The ideological background of Islamic views of Judaism, which may or may not be reflected in Muslims’ views on Jews or Judaism

Islam on Judaism

“Islam,” no less than “Judaism,” is  a construct, and its contents vary according to what Muslims, or Jews, or indeed anyone else, choose to include in it. But in the case of Muslim and Jews at least there are foundation texts which establish the general outlines of the construct and to some extent point the direction of its future development. What Muslims hold “Islam” to be is dictated in its broadest terms by the Qur’an, the text whose affirmation as the Word of God precisely marks the Muslim as Muslim. And if the Quran tells the Muslim and (somewhat less successfully) others, what Islam is and ought to be, the same Holy Book also lays out for the Muslim what is Judaism and what Christianity, Islam’s covenantal siblings.

None of these constructs remained fixed with Muhammad’s death in 632 C.E. and the consequent closure of the Qur’an. They were outlines to be continuously expanded and modified by subsequent generations of Muslims, substantially and obviously by Islam’s religious elite of lawyers and theologians, but not less remarkably by ordinary believers who century after century have brought their own plentiful nuances to both “Islam” and “Judaism.” Nor did thinking alone make it so. Muslims have not only thought about Judaism; they have also acted and reacted with the countless Jews who have lived under Muslim sovereignty from 629 C.E. to the present. The Muslim construct “Judaism” is indeed deep and rich.

To take the measure of either “Islam” or “Judaism” in a Muslim context is to attempt to step into a rapidly flowing stream, and when that stream is as long and as wide and as clogged with clerics and paper as the Islamic experience, the task becomes impractical as well as unproductive. We must settle here for the more modest but more certain blueprint of Judaism sketched in the Qur’an and the foundation stones laid down by the Prophet Muhammad’s own rather complex experience with Jews. Whatever their subsequent interpretation, both are normative for Muslims everywhere, and so we shall confine out attention chiefly to them.

Every Muslim who opens the Qur’an hears only the voice of God there,  but every Jew who looks into the Sacred Scripture of Islam is immediately impressed by the familiarity of its contents, its objectives and even its style. Before the Qur’an ends, it has touched upon Adam, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood, Abraham and his sons Ishmael and Isaac. Lot, Jacob, Joseph and his brethren –Joseph has an entire chapter, or sûra (Quran 12), devoted to his story– Moses and Aaron, the Pharaoh, the escape of the Israelites from Egypt, Saul, David, Solomon, Jonah and Job. This is a fairly extensive repertoire, but the absences are equally interesting. Though Muhammad was obviously interested in the prophetic office, and many of the early biblical figures from Adam to Solomon are treated as prophets, the classic prophets of the biblical canon like Jeremiah and Isaiah, two of the prophets, incidentally, most favored by Christians,  are not mentioned at all. The Exile and the Return are likewise ignored, as is all subsequent Jewish history. Muhammad was interested in history in a very narrow sense. He was not so much explaining the past as he was using it, and the biblical stories in the Qur’an are generally told for a reason: sometimes as âyât, “signs,” or, more commonly, as mathâni, “punishment stories” about the consequences of ignoring prophets, particularly when they refer to the people of Abraham, of Lot, of Noah or Moses.

In addition to these reflections on the biblical past, which appear in the earliest part of the Qur’an, there are numerous references in that book to contemporary Jews with whom he came in contact, and, more particularly, the Jews of Medina, the oasis where, twelve years after he began his prophetic mission, he had his first religious and political exchange with a Jewish community. Those Jews of Medina, though  they are sometimes characterized, are never named or described, in the manner of all his revelations, but for all their opacity they provide important clues to his attitude not merely to the religion of the Jews but to his reactions to actual members of that faith community.

There is, then, every indication that the prophet of the Qur’an knew about and meditated upon the subject of Jews and Judaism. We shall look somewhat more closely into the sources of that knowledge and the consequences of his meditation.

a. The Jews of Arabia

We know too little to speak of “Arabian Judaism”  on the eve of Islam.  We know only that there was in the sixth century a considerable Jewish presence in the once prosperous land of the Yemen and that there were other tribes, often the paramount tribes, that were identifiably Jewish to their Arab contemporaries and who dwelled in the oases strung like a necklace from Medina 275 miles north-northeast of Mecca all the way north to the present border between Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The Yemen was a settled land with a literate people –-South Arabian, with its linear script, is well-preserved and related to the Ethiopic of the peoples across the narrow straits of the Red Sea–  and so we are somewhat better informed about them than we are of the northern oasis-dwellers.

