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The Jews of Arabia

Condensed from a recent lecture at the Montefiore Hall, London

by Lucien Gubbay

This Article is split into ten sections :

The Jews of Arabia
The North
The South
Mohammed and the Jews
Mohammed's Jewish Adversaries in Medina
Mohammed's Conquest of the Jews
Influences on Mohammed

Mohammed, the Prophet of Islam, was born in Mecca in the year 570.

The world at that time had its physical centre somewhat around the Eastern edge of the Mediterranean sea. There for many hundreds of years the two great 'world' empires of Rome and Persia had confronted each other in a state of perpetual warfare, punctuated by brief periods of peace.

Our world was ready for change in the seventh century as conflict everywhere had undermined the old-established patterns of society.

The surviving Byzantine Eastern half of the Roman Empire, ruled from the splendid city of Constantinople, still controlled a broad swathe of territory in the Balkans, North Africa and the Middle East. Remember that the coast of North Africa then was not arid as it is today, but covered with trees and very fertile.

The Jews helped the Persians in their conquest of Jerusalem in 614. The Byzantines exacted their revenge when they recaptured Jerusalem in 629. But the Persian and Byzantine empires were now in a state of utter exhaustion and impoverishment.


The vast and mostly arid peninsula of Arabia adjacent to both the Roman and the Persian empires.

By the time of Mohammed, the merchants of Mecca controlled much of the transit trade between East and West. They bought goods off the ships at Aden and then transported them along caravan routes for sale in Egypt, Syria and Persia. The proceeds were used to buy manufactured goods, which were then brought back to Mecca and sold at the trade fairs.


The rudimentary and barely developed pagan worship of the Arabs was centred on the three hundred and sixty idols which surrounded the shrine of the Ka'aba in Mecca, to which the Bedouins flocked in annual pilgrimage. The Ka'aba housed a black stone sacred to all Arabs - which was most probably a meteorite that had once fallen flaming from the skies.

Some Arabs had developed an admiration for the more developed religions of the Jews and Christians.

This feeling manifested itself in signs of spiritual discontent such as the rejection of idol worship by a small number of seekers after the one God, who practised a religion of their own. There were also converts to both Judaism and Christianity in the settled populations of the desert oasis and in the deep South.


Before the coming of Mohammed, the Jews of Arabia, were few in number, and I have found only two references to them in Jewish sources. All we know of them comes from Arab historians, and from the Qur'an itself.


I Will start on the Jews of the North.

Before Islam, they dominated many of the main oasis in the West of Arabia and had also settled in the present-day Gulf States - Bahrain in particular. There was even a tiny Jewish community with its own cemetery in Mecca. Curiously enough, Naim Dangoor told me that a Saudi Arabian father of many children from the Gulf area visited him with his family, about 8 years ago to ask for help in emigrating to Israel. He claimed to be one of a large group of Muslims of Jewish origin who had always maintained a separate identity, praying together and marrying only amongst themselves. Naim believed the story and contacted the Israeli Embassy on the man's behalf - but without success.

Arab historians mention some 20 Jewish tribes, including two tribes of Kohanim. The Jews spoke Arabic, were organised into clans and tribes just like the Arabs, and seem to have fully assimilated the values and customs of desert society.

A contingent of 500 Jewish soldiers was supplied by Herod to accompany the Roman expedition set to conquer the Yemen in 25 BCE. It paused for a time at a place said in the Talmud to contain Jews. We may legitimately ask ourselves whether the Jewish soldiers were sent to act as links between the Roman armies and the Jews of Arabia.

Arab sources maintain that the Jews of Medina were survivors of the Jewish revolt against Rome.

Another theory is that the Jewish date-growers - and the cultivation of dates was the most common occupation - might have come from the Jordan valley as refugees from Christian Byzantine persecution.

Another obvious source of immigrants was, of course, Babylonians.

The Jews were engaged in agriculture, not trade which was exclusively in the hands of the Arabs.

According to Arab legends, Jews introduced the date palm and the honey bee into Arabia. Also, advanced irrigation and other new agricultural crafts.

The Jews appear to have been educated. It was their ability to read and write that made Bible stories and Midrashim generally familiar to the pagan Arabs - and those were the seeds from which Islam developed.

