Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

The Sword and the Jews in Early Christianity and Islam

James M. Arlandson, Ph.D.

In this comparative study of the two religions, Jesus and his early followers and Muhammad and the earliest Muslims had interaction with Jews, whose Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) is the foundation of Christianity and strongly influenced Islam, since the Quran very often refers to Biblical stories and characters.

In this article, early Christianity and early Islam are placed side by side, so to speak.

Jesus and his earliest followers were Jews. His and their relationship with them and Judaism was at first appreciative, but tension eventually grew until the two co-religionists split apart. Sometimes the polemics was heated, but did it escalate into violence from either side?

Islam, on the other hand, followed a different storyline. Muhammad was not a Jew. At first he admired the Jewish community and intended to work with them, even reform them. But suspicions and harsh words increased as they interacted. But did the polemics escalate into violence from either side?

Early Christianity

This section is divided into the sociological and the theological.

Sociology examines how groups interact, in this case Christians, Jews, and pagans (the latter group a broad term for those who worship various gods). They were in competition with each other in the marketplace of religious ideas, but do the first Christians wield the sword to impose their views on the other two groups?

The theological looks at the New Covenant and its relations with the Old, on the specific matter of circumcision and kosher food laws. Then the theological section briefly examines how the Jews fit into the plan of God, according to the teaching of Paul. Does he teach that God has rejected his own people?

The Sociological

In the four Gospels, about four decades before the destruction of the temple by the Romans in AD 70, Jesus crisscrossed his homeland Israel, preaching and living the kingdom of God. Sometimes ordinary fellow Jews did not accept his teaching (John 6:60-66). But most in fact liked what they heard and saw, particularly his healing ministry.

The opposition to Jesus came from the leaders of his own nation. He opposed their power structures that governed the temple in Jerusalem. That is one reason he made a whip and cleared part of the temple (Mark 11:12-19). The Gospel of John uses the word “Jews” over seventy times, sometimes positively (e.g. John 4:22) and sometimes neutrally (e.g. John 2:6). But John mostly uses it of the Jewish leaders who were hostile to Jesus. This matches up with the other three Gospels.

In almost all cases when the sparks fly in the Gospels, the clash happens between him and religious leaders. In fact, a careful keyword search in an exhaustive concordance of the Bible confirms this class difference. He did not condemn ordinary people; rather, he told them that his way led to an easing of heavy religious burdens (Matt. 11:28-30). But he challenged the leaders who put these burdens on the people. He pronounced “Seven Woes” on them (Matt. 23:1-36).

Thus, Jesus himself was a Jew who lived in the Jewish homeland. He encountered opposition, but confrontation does not have to lead to his raising a militia to attack them or secretly assassinating any of them.

After the death and resurrection of Jesus, the earliest Christians were not initially called “Christians,” but followers of the Way, until a strong Christian community was established in Antioch (Acts 11:26). None of them had any political power, and they never mustered out a militia to attack their opponents.

Rather, they were the persecuted. While in Jerusalem, they underwent opposition from the same establishment that opposed Jesus (Acts 4:1-22; 5:17-40; 6:8-8:3; 12:1-18). That last passage describes Herod Agrippa beheading James, one of the twelve apostles, and then imprisoning Peter, who managed to escape by miraculous intervention.

As the followers of the Way moved out into the Roman provinces, their opposition was made up of their fellow Jews and the gentile authorities. Paul and other missionaries traveled in Jewish circles and also among pagans in Greco-Roman cities. It stands to reason that if anyone opposed these missionaries, the opponents would come from Roman authorities and the Jews. How could this be otherwise?

For example, in the opposition from pagans against Paul, they accurately saw that his preaching would curtail their idol-making business and dry up pilgrimages to the huge temple of the goddess Artemis (Diana), so a riot ensued (Acts 19:23-31). Likewise, the passages in Acts about Jewish opposition to the message of Paul and other missionaries are merely reports of what really happened, not anti-Semitic polemics calculated to stir up hatred (e.g. Acts 13:49-52; 14:4-7, 19-20; 21:27-23:35).

Thus, the early Christians had no political power, so their hands were empty of the weapons of persecution. The verses in Acts must be read in that historical context.

