Muhammad and the Jews

by Salam Falaki


This subject “Muhammad and the Jews” can be summarised in one simple statement:


Muhammad, out of selfishness, destroyed those who criticised that he criticised them. This is in contrast with the summary of Jesus’ life. Jesus out of love, died for those who criticised that he criticised them.


Both Jesus and Muhammad criticised the Jews. In both cases the Jews did not accept the criticism but in turn criticised the one who criticised them. The difference between Muhammad and Jesus manifests itself in the response of these two men to the criticism of their message by the Jews. Muhammad, out of fear for himself and out of fear that his message might be wrong, silenced those who criticised him by destroying or terrorising them. Jesus, on the other hand, neither feared for himself nor for the truth of his message. He did not suppress the criticism of his own message by the Jews but rather allowed their criticism to escalate to the point of them killing him. This way Jesus’ own criticism of the Jews was proved. Jesus was ready to die for the truth of his criticism of the Jews because his death revealed the truthfulness of their need for criticism. Muhammad was not ready to die for the truth of his criticism of the Jews, because his death would not have proved the truthfulness of their need for criticism. It would rather have revealed that Muhammad’s criticism of the Jews was wrong! The Jews knew it and Muhammad knew it. The result was mutual destruction. Muhammad destroyed the Jews of Medina between 624 and 627, and a Jewess, his Jewess, his own pleasure concubine, the former wife of one of the Jews that he had allowed to be killed, Raihana by name, poisoned him to death in 632.


In the course of this lecture I would like to treat three questions:

1. How did Muhammad criticise the Jews?

2. How did the Jews criticise their criticism by Muhammad?

3. How did Muhammad then destroy the Jews?


1. How did Muhammad criticise the Jews?


This is, of course, a huge subject. I can only point to some introductory elements today and as we go on we will see more and more about this.


The most fundamental criticism of the Jews by Muhammad can be seen in his attack on their God. Who is the God of the Jews that Muhammad attacked. Let me read two passages from the Old Testament that reveal the nature of this God.


The first can be found in Exodus 20: 2 (this is the beginning of the Ten Commandments). There God says: “I am Jehovah. I am the Lord, your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”


And the second passage can be found in the same book Exodus 29:44-46, the summit of the covenant between the God of the Old Testament with his people Israel. There we read, Exodus 29:44-46 “So I will consecrate the Tent of Meeting and the altar and will consecrate Aaron and his sons to serve me as priests. Then I will dwell among the Israelites and be their God. They will know that I am the Lord (Jehovah) their God, who brought them out of Egypt so that I might dwell among them. I am the Lord (Jehovah) their God.”


The summary how God revealed himself to Jews is the sentence: “I am Jehovah (most translations instead of Jehovah write: the Lord), your God”.


This God was criticised by Muhammad by purporting that God must have revealed himself differently than the way it is related in the Old Testament. How must God have revealed himself? How die the God of Muhammad reveal himself? Let me read only one passage from the Qur’an that reveals his nature in this context.


I read from Sura Ta Ha 20:11-14, which relates a Qur’anic version of how God appeared to Moses in the burning bush and revealed his very self. This revelation is recoined, is changed, perverted by Muhammad to read like the following: “But when he came to the fire (the Qur’an talks about Moses), a voice was heard: O Moses, verily I am you Lord (literally: it is a fact, I myself am your Lord)! Therefore put off your shoes. You are in the sacred valley of Toah. I have chosen you. Listen to the inspiration. Verily I am God, there is no God but I (literally: it is a fact, I myself am the God. No God but me). So serve me and establish regular prayer for celebrating my praise.”


The two key sentences are: “I am your Lord” and “I am the God”. Allah is an abbreviation of the Arabic al-Illah, which means the God, not only God but the one and only God.


That means the summary of the Qur’anic revelation of God is the following sentence. “I am your Lord, the only God and you are my slave!”


You say, what is the big difference between the two? The difference is very, very suttl((?). This can be shown statistically in the use of the two words “God” and “Lord” in the Bible and the Qur’an. The Bible always speaks of the Lord Jehovah as being my God or your God, while the Qur’an always speaks of not the Lord but the God being my Lord or your Lord. In the Old Testament your very rarely find the statement of God saying: “I am your Lord”. God always says “I am your God”. And, of course, you know very well, that the name Jehovah which stands behind the word the Lord is completely suppressed in the Qur’an. As time goes on I will show you, how effectively and how completely this name has been suppressed in the Qur’an. This is not very apparent, but nevertheless very present criticism of the revelation of God in the Old Testament, a criticism that fill the whole Qur’an.