Perhaps most importantly of all, Jews also familiarised the Arabs with the belief in the coming of the Messiah.


Many legends refer to early Jewish settlement in Himyar, present-day Yemen.

The first is that Jews accompanied the Queen of Sheba when she returned from her visit to King Solomon.

Arab historians claim that very large numbers of Jews - the figure of 80,000 is mentioned - arrived after the destruction of the First Temple, to join others already established there.

There is a story that Ezra the scribe cursed the Jews of Yemen for ignoring his call to return to Israel and help rebuild the Temple. In retaliation from then on, they refused to name their sons Ezra.

Arab legend ascribes the conversion to Judaism of the king and people of Himyar to two Jewish Rabbis from the oasis of Medina who cured the kind of a terrible illness on an expedition to the North of Arabia. The king was so impressed by the Rabbis that he and his generals converted to Judaism on the spot. He then took the Rabbis back with them to Himyar where they also converted part of the population - presumably members of the court and leading families. Himyar fell to the Christian Ethiopians in the year 525.

Persia sent an expedition to expel the Ethiopians and take control for itself. The Jews prospered for a time under Persian rule and maintained contact with their brethren in Babylon. But the economy of Himyar was in steep decline during this period, partly because of the warfare, and partly because of a catastrophic failure of the great dam that controlled its irrigation system.


Mohammed was born in Mecca in the year 570, at a time when guardianship of the Ka'aba and successful international trade had greatly enriched its ruling clans. We are told that the Meccans were swollen with pride and their society was an unhappy one, differing from that of other Arabs because of its rivalries, greed, and great disparity between rich and poor.

Mohammed came from one of the poorer and least influential of the ruling families of Mecca. Orphaned at an early age, he had a reputation for honesty and reliability.

Mohammed had already accompanied his uncle on trading missions to Syria, where he had come into contact with Christian monks and with Jews, when he was asked to lead a similar expedition himself on behalf of the wealthy widow Khadijah. This was successful; and he accepted Khadijah's proposal of marriage on his return to Mecca. The marriage was a happy one. Khadijah bore him six children; and Mohammed took no other wife or concubine until after her death.

Thus freed from financial anxiety for the first time, Mohammed was able to devote himself increasingly to spiritual concerns. He made his own family live frugally, distributed much of his money to the poor, and was conspicuously kind to slaves.

He used to retire alone to an isolated mountain cave for days at a time in order to meditate and pray.

Mohammed received his first revelation in the year 610, when he was forty years old. An angel appeared to him in his cave and commanded 'Iqra' - recite! When Mohammed demurred, the angel 'overwhelmed me in his embrace until I reached the limits of my endurance.' Then the angel proclaimed what was to become the first verse or sura of the Qur'an:

'Recite in the name of your Lord, the Creator, who created man from clots of blood.'

At first Mohammed doubted his own sanity. It was only three years later, when other revelations began to follow in quick succession, that he recovered his self-confidence and commenced his mission to the Arabs as the 'Messenger of God.'

The revelations, transmitted by the angel Gabriel to Mohammed when in a state of trance, were taken down in writing by his followers as he repeated them later. They were collected together after Mohammed's death, to form the Qur'an.

The message of the Qur'an is similar in essence to much Jewish and Christian teaching.

There is no God but Allah, the all-powerful Creator, and Mohammed is his Messenger.

There will be a Day of Judgement.

There is an afterlife in which the good will be rewarded and the wicked will burn in hell.

Life is to be lived according to divine law, with prayer and fasting, the giving of alms and the supporting of widows and orphans.

Mohammed had some success with the young and the poor, but he was ridiculed by the leaders of Meccan society.

The fact that he could not work miracles was held against him. His prayer ritual of repeated prostrations was alien to their proud Bedouin spirit; and the required total allegiance to the new community of Islam cut right across traditional tribal loyalties.

More important, Mohammed's teaching that their idol-worshipping ancestors were burning in hell, outraged the Arabs, who had always venerated their forefathers.

Above all, the concept of only one God, and the resulting rejection of idols, seemed almost to have been designed to ruin the cult of the Ka'aba, the basis of Meccan prosperity. It would, quite simply, have been disastrous for business.

