IBN ISHAQ, THE earliest biographer of Prophet Muhammad, relates an amazing story about Rabbi Mukhayriq, a wealthy and learned leader of the tribe of Tha‘labah, a Jewish tribe allied with one of the three major Jewish tribes that had lived in Madinah for centuries. Rabbi Mukhayriq fought alongside Prophet Muhammad in the battle of Uhud on March 19, 625 CE, and died in that battle.
As it happened, that day was a Saturday. Rabbi Mukhayriq had addressed the people of his tribe and urged them to go with him to fight together with Muhammad. The tribe’s men protested, saying that it was the day of Sabbath. “According to Halakah (orthodox Jewish Shari’ah), we are not supposed to go to war on the Sabbath unless we are directly under attack. The pagan Arabs from Makkah will not attack us; they only want to persecute the Muslims in Madinah—as they had done for so many years in Makkah.”
The Torah says that Jewish men who are afraid or disheartened (here, by thoughts of fighting on the Sabbath, or Shabbat) should be told to go home. [i] The Mishnah, the first Jewish legal code (parallel to Islamic Fiqh) of the oral rabbinic Torah, states that there are two types of war: (1) a war of defense, which is obligatory for all Jewish adult men, and (2) all other wars, which are voluntary.
Rabbi Mukhayriq chastised the men of his congregation for not understanding the deeper meaning of what was happening; he announced that if he were to die in the battle, his entire wealth should go to Muhammad. Mukhayriq did indeed die that day in battle against the Makkans.
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When Muhammad, who was seriously injured in that same battle, was informed about the death of Rabbi Mukhayriq, Muhammad said, “He was the best of Jews.” Many Muslims think that Rabbi Mukhayriq must have converted to Islam if he was willing to risk his life to protect Muhammad, but the Prophet of Islam stated clearly that Rabbi Mukhayriq was the best of Jews, not a Jewish convert to a new religious community.
In addition, Ibn Ishaq, the earliest biographer of Prophet Muhammad, specifically says about Mukhayriq:
He recognized the Apostle of Allah — may Allah bless him and grant him peace — by his description, and by what he found in his scholarship. However, he was accustomed to his own religion, and this held him back (from converting), [up] until he died in the battle of Uhud.
Rabbi Mukhayriq’s view was unorthodox. He must have seen Muhammad as a Prophet of the One God. He also knew that Prophet Muhammad had told his Muslim followers in Madinah to pray facing north toward the site of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem—although this direction (qiblah) would later be changed to facing south towards the Ka’bah in Makkah. Thus, this unorthodox rabbi viewed fighting alongside Muhammad as his personal voluntary struggle in support of monotheism.
Furthermore, Rabbi Mukhayriq would have known about Prophet Muhammad’s aerial Night Journey (Al-Isra’) to the site of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem (Surat Al-Isra’, 17:1) and his Ascension from that holy site to profound heavenly experiences. Surely, the rabbi would have been reminded of several events in his own tradition:
(1) The night time vision of Abraham’s grandson Jacob (Arabic, Ya’kub), in which Jacob saw a ‘stairway ascending from earth to the heavens—with angels moving up and down on it, and the presence of ‘the LORD, the God of Abraham and Isaac.’ Thus, Jacob, like Abraham before him, is recorded as having had at least one personal encounter with his LORD. (Bible, Genesis 28:10-22)
(2) The pleading of Abraham for God to save from destruction the innocent persons of the city of Sodom—where men were allowed to prevail, by force, upon other men for sexual acts. The two men (angelic messengers) had taken Abraham to a summit so as to show him the coming punishment of his LORD. They continued on to that city [to warn its righteous people] while the LORD remained with Abraham.
Abraham felt compelled [in this encounter with his LORD] to question the justice of “the Judge of all the earth” who seemed to be set on destroying the innocent of that city along with its sinners. Abraham prevailed upon God to spare the city for the sake of the righteous who lived there—first with as few as 50 innocent residents, then 40, 30, 20 and finally 10, to which the LORD agreed. In the end, Abraham’s nephew, Lot (Arabic, Lut) and family —presumably numbering 10 or more— escaped before the destruction fell on Sodom. (Bible, Genesis 18:16-19:29)
Rabbi Mukhayriq would have noted the similarity of the above Biblical acts of God to those reported in Muhammad’s Night Journey: Therein, having ascended with Angel Gabriel to the sixth and seventh heavens where he met Abraham and then Moses, Muhammad was taken further beyond that, where he experienced the majesty of Allah. Beginning his descent, Muhammad was asked by Moses what had been revealed to him. Upon hearing that 50 prayers per day had been made obligatory for the community of Muhammad, Moses insisted that Muhammad return to the presence of his LORD for a reduction in the number of prayers. On the fifth return, the burden of prayer was reduced to five Prayers per day—with the adjustment that each of those five would count as one good deed with a tenfold reward. [ii]
Might there be other reasons why Rabbi Mukhayriq would have given such extraordinary support to Prophet Muhammad?
