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Prophet Muhammad’s Rabbi Ally – OpEd

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During more than a decade of preaching Allah’s words to the idol worshipping, pagan polytheists of Makkah, Prophet Muhammad had been ignored, insulted, rejected and even violently attacked by his fellow townsmen, and the thousands of pagan Arabs that came on pilgrimage to the idol filled sanctuary of the Ka’ba. 

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For me as a Reform Rabbi it is harder to understand why most Jews in Medina, where they were a fairly large minority, didn’t support/accept Muhammad as a prophet for the pagan Arab tribes. Unlike Christians, Jews do not have a strong missionary impulse, so they did not view Prophet Muhammad as a competitor in bringing monotheism to the pagan Arab tribes.

Jews should have seen Prophet Muhammad as a brother of all the Jewish prophets in the Hebrew Bible; and Muslims as monotheistic allies. Indeed, since it was believed that Muhammad’s tribe in Makka was descended from Abraham’s son Ishmael, Prophet Muhammad was a distant relative. So why didn’t most Jews support him?

Actually many Jews did support Prophet Muhammad. In the early months after Muhammad arrived in Medina, many more Jews supported him than pagan Arabs did during the twelve years Muhammad preached Islam in Makka. In Makka his success was very modest, limited to only 170 men and women in a large town during a 12 year period. 

Muhammad was also received much more favorably by the Jews of Medina than he was by the pagan Arabs in the town of Ta’if where he once turned for aid and support. When Muhammad and his adopted son, Zayd ibn Harithah went to Ta’if to invite the people there to Islam, he was received by three chiefs of the local tribes of Ta’if. They did let him speak freely, however, they paid no heed to his message.

Then the pagan Arabs of Ta’if told their children to throw rocks and stones at Muhammad and Zayd to make them leave the town and never come back. The rocks thrown at Muhammad and Zayd by the Ta’if teens caused them to bleed. Both were wounded and bleeding as they left Ta’if behind them; Prophet Muhammad bled so profusely that his feet became blood clotted to his shoes.

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The primary reason Medina’s Jews should have supported Prophet Muhammad was the Qur’an’s revelation that the Christian missionaries in Arabia who declared that the Jews killed Jesus the Messiah, were wrong. “And for them saying, ‘Indeed, we (Romans, Jews, or all of humanity’s sins) killed Messiah Jesus, the son of Mary, the messenger of Allah.’ They (the Jews) did not kill him, nor did they (the Roman rulers) crucify him; but (another man replaced him on the cross: a passing Jew, a Roman soldier, Judas Iscariot, Simon of Cyrene, etc.was killed who) was made to resemble him. Indeed, those who differ over it are in doubt (themselves) about it. They have no (direct) knowledge of it except the following assumption (conjecture). They certainly did not kill him.” (4:157)

Additionally, the Qur’an states the Christians overcame their Roman oppressors, and now ruled the Romans: “Believers, be supporters of Allah, as when Jesus, the son of Mary, said to the disciples, “Who are my supporters for Allah ?” The disciples said, “We are supporters of Allah .” And a faction of the Children of Israel believed (in Prophet Jesus, the Messiah); and a faction disbelieved. So We supported those (Jews) who believed (in Prophet Jesus, the Messiah) against their enemy (the Romans who tried to crucify Jesus the Messiah, and did execute Peter and Paul), and they (the Christians eventually) became dominant (over the pagan Roman Empire). (61:14) 

Yet there were two factors preventing the majority of Medina’s Jews from openly and actively supporting Prophet Muhammad. The first factor was the fear Jews had that when Prophet Muhammad died, most of his ex-pagan, polytheistic followers would deify him, just as after the death of Prophet Jesus, most of his followers did. Then after a couple of generations these followers of Jesus started persecuting Jews who refused to worship Jesus as the Son of God. Thank God that never happened to Prophet Muhammad.

