How do I, as a Rabbi who believes that Muhammad was an authentic prophet of the One and Only God, explain why the Jews of Medina did not support Prophet Muhammad claims?
Almost all of the prophets Allah sent to convert their own tribe or nation to monotheism were ignored, insulted, and even violently rejected by their own people. Those few prophets who had short term success, were followed by other prophets who found that those who had believed in the original prophet’s message, later saw their own children or grandchildren turn back astray to the polytheistic beliefs of previous generations.
“Indeed they found their fathers astray. And there had already strayed before them most of the former peoples. And We had already sent among them warners.Then look how was the end of those who were warned.” (37:69-73)
So Prophet Muhammad was also ignored, insulted, and even violently rejected by the polytheistic Arabs of his hometown. Indeed, his countryman even plotted to kill Prophet Muhammad, a not uncommon reaction to one of God’s Prophets.
But the great majority of the Arab tribes in Arabia were idol-worshipping polytheists. Why didn’t the Christians and Jews among them champion his cause? It is easy to understand why Christians did not support Prophet Muhammad, because the Qur’an clearly states: “O People of the Book [the Gospel]! Do not exceed the limits in your religion, and attribute to Allah nothing except the truth.
“The Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, was only a Messenger of Allah, and His command that He conveyed unto Mary, and a spirit from Him (leading to Mary’s conception). So believe in Allah and in His Messengers, and do not say: (Allah is a) trinity. Give up this assertion; it would be better for you. Allah is indeed just one God. Far be it from His glory that He should have a son. To Him belongs all that is in the heavens and in the earth. Allah is sufficient as a guardian. (4:171)
But why didn’t all the Jews of Medina support Prophet Muhammad? The Torah has no conflict with the Qur’an’s basic view of ‘One God Only’ monotheism. I think the simple historical answer is that almost all of Medina’s Jews were afraid that after the death of Prophet Muhammad, his ex-pagan polytheist followers would turn him into a Son of God and worship him; just as the followers of Jesus had turned Jesus into a Son of God, and not only worshipped him but later, when they had gained power, persecuted all Jews who refused to worship Jesus as the Son of God.
Indeed, after Prophet Muhammad’s death, many Arabian tribes rejected Islam or withheld the alms tax claiming that they had submitted to Prophet Muhammad; and that with his death, their allegiance had ended.
The Christian persecution of Jews started in the fourth century, when the Roman Emperors first became Christians; and steadily became worse and worse. By the sixth century the Christian Emperor Justinian (ruled 529-559) decreed that Jews could not testify against Christians in courts.
The use of the Hebrew language in worship was forbidden. Some Jewish prayers were banned as a denial of the Trinity. Some Jewish communities were converted by force, and their synagogues turned into churches.
In 608–610 massacres of Jews occurred all across the Byzantine Roman Empire. None of these anti-semitic acts happened in pagan Arabia, but the Jews of Medina heard about them; and feared that after Prophet Muhammad’s death, history might repeat itself. Thank God it didn’t.
But not knowing that in the future Muslims would not persecute Jews as badly as Christians, Jews mostly were unsupportive. Perhaps this is why the Qur’an states: “Those to whom We gave the Scripture know him as they know their own sons. But indeed, a party of them conceal the truth while they know [it]. (2:146)
Perhaps what most Jews knew or hoped was that Prophet Muhammad was not only a non-Jewish Prophet, but also God’s Anointed (Messiah); and that he and his followers would enable the Jewish people to return to the land of Israel, just as the non-Jewish Persian King Cyrus the Great (who is called God’s Anointed by Prophet Isaiah 45:1) had done eleven centuries earlier.
The fact that the Persian Empire had just a few years previously (614 CE) captured the Land of Israel from the Eastern Roman Empire, may have stimulated their belief that the Messianic Age was coming closer and closer.
This event is referred to in the Qur’an: “The Romans (Byzantines) have been defeated in the nearest land [Israel]. But they, after their defeat, will overcome [the Persians] within three to nine years. To Allah belongs the command before and after.” (30:2-4)
Medina’s Jews must have been positively influenced by the Qur’an’s strong opposition to forceable conversions; because Jews were frequently subjected to forcible conversions in Christian lands. But even the Qur’an’s declaration: “There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the [Muslim] religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong. So whoever disbelieves in Taghut and believes in Allah has grasped the most trustworthy, unbreakable handhold. And Allah is Hearing and Knowing.” (2:256)
In addition, Medina’s Jews must have been greatly impressed by the Qur’an declarations on religious pluralism: “Say: we believe in God and in what has been revealed to us, and what was revealed to Abraham, Isma’il: Isaac, Jacob and The Tribes, and in (the Books) given to Moses, Jesus and the Prophets, from their Lord: We make no distinction between one and another, among them, and to God do we bow our will (in Islam).” (3:84)
Even more explicit, the Qur’an states: “Verily, those who believe, and those who are Jews and Christians, and Sabians; whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day and does righteous deeds; shall have their reward with their Lord. On them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.” (2:62 & 5:69)
How could Jews who knew these verses not support the prophet who proclaimed them? The answer is political. All the Jews in Medina belonged to Jewish tribes that had alliances with polytheistic Arab tribes, or belonged to Jewish clans within the pagan Arab tribes. The evidence for this comes from the “Charter of Medina” which created a new multi-tribal ummah/community soon after the Prophet’s arrival at Medina (Yathrib) in 622 CE.