This aspect of the most fundamental criticism of the God of the Jews can also be seen in the biblical stories that are related in the Qur’an. Let me give you an overview over these biblical stories. Of course you can always regard these stories showing the desire of Muhammad to reconcile the Jews. But I will show you by the simple selection of persons out of the Old Testament that the Qur’an has effected that there is a systematic suppression of a certain type of persons. I will not go into details. You can have a look at this list later on. We have a booklet which contains this list, called “Old Testament stories in the Qur’an”, which was published recently. I do not know whether we have it here. We will have to check into that. It is a small green booklet.


I will only show you the persons of the Old Testament that are mentioned in the Qur’an in the order of their appearance in the Old Testament.


First of all the Qur’an speaks about Adam, the sons of Adam, then Noah and Abraham, of course, as the first true Muslim and all of these passages down here indicates certain incidents that the Qur’an mentions in connection with the person of Abraham. Then you have Joseph. There is a whole sura, a whole book in the Qur’an that has this title. And, of course, Moses the author of the Torah or the person to whom the Torah was revealed figures very prominently in the Qur’an. And then finally there is very, very much material on Moses, a whole page can be filled with simple titles of passages what the Qur’an speaks about Moses. And then messengers after Moses, especially Saul, then David and Solomon, later men of God and prophets in general.


Did you remark the ancient Fathers Abraham, Jacob, Isaac, Joseph, Moses are all mentioned, then some kings, in fact three kings (Saul, David and Solomon) and hardly any prophets in the Old Testament. No mention of Isaiah, no mention of Elijah, no mention of Ezekiel, of Jeremiah, of Hosea, of Amos etc.


I have a theory. A large number of the prophets that are suppressed by the Qur’an have names which include in the name the mention of the name of God Jehovah. Isaiah, e.g. in Hebrew is the word Jesahjahu, which literally translated means: Jehovah saves or delivers him. This name cannot be found in the Qur’an. Another instance is Hoshea, this is a Hebrew word for Hosea. This word literally means: Jahwe saves. Another name that is missing is Joshua, Jehoshua: Jahwe saves or the Jahwe saving and this is identical with the name of Jesus in the New Testament. Jesus comes from the Greek Jesus which is a translation from the Hebrew Jehoshua or the later Jeshua.


By changing the name of Jesus to Isa, Muhammad suppressed this element of Jehovah, the revelation of Jehovah in the Old Testament and with this he suppressed the revelation of the Lord as our God.


I come back to this fundamental criticism of the Jews. This is what the Jews intuitively felt. They realised that there is a systematic suppression of that which is most holy to them, namely the name of God, the revealed name of God. It was so holy to them, that they did not even dare to utter it. Instead of saying Jehovah, they always said the Lord or my Lord or the Lord at all.


Muhammad did not know or the spirit that spoke through Muhammad deliberately suppressed or try to destroy or try to make forget the real nature of God as it was revealed in the Old Testament, namely that he is a God who acts in history, that he is a God of the covenant who is not simply the God in an absolute manner, but who wants to become your God and my God. He binds himself to you and to me in a covenant. All this is suppressed in the Qur’an. By this suppression, by the implicit criticism of this God of the Old Testament Muhammad criticised the Jews.


2. How did the Jews then criticise this criticism of themselves by Muhammad?


I will not go into details. I will only mention a couple of points that most of you know already.


1. They did not believe in the vocation of Muhammad as a prophet. They said, you are a false prophet, because not Jehovah is speaking to you but somebody else why tries to say, Jehovah is wrong.

2. They did not accept the stipulations of the laws that Allah revealed through Muhammad. They did not follow the laws of Muhammad.

3. Then they want to step further. They started to ridicule him publicly. They even hired or allowed poets to write ridiculing poetry and to recite ridiculing poetry against Muhammad, first in Mecca and later on in Medina itself. This poet was assassinated by Muslims, because Muhammad did not endure the biting criticism and satire of the Jews against him.

4. They did not actively support the politics of Muhammad. The politics of Muhammad was a politic of aggression and of suppression and of elimination. They did not support him. Thus in a political way they became his enemies.

5. And in the final analyse of course, because Muhammad attacked them, they fought Muhammad in battle as we shall see in a minute.


There was a wide and varied criticism, lift out criticism, by the Jews against Muhammad’s criticism of themselves.


What was the reaction of Muhammad. Muhammad did not die for the Jews, because he loved them, but he destroyed them. He killed them in the final analysis.


