By Abdullah Craig Walker
This is the second part of the series. The author focuses here on the Jewish-Muslim history, Muslim Jurists and the Rules of Protected Minorities, and The Qur’an’s Portrayal of the Jews. To read Part 1, click here.
There is a dearth of available material pertaining to Jewish-Muslim relations during the early period of Islam. Jewish-Muslim relations, which did not begin until the Prophet (peace be upon him) migrated to Medina in 620 c.e., have not been examined in their full historical and socio-political contexts. A few fragmented, sometimes contradictory accounts, derived mainly from Muslim oral sources, were recorded long after the events occurred.
In the expanding world of Islam during the 6th-7th centuries c.e., the aggregation of the distinct cultures, languages and religions of non-Arabs and non-Muslims generated new ideas and created new problems which challenged Muslim rulers. Early Muslim historical recorders were preoccupied, understandably, with the political issues of the early Caliphates – the outbreak of the fitnas (civil wars), the early Shia-Sunni schism, the Shia conflict with the Syrian caliphate, the Umayyad and Abbasid bias. The early writers also were engaged in prevailing theological controversies, and advancing their own views.
Most European scholarship focused narrowly upon the influence of Judaism and Jewish teachings on Islam, the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) disappointment at his rejection by the Jews, the expulsion of two Jewish tribes from Medina, and the execution of enemy combatants who were members of a third Jewish tribe. Syed Barakat Ahmad, a renowned contemporary scholar and diplomat, examined the early Islamic sources and Jewish writings dealing with the relationship between the Jewish tribes, Prophet Muhammad and the Muslims in Medina.(1) He found that, although Muslim historians’ and Orientalists’ research has contributed to an understanding of the Prophet’s relations with the Jews of the Hijaz and Medina, their work was compromised by its reliance upon questionable accounts compiled during the Abbasid Caliphate, more than 120 years after Prophet Muhammad’s death.
Muslim Jurists and the Rules of Protected Minorities
The record of Muslim-Jewish relations is found mainly in the works of Muslim jurists, who expounded upon themes of social and political relationships with dhimmis, i.e. literally “the protected peoples”, or non-Muslim minorities. Within a generation after the birth of Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries c.e., Muslims found themselves in military and political control of vast populations of non-Muslim People of the Book and so-called non-believers in the Middle East, North Africa and West Asia.
The challenges of governance and control of non-Muslim populations presented Muslim authorities with a myriad of legal complexities, including rights of citizenship, arbitration and settlement of individual and family disputes, tribal conflicts, border and property disputes, broken contracts, betrayal of alliances, and even war. A policy of governance gradually evolved known as ahkam al-dhimmah, or the “Rules of the Protected Minorities“, which became the means by which Muslim authorities addressed these issues.
The scriptural basis for the policy of ahkam al-dhimmah is a single, controversial verse in the Qur’an:
Fight those who believe not in God and the Last Day and do not forbid what God and His Messenger have forbidden — such men as practise not the religion of truth, being of those who have been given the Book — until they pay the tribute out of hand and have been humbled. (At-Tawbah 9:29)
The meaning and significance of this verse has been the focus of heated debate among Muslims and scholars for generations. The historical context of this verse, along with variability of the Arabic language when translated, including grammar, syntax, and definitions of specific words and phrases, have contributed greatly to the controversy surrounding it, as well as other verses in the Qur’an. For example, the word “fight” also translates as “oppose”, which is a critical difference. The reference to the “religion of truth” also has two plausible interpretations. One being that the “religion of truth” refers to the revealed Scriptures of the Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — in toto. A second interpretation argues that the phrase refers to Islam exclusively. Muslim political extremists and Jihadists believe that the “religion of truth” refers exclusively to Islam, and that the word “fight” provides Scriptural legitimacy to violent acts committed against non-Muslims and those who oppose them and their interpretations of the Qur’an and Islamic law.
Muhammad (peace be upon him) was the Muslims’ political leader as well as the Prophet of Islam. During his lifetime, all Muslim law and spiritual practice proceeded from him. Upon the Prophet’s death in 632 c.e., religious and political authority passed to His companions, who served in the role of Caliph through 661 c.e.
In 637 c.e., the second Caliph, `Umar ibn al-Khattab, a respected jurist and companion of the Prophet, concluded a treaty known as the Covenant of `Umar with the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Sophronius. The treaty, which outlined the rights and limitations of People of the Book and non-Muslims residing in Syria and Palestine, evolved into the Rules of the Protected Minorities pertaining to non-Muslims in Muslim-controlled regions throughout the world. Of note, the Covenant of `Umar allowed Jews to live inside Jerusalem for the first time in 500 years since their expulsion from the Holy Land. 1,300 years later, many Palestinian Christians and Muslims still regard the Covenant of `Umar as having legal legitimacy.