It is true that the New Testament at times reflects tension between Judaism and the fledgling church, which was feeling its way doctrinally and practically. After all, Christianity flows out of Judaism, so where else would there be tension? Christians and Jews were gradually going their own direction. During this drifting apart, the leaders of the church – all Jews early on – had to decide whether recent converts should be required to keep large portions of the Law of Moses. Some of the stricter Jews who had become followers of the Way said that the converts had to be circumcised and to keep the kosher food laws.

Paul foresaw that this would limit the number of converts, particularly men, so he opposed such requirements. He also went in this new direction because of his interpretation of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and because of the doctrine of grace. Also, after a divine vision, Peter came to the same conclusion as Paul’s, namely, that God wanted to reach out to gentiles, though Peter’s main ministry was to Jews (Acts 10:1-11:18; cf. Acts 9:15; Galatians 1:16; 2:2, 7-8). Paul too preached to Jews very often (cf. Acts 9:20; 13:5, 15-43; 14:1; 17:2-4; 18:4), though his main calling was to gentiles.

Peter and Paul clashed over the purity ritual of not eating with gentiles (Galatians 2:11-21). When certain extra-strict Jewish Christians came to Antioch from Jerusalem, Peter did not want to be seen eating with gentile Christians. Paul rightly rebuked him for withdrawing from his newly converted gentile brothers.

In the final analysis Peter and other leaders – to repeat, they were all Jews – decided not to impose on the new gentile converts heavy laws. The council in Jerusalem decided on such matters (Acts 15:1-29). There was a lot of church unity on not imposing these laws, agreeing largely with Paul’s view (Galatians 3:1-25).

The Theological

The law of the Old Testament does not justify or save sinners, under the New Covenant, which goes in a different and higher direction. Faith in Christ alone saves, not circumcision or keeping kosher food laws. If the law is no longer at the center and is no longer necessary for somebody to be justified by God, why impose this particular command of circumcision, which was explicitly given for the physical descendants of Abraham, on those converts that were not part of these descendants? How could early Christian leaders justify preaching the New Covenant apart from the Old Testament law, but insist on performing this command of the Old Covenant law? And so they came to the conclusion that this would not be consistent.

Thus, Paul circumcised one of his disciples (Timothy) but not the other (Titus), because one was Jewish (but not circumcised for whatever reason) while Titus was gentile. That is, Paul had Timothy circumcised only because of his outreach to Jews – for this practical reason (Acts 16:1-5), not to get Timothy saved or justified before God. We can easily imagine devout Jews telling Paul and his team that they would refuse to listen to Paul’s message because of Timothy. Paul therefore thought it best to eliminate this practical stumbling block. On the other side, Titus visited the apostles in Jerusalem but was not required to get circumcised (Galatians 2:1-5).

In the final analysis, it is not works of the flesh – literally – that God approves of, or other works, like praying many times a day or avoiding pork, but the Spirit sent into the heart of all who ask for him – He is the one who saves and justifies. This is the message of the New Covenant, and it would be a pity to drop it for any kind of religious law.

God has not abandoned his chosen people, the Jews. Paul, in his complex chapters (9, 10, 11) in his theological treatise called the epistle to the Romans, is baffled why national Israel rejected Jesus, whom he saw in a vision on the Damascus Road (Acts 9:1-19). But in spite of all the severe persecution he suffered at the hands of his fellow Jews, and regardless of his bafflement, he still concludes that God has not rejected his chosen people. He writes in Romans 11:1-2:

1 I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew.[1] (Romans 11:1-2)

He goes on to say that God has reserved for himself a remnant, just as in the days of Elijah. He says that at the end of times, all issues will be sorted out, but only by God’s doing, not humanity’s.

Christians and Jews are allowed to keep their religion without charges of mutual hatred and without physically attacking each other. It is true that some passages in the New Testament employ strong rhetoric against Jewish leaders and pagans (cf. Matt. 12:34; 23:27, 33; Acts 17:21, 23, 30; 23:3; Revelation 2:9), but words do not have to add up to violence.

To conclude this entire section, while it is true that Christians did not have the authority to pass laws protecting their fledgling community, they could have assassinated their persecutors or stoned them to death before the authorities could act, or they could taken the law into their own hands in other ways. However, Jesus and the early church did not resort to the sword against their opponents, whether Jews or pagans.