The last question, that I would like to deal with is:


3. How did Muhammad destroy the Jews?


There are three aspects that I would like to highlight.

a) A religious aspect. By this, he isolated the Jews out of the Islamic Umma.

b) A spiritual aspect

c) A physical battling aspect


a) The religious aspect


It took place early in the year 624. That means nearly two years after the emigration to Medina. The first religious aspect that let to the destruction of the Jews was that Muhammad changed the direction of prayer. Originally the sources seem to indicate that Muhammad like many people prayed into the direction of Jerusalem. The Jews prayed into the direction of Jerusalem. But on the 11 February 624 Muhammad changed the qibla out of anger at the disbelief of the Jews in his own vocation and said: “Muslims do no longer pray towards Jerusalem but they pray towards Mecca”, which is practised until today.


The second act that led to the distraction of the Jewish community as a living religious community in the midst of Islam was the change of period of fasting. The original time for fasting, for abstaining from food was the so called ‘Ashura fast, which is the tenth day of the first month of the year. This seems to have been observed by many Muslims even by Muhammad himself before the attack on the Jews but after the battle of Badr, exactly on the 15 March 624 Muhammad due to a revelation decided that Muslims no longer had to fast on ‘Ashura but they had to fast during the month of Ramadan. Right after the battle of Badr he changed that. Some commentators, some orientalists think, that this institution of the Ramadan can be understood as a type of thanksgiving of the Muslims towards Allah because he gave them the overwhelming victory, the unexpected victory at Badr just the time before. Muhammad did not forbid the fasting on ‘Ashura but he said, it is no longer a duty for every Muslim to fast on this day. It is rather a duty for a Muslim to fast during the month of Ramadan which is much later in the Islamic year.


He changed very sensitive, fundamental aspects of the religious practice as being determinate for the Islamic community. Muslims no longer pray towards Jerusalem but towards Mecca. This way you can immediately distinguish a Jew from a Muslim. That means you isolate the Jew.


And second of all. He introduced a new law as to when fasting has to take place. Also this distinguishes Jews from Muslims very easily because Jews do not fast during the month of Ramadan.


Some of you may know the fast during the day of ‘Ashura has been transfigured and changed into a big feast, the ‘Ashura feast among the Shiites on the tenth of the first month of their lunar year. It is the day when they have big celebrations commemorating the death of their Imam Husain.


This was the first aspect, the first step in the destruction of the Jews, their isolation their religious and thus also social isolation from among the community of the Muslims.


b) The next aspect is more intellectual, more spiritual.


Muhammad as it were developed the fruits out of his fundamental criticism of the revelation of God to the Jews by telling the Jews, that they have broken their covenant with God by worshipping the Golden Calf. These are passages from the Qur’an.


Than he attacked the Jews by saying they disbelieved in part of what was revealed to them in the Torah and they disobey God in a wicked and deliberate manner. As an example: He put forward the fact that Jews actually were not allowed to practice usury, practice getting interest of loaning money and since they did that, they were deliberately disobeying what God had revealed to them.


Then he went one step further, when Jews ridiculed him and said: “Look, what you are saying is wrong. The true revelation can be found in the Bible.” He started accusing the Jews and telling a saying of them, that they alter the words from their proper meaning in the Qur’an. Of course, also the fact that the Jews did not mention the word Jehovah, when they read the Bible but always used the word “the Lord” instead, can also be interpreted in this direction. He attacked them for mispronouncing, misreciting their scriptures.


Then he went one step further and said, Jews concealed that Abraham was the Father not only of the Jews but also of the Arabs and more they concealed that Abraham himself was not a Jew, because he lived before Moses. They concealed that Abraham was potentially the spiritual Father not only of the Jews but also of others and Muhammad, of course, accepted Abraham to be the spiritual Father of Islam by stipulating that Abraham was the first Muslim and that he built the Kaba, the main sanctuary in Mecca. We will go in this more in detail next week when we treat Abraham in the Bible and in the Qur’an.


Finally, he attacked Jews spiritually or intellectually by accusing them of having concealed that the Torah prophesied of Muhammad’s coming. Apparently he had got word from people who were Jews and not become Muslims that there are verses that can somehow be interpreted in the sense of Muhammad. And yesterday Salah Husseini gave us a nice illustration of how he uses this in his dialogue with Muslims.


It is during this period, around 624, 625, that Muhammad openly attacked the Jews spiritually and intellectually on this point. The result of this religious isolation and this intellectual attack was, of course,


c) physical confrontation.


The confrontation and distraction of the Jews of Medina and the surrounding areas and the suppression of the Jews, Jewish element there, took place in four steps. In this context I would like to read the major events as they were presented by Montgomery Watt in his biography of Muhammad in second volume “Muhammad at Medina”.


