(Aljumuah offers our series of articles by Reform Jewish Rabbi, Allen S. Maller, as a bridge-building effort to promote good relations among Jewish and Muslim communities.
We share much in common due to the same source of our prophets and the revelations they received, namely the One God. Indeed, we are both stronger when we work together for justice, peace and mutual understanding. Our profound thanks to Rabbi Allen, who alone is responsible for the views and interpretations expressed herein.)
WHY WOULD TWO Arabian Jewish rabbis save from destruction —at the hand of an Arabian Jewish king— a pagan-controlled sanctuary in Makkah when it was filled with idols? Keep in mind that idols are completely forbidden by Judaism in the worship of the One God? According to some hadiths there were 300 idols around the Ka’bah; other hadiths say 360 idols including some pictures and small idols inside the Ka’bah itself.
Why? Because, according to the famous Tafsir of Ibn Kathir, they knew that this sanctuary had originally been built over 2,000 years previously by Abraham and his oldest son Ishmael; and although it had been desecrated and polluted by idols for many centuries, the site itself had remained holy and would someday be purified again.
In a recent article titled “What kind of Judaism in Arabia?” [i] Christian Robin (a French epigraphist and historian, and leader of an archaeological expedition at Bir Hima, [ii] located in the southwest of the present Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) says most scholars now agree that, around 380 CE, the elites of the Kingdom of Himyar [iii] (in Yemen) converted to some form of Judaism. [iv]
The Himyar rulers may have seen in Judaism a potential unifying force for their new, culturally diverse empire, and an identity to rally resistance against creeping encroachment by Byzantine and Ethiopian Christians, as well as the Zoroastrian empire of Persia.
It is unclear how much of the population converted, perhaps 10-20% perhaps 30-40%. What is sure is that in the Himyar capital of Zafar [v] (south of Sana’a [vi] in Yemen), references to pagan gods largely disappear from royal inscriptions and texts on public buildings around this time, and are replaced by writings that refer to a single deity.
Using mostly the local Sabean language (and in rare cases Hebrew), this god is alternatively described as Rachmanan – the Merciful (a name still used both by Jews and Muslims)– the “Lord of the Heavens and Earth,” the “God of Israel” and “Lord of the Jews.” Prayers invoke God’s blessings on the “people of Israel” and those invocations often end with shalom and amen.
For the next century and a half, the Himyar Kingdom expanded its influence into central Arabia, the Persian Gulf area and the Hijaz (the region of Mecca and Medina), as attested by the royal inscriptions of its kings that have been found not only at Bir Hima, just north of Yemen, but also near what is today the Saudi capital of Riyadh.
This pre-Islamic alphabet is also called Nabatean Arabic, because it evolved from the script used by the Nabateans, [vii] the once-powerful nation that built Petra in Jordan and that dominated the trade routes in the southern Levant and northern Arabia before being annexed by the Romans in the early 2nd century CE.
Growing outside pressures ultimately took their toll on Himyar. Sometime around the year 500 CE, it fell to Christian invaders from the Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum.[viii]
In a last bid for independence, in 522, a Jewish Himyar leader, Yusuf As’ar Yath’ar, [ix] rebelled against the puppet ruler enthroned by the negus and destroyed the Ethiopian garrison. He then besieged Najran, which had refused to provide him with troops, and massacred part of its Christian population.
In 2014, the French-Saudi expedition at Bir Hima discovered an inscription recording Yusuf’s passage there after the Najran massacre as he marched north with 12,000 men into the Arabian desert to reclaim the rest of his kingdom. After that, we lose track of him, but Christian chroniclers recorded that around 525 CE the Ethiopians defeated the rebel leader.
One big question that still remains about the Jews of Himyar is what kind of Judaism they practiced. Did they observe the Sabbath? Or the rules of kashrut (food restriction rules)?
Robin, the French epigraphist, writes in his article that the official religion of Himyar may be described as “Judeo-monotheism” – “a variety of Judaism” that followed many of the Judaism’s basic principles, rituals and prohibitions (daily prayers, circumcision, ritual purity, pilgrimage, charity, ban on images and ban on eating pork); but like Reform Judaism today, they did not follow most of the restrictions that Orthodox rabbis had added to the Torah of Moses.
With this background we can better understand the religious reasons that motivated the two rabbis to protected the pagan-controlled idol-filled Ka’bah from destruction by a Jewish King.
The Tafsir of Ibn Kathir (born 1302 CE) is one of the most widely used explanations of the Quran in the Arab world today. Recently, while studying Quran with Ibn Kathir’s Tafsir, I learned of an amazing event involving two rabbis and the Holy Ka’bah. In explaining Ayah 44:37 Ibn Kathir relates the following events:
One of the Tubba’ [x] left Yemen and went on a journey of conquest until he reached Samarkand [in what is now Khazakastan], [xi] expanding his kingdom and domain. He is the one who founded Al-Hirah. [xii] It is agreed that he passed through Al-Madinah during the days of Jahiliyyah. He fought its inhabitants but they resisted him; they fought him by day and supplied him with food by night, so he felt ashamed before them and he refrained from harming them.
When (on his return) he passed by Makkah, he wanted to destroy the Ka’bah, but the two rabbis told him not to do that. They told him about the significance of this House, that it had been built by Ibrahim Al-Khalil, and that it would become of great importance through that Prophet who would be sent towards the end of time.
So he respected it, performed Tawaf around it, and covered it with a fine cloth. Then he returned to Yemen and invited its people to follow the religion of guidance along with him. At that time, the religion [Judaism] of Musa, was the religion followed by those who were guided, before the coming of the Messiah [Jesus]. So the people of Yemen accepted the religion of guidance [Judaism] along with him.
