Rabbi Reuven Firestone teaches at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. He states that: “According to basic Islamic narrative, some Jews living in Arabia before the birth of (Prophet) Muhammad were expecting the arrival of a redemptive figure. One such Jew, who came to Arabia from Syria, was Ibn al-Hayyaban.
According to Ibn Qatada, who narrated the tradition in the name of an elder of the Jewish tribe of Banu Qurayza in Medina, Ibn al-Hayyaban was such a righteous man that when he prayed for rain during an intense drought, it (rain) would inevitably fall. Despite his righteousness and courageous optimism, however, he did not (live) to see the arrival of the one he was waiting for.
In Ibn Qatada’s narrative, “When he (Ibn al-Hayyaban) knew that he was about to die he said, ‘O Jews, what do you think made me leave a land of bread and wine (Syria) to come to a land of hardship and hunger? When [they] said [they] could not think of why, he said that he had come to this country (Arabia) expecting to see the emergence of a prophet whose time was at hand . . . . ‘His time has come.'”
Another Jewish supporter of Prophet Muhammad was Rabbi Mukhayriq, a learned leader of the tribe of Tha’labah, who fought and died alongside Prophet Muhammad in the battle of Uhud on March 19, 625 CE. That day was a Saturday; the Jewish Sabbath. Rabbi Mukhayriq asked his congregation to join him in support of Prophet Muhammad, but they declined because it was the Sabbath.
So Mukhayriq announced to his congregation that he was going to fight alongside Muhammad and if he died in the battle his wealth should go to Muhammad to be distributed as charity. And so it happened. But why were the majority of the Jews in the three Jewish tribes living in Medina, who did support Muhammad, hesitant to fight for him?
It was because they were afraid that after his death, the majority of Muhammad’s ex-polytheist followers would return to polytheism, and turn Muhammad into a son of God, just as the majority of the ex-polytheist, non-Jewish followers of Prophet Jesus had done. Those ex-pagan trinitarians then persecuted Jews for not accepting Jesus as the Son of God for centuries to come. No Jews wanted to see that happen again.
Rabbi Mukhayriq must not have believed that this would happen again, because he hoped that Prophet Muhammad was not only a 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 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 (where Jews had been oppressed and persecuted for many centuries) may, in the rabbi’s mind, have stimulated his belief that the Messianic Age was coming closer and closer.
Prior to the invasion of Palestine, King Khosrau made an agreement with the Exilarch-official head of Babylonian Jewry, that Jews would provide 20,000 soldiers for the Persian army to participate in the capture of Jerusalem. King Khosrau appointed Nehemiah ben Hushiel, the son of the Exilarch, as symbolic leader of Persian troops. Since Nehemiah was a known mystic, Khosrau was certain he would not interfere in military or political affairs.The united forces took Jerusalem by storm after a 21 day siege (July, 614 CE).
This event is referred to in the Qur’an: “The Romans (Byzantines) have been defeated in the nearest land. But they, after their defeat, will overcome within three to nine years. To Allah belongs the command before and after.” (30:2-4)
Indeed, perhaps because the Persians feared Nehemiah’s messianic pretensions, or thought support from a larger Christian population was more valuable than the much smaller number of Jews; three years after Nehemiah was appointed, the Persians executed the Jewish governor of Jerusalem with his sixteen top supporters in 617.
Perhaps this unorthodox rabbi saw the arrival of Prophet Muhammad in Medina only five years later, as God’s answer to his Messianic hopes, and viewed fighting alongside Muhammad as his personal voluntary fight in support of monotheism, as well as a witness to his faith in the imminent arrival of one of God’s Anointed Messiahs (not the final Son of David Messiah, but Elijah, Cyrus, or the Son of Joseph Messiah) who will precede the Son of David Messiah.
Of course, when Rabbi Mukhayriq made the decision to risk his life fighting alongside 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 Makka, 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. Although Jews were then able to settle in Jerusalem, there was no equivalent of King Cyrus’s decree supporting rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem.
I first studied Islam when I was a student at UCLA 63 years ago. Then again 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 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 also neither believe nor disbelieve in the Qur’an. If I believed in the Qur’an I would be a member of the Muslim umma (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.
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; in Europe it is called Progressive Judaism. As a Rabbi I am faithful to the covenant that God made with Prophet Abraham, 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 Jewish spiritual leaders should modify Jewish law and tradition as social and historical circumstances change and develop. I also believe we should not make religion difficult for people to practice by adding an increasing number of restrictions to the commandments we received at Mount Sinai. If most of the Orthodox Jews of Prophet Muhammad’s day had followed his teachings; Reform Judaism would have started then in Arabia, instead of almost 1200 years later in Germany.
Some Jews in later centuries even understood Islam’s success as a fulfillment of the God’s promises made to Hagar (Gen.16:11–12) and to Prophet Abraham (Gen.17:20) in relation to the birth of Prophet Ishmael, whom both Jews and Muslims agreed was the progenitor of the Arabian community that produced Prophet Muhammad. Prophet Ishmael is associated in Arab genealogies with the northern “Arabized Arabs”
But according to Jewish interpretations of those verses, God’s promises were about political and military success among Prophet Ishmael’s descendants. They had nothing to do with the coming of a future (Messenger with a book of revelations) prophet and the formation of a new religion.