In September, the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT) convened an International Seerah Conference in Pretoria. In this issue, we publish the first part of the paper presented by IMAM MOHAMMED AL-ASI, elected Imam of the Washington Islamic Center and a senior member of the ICIT.
The contemporary world is in the process of a political reconfiguration. The traditional concepts and frameworks of understanding, capitalism vs. communism, right vs. left, and conservative vs. progressive, are outdated and have been left behind. The nation-states that represented these concepts are either no longer around (such as the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc), or are in crisis, such as the United States, which appears to have entered a phase characterised by an internal moral meltdown and a transnational entrenchment throughout the resource areas and the e-consumer markets of the planet. We are living in an exciting time: a time of an ideological impasse in today’s world that begs for a way out of what is becoming a historical cul-de-sac. At the same time, the ruthlessness of the current world can become a cause for pessimism and passivity. Many ordinary people all over the world feel helpless in the face of the total absence of justice in their local communities, as well as in the community of nations. Because of this social and political claustrophobia, people are increasingly opting out of their secular convictions and searching for “religious” answers to their problematic lifestyles and social conditions. The Jewish and Muslim communities are no exception to this. These two bearers of Scripture find themselves not only faced with these common complaints of mankind, but also at a deadly and defining moment in their history and their struggle for the Holy Land.
Our concern in this paper is to refer our current Islamic affairs to the Seerah of Allah’s Prophet (saws) and hence to increase our understanding of current developments in the Holy Lands. To do that we have to reopen the book on the Islamic-Yahudi initial contact in the Arabian Peninsula fourteen centuries ago, and see for ourselves how Allah’s Prophet (saws) dealt with this issue in a world that was also at a historic crossroads.
In this context, the first thing to note in the Seerah is that during thirteen years of confrontation with the crass materialism of the ruling and moneyed classes of Makkah, the Prophet (saws) never came into any type of direct (nor apparently any indirect) opposition to Jewish political ambitions or designs. While the Prophet (saws) had no power in Makkah, it appears that he also came into no immediate conflict with the Arabian Jews of the time. There were no Jews in Makkah; most Arabian Jews were concentrated in Yathrib, later to be called Madinah al-Rasul (or Madinah for short) after the hijra. It is important to note that the Prophet’s ideological clash with the established order began with his own people, whose avowed antagonism to the Prophet’s advocacy of an Islamic world order, that would eventually replace their personal greed, their class privileges and their financial interests with a divine re-organization of affairs, could not be claimed as a defence of residual Abrahamic traditions and rituals. Although the likes of Abu-Lahab, Abu-Jahl and Abu-Sufyan may well have been concerned with protecting the idols and icons that legitimised the oppressive Makkan and Arabian status quo, the greater challenge was to their personal greed, their class privileges and their financial interests which could not survive a divine reorganization of affairs that would enable people to have human dignity, even slaves, paupers and the other underclasses of Arabian society.
To understand better the potential for conflict between the established Jewish community and the new Muslim community that was actualised in Madinah, we need to look back to the years before the birth of the Prophet (saws). Established sources inform us of the Jews’ knowledge of the impending advent of a prophet. ‘Abdullah ibn Sallaam, who was Jewish convert to Islam during the Prophet’s lifetime, said that this final prophet is described in the Torah as: “‘O Prophet! We have sent you as a witness and a conveyer of glad tidings and warnings, and as a sanctuary for the religious outcasts. You are My servant and My Messenger. I designate you a trustee. [You] shall not be venomous or caustic, nor a rabble-rouser. [You] will not match evil-doing with evil-doing, but rather [you] shall forgive and pardon.’ I will not end his life until he adjusts the wayward nations by having them profess that there is no deity/authority except God. He will open up closed eyes, unseal deaf ears, and unfold locked hearts” (see the Tabaqat of Ibn Sa’d).
‘Abdullah bin Sallaam (ra) tells us that his father used to say: “If this forthcoming prophet — whose descriptions are in Scripture — is from the descendants of Harun then I will be his follower; otherwise, I will not” (see al-Baladhuri). In Deuteronomy 18 it is stated that: “The Lord your God will raise up a prophet from among you like myself, and you shall listen to him ... I will raise up for them a prophet like you [Moses], one of their own race, and I will put My words into his mouth. He shall convey all My commands to them...” These words were given a racist twist by Jewish interpreters of the Bible, who interpreted “one of their own race” to mean one of the children or descendants of Israel, and not his brother Isma’il. Had the Jewish interpreters of Scripture acknowledged their common Semitic racial heritage with the Arabians, they would have had no excuse to reject the prophethood of Muhammad (saws).
