Why would two Arabian Jewish rabbis save a pagan sanctuary in Makkah surrounded with idols; (according to Islamic sources 300 or 360 idols surrounded the Kaaba including some pictures and small idols inside the Kaaba itself) from destruction by an Arabian Jewish king?
Because, according to the famous Qur’an commentary of ibn Kathir, they knew that this sanctuary had originally been built over 2000 years previously by Abraham and his oldest son Ishmael; and although it had been desecrated and polluted by idols for many centuries, the site itself had remained holy and would someday be purified again.
In a recent article titled “What kind of Judaism in Arabia?” Christian Robin, a French epigraphist and historian, who is also a leader of an archeological expedition at Bir Hima in Saudi Arabia, says most scholars now agree that, around 380 CE, the elites of the kingdom of Himyar (in Yemen) converted to some form of Judaism.
“The Himyar rulers may have seen in Judaism a potential unifying force for their new, culturally diverse empire, and an identity to rally resistance against creeping encroachment by Byzantine and Ethiopian Christians, as well as the Zoroastrian empire of Persia.”
It is unclear how much of the population converted, perhaps 10-20% perhaps 30-40%. What is sure is that in the Himyar capital of Zafar (south of Sana’a in Yemen), references to pagan gods largely disappear from royal inscriptions and texts on public buildings around this time, and are replaced by writings that refer to a single deity.
“Using mostly the local Sabean language (and in rare cases Hebrew), this god is alternatively described as Rachmanan – the Merciful (a name still used both by Jews and Muslims)– the “Lord of the Heavens and Earth,” the “God of Israel” and “Lord of the Jews.” Prayers invoke God’s blessings on the “people of Israel” and those invocations often end with shalom and amen.”
For the next century and a half, the Himyar kingdom expanded its influence into central Arabia, the Persian Gulf area and the Hijaz (the region of Mecca and Medina), as attested by royal inscriptions of its kings that have been found not only at Bir Hima, just north of Yemen, but also near what is today the Saudi capital of Riyadh.
This pre-Islamic alphabet is also called Nabatean Arabic, because it evolved from the script used by the Nabateans, the once-powerful nation that built Petra in Jordan, and dominated the trade routes in the southern Levant and northern Arabia before being annexed by the Romans in the early 2nd century CE.
Growing outside pressures ultimately took their toll on Himyar. Sometime around the year 500 CE, it fell to Christian invaders from the Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum.
In a last bid for independence, in 522, a Jewish Himyar leader, Yusuf As’ar Yath’ar, rebelled against the puppet ruler enthroned by the negus and destroyed the Ethiopian garrison. He then besieged Najran, which had refused to provide him with troops, and massacred part of its Christian population.
In 2014, the French-Saudi expedition at Bir Hima discovered an inscription recording Yusuf’s passage there after the Najran massacre as he marched north with 12,000 men into the Arabian desert to reclaim the rest of his kingdom. After that, we lose track of him, but Christian chroniclers recorded that around 525 CE the Ethiopians defeated the rebel leader.
One big question that remains about the Jews of Himyar is what kind of Judaism they practiced. Did they observe the Sabbath? Or the rules of kashrut?
Robin, the French epigraphist, writes in his article that the official religion of Himyar may be described as “Judeo-monotheism” – “a variety of Judaism” that followed many of the Judaism’s basic principles, rituals and prohibitions (daily prayers, circumcision, ritual purity, pilgrimage, charity, ban on images and eating pork); but like Reform Judaism today, did not follow most of the restrictions that Orthodox rabbis had added to the Torah of Moses.
With this background we can better understand the religious reasons that motivated the two rabbis to protected the pagan idol filled Ka’bah from destruction by a Jewish King.
The commentary of Ibn Kathir (born 1302 CE) is one of the most widely used explanations of the Qur’an in the Arab world today. Recently, while studying Qur’an with ibn Kathir’s commentary, I learned of an amazing event involving two rabbis and the Ka’bah. While explaining the Qur’an verse 44:37 ibn Kathir relates the following events:
“One of the Tubba` left Yemen and went on a journey of conquest…It is agreed that he passed through Al-Madinah during pre-Islamic days. He fought its inhabitants but they resisted him..
“When (returning) he passed by Makkah, he wanted to destroy the Ka`bah, but two rabbis told him not to do that. They told him about the significance of this edifice, built by Ibrahim Al-Khalil, that would become of great importance through that Prophet who would be sent towards the end of time.