Mohammed made some converts to Islam among pilgrims who visited Mecca on the haj. A group from Medina, a desert oasis some two hundred and fifty miles away, secretly invited Mohammed and his followers to join them there to become their judge in disputes between their tribes.

So, in the year 622, Mohammed and seventy of his followers fled from Mecca to Medina. And that is counted as year one of the Muslim calendar.

Medina was occupied by three Jewish tribes and two pagan tribes who had once forced their way into the oasis; each tribe lived in its own fortified village. Mohammed was soon accepted as leader by the pagans and concluded a treaty with the Jews.

Unlike the Meccans, the pagans of Medina - who had long lived alongside Jews - were not shocked by the demotion of their gods to mere spirits under the new order. It did not affect their livelihood, and they were thrilled by the presence in their midst of the Prophet for the Arabs, with his revelations in their own tongue. There was a rapid tide of conversions to Islam; and Arab historians praise the Jews for preparing the ground for the favourable reception of the Prophet's message.


As a fellow monotheist, Mohammed looked to the Jews as his natural allies; and he no doubt hoped they would accept him as their long-awaited Messiah. Some Jews did so at once and I quote an Arab historian's account of the first Jewish convert to Islam.

Many other Jews converted to Islam later and I am obliged to Naim Dangoor for his account of the Jewish ruler of Afghanistan visiting Mohammed at the peak of his power and accepting Islam.

The leading Afghan tribes, you may remember, still claim with pride to be descended from King Saul of the tribe of Benjamin - as again confirmed by Naim Dangoor's account of the meeting of Eliezer Kedourie and King of Afghanistan in 1925, and also by official guidebooks of the country.

In a deliberate attempt to reconcile the Jews and gain their acceptance, Mohammed promptly adopted the Aramaic name 'Medinta' used by the Jews ('al-Madinat' in Arabic) in place of Yathrib, the old name of the oasis.

His followers were directed to face towards Jerusalem in prayer and to recite three daily prayer services and special Friday evening prayers in imitation of the Jews.

Ablutions and forms of worship were modelled on Jewish patterns. It seems that the Muslims had misunderstood the solemn Jewish fast of Kippur to be a celebration of victory over Pharaoh, for they too adopted the same day to celebrate their own successes.

Mohammed repeatedly compared himself to Moses and clearly regarded himself as his successor. According to the Qur'an:

'Before this book there was Moses's book.... and this book confirms it in the Arabic language.'

And again, in response to taunts arising from the Jewish origin of one of his wives, Mohammed proudly declared:

'Aaron was my father and Moses my uncle.'

Above all, the Qur'an itself is full of Jewish elements.


It is clear that Mohammed knew the Torah only from hearsay and that he was much confused by imperfect knowledge of scripture and rabbinic legend.

"The Messenger was a proud man who could not tolerate public ridicule; and so, only eighteen months after his arrival in Medina, he began to order the assassination of Arab poets who had satirised him and also of certain Jews who had opposed him in one way or another.

His attitude to the Jews also changed radically. Mohammed demonstrated his displeasure with the Jews as a whole and his growing self-confidence and his independence of them by adopting measures designed to steer his followers firmly against Jewish practices."


Mohammed next moved to eliminate the three Jewish tribes of Medina, by then considered a threat to the Muslim community in its struggle against its pagan enemies in Mecca.

One by one he accused them of treachery, of having broken their treaty with him by conspiring with his pagan enemies in Mecca. As already mentioned, the Jews were also accused of making common cause with the waverers within the ranks of the Muslims of Medina.

Curiously enough, the Jewish tribes made no attempt to defend one another against the common foe when pretexts were found to attack and besiege each of their villages in turn. They were eliminated one by one.

The first tribe was called on to accept Islam. When its members refused, a pretext was found to besiege its village. The Jews were expelled on condition to leave most of their possessions behind.

The following year saw the expulsion of the second tribe, accused of planning to kill the Prophet by dropping a rock on his head as he rested under a wall outside its village. Mohammed, who received divine warning of the plot, returned home unharmed before anything happened.