The time and age of Muhammad (saws) was alive with the anticipation of the coming of a prophet, as attested to by many who were to become Muslims. ‘Asim ibn ‘Amr ibn Qatadah and others said that “we were interested in Islam because of what we heard from the Jews about the impending appearance of a Prophet who will smite us in a manner reminiscent of ‘Ad and Iram.” Salamah ibn Salamah (ra), a veteran of Badr, said that his family had a Jewish neighbour of Bani ‘Abd al-Ashhal. “One day he pointed his hand towards Makkah and Yemen and said: ‘There will be a prophet appear from that direction.’ When asked ‘Who will live to see him?’ he said while staring at me as I was the youngest: ‘If this boy lives a full life he may live to see that day'.” Ibn al-Hayyaban — a Jew who left the Levant, moved to the Hijaz and settled among the Bani Quraidha, and who died about two years before the beginning of the Muhammadi mission — said when he was dying: “O Jews! Why do you think that I left the Levant? To come to people of despair and hunger [in the Hijaz]? I came in expectation of a Prophet whose time has arrived. This is the land of his asylum. I hoped to live to witness his coming and to follow him.” (See al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah by Ibn Kathir; also the Seerat by Ibn Hisham and the Tarikh by al-Tabari.)
The religious and social climate of the Hijaz was set by Jews, who were spreading the word that the coming of a prophet was imminent. They were proud of this foreknowledge, and anxious to see its fulfillment. These rising Jewish expectations were central to Jewish life in Arabia because they were certain that this prophet would be one of them and would perpetuate their status over all the others in the region. They did not expect this prophet to be an Arabian; much less did they realize that he would become a threat to their vested interests and their financial dominance. They never imagined that this predicted prophet would bring a Scripture that was inclusive of all world societies and opposed to religious racism and to Israeli exclusivism. The last thing they expected was that this prophet would, by his principles of justice, expose their commercialised practice of religion and their monopolising of scripture for their exclusivist and sectional financial interests.
When the age of this foretold prophet — according to the Bible — arrived, and when it became obvious that he would not be a Jew, and then when Muhammad (saws) commenced his mission, the Arabian Jews were afraid that their fortunes and pre-eminence were at stake. This fear generated evil ideas whose implementation seemed justified by the assumption of Israeli privilege and racial superiority. It is not far-fetched to say that a people who have a history of assaulting and assassinating prophets and apostles who do not cater to Israeli interests will once more think about killing yet another prophet (Muhammad (saws)) because he threatened their interests. With hindsight, this explains the words of the Christian monk Bahira, who said to the Prophet’s uncle Abu-Talib while he was traveling to Damascus with the boy: “Go back with your nephew [Muhammad (saw)] to his hometown. Protect him from the Jews. By Allah, if they were to see him and detect what I know of him they will do him harm. This nephew of yours has a great role to play.” (Ibn Hisham.)
With all these factors at work at the dawn of the Islamic call in Makkah, and with Muhammad (saws) leading the struggle against the power centres of Makkah, we notice that during the Prophet’s Makkan struggle there was apparently no connection of any kind with the Jews in Madinah. The historic sources are silent about any relationship between the leaders of Quraish and the Jewish leaders in Yathrib, who could easily see what the consequences of a victorious Muhammad (saws) would mean for them. Despite the historic silence on this issue, there is reason to believe that during the Makkan period, there was communication between the Jews in Yathrib and the chiefs of Makkah. Both the Makkan and Yathribi elites had a common interest in defeating or neutralising Muhammad (saws), the Qur’an and Islam altogether. The political, economic and military realities of the Arabian peninsula made it necessary for all those in power that this new deen, Islam, be nipped in the bud. It would be naive and foolish to think that the Jews in Yathrib were indifferent to a challenge to the powers in Makkah that lasted and grew for over thirteen years, especially as this challenge was coming from a Prophet whom their own sources predicted. Jewish commercial, social and political interests were in the balance. And the Jews had also to be aware that the Khazraj tribe in Yathrib was beginning to show interest in supporting this beleaguered Prophet. Banu al-Nadir and Banu al-Quraida, who were aligned with the Arab tribe of al-Aws, were keeping a close eye on al-Khazraj, another Arab tribe. How could the Jews of Yathrib be unaware of Muhammad (saws) and his message in Makkah when Jewish merchants regularly traveled to Makkah on business? They even attended the annual Hajj. Any analysis of known historic events at that time suggests that the relationship between the Yathribi Jews and the Makkan mushriks was warm and cooperative. Likewise, when Islamic activity was increasing in Madinah, the Makkan bosses, who were not on good terms with the Khazraj, had no difficulty in making alliances with the Jews on the basis that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. Ka’b ibn al-Ashraf, the Jewish chief of Bani al-Nadir, may have been the main coordinator of anti-Islamic activity after Islam was established as a political, legislative, executive and judicial force in Madinah.