Two pieces of information are pertinent here. In the sixth century Jewish monotheism is on prominent display in the preserved South Arabian inscriptions, and in the same era a Jewish royal house, probably indigenous, came to rule in the Yemen. This Jewish rise to prominence brought them into direct conflict with a growing Christian presence there which had originated with missionaries from Christian Abyssinia and was supplemented and augmented in the sixth century by the presence of an actual Abyssinian colonial force in the Yemen. By the early sixth century Jews and Christians there were locked into a cycle of mutual persecution which came to a head in a slaughter of Christians at various towns in the Yemen, followed by an Abyssinian intervention and the death of the notorious Dhû Nuwâs, the last Jewish king of South Arabia. Most of the Abyssinians eventually went home, but they left behind one of their generals, Abraha, who soon declared his independence and ruled the Yemen, a Christian dominated Yemen, in his own name.  The Jews there had lost their political power but they were neither annihilated nor expelled, and not too long afterward Islam was drawing some of its most illustrious converts, and the source of much of their later information on the biblical background of the Qur’an, from among the Yemeni Jews, like the semi-legendary Kacb “the Rabbi” (al-Ahbâr) who was reportedly converted in 638 C.E. and who seems to stand behind so many of the “Israelite Tales” that filled in the later Muslims’ knowledge of the Bible [See below].  .

Little of this rich background, which was known to the later (8th– 9th-century) biographers of Muhammad, appears in the Qur’an, which does make what appears to be a single, oblique reference to an attack by Abraha (?) against Mecca (Sura 105). Where the Qur’an does, however, betray some Yemeni, possibly Jewish, influence is in its early references to the god Rahman, “The Merciful One,” who shows up often in the South Arabian inscriptions. Though at first Rahman does not always seem to be identical with Allah, soon the two are harmonized (cf. Sura 17:110)  and rahmân eventually takes its place as a simple title or attribute of the High God of Islam.

Turning northward from Mecca, we encounter the other already noted Jewish communities in the oases of northwestern Arabia. Epigraphical evidence, the Qur’an and the Talmud, as well as the later Arab historical tradition all attest to their existence, though not very certainly to their beliefs and practices. We cannot say how they got there, though likely it was by emigration from the north, or precisely when. But if they were ethnic outsiders, the Jews of the Hijaz oases were fairly thoroughly acculturated, though by no means assimilated, to the Arab ways of their neighbors.  Muhammad encountered Jews in the oasis of Medina when he arrived there in 622 C.E., but there is no evidence of a fixed or identifiable Jewish community at Mecca, which was not, like the other Jewish settlement sites, an oasis but a shrine center with closely linked trade and commercial ambitions. It is not unlikely, however, that before and during Muhammad’s lifetime there were Jews in his native town as transient merchants perhaps, and, as will be shown, the Meccans’ obvious familiarity with the Qur’an’s frequent biblical allusions promotes the likelihood of some kind of pre-Islamic Jewish presence at Mecca to a strong probability.

b. The Bible and the Qur’an

An investigation into the origin and scope of the connection between Islam and the Jews must perforce begin with that first community’s founding document, the Quran, the collection into 114 sûras  or chapters of the revelations given to Muhammad between 610 and his death in 632 C.E.. Taken together, they constitute his God-given message, which is nothing more or less than islâm, submission to the will of the one true God. Two characteristics of these revelations concern us here. First, they are ongoing, that is, they were dispensed—to Muhammad privately, and then proclaimed by him publicly and verbatim to whoever would attend—over a period of twenty-two years, in two different place, Mecca and Medina, and in changing social, political and economic circumstances. Thus, for all its supernatural origins, the Quran is a historically conditioned  document. Muslim jurisprudence is in fact based upon that assumption. Qur’anic commentators displayed great energy and ingenuity in laying out the “occasions,” that is, the historical setting and circumstances of each of the revelation in the Qur’an, and the jurisprudents then attempted to sort out how a later revelation might have modified or even abrogated an earlier one.