The second tribe, being in a less vulnerable position managed to depart carrying all their possessions with them. Muslims were ordered to turn towards Mecca in prayer and no longer towards Jerusalem - now with five daily prayer services instead of the Jewish three.

All traces of the Sabbath were eliminated when Friday was declared a day of public prayer on which work was allowed. The month-long fast of Ramadan was instituted in place of Kippur. The extra month instituted by the pagan Arabs long before Mohammed to reconcile the lunar year with the solar year, as practised by the Jews, was abolished. Since then the Muslim year has consisted of 12 lunar months, with no correction at all for the solar year.

In a complete change of emphasis, Mohammed began to lay far greater stress on Abraham, whom he claimed as the first Muslim, than on Moses.


Though respecting Christians - Christian monks in particular, and accepting Jesus as a major prophet, Mohammed vehemently rejected the notion that Jesus was the Son of God a well as all idea of the Trinity. The Qur'an itself is full of unmistakably Jewish elements - Bible stories and midrashimin particular.

However, a major puzzle remains. Although Moses is mentioned over one hundred times and Jesus only twice in the Meccan period of the Qur'an, Mohammed's often repeated dread of the Day of Judgement and hellfire is certainly more akin to Christian monasticism than to rabbinic Judaism.

Mohammed died of natural causes in the year 632, leaving the whole of Arabia united under the rule of Islam.

By definition, Mohammed - as Messenger of God and the last of the Prophets, was irreplaceable. Yet, a new leader had to be found at once if his achievements were not to be squandered.

The Arabs found it very difficult to elect a successor and bitter struggles between rival clans resulted in the violent death in office of three out of the first four Khalifs. One of them, and this is significant, was killed by a revolt led by a Jewish convert to Islam.

Those early controversies persisted; and it was the refusal of some to accept the legitimacy of any but a descendant of the murdered Khalif 'Ali (cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet) that created the Shi'a movement, which permanently split Islam.

Welded together by Islam, their poverty and their greed, the half-starved Bedouin nomads erupted from Arabia with extraordinary vigour. The Byzantine Empire was humbled and the Persian Empire totally destroyed during their first twenty years of warfare.

By 732, one hundred years after the death of Mohammed, the Arab Empire stretched from the Atlantic in the West to modern Pakistan in the East. At one stage, the vanguard reached a point in France only two hundred and fifty miles from Dover before falling back into Spain. Progress was slower after that, with Sardinia, Sicily and parts of Southern Italy gradually added to the Islamic world.

Many hundreds of years later, of course, the Muslim world expanded again to include the Balkans in Europe - though Spain was lost to the Christians, much of the Northern half of the African continent, the whole of Northern India and parts of South East Asia, such as Indonesia. In retrospect, it is not difficult to find convincing reasons for the astonishing success of the comparatively small body of Bedouin tribesmen in defeating the armies of two mighty empires and then going on to conquer much of the civilised world.

There can be no doubt that Mohammed himself had the rare ability to inspire unlimited devotion in most of those who met him in Arabia.

Also the essential simplicity and egalitarianism of Islam suited the mentality of the Arabs, already discontented with their primitive form of paganism and aspiring to a nobler expression of their religious yearnings. The new creed of Islam, combined with the old fighting traditions of the Bedouin tribes, provided the Arabs with the self-confidence they needed to challenge the rest of the world.

Once the invasions started, belief in the one God who had chosen the Arabs and rewarded them with success after success became inspirational. Fighting, Arab-style, seemed to be the way of God as the Bedouin warriors used the deserts like seas - appearing suddenly from nowhere and, whenever necessary, retreating back where none could follow.

Looked at in another way, the Arab conquest was a classic invasion of the world's settled lands by semi-starved nomads, seeking bread and booty - but this time, spurred on by the powerful missionary zeal of Islam.

It should not be forgotten that the Arabs exploded into a world exhausted by twenty-six years of constant warfare, a world whose inhabitants longed for peace and stability and had come to believe that great changes were inevitable. Christian heretics and Jews in the Byzantine Empire, to whom almost any change must have seemed for the better, welcomed the Arabs with open arms. The Christians and Jews of the Persian Empire too, weary of civil and religious strife, also willingly accepted the prospect of change.

