Muhammad’s Political Union with the Jews

When talking about relations between Muslims and Jews, many people have the impression that we are dealing with relations based on mutual dislike, or even hatred, and that it has always been like this.

The more studied know that some of the mutual dislike that might exist, probably can be found in Muhammad’s relations to the Jews, as we find several verses in the Quran presenting the Jews in a bad light, pointing to these verses as the proof for the static dislike of Jews in Islam.

However, there are several examples on a more nuanced picture, and I believe that these examples are crucial for the understanding of Jewish-Muslim relations, as well as a solution of the unfortunate enmity some Jews and Muslims might feel towards each other.

Rather than seeing the negative attitude towards Jews in the Quran as something static and authoritative, we should see the relation between Muhammad and the Jews as changing and based on the context of the situation. For example, when we are dealing with verses where we see a clear polemic context, having the Jews denying Muhammad’s message, it is obvious that the Jewish point of view won’t be represented positively. Read any religious text trying to prove the point of view of the author, while denying opposing views, and we will find examples on negatives portrayals of the competing truth-claim.

One examples on a more open and embracing attitude, from Muhammad towards the Jews, can be found in the Constitution of Medina, being a declaration of loyalties between Muhammad, his followers from Mecca and supporters in Medina, as well as the Jews of Medina. This pact, which was formed when Muhammad left Mecca in 622, describes the “believers and Muslims of Quraysh and Yathrib and whoever follows them and are attached to them and strives with them”,[1] and the Jews of the various tribes as one “Ummah”, that is, one community. Furthermore it is stated that “any Jew who follows us shall have aid and comfort. Such a Jew shall not be oppressed nor his enemies aided against him”.[2]

These mentioning of Jews, as well of the statement that the Jews are to follow their religion, and the Muslims theirs, point at a more open attitude than the one, we normally are presented for by those, who wish to enforce the dislike between Jews and Muslims.

When Muhammad arrived to Medina, at that time called Yathrib, he believed that Jews and Muslims could and should exist together, each following their religion.

So what happened? For some the story of the fights with the three major Jewish tribes in Medina might be well-known. One by one Muhammad and the Muslims fought each of these tribes, until they were killed or had left the city. The reason behind these fights we only have from Muslim sources, and they all point at the Jews as betraying Muhammad. If that is true, the negative feeling Muhammad might have grown towards these Jews could be understandable. Nevertheless, the fighting should be seen in this light, and one could wonder what would have been, had the Jews and Muhammad not end in such a situation. Would Muhammad have allowed the Jews to stay in Medina, keeping their religion? If we accept what Gordon D. Newby explains in his article, The Jews of Arabia at the Birth of Islam,[3] that “many Jews remained in Medina until Muhammad’s death and beyond,” then it certainly would seem that the Jewish tribes would have been able to stay.

When believers read their religious texts, as well as texts only later considered to be religious, they are often being read ideologically, seeing the claims and descriptions as universal and covering all aspect, whereas the author or writer might have related pragmatically to a situation, his intentions and beliefs about a certain object different from the later reader’s understanding of the issue at hand.

I believe that if we – whether Muslims believers in, or non-Muslim students of – read the Quran and other contemporary sources in that light, then we can and will get a much more nuanced understanding of what really did happen and why, and in that receive a better foundation for understanding the relation between Jews and Muslims through the ages and today, and where we are going wrong of each other.

It is certainly this writer’s opinion that Muhammad wasn’t an antisemite, nor was harboring any noteworthy dislike for Jews as such, but that he in turn challenged – and was challenged – the Jew’s truth-claims and political status, with all the frustrations this would cause on both sides.

 

[1] The translation is that of Norman A. Stillman found in his “The Jews of Arab Lands”, The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1979.

[2] While some might argue that the ”Jew” mentioned here is a Jew who converted to Islam, the context of the verse, as well as later declarations, seem to point at the Jew being just that, a Jew and not one of the Believers.

[3] A History of Jewish-Muslim Relations: From the Origins to the Present Day (Kindle Location 986). Princeton University Press. 2013.

Author: Peter Kaltoft

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