There were many Jews who supported Muhammad when he first arrived in Medina. One of them was Rabbi Mukhayriq, according to Dr. Muqtedar Khan, the founding Director of the Islamic Studies Program at the University of Delaware.
In an article published in December of 2009 on Islamicity, Dr. Khan says there are many stories that contemporary Imams rarely tell their congregations. The story of Rabbi Mukhayriq is one of them.
Dr Khan writes: “