History has a second claim upon the Qur’an, and so upon Islam. As the Qur’an itself makes clear, the message given to Muhammad stands in close historical, moral and providential relationship to earlier such revelations, chief among them that given to the Banû Isrâ ’îl, as the Qur’an calls them. This is a primary theme of Muhammad’s revelation, never disowned or rescinded despite the Prophet’s increasing political difficulties with the latter-day bearers of that revelation. Indeed, the Qur’an itself invites the comparison with the earlier Scriptures (Sura 41: 43; 43: 45-65), and even the most cursory glance shows that the “warner,”  as Muhammad is styled, and those Meccans to whom the “guidance” and “good news” was directed  were both of  them familiar with the chief personages of the Bible and to some degree with the covenantal progress from Abraham through the prophets, the latter including Jesus (cîsâ ). But Muhammad was  a pagan, albeit a rather off-handed one, and his native Mecca was far from the Jewish Holy Land. Yet even a cursory glance at the Qur’an shows that it is filled with what are apparently Jewish stories, and Muhammad himself is reported to have once prayed facing Jerusalem and likely fasted on Yom Kippur as well.

In the present context we can afford to disregard these latter, behavioral questions, principally on the basis of a systematic doubt that has grown up around the material in the biographies of Muhammad, and to concentrate on the Qur’an. whose authenticity is more firmly established and which in any event antedates the extant versions of the biographies by a century or more.

        c. The Qur’an, Judaism and Jews

Though the Qur’an makes no explicit mention of “Judaism,” it shows a fairly elaborate knowledge of, and theory about, Jews, Jewish history (almost exclusively pre-Exilic), and Jewish practices and beliefs. This information falls into two, though overlapping, categories, that concerning the biblical Israelites and another, less distinctly articulated but more deeply felt, on the Jews of contemporary Arabia.

The Qur’an speaks often of the Children of Israel—the Qur’an uses the biblical “Children of Israel” (Banû Isrâ’îl) in preference to the more common contemporary appellation, “Israel”—who constitute both a community (umma) and a religion (dîn).  Unlike the legislation of the Christian Roman Empire, which reserved the designation religio uniquely for Christianity and characterized Judaism as superstitio, the Qur’an recognizes a multiplicity of religions in the world, of which Islam is one, along with that of the Children of Israel, the Christians, and the pagans, “those who associate (others) with God.”  Of these latter Muhammad is made to say in the Qur’an, “To them their religion and to me, mine.” The community of the Children of Israel is tribal—it takes Muhammad some time, and probably some Jewish assistance, to sort out the correct progenetic sequence of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob/Israel—but their religion is scriptural. Like Christianity and Islam after it, the dîn of the Children of Israel is founded on the contents of a divinely revealed Book. Jews and Christians are in fact often characterized in the Qur’an simply as “People of the Book” without further description or distinction.

Although there were other divine books, that given to Abraham for example, the primacy of honor in the Israelite revelation belongs to the Torah (Tawrât ) sent down to Moses. Moses is central to Muhammad’s closure with Judaism, and this is true from the very earliest of the Qur’anic revelations. The Torah revelation, its prehistory, form and modalities, is the prototype of the Qur’anic one. And it is the example of Moses, particularly in his dealings with the Pharaoh, that provides the moral paradigm—persecution, then vindication—of Muhammad’s own mission.

