In the year 570 CE, in the city of Mecca, in what is today Saudi Arabia, the man Mohammed was born. He would become the founder of Islam, a mighty monotheistic religion that has over a billion-and-a-half adherents, a religion that would exert a great influence on civilization and the history of humanity in general.
According to Islam, a Muslim is someone who is “subservient to” or who serves God. Muslims object to being called “Mohammedans” because it is blasphemous to say that Mohammed was a god.
The religion of Islam is a purely monotheistic faith which is built in to a great extent upon Judaic ideas. In fact, in the Quran, the book of Islam, one finds many direct quotes not only from Tanach, but even from the Talmud. Mohammed himself lived in an area that at the time had a large Jewish population. Therefore, he was well acquainted with the ideas and customs of the Jews. He even tailored his new religion to try to attract Jews.
He was born into a famous clan that still exists today among the Arabs: the Hashemite family. This family rules Saudi Arabia as well as Jordan. In fact, the country of Jordan today is called “The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.”
Mohammed’s father died before he was born, and his mother died before he was six. Orphaned at a young age, he was raised by Bedouin Arabs. In his early youth, he became a camel driver, then a caravan leader and then a merchant.
When he turned 25, he took a rich widow and her entourage on a caravan and did such a splendid job that she married him. She was almost 20 years older than he was, but she would play a major role in his life. She is the one that supported and encouraged him. She also bore him a daughter who would become famous in her own right, Fatima. The years that Mohammed was married to the wealthy woman were the most tranquil and normal in his life. After her death, his lifestyle changed radically.
The True Believer
The Arabs at that time were polytheistic and Mohammed objected to that in the worst way. He claimed to have seen a vision in which the angel Gabriel came to him and told him that he was being given an assignment by God to go forth and preach to the Arabs the doctrine of monotheism, and that all the idols had to be eradicated and destroyed.
In the streets of Mecca there were many people who walked around and said they had visions. It is a very hot climate, and hashish is plentiful. But he did not want to be regarded as just another crazy man, so he was afraid to tell anyone. This is where his wife’s support came in. She believed in the vision and encouraged him until he finally went public with it.
Until then, the people in Mecca let him alone. He was not really disturbing anyone. But when he proclaimed himself a prophet, the authorities began to fear that he would stir a rebellion. Therefore, they started to give him a very hard time.
It is during this period that Mohammed began to flesh out a little his religion. Based on the tenet of monotheism, he placed a great deal of stress on moral codes, on behavior between human beings. A great many of these ideas bore a striking similarity to ideas in Judaism.
However, he eventually claimed to have a vision in which God told him and his followers that they were not making enough headway by merely trying to convince people with words. If people were not going to get convinced with words, then he should convince them with the sword.
Mohammed and the Jews
While Mohammed’s following was still small, he and his group were forced to flee Mecca to save their lives. That took place in the year 622 CE. His trip from Mecca to the city of Medina became known in Islam as the hijra (also hegira, which means “migration” in Arabic). Medina was then called Yathrib. Its name was eventually changed to Medina, which is short for Medinat Nabi, the “city (or county) of the prophet.” (Medina is the same word in Hebrew, meaning city or country.)
Medina was a city with a very large Jewish population. There were three major Jewish clans who controlled a great deal of the commerce and politics in the town. Therefore, when Mohammed came to Medina, he tailored his religion to make it more attractive to Jews. For instance, he instituted the right of praying toward Jerusalem, the same way that the Jews pray. A few years later, when he caught on that the Jews were not going to become Muslims, he changed it to praying toward Mecca. However, for the first few years, the Muslims prayed facing Jerusalem.
He also introduced the prohibition against pork. He introduced the method of slaughtering animals similar to shechitah. He introduced many things that were similar to Jewish practices.
All of this was done with the conviction that the Jews would accept the new religion, much as the Christians were also convinced that the Jews somehow would accept their new religion. When it became obvious that the Jews were not going to accept the religion, he became very strongly anti-Jewish.
Not surprisingly, the Quran contains some of the most awful statements in world literature regarding the Jewish people. There are also statements that are not as vicious, but the problem with the Quran is that if one wants to be a rabid, anti-Semitic fanatic one can, on the basis of the Quran, justify everything that he is doing.
When Mohammed realized that the Jews rejected him he took direct action and his followers assassinated the leaders of the Jewish tribes. One of Mohammed’s later wives was a Jewess; she had been taken captive in one of his campaigns against the Jewish tribes outside of Medina.
After Mohammed’s forces destroyed all of his enemies in Medina they turned toward Mecca. His army marched into the city, destroyed all opposition and forcibly converted everyone there, as well as those in neighboring villages. He thus built for himself a strong base of power with a large army, whose avowed purpose was to go forth, conquer the rest of the Middle East and convert it to Islam.
Mohammed is the one who invented – or at least introduced — the concept of the jihad, or holy war, into the Muslim religion. He said that anyone who dies in the jihad receives the greatest rewards in the afterlife. The Muslim afterlife has much more tangible rewards than the spiritual “World to Come” of Judaism or even of Christianity. The Muslim afterlife is wine, women, and song—not necessarily in that order. Therefore, he had a relatively easy time convincing others that death in a jihad was to be viewed as nothing to be feared.
