The Jews of Arabia

From the Scribe (Journal of the Babylonian Jewry), condensed from a lecture at the Montefiore Hall (London) by Lucien Gubbay, author of Sunlight and Shadow: The Jewish Experience of Islam (London : The Sephardi Centre, 1999)

ARABIA: a vast and mostly arid peninsula adjacent to both the Roman and the Persian empires.

By the time of Mohammed, the merchants of Mecca controlled much of the transit trade between East and West. They bought goods off the ships at Aden and then transported them along caravan routes for sale in Egypt, Syria and Persia. The proceeds were used to buy manufactured goods, which were then brought back to Mecca and sold at the trade fairs. The rudimentary and barely developed pagan worship of the Arabs was centred on the three hundred and sixty idols which surrounded the shrine of the Ka’aba in Mecca, to which the Bedouins flocked in annual pilgrimage. The Ka’aba housed a black stone sacred to all Arabs – which was most probably a meteorite that had once fallen flaming from the skies. Some Arabs had developed an admiration for the more developed religions of the Jews and Christians. This feeling manifested itself in signs of spiritual discontent such as the rejection of idol worship by a small number of seekers after the one God, who practised a religion of their own. There were also converts to both Judaism and Christianity in the settled populations of the desert oasis and in the deep South.


Before the coming of Mohammed, the Jews of Arabia, were few in number, and I have found only two references to them in Jewish sources. All we know of them comes from Arab historians, and from the Qur’an itself.


I will start on the Jews of the North. Before Islam, they were present (in considerable numbers) in many of the main oasis in the West of Arabia and had also settled in the present-day Gulf States – Bahrain in particular. There was even a tiny Jewish community with its own cemetery in Mecca. Curiously enough, Naim Dangoor told me that a Saudi Arabian father of many children from the Gulf area visited him with his family, about 8 years ago to ask for help in emigrating to Israel. He claimed to be one of a large group of Muslims of Jewish origin who had always maintained a separate identity, praying together and marrying only amongst themselves. Naim believed the story and contacted the Israeli Embassy on the man’s behalf – but without success. Arab historians mention some 20 Jewish tribes, including two tribes of Kohanim. The Jews spoke Arabic, were organised into clans and tribes just like the Arabs, and seem to have fully assimilated the values and customs of desert society. A contingent of 500 Jewish soldiers was supplied by Herod to accompany the Roman expedition set to conquer the Yemen in 25 BCE. It paused for a time at a place said in the Talmud to contain Jews. We may legitimately ask ourselves whether the Jewish soldiers were sent to act as links between the Roman armies and the Jews of Arabia. Arab sources maintain that the Jews of Medina were survivors of the Jewish revolt against Rome. Another theory is that the Jewish date-growers – and the cultivation of dates was the most common occupation – might have come from the Jordan valley as refugees from Christian Byzantine persecution. Another obvious source of immigrants was, of course, Babylonians. The Jews were engaged in agriculture, not trade which was exclusively in the hands of the Arabs. According to Arab legends, Jews introduced the date palm and the honey bee into Arabia. Also, advanced irrigation and other new agricultural crafts. The Jews appear to have been educated. It was their ability to read and write that made Bible stories and Midrashim generally familiar to the pagan Arabs – and those were the seeds from which Islam developed. Perhaps most importantly of all, Jews also familiarised the Arabs with the belief in the coming of the Messiah.


Many legends refer to early Jewish settlement in Himyar, present-day Yemen. The first is that Jews accompanied the Queen of Sheba when she returned from her visit to King Solomon. Arab historians claim that very large numbers of Jews – the figure of 80,000 is mentioned – arrived after the destruction of the First Temple, to join others already established there. There is a story that Ezra the scribe cursed the Jews of Yemen for ignoring his call to return to Israel and help rebuild the Temple. In retaliation from then on, they refused to name their sons Ezra. Arab legend ascribes the conversion to Judaism of the king and people of Himyar to two Jewish Rabbis from the oasis of Medina who cured the kind of a terrible illness on an expedition to the North of Arabia. The king was so impressed by the Rabbis that he and his generals converted to Judaism on the spot. He then took the Rabbis back with them to Himyar where they also converted part of the population – presumably members of the court and leading families. Himyar fell to the Christian Ethiopians in the year 525. Persia sent an expedition to expel the Ethiopians and take control for itself. The Jews prospered for a time under Persian rule and maintained contact with their brethren in Babylon. But the economy of Himyar was in steep decline during this period, partly because of the warfare, and partly because of a catastrophic failure of the great dam that controlled its irrigation system.