There were three Jewish tribes in Medina.


The first that was expelled from Medina has the name Banu Qaynuqa’. The next one has the name Banu Nadir and the last one (this one was not expelled but systematically destroyed, that means the man were butchered and the children and women were enslaved) is Banu Quraysh.


On page 209 Montgomery writes the following about the Qaynuqa’:


“The first event of note was the siege and expulsion of the clan of Qaynuqa’. On his return from Badr Muhammad is said to have renewed his appeals to the Jews, pointing to the Meccan losses as an example of the fate of those who did not respond  to God’s message.” At Badr the first big victory for Muhammad a huge army from Mecca tried to destroy the Muslim community. There were about 3,000 Meccan warriors and about 315 or 318 Muslim warriors and in spite of the overwhelming power of the Meccans Muhammad was victorious. “On his return from Badr, from this battle, Muhammad is said to have renewed his appears to the Jews pointing to the Meccan losses as an example of the fate of those who did not respond to Allah’s message. The Jews, however, were no readier than before to become followers of Muhammad. A few days later an incident occurred. Some Jews played a trick on an Arab woman. While she was sitting doing business in the market of the Qaynuqa’, one of them contrived to fasten her skirt in such a way that when she stood up a considerable portion of her person was revealed. A Muslim who happened to be present regarded this act and the ensuing laughter as an insult, and killed the Jew, who was at once avenged by his fellows. The Jews then retired to their strongholds. Muhammad regarded the matter as a casus belli (that means a reason for war), and collected a force to besiege the clan of the Qaynuqa’. There were doubtless some negotiations, but no record has been preserved. After a siege of fifteen days the Jews surrendered. They were forced to leave Medina, taking their wives and children with them. Three days were granted to them to collect money owing to them, but they had to leave behind their arms and perhaps some of their other goods, such as their goldsmith tools. The usual account is that they went to the Jewish colony at Wadi ‘l-Qura, and after a month proceeded to ‘Adhra’at in Syria.”


The Qaynuqa’ were expelled due to an incident that could have been settled on a much lower scale of violence. But you see the reason for this is, of course, that there has been this whole preceding history of criticism and counter-criticism by Muhammad and the Jews against each other.


The next story is a little bit more serious, more grave. On page 211 Montgomery Watt writes about the clan of the Nadir the following. I had told you that there was a poet who openly criticised Muhammad by writing poetry against him. This poet was a Jew. He was assassinated. The name of this poet was Ka’b.


“Almost exactly a year after the death of this Ka’b (that means in late August or early September of 625) a second Jewish clan the Banu’n-Nadir were expelled from Medina. The story is that Muhammad went to the settlement of an-Nadir to demand a contribution towards the blood-money due to another clan, called B.’Amir b.Sa’sa’ah for the two men killed by the survivors of another battle. As the an-Nadir were in alliance with the ‘Amir, there may have been complications, though the sources say nothing of these; Muhammad may have thought that the Jews ought to do more than the average of the inhabitants of Medina, and they may have thought they ought to do less (to pay blood money for the two Muslims that were killed by confederates of the an-Nadir). Whatever the precise point was, an-Nadir professed themselves ready to give a satisfactory answer, but bade Muhammad make himself comfortable while they prepared a meal. He and his companions seated themselves with their backs to the wall of one of the houses. Presently Muhammad slipped quietly away and did not return, and his companions also eventually left. When they found him at his house, he explained that he had had a Divine warning that an-Nadir were planning a treacherous attack on him - they could easily have rolled a stone onto his head and killed him as he sat by the house. He therefore at one dispatched Muhammad b. Maslamah to an-Nadir with an ultimatum; they were to leave Medina within ten days on pain of death, though they would still be regarded as owners of their palm-trees and receive part of the produce. Such an ultimatum seems out of proportion to the offence, or rather to the apparently flimsy grounds for supposing that treachery was meditated against Muhammad. Yet perhaps the grounds were not so flimsy as they appear at first sight to the Westerner of today. Both parties knew how some Muslims had treated Ka’b b. al-Ashraf (this poet who ridiculed of Muhammad) and, in accordance with the ideas of the Arabia of that day, Muhammad was bound to expect that, if he gave his opponents an opportunity, they would kill him. An-Nadir’s postponement of a reply created such an opportunity, and was therefore tantamount to a hostile act against Islam.


