In September, the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT) convened an International Seerah Conference in Pretoria. This is the second part of the paper presented by Imam Mohammed al-Asi, elected Imam of the Washington Islamic Center and a senior member of the ICIT.
When Allah’s final Prophet (saw) gained the power to exercise authority and influence over the society of Madinah the Jews in that society realised that they were in no position to oppose him, at least during these times of fervent popular support for the Prophet among the Ansar of Madinah. They also knew that it would be unwise to have a Jewish minority spearhead a saber-rattling offensive against this de facto Islamic state and its leader. Besides, the Quraish in Makkah still had a belligerent enough attitude to finish off this common enemy. And what could be more “Jewish” than to have the mushriks of Quraishi Makkah do the fighting and the dying while the Israelis in Madinah coordinate the whole affair from behind the scenes?
It was with these sorts of consideration that the three Jewish factions in Madinah signed the Saheefa (‘constitution’) of Madinah. This constitution set the stage for the new political and civic relationships in Madinah. It would seem that the Jews had little choice: Islam was spreading like wildfire, the Muslims’ enemies were a long way away, and the Jews needed to play for time. We should note that in the Saheefa the Jews agreed to cooperate in defending Madinah against any offensive by the Quraish, and to share in the expenses of any military effort to this end. But, as we shall see, the Jews did not honour any of their contractual obligations. [Recent history suggests that this is a trait of the Jews - unfortunately many Palestinians and other Arabs today seem incapable of learning the lessons of our own history.]
When the first test of Yahud began - at the battle of Badr, when the forces of mushrik Makkah assaulted the Islamic order in Madinah - and the Jews failed to meet their commitment in the Saheefa of Madinah, the Prophet (saw) did not turn against them and lunch military hostilities against them. Immediately after the military triumph at Badr might have seemed a good opportunity to seize to raise questions with these betrayers. But he (saw) did not. Still, back in Madinah, he did not lose sight of Makkah. Of course Makkah is no ordinary city. It is the seat of the Abrahamic tradition, the site of the Ka’aba, and the place where the Qur’an was first revealed. At this critical juncture, Quraish were still a military force to be reckoned with, and the newly-founded Islamic state still did not have the military strength to fight on both fronts - the mushriks and Yahud - simultaneously. For the time being it was enough to have Yahud militarily neutral. Even under pressure from the mushriks, Allah’s Messenger (saw) did not ask for or accept any military support from Yahud after the proof positive at Badr of where they stood. This explains the Prophet’s reply when he was asked on the day of Uhud (the second military showdown between the Muslims and the mushriks): “Should we not seek the help of our Jewish allies?” He (saw) said: “We have no need of them”[Ibn Hashim].
This partnership between the Islamic administration in Madinah and the Jewish factions was reached under the unequivocal and overriding auspices of the newly-established Islamic authority whose undisputed leader was Rasool-Allah (saw) himself. This precludes any parallel in our own times with the Jews who are living in Palestine who have not (and will not) accept the idea of an Islamic government in the region, much less agree to anything similar to what the Jews of Madinah agreed to 14 centuries ago.
Initially Muslims and Jews of Madinah took a wait-and-see attitude. The Muslims waited to see whether the Jews would come to their senses, recognise and acknowledge the authenticity of the Islamic message, and sign up to its Divine mission on earth; while the Jews waited to see whether the Makkan and Arabian opposition to Muhammad would finally terminate the Islamic enterprise. The battles of Badr and Uhud did not augur well for the Jews’ hopes. While the Muslims interpreted some common rituals as an incentive for the communities to find common ground and common purpose, the Jews interpreted them as an intrusion by the Muslims into what was originally and exclusively Jewish. The Muslims perceived themselves as the normal, logical and destined extensions of Abraham, Moses and Jesus, but that could never be the way the Jews viewed the Muslims.
“The conflict began with the migration of the prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina, where there were three Jewish tribes. The Jews for the most part rejected his apostolate, and resisted his political and military leadership. The resulting struggles, and the hostilities which they engendered, are reflected in the Qur’an, in the Tradition, and in the Commentaries, where the Jew is depicted as stubborn and perverse, rebelling against the commands of God, and rejecting and killing, or trying to kill, His prophets” [Semites and Anti-Semites, Bernard Lewis et al., 1986, p. 128.]
The Jews in Madinah during that initial period may have thought that Muhammad (saw) would acknowledge some ritual similarities between the two religious communities and offer the Jews protection while absolving them of civic responsibilities. It did not take long for these Arabian Jews to wake up to the reality that the superficially similar religious practices of the two communities were not going to distract the Prophet (saw) from the troubling Jewish influence in the partisan, financial, and cultural environment of Madinah, or Arabia for that matter. Eventually it began to dawn on the Jewish bloc in Madinah that this Muhammad (saw) was “for real”; he and his movement had the whole world in their sights; this is not just another power faction that can be added to the Arabian potpourri of clans and cliques. It was after this initial “wait-and-see” period, during which the Muslims gave the Jews every opportunity to recognise the Divine message, which the Jews showed no inclination to do, that the truth about the Jews and their motives was revealed in the Qur’an. The Qur’an began by pointing out that if these Jews were really committed to the Torah and Moses (as) they would have to adhere to what Muhammad (saw) was presenting to them and to the world at large. When the Yahudis still showed no sign of conscience about this matter, the Qur’an began to warn that Judaism had been turned and twisted so as to serve the Jews’ financial and pecuniary interests. While all this was being disclosed, the popular tide was momentously on the side of the budding Islamic leadership in Madinah. This exacerbated a distinctly Jewish fear of becoming numerically insignificant and economically irrelevant. The establishment of an Islamic bond between al-Aws and al-Khazraj, who had previously been antagonists in Madinan social affairs, meant a death-blow to Jewish social and fiscal power in Madinah.