Although the policy of ahkam al-dhimmah cast non-Muslims minorities in an inferior religious and socio-political status to Muslims, People of the Book were not required to convert to Islam, and Muslim armies were ordered to preserve the Christian institutions they encountered and not to interfere with Jews in their practice of Judaism. Also, non-Muslims were exempted from Zakah, which was obligatory for all Muslim citizens in this early period.
During the period of the 3rd Caliph, the Prophet’s companions recorded and codified His revelations, and the Qur’an became the supreme authority for Muslims. During this early period, as well, the companions orally transmitted their recollections of the words and deeds of the Prophet to the next generation, who passed them on to the next, and so forth. These recollections eventually were recorded and became known as the Hadith.
By the time of the 5th Caliph in 661 c.e., religious authority was no longer vested solely with the Prophet’s companions, who had served as Islam’s first Caliphs. It became dispersed to include the ulema, scholars versed in the Qur’an and Hadith. As the ulema expanded to include Islamic lawyers and judges, the power and influence of the ulema grew accordingly, and they began to determine what was legal and orthodox according to the Qur’an and Hadith.(2)
Controversy surrounds a second treaty defining the policy of ahkam al-dhimmah. The Pact [covenant] of `Umar II was concluded in 717 c.e. under the caliph `Umar II, a great-grandson of `Umar ibn Al-Khattab, with non-Muslims and People of the Book residing in Muslim lands. However, the document apparently exists in different textual forms, and some scholars believe that it may have been the product of later jurists who attributed it to `Umar II in order to lend greater authority to their own opinions.
From the 9th century c.e., the power to interpret and refine the dhimmahh contract was vested solely in the ulema. Since few laws are prescribed in the Qur’an, the ulema were free to issue their own fatwas, or legal opinions(3). Whatever its original intent, the ulema came to interpret the Qur’anic verse in question (At-Tawbah 9:29) to mean that non-Muslims, including People of the Book and non-believers, were to be “opposed” until and unless they submitted to Muslim rule. To ensure the loyalty of indigenous populations under their control, Muslim authorities granted non-Muslim citizens religious and communal autonomy, protection from outside aggression, and exemption from military service in return for payment of the jizyah, a per-capita “protection tax”. The tax levied on all non-Muslim adult males was regarded as evidence of submission to Muslim authorities.
The evolving body of interpretations and decisions of the ulema became an integral part of Islamic law, known as Shar`iah. Many of the jurists’ legal opinions and interpretations relating to People of the Book acquired theological affirmation, and became accepted as Islam’s articulation of the social and religious status of People of the Book, including Jews. However, the practice of transposing the jurists’ interpretations into Islamic theology and Shari`ah, and applying them to all Muslim societies, continues to be the subject of intense controversy and debate among Islamic scholars, educated Muslims, politicians, and others.
Critics point out that doctrinal approbation has been conferred upon jurists’ writings, notwithstanding the fact that the Qur’an prohibits any alterations or additions to revealed text. Other critics argue that it is unreasonable to generalize the work of jurists for all Muslims given the linguistic, geographic, and cultural diversity of Muslim societies. The practical problem is that several generations of Muslims in Asia, Africa and the Middle East have been taught, and have accepted as revealed truth, controversial interpretations of the Qur’an, particularly concerning non-Muslims, in spite of the universality of Qur’anic theology and the example set by the life of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
In summary, the decisions and writings of Muslim jurists, from Medina through the 13th century concerning Jews and non-Muslim minorities, reflected localized secular conditions where Muslims held political power. Although the jurists endeavored to interpret and apply Qur’anic doctrine to the issues brought before them, their judgments nevertheless were influenced by prevailing cultural prejudices and biases, as well as political context. Still, the jurists did not postulate anti-Semitism, as some of their writings have been characterized erroneously.
The Qur’an’s Portrayal of the Jews
The work of Muslim jurists relating to the People of the Book is eclipsed in importance by more fundamental historical factors referenced in the Qur’an. Of greater significance than jurisprudence and legend in deconstructing anti-Semitic interpretations of the Qur’an are the migration of Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina in 622 c.e., known as the Hijrah, and the complex relationships there among the Jewish tribes, Arab clans, the Prophet and his followers during this early period of Islam.