The Jews at first were inclined to submit to the demand, especially when they saw that it was carried by a leading member of the clan on which they were primarily dependent for support. They were divided among themselves, however. The final analyses is that the Jews refused to comply with Muhammad’s demand and he set about besieging them. (This is the Banu’n-Nadir; the second clan.) The siege lasted about fifteen days. An-Nadir lost heart when the Muslims began to destroy their palms, for Ibn Ubayy was doing nothing to help them and they realised that, even if they were able to keep their foothold in Medina, their livelihood would be gone. They expressed their readiness to fulfil the original demand, but Muhammad now imposed less favourable terms on them. They were to leave their weapons and to have nothing from the palms. To this perforce they agreed, and departed proudly with a train of 600 camels for Khaybar, where they had estates. The sword, cuirasses, and helmets all went to Muhammad, doubtless with a view to his next encounter with Quraysh. The Ansar (that means the Muslims who had originally lived in Medina before the emigration) agreed that he houses and palm-gardens should be allotted to the Emigrants (that are the Muslims that had emigrated from Mecca to Medina around 622), so that they might be able to support themselves and be no longer dependent on the hospitality of the Ansar.”


So far the summary of Montgomery Watt.


You see already an escalation here. The first group was allowed to leave in a sense victoriously, although, of course, they were expelled, they were no longer allowed to stay. The next clan was humiliated by not being allowed to take their swords with them and by not being allowed to use the profits from their date palm trees.


And we will have the further escalation with the third tribe in Medina the Banu-Qurayzah.


Let me read in the last couple of minutes what Montgomery Watt says about them, relating the story.


“There were still a number of Jewish groups in Medina (after the two first clans were expelled), but the only one of any importance was the clan of Banu Qurayzah. During the siege of Medina (by the Meccans) this clan had probably preserved neutrality so far as outward acts were concerned, but they had engaged in negotiations with Muhammad’s enemies, and, could they have trusted Quraysh and their Bedouin allies, would have turned against Muhammad. Immediately upon the withdrawal of his opponents Muhammad attacked the Qurayzah, to show that the rising Islamic state was not prepared to tolerate such ‘sitting on the fence’. Qurayzah retired to their stronghold, but did not fight back with much vigour. Soon they sent and asked to be allowed to surrender on the same terms as the Banu an-Nadir, but were told they must surrender unconditionally. They then requested to be allowed to consult Abu Lubabah, and he went to them. What exactly happened is mysterious. Abu Lubabah must have committed some grave fault not mentioned in our sources. Probably he did not repudiate the old alliance of his clan with the Qurayzah (he is from the clan of ‘Amr b. ‘Awf, who were confederates of the Qurayzah), but used his influence somehow or other in their favour.


After the unconditional surrender of the Banu Qurayzah, Muhammad b. Maslamah was in charge of the men and ‘Abdallah b. Sallam of the women and children. Some of the Aws (another clan of Medina) are said to have appealed to Muhammad to forgive Qurayzah for the sake of the Aws as he had pardoned Qaynuqa’ for the sake of Ibn Ubayy and the Khazraj (also of Medina). Those who made this approach are not named, but subsequently different persons are said to have been gravely concerned at the fate of Qurayzah. This seems to indicate a wide-spread tendency in the Aws to honour the old alliance with Qurayzah. Muhammad met their request by suggesting that the fate of the Jews should be decided (not by himself; but) by one of their confederates (one of the earlier confederates of the Jews), and to this they agreed. Muhammad therefore appointed as judge Sa’d b. Mu’adh, the leading man of the Aws (confederates of the Jewish Qurayzah), who had been gravely wounded during the siege and died soon after his sentence on the Qurayzah. When he was brought to where Muhammad was, all the Aws and the others present swore to abide by his decision. He decreed that all the men of Qurayzah should be put to death and the women and children sold as slaves. This sentence was duly carried out, apparently on the following day.”


You see the full machinery of a political establishment with confederates, with judges, with Muhammad allowing things to happen and not allowing things to happen. In the final analysis his permission to have a tribe destroyed.


The very last step that I will not go into detail here but only mention is that Muhammad later on, some months later attacked Jews of the Banu Nadir, who had gone to Khaybar, which is a settlement outside of Medina and besieged them and took their fortifications one after another and thus the last Jewish opposition against himself.


So this is the last step of how Muhammad destroyed the Jews. He first isolated them religiously, then he ridiculed them spiritually and intellectually and finally he attacked them and destroyed them physically.


To sum up I take up the two sentences that I mentioned at the beginning. Muhammad did not die for the Jews but he killed them. Muhammad out of selfishness destroyed those who criticised that he criticised them. While Jesus who also criticised the Jews out of love for them and all mankind died for those who criticised that he criticised them.