Mohammed was born in Mecca in the year 570, at a time when guardianship of the Ka’aba and successful international trade had greatly enriched its ruling clans. During trading missions to Syria with his uncle, Mohammed had come into contact with Christian monks and with Jews, when he was asked to lead a similar expedition himself on behalf of the wealthy widow Khadijah. This was successful; and he accepted Khadijah’s proposal of marriage on his return to Mecca. Thus freed from financial anxiety for the first time, Mohammed was able to devote himself increasingly to spiritual concerns. He received his first revelation in the year 610, when he was forty years old. The revelations, transmitted by the angel Gabriel to Mohammed when in a state of trance, were taken down in writing by his followers as he repeated them later. They were collected together after Mohammed’s death, to form the Qur’an. The message of the Qur’an is similar in essence to much Jewish and Christian teaching.

  • There is no God but Allah, the all-powerful Creator, and Mohammed is his Messenger.
  • There will be a Day of Judgement.
  • There is an afterlife in which the good will be rewarded and the wicked will burn in hell.
  • Life is to be lived according to divine law, with prayer and fasting, the giving of alms and the supporting of widows and orphans.

Mohammed had some success with the young and the poor, but he was ridiculed by the leaders of Meccan society. Mohammed made some converts to Islam among pilgrims who visited Mecca on the haj. A group from Medina, a desert oasis some two hundred and fifty miles away, secretly invited Mohammed and his followers to join them there to become their judge in disputes between their tribes. So, in the year 622, Mohammed and seventy of his followers fled from Mecca to Medina. And that is counted as year one of the Muslim calendar.


Medina was occupied by three Jewish tribes and two pagan tribes who had once forced their way into the oasis; each tribe lived in its own fortified village. Mohammed was soon accepted as leader by the pagans and concluded a treaty with the Jews. Unlike the Meccans, the pagans of Medina – who had long lived alongside Jews – were not shocked by the demotion of their gods to mere spirits under the new order. It did not affect their livelihood, and they were thrilled by the presence in their midst of the Prophet for the Arabs, with his revelations in their own tongue. There was a rapid tide of conversions to Islam; and Arab historians praise the Jews for preparing the ground for the favourable reception of the Prophet’s message. As a fellow monotheist, Mohammed looked to the Jews as his natural allies; and he no doubt hoped they would accept him as their long-awaited Messiah. Some Jews did so at once and I quote an Arab historian’s account of the first Jewish convert to Islam. In a deliberate attempt to reconcile the Jews and gain their acceptance, Mohammed promptly adopted the Aramaic name ‘Medinta’ used by the Jews (‘al-Madinat’ in Arabic) in place of Yathrib, the old name of the oasis. His followers were directed to face towards Jerusalem in prayer and to recite three daily prayer services and special Friday evening prayers in imitation of the Jews. Ablutions and forms of worship were modelled on Jewish patterns. It seems that the Muslims had misunderstood the solemn Jewish fast of Kippur to be a celebration of victory over Pharaoh, for they too adopted the same day to celebrate their own successes. Mohammed repeatedly compared himself to Moses and clearly regarded himself as his successor. According to the Qur’an:

  • ‘Before this book there was Moses’s book…. and this book confirms it in the Arabic language.’
  • And again, in response to taunts arising from the Jewish origin of one of his wives, Mohammed proudly declared:
  • ‘Aaron was my father and Moses my uncle.’

Above all, the Qur’an itself is full of Jewish elements.


It is clear that Mohammed knew the Torah only from hearsay and that he was much confused by imperfect knowledge of scripture and rabbinic legend.

“The Messenger was a proud man who could not tolerate public ridicule; and so, only eighteen months after his arrival in Medina, he began to order the assassination of Arab poets who had satirised him and also of certain Jews who had opposed him in one way or another. His attitude to the Jews also changed radically. Mohammed demonstrated his displeasure with the Jews as a whole and his growing self-confidence and his independence of them by adopting measures designed to steer his followers firmly against Jewish practices.”


Mohammed next moved to eliminate the three Jewish tribes of Medina, by then considered a threat to the Muslim community in its struggle against its pagan enemies in Mecca. One by one he accused them of treachery, of having broken their treaty with him by conspiring with his pagan enemies in Mecca. As already mentioned, the Jews were also accused of making common cause with the waverers within the ranks of the Muslims of Medina. Curiously enough, the Jewish tribes made no attempt to defend one another against the common foe when pretexts were found to attack and besiege each of their villages in turn. They were eliminated one by one. The first tribe was called on to accept Islam. When its members refused, a pretext was found to besiege its village. The Jews were expelled on condition to leave most of their possessions behind. The following year saw the expulsion of the second tribe, accused of planning to kill the Prophet by dropping a rock on his head as he rested under a wall outside its village. Mohammed, who received divine warning of the plot, returned home unharmed before anything happened.