While there is no reliable historical evidence to establish the approximate date of Jewish settlement in Arabia, Arab legends trace their first settlements in Mecca to the time of Moses.(4). At the time of the Prophet’s migration to Medina, historians estimate that there were more than twenty Jewish tribes and clans settled there. These tribes were not Israelites; they were Arab converts.
There is no evidence that that they either spoke or read Hebrew, and therefore would have been unable to read Hebrew scriptures. Modern scholars, such as S. W. Baron(5) and D. S. Margoliouth(6) believe that the Medina Jews’ knowledge of Hebrew Scriptures was limited to a few scrolls of law, and fragmentary Arabic translations of the Torah.
Early Muslim historians paid minimal attention to Muslim-Jewish relations in Medina, where Prophet Muhammad and his Muslim followers first encountered Jews directly. The basic source of Islam’s early history is the Qur’an. However, while the Qur’an is contemporaneous with the Prophet’s life, it is not a history book. Nonetheless, a running commentary of important events that occurred during the Prophet’s lifetime is woven into the Qur’an. While the Qur’an does not provide specific dates or sequence of events, it plays an important role in corroborating many of the actual events which took place during the Apostle’s lifetime.
Prophet Muhammad initially viewed both Christians and Jews as natural allies sharing the core principles of the Qur’anic revelations, and anticipated their acceptance and support.
They are not all alike. Among the People of the Book there is a party who stand by their covenant; they recite the word of Allah in the hours of night and prostrate themselves before Him. They believe in Allah and the Last Day, and enjoin what is good and forbid evil, and hasten, vying with one another, in good works. And these are among the righteous. And whatever good they do, they shall not be denied its due reward; and Allah well knows the God-fearing. (Aal `Imran 3:113-5)
Nonetheless, acceptance and support of the Prophet and His Message by Christians and Jews was not forthcoming. We read in the Qur’an what means:
Say, ‘O People of the Book! you stand on nothing until you observe the Torah and the Gospel and what has now been sent down to you from your Lord.’ And surely, what has been sent down to you from your Lord will increase many of them in rebellion and disbelief; so grieve not for the disbelieving people. (Al-Ma’idah 5:68)
In the early period of revelation, Jews were condemned in the Qur’an for rejecting Muhammad’s prophetic status, and distorting their own scripture in order to discredit the message of the Qur’an. Allah says:
“And how will they make you their judge when they have with them the Torah, wherein is Allah’s judgment? Yet, in spite of that they turn their backs; and certainly they will not believe.” (Al-Ma’idah 5:68)
The Qur’an also admonished Jews for failure to uphold the Torah, and for excessive legalism and exaggerated authoritarianism by some rabbis, issues which Jews themselves have addressed.
And if they had observed the Torah and the Gospel and what has been now sent down to them from their Lord, they would, surely, have eaten of good things from above them and from under their feet. Among them are a people who are moderate; but many of them — evil indeed is that which they do. (Al-Ma’idah 5:67)
Angry polemic was a common characteristic among the emergent Religions of the Book. Their anger was directed against the conjoined religious and political structures that opposed them. Hebrew scriptures railed against idolatrous nations such as the Moabites, Midianites, Assyrians, Egyptians, and Babylonians.
Christian scriptures directed their anger towards Greco-Roman pagans, Roman authorities and Jewish religious leaders. The Qur’an contains angry references to Arab idol-worshipers, as well as to People of the Book (mainly Jews) who rejected the Revelations. In each case, the prophetic revelations and religious movements that grew from them threatened the established social order, and were perceived as revolutionary in the regions where they emerged. The impact of these movements in their historic settings were secular, notwithstanding the fact that their roots were intrinsically spiritual and personal.
(1) Syed Barakat Ahmad, Muhammad and the Jews: A Re-examination, New Delhi: Vikas, 1979.
(2) Patricia Crone and Martin Hinds, God’s Caliph: Religious Authority in the First Centuries of Islam, Cambridge University Press, 1986.
(3) Samuel Shahid, Rights of Non-Muslims in an Islamic State, www.answering-islam.org/NonMuslims/rights.htm , accessed June 3, 2012, summarizes Islamic law (Shari`ah) according to the four principal schools of Islamic jurisprudence, and the written opinions of Islamic scholars and Muftis (Muslim legal authorities).
(4) Amalek,The Encyclopedia of the Jewish Religion, 1965, p 27-8
(5) Salo W. Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, 1937.
(6) David Samuel Margoliouth,The Relations Between Arabs and Israelites Prior to the Rise of Islam, 1924.
This series of articles is published with kind permission from the author.