Although for more than 58 years I have been studying the Quran and reading other Islamic books, I had never heard of these amazing events.
I think of myself as a Reform Jewish Rabbi who is a Muslim Jew. Actually I am a Muslim Jew—i.e. a faithful Jew submitting to the will of God—because I am a Reform Rabbi. As a Rabbi I am faithful to the covenant that God made with Abraham, and I submit to the covenant and its commandments that God made with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai. [xiii]
As a Reform Rabbi I believe that Jewish spiritual leaders should modify Jewish traditional practices as social and historical circumstances change and develop. I also believe we should not make religion difficult for people to practice by adding an increasing number of restrictions to the commandments we received at Mount Sinai.
These are lessons that Prophet Muhammad taught 12 centuries before the rise of Reform Judaism in early 19th century Germany. Although most Jews today are no longer Orthodox, if the Jews of Muhammad’s time had followed these teachings of prophet Muhammad, then the equivalent of what is today’s Reform Judaism would have started 1,400 years ago.
I believe that Muhammad was intended to be a prophet bringing what amounts to Reform Judaism to the Orthodox Jews of his day — although he was 1,200 years ahead of his time.
During the six centuries between the birth of Jesus and the arrival of Muhammad in Yathrib, the city of Jews (Medina), most Jews had become what would today be considered Orthodox Jews.
Why would it be so important for these two Jewish sages to convince the Jewish king [Tubba’ as referred to in Ibn Kathir] not to destroy the Ka’bah? Perhaps one of the reasons comes from the fact that Jewish mystics often referred to their belief that there was in the high heavens above, a spiritually ideal Holy House—Beit HaKodesh which was in some transcendent metaphorical way a House of God—Beit El.
The Quran states:
Their Prophet [Samuel] then proclaimed, “The sign of the blessings of Talut’s kingship over you is that Allah will give you back the Tabut [Ark—a wooden box placed centrally in the Tabernacle] that was taken from you, wherein is Sakinah from your Lord, [inward] peace and reassurance. and a remnant of that which Musa [Moses] and Harun [Aaron] left behind carried by the angels. Verily, in this is a sign for you if you are indeed believers. [Surat Al-Baqarah, 2:248]
Ibn Kathir explains “carried by the angels” by quoting Ibn Jurayj who reported that Ibn `Abbas narrated:
The angels came down while carrying the Tabut from between the sky and the earth, until they placed it before Talut (Saul) while the people were watching.
Thus, there has always been a Holy House for monotheistic Pilgrimage. When it does not exist materially in Makkah or Jerusalem, it exists ideally/spiritually in the heavens above.
When it is not called Beitullah, it is called Beit El. When it is not called Bayt al-Maqdis, it is called Beit HaMiqdash; there are varying names, two places on earth and one in heaven, but all of them are like a pair of lungs breathing the spirit of Allah into the world.
When Abraham and Ishmael rebuilt the Holy House in Makkah, there was no House in Jerusalem. When, in mid-tenth century BCE Jerusalem, Solomon built the Holy House in Jerusalem, the Holy House in Makkah built by Abraham and Ishmael had already been polluted by the multitude of idols which the Makkans had begun to put in it.
In the year 587 BCE the Babylonians destroyed the Holy House in Jerusalem. About 70 years later the Jews who had returned from exile in Babylonia rebuilt the Holy House in Jerusalem. A generation after the death of Jesus, in the year 70 CE, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and its Holy House.
All during the days of Jahiliyyah the Holy House in Makkah remained polluted until it was purified from its 360 idols by Muhammad near the end of his life. Since that time it has remained pure.
The one spiritually ideal Heavenly Holy House has been rebuilt physically several times in these two different holy places. But the one God who is worshiped in each separate holy place is the one God of every place in the world. As a Jewish Midrash (Torah insight) says: “Why is God called Makom (place)? Because He is the place of the world—and the world is not His place.” (Yalqut Shimoni Vayetze 117)
Indeed, one of the names of God in Jewish tradition is Makom, ‘place’; because when Prophet Jacob was fleeing from his hate-filled brother Esau (Bible, Genesis 27:41), he slept one night on a special place, where he had a vision of a ladder connecting heaven and earth.
Jacob came to a certain place and spent the night there because the sun had set; and he took one of the stones of the place and put it under his head, and lay down in that place. He had a dream: a ladder was set on the earth with its top reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. (Bible, Genesis 28:11-12)
Why would the two Jewish Rabbis have protected Makkah? Because they believed the oral Torah tradition (Midrash) and knew that Abraham and Ishmael had rebuilt the Ka’bah. Undoubtedly, they mourned for what had been the original Ka’bah, which subsequently was polluted by the 360 idols that had been placed [for worship] inside and around it.
Since Jews believe that the Holy Temple in Jerusalem will not be rebuilt until after the Messiah comes, the two rabbis must have hoped that a Prophet would someday arise in Makkah and cleanse the Ka’bah of its 360 idols. And their hopes were fulfilled by Prophet Muhammad just one or two centuries later.
Perhaps this was the reason that right after the conquest of Jerusalem by the second caliph, ‘Umar ibn Al-Khattab, he headed straight toward “the area where the Romans had buried the Temple [bayt al-maqdis] at the time of the sons of Israel,” according to Abu Ja’far Muhammad ibn Jarir Al-Tabari [xiv] (839-923 CE) —a leading commentator on the Quran and known as one of Islam’s greatest historians.
Rabbi Maller’s web site is: www.rabbimaller.com
[x] Tubba’ was an honorific title used to refer to the ruler of Himyar and other kingdoms: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_rulers_of_Saba_and_Himyar