The Jews could no longer have any doubts about this Islamic “monotheism”. It was not and could not be a means to support a “God of Israel” to the exclusion of other peoples and races. The “chosen race” mentality would have no future in an Islamic land governed by principles of justice, dignity and brotherhood. The Jews now fell back on their historical character and openly turned against Muhammad (saw), as they come out against Jesus (as) and other Prophets (as) who would never have any of their Yahudi arrogance.
Imagine the Yahudi mind questioning the presence of the Makkan muhajireen in Madinah! The Prophet himself (saw) was not from Madinah; how could he become a head of state in which he was not born, in which he never lived, and of which he was no “citizen” nor “national”? This whole incursion of Makkan Muslims into Madinah (formerly Yahudi-dominated Yathrib) was the reason for the Jews eventually being evicted from their Hejazi homeland. The poor, homeless and oppressed Muslim exiles came to Madinah with nothing of material significance; how could they in a few years replace the affluent Jews in Madinah who had virtually everything?
It is at this psychological, historical, geographical and social polarisation between the Islamic Jewish communities in Madinah that we discern a political clash of wills. There was a Jewish polity that believed in its own superiority, its genetic quality, and its status as a social and economic elite; all of which when left no room for “foreigners”, “inferiors” and people who do not belong (gentiles). Then there is an Islamic polity that believes in ikhraj (social influx), a common multiethnic world, and a struggle by the oppressed for a just, balanced and harmonious world that is inclusive of all others: Jews and Christians, as well as Muslims.
When the Jews in Madinah realised that Muhammad (saw) was not returning to Makkah, they tried to nudge him towards al-Quds (Jerusalem). This was effectively a Yahudi blackmail or bribery: if you [Muhammad] and your religious community are facing toward Jerusalem in your daily prayers, and if you claim that you are an extension of previous prophets and apostles - all of whom were Jerusalem-specific - then why don’t you move to Jerusalem? But Allah knew what these Yahudis were up to, so He instructed His Prophet (saw) to make Makkah the Muslims’ qibla. Beside the other details and benefits that came out of this episode, it is yet another indication of principle and perseverance in the Prophet’s Seerah; otherwise what could be more satisfying than to take on the Scripturalists in their own holy of holies, go to the source and claim it for the integrationist Muslims for eternity? But once again the Prophet (saw) was not in reactive mode. He did not react to the mushriks in Makkah and abandon his mission there under duress. He eventually left Makkah only when Allah gave him permission to do so. Similarly, Muhammad (saw) was not going to abandon Madinah and go to Jerusalem because of Yahudi pressure.
When Allah’s Prophet (saw) made Makkah the Muslims’ qibla, the Jews were nervous because it signalled the beginning of a decisive break with their Scriptural follies on the one hand, and also the beginning of a potential Islamic consolidation of the Arabian tribes throughout the peninsula. Reacting to their own impressions of these bold Muslim moves, the Jews of Madinah hinted to the Prophet (saw) that they would follow him if he returned to Jerusalem as the qibla [al-Qur’an 2:142-150]. Remember, all this came from a Jewish community in Madinah that had violated a legal and constitutional document with the Islamic head of state: Rasool-Allah (saw). This politically inspired opposition by Yahud to the first Islamic state in Madinah was to have its social and psychological fallout. Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala instructed the committed Muslims on how future relations should be with these types of truants and renegades:
“O you who are securely committed to Allah! Do not surround yourselves with those who are not of your [moral] kind. They spare no effort to corrupt you; they would love to see you in distress. Vehement hatred has already come into the open from their mouths, but what their bosoms conceal is yet worse. We have indeed manifested these [latent] facts, if you would but use your reason. Lo! It is you who [are prepared to] love them, but they will not love you, although you believe in all the Scriptures. And when they meet you, they assert, ‘We believe [as you believe]’, but when they find themselves alone, they gnaw their fingers in rage against you. Say: ‘Perish in your rage! Behold, Allah has full knowledge of what is in the bosoms [of men]’” (al-Qur’an 3:118-119).
This Islamic opposition to Yahudi double-dealing has nothing to do with what is known nowadays as anti-Semitism. Never in Islamic history have committed Muslims expressed animosity to Jews because of their ethnic origins or Torahic Scriptural principles. The power position of the Prophet (saw) in Madinah did not mean that the Jews were to be excluded because of race or religion. It was in response to this open-arms approach that ‘Abdullah ibn Sallam, a Jewish sage in Madinah, became a Muslim soon after the hijra, as did his family.
Beside these and many other details the strategic focus of Muhammad (saw) was not blurred or distracted from his affair with the mushriks of Makkah. The Jews in Madinah, especially after the decisive Islamic victory at Badr, realised that every defeat of the Arabian mushriks was eroding their position; that if Arabian shirk were decisively defeated the Jews would be on their own against the new Islamic order. This would obviously spell the end of Jewish “superiority”, “supremacy” and “social status”. This type of Jewish approach to an ascending Islamic order left them no choice but to throw in their lot with the Arabian mushriks before it was too late. So they resorted to psychological warfare, character assassinations, sedition and military activity. These Jews became the glue of all the powers that were opposed to Islam. Eventually these Jewish factions were expelled or eliminated in the process of thwarting the mushriks’ juggernaut based in Makkah.