For Muhammad, the contents of the Mosaic revelation constitute the substance of Judaism. What that content is emerges indirectly but fairly distinctly from the Qur’an’s frequent but allusive references. The Torah is a moral code “commanding the good and prohibiting the reprehensible,” to use the language of the Muslims’ own moral imperative, as well as a series of specific behavioral prescriptions, like the observance of the Sabbath. The most pervasive of these prescriptions, or at least those that receive the greatest attention in the Qur’an, are the dietary laws. The reason may be that it was here that Muhammad was most aware that he was departing from Jewish norms. Only a few foods are forbidden to the Muslims (Sura 16: 116-124) –later jurists considerably extended the list– and this difference elicits an explanation of the Torah’s even more varied prohibitions: the Israelites were “recompensed for their willful disobedience.” (Sura 6: 147; 4: 158; 16: 119). And the debate obviously continued into later days. The Jewish dietary laws continued to be discussed in the hadîth  ( the body of traditions ascribed to the Prophet but generally regarded by non-Muslim scholars as the creation of a later generation of believers), though by then the debate was more about Jewish-Muslim legal differences and appears to have turned away from the subject of food to that of sexual practices.

The Qur’an betrays a deep ambivalence toward the Jews of history. The Children of Israel were indeed the people whom God chose “in His knowledge” in preference to all the world (Sura 44: 32; 45: 16) and were destined to dwell in the land God gave them (Sura 17: 104; 7: 137; 10: 93). But the  Israelites were not content with their destiny. They did “mischief on the earth” and as a result were twice punished by an awful destruction of their Temple (Sura 17: 4-8; which destructions are meant is not clear from the text). But more consequential to the Qur’an is the Israelites’ persistent habit of contention and disputation. The Children of Israel fell out among themselves as soon as “the knowledge” was given them (Sura 10: 93; 45: 16-17). Indeed, Muhammad’s view of contemporary Judaism, even before he went to Medina and had first-hand experience of a Jewish community –and of Jewish rejection—was that it was and remained a religion wracked with schism and sectarianism. God will judge among their factions at the Resurrection, but in the meantime, Muhammad has been sent to the Jews as an arbiter in religious matters: only the Qur’an can explain the things on  which they continue to disagree (Sura 27: 76-78; 45:16-18).

The Qur’an insists, Muslims believe, and historians affirm that Muhammad and his followers worship the same God as the Jews (Sura 29: 46). Conceptually, at least, this is true, though the portrait of Yahweh that unfolds in the Bible is both more complex and psychologically nuanced  and more directly engaged in history, if not in secondary causality,  than the majestic but rather abstract and remote Allah of the Qur’an. Muhammad also understands that his Book is a confirmation of what has been sent beforehand to the Jews (Sura 2: 41). Indeed, early in his career the Prophet had been instructed to turn to the Jews if he had any doubts about the revelation that had been sent down to him, and the Meccans are offered as a proof of the truth of Muhammad’s message the fact that “the scholars of the Banû Isrâ ’îl know it.” (Sura 26: 196-197)

We know little of what to make of either Muhammad’s information about the Bible and the Jews of his attitude toward them. Mecca, as has been said, had no fixed Jewish or Christian population, though there may have been members of both groups passing through it from Abyssinia across the Red Sea or from the Yemen on the south. There was, then, probably no lack of informants for both Muhammad and the Meccans, since his audience seems to have shared to some degree –how else would his preaching have made sense?– his biblical knowledge. It is the quality of that knowledge that defies exact definition. The shape and tone of the Qur’an’s biblical stories suggests that we are dealing with orally transmitted midrash rather than direct textual acquaintance. As far as the Bible is concerned, Muhammad may indeed have been retelling “old stories,” as his Meccan opponents claimed (Sura 6: 25; 8: 31; 16: 24; 23: 83), but they own far more to Genesis Rabbah than to Genesis, nor is there is any evidence that the Prophet was reading the Bible (or anything else, for that matter; he obviously was, as the Muslim tradition insists, an ummi (Sura 7: 157-158), a  “scriptural illiterate” ); what he got, he heard at Mecca, though we do not know precisely from whom.