Perhaps Rabbi Mukhayriq believed that Prophet Muhammad was not only a Prophet, but that he was also one of ‘God’s Anointed,’ who—with his Arab followers—would initiate and facilitate the Jewish people’s return to what we Jews call the ‘Land of Israel’ (the ‘Levant,’ ‘Palestine’). There, the Jews had lived for many centuries before the conquest of their lands and their Exile as prisoners to Babylonia [iii] (587 BCE).
Why might Rabbi Mukhayriq have expected such a Return? No doubt because such a repeat repatriation had been predicted in the Bible—just as the Persian King, Cyrus the Great, had previously initiated and facilitated the return of Jews to the Land of Israel, some eleven centuries before Prophet Muhammad and Rabbi Mukhayriq.
Regarding the first Return from Exile, the return from Babylonia, the Book of the prophet Isaiah reports that the Persian king Cyrus had been given ‘a title of honor,’ namely, ‘God’s Anointed’ (or, Messiah).
Did not Prophet Isaiah proclaim God’s words as follows:
This is what the LORD says — your Redeemer… who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, “Let it be rebuilt,” and of the temple, “Let its foundations be laid.” This is what the LORD says to his anointed (messiah), to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of [so as] to subdue nations before him … so that you may know that I am the LORD, the God of Israel. … ‘I summon you by name [Cyrus] and bestow on you a title of honor [Messiah], though you do not know me. I am the LORD, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God.’ (Bible, Isaiah 44:24 – 45:5)
Roughly 50 years after the Exile, a repatriation (539 BCE) had come at the order of King Cyrus and at the hand of the Persian kings after him—initiated immediately upon his conquest of Babylonia and his incorporation of it into his Persian empire:
In the first year that Cyrus of Persia was emperor [in Babylonia], [iv] the LORD made what he had said through the prophet Jeremiah [v] come true. He prompted Cyrus to issue the following command and send it out in writing to be read aloud everywhere in his empire:
This is the command of Cyrus, Emperor of Persia. The LORD, the God of Heaven, has made me ruler over the whole world and has given me the responsibility of building a temple for him in Jerusalem in Judah. May God be with all of you who are his people. You are to go to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple of the LORD, the God of Israel, the God who is worshiped in Jerusalem. If any of his people in exile need help to return, their neighbors are to give them this help. They are to provide them with silver and gold, supplies and pack animals, as well as offerings to present in the Temple of God in Jerusalem. (Bible, Ezra 1:1-4)
The Persian King Cyrus, is mentioned twenty-three times in the literature of the books of the Hebrew Bible. Isaiah refers to this non-Jewish king as God’s ‘shepherd,’ and as the Lord’s ‘Anointed (Messiah)’ who was destined to facilitate the divine plan.
As for Rabbi Mukhayriq and the expected second repatriation, he would have known that just a decade previous to the Battle of Uhud (625 BCE) the Persians had captured (614 CE) the Land of Israel [Palestine] from the Eastern Roman [Byzantine] Empire. This may well have stimulated, in the rabbi’s mind, his firm expectation that another of ‘God’s Anointed’ (Messiah) was at hand, namely, Prophet Muhammad. If so, then surely the Jewish population should be in support of this new chosen [‘anointed’] instrument (Messiah) of God.
Accordingly, this unorthodox rabbi viewed fighting alongside Muhammad as his personal voluntary fight in support of monotheism—as well as a witness to his faith in the arrival of one of God’s Anointed ‘Messiahs.’ Although everyone has heard of the final ‘Son of David’ Messiah, the rabbis also speak of other pre-Messianic Age figures including another ‘Elijah’ and a ‘Son of Joseph’ Messiah, who would precede the coming of the ‘Son of David’ Messiah.
