Jihad in the Life of Muhammad: Relations with the Jews in Medina

Part 6




Jihad in the Sira, the Life of Muhammad: Medina: Strained Relations with the Jewish Tribes

Medina was not a homogeneous town but rather a group of individual tribes forming an oasis. The ambition of Muhammad was to unite them and form them into a single community (ummah) able to transcend tribal differences and to bring an end to divisions and feuds to form a unified state with a central government. The focal point of this was to be the figure of Muhammad himself. Unity, solidarity and order had to be established and maintained and this entailed, ideally, acceptance of his message on the part of all tribes as the acceptance of a common faith was to be the means of transcending all that was divisive. In theory the interests of tribal Medina corresponded perfectly with the interests of Muhammad. We have here the beginnings of the social, religious and political system that has since been a characteristic feature of Islam, the constitution of the first Islamic city-state, on which future Islamic states would ideally be modelled. A period of consolidation of the newly established community soon began after his arrival with a constitution or charter drawn up by the prophet. 1

Among the tribes in Medina that Muhammad tried to unite around his message were the three Jewish tribes, Banu Qaynuqa, Banu al-Nadir and Banu Qurayza. These had had initially welcomed the prophet as political leader and had no objections to his monotheistic message, although, as Jews, they were unable to embrace it themselves. The Jews, therefore, made an important distinction between politics and religion acting in coherence with their relations with the other tribes of Medina before the arrival of Muhammad. Consequently they also made the fundamental distinction between Muhammad as a political leader and Muhammad as a religious leader and prophet. This was a necessity for the Jewish tribes but was impossible for Muhammad as soon becomes manifest when he attempts to win the Jews over to his cause and get them to recognise him as the seal of the prophets. This distinction between politics and religion had always characterised tribal life of the Jews in Medina as their alliances clearly show. 2 Ironically, in attempting to unite the various tribes he soon became a cause of division as he had been previously in Mecca, with disastrous consequences for the Jewish tribes.

Before the arrival of Muhammad the Jews had lived in essential harmony with the surrounding Arab tribes, religious tolerance prevailed. Whatever feuds and wars there had been they were not of a religious nature. They engaged in commerce, craftsmanship and in a limited form of agriculture and they had gained the respect of their neighbours. All of this was about to change. To encourage the Jews to follow his message Muhammad claimed to have received revelations that portrayed him as prophet in the line of other Jewish prophets and also claimed to have received a whole series of revelations that speak favourably of the Jews and confirming certain beliefs and practices contained in the Jewish scriptures. Such verses include the following:
O Children of Israel, remember My favor that I have bestowed upon you and that I preferred you over the worlds [i.e., peoples]. (Q. 2:47, see also the same verse repeated Q. 2:122)

And [mention, O Muhammad], when Moses said to his people, “O my people, remember the favor of God upon you when He appointed among you prophets and made you possessors and gave you that which He had not given anyone among the worlds. (Q. 5:20)

Indeed, We sent down the Torah, in which was guidance and light. The prophets who submitted [to God] judged by it for the Jews, as did the rabbis and scholars by that with which they were entrusted of the Scripture of God, and they were witnesses thereto. So do not fear the people but fear Me, and do not exchange My verses for a small price [i.e., worldly gain]. And whoever does not judge by what God has revealed - then it is those who are the disbelievers. (Q. 5:44)