Another important factor in the overwhelming success of the Arabs was the generosity of their surrender terms. For most pagans, the choice of Islam or the sword was not onerous; they too could join the ranks of the conquerors by simply declaring: 'There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his Messenger.' Also, it soon became widely known that Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians would not be harmed by the triumphant Muslims so long as they submitted to the new order by paying the poll tax, which often amounted to no more than the tax demanded by the former regimes.

The result was that, in time, almost all the defeated nations aspired to the name 'Arab'. Though strict social barriers between Arabian and non-Arabian Muslims were erected in the first century following the conquest, those dissolved and merit alone became the key to advancement for Muslims in the expanding empire.

According to surviving records, Jews helped the Arabs in many places. From Syria to Spain, they opened city gates to the besieging armies; and in Spain, they often garrisoned the captured cities to enable the Muslims to sweep on to further conquests.

In 658, Gaon Yizhak of Pumbeditha, at the head of 90,000 Jews, was reported to have welcomed Khalif 'Ali into Firuz-Shapur. The Exilarch Bustanay was even awarded one of the Persian King's daughters by the grateful Arabs - and as another daughter was given to Husain, grandson of the Prophet, that was no mean gift.

The conquests of Islam united both halves of the Jewish people under a single political and cultural system. Arabic became the universal language, replacing the Aramaic, Persian, Greek and Latin they had previously spoken.

Jews, accustomed to adversity, found their change of masters an improvement. They survived the hardship brought about by the conquest and were eventually able to participate in the creation of the new Arabic civilisation that followed.

Islam, claiming to be God's last and perfect revelation to mankind, extended limited toleration to members of the older monotheistic faiths on condition they submitted humbly to its rule. In contrast, the only choice open to polytheists was Islam or the sword - though the less wasteful alternative of slavery was often substituted for the sword.

The Qur'an frequently refers to Jews and Christians, who had received earlier revelations from God but had then distorted and corrupted them.

Though some of its suras (verses) mention Jews and Christians in friendly terms and are quoted in support of Islam's tolerant attitude to fellow monotheists, others display very different sentiments. The Qur'an it must be remembered, came to Mohammed in stages throughout the many years of his ministry - from the time he was a persecuted outcast to that of his final role as the undisputed master of all Arabia.

Non-believers, though protected by Islam, were generally despised because of their wilful persistence in refusing to accept the words of God recorded in the Qur'an. However, unlike Jews in Christian Europe, they were neither hated nor demonised.

Mainstream (Sunni) Islam and Judaism have more in common with each other than with Christianity. First and foremost, they both share the basic concept of the absolute unity of God. Though Muslims accept Jesus as a major prophet, they strenuously deny that he was the Son of God. In the words of the Qur'an:

'...Allah is one, Allah the eternal. He begets not and is not begotten. Nor is there anyone like him'.

Abraham is accepted as the first man to have received God's revelations: and most other Jewish patriarchs and prophets are also revered by Islam.

Both religions are based on divinely given books. The Qur'an like the Torah, is the unchanging word of God; and every letter of its text is holy. Sunni Muslims go even further and believe that the Qur'an is eternal and untreated - as is the view of the Torah held by some Jewish mystics.

Muslim forms of worship are far closer to those of the Synagogue than the Church. Neither Islam nor Judaism employs priests with supernatural powers to serve at symbolic alters of sacrifice. Indeed, Jewish Rabbis and Sunni Alem receive similar training and perform much the same function. Other concepts such as the sanctity of Jerusalem, forbidden and permitted foods, and many others, appear to have come directly from Judaism.

The equivalent position of law in Islam and Judaism may not be a coincidence, for Islamic law first developed in Iraq, home to the great academies of Jewish learning. In both faiths, holy law governs every aspect of human activity and its very study is an act of worship. Both distinguish between 'written' and 'oral' law in much the same way; and in the development of 'oral' law, the mufti's fatwa serves the same purpose as the Rabbi's responsa (an authoritative statement of the law on an obscure or disputed point).

Another common feature of the two systems is that neither was imposed by the state or by a central ecclesiastical authority - as was the canon law of the Church - but was developed by the deliberations of independent scholars.


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