The whole point of tolerance is that people can choose their own religion without persecution from dominant groups.

Early Islam

Muhammad’s relations with the Jews were complicated, so his story takes more time. At first Muhammad lived peacefully with them, shortly after his emigration or hijrah from Mecca to Medina in A.D. 622. In fact, he saw himself as a reformer of Judaism.

But as he discusses his ideas with the rather large and strong Jewish communities in Medina, trouble erupted, because they refused his ideas. Muhammad grows in his hostility towards them.

These ruptures and hostilities take place in two overlapping domains: theology and politics, both backed by Muhammad’s increasingly strong military.

The Theological

The theological can be subdivided into five stages:

Islam’s fulfillment of Judaism; Muhammad’s efforts to develop and improve on Judaism; Jewish resistance, based on Muhammad’s deficient knowledge of the Torah and his gentile status; his change in prayer direction; and Muhammad’s riposte to this resistance.

1. Allah tells Muhammad in a Quranic chapter revealed in Mecca that the "unlettered" prophet (Muhammad) is described in the Torah and Gospel, and hence predicted and endorsed by the two prior religions:

156 "I shall ordain My mercy for those who are conscious of God and pay the prescribed alms; who believe in Our Revelations; 157 who follow the Messenger – the unlettered prophet they find described in the Torah that is with them, and in the Gospel – who commands them to do right and forbids them to do wrong, who makes good things lawful to them and bad things unlawful"[2] . . . (Quran 7:156-157)

The textual context of these verses shows Moses rebuking the children of Israel for disobeying him. They denied God’s signs and worshiped the golden calf as Moses was coming down with the tablets of stone, inscribed with the Ten Commandments (Quran 7:145-156). Verses 156-157 imply that someone better than Moses (and Jesus) is here to guide them rightly.

Muhammad declares what is lawful and unlawful and commands people to do right and forbids them to do wrong. The Jews of Muhammad’s time were getting a second chance. Would they accept it after falling away from the Torah?

2. While Muhammad is settling down in Medina and his position there is insecure, he tries to convince the Jews that his revelations were the continuation of Judaism (and Christianity), the religion of the People of the Book or the Bible. Before he left Mecca, he faced Syria (i.e. Jerusalem) in prayer. The early Muslims in Medina may have observed the fast for the Day of Atonement, and their special Friday worship was a response to the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath from Friday evening to Saturday evening. Muhammad forbad the Muslims from eating the same food prohibited for Jews, namely, pork, blood, carrion, and meat sacrificed to idols (see Quran 2:172-173).

It seems, then, that earliest Islam was the development and even improvement on the prior faith, Judaism, or so Muhammad believed. Why would tension grow between Islam and Judaism?

3. The Jews, however, saw things a little differently. Muhammad was not educated in the Torah. He had picked up some elements from the Scriptures, in bits and pieces, which had been circulating around Arabia along the trade routes and garbled by poets and storytellers, so his knowledge was deficient. It is possible that one or two Jewish converts who had a certain level of knowledge in the Torah coached him, as well.[3] Whatever the case, it was not hard for the Jews to contradict him.[4]

Further, it was not difficult for the Jews to reject him as falling outside of Biblical revelation. Besides, Muhammad was a gentile, and that in itself was enough to turn away from him.

Thus, hostility grew between the two sides.

4. This stage in the theological domain is the change in prayer direction. Today, Muslims pray towards Mecca and the Kabah, where hundreds of thousands of pilgrims go every year.

However, when Muhammad lived in Mecca, he prayed toward Jerusalem. After he arrived in Medina at the end of his emigration in 622, he still prayed towards Jerusalem. Sixteen months later (February 624), he believed he should change his prayer direction toward the Kabah (Quran 2:122-129; 142-147).

How did this change of prayer direction come about?

Certain factors explain the change or the need for this timely revelation. After Muhammad settled in Medina, he found, as noted, a powerful Jewish presence in his new city. He saw himself as a prophet in the Biblical tradition, but tension between him and the Jews reached a boiling point. So he changed his prayer direction towards the Kabah in Mecca.