Was it Jewish or Christian, that midrashic background buzz that provided the Qur’an’s richly textured Heilsgeschichte? Both groups shared the same biblical accounts, of course, and given the syncretizing tendencies of religious communities on the margins of culture, as the Jews and Christians of the Hijaz were, there is little to choose between them as sources for the biblical perspectives on view in the Meccan suras of the Qur’an. But there are clues. The notion that the Jews were highly factionalized, the repeated insistence that Jesus was of the Banu Isra’il (Sura 43: 57-59) and Muhammad’s own exalted, though hardly mainstream Christian, view that Jesus was both mortal and the prophetic messiah (Sura 3: 59; 4: 171-172), all suggest that we are dealing in the Meccan environment, and perhaps at Medina as well, with some version of a Judeo-Christian remnant surviving in Arabia in the early seventh century, the Hijazi equivalent the Mandeans of Iraq, a similar group which Muhammad apparently did know as the “Sabians.”

       d. “Israelite Tales”

As already noted, the Qur’an’s earliest references to biblical events and personages are allusive in the extreme, and that there was an effort in the Medina sûras to supply further –and more accurate—details on such matters as well as to sharpen their exegetical thrust.  If the Qur’an’s brief but pointed biblical references were enough to ground the faith of the first believers, they did not, however, entirely satisfy the pious curiosity of succeeding generations of Muslims, some at least of whom had been Jews or Christians and so, presumably, had a fuller knowledge of the Bible, and, we may suspect, of the midrashim. Jewish converts in particular served as informants for the body of biblical amplification later known simply as Isrâcîliyyât,  The  word means not “Judaica” or “stories from Jews,” whom the Muslims called Yahûd, but rather, from their content, “biblical stories.”  If Abraham and Ishmael built the Meccan Kacba, for example, as the Qur’an asserts (Sura 2:127), how did Ishmael, much less Abraham, find himself in that remote Arabian town? The quite elaborate and, on the face of it, quite plausible answer is provided in the Isrâcîliyyât. Driven from the Negev, Hagar took the young –actually infant in this version—Ishmael into Arabia and finally settled at Mecca, where Abraham later sought out and discovered his former concubine and firstborn son. There were many more details to follow in the tale, though Qur’an itself shows no awareness of them. Ishmael grows to manhood at Mecca, marries a local Arab princess and raises a family. The career of his descendants was not brilliant: they were forced to yield control of  Mecca to outsiders and, more, they ignominiously lapsed from the monotheistic faith of their illustrious grandfather into a litholatrous paganism.

This segment of biblical midrash mainly concerns the Qur’an’s brief Abraham-Ishmael allusions and provided rich material for Muhammad’s biographers who used the information to flesh out the earliest history of Mecca and to explain its obvious paganism at the time of Muhammad’s call to prophecy. But the Isrâcîliyyât  ranged backward and forward among all the prophets –-Solomon was a particular favorite, as he was in parallel Jewish tales— and eventually led to the  creation of an entire literary genre known as “Tales of the Prophets.”  These were, quite professedly, entertainments rather than history. Jewish converts to Islam may indeed have been the source of the material, and much of it, like the stories of Abraham and Ishmael in Mecca, may in fact antedate Islam, but stories improve with the telling, and the early Muslim entertainers responsible for creating, or performing, the “Tales of the Prophets”  doubtless added their own creative touches to the narratives.

If the Isrâcîliyyât began innocuously enough as bible amplifications, once attention began to be directed more to their origins than to their content, the fact that they had been supplied by Jews, albeit converts, bothered some Muslims and the Isrâcîliyyât began to be excluded from serious consideration as history –“It is reported by the Jews; it is prohibited (to be used)…”—even though they were never really intended as such.  But well before this reaction, the Isrâcîliyyât had worked themselves  deep into the Muslim view of the prophets who had received and spread God message in  earlier times. Indeed, much of Louis Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews can be echoed, if not duplicated, directly out of the Muslims’ “Tales of the Prophets.”


e. Muhammad at Medina

In 622 C.E., after twelve generally unsuccessful years as a prophetic preacher in Mecca, Muhammad’s fortunes were radically changed, and with them, his knowledge and understanding of the “Children of Israel.” In that year Muhammad managed to extricate himself and his followers from an increasingly dangerous Mecca and settle into Medina whither he had been invited in the hope that this Arabian holy man might arbitrate the social and economic problems that were troubling the settlement. The two chief Arab tribes of Medina, the Aws and Khazraj, had slid into chronic confrontation within its narrow and heavily fortified confines, and they had each carried with them into the fray their Jewish tribal allies within the oasis. Arab history later recalled that the Jews had once been the masters of the oasis of Medina, as they still were of some of the other oases, but by this time of troubles they were merely clients. The Jews of Medina, chief among them the tribes of Qaynuqac, Nadir and Qurayyza, had no part in inviting Muhammad to Medina but they were certainly parties to the agreement drawn up between Muhammad and the Medinese in the earliest days of his stay there. Like all the others, Muslims and pagans, they pledged themselves in the so-called “Constitution of Medina” to cease their quarrels and henceforward refer all disputes to “God and Muhammad.” Few of the signatories could have imagined what followed.

