Muhammad

(c. 571–632)
   Founder of Islam. Muhammad was a trader, the son of Abdullah and Aminah, members of the Arab tribe of the Kuraysh who lived in the important market town of Mecca. Members of Jewish tribes were among the merchants to be found in the town, which also had a small Christian community. The concept of a single omnipotent deity must have been familiar to him. He clearly had picked up some notion of the Books of the Bible, though many verses of the Koran support the thesis that he could read neither Greek nor Hebrew. It is evident that he was influenced by both Jewish and Christian beliefs, drawing particularly on the popular tales found in midrashic sources and the messianic prophecies and visions in apocryphal works. Around the age of forty Muhammad had a profound spiritual experience. Withdrawing to a cave in the desert near Mecca, he had visions of the Archangel Gabriel. Believing that judgement day was at hand, he felt impelled to pass on that truth which the ‘possessors of Scripture’ had, so that his people would be saved from the divine wrath. Scorned by all but the poor in Mecca, he brought his message to the oasis of Medina. It is reasonable to suppose that the inhabitants of that town were made more receptive to the monotheistic creed by the presence of a large Jewish population. There were about twenty Jewish clans there, as well as Arabs converted to Judaism. As the powerful merchants in Mecca were seriously harassing him, Muhammad fled to Medina in 622. Like several Christian religious leaders after him (notably Martin LUTHER), Muhammad believed that the Jews, the first to proclaim the One God, would respond to his message. At first he took steps to make his mission attractive to them. For instance, he appointed an annual day of fasting for Islam on the same date as the Jewish Day of Atonement, and the direction which believers should face in prayer, the kibla, was towards Jerusalem. However, though they shared the general messianic expectations, the Jews firmly rejected Muhammad’s claims to be regarded as the last in the line of prophets, and ridiculed his misunderstanding of Old Testament laws and stories. Angered, Muhammad claimed that the Jews had only received a portion of the revelation (Sura 4:47), that in their Scriptures they had concealed much of the truth (Sura 2: 39, 141, and others), and that they had even deliberately falsified their Scriptures (Sura 2:56, 4:48, 5:16).
   Declaring himself the seal of the prophets, sent to reform the degenerate religions, he gave his message a pronounced national character by adopting features current in the pagan Arab sects. Mecca, his native town, became the centre of true religion; the black stone in it that pagan Arabs held sacred to the father of their gods was now declared to be the kibla instead of Jerusalem; and instead of the fast-day corresponding to the Day of Atonement, the fast was shifted to the month of Ramadan, which had been sacred to the Arabs from ancient times. Proclaiming that Abraham had not been a Jew but a ‘true Moslem’, Muhammad emerged as the restorer of the religion of Abraham, which he maintained had been corrupted by Jews and Christians alike. Abraham and Ishmael, his son and the ancestor of the Arabs, had founded the Ka’ba, the sanctuary at Mecca.
   With the national character of Islam fixed, the stage was set for al-jihad, the holy war against the infidels. Muhammad’s attacks on the Jewish tribes over the next four years were a part of his policy of subduing the whole region with his forces. First to fall of the Jewish tribes were the Banu Kaynuka in Medina, who were besieged, over-whelmed, and forced to flee to Transjordan. Next to follow were the Banu Nadir; they managed to hold out for several weeks before being defeated and forced to emigrate to Khaybar or Syria. While Muhammad was besieging the Banu Kaynuka, another important Jewish tribe, the Banu Kurayza, entered into secret negotiations with his opponents in Mecca. That tribe in turn was attacked by Moslem forces, and after twenty-five days forced to surrender. In 628 Muhammad turned his troops towards the powerful Jewish community of Khaybar, and towards the end of the year overcame the people of Taima, the last sizeable Jewish community.
   After the defeat of Khaybar, Muhammad instituted a special status for the ‘Peoples of the Book’ - notably the Jews and Christians. Though of higher standing than other infidels, the ‘Peoples of the Book’ became in effect bondsmen of the Moslems, to whom they paid an annual tax, the jizya. In return for recognizing the political suzerainty of Muhammad, they were allowed to continue to practise their own religions. Contrary to the practice prevailing in Christian states, the Moslem faithful were allowed to marry their daughters to members of these communities, and to eat food prepared by them. Those who refused to accept this inferior condition were to be attacked without mercy and driven further and further afield, in the advance of the victorious army of Islam. The extent to which the Jews living under the shield of Islam were later har- ried depended largely on the whims of individual rulers. In principle they were to be left in peaceful enjoyment of their status in return for tribute, but it was a servile status: the once-powerful Jewish tribes of the Arab peninsula were reduced to the condition of subjects to a potentially hostile master. The Koran, the holy book of the Moslems, was written down two centuries after the death of Muhammad. It consists of 114 Suras (probably from the Hebrew word shurah, which means a line) and the whole book is composed in rhymed prose - a form common at the time to Arab pagan priests. The Koran abounds in diatribes against the Jews. They are described as ‘they whom God hath cursed’ and Muhammad says, ‘We have put enmity between them and us that shall last till the day of the Resurrection’. But the anti-Jewish Suras were rarely used as tinder to fire the mob against them, as were the anti- Jewish teachings of the early Christian Church. Perhaps the most bitter aspect for the Jews was to see, so soon after the triumph of the Church, another religion arise on Hebrew foundations that would pervert their history and turn their faith against them.

Who’s Who in Jewish History after the period of the Old Testament. . 2012.

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