way in which rescuing any of them enriches all the rest.


The Sufi tradition of Muslim mysticism was often open to spiritual encounters with adherents of other religions. While Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī was capable, in his verse narratives, of using Jews and Judaism as symbols for the unbeliever (since after all they declined to recognize either Jesus or Muhammad, who are seen in the Qur’an as successors to the Jewish prophets), he also participated in a trans-religious spirituality that was dismissive of outward markers of sectarian identity, as Elisha Russ-Fishbane argues.4 R. A. Nicholson translated one of Rūmī’s most celebrated verses this way: “What is to be done, O Moslems? for I do not recognise myself. / I am neither Christian nor Jew nor Gabr [Zoroastrian] nor Moslem. / I am not of the East, nor of the West, nor of the land, nor of the sea; / ... My place is the Placeless, my trace is the Traceless; / ’Tis neither body nor soul, for I belong to the soul of the Beloved.”5

Moreover, his followers, at least, alleged that he had warm relationships with the Jews in Konya. Rūmī’s son asserted that, when his father died in Konya,

The people of the town, young and old, all as one wailed and mourned and sighed.
The villagers, too, Greeks and Turks alike, tore their collars in pain at his loss…,
People of every religion were faithful to him,
Followers of every faith declared their deep love for him,
The Christians venerated him, the Jews saw him as one of their own,
The adherents of Jesus said, “He is our Jesus!”
And the adherents of Moses said, “He is our Moses!”6

Traditions of Muslim universalism and expansive spirituality did not end in the medieval period, as they can be observed in modern times as well. For instance, some brave Muslims exemplified the Qur’anic virtue of concern for the life of a single soul during the Second World War. Abdelkader Ben Ghabrit, known as Si Kaddour Benghabrit (d. 1954), of Algerian heritage, served the French Third Republic in various diplomatic roles before becoming the head of the Grand Mosque of Paris. The Nazi occupation of France in 1940 put Benghabrit in an extremely difficult position. His long service to the French state, as an “evolved” Muslim, suggested to Vichy officials that they might be able to recruit him for their purposes, and even the German authorities pressured him, hoping to use him for propaganda purposes in the Middle East. He appears to have maintained stiff but correct relations with Vichy authorities, seeking to protect his minority community, but rebuffed German approaches. It appears from some oral testimonies and family histories that Benghabrit several times risked his life to help North African Muslims who had fallen afoul of the fascist state to escape. It is certain that he also helped Jews on some occasions, hiding them in the mosque or issuing certificates that they were Muslims.7 It appears that he intervened especially for individuals known to him and his circles but was not always willing to do so for strangers. Likewise, the great Jewish Algerian musician Salim Halali, who partnered with Algerian Muslims in musical productions in the Algerian style that were appreciated by both communities, found himself suddenly isolated and in danger when the Nazis took over Paris. Benghabrit, who loved Halali’s music, issued him a certificate saying he was a Muslim in order to protect him from the fascist authorities.

Albert Assouline, a Jew born in Algeria and a resistance fighter, told the story of how he was given refuge in the Paris Mosque. Historian Ethan Katz wrote,

Assouline explains how, in the first months of the Occupation, he and a Muslim soldier named Yassa Rabah escaped from a German prison camp and found safe refuge at the mosque. They stayed there two or three nights before crossing the demarcation line towards the unoccupied zone, in September 1940. Assouline notes that Si Mohamed Benzouaou, the first imam of the mosque, “took considerable risks to camouflage Jews by providing them certificates attesting that they were Muslims.” Benzouaou even personally drove a rabbi, Netter, from Metz to Narbonne, disguising him as a Muslim.8

The number of Jews saved by Muslims at the Grand Mosque is hard to estimate. In the Qur’an, however, it is emphasized that if Benghabrit and Benzouaou saved even one Jew from the Nazis (and they certainly saved many more), they saved an entire world. Nor were they alone in this endeavor among Muslims in Europe. Iranian diplomat Abdol Hossein Sardari used his country’s legation in Paris to protect Jews.9 Many Bosnian Muslims also protected Jews in that era.10