“So the king respected it, performed Tawaf around it, and covered it with a fine cloth. Then he returned to Yemen and invited its people to follow the religion of guidance along with him. At that time, the religion (Judaism) of Moses, was the religion followed by those who were guided, before the coming of the Messiah (Jesus). So the people of Yemen accepted the religion of guidance (Judaism) along with him.”
Although for over 60 years I have been studying the Qur’an and reading other Islamic books, I had never heard of these amazing events.
I believe that Muhammad was a prophet of Reform Judaism to the Orthodox Jews of his day; although he was 1,200 years ahead of his time. During the six centuries between the birth of Jesus and the arrival of Muhammad in Yathrib, the city of Jews (Medina), most Jews had become Orthodox Jews.
Perhaps one of the reasons why was it so important for these two Jewish sages to convince the Jewish King of Tubba not to destroy the Ka’bah is because Jewish mystics often referred to their belief that there was in the high heavens above, a spiritually ideal Holy House—Beit HaKodesh which was in some transcendent metaphorical way a House of God—Beit El.
The Qur’an states: Their Prophet (Samuel) then proclaimed, “The sign of the blessings of Talut’s kingship over you is that Allah will give you back the Tabut (Ark-a wooden box placed centrally in the Tabernacle) that was taken from you, wherein is Sakinah from your Lord (inward) peace and reassurance. and a remnant of that which Musa (Moses) and Harun (Aaron) left behind carried by the angels. Verily, in this is a sign for you if you are indeed believers. (2:248)
Ibn Kathir explains “carried by the angles” by quoting Ibn Jurayj who stated that Ibn `Abbas said, “The angels came down while carrying the Tabut from between the sky and the earth, until they placed it before Talut (Saul) while the people were watching.”
Thus, there is always a Holy House for monotheistic Pilgrimage. When it does not exist materially in Makkah or Jerusalem, it exists ideally/spiritually in the heavens above.
When it is not called Beitullah, it is called Beit El. When it is not called Bayt al-Maqdis, it is called Beit HaMiqdash; there are many names, two places on earth and one in heaven, but all of them are like a pair of lungs breathing the spirit of Allah into the world.
When Abraham and Ishmael rebuilt the Holy House in Makkah, there was no House in Jerusalem.
When, in mid tenth century BCE Jerusalem, Solomon built the Holy House in Jerusalem, the Holy House in Makkah built by Abraham and Ishmael had already been polluted by the 360 idols the Makkans had put in it.
In the year 587 BCE the Babylonians destroyed the Holy House in Jerusalem.
About 70 years later the Jews who had returned from exile in Babylonia rebuilt the Holy House in Jerusalem.
A generation after the death of Jesus, in the year 70 CE, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and its Holy House.
All during the days of Jahiliyyah the Holy House in Makkah remained polluted until it was purified of its 360 idols by Muhammad near the end of his life. Since that time it has remained pure.
The one spiritual ideal Heavenly Holy House has been rebuilt physically several times in two different holy places.
But the one God who is worshipped in each separate holy place is the one God of every place in the world as a Jewish Midrash (Torah insight) says: “Why is God called Makom (place)? Because He is the place of the world and the world is not His place. (Yalqut Shimoni Vayetze 117)
Indeed, one of the names of God in Jewish tradition is Makom- place; because when prophet Jacob, was fleeing from his hate filled brother Esau (Genesis 27:41), he slept one night on a special place, where he had a vision of a ladder connecting heaven and earth.
“Jacob came to a certain place and spent the night there, because the sun had set; and he took one of the stones of the place and put it under his head, and lay down in that place. He had a dream: a ladder was set on the earth with its top reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. (Genesis 28:11-12)
The two Jewish Rabbis protected Makkah because they knew and believed the oral Torah tradition (Midrash) that Abraham and Ishmael had rebuilt the Ka’bah.
Undoubtedly, they also mourned for the original Ka’bah that had been polluted by the 360 idols that had been placed in and around it to be worshipped.
Since Jews believe that the holy Temple in Jerusalem will not be rebuilt until after the Messiah comes, the two rabbis must have hoped that a Prophet would someday arise in Makkah and cleanse the Ka’bah of its 360 idols. And their hopes were fulfilled by Prophet Muhammad just one or two centuries later.
Perhaps this was the reason that right after the conquest of Jerusalem by the second caliph, Umar bin al-Khattab, he headed right toward “the area where the Romans buried the Temple [bayt al-maqdis] at the time of the children of Israel.” according to Abu Ja’far Muhammad bin Jarir al-Tabari (839-923 CE) who was a leading commentator on the Quran and is known as one of Islam’s greatest historians.