Indeed, Pharaoh exalted himself in the land and made its people into factions, oppressing a sector among them, slaughtering their [newborn] sons and keeping their females alive. Indeed, he was of the corrupters. And We wanted to confer favor upon those who were oppressed in the land and make them leaders and make them inheritors. And establish them in the land and show Pharaoh and [his minister] Haman and their soldiers through them that which they had feared. (Q. 28:4-6)
When we bear in mind that these are considered the exact words of God and that the “I” and the “we” in the above passages are none other than God himself the words constitute an extraordinary confirmation that Jews are the chosen people of God and under the constant protection and guidance of God and Muhammad therefore thought it inevitable that the Jews should accept him as their prophet. Furthermore, Muhammad also began to incorporate elements of Judaism into his nascent community: circumcision, dietary laws and Jerusalem as the direction of prayer. All was calculated to appeal to them and induce them to accept Muhammad as the last of their prophets. Initially, therefore, we have the continuation of the peaceful, non violent preaching of the message typical of the previous Meccan phase. Muhammad evidently was not aware that there could not be any new prophet after the Jewish people had left Israel, after the First Temple destruction and exile. Thus, for the Jews, the last prophet was Malachi and therefore could not be Muhammad. Had Muhammad had an adequate knowledge of Judaism he would have realised that his ambition to have the Jews recognise him as prophet was doomed to failure from the outset. Besides, anyone with a good knowledge of Judaism and Christianity would easily understand that such a line of prophets from Adam through Abraham, Moses, and Jesus to Muhammad is unthinkable, and could not be based on scripture and therefore must be seen by all, except Muslims themselves, as a pure fabrication, a product of the imagination and the ambition of Muhammad. Although much ink and paper have been wasted on the part Muslims in an attempt to establish such links from Jewish and Christian scriptures the only effect they produce is a charitable and sympathetic smile from anyone acquainted with the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

His efforts to convince the Jews were of no avail. New revelations began to contradict Jewish scriptures and the rift became more radical. 3The Jews began to challenge Muhammad asking awkward questions of a theological and scriptural nature to which Muhammad had no answers. They had also begun to ask for signs and miracles to support his claim to be God's messenger. None were forthcoming but there was a revelation tailor-made for the occasion:
It was the Jewish rabbis who used to annoy the apostle with questions and introduce confusion, so as to confound the truth with falsity. The Quran used to come down in reference to these questions of theirs ... (Ibn Ishaq/Hisham 351). 4

Here is one verse from the Qur’an referring to the request for a sign:

But they say, “Why are not signs sent down to him from his Lord?” Say, “The signs are only with God, and I am only a clear warner.” And is it not sufficient for them that We revealed to you the Book [i.e., the Qur’an] which is recited to them? Indeed in that is a mercy and reminder for a people who believe. (Q. 29:50-51)
The Jews continued to resist his message and derided Muhammad and by the year 623-624 he despaired of ever winning them over to his side. A Jewish woman, Zaineb, even tried to kill Muhammad by poisoning his food. He had her killed and this became a typical example of how the prophet handled all forms of opposition. Revelations concerning the Jews began to change radically and so did his relations with them, both personally and politically. One example of the change in the tone of the revelations is Q. 4:46:
Among the Jews are those who distort words from their [proper] places [i.e., usages] and say, “We hear and disobey” and “Hear but be not heard” and “Ra’ina,” twisting their tongues and defaming the religion. And if they had said [instead], “We hear and obey” and “Wait for us [to understand],” it would have been better for them and more suitable. But God has cursed them for their disbelief, so they believe not, except for a few. (Q. 4:46)
These later verses of rejection abrogate the previous verses of peaceful acceptance of Jews on the basis of Q. 2:106 (see part 3). The Jewish rejection of his message made Muhammad feel threatened and insecure and his ambition to unite all tribes around his message had been momentarily thwarted. The very basis of his influence was under threat. After all his political authority in Medina rested on his “divine” authority, that authority conferred on him by God himself via Jibril and against which there could be no appeal. The situation rapidly changed. Mecca and the Ka'ba, no longer Jerusalem, became the direction of prayer in February 624, 5 his dietary laws are now distinguished from the Jewish, 6 it is now claimed that the Kab’a was built by Abraham and Ishmael thereby making it older than the Temple of Solomon, 7 Ishmael is included in the line of descendents of the covenant although it is explicitly stated in Genesis that Ishmael was excluded from the covenant. 8 The revelations of Muhammad became even more threatening. Things were going horribly wrong and the disruption of society and hostility towards other religions, already noticed in the Mecca resulting in his having to emigrate, were being replicated here in a much more radical form due to the authority and influence he now wielded in Medina:
O you who were given the Scripture, believe in what We have sent down [to Muhammad], confirming that which is with you, before We obliterate faces and turn them toward their backs or curse them as We cursed the sabbathbreakers. And ever is the matter [i.e., decree] of God accomplished. (Q. 4:47)
Enmity between Muslims and Jews becomes enshrined in yet another revelation that goes a long way to explain present day conflicts between Muslims and Jews, thanks to Muhammad who sowed discord in Mecca, Medina and guaranteed its continuance for all time:
We have cast enmity and spite among them until the Day of Resurrection. And as often as they kindle the fire of war, Allah extinguished it; and they go about trying to spread mischief on earth, whereas Allah does not love those who spread mischief.
This last verse might well be seen as an excellent example of Freudian projection of oneself onto others, others being here God and the Jews! I, personally find it blasphemous to assert that God sows enmity and spite (other translations have “hatred”). However, this is coherent with Islamic logic as elsewhere we have seen that God also “leads astray”. It was Muhammad who sowed the seeds of mischief and hate in Mecca as we have seen and in Median as we are now about to see and furthermore he has sown them continually and globally and the world is now reaping that harvest. For one of the last outbursts of hatred against Christians up to the time of writing see the page Nigerian church bombings. How different is the God of the Jews and Christians, the God of love from the God of Muhammad. How can anyone seriously believe that Muslims worship the same God as Jews and Christians?When the Jews refused to accept him as prophet, in order to maintain unity, uniformity, and solidarity in this nascent city-state Muhammad embarked on a form of ethnic cleansing based on the principle: be my disciples, follow me and accept Islam or else...! though obviously much more subtly formulated. The first tribe to be dealt with was the weakest of the three, Banu Qaynuqa. This tribe was quickly dispatched; they were forced to leave Medina and everything they had ever worked for.