The founders of an Islamic state in Madinah — and we should never lose sight of this fact — did not do so by rallying the national, cultural and spiritual potential of the Arabians against a common enemy in Madinah, the Jews. Rather they founded the Islamic state in Madinah as a decisive and exhaustive break with their own national, cultural, spiritually sterile former lives. When Muhammad (saws) was labouring for thirteen years to establish Islamic allegiance and authority in Makkah, where there were no Jews in residence, Allah was preparing eventual success with an Islamic allegiance and authority in Yathrib, where the Jews were a substantial bloc. It was not Muhammad’s choice to have been born in Makkah; Allah could have had him born in Yathrib, and those first thirteen years of struggle and contention could have been in a multi-religious, multicultural and multinational Madinah. And then an immediate clash with the Jewish elite in Madinah would have ensued, along with the other people of vested interests in the jahili status quo. The will of Allah was to have the Prophet (saw) demonstrate by his Seerah that the struggle for Islam in its power dimensions has to be shaped by the local circumstances of the time. In the Prophet’s case, from Makkah; in the case of other Muslims from wherever they are native and indigenous until there is a life-and-death stand-off; in the case of the Prophet (saws) it was the decision of the Makkan leaders to assassinate him which triggered a new phase in the struggle. At the same time as the struggle in Makkah was reaching this new level, dealings with the delegation from Yathrib were coming to fruition, with their offer to the Prophet (saws) of their allegiance, support and resources if he would come to Yathrib. The Makkan elite’s plot to kill Muhammad (saws) coincided with the Yathribi elite’s offer to ally with him and sustain him, and with the first and second ‘Aqaba pledges of allegiance.
In this valuable lesson of the Seerah, which is little understood by most Muslims, the Prophet’s sustained campaign against jahili Makkah led to a new set of social factors in a more accommodating Madinah; at the same time, the changing forces and directions of history made inevitable a clash with Jewish antagonism which — nearly 1400 years later — would result in a Jewish return to the Muhammadi milieu. Put differently, the Prophet’s Seerah shows us that a strong-willed and strong-minded Islamic opposition to the mushriks, as in Makkah, must inevitably lead to conflict with those established elites whose interests are threatened and whose worldview cannot accept the emergence of a powerful Muslim Ummah determined to establish divine order and justice in the world.
Before we go on to the details of the Jewish-Islamic confrontation in Madinah, a word is in order. In today’s political climate, when we have a hostile Israel that projects Islamic self-determination as a threat to its survival as a global, powerful force, we note that the public impression is somewhat similar to that given in history books about the early history of Islam: that the politically-minded Jews are not concerned with Islamic developments and movements. There is an undeniable and burgeoning Islamic political movement in such areas as Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Sudan, and Algeria — as well as areas relatively distant from the traditional heartland of Islam, such as Uzbekistan, Kashmir, Malaysia and Nigeria. While there is discussion of this movement generally, there is little sign of the Israeli Zionists being concerned about these developments in particular. But, as the Jewish leaders of Madinah, trekking back and forth to Makkah during the time of the Prophet (saws), were evidently alarmed by the imminent Islamic breakthrough in the Arabian peninsula fourteen centuries ago, now these same Israeli political descendants of Banu Qainuqa, Banu Nadir and Banu Quraida are active in and around countries such as Egypt, Turkey, and Algeria to prevent an Islamic political breakthrough on the order and the scale of the initial breakthrough in Arabia 1400 years ago.
But neither the ulama who should have a better understanding of history, nor the political pundits in the Islamic movement, are relating contemporary events and developments to their historical and ideological origins. Zionism did not start in 1948, and nor was it finished off 14 hijri centuries ago. The military achievement at Khaybar was the end of a beginning. The impending military affair with the Zionist Israelis in the heartland of the Muslims [Palestine] may be the beginning of the end. But to put all these crucial issues in perspective, we need to have a clear idea of the continuity of this historical issue, and in particular the deep-lying and essentially unchanging nature of our relations with non-Muslim power elites in general, and Jewish power elites — people who should have known to welcome the Prophet but chose for their own short-term worldly interests to fight him — in particular.