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The Prophet Muhammad and The Children of Israel By Dr. John Andrew Morrow

The Prophet Muhammad and The Children of Israel By Dr. John Andrew Morrow

The relationship between the Prophet Muhammad and the Jewish people is complex and nuanced. Not only was he a descendant of Ishmael, the forefather of the Arabs, he was also a descendant of Isaac, the forefather of the Jews. Although most Sunni sources state that the Prophet’s parents were pagans, Shiite sources stress that they were monotheists, suggesting that they belonged to the hanifs, namely, the small sect of rightly-guided Arabs who had preserved the religion of Ishmael. Some early Christian sources, however, indicate that the Prophet’s father, ‘Abdullah, was Christian while his mother, Aminah, was Jewish. As contentious as these claims may be, and as sensitive as Muslims may be about the subject, there is no doubt that the Prophet’s paternal great grandmother, Salma bint Amr was Jewish. Consequently, although he was predominantly of Arab ancestry, he also had Jewish ancestry, thereby tracing back to Abraham, the first major monotheistic figure in history, from both sides of his family.

Born and raised in the polytheistic sanctuary of Mecca, the Prophet Muhammad occasionally came into contact with Hanifs, Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians, some of whom traveled there for purposes of trade. When he proclaimed prophecy at the approximate age of forty, he did not have a very receptive audience. His monotheistic message, however, which he presented as a revival of the teachings of Abraham, and in which he likened himself to the brother of Moses, was viewed respectfully by the Negus of Abyssinia, who is believed by some scholars to have been a Judeo-Christian. As such, he offered refuge to the persecuted followers of the Prophet Muhammad. It was the people of Yathrib, a city to the north of Mecca, that offered the Prophet a permanent home. Composed of equal amounts of Arabs and Jews, the prosperous city had suffered from significant in-fighting. When word of the leadership skills of the Prophet reached them, they invited him to act as a mediator to help unite the community. Muhammad, who was neither a pagan Arab nor a Jew, was seen as entirely objective. The Arabs from Medina were the first to convert to the Prophet’s new creed. They had grown up hearing the Jews of their community speak of the imminent rise of a new prophet and they wanted to be the first to follow him. A small, but important segment of Jews also embraced Islam, including several prominent rabbis.

As an effective and visionary leader, the Prophet Muhammad’s first order of business was to create a historically unprecedented written constitution for his new city-state, which would soon be known as Medina al-Nabi, namely, the City of the Prophet. It decreed that Jews and Muslims were both believers. It stipulated that all citizens were equal. According to early Muslim sources, all the Jewish tribes of Medina and the surrounding region made terms with the Prophet. Nonetheless, at a later date, some Jewish tribes changed their minds and plotted to overthrow the Prophet with the help of the pagans of Mecca. Accounts of the events are cloudy and inconsistent. Some sources suggest that some tribes were exiled. Others allege that the male combatants of one tribe were condemned to death for treason, as per the judgement of one of their Arab allies who judged them according to Jewish law, while women and children were subjected to slavery. This entire episode is disputed by both Muslim and non-Muslim historians and cannot be treated as historical fact. All we know for certain is that the Prophet Muhammad came into conflict with segments of the Jewish community. His loyal Jewish allies, however, continued to live in Medina and stand by his side until the rest of his life.

Although the issue is complicated, the alleged massacre of the Jews has colored the perception of Jews for some Muslims and the perception of Muslims for some nonMuslims, particularly Jews and Christians, who use it to condemn Islam as a whole. This resembles the attitude of some Christians who accuse Jews of killing Jesus and hate them all as a whole. It is similar to the attitude of some Muslims who, as a result of events in the world, condemn all Jews for intolerable actions committed by a certain number of them, and thereby espouse anti-Jewish sentiments. Muslim-Jewish relations are not limited to a single conflict that supposedly took place in the seventh century. The fact of the matter is that, despite periods of problems, Muslims and Jews have co-existed peacefully for the larger part of the past 1400 years. Jews fled Christian persecution in Europe to find safety and security in the Muslim world. The Sephardic Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492 were embraced with open arms by the Ottomans. Moriscos and Marranos, cryptic Muslims and cryptic Jews, also suffered together in Catholic Spain and often intermarried. Surely, there must be some historical basis for Judeo-Muslim solidarity.

Although an increasing number of individuals of all faiths have learned about the treaties and covenants that the Prophet Muhammad concluded with communities belonging to the Christian faith, many more need to learn about the agreements he entered into with members of the Zoroastrian, Samaritan, and Jewish faiths. Far from being late forgeries, the documents in question have been transmitted for fourteen centuries. They survive in manuscript form. They are recorded in the sources belonging to all of these faith communities. One of the most important documents dealing with Muslim-Jewish relations is the Treaty of Maqna which provides protection to the Jewish inhabitants of northwestern Arabia, including the tribes of Hanina, Maqna, and Khaybar. Concluded toward the end of the Prophet Muhammad’s prophetic career, it demonstrates that the conflict that reportedly took place in Medina with the Banu Nadir, Banu Qaynuqa, and Banu Nadir, do not represent the last word on the subject of interfaith relations between Jews and Muslims.