This interpretation is not the view of myself alone. There is a ninth or tenth century apocalyptic Midrash (early rabbinic commentary) called The Prayer of Rabbi Shimon ben Yokhai. In that writing a vision of this late-second century CE well-known mystic and visionary is recorded: After 40 days and nights of prayer, Rabbi Shimon ben Yokhai had a vision of the ‘Kenites’ (the Byzantine Romans)—followed by a vision of the ‘kingdom of Ishmael’ (the Arabs) who were to succeed the Byzantine Romans. The archangel Mettatron then informed Rabbi Shimon ben Yokhai:
The kingdom of the Kenites (the future Byzantine Romans) will come to Jerusalem, subdue it, and murder more than thirty thousand in it. Because of the oppression with which they (the Byzantine Romans) oppress Israel (the Jewish People), the Blessed Holy One (God) will send the Ishmaelites (Arabs) against them (the Byzantine Romans) to make war with them, so as to deliver the Israelites from their hand.
The anonymous author of the Prayer of Rabbi Shimon ben Yokhai viewed the replacement of the Christian Byzantine Roman Empire—by the Muslim Arabs—as an act of God. Through this anticipated event, God would rescue the oppressed Jewish communities throughout the Near East—especially in Jerusalem—from Christian Byzantine persecution.
Fast-forward four centuries after Rabbi Shimon ben Yokhai to the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad and Rabbi Mukhayriq—a decade before the Battle of Uhud. Rabbi Mukhayriq would have been informed that a Persian army, supported by thousands of Persian Empire Jewish volunteers, had captured Jerusalem (614 CE). This event is referred to in the Quran:
The Romans (Byzantines) have been defeated in the nearest land (Syria/ Palestine). But after their defeat, they will overcome (the Persians) within a few [three to nine] years. To Allah belongs the command before and after. [Surat Al-Rum, 30:2-4]
In fact, merely three years after Prophet Muhammad’s Battle of Uhud (625 CE) against the Makkans, the Romans (Byzantines) did recapture Jerusalem (628 CE) from the Persians. In the process, the Byzantine army massacred all those Jews who had already returned to Jerusalem during the period of Persian rule. But then, just one decade later, it was the Arab armies who would conquer—from Egypt to Iraq [vi]—and displace the Roman (Byzantine) rulers who had regained a short-lived control over the territory.
If Rabbi Mukhayriq had not died fighting alongside Prophet Muhammad in the Battle of Uhud, he could easily have lived long enough to see the Arab conquest of Jerusalem, and himself been able to return to live there.
In the following centuries, Jews from Spain to Mesopotamia lived much freer lives under Muslim rule than had been the case during the previous centuries of Christian and Zoroastrian rule. Even in the case of those who might think that Rabbi Mukhayriq had been wrong in thinking of Prophet Muhammad as a ‘Messianic’ figure, still, they would have to admit that the rabbi was right in expecting that Muhammad would begin a new era in world history.
Perhaps Rabbi Mukhayriq’s devotion to a Messianic future of peace and brotherhood can inspire Islamic and Jewish religious leaders today—together—to heal past wounds, and to make Jerusalem and the whole Middle East an exemplary land of peace in the world. Let us work together toward this end.
* Rabbi Maller’s web site is: www.rabbimaller.com
[i] Moses called together all the people of Israel and said to them, “People of Israel, listen to all the laws that I am giving you today. Learn them and be sure that you obey them. … When you go out to fight against your enemies and you see chariots and horses and an army that outnumber yours, do not be afraid of them. The LORD your God who rescued you from Egypt, will be with you. Before you start fighting, a priest is to come forward and say to the army, ‘Men of Israel, listen! Today you are going into battle. Do not be afraid of your enemies or lose courage or panic. The LORD your God is going with you, and he will give you victory.’ Then the officers will address the men and say,
‘Is there any man here who … has lost his nerve and is afraid? If so, he is to go home. Otherwise, he will destroy the morale of the others. …” (Bible, Deuteronomy 5:1; 20:1-5, 8)
[iii] Babylonia was the ancient Mesopotamian power with its capital city of Babylon, whose ruins are located 53 miles south of Baghdad in modern Iraq. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babylonia
[v] The LORD says, ‘When Babylonia’s seventy years are over, I will … keep my promise to bring you back home. … I will bring you back to the land from which I had sent you away into exile. I, the LORD have spoken.’ (Bible, Jeremiah 29:10-14)
The seventy years are to be calculated as follows: The Jewish leadership was deported from Palestine to Babylonia in 597 BCE, followed by the mass exile in 587; Babylonia was defeated by Cyrus of Persia in 539 and the returnees under Ezra completed the rebuilding of Solomon’s Temple around 525-520 BCE.