Then, the Jews challenged the messenger of Allah: if Muhammad were the new representative of Judaism and monotheism, why was he praying toward the Kabah, which was dedicated to polytheism? He then got a revelation that gave him permission. He believed that Abraham had built and purified the shrine, so it does not belong to the polytheists, but to him (Quran 2:122-129; 8:34-38). He was the best representative of true monotheism, and he was the one honoring Abraham.

Finally, besides his belief that Abraham built the Kabah, the shrine was a popular site of pilgrimage in the Arabian Peninsula, so it generated a lot of income. Since early Islam was expanding, Muhammad could not let the Kabah alone until "worship is devoted to God," as opposed to the pagan deities (Quran 2:193).

The shrine must become a site of pilgrimage and support for Muslims, as Muhammad himself admits: "God has made the Kabah – the Sacred House – a means of support for people"... (Quran 5:97).

So it is in the historical context of the tension with the Jews in Medina, his unassailable (but unfounded) belief that Abraham built and purified the Kabah, and the Kabah’s popularity that Muhammad turned his face toward Mecca in prayer to Allah. The upshot is that he turned his back on Jerusalem, so the rupture with the Jews widened.

5. In the final stage of Muhammad’s theological development, given his inadequate knowledge of the Bible, he had to fight back theologically in his own way, striking out on a new path and reinterpreting matters in the new light of Abraham’s religion, if Muhammad’s new competitor religion is to survive. This struggle lasted for several years until the Jews were no longer a threat, and then he directed his aggressive energies against the Christians.

But until that time, Muhammad struck back against the Jews.

To begin with, he claimed, for instance, that Abraham was not a Jew (nor a Christian) (Quran 3:67), so original monotheism is open to another descendant of Abraham: Muhammad himself and his Arabs who were believed to descend from the first monotheist through Ishmael, according to Muhammad. Further, the Hebrew Bible (and the New Testament) was perniciously misinterpreted and misapplied (Quran 2:75, 79; 3:77-78; 4:44-49).

The Quran, on the other hand, came directly from Allah through Gabriel and hence is incorruptible, straightforward, and clear (Quran 39:28, 55:1, 75:19, 26:193, 2:97). Muhammad’s religion wins out over any contradictions, in his mind (Quran 3:23). In addition, Jews were said to conceal the truth about Muhammad’s prophethood and the righteous practices of Islam (Quran 2:42, 146, 159, 174; 3:187-188; 5:70), so the Bible really testifies about him, though the Jews do not want this to leak out.

Next, from Muhammad’s point of view, both Judaism and Christianity made exclusive claims of being the right way (Quran 2:111-113), yet both came from the same children of Israel; thus, both religions in Muhammad’s time went astray from their origins (Quran 2:135-141). So if some claims of all three religions are contradictory, then the fault lies in the first two religions, not his, which resolves all contradictions (Quran 3:23).

Finally, as noted, the Torah itself says that the children of Israel disobeyed Moses in denying God’s signs and in worshipping the golden calf. If the Jews of Moses’ time were disobedient, then according to Muhammad’s reasoning the Jews as a whole in his own time cannot be purer (Quran 7:145-156), though some are acknowledged as staying true (Quran 3:113-115).

Many verses in Chapter 2 of the Quran, an early chapter in Medina, say that the Jews are not true or obedient believers (Quran 2:8-20; 40-96) and do not believe the revelations delivered by Gabriel himself (2:97-100). Therefore, the Jews of Medina are setting themselves up for a fall, as the next section on the political realm will show.[5]

In fact, the rhetoric got so heated throughout his interaction with the Jews that he incorporated into his Quran the legend that Allah transformed certain of them into apes and pigs (Quran 7:163-167; 2:65; 5:60).

And thus Muhammad’s religion is the better and purer representation of Abraham and fulfills and completes Judaism (and Christianity), as he sees things (Quran 5:12-19).

So the theological break with the Jews is complete. Yet these differences and harsh rhetoric do not have to lead to violence.

But they did.

We now turn to the political realm, to find out why.

The Political

As hostilities grow in the domain of theology, the political or historical strain also grows, hand in hand. Muhammad increases his military strength, which backs up his theology and politics. It is in this section that Muhammad’s hostility towards the Jews will become most evident.

The growth of his hostility occurs in seven chronological stages.

