The Rabbi Who Prophet Muhammad Called ‘The Best Of Jews’ – OpEd
There were many Jews who supported Prophet Muhammad when he first arrived in Medina. One of them was Rabbi Mukhayriq, according to Dr. Muqtedar Khan, the founding Director of the Islamic Studies Program at the University of Delaware.
In an article published in December of 2009 on Islamicity, Dr. Khan says there are many stories that contemporary Imams tell their congregations about the battle of Uhud, but not once has he heard any Imam tell the story of Rabbi Mukhayriq who died fighting in that battle against the enemies of Islam.
Rabbi Mukhayriq was a learned leader of the tribe of Tha’labah, a tribe made up of Jews from the land of Israel who had settled in Medina several centuries earlier, plus a large number of local Arabs who had converted to Judaism over the ensuing generations.
Rabbi Mukhayriq fought and died alongside Prophet Muhammed in the battle of Uhud on March 19, 625 CE. When Prophet Muhammed, who was seriously injured in that battle, was informed about the death of Rabbi Mukhayriq, he said, “He was the best of Jews.”
Many Muslims think that Rabbi Mukhayriq must have converted to Islam if he was willing to risk his life to protect Muhammad, but Ibn Ishaq, the earliest biographer of Prophet Muhammad, specifically says about Mukhayriq: “He recognized the Apostle of Allah by his description, and by what he found in his scholarship. However, he was accustomed to his own religion, and this held him back (from converting), until he died in the battle of Uhud.”
Actually it is very likely Prophet Muhammad had more Jewish supporters in Medina than he had among the pagan Arabs of Mecca, his own home town, where he had been persecuted for many years.
So why did the Jews of Medina not join the fight against the pagan Arabs of Mecca? 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 Prophet Jesus turned him into a Son of God; and worshipped him. And even worse: Christians often persecuted Jews who refused to worship Jesus.
Thank God that did not happen to Prophet Muhammad, but by the time he died, the three Jewish tribes in Medina had already been defeated in inter-tribal fighting and banished from Medina.
Rabbi Mukhayriq’s view was unorthodox. He, like many of the Jews in Medina, must have seen Muhammad as a Prophet of the One God for all polytheists worldwide. Rabbi Mukhayriq, like all the Jews in Medina, also knew that when the Prophet and his followers first arrived in Medina in 622 CE, Muhammad had found Jews there who were fasting.
When he asked them the reason for their fasting on this day. They said,” This is a blessed day. On this day Allah saved the Children of Israel from their enemy (in Egypt) and so Prophet Musa [Moses] fasted on this day giving thanks to Allah.”
The Prophet said, “We are closer to Musa than you are.” He fasted on that day and commanded Muslims to fast on this day. (Al-Bukhari) The following year, Allah commanded the Muslims to fast for the month of Ramadan, and the fasting of ‘Ashura’ became optional.
Prophet Muhammad had also told his Muslim followers to pray facing north toward the site of Solomon’s Temple, although this was later changed to facing south towards Mecca. All of these actions made a positive impression on many of the Jews in Medina.
But, why did Rabbi Mukhayriq give such extraordinary support to Prophet Muhammad?
Perhaps Rabbi Mukhayriq believed that Prophet Muhammad was not only a Prophet, but was also one of God’s Anointed; who with his Arab followers would enable and facilitate the Jewish people’s return to the land of Israel, as is predicted in the Bible; just as the Persian King Cyrus the Great (who is called one of God’s Anointed by Prophet Isaiah) had enabled and facilitated the return of Jews to Israel eleven centuries earlier.
The fact that the Persians had just a few years previously (614 CE) captured the Land of Israel from the Eastern Roman Empire may have, in the rabbi’s mind, 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 a Son of Joseph Messiah who will precede the the Son of David).