In the sequel there was little to refer to the new arbiter since events moved rapidly in what must have been for most an unexpected direction. In 624 C.E., at a place called Badr Wells, Muhammad and his Muslim followers fell upon a Meccan caravan returning to that latter city; booty was taken,  and the success of the bold venture  created new attention and respect for Muhammad in Medina.  The Meccans attempted, unsuccessfully, to riposte and from that moment on the dynamic of history swung strongly behind the Prophet of Islam. This new political turn must have caused consternation among the Jews of Medina, who had already encountered Muhammad on religious ground and had become aware that this was no mere Arabian poet or seer, much less a mere arbitrator. Tracing that first confrontation is a delicate work of reading between the lines of the Qur’an, but the revelations of what we calculate to be the early Medina period show Muhammad’s rather abrupt departure from his own apparently Jewish practices in cultic matters. Where earlier he had prayed facing Jerusalem, for example, he announced, to the apparent confusion of his followers (Sura 2:142-145), that henceforward Muslims would pray facing the Kacba in Mecca. And where earlier Muhammad and the Muslims appear to have fasted, like the Jews,  on the tenth  (Ar. Ashura/Hebr. Ashora) of Tishri, he changed the practice early on at Medina and moved the fast to the month of Ramadan and its association not with the giving of the Torah to Moses but with the “sending down” of the of the Qur’an to himself  on the “night of destiny” (cf. Sura 97:1-5; 44:1-6). It was at Medina as well that Gabriel as the agent for the revelation of the Qur’an appears and, more importantly, that what was being preached in the Qur’an was neither Judaism nor Christianity but a return to the pristine “religion of Abraham” : “Abraham,” the Qur’an explains, “was neither a Jew nor a Christian; rather, he was a monotheist (hanîf), a submitter (muslim), and not an idolater. Among men the nearest to Abraham are those who follow him, as are this prophet and those who believer…” (Sura 3:76-68).

Where once the Jews were called upon to verify Muhammad’s message, at Medina they are accused of changing, distorting and even inventing Scripture deliberately to deceive the Prophet (Sura 2: 75-79, 89, 101). There is likely some historical echo here of Muhammad’s debates about Scripture with what passed at Medina as Jewish scholars, but whatever the case, the conclusion is firm: the Torah presently in the hands of the Jews was worthless, and will remain so forever more. Unlike the Christians, who must read the Old Testament to discover the Messiah of the New, Muslims need not, and, given the Jewish tampering, in fact should not, read the Bible. Not many did, in any event, after Muhammad: it was a number of centuries before the Bible was available in Arabic –it certainly was not in the Prophet’s lifetime—and even Muslim polemicists long contented themselves with drawing upon biblical florilegia for the matter of their disputes with the Jews of Islamic lands.

At Medina too emerges Muhammad’s most distinctive theory about the relationship between Judaism and Islam. Jewish religion (dîn) is the direct consequence of the revelation of the Torah law, but there was a religious community that antedated Moses and was neither Jewish nor Christian. This was the religion (millah) of Abraham (Sura 2: 135-136, 140), the pristine faith that is the prototype of all the subsequent monotheistic communities and to which Islam is the preeminent heir. Like Paul, Muhammad went behind Moses to find in Abraham a figure and a religious event, Abraham’s conversion from paganism (which the Qur’an describes in greater detail than the Bible), which effectively trumps the Jewish claim to primacy. But where Paul stressed the quality of Abraham’s faith, the Qur’an insists rather upon its object, the unique creator God, over against the false gods of paganism.