At the end of this process, Jews will no longer inhabit the Arab peninsula in the Hijaz (the western area, in modern Saudi Arabia).[6]

To begin with, at the time of Muhammad’s hijrah, three major Jewish clans lived in Medina: Qaynuqa, Nadir, and Qurayza. Muhammad worked on an agreement with them that all the Jews were to be neutral.[7] But things are about to change.

1. In this stage, in 624 after his victory at the Battle of Badr in March, a battle which made his position in Medina more secure, Muhammad expelled the one clan that dominated the trades in Medina: Qaynuqa. One day a Muslim woman was conducting business in this Jewish section, and some Jews (or one Jew) fastened her skirt to a nail. When she stood up, she was exposed. A Muslim happened to be present and witnessed the practical joke and the ridicule, and killed one of the pranksters, who avenged their friend’s death in turn. Despite this prank found in Islamic source documents, it is unclear what his real motives were for the expulsion, for the trick is found elsewhere in pre-Islamic Arab literature.

But what elicited this expulsion? Was it the Jewish refusal to become Muslims? Jewish opposition to his policies and religion?

For example, Abu Bakr, one of his chief companions, barged into a Jewish school led by two rabbis. He called on one of the rabbis "to fear God and become a Muslim because he knew that Muhammad was the apostle of God who had brought the truth from Him and that they would find it written in the Torah and the Gospel."[8] One of the rabbis sassed him, saying that Allah must be poor, if Muhammad has to borrow money from the Jews. Enraged, Abu Bakr struck him hard on the face.

The story ends with the rabbi denying to Muhammad that he sassed Abu Bakr, but the messenger of Allah got a revelation that the rabbi had mocked Allah (cf. Quran 3:181). Thus, Abu Bakr was justified in using physical violence in response to disrespectful words.

The Muslim emigrants moved from a trading and artisan town (Mecca) to an agrarian town (Medina), so they were impoverished. The Qaynuqa tribe controlled the market of the craftsmen in Medina – the exact skills of the emigrants. So were Muhammad’s motives to take over partially economic? Early historian Tabari (d. 923) writes: "The Banu [tribe] Qaynuqa did not have any land, as they were goldsmiths [and armor-makers]. The Messenger of God took many weapons belonging to them and the tools of their trade."[9] Did the Qaynuqa betray Muhammad in some way between the Battle of Badr (AD 624) and the Battle of Uhud (AD 625)? The sources do not provide reliable details.

Whatever the case, Muhammad waged war on these Jews. They retreated to their strongholds, and he besieged them for fifteen days. He gave them three days to collect the debts owed to them and to get out of Medina, but to leave their tools behind. Did at least some of the poor emigrants take up the vacant trades? The clan departed northward, where a Jewish community lived. Then a month later they left for Syria.

So one tribe is now gone from Medina.[10]

2. In the second stage, occurring in late August and early September 625, Muhammad besieged and expelled the Nadir clan from Medina. Muhammad’s motives were much too complicated to be described here, but they seem to be founded on blood feuds and the payment of blood-wit, which compensates for loss of life. He went to the Nadir settlement near Medina to ask for some blood-wit money that he had to pay, but the Jews were reluctant, even though by apparent agreement with another tribe the Nadir clan was required to contribute to the payment.

They asked him to stay until they prepared a dinner, but after a short time he left because he got a revelation that they were going to assassinate him by dropping a stone off the roof of a building, where he was sitting with his back against its wall. Or perhaps the real reason for exiling the clan lay in Muhammad’s recent loss in the Battle of Uhud in March 625 and in a failed raiding expedition in June, so his position weakened somewhat in Medina – but still strong enough to confront the tribe.

Whatever the motive, Muhammad besieged Nadir in their strongholds for fifteen days until he started destroying their date palms, their livelihood, so they capitulated to his first demand for blood-wit money. However, he raised the penalty – they must get nothing from their palms. Their livelihood undergoing destruction and then confiscation, they departed to the city of Khaybar, seventy miles to the north, where they had estates. This takeover helped relieve the ongoing poverty of many Muslims, who took over their date orchards. Muhammad expelled the entire tribe because they supposedly tried to kill him and refused to pay the blood-wit money.

