An Unorthodox Rabbi Who Allied Himself With Prophet Muhammad*
By Rabbi Allen S. Maller
Many Jews supported Muhammad when he arrived in Medina. I learned about one of them from Dr. Muqtedar Khan, a professor of Political Science, at the University of Delaware, who says Mukhayriq, a Rabbi from Medina is a story that contemporary Imams rarely tell their congregations.
“I have heard stories about the battle of Uhud, one of prophet Muhammad’s major battles with his Meccan enemies, from Imams and Muslim preachers hundreds of times, but not once,” writes Dr. Khan, “ have I heard the story of Rabbi Mukhayriq who died fighting in that battle against the enemies of Islam… Rabbi Mukhayriq was the first Jewish martyr of Islam.”
“Mukhayriq, a learned leader of the tribe of Tha’labah, fought and died alongside Prophet Muhammed in the battle of Uhud on March 19, 625 CE. That day was a Saturday; the Jewish Sabbath. Rabbi Mukhayriq spoke to his congregation asking them to go with him to help Muhammed. His tribe’s men declined because it was the Sabbath. Mukhayriq announced to his people that he was going to fight alongside Muhammad and if he died in the battle his wealth should go to Muhammed to be distributed as charity.”
Most Orthodox Jews in those days would not wage war on the Sabbath, unless it was a defensive war. As early as the first century, Jews serving in the Roman army were actually exempted from fighting on the Sabbath. Since the pagan Arabs of Mecca were not coming to attack them, or the three Jewish tribes living in Medina, or the pagan Arab tribes the Jewish tribes had long been allied with, the Orthodox Jewish view was: do not fight on the Sabbath.
The Torah (Deuteronomy 20:8-10) says:
Jewish men who are afraid or disheartened (by thoughts of fighting on the Sabbath) should be told to go home.
The Mishnah, the first legal code (Fiq) of the oral rabbinic Torah states that there are two types of war. A war of defense which is obligatory for all Jewish adult men, and all other wars, which are voluntary.
Rabbi Mukhayriq’s view was unorthodox. He must have seen Muhammad as a Prophet of the One God. He also knew Prophet Muhammad had told his Muslim followers to pray facing north toward the site of Solomon’s Temple, although this was later changed to facing south towards Mecca. Thus, this unorthodox rabbi viewed fighting alongside Muhammad as his personal voluntary fight in support of monotheism.
Perhaps Rabbi Mukhayriq had already heard directly from Prophet Muhammad the Ayah:
“There are certainly, among Jews and Christians, those who believe in God, in the revelation to you, and in the revelation to them, bowing in humility to God. They will not sell the signs of God for a miserable gain! For them is a reward with their Lord.” (Al Imran:199) and believed that it applied to Jews like him.
Mukhayriq did die in battle against the Meccans that Sabbath. When Prophet Muhammed, who was seriously injured in that same battle, was informed about the death of Rabbi Mukhayriq, he said,
“He was the best of Jews.”
Prophet Muhammed inherited seven date gardens from Rabbi Mukhayriq and used this wealth to establish the first waqf – a charitable endowment – of Islam. From this endowment many poor people were helped in Medina.
Some people deny that Rabbi Mukhayriq died fighting alongside Prophet Muhammad because they misunderstand a comment of the Prophet about another group of Jewish fighters who came from a tribe who were allies of the Al-Khazraj.
The Prophet did not want Jews to transgress their Sabbath just because of a political alliance. He thought the people of the book should be faithful to their religion just as the Muslims should be faithful to Islam.
According to a chapter on the Battle of Uhad in a book written in the 1970’s (The Sealed Nector by Saifur Rahman al-Mubarakpuri, Page 157-158), “The Prophet divided his army into three battalions.
The third was a combined force of Al-Ansari and Khazraj fighters. Upon passing along the Al-Wada‘ mountain trail Muhammad saw a well-armed battalion alongside the main body of the army.
The Prophet inquired who they were and was told they were Jewish allies of the Al-Khazraj. They told him that they wanted to contribute to the fight against the idolaters.
“Have they embraced Islam?” The Prophet asked. “No,” they said.
So he refused admitting them into the army saying that he would not seek the assistance of disbeliever Jews (for transgressing the Sabbath for political reasons) against the idolaters.”
Dr. Khan teaches us that “Mukhayriq’s story is a story of an individual’s ability to transcend communal divides and to fight for a more inclusive idea of community… He was a Jew and he was an Islamic hero and his story must never be forgotten and must be told and retold. When Muslims forget to remember his, and other stories that epitomize interfaith relations they diminish the legacy of Islam and betray the cause of peace.”
If Muslim Imams told his story in their congregations in America and elsewhere, I am confident that it will contribute to manifestations of increased tolerance by Muslims towards others. There are many such wonderful examples of brotherhood, tolerance, sacrifice and good citizenship in Islamic traditions that undergird the backbone of Islamic ethics. I wish we told them more often.”
I agree with Dr. Khan. I first studied Islam when I was a student at UCLA over 55 years ago, Then again while I was in Rabbinical school. Over the years I continued to read the Qur’an and other Islamic books.
I read these books as the Prophet taught his followers in a Hadith “not as a believer, and not as a disbeliever”. What does that mean?
The Qur’an, of course, is sacred scripture for Muslims. A disciple of Muhammad named Abu Huraira related, “The people of the Book used to read the Torah in Hebrew and then explain it in Arabic to the Muslims. Allah’s Apostle said (to the Muslims). “Do not believe the people of the Book, nor disbelieve them, but say, ‘We believe in Allah, and whatever is revealed to us, and whatever is revealed to you.’”
Following Muhammad’s teaching I too neither believe nor disbelieve in the Qur’an. If I believed in the Qur’an I would be a member of the Muslim ummah (community).
But I cannot disbelieve in the Qur’an because I believe that Muhammad is a prophet and I respect the Qur’an as a kindred revelation, first revealed to a kindred people, in a kindred language.
In fact, the people, the language and the theology are closer to my own people, language and theology than that of any other on earth.
Thus, I feel that I am a Muslim Jew i.e. a faithful Jew submitting to the will of God, because I am a Reform Rabbi. (Reform Jews are now the largest of the Jewish denominations in the U.S. In the U.K.. Reform Judaism is called Liberal Judaism.) As a Rabbi I am faithful to the covenant that God made with Abraham, the first muslim Jew, and I submit to be bound by the covenant and commandments that God made with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai.
As a Reform Rabbi I believe that Rabbis should modify Jewish traditions to prevent them from making religion too hard to practice. This important teaching in the Qur’an (7:157) was taught by Prophet Muhammad 12 centuries before the rise of Reform Judaism in the early 19th century Germany.
As Abu Huraira related: The Prophet said,
“Religion is very easy and whoever overburdens himself in his religion will not be able to continue in that way. So you should not be extremists, but try to be near to perfection and receive the good tidings that you will be rewarded.” (Bukhari book 2 #38)
May the faithful believers of all religions commit themselves to this excellent teaching.
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