The Hebrew Scriptures, the Greek New Testament, and the Arabic Qur’an all agree that in the future, at the End of Days Judgement Day; there will be a very few select humans who will relate God’s words to all humanity. These future Messengers usually have a special name or title like: Messiah son of Joseph, Messiah son of David, or Prophet Elijah in Judaism, Jesus’ second coming in Christianity, or Mahdi in Islam. 

Since these future End of Days Messengers were forecast almost two to three millennia ago; their details will only become clear to us when they arrive. All we need to know is that they will indeed come as a fulfillment of God’s goal of justice and peace for all humanity. 

Just as the followers of Jesus son of Mary were disappointed that most Jews did not accept Jesus as a Messiah; the followers of Muhammad were disappointed that most Jews and Christians did not accept Muhammad as the Last Prophet. As the Qur’an states: “Those to whom We gave the Scripture (Jews and Christians) recognize him (Mohammad) as they recognize their sons (in a crowd). But verily, a party of them conceal the truth while they know it (2:146).

It is clear that Christians did not accept Muhammad as a legitimate prophet because they believed Jesus was a part of a Holy Trinity while the Qur’an explicitly states: “The Messiah (Jesus) the son of Mary, was but a messenger of Allah and His word which He directed to Mary, a soul from Him. So believe in Allah and His messengers. And do not say Three: desist! – it is better for you. Indeed, Allah is but one God. Exalted is He above having a son.” (4:171)
But why did the Jews of Medina not support Prophet Muhammad? I think most of them 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 turned him into a Son of God and not only worshipped him; but persecuted Jews who would not worship Jesus. 

The second factor was the widespread belief within the Jewish community that the age of prophecy had ceased long ago. By the first century CE the belief that the study of Wisdom [Torah] could connect believers with God’s words became common: “Although she [wisdom] is only one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself, she renews all things; in every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God [like Abraham], and prophets [like Solomon].” (Wisdom of Solomon 7:27) 

In the third century Rabbi Avdimi summed up all the different views: “Since the destruction of the Temple prophecy has passed over to sages, the demented [schizophrenics] and to children; and the sage-scholar is superior to the prophet.” (Talmud Baba Batra 12a)

In 12 years Prophet Muhammad had only convinced a couple hundred people to accept him as their prophet. Then when Prophet Muhammad left Makkah for Medina, he found a much more positive audience for his monotheistic message. One small but important part of that more positive audience was according to Ibn Ishaq, the earliest biographer of Prophet Muhammad, Rabbi Mukhayriq, a wealthy, learned leader of the Tha’labah, a Jewish clan allied with one of the three major Jewish tribes that had lived in Medina for centuries; who fought alongside Prophet Muhammad in the battle of Uhud on March 19, 625 CE, and died in that battle. That day was a Saturday. 

Rabbi Mukhayriq addressed his tribe’s men and urged them to go with him to fight alongside Muhammad. The tribe’s men replied; today is the day of Sabbath. Halakah (Orthodox Jewish Shari’a), states that Jews are not supposed to go to war on the Sabbath unless they are directly under attack. The pagan Arabs from Makka only wanted to persecute the Muslims in Medina as they did for so many years in Makka.

The Torah (Deuteronomy 20:8-10) says: Jewish men who are afraid or disheartened (by thoughts of fighting on the Sabbath) should be told to go home. The Mishnah, the first legal code (Fiqh) of the oral rabbinic Torah states that there are two types of war. A war of defense; obligatory for all Jewish adult men, and all other wars, which are voluntary.

Rabbi Mukhayriq chastised the men of his congregation for not understanding the deeper meaning of what was happening; and announced that if he died in the battle, his entire wealth should go to Muhammad. Mukhayriq did indeed die that day in battle against the Makkans.

