Early Jewish History: Experience with Mohammad

    October 2010            
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Mohammad and the Jews

By Arthur Rosen

The relationship between Mohammad and the Jews was not just a historical event that happened, but rather an important guide for us today to understand the Islamic mind. Mohammad was born approximately 571 C.E. during a period of time that the Jews as well as their pagan Arab neighbors lived in the Arab peninsula. His home town was Mecca which was located on a route that linked Yemen in the south of the Arab peninsula to Egypt and Damascus in the North. The Jews had lived in this region for centuries, some say even before the destruction of the first Temple others say after the destruction of the second Temple.

Mecca was a leading religious center of pagan Arabia and the Kia'ba (also known as the Kaaba is an ancient building that today is the holy shrine of Islam) was the object of an important annual pilgrimage. Muhammad was approximately forty years old when became convinced that God had spoken to him through the angel Gabriel. He first converted his immediate household to his new belief in one god, Allah, and then began to meet with success with converting his neighbors in Mecca to his new belief. Since Mecca was an important center for paganism and the inhabitant merchants profited from the influx of the pagan pilgrims, Muhammad's message of monotheism was soon rejected by many locals. He was soon ostracized and persecuted to the extent that he and his followers realized that they must leave Mecca.

In 622 he moved to the community of Yathrib, also known as Medina, about 250 miles north of Mecca. The area of Yathrib was a fertile oasis and had been settled by Jews centuries before his arrival. It is speculated that the name Medina (which happens that in Hebrew it means an autonomous area) was given by the Jews. The Jews were the majority of the population in that area and were organized into tribes. The three most important tribes were the Banu el nadir, Banu Kurayza and Banu Kaynuqa; the first two mentioned were descendents of the priests. There were two main pagan Arab tribes living there also, the Banu Aws and Banu Khazraj. Prior to Mohammad's arrival there had been a struggle for dominance in which the Nadir and Kurayza tribes sided with the Aws and Kaynuqa sided with the Khazraj. They had exhausted themselves fighting when Muhammad came to live there.

His reputation was such that he was accepted there as a arbitrator to settle inter-tribal disputes. Within a short time he had made many converts amongst the Aws and Khazrajs who pledged their support and protection to him. The Jews had no part in inviting him to Medina nor his meditations between tribes. To Mohammed, it was bad enough that the Jews did not accept his visions and prophecies, but they ridiculed his obvious errors in reference to biblical history. Mohammud believed that the Jew's rejection of him was due to their pride and arrogance since he believed that he was divinely sent as a prophet. Yet at this time his chief thought was of conquering Mecca, the Jews were only a secondary disturbance to him.

In 624, the Muslims won their first military victory over the Meccans. This was the turning point that Mohammed was waiting for. He began to move against his enemies in Medina; he had two pagan poets who had written satirical verses about him assassinated. Then he turned against the weakest of the Jewish tribes, the Banu Kaynuqa who surrendered to him unconditionally. It is significant to note that the other Jewish tribes did not come to their aid.

Shortly afterwards, the Muslim army suffered defeat at a battle at Mt. Uhud which weakened Muhammad's position and prestige. Many of his men had been murdered by Bedouin tribes. His logic was to attack the Jewish Nadir tribe since they had not come to his aid since the battle took place on the Shabbat. In addition, they were contented with the Muslim army's defeat. The Nadir tribe was wealthy and the Muslims were in need of money. Mohammad accused the Nadir of plotting against him and ordered them to leave Medina. The Jews thought they would have support from Banu Kurayza and from other smaller Jewish tribes and so they tried to resist. Their support never came and they were required to surrender. Terms of surrender included leaving the area. They left for the Jewish oasis of Khaybar where two years later their men were killed and their women taken by an invasion of the Muslim army. Now remained only one important tribe in Medina, the Banu Kurayza. The Banu el Nadir's land was divided and taken providing livelihood for Muhammud's devoted helpers.

In 627 the Meccans together with their Bedouin allies attacked the Muslims in Medina. The Banu Kurayza help defend the area by contributing tools to the Muslims but during the actual attack they remained in their forts in a state of armed neutrality. They negotiated with the enemy but since they did not trust them they never came to their side. From the Muslim view, although they did nothing, they were like accomplices, reasoning that if you do not help us, you are against us.

When finally the Muslim army repulsed the Meccans and Bedouins, Muhammad attacked the Banu Kurayza. They held out for 25 days and when all hope was gone they tried to surrender with the same terms of the Banu Nadir but Mohammud wanted to make an example out of them. Mohammad who was sensitive to public opinion gave his aide Saad b Mu'adh the task of judging them. He sentenced the males to death, and the women and children to slavery. Muhammad declared that this was Allah's will. The men of the Banu Kurayza, some 600 to 900, were beheaded in the central market place. This act was extremely impressive on the surrounding clans and tribes who now realized that Muhammad was an extremely dangerous force to face.

Later the few Jews that remained in Medina were forced to sell their properties and leave the area. Still Mohammad did not forget the antagonism that the Jews had shown him. He now turned to the Jews of Khaybar who now understood fully the dangerous position that they were in. Muhammud sent emissaries to Khaybar to negotiate with them. The Jews suspecting no harm came unarmed to negotiate and as they traveled to together the Muslims turned upon them killing all but one who managed to escape. “War is deception” declared the prophet!

The Jews of Khaybar felt that war was inevitable so they joined in an alliance with fellow Jewish tribes and several Bedouin tribes. Mohammad made no move and so the Jews relaxed thinking that he would not attack. The Jews were unprepared when Mohammad attacked. The Jews knew what to expect from the Muslims so they put up a stiff resistance. Mohammad bought off the Jew's Bedouin allies and the Jews were forced to surrender; however they did made terms for their surrender. In return for their lives, homes and property, they agreed to pay one half of their annual date harvest. This settlement became a legal precedent for the treatment of subdued tribes. In addition they had to agree to other terms that gave the Muslims superiority over them.

This victory gave Muhammad the power and prestige that he desired. Eighteen months after the conquest of Khaybar, Mecca peacefully surrendered and its inhabitants accepted Islam. This became the banner of Islam, surrender and accept Islam, or surrender and pay tribute, or be killed. “War is deception” is a practice that has been used for centuries since then and has proven a trusty and useful tactic. The spread of Islam through out the Arab world continued based on these terms.

Today as Israel tries to live with and negotiate with Arab countries, they must keep this in mind, that to the Muslim mind, “War is deception” is a bonafide and time proven method of achieving Islam's goals. It is not that Arabs can not be trusted to keep their word, rather it is part of their strategy for achieving their goals. They will say and promise what ever is needed to say to achieve their goals even if it is the opposite of what is in their hearts. They know that in time since we Jews want so much to live in peace, we will accept their terms and they will later use this as an advantage to arm themselves. This is part of the Islamic legacy and should not be ignored. They have been very successful in negotiation and will use it to their best advantage. Jews have a history of wanting so much to believe in peace that they will jump at any offer even if it is not worthy.

History has much to teach us, but we must read it.


from the October 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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