This is a watershed proclamation: it is the Prophet’s declaration of emancipation from Judaism and is of a piece with the ritual changes that preceded and accompanied it and with the increasing insistence that the Qur’an, which had from the first been characterized as a “recitation”  (qur’ân),  was indeed also a “Scripture” (kitâb),like the “Tawrât” and the “Injîl”. These new attitudes and practices are doubtless the result of that first encounter with the Jews of Medina in the first year or two after the “migration” (hijra) of 622 C.E. Muhammad, who at Mecca thought he was announcing no more than what the earlier biblical prophets had, likely expected the Jews of Medina to recognize this and acknowledge his own firmly held conviction of his prophetic calling.  When they did not, not only does Qur’an’s tone regarding the Jews generally (Yahûd, as it now prefers to call the Banû Isrâ’îl) grow more harsh and critical, but there follow violent political consequences for the Jewish tribes of Medina.

In the afterglow of Muhammad’s first success against Mecca his followers attacked the Qaynuqac and expelled them from the oasis (Sura 59: 2-4). The alleged motives are somewhat unconvincing in the sources, but we may discern in the act a fear of Jewish treason –-the Medina Jews did in fact turn to Mecca for support against this now fearsome man— and the desire to possess Jewish wealth and property for the benefit of the still-impoverished Muslim migrants in Medina.  Soon it was the turn of the Nadir: they too were expelled from the oasis and their property divided among the Muslims. Finally, the Qurayza were attacked in their fortified Medina redoubts, and upon their surrender were taken to the market of Medina and there slaughtered, 600 or 700 of them in all (Sura 33: 26-27). Muslim jurists later judged that the Qurayza had broken their treaty with the Prophet by assisting the Meccans and pointed in justification to Sura  8:55-58: “The worst of beasts in the sight of God are those who reject Him…They are those with whom you made a pact, then they break their compact every time…If you fear treachery from any group, dissolve it (that is, your covenant) with them equally, for God does not love the treacherous.”


f. Dhimma and Dhimmis

There was, however, one last political act to be played out between Muhammad and the Jews. In the year 628 C.E., Muhammad, temporarily freed from the threat of reprisal by his still hostile countrymen at Mecca, conducted a raid against Medina’s neighbor oasis of Khaybar. This was an entirely Jewish settlement, now swollen by Jewish refugees –and in Muhammad’s eyes, traitors—from Medina. The Muslim raiders attacked the settlement and, after a brief resistance, the oasis-dwellers capitulated. This was the first Muslim territorial conquest, where a settlement outside of Medina surrendered its sovereignty and liberty to Muhammad, without, at the same time, expressing a willingness to profess Islam. Of the courses of action open to him, Muhammad chose to offer a type of treaty (dhimma) to the Jews of Khaybar. Muhammad dictated the terms, and by them the defeated retained possession (though not ownership) of their homes and lands but had in return to surrender half the oasis’ annual produce to Muhammad and the Muslims.

The Jews of Khaybar surrendered their sovereignty, though not their assent, to Islam and thus became in effect the first Sepharidim. And at a stroke, the Islamic Muslim community (umma), which to this point was constituted of the religious city-state of Medina (now entirely Muslim), was converted into a territorial domain under the governorship of Muhammad. And it now embraced within its  expanding political boundaries non-Muslims as well as Muslims. At Khaybar the imperial “Abode of Islam” (dâr al-islâm) came into existence, and with it a major precedent for the Muslims’ subsequent political and religious treatment of all the Jews and Christians swept by conquest under Islamic sovereignty.