When Prophet Muhammed, who was seriously injured in that battle, was informed about the death of Rabbi Mukhayriq, Muhammed said about the Rabbi: مُخَيْرِيقُ سَابِقُ يَهُودَ Mukhayriq is the foremost among the Jews. (Ibn Shabbah, Ta’reekh Al-Madinah 467) In another narration, the Prophet said: مُخَيْرِيقٌ خَيْرُ يَهُودَ Mukhayriq was the best of the Jews. (Ibn Sa’d, Tabaqat Al-Kubra 1535)

Ibn Ishaq also wrote that Rabbi Mukhayriq: “Recognized the Apostle of Allah by his description, and by what he found in his scholarship. However, (since) he was accustomed to his own religion, this held him back (from converting to Islam)”.

Ibn Ishaq does not mention which Torah verses led Rabbi Mukhayriq to support the idea of a non-Jewish, Arabic speaking prophet as a legitimate prophet of God since all Jews knew that the last book of the Torah states that God will raise up a future prophet like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:18); and also states that there will never be another Prophet like Moses. (Deuteronomy 34:10) How can both statements be correct?

I think that Rabbi Mukhayriq took this verse in Deuteronomy 18:18 literally: “I will (in the future) raise them up a prophet from among their brothers, like you (Moses); and I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him.” All orthodox rabbis gloss ‘brothers’ to mean fellow Israelites, but the literal meaning of the Hebrew word is biological brothers; and could mean a future non-Jewish brother prophet who would be a descendant of Isaac’s brother Ishmael. 

This fits in with another Torah statement: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me (Moses) from among you, from your brothers— to him you shall listen— just as you (Jewish People) desired of the Lord your God at Horeb (Sinai) on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the (direct) voice of the Lord my God, or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’ And the Lord said to me (Moses) ‘They (the Jewish People) are right in what they have spoken. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their (non-Jewish) brothers (Arabs and Jews are descendants of two brothers). And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them (your non-Jewish descendants of Isaac’s brother Ishmael) all that I command him.” (Deuteronomy 21:15-18) 

So the answer to the question ‘how can Prophet Muhammad be a prophet like Prophet Moses’ is that the Torah ends with the statement: “Since that time (at Sinai) no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew (spoke to directly) face to face” (Deuteronomy 34:10)
Precisely because Prophet Muhammad did not rise up within the Children of Israel, or in the Land of Israel, he can be a non-Jewish prophet like Moses, who speaks the words of God to all non-Jews as he received them from Allah, not face to face like Prophet Moses, but from Angel Gabriel like all other prophets.

And there is another possibility. It is reasonable to think that any rabbi would view Prophet Muhammad through the perspective of the Torah’s words; and through the words of all the Hebrew prophets from Prophet Samuel to Prophet Zachariah. So perhaps Rabbi Mukhayriq also used the following words of Jesus, spoken by Prophet Muhammad and recorded in the Qur’an: 

“And remember, Jesus, the son of Mary, said: O Children of Israel! I am the Messenger of Allah (sent) to you, confirming the Torah (which came) before me, and giving glad tidings of a messenger to come after me, whose name shall be Ahmad. But when it (the messenger) came to them (the pagan Arabs) with clear signs, they said, “This is evident sorcery.” (Quran 61:6)

What is important here is that Prophet Jesus says quite clearly that the Torah given to Prophet Moses mentions the coming of a future prophet, and that Jesus himself also looks forward to the coming of a messenger. Although Jews in general do not believe that Jesus was a Messianic figure, and certainly not a divine son of God, some Jews see Jesus as a prophetically gifted, miracle working Rabbi, like the great Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria; or the founder of Hassidism, Rabbi Israel the Baal Shem Tov; or Prophet Elijah. 

A Dead Sea scroll states that the Qumran community must live according to the original discipline “until there shall come a prophet (Elijah) and the Messiahs of Aaron and Israel ” (Manual of Discipline 9:11). 