Of course, when Rabbi Mukhayriq made the decision to risk his life fighting alongside Prophet Muhammad at the battle of Uhud, much of the Qur’an had not yet been revealed. But since the chapter Al-A’raf had already been revealed in Makkah, this unorthodox rabbi may also have been inspired by the Qur’an’s statement:
“Moses said to his people: “Pray for help from the Lord, and (wait) in patience and constancy: for the Land is his, to give as an inheritance to whoever He wanted”. (7:128) and “We made people, who were considered weak (oppressed slaves like The Children of Israel), inheritors of lands in both east and west, – lands whereon We sent down Our blessings. The fair promise of your Lord was fulfilled for the Children of Israel, because they had patience and constancy”. (7:137)
The Qur’an’s words “inheritors of lands in both east and west,” refers to the Children of Israel, as well as other nations that Allah has liberated, as a Hebrew prophet declares: “Aren’t you people of Israel like the people of Ethiopia to me?” declares the LORD. “I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?” (Amos 9:7)
The only verses in the Quran that mentioned God giving land to a people as an inheritance are the ones just quoted and this specific statement: “Thus it was, but We made the Children of Israel inheritors of it [the Land of Israel]”. (26: 59)
Perhaps Rabbi Mukhayriq had already heard directly from Prophet Muhammad the Ayah: “There are certainly, among Jews and Christians, those who believe in God, in the revelation to you, and in the revelation to them, bowing in humility to God. They will not sell the signs of God for a miserable gain! For them is a reward with their Lord.” (3:199) and believed that it applied to Jews like him.
Unfortunately, Prophet Muhammad died just four years before the Muslim conquest of the Land of Israel: and Jews were then able to return and rebuild a Jewish community in Jerusalem.
I first studied Islam when I was a student at UCLA 65 years ago, Then again while I was in Rabbinical school. Over the years I continued to read the Qur’an and other Islamic books. I read these books as the Prophet taught his followers in a Hadith “not as a believer, and not as a disbeliever”. What does that mean?
The Qur’an, of course, is a sacred scripture for Muslims. A disciple of Muhammad named Abu Huraira related, “The people of the Book used to read the Torah in Hebrew and then explain it in Arabic to the Muslims. Allah’s Apostle said (to the Muslims). “Do not believe the people of the Book, nor disbelieve them, but say, ‘We believe in Allah, and whatever is revealed to us, and whatever is revealed to you.'”
Following Muhammad’s teaching I too neither believe nor disbelieve in the Qur’an. If I believed in the Qur’an I would be a member of the Muslim ummah (community). But I cannot disbelieve in the Qur’an because I believe that Muhammad is a prophet and I respect the Qur’an as a kindred revelation, first revealed to a kindred people, in a kindred language.
In fact, the people, the language and the theology are closer to my own people, language and theology than that of any other on earth.
Thus, I feel that I am a Muslim Jew i.e. a faithful Jew submitting to the will of God, because I am a Reform Rabbi. (Reform Jews are now the largest of the Jewish denominations in the U.S. In the U.K..Reform Judaism is called Liberal Judaism.)
As a Rabbi I am faithful to the covenant that God made with Abraham, the first Jew to be a Muslim, and I submit to be bound by the covenant and commandments that God made with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai.
As a Reform Rabbi I believe that Rabbis should modify Jewish traditions to prevent them from making religion overly hard to practice. This is an important teaching taught by Prophet Muhammad 12 centuries before the rise of Reform Judaism in the early 19th century Germany.
As Abu Huraira related: The Prophet said, “Religion is very easy and whoever overburdens himself in his religion will not be able to continue in that way. So you should not be extremists, but try to be near to perfection and receive the good tidings that you will be rewarded.” (Bukhari book 2 #38)
Rabbi Mukhayriq had announced to his congregation that he would fight to protect Muhammad from his enemies among the pagan Arabs of Mecca. Rabbi Mukhayriq also stated that if he died in the battle he wanted his estate to go to Muhammed to be distributed as charity.
Prophet Muhammed inherited seven date palm gardens and other forms of wealth from Rabbi Mukhayriq and he used this wealth to establish the first waqf (a charitable endowment) of Islam. It was from Rabbi Mukhayriq’s endowment that the Prophet of Islam helped many poor people in Medina.
I hope the legacy of Rabbi Mukhayriq’s waqf-endowment will result in Jews and Muslims in our own generation learning to understand and appreciate each other better. May the faithful believers of all religions commit themselves to this holy goal.
In 435 C.E. Emperor Theodosius II issued an edict ordering the destruction of all pagan temples in the Roman Empire; thus celebrating the victory of Christianity over polytheism. Only Jewish synagogues remained and they were under frequent attack. Most Bishops thought that the Jews themselves would soon disappear. Yet 175 years later, in Makkah, Prophet Muhammad began his 22 years of service as God’s Messenger, and within 80 years most Jews no longer lived under the oppression of the Eastern Roman Empire.