Rabbi Allen S. Maller offers Aljumuah readers his insight on early Jewish relationships with Prophet Muhammad on a day when Muslim World League leaders have just joined with Jewish leaders to visit Auschwitz,
It is hard for me as a Reform Rabbi to understand why most Jews in Medina, where they were a fairly large minority, didn’t support/accept Muhammad as a prophet for all the pagan Arab tribes. Unlike Christians, Jews do not have a strong missionary impulse, so Jews could not have viewed Prophet Muhammad as a competitor in bringing monotheism to the pagan Arab tribes.
Jews should have seen Prophet Muhammad as a stepbrother of all the Jewish prophets in the Hebrew Bible—and Muslims as monotheistic allies. Indeed, especially since it was believed that Muhammad’s tribe in Makka was descended from Abraham’s son Ishmael. Prophet Muhammad was a not so distant relative. So why didn’t all Medina’s Jews support him?
Actually, many Jews did support Prophet Muhammad. In the early months after Muhammad arrived in Medina, many more Jews supported him than pagan Arabs did during the twelve years Muhammad preached Islam in Makka, his hometown. In Makka his success was very modest, limited to only 170 men and women in a large town during that period.
Muhammad was also received much more favorably by the Jews of Medina than he was by the pagan Arabs in the town of Ta’if where he once turned for aid and support. When Muhammad and his adopted son, Zayd ibn Harithah went to Ta’if to invite the people there to Islam, he was received by three chiefs of the local tribes of Ta’if. They did let him speak freely; however, they paid no heed to his message.
Then the pagan Arabs of Ta’if told their children to throw rocks and stones at Muhammad and Zayd to make them leave the town and never come back. The rocks thrown at Muhammad and Zayd by the Ta’if teens caused them to bleed. Both were wounded and bleeding as they left Ta’if behind them; Prophet Muhammad bled so profusely that his feet became blood clotted to his shoes.
There were three primary factors preventing the majority of Medina’s Jews from openly and actively supporting Prophet Muhammad.
- One was the terrible state of traditional tribal politics and violence-prone rivalry among the tribes in Medina, both Jewish and Arab. This is well known to most Muslims.
- The second factor was the fear Jews had that when Prophet Muhammad died, most of his ex-pagan, polytheistic followers would deify him, just as after the death of Prophet Jesus, most of his followers did. Then, after a couple of generations these followers of Jesus started persecuting Jews who refused to worship Jesus as the Son of God. No Jews wanted that scenario to happen again.
- The third factor was the wide-spread belief within the Jewish community that the age of prophecy had ceased long ago. After the death of Judah the Maccabee in 160 BCE, the Book of Maccabees states, “So there was great distress in Israel, such as had not been since the time that prophets ceased to appear among them.” (1 Maccabees 9:27)
By the first century CE the belief that the study of Wisdom [Torah] could connect believers with God’s words became common:
“Although she [Wisdom] is only one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself she renews all things; in every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God [like Abraham], and prophets [like Solomon].” (Wisdom of Solomon 7:27)
In the third century CE Rabbi Avdimi summed up all the different views:
“Since the destruction of the Temple [in 70CE] prophecy has been transferred to wise-scholars, the demented [schizophrenics] and to children; and [now] a wise-scholar is superior to a prophet” (Talmud, Baba Batra 12a)
But there was at least one rabbi in Medina who was an open and active supporter of Prophet Muhammad. Rabbi Mukhayriq was a wealthy and learned leader of the tribe of Tha’labah, one who fought and died alongside Prophet Muhammed in the battle of ‘Uhud on March 19, 625 CE. Rabbi Mukhayriq spoke to his congregation asking them to go with him to help Muhammed and his few hundred supporters. His tribe’s men did not say ‘Why should we fight to defend Muhammad? He is a false prophet.” Nor did they say, “Muhammad wants us to abandon our religion, so we would be crazy to support him.”
Rather, according to Ibn Ishaq, the earliest biographer of Prophet Muhammad, who related all these amazing events, those Jews decided not to join Rabbi Mukhayriq because it was the day of the Sabbath —when Jews are not supposed to wage war unless they are directly attacked.
Rabbi Mukhayriq must have believed that Muhammad was a legitimate prophet; and an attack upon him by an army of pagan Arabs from Makka, was also an attack upon Jews who shared much of their own basic beliefs with him.
Rabbi Mukhayriq announced to his people that he himself would go—and if he died in the battle, his estate should go to Prophet Muhammed to be distributed as charity. Rabbi Mukhayriq did die in battle against the Makkans that Sabbath.
When Prophet Muhammed, who was seriously injured in that same battle, was informed about the death of Rabbi Mukhayriq, he said, “He was the best of Jews.” Prophet Muhammed inherited seven date gardens from Rabbi Mukhayriq and used this wealth to establish the first waqf —a charitable endowment—of Islam. From Rabbi Mukhayriq’s endowment many poor people were helped in Medina.
I first studied Islam when I was a student at UCLA 60 years ago, then again while I was in Rabbinical school. Over the years I continued to read the Qur’an and other Islamic books. I read these books as the Prophet taught his followers in a Hadith “not as a believer, and not as a disbeliever.” What does that mean?
The Qur’an, of course, is sacred scripture for Muslims. A disciple of Muhammad named Abu Huraira related,
The people of the Book used to read the Torah in Hebrew and then explain it in Arabic to the Muslims. Allah’s Apostle said (to the Muslims). “Do not believe the people of the Book, nor disbelieve them, but say, ‘We believe in Allah, and whatever is revealed to us, and whatever is revealed to you.’ ” (Sahih al-Bukhari, 7362)
Following Muhammad’s teaching I also neither believe nor disbelieve in the Qur’an. If I believed in the Qur’an I would be a member of the Muslim ummah (community). But I cannot disbelieve in the Qur’an because I believe that Muhammad is a prophet and I respect the Qur’an as a kindred revelation, first revealed to a kindred people, in a kindred language.
In fact, the people, the language and the theology are closer to my own people, language and theology than that of any other on earth.
Thus, I feel that I am a Muslim Jew i.e. a faithful Jew submitting to the will of God, because I am a Reform Rabbi. (Reform Jews are now the largest of the Jewish denominations in the U.S. In the U.K. Reform Judaism is called Liberal Judaism.)
As a Rabbi I am faithful to the covenant that God made with Abraham, the first Hanif Jew to be a ‘Muslim,’ and I submit to being bound by the covenant and commandments that God made with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai.
As a Reform Rabbi I believe that Rabbis should modify Jewish traditions to prevent them from making religion too hard to practice. This important teaching in the Qur’an (Surah Al-A’râf, 7:157) was taught by Prophet Muhammad 12 centuries before the rise of Reform Judaism in the early 19th century Germany:
As Abu Huraira related:
The Prophet said, “Religion is very easy and whoever overburdens himself in his religion will not be able to continue in that way. So you should not be extremists, but (only) try to be near to perfection and receive the good tidings that you will be rewarded.” (Bukhari book 2 #38)
And as the Qur’an states:
“O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know (and respect) each other. Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with everything). (Surah Al-Ḥujurât, 49:13)
May the faithful believers of all religions commit themselves to these excellent teachings.