A second tribe is now gone from Medina.[11]

3. and 4. The third and fourth stages concern two assassinations of Jewish leaders from the Nadir clan, one year apart, because they fraternized with Muhammad’s enemies. In May 626 a Muslim who had a Jewish foster-mother and spoke Hebrew managed to gain entrance into the Jew’s house at night with four companions and easily kill him. They hid until the search died down and then returned to Medina, with the blessing of Muhammad.

The second assassination, in February-March 627, was more deceptive. Under the guise of ambassadors from Muhammad, thirty Muslims traveled up to Khaybar and invited the Jew to Medina to negotiate peace between him and Muhammad. Despite warnings, thirty Jews set out with the Muslims. W. Montgomery Watt rightly says that the Jews were unarmed.[12] The Muslim leader surreptitiously made his camel carrying himself and the Jew lag behind, and then the Muslim killed him. The other Jews were also killed except one.

Assassinating Jewish leaders weakened the Jewish communities in the vicinity.[13]

5. This stage describes the aftermath of the Battle of the Trench in March 627. Muhammad imposed the ultimate penalty on the men in the Jewish tribe of Qurayza, his third and final major Jewish rivals in Medina. They were supposed to remain neutral in the Battle, but they seem to have intrigued with the Meccans and to have been on the verge of attacking Muhammad from the rear – though they did not. Tradition says that while he was bathing, the archangel Gabriel appeared to him and told him to attack the large tribe.[14] He besieged them and forced them to surrender. For their alleged betrayal, they must be put on trial.

The sentence: Death by decapitation for around 600 men (one source says as high as 900),[15] and enslavement for the women and children. Muhammad was wise enough to have six clans execute two Jews each in order to stop any blood-feuds. The rest of the executions were probably carried out by Muhammad’s fellow emigrants from Mecca, and lasted throughout the night, as the heads and bodies were dragged into trenches.

The messenger of Allah celebrates his actions in Quran 33:25-27, concerning the Battle of the Trench and his treatment of Qurayza:

25 God sent back the disbelievers [Meccans and their allies] along with their rage – they gained no benefit -- and spared the believers from fighting [q-t-l]. He is strong and mighty. 26 He brought those of the People of the Book [Qurayza] who supported them down from their fortresses and cast panic into their hearts. Some of them you [believers] killed [q-t-l] and some you took captive. 27 He passed on to you their land, their houses their possessions, and a land where you have never set foot: God has power over everything.[16] (33:25-27)

The Arabic words qital and qatala (three-letter root is q-t-l) mean, as noted, only warring, killing slaughtering, slaying, and fighting. There is no ambiguity, like an inner struggle in a man’s soul. Muhammad killed them. He took the Jewish tribe’s property on the basis of conquest, and he sold the women and children into slavery, so he got a lot of money from the confiscation and sale.

But Quran 33:25-27 leaves out Muhammad’s heart’s desire. Early Biographer Ibn Ishaq (d. 767) says Muhammad did not sell every woman.

The apostle had chosen one of their women for himself... of the Qurayza, and she remained with him until she died, in his power. The apostle had proposed to marry and put a veil on her, but she said: "Nay, leave me in your power, for that will be easier for me and for you." So he left her. She had shown repugnance towards Islam when she was captured and clung to Judaism.[17]

Shortly afterwards, though, she converted to Islam and a messenger informed Muhammad of this, and he reacts to the good news: "This gave him pleasure."[18] It is wrong to believe that this passion was Muhammad’s motive to execute so many Jews, but his actions did provide him with an extra, unforeseen benefit, the woman he had taken as his slave.

But in the bigger picture, the third tribe of Jews is now gone from Medina.[19]

6. In this stage, in May to June 628, Muhammad attacked Khaybar. The Jews, undeterred by the Meccan defeat or retreat at the Trench, had constantly encouraged their allies to take up arms. Long ago, the Jews of Khaybar built a series of fortresses, some on hills, and they were thought unassailable, but Muhammad attacked them one group at a time. Eventually, he prevailed and set the terms of surrender. The Jews could keep their property, but they had to turn over half their produce to specially designated Muslims who went out on this conquest and to some notables as well, like Muhammad’s wife Aisha.