Over the centuries, the Muslims have been able to raise such a fervor among themselves for these types of holy wars that outsiders tend to associate Islam with jihad more than anything else.
Life After Mohammed
One has to realize that in a single century — roughly between the years 600 and 700 — the Muslims swept the entire Middle East. At the height of Mohammed’s powers, Muslim armies had swept up from the Saudi Arabian peninsula through Palestine into Babylonia and Syria, all the way up into Turkey. Then they swept east into what is today Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan. Then they swept west into what is today Egypt and the Sudan, Libya and the northern coast of Africa. They even came to the gates of Vienna and almost took over Europe. The entire face of the world was changed by the coming of the Muslims.
Then Mohammed made the mistake of dying.
A problem which always exists, especially in dictatorships or authoritarian rules, is the problem of succession. Who is going to take over? This led to the major split in the Muslim world, a split that exists until today: the split between the Sunni Muslims and the Shi’ite Muslims.
When he died, the majority of the elders of the Muslim religion met and elected new leaders. However, Mohammed had a daughter, Fatima, and she had a husband, Ali, and he claimed the right of succession by the fact that he was related to Mohammed. He thus became the founder of the Shi’ites.
The Sunnis took a less literal view of the Quran. They had extra-textual traditions that modified the words of the Quran, and these generally relaxed some of the extremism. The Shi’ites took the Quran literally, without any tradition to leaven it, to lighten it, so to speak.
About two-thirds of the Muslim world today is Sunni, and one-third Shi’ite. The Muslim religion was originally supposed to be for the Arabs only. And the Arabs do basically control it. The Sharif (Governor) of Mecca, for instance, is from the Hashemite family. Nevertheless, most Muslims in the world are not Arabs. A great deal of Asia is Muslim. All of Indonesia and Malaysia are Muslims. A great deal of Africa is Muslim. Therefore, you have a combination of different groups and different races, but basically it is a religion of the desert, a religion for the Arabs.
Jewish Reaction to the Rise of Islam
After the first century of Muslim rule, from about the year 720 on, even though the Jews would never have an easy life among the Muslims, and even though they never would be treated with respect let alone equality, they did not feel the terrible persecutions. There were exceptions, such as the Almohads in the 12th century, but generally speaking they did not feel the type of persecution that, for instance, the Jews in Christian Europe felt throughout the Middle Ages.
Furthermore, for a long period of time, the Muslims were the leaders of civilization in terms of art, music, literature, poetry, astronomy and mathematics. The Jews were able to relate to that.
Arguably, their greatest invention – probably the most significant invention since the wheel — was the invention of Arabic numerals, which are the basis of all modern mathematics. Imagine making advanced calculations if you had to multiply with Roman numerals.
Some of these advances were no doubt due to war. Unfortunately, most of the major advances in human technology over the centuries have been either because of war or by-products of war. Since the Muslims were fierce warriors, and were always engaged in war, they naturally made great technological advances. The study of how to heal war wounds alone, for instance, helped them become skilled doctors. They were especially expert in healing cuts and amputations. Even in the Roman Empire, a doctor was little more than a soothsayer or magician. Advances in the study of medicine and the transformation of the station of the doctor into a serious profession are contributions of the Arabs.
Because of their love of words, they became poets and authors. We have vestiges of the literature of the Arab world from that time. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is probably the most famous, but there are other vestiges of poetry, word plays, puns, stories that all became part of the Muslim culture.
And it became part of the Jewish culture also.
It is no accident that this time period also begins the age of the piyyutim (singular, piyut) in Jewish prayer. A piyut is a special poem inserted into the prayers. Jews often are influenced by the surrounding culture. Arab culture influenced Jews to become poets. The Jews directed it towards holy and sublime goals, but the idea to use words in inventive ways is characteristic of the times.
The Muslims became very great in philosophy. They inherited Aristotle, because the Church, which needed Aristotle and would use it later with Aquinas, was asleep for these centuries. When the Arabs got hold of all the classical works, they read them and developed ideas in philosophy.
When they came to debate the Jews, the Jews had to answer. Therefore, we will find for the first time – during roughly the seventh to the ninth centuries – classic Jewish philosophers. The Jews learned Arabic because the books were written in Arabic.
Arabic is a sister language to Hebrew. It is a Semitic language. Maimonides wrote his famous commentary to the Mishnah in Arabic, as well as his Guide for the Perplexed. That could not be done if the culture would not have supported it.
Jews adopted Arabic as their second language. It would not until the end of the Spanish Era that the Jews would give up Arabic and adopt Ladino as a second language to be spoken.
In matters of religion, Islam had zero influence upon the Jews. But in matters of culture, it had an enormous influence. It changed all of Jewish culture. That, combined with the decline of Europe in the Dark Ages, shifted the whole emphasis toward the Arabic world. Jews were now living in an Arab society, a Muslim society, and the response of the Jewish people to that is what is reflected in the works and in the life of the Jews during that period of time.