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Early dynamics in the Arabian Peninsula

Early dynamics in the Arabian Peninsula
Let’s begin with the early days of Islam in the 7th century CE. In the Arabian Peninsula Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, started preaching to the people of Mecca about godly revelations he had had, encouraging them to forsake paganism and promoting a strict monotheism. At this time Arabia was comprised of Christian, Jewish and pagan tribes. Although Muhammad had gained followers, his preaching was not welcomed by the ruling elites of Mecca, and he and his followers were forced to migrate to the city of Medina in 622. There they established their religious community or Ummah. This is seen as the birth of Islam, the second largest religion in the world today.
It was during this time that the first encounters between Jews and Muslims took place. As we will now see, complex attitudes developed between Muhammad and the Jewish tribes of this region. The attitude of Islam towards Jews is very complex. On the one hand, Jews were seen as the natural receiver of Muhammad’s message. He held very close relationships with the Jews of the Arab Peninsula. There were three big tribes of Jews in the area, and he adopted, by the way, several elements of the Jewish tradition.
The Prophet believed at the time that Islam and Judaism are so similar, and they are similar, I mean in terms of religious [law], if you look to the Halakha and the Sharia, you see so many similarities, and also like food, clothing, and so forth. And the Prophet had the idea that he could convince the Jews to become Muslims, to convert to Islam but they did not and that was the grounds of an enmity based on disappointment. Muhammad adopted monotheism, the belief in one God, which was of course the message of Judaism, whereas the tribes of this area were all pagans. So this is why he thought that the Jews will be ready to accept him.
Once they didn’t, the war against them in a way started. Not only by fighting them. At the last phase no Jews remained in the area, and no Jew was allowed to live in the area, except for Yemen by the way, the southern part of the Arab Peninsula.
But he also had to exclude them theologically, exactly as Christianity did with Judaism at the time. The process of excluding them on the one hand, and adopting some of their tenets was a problematic issue exactly as in Christianity in the past. So in this process he had to change some of the tenets, and, on the other hand, to show how the Jews in fact
rejected God’s message and even distorted his message.
But, on the other hand, he could not deny the fact that they were part of what he called “Ahl al-Kitab or “the People of the Book”, because of their monotheism, and he granted them a special status, not only them but also Christianity. So he created several kinds of levels - those who belong to “the People of the Book”, the monotheist religions, and those pagans who have to be fought to the end, either accepting Islam as their religion or fighting to their death.

Dr. Esther Webman, Prof. Bassam Tibi

We first turn to the early days of Islam in 7th century CE Arabia. It was during this time that the first encounters between Jews and Muslims took place.

What attitudes developed between the Prophet Muhammad and the Jewish tribes of this region?


  • Berkey, Jonathan, The Formation of Islam: Religion and Society in the Near East 600-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

  • Donner, Fred M., Muhammad and the Believers (Cambride, M.A.: Harvard University Press, 2012).

  • Gil, Moshe, Jews in Islamic Countries in the Middle Ages (Leiden: Brill, 2004).

  • Lewis, Bernard, The Jews of Islam (Princeton: Princeton, 1984).

  • Stillman, Norman A., The Jews of Arab Lands: A History and Source Book (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1979).

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