This introduced a special policy that Muhammad incorporated into his religion: conquered cities housing the People of the Book (Jews and Christians) were not required to convert necessarily, but they had to pay a special tax. The details of this broad policy were worked out over time (Quran 9:29).

So another large community of Jews was weakened and subdued.[20]

It is no wonder that Muhammad believed that he was poisoned by the Jews of Khaybar.[21]

7. In the final stage, during the caliphate of Umar (r. 634-644), the Jews (and Christians) were expelled from the Hijaz of the Arabian peninsula, in 635. Umar cited the prophet’s words spoken on his deathbed: "Two religions shall not remain together in the peninsula of the Arabs."[22] What was the precipitating event to expel the Jews? Two Muslims went to inspect their property in Khaybar, and one of them was attacked in the night in his bed and had his elbows dislocated by an unidentified assailant. The attacked Muslim reported this to Umar, and the caliph concluded, "This is the work of the Jews." This was enough of a trigger to expel the entire Jewish community from Khaybar and a nearby settlement.

So finally the large communities of Jews had been run out of the Hijaz of the Arab peninsula.[23]


In the section on Christianity, the key to understanding the (supposed) anti-Semitism in the New Testament is, as usual, to take the sacred text in its historical context. Who were the power-brokers? Where in the hierarchy were the persecutors located? Did Jesus confront the powerful or the weak? What were the religious origins of everyone involved?

The authors of the New Testament were Jews, except Luke, who got his sources from eyewitnesses to the ministry of Jesus, who were all Jews. It is therefore difficult to lay at these Jews’ doorstep the charge of anti-Semitism. Strong rhetoric does not have to lead to physical violence. They did not pursue the instruments of power, like using church contributions to equip a militia or even a secret society of assassins to take matters into their own hands.

Neither Jesus nor the early Christians wielded the sword against the Jews.

In the sections on Islam, if the five theological stages had remained only in the realm of abstract theology, then no conflict would have emerged between Muslims and Jews, though theological differences would still persist. Harsh rhetoric and disagreements do not have to lead violence.

However, early Islam did not remain in an abstract realm. Do the seven historical and political steps represent a master plan drawn up by Muhammad against the Jews? Probably not. Muhammad was feeling his way. However, his path led him in one direction: the gradual expulsion or death of Jews living in Medina and its environs.

Muhammad and his community wielded the sword against the Jews.[24]


[First published: 1 May 2012]
[Last updated: 1 May 2012]

Articles in the Series:

1. Introduction

2. The Mission of Jesus and the Sword
3. The Mission of Muhammad and the Sword

4. The Gospels and the Sword
5. The Quran and the Sword

6. Two Kinds of Swords

7. The Early Church and the Sword
8. The Early Muslim Community and the Sword

9. The Sword and the Jews

10. Martyrdom and the Sword

11. Q & A on the Sword

12. Conclusion

[1] The New International Version is used in this article, unless otherwise noted. If readers would like to see other translations, they can go to

[2] M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, The Quran, rev. ed. (New York: Oxford UP: 2010). If readers would like to see various translation of the Quran, they may go to the website and type in the references.

[3] Ibn Ishaq, Life of Muhammad, trans. A. Guillaume, (Oxford UP, 1955), 240-41. Abdullah b. Salam was a Rabbi who converted to Islam, according to Ibn Ishaq. His conversion was accepted as genuine, but some Rabbis accepted Islam hypocritically (246-47). Ibn Ishaq (d. 767) was an early biographer of Muhammad. His book is considered very valuable by scholars today.

[4] Ibid., 239-40.

[5] Ibn Ishaq in his biography has a long section on Chapter 2 of the Quran, in which the hypocrites and the Jews are referenced polemically (247-70).

[6] After each stage, the early Islamic sources are cited, and usually with one or two contemporary scholars.

[7] Watt rightly points out that the Muslim sources have a strong motive to make the case against Qurayza clan as dark as possible, so some of the terms of the treaty may be exaggerated or invented (Muhhammad at Medina 196).

[8] Ibn Ishaq, 263 and 363.

[9] Tabari, The Foundation of the Community, vol. 7, trans. M. V. McDonald and annotated by W. Montgomery Watt (Albany: SUNYP, 1987), 85-87. The words in brackets are added and not those of the translator. Scholars agree that Tabari is a valuable source for early Islamic history.

