Anti-Jewish Attitudes in Early Islam

Anti-Jewish Attitudes in Early Islam

Former Atlanta deputy consul general of Germany shares history of Judeo-Muslim relations.

Alfred Schlicht
Alfred Schlicht

When in May everywhere in the world demonstrations took place as a consequence of the conflict between Israel and Hamas, the current opinion was that the Arab-Jewish conflict about Palestine and Israel was the cause of those events, which degenerated into riots in many places. In Berlin, Germany, for example, over 90 police officers were injured on May 16. This assumption is only partly true.

Even in the early days of Islam, after initially having shown a favorable attitude towards Jews, the Prophet Muhammad turned against the Jews of Medina, where he had founded the first Islamic State.

Muhammad was convinced that, in principle, his message was identic with the teachings Jews and Christians had received before, and that those ‘people of the book’ would eventually adopt Islam. That is why, in those very early years of Islam (until 623 C.E.), Muslims prayed towards Jerusalem, not Mecca.

Muhammad reminded his contemporaries to return to the ‘religion of Abraham,’ which had been brought by former prophets to those known as Christians and Jews. There was however one special trait to Muhammad’s role: He was the last messenger of God, the ‘seal of the prophets,’ bringing the ultimate truth. On the basis of his identity, as he perceived it himself, it was understandable that he anticipated universal recognition, acceptance by Jews who lived within the confederation, which he had founded in Yathrib, later called Medina(t al-Nabi), City of the Prophet. On the other hand, the Jews, proud of a secular tradition, of course were far from accepting and adopting this ‘new’ distorted form of their religion as it must have appeared to them. Muhammad, in whose universe the ‘people of the book’ held a privileged position, was most probably deeply disappointed by this rebuff. This proved to be a turning point: From then on, his attitude towards Jews (and Christians) underwent fundamental change.

In Surah 5, Verse 51 of the Koran we read: ‘O you Believers, don’t take Jews and Christians as friends!’

By Islamic standards, this is not the opinion of the prophet Muhammad, a human being, but this is the word of God. Those words were molded into political action: The great battles the Muslims fought in those years against their enemies were accompanied by actions against the Jews who lived within the Muslim-dominated commonwealth in Medina. Two Jewish tribes were expelled; the third one, however, met an even more tragic fate: Men were killed, women and children were enslaved. Those harsh measures were justified by alleged Jewish treason, collaboration with the enemy and Jews having broken agreements.

We have only Muslim sources on those events, no Jewish or neutral witnesses. Even if we accept the argument that some of the Jews supported enemies of the prophet, the question remains if all Jews were ‘guilty’ and why children were ‘punished.’

In 628, Muhammad attacked Khaybar, an oasis nearly a hundred miles from Medina, where Jews had been living for centuries and where some of those expelled from Medina had taken refuge. Khaybar was taken by force, and the Jews were allowed to stay under terms dictated by the Muslims. For being allowed to remain and continue their agricultural activities, they had to pay tribute and obey Muslim rules and restrictions.

This episode is significant: A precedent was set for the treatment of non-Muslims within the emerging Empire of Islam. From now on, based on the prophet’s practice, Jews and Christians were permitted within the Muslim state on the condition of paying a special tax and accepting an inferior status. This situation has prevailed until today; in almost all Islamic states, non-Muslims are considered inferior, even if legally they enjoy equality with Muslims.

On the other hand, we should not forget that Jews themselves preferred to live in Muslim countries. When after the Christian‚ Reconquista Spanish Jews in 1492 had the choice between conversion and exile, most left Spain for the world of Islam, not for other Christian countries. They managed to keep their religious and cultural identity in the context of the Ottoman Empire, where they practiced their own Judeo-Spanish language until the 20th century.

Alfred Schlicht, who received his doctorate from Munich University, is a former deputy consul general of Germany in Atlanta from 2010 to 2013, and author of several books on Islam and Middle Eastern history.

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