The treaty was like the American Articles of Confederation that preceded the U.S. Constitution, because it mainly dealt with tribal matters such as the organization and leadership of the participating tribal groups, the ransoming of captives, and that Jews and pagan Arabs are entitled to practice their own faith without any restrictions.
The ummah of the Constitution is made up of Muslims and Jews; although the Jews also constitute a separate ummah “alongside” the Muslims. The treaty was a political-military document of agreement designed to make Yathrib (Medina) and its people more secure. The Jewish tribes were a party to it as a special group, a “sub-ummah” with its own din (religion and law).
The three main Jewish tribes—Nadir, Qurayza, and Qaynuqaʿ had agreements with Muhammad through their long established alliances with the large pagan Arab tribes that were separate from this Charter. Muhammad himself made the documents for the three major Jewish tribes.
The six Jewish groups called “yahud bani so-and-so” mentioned in the treaty were not the three large Jewish tribes, but refer to significant groups of Jewish converts to Judaism within the pagan Arab tribes of Medina (since most Jews married other Jews these groups grew into Jewish clans within the larger pagan Arab tribes of which they were a part).
As the Muslim community grew, friction between them and the non-Muslim pagan tribes increased. This inter-tribal fighting had been going on for generations, and was one of the reasons Prophet Muhammad was welcomed to Medina as a well respected arbitrator.
Unfortunately for the three Jewish tribes, while they stayed loyal to their alliances with their pagan Arab tribes, when the first Jewish tribe, and then the second tribe were attacked by their rivals, their ally pagan tribe abandoned them, and they were defeated and forced into exile. The third and largest Jewish tribe was also abandoned by their pagan ally, and their men were slaughtered while their wives and children were sold as slaves.
These events were the results of tribal politics and not directly religious. They did not prevent the Qur’an’s proclaiming that religious pluralism is the will of Allah. “If Allah had so willed, He would have made you a single people, but (God’s plan is) to test (each group of) you in what He has given you: so compete in all virtues as in a race. The goal of you all is to (please) Allah who will show you on judgment day the truth of the matters which you dispute.” (5:48) could restore Jewish support for the Prophet’s efforts.
However, there are verses that say the opposite: The Qur’an also says: “So woe unto those who write the book with their [own] hands, then say, “This is from God,” that they may sell it for a paltry price. Woe unto them for what their hands have written; and woe unto them for what they earn. (2:79) This verse denounces outright forgery by some unknown sacred scripture scribes in the generations before the time of Prophet Abraham.
In addition, there are three verses that refer to the misinterpretations of Orthodox Rabbis. Sura 3:78 states: “And there is indeed a group among them who twist their tongues with the book, that you may suppose it to be from the book. But it is not from the book. And they say, “It is from God,” though it is not from God. And they knowingly speak a lie against God.”
The Qur’an does condemn the excesses of the group of Orthodox Rabbis in Israel and Babylonia, who since the second century CE, had been adding in God’s name, more and more restrictions to the Torah observance of Sabbath, Passover, family purity, and dietary laws.
And Sura 4:46 states: “Among those who are Jews are those who distort the meaning of the word, and say, “We hear and disobey,” and “Hear, as one who hears not!” and “Attend to us!” twisting their tongues and disparaging religion. Had they said, “We hear and obey” and “Listen” and “Regard us,” it would have been better for them and more proper. But God cursed them for their disbelief, so they believe not, save a few.”
This verse denounces those Jews who follow the excessive allegorical logic and philosophy of Philo, and the many Jews of Alexandria and Egypt, and looked down on the Judaism of average Jews. Some of the Jews of Alexandria and Egypt were attracted to asceticism and celibacy in defiance of Torah law.
As Quran 5:13-15 states: “Then for their breaking of their covenant, we cursed them and hardened their hearts. They distort the meaning of the word, and have forgotten part of what they were reminded. You will not cease to discover their treachery, from all save a few of them. So pardon them, and forbear. Truly God loves the virtuous.
“And with those who say, “We are Christians,” We made a covenant. Then they forgot part of that whereof they were reminded. So we stirred up enmity and hatred among them, till the day of resurrection. God will inform them of what they used to do. O people of the book! Our messenger has come unto you, making clear to you much of what you once hid of the book, and pardoning much. There has come unto you, from God, a light and a clear book.”
The last passage is the only one that specifies who are the specific people doing this: “those who say, ‘We are Christians'”. And what have they done that results in God’s rebuking them? There are a half dozen different places in the Qur’an where Paul’s claim that Jesus is the son of God is refuted and denied. For example, “Jesus son of Mary, did you ever say to people ‘worship me and my mother as Gods beside Allah?’ and he will answer, ‘How could I say what I had no right to say?'” (5:116)
And their punishment is the terrible conflicts caused by various Christian groups charging other Christian groups with heresy. Everyone would have benefited from acting in the Qur’an’s way: “Invite (all) to the way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious: for your Lord knows best, who have strayed from His path, and who receive guidance” (16.125)
And there would have been no Inquisition if God’s servants obeyed: “And say to [all] My servants (that) they speak that which is best; surely the Satan sows dissensions among them; surely the Satan is an open enemy to mankind” (17:053)