Thus, Rabbi Mukhayriq could have been guided by three passages in the Gospel of John, in which Jesus is quoted as saying: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another helper (comforter, advocate, counselor), who will stay with you forever. (John 14:16) And; “The Helper (Comforter, Advocate, Counselor) will come – the Spirit of truth about God, who comes from the Father”. (John 15:26) 

Could Prophet Muhammad be ‘The Spirit’/Helper (Comforter, Advocate, Counselor)? Many Muslim scholars say the original Greek word, in John’s Gospel, which is now Paracletos, was originally a similar sounding Greek word Periclytos which could have meant the “Praised One”, which in Arabic can be translated as Ahmad or Muhammad.

The Qur’an states 4:171 “O (Christian) People of the Book! Commit no excesses in your religion: Nor say of Allah anything but the truth. Christ (Messiah) Jesus the son of Mary was (only) a messenger of Allah, and His Word, which He bestowed on Mary, and a spirit proceeding from Him: so believe in Allah and His messengers. Say not “Trinity”: desist” 

But the third time the future helper is predicted is a much more mysterious verse; “But I am telling you the truth: it is better for you that I go away, because if I do not go away, the Helper (comforter, advocate, counselor) will not come to you. But if I do go away, then I will send him to you.” (John 16:7) Why Jesus had to go away before the Helper could come is unknown. Why it took almost six centuries until the angel Gabriel spoke to Muhammad is also unknown. 

Rabbi Mukhayriq’s view was unorthodox. He must have seen Muhammad as a Prophet of the One God all Jews worship. He also knew Prophet Muhammad had told his Muslim followers when he was in Makka to pray facing north toward the site of Solomon’s Temple, although this was later changed to facing south towards Mecca.

Rabbi Mukhayriq also believed that Prophet Muhammad’s total rejection of polytheism would someday lead to the destruction of the 360 idols housed in the Ka’bah; and other polytheistic practices of Jahiliyyah would receive similar treatment. The Arabs were extremely immersed in superstitious beliefs and activities like Tatayyur (belief in omens), Tanjeem (astrology), Tabarruk (seeking blessing from objects) and Kahanah (soothsaying); that had been condemned by Allah 1,800 years before in the Torah of Musa: 

“When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord; because of these same detestable practices the Lord, your God, will drive out those nations before you. You must be blameless before the Lord, your God. The nations you will dispossess listen to those who practice sorcery or divination. But as for you, the Lord, your God, has not permitted you to do so. The Lord, your God, will raise up for you a prophet like me (Musa) from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him.” (Deuteronomy 18:9-15)

The last verse Rabbi Mukhayriq may have applied to Prophet Muhammad. Thus, this unorthodox rabbi viewed fighting alongside Muhammad as his personal voluntary fight in support of monotheism. But, why did Rabbi Mukhayriq give such extraordinary life risking support to Prophet Muhammad? And how could Rabbi Mukhayriq think the verse applied to Muhammad: when it clearly refers to “a prophet like me (Musa)” “from your fellow Israelites”.

Perhaps Rabbi Mukhayriq believed that Prophet Muhammad was not only a Prophet, but was also one of God’s Anointed (a messiah); who with his Arab followers would enable and facilitate the Jewish people’s return to the land of Israel as was predicted in the Bible; just as the Persian King Cyrus the Great; who is called one of God’s Anointed by Prophet Isaiah (45:1 ) had enabled and facilitated the return of Jews to Israel eleven centuries earlier.

The Persian King Cyrus, is mentioned twenty-three times in the literature of the books of the Hebrew Bible. Isaiah refers to this non-Jewish king as God’s “shepherd,” and as the Lord’s “Anointed,” who was destined to facilitate the divine plan.

The fact that the Persians had just a few years previously (614 CE) captured the Land of Israel from the Eastern Roman Empire may, in the rabbi’s mind, have stimulated this belief.