Muslims were ordered to turn towards Mecca in prayer and no longer towards Jerusalem – now with five daily prayer services instead of the Jewish three.All traces of the Sabbath were eliminated when Friday was declared a day of public prayer on which work was allowed. The month-long fast of Ramadan was instituted in place of Kippur. The extra month instituted by the pagan Arabs long before Mohammed to reconcile the lunar year with the solar year, as practised by the Jews, was abolished. Since then the Muslim year has consisted of 12 lunar months, with no correction at all for the solar year. In a complete change of emphasis, Mohammed began to lay far greater stress on Abraham, whom he claimed as the first Muslim, than on Moses.


Though respecting Christians – Christian monks in particular, and accepting Jesus as a major prophet, Mohammed vehemently rejected the notion that Jesus was the Son of God a well as all idea of the Trinity. The Qur’an itself is full of unmistakably Jewish elements – Bible stories and midrashimin particular. However, a major puzzle remains. Although Moses is mentioned over one hundred times and Jesus only twice in the Meccan period of the Qur’an, Mohammed’s often repeated dread of the Day of Judgement and hellfire is certainly more akin to Christian monasticism than to rabbinic Judaism.

According to surviving records, Jews helped the Arabs in many places. From Syria to Spain, they opened city gates to the besieging armies; and in Spain, they often garrisoned the captured cities to enable the Muslims to sweep on to further conquests. In 658, Gaon Yizhak of Pumbeditha, at the head of 90,000 Jews, was reported to have welcomed Khalif ‘Ali into Firuz-Shapur. The Exilarch Bustanay was even awarded one of the Persian King’s daughters by the grateful Arabs – and as another daughter was given to Husain, grandson of the Prophet, that was no mean gift. The conquests of Islam united both halves of the Jewish people under a single political and cultural system. Arabic became the universal language, replacing the Aramaic, Persian, Greek and Latin they had previously spoken.


Jews, accustomed to adversity, found their change of masters an improvement. They survived the hardship brought about by the conquest and were eventually able to participate in the creation of the new Arabic civilisation that followed.

The Qur’an frequently refers to Jews and Christians, who had received earlier revelations from God but had then distorted and corrupted them. Though some of its suras (verses) mention Jews and Christians in friendly terms and are quoted in support of Islam’s tolerant attitude to fellow monotheists, others display very different sentiments. The Qur’an it must be remembered, came to Mohammed in stages throughout the many years of his ministry – from the time he was a persecuted outcast to that of his final role as the undisputed master of all Arabia. Non-believers, though protected by Islam, were generally despised because of their wilful persistence in refusing to accept the words of God recorded in the Qur’an. However, unlike Jews in Christian Europe, they were neither hated nor demonised.


Mainstream (Sunni) Islam and Judaism have more in common with each other than with Christianity.

  • First and foremost, they both share the basic concept of the absolute unity of God. Though Muslims accept Jesus as a major prophet, they strenuously deny that he was the Son of God. In the words of the Qur’an: ‘…Allah is one, Allah the eternal. He begets not and is not begotten. Nor is there anyone like him’.
  • Abraham is accepted as the first man to have received God’s revelations: and most other Jewish patriarchs and prophets are also revered by Islam.
  • Both religions are based on divinely given books. The Qur’an like the Torah, is the unchanging word of God; and every letter of its text is holy. Sunni Muslims go even further and believe that the Qur’an is eternal and untreated – as is the view of the Torah held by some Jewish mystics.
  • Muslim forms of worship are far closer to those of the Synagogue than the Church. Neither Islam nor Judaism employs priests with supernatural powers to serve at symbolic alters of sacrifice. Indeed, Jewish Rabbis and Sunni Alem receive similar training and perform much the same function. Other concepts such as the sanctity of Jerusalem, forbidden and permitted foods, and many others, appear to have come directly from Judaism.
  • The equivalent position of law in Islam and Judaism may not be a coincidence, for Islamic law first developed in Iraq, home to the great academies of Jewish learning. In both faiths, holy law governs every aspect of human activity and its very study is an act of worship. Both distinguish between ‘written’ and ‘oral’ law in much the same way; and in the development of ‘oral’ law, the mufti’s fatwa serves the same purpose as the Rabbi’s responsa (an authoritative statement of the law on an obscure or disputed point). Another common feature of the two systems is that neither was imposed by the state or by a central ecclesiastical authority – as was the canon law of the Church – but was developed by the deliberations of independent scholars.