[10] Muslim, Jihad and Expeditions, 3.4363. The hadith are searchable online at the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement, under the aegis of the University of Southern California.

[11] Bukhari, Military Expeditions, 5.4028-4036; Muslim, Jihad and Expeditions, 3.4324-4326 and 4346-4349; Ibn Ishaq 437-38; Tabari 7.156-61.

[12] Watt, Muhammad in Medina, 213

[13] Bukhari, Military Expeditions, 5.4038-4040; Tabari, 7.99-105; Ibn Ishaq 482-84; 665-66 and 981.

[14] Bukhari, Jihad, 4.2813, says the archangel Gabriel helped them after Battle of Trench to conquer the Jews:

When Allah’s Apostle returned on the day (of the battle) of Al-Khandaq (i.e. Trench), he put down his arms and took a bath. Then Gabriel, whose head was covered with dust, came to him saying, "You have put down your arms! By Allah, I have not put down my arms yet." Allah’s Apostle said, "Where (to go now)?" Gabriel said, "This way," pointing towards the tribe of Bani [tribe] Quraiza. So Allah’s Apostle went out towards them. (The parenthetical notes are the translator’s; the word in brackets is added.)

[15] Ibn Ishaq 464.

[16] Abdel Haleem’s translation. All the words in brackets have been added by me, except “believers,” which was added by the translator.

[17] Ibn Ishaq 466.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Bukhari, Jihad, 4.2813, and Military Expeditions, 5.4117-4124; Muslim, Jihad and Military Expeditions, 3.4368-4373; Tabari, the Victory of Islam, vol. 8, trans. Michael Fishbein, (Albany: SUNYP, 1997), 27-41.

[20] Bukhari, Conditions, 3.2720, and Military Expeditions, 5.4147-4191 and 4194 and 4249; Muslim, Jihad and Military Expeditions, 3.4437-4441; Ibn Ishaq 510-18; Tabari 8.116-30.

[21] These hadith say that the Khaybar Jews poisoned Muhammad. Aisha was his favorite wife.

...Narrated Aisha: The Prophet in his ailment in which he died, used to say, "O Aisha! I still feel the pain caused by the food I ate at Khaybar, and at this time, I feel as if my aorta is being cut from that poison." (Bukhari, Military Expeditions, 5.4428, with small mechanical edits)

What was the Jewish community’s motive? In this hadith, Muhammad is interrogating the Jews of Khaybar. After a verbal sparring match with them, he comes to the point.

...[Muhammad] asked, “Have you poisoned this sheep?” They [some Jews] said, “Yes.” He asked, “What made you do so?” They said, “We wanted to know if you were a liar in which case we would get rid of you, and if you are a prophet then the poison would not harm you.” (Bukhari, Khumus, 004.053.394; the words in brackets are added. The book version of Bukhari does not have that pasaage or I could not find it).

This next hadith says that the effects of poison lasted a long time.

Narrated Anas bin Malik: A Jewess brought a poisoned (cooked) sheep for the prophet who ate from it. She was brought to the prophet and he was asked, "Shall we kill her?" He said, "No." I continued to see the effect of the poison on the palate of the mouth of Allah's Apostle. (Bukhari, Gifts, 3.2617; the word in parenthesis is the translator’s)

[22] Ibn Ishaq 525.

[23] Bukhari, Military Conditions, 3.2730; Muslim, Jihad and Expeditions, 3.4366. If historians were to call this incident fanciful as the reason for expelling the Jews, then early Islam took the reason seriously.

[24] The Muslims in the last days will get the final triumph over Jews. A Jew will hide behind a stone, and it will cry out to the Muslims that there is a Jew hiding behind it, so the Muslims should come and kill him (Buhhari, Jihad, 4.2925-26).

Narrated 'Abdullah bin 'Umar: Allah's Apostle said, "You (i.e. Muslims) will fight with the Jews till some of them will hide behind stones. The stones will (betray them) saying, 'O 'Abdullah (i.e. slave of Allah)! There is a Jew hiding behind me; so kill him.'" (4.2925, with small mechanical edits, and the parenthetical comments are the translator’s.)