The Qur’an sometimes distinguishes between Jews and Christians –in the latest revelations it shows a marked preference for the latter (Sura 5: 82)— and sometimes combines them under the general rubric “People of the Book.” But as the sequel to the Khaybar dhimma was to show, from the juridical point of view, the distinction now ceased to exist. As more conquered peoples were extended the dhimma, and as the ad hoc terms granted to the Jews of Khaybar grew increasingly detailed and increasingly standardized over the decades of conquest, it becomes clear that, in the eyes of Islamic law, Jews and Christians (and whoever else might qualify as “People of the Book”) had an identical juridical status. They were “protected communities” (dhimmis). The People of the Book, who for centuries constituted the overwhelming majority of the population of the explosively expanding Dar al-Islam, were constrained to pay an annual poll-tax –-Muslims paid none—and, though permitted to retain their beliefs and cult, had imposed upon them a number of political, social and economic restrictions that reached into their public religious life as well. Like all the dhimmis, the Jews of the Dar al-Islam  could not proselytize among the Muslims, build new places of worship –every construction had to be justified as “repair”—or conduct public cult observances. And like all prevision of Islamic canon law, the submissive dhimma, with both its guarantees and restrictions, is still in effect in Muslim lands.


g. Muslim-Jewish Polemic

Muslim polemic against Jews and Judaism begins with the Qur’an and continues into modern times. In the present era “Zionism” has chiefly subsumed both those other categories, but for most of the encounter between the two communities, Islam’s literary and theological attention –what Muslim governors and judges did in given historical circumstances is another matter—was directed more toward Judaism than toward Jews, and, to be more specific, to the question of the Bible. The Muslims engaged the Christians on their theology, and the Christians the Muslims on their ethics, but the Bible was the primary and almost exclusive battleground between Muslims and Jews into the modern era.

Both the divine origin and is the imperfection the present copy of the Jewish Scriptures is certified in the Quran. The case might thus be considered closed from the Muslim side save the Qur’an went somewhat further. Sura 7: 156 claims that the Prophet was already known to both the Torah and the Gospel, and Sura 61: 6 asserts that those earlier Scriptures referred to him as “Ahmad,” or, if that is not a proper name, as “the praised one.” The Quran as the Word of God could simply make those assertions apodictically, but there are no such manifest texts in the Scriptures of either the Jews or the Christians and so later Muslims had either to charge tampering with the original or elicit the appropriately prophetic meaning from beneath the literal sense of the present text. Muslim apologists and commentators tried both approaches, and so the Jews had both to defend the integrity of their version of the Bible –against the allegation, for example, that the Mosaic text had been lost or disintegrated and Ezra had tried, unsuccessfully, to reconstitute it after the Exile–  and the validity of their own interpretation of the passages like Deut. 18: 15-18; 33: 2-3 and Isa. 21: 6-9 that Muslims claimed yielded predictions of Muhammad’s coming and mission.

Where the Muslims got their information about the Bible and how they learned to deploy it is a difficult question since there is very little evidence that they had any direct knowledge of the Massoretic text or the Septuagint version of the Bible. It could have come from Jewish converts to Islam like Samaw’al al-Maghribi whose Silencing of the Jews was written in Baghdad in 1163, but what is far more likely is contact –oral rather than written—with a whole range of earlier biblical polemicists of various Jewish, Samaritan, Christian and Manichean stripes whose views survived into Islamic times in a bewildering variety of hardy Near Eastern sectarian communities. Warfare over biblical texts had a long history and Islam fell heir to many of its weapons and strategies.

The Jewish response, in notable contrast to aggressive Christian polemic against Islam, is quite restrained. There are preserved no formal anti-Islamic polemics written in Arabic by Jews living under Islam, and where there is counter-exegesis of the Muslim prooftexts, they invariably appear in general commentaries on Scripture written in Hebrew and intended for the comfort and conviction of a Jewish readership and not a Muslim one. Jewish authors might occasionally characterize Muhammad as meshuggac chez eux,  but they were not themselves so addled as to make public remark of it. Two equally plausible reasons have been suggested for this reticence. One is that the Jews felt so threatened that to indulge in polemic would be to court enormous danger; the other is that the Jews were so secure that it was unnecessary. More likely the reason lies elsewhere. Christians were the Muslims chief antagonists throughout the long Middle Ages, and the great mass of Muslim polemic was directed against these political, economic and  military rivals both inside and outside Islam. The Christians replied in kind. The Jewish presence inside Islam was considerably more subdued and its political presence on the frontiers of the Abode of Islam non-existent. The Muslims were apparently content to make their exegetical points about the Bible and let it go at that. And so were the Jews.

No Comments

Leave a Reply