Thus, this unorthodox rabbi viewed fighting alongside Muhammad as his personal voluntary fight in support of monotheism; as well as a witness to his faith in the arrival of one of God’s Anointed Messiahs. Although everyone has heard of the final Son of David Messiah, the rabbis also speak of other pre Messianic Age figures including Elijah and a Son of Joseph Messiah, who will precede the Son of David.

This is not only my view. There is a ninth or tenth century apocalyptic Midrash called “The Prayer of Rabbi Shimon ben Yokhai”, an end of the second century CE well known mystic and visionary, who after 40 days and nights of prayer, had a vision of the Kenites (Byzantine Romans); followed by a vision of the kingdom of Ishmael (the Arabs) who will succeed the Byzantine Romans.

The archangel Mettatron then informed Rabbi Shimon ben Yokhai that: “The kingdom of the Kenites (the future Byzantine Romans) will come to Jerusalem, subdue it, and murder more than thirty thousand in it. Because of the oppression with which they (the Byzantine Romans) oppress Israel (the Jewish People) the Blessed Holy One will send the Ishmaelites (Arabs) against them (the Byzantine Romans) to make war with them, so as to deliver the Israelites from their hand.”

The anonymous author of the “Prayer of Rabbi Shimon ben Yokhai” viewed the replacement of the Christian Byzantine Roman Empire, by the Muslim Arabs, as an act of God; which rescued the oppressed Jewish communities throughout the Near East, and especially in Jerusalem, from Christian Byzantine persecution.

In 614 CE a Persian army, supported by thousands of Persian Empire Jewish volunteers, had captured Jerusalem. This event is referred to in the Qur’an: “The Romans (Byzantines) have been defeated in the nearest land (Syria/Israel). But after their defeat, they will overcome (the Persians) within three to nine years. To Allah belongs the command before and after.” (30:2-4)

In 628 CE the Romans (Byzantines) did recapture Jerusalem, and they massacred all those Jews who had returned to Jerusalem during the period of Persian rule. Yet just one decade later, Arab armies had conquered and displaced the Roman (Byzantine) rulers from Egypt to Iraq.

If Rabbi Mukhayriq had not died fighting alongside Prophet Muhammad in the battle of Uhud; he could easily have lived long enough to see the Arab conquest of Jerusalem, and himself been able to return to live there.

In the following centuries, Jews from Spain to Mesopotamia lived much freer lives under Muslim rule than previous centuries of Christian and Zoroastrian rule. Rabbi Mukhayriq was right in thinking Muhammad would begin a new era in world history. Perhaps his devotion to a Messianic future of peace and brotherhood can inspire Islamic and Jewish religious leaders today to heal past wounds, and make Jerusalem a city of peace for the future. 

Even four centuries later there were rabbis who saw Muhammad as a Prophet of God. Natan’el al-Fayyumi, a prominent 12th-century Yemenite rabbi and theologian, and the founder of what is sometimes called “Jewish Ismailism”, wrote in his philosophical treatise Bustan al-Uqul (“Garden of Wisdom”) that God sends prophets to establish religions for other nations, which do not have to conform to the precepts of the Jewish Torah. 

Rabbi Nethan’el explicitly considered Muhammad a true prophet, who was sent from Heaven with a message for the Arabs, but not for the Jews. As the Qur’an states: “He it is who has sent unto the unlettered people an apostle from among themselves, to convey unto them His messages, and to cause them to grow in purity, and to impart unto them the divine writ as well as wisdom – whereas before that they were indeed, most obviously, lost in error.” (62:2)

Perhaps if many more Muslims and Jews knew of Rabbi Mukhayriq they would be inspired to join together to help to realize the 2500 year old prophecy of Prophet Isaiah: “On that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt, and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together. On that day Israel will join a three-party alliance with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing upon the heart. The LORD of Hosts will bless them saying, “Blessed be Egypt My people, Assyria My handiwork, and Israel My inheritance.”…(Isaiah 19:23-5)

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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