In the Treaty of Maqna, which is found in classical Muslim and Jewish sources, the Prophet Muhammad grants “the protection of God” to his allies from the Children of Israel. “Yours is the safeguard of God and that of his Messenger with regard to your persons, belief, and property, slaves, and whatever is in your possession.” Addressing the Jews, the Prophet reassures them that “You shall not have the annoyance of landtax, nor shall a forelock of yours be cut off.” He promises that “No army shall tread on your soil, nor shall you be assembled [for military service], nor shall tithes be imposed on you, neither shall you be injured in any way.” He guarantees that “No one shall leave his mark on you, you shall not be prevented from wearing slashed or colored garments, nor from riding on horseback, nor from carrying any kind of arms.” He decreed that the Jews had the right to self-defense: “If anyone attacks you, fight him, and if he is killed in the war against you, none of you shall be executed for his sake, nor is ransom to be paid for him.” In the event a Jew killed a Muslim intentionally, the accused would be judged according to Muslim law.

The Prophet Muhammad also freed Jews from oppressive taxation: “No disgraceful charges shall be brought against you, and you shall not be as other [non-Muslim] poll-tax payers.” Since they were equal citizens, it was the duty of the Muslim State to provide for their needs: “If you ask for assistance, it shall be granted to you, and if you want help, you shall have it.” As the Messenger of God stated, “Not a shoe-lace of yours shall be cut.” In other words, justice was to be dispensed equally. The Jewish citizens of the Muslim State were allowed to enter mosques. What is more, the Prophet specifically stated that they would not be “precluded from governing Muslims.” As an autonomous community within the Muslim State, the Prophet assured them that “You shall have no other ruler except out of your own midst, or from the family of the Messenger of Allah.” The funeral rites of the Jews were to be respected. In addition, all Muslims were to hold the Jews in honor on account of their high station and the station of Safiyyah, the Jewish wife of the Prophet. As the Treaty of Maqna states:

It shall be incumbent upon the people of the house of the Messenger of Allah and upon the Muslims to uphold your honor, and not to touch you. If any of you goes on a journey, he shall be under the safeguard of Allah and his Messenger. “There is no compulsion in matters of religion” [Qur’an 2:256].

The Prophet also promised to provide them with one fourth of the khums, a Muslim tax, so long as they remained law-abiding and loyal. He placed them under his protection, that of his family, and that of the Muslims. “Whoever deserves well of [the tribe of] Haninah and the people of Khaybar and Maqna,” stated the Prophet, “all the better for him; but he who does them evil, all the worse for him.” The Messenger of God then warned against manipulating his message:

Whoever reads this letter or mine, or to whomever it is read, and he alters or changes anything of what is in it, upon him shall be the curse of Allah and the curse of all human kind. He is beyond my protection and intercession on the day of Resurrection, and I am his foe. And who is my foe is the foe of Allah, and he who is the foe of Allah goes to hell […] and bad is the abode there.
The Treaty of Maqna was witnessed by God, the angels, and the Muslims who were present. It was written by ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib and witnessed by ‘Ammar ibn Yasir, Salman al-Farsi, and Abu Dharr, three prominent Companions of the Prophet. Tragically, the version of the Treaty of Maqna found in Muslim sources such as Ibn Sa‘d and Baladhuri, which was supposedly a faithful copy of the original that was in the hands of Egyptian Jews in the 8th century, has been proven to have been altered. A comparison of the original document found in the Cairo Genizah, as completed by Ahmed El-Wakil, shows this to be the case. This confirms that Sunni hadith and historical sources are not necessarily accurate reflections of early Muslim material. Generally compiled several centuries after the passing of the Prophet Muhammad, they are, to a large extent, censored accounts of the primary sources, altered to make them accord with the interpretations and interests of the rulers of the time. As a comparison of the surviving copies of the Covenants of the Prophet with the Jews, Samaritans, Zoroastrians, and Christians shows, the versions included in canonical books of Muslim tradition were edited to make them less tolerant than the originals. This demonstrates that a process of white-washing took place at a later point and that conflicts that took place centuries after the rise of Islam were projected back to the time of the Prophet. An attempt was made to free the Prophet from any association with Judaism and Christianity, presenting him as an illiterate pagan, as opposed to a literate monotheist with an in-depth understanding of Abrahamic religions.

The Treaty of Maqna from the Cairo Genizah is only one of half a dozen copies of covenants reportedly concluded between the Prophet Muhammad and the children of Israel, many of which have been passed down by Yemenite Jews. If the Treaty of Maqna found in Ibn Sa‘d and Baladhuri is generally treated as authentic by the majority of Muslim and non-Muslim scholars who have studied it, the same cannot be said of the covenants transmitted by Yemenite Jews. The general consensus of the mostly modern, secular, Jewish scholars who have examined them is that they are forgeries created by the Children of Israel in an attempt to secure rights from Muslim rulers. Several scholars, however, such as Hartwig Hirschfeld, Ahmed El-Wakil, and myself, have argued in favor of the general authenticity of the documents in question. The Covenants of the Prophet with the Children of Israel are not inflated accounts of the Treaty of Maqna found in Muslim sources; rather, the Treaty of Maqna found in Muslim sources is an edited, censored, and abbreviated version of the original documents transmitted by the Jewish people.

Further Reading

Morrow, John Andrew. “The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Jews.” Islam and the People of the Book: Critical Studies on the Covenants of the Prophet. 280-318.
Wakil, Ahmed El-. “The Prophet’s Treaty with the Christians of Najran: An Analytical Study to Determine the Authenticity of the Covenants.” Journal of Islamic Studies (2016): 1-83.

“O Mankind! Surely We have created you from male and female and have made you nations and tribes that you may know one another. Surely the noblest of you in the sight of Allah, is the one who is the most God-fearing. Allah is surely All-Knowing, All-Aware.”


Qur’an 49:13



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