1 A. Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad, A Translation of Ibn Isḥāq’s Sīrat Rasūl Allāh, Oxford University Press, Pakistan, 2011, p. 231-233.
2 Other tribes that made up this oasis were the two Arab tribes of Yemeni origin the Aws and the Khazraj these settled after the Jewish tribes but eventually took control of Medina. The Aws and Khazraj became bitter enemies. The Jewish tribes of al-Nadir and Qurayza were allies of the Aws and the Qaynuqa tribe allies of Khazraj at the time of Muhammad. These two tribes had been at war for over a hundred years before Muhammad was invited to be arbitrator in their disputes. These alliances that the Jewish  tribes had show that whatever hostilities existed they were not religious in nature. All tribes were Arabs but differed in their religion. There was religious tolerance which transcended all feuds that may have existed among them. Religion and religious intolerance became an issue only with the arrival of Muhammad. Another important aspect of this situation is that the three Jewish tribes, although they had a common religious identity, did not constitute a political unity. Muhammad, able strategist that he was, quickly found a way of taking advantage of this. Besides, his aim was to create unity (he had been invited to resolve disputes) without undermining his own potential for acquiring influence and power and his way of doing so was to appeal to a transcendent authority of God against which there can be no appeal. Religion and politics went hand in hand but not in pre-hijra tribal life. Whereas, during the Meccan period, religion and revelation were perhaps seen as ends in themselves during the Medina phase, having to weld together different tribes, religion became the means of doing so. Religion is transformed from an end to a means. Religion was, in a sense, the servant of political ambition. This also characterises the history of Islam.
3There were a few conversions. The names of those Jews who did accept Islam appear in Guillaume, op. cit. pp. 239, 240.
4 Guillaume, op. cit. p. 239.
5 Cfr. Q. 2:146-150.
6 Cfr. Q. 2:168, 173; 4:160.
7 Cfr. Q. 2:125-127.
8 Cfr. Q. 2:135,139. In Genesis, although Ishmael is blessed and  is promised to be the father of a great people, he is clearly excluded from the covenant and frequently the words “the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob”, are often repeated in both Jewish and Christian Scriptures. As a supposed descendant of Ishmael, Muhammad cannot be in the same line of prophethood.





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