Rabbis Studying the Talmud, Carl Schleicher, ca. 1859–1871

Rabbis Studying the Talmud, Carl Schleicher, ca. 1859–1871

How did the remarkable passage in rabbinical oral tradition equating murder with cosmocide, which the Qur’an references, originate? After the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the large Jewish community in Roman Palestine gradually reoriented itself toward a more decentralized form of spirituality, one based in local communities and centered on the Bible and the oral teachings of rabbis. These “secondary” rabbinical teachings, the Mishnah, were at first orally transmitted and treated many issues in Jewish law such as prayer, religious taxes, agriculture, the keeping of the Sabbath and holy days, marriage, divorce, civil and criminal law, dietary laws, and rules governing ritual pollution and purification. The Mishnah was complete by about 200 CE, in the reign of the Roman philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius. Subsequent rabbis then commented on this text in glosses called the Gemara. The Mishnah, when combined with the commentaries produced in Palestine, eventuated in the Jerusalem Talmud, probably compiled by about 400 CE. As noted above, in the Sasanian Empire of Iran and Mesopotamia, rabbis in Babylon went on commenting for another two or three centuries, producing the Babylonian Talmud in the seventh century, the same century in which the Qur’an appeared.

The passage equating killing a single soul with killing the whole world appears in a universalist form in the earliest manuscripts of the Mishnah Sanhedrin, in the Jerusalem Talmud.11 In 4:5 of the tractate we find, as translated by early-twentieth-century scholar and Anglican clergyman Herbert Danby:

For this reason man was created one and alone in the world: to teach that whosoever destroys a single soul is regarded as though he destroyed a complete world, and whosoever saves a single soul is regarded as though he saved a complete world; and for the sake of peace among created beings that one man should not say to another, “My father was greater than thine,” and that heretics should not say, “There are many ruling powers in heaven;” also to proclaim the greatness of the King of kings of kings, blessed be He! for mankind stamps a hundred coins with one seal, and they are all alike, but the King of kings of kings, blessed be He! has stamped every man with the seal of the first Adam, and not one of them is like his fellow. So every single person is forced to say, The world was created for my sake.12

This form of the passage appears to be the earliest text, exhibiting the universalist impulses of some of the early sages who emphasized that since all human beings are descended from Adam, murdering him would have forestalled the entire human world from existence. They point out that in the story of Cain killing Abel, the biblical text says that the bloods (plural) of the victim called out—that is, the “bloods” of all his descendants that would not now come into being. Adam is the type of the human being, so killing anyone is killing all members of this class. Jonathan Wyn Schofer explains,

God’s creation of Adam, God’s concern for Abel, and God’s distinct formation of each person all in the Mishnah highlight the immense importance of each and every person as deserving correct judicial procedure. “Scripture” accounts the preservation of any single life as the preservation of a world. Each person is unique and valued as such, yet all people descend from Adam, so no person has greater ancestry than another.13

In the much later Babylonian Talmud, the injunction against killing a soul specifies a Jew, and it is the murder of a Jew that is equated to killing the whole world. The Qur’an paraphrases the universalist version of the Jerusalem Talmud.

Beyond the basic injunctions in the Bible, Jewish ethics have been a set of protracted arguments rather than a static set of precepts. Austrian Jewish philosopher Martin Buber (1878–1965) took a stand against killing anyone, even the notorious Nazi mass-murderer Adolf Eichmann, one of the key officials who plotted out and implemented the Holocaust against Europe’s Jews. Eichmann was captured at the end of the war but escaped to Argentina. In 1960, Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency tracked him down and brought him to Israel for trial. Buber had devoted his life to an existentialist philosophy of mutual human interaction, having authored the key work I and Thou (1922), in which he argued that we only become truly human when we treat others as fully human rather than as instrumental objects. He contrasted things, which we experience or instrumentalize (I-it), to the second person address (I-thou), which requires an entirely different attitude: “When thou is spoken the speaker has no thing, he has indeed nothing. But he takes his stand in relation.”14 Buber opposed the execution of Eichmann on the grounds of the biblical commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.”15 Crucially, Buber believed that the Ten Commandments applied to states as well as to individuals. He therefore opposed the death penalty, a common position among leftist and liberal European Zionists. Buber sought an audience with Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to urge against Eichmann’s execution. Ben-Gurion allegedly averred that he had no personal commitment to such a verdict but that the then president of Israel, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, was dead set on it.

Buber also feared that the execution of Eichmann might cause German youths to believe that the action had avenged the Holocaust and thus had relieved them of any burden of guilt. He did not seek clemency for the war criminal himself but wished Jews to stand by their own values even in this extreme case.

Buber took the commandment not to kill so seriously that he became a fervent vegetarian and considered most human beings to be engaged in a holocaust against animals. His utopian vision of an Israeli state bound by the commandment against killing contrasted vividly with the militaristic strand in Zionism that led to the Nakba. Despite his Zionism, Buber attempted to intervene in the 1960s on behalf of Palestinian Israelis to ensure that they were fairly compensated for their land the state took over for Jewish settlement projects in the Galilee and that they were given jobs. It was a paternalistic gesture that did not escape a colonial conceptual framework, but it did differ from the more militant forms of Zionism, the adherents of which would have seen nothing wrong with simply displacing these Palestinians, whom the Israelis call merely “Arabs” (haAravim), dismissing their Palestinian-ness.16

Buber’s legacy of intense engagement with and recognition of the human other can be seen everywhere in modern Judaism, from Israeli NGOs devoted to disaster relief (including in Muslim-majority countries) to organizations such as Jewish Voices for Peace and Rabbis for a Ceasefire, among the more prominent American organizations working for Palestinian rights.17 Rabbi Brian Walt specifically invoked the Mishnah Sanhedrin in calling for peace in Palestine-Israel, saying, “We insist that in our tradition anyone who destroys a single soul, it is as if they destroy the whole world because each person is a world within themselves.”18

Yet Buber’s vision of a profoundly dialogical existence with respect for and insight into the other has faced fierce headwinds since his death. Toward the end of Buber’s life, his colleague Ernst Simon expressed the view that if Israel was not leavened with Buber’s pacifism, it would be forever trapped in Ben-Gurion’s martial vision, living by the sword and under the sign of Mars.19


If extremism and terrorism are a self-evident horror, they do not always come out of nowhere. They can be instruments of overweening ambition and grasping sadism, of the quest for power. They can also be wounded and monstrous reactions to state war crimes and crimes against humanity. States, in their pompous pronouncements on security, indemnify themselves against charges of terror by specifying the term solely for non-state actors, whereas of course it is states that have killed the bulk of innocent civilians in modern conflicts. The ISIS episode, for instance, cannot be detached from the illegal US invasion and occupation of Iraq. The rise of the Taliban Movement of Pakistan likely had more to do with the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan than with any putative tendency to radicalism of the Pashtun people, who also have produced civil and even pacifist movements. The rounds of violence in Palestine and Israel, in turn, cannot be discussed outside the framework of Israeli occupation and the displacements of Palestinians. Still, just as there can never be any excuse for states to target or recklessly endanger the lives of civilians, there can be no excuse for aggrieved vigilantes to mow down grandmothers and toddlers to make a supposed statement. Jews and Muslims who kill innocent civilians, whether acting on behalf of a state or taking the law into their own hands, betray the highest ethical imperatives in their own spiritual traditions.

The rise of religious terrorist groups willing to target innocent noncombatants was roundly condemned by the grand imam of Al-Azhar al-Sharīf in Cairo, Ahmed el-Tayeb. Al-Azhar is the preeminent Sunni institution of religious scholarship in the world. In 2019, on the occasion of Pope Francis’s apostolic journey to the United Arab Emirates, el-Tayeb and Francis jointly issued the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.”20 It begins:

In the name of God who has created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity, and who has called them to live together as brothers and sisters, to fill the earth and make known the values of goodness, love and peace; In the name of innocent human life that God has forbidden to kill, affirming that whoever kills a person is like one who kills the whole of humanity, and that whoever saves a person is like one who saves the whole of humanity….

That is, the pope and the grand imam jointly referenced Al-Māʾidah 5:32 in the Qur’an. In doing so, they implicitly invoked the commentary of the Jewish sages, demonstrating how the passage in the Mishnah Sanhedrin has worked its way into global interreligious dialogue through the Islamic scripture. In a separate legal opinion issued earlier that year, Al-Azhar underlined that this verse of the Qur’an condemns the killing of innocent (ma’sūm) civilians.21

The two spiritual leaders went on to lament, “History shows that religious extremism, national extremism and intolerance have produced in the world, be it in the East or West, what might be referred to as signs of a ‘third world war being fought piecemeal.’ In several parts of the world and in many tragic circumstances these signs have begun to be painfully apparent, as in those situations where the precise number of victims, widows and orphans is unknown.”

Note their equal condemnation of “religious extremism” and “national extremism.” In our own moment, their notion of a staccato and discontinuous third world war seems especially apparent. In country after country, in serial fashion, lawless non-state militias have despoiled entire regions of the globe. At the same time, lethal fighter jets, missiles, and drones have reduced proud buildings and the families dwelling within them to scattered debris. We have seen conflicts in which the megatonnage of conventional explosives aimed at dense urban neighborhoods has exceeded that of the nuclear devices the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Moreover, instead of the tomb of the unknown soldier we now see the unmarked graves, beneath rubble, of thousands of innocent noncombatants, whose identities may never be recovered. If each equals a world, then entire clusters of solar systems are being annihilated, even entire galaxies—a cataclysm on a scale not dreamt of in the most audacious Hollywood space operas.