Jews and Arabs: First Contacts

The Jews of Medina rejected the prophecy of Muhammad.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People,published by Schocken Books.

Jews in Ancient Arabia

Jews had lived in Arabia since very ancient times. In the fifth century, they were concentrated mostly in two regions: Himyar in the south and Hijaz in the north. Several sedentary tribes professing Judaism engaged in farming and crafts. They lived peacefully alongside tribes who had become the predominant population in the peninsula shortly before the birth of Muhammad. Judaism, combined with Christianity of the oriental sects, must have had a certain influence on the Arab elites.

In the following century, this influence was clearly evident in the self‑perception of the Himyarite aristocracy. During the reign of Yusuf As'ar Yath'ar--known by his epithet Dhu Nuwas--the Himyarites conducted an independent foreign policy in relation to the Byzantine Persian Empires, and fought against the Christians of Najran in the name of a single god, referred to as "The Merciful One." Inscriptions on rocks in Arabia have preserved traces of this triple phenomenon: religious separatism, embryonic monotheism, and war against the Christians. Some Christians regarded this as part of a Jewish attempt to dominate the world. Yet the kingdom was not Jewish, and its monotheism was but an expression of Himyarite independence.

Abandoned by his supporters, Dhu Nuwas was killed in battle against a Christian Ethiopian army in 525, Himyar then came under Ethiopian rule, which lasted until the Persian conquest of southern Arabia in 575. Nevertheless, long after Dhu Nuwas' death, the inscriptions continue to mention the single "merciful" god of the Himyarites.

image of muhammadMuhammad's Monotheistic Revelations

From about 610 Muhammad ibn Abdallah began proclaiming his monotheistic revelations. Analysis of their content clearly exposes ties between the new faith and the old traditions of local Jews and Christians. To the people of Mecca, Muhammad spoke of his revelation concerning the last day of judgment, of the necessity for man to be humble and grateful to the Merciful One and to worship Him alone, and of the obligation of generosity to the poor and the defenseless. The children of Israel, he insisted, could testify to the authenticity of his message. All these were elements directly influenced by the traditions and customs of the Jewish tribes of Medina. Like Jesus before him, Muhammad also claimed that he did not wish to abolish the tradition of Israel, but to update and adjust it in compliance with the new divine commandments.

In the formative stage of the new religion, the influence of Judaism was apparent not only in Islamic doctrines but also in its actual strategy of expansion. When the people of Mecca rejected Muhammad, he left town and migrated to Medina where he thought he would find a more recep­tive attitude to his gospel. He was particularly confident that the three Jewish tribes of the region--the Banu‑Qaynuqa who were goldsmiths, and the Banu-Nadir and Banu‑Qurayza who were date‑farmers--would be the first to support him. 

Jews Rejected Muhammad's Prophecy

He was, however, bitterly disappointed. Despite their rivalries, which sometimes resulted in fratricidal wars and separate alliances with Arab tribes, the Jews of Medina unanimously rejected the Prophet. They criticized or mocked his revelations and in certain cases gave political support to his opponents.

Muhammad therefore reversed his policy: his order to change the qibla--the direction of the Muslim prayer--from Jerusalem to Mecca, signified that he had abandoned all attempts to win over the Jews. He also decided to evict the Jews from the peninsula, and began by severing the alliances of each Jewish tribe with its Arab neighbors.

The Qaynuqa were the first to suffer. After their surrender, they were forced to leave Medina and shortly afterwards migrated to Syria. The Nadir capitulated after their palm trees had been cut down, and the tribe proceeded to the oasis of Khaybar, 150 kilometers north of Medina. The Qurayza suffered the worst fate. All their men were put to death and the women and children sold into slavery.

The last Jewish opposition to Muhammad was in Khaybar, where the Jews formed a coalition with local Arabs. In June 628, however, Muham­mad conquered the oasis. The Jews were allowed to remain there but had to pay heavy taxes. All religions previously existing in the Arabian Peninsula thus became minorities under the rule of Islam.

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Menachem Ben-Sasson

Menachem Ben-Sasson is a Professor of History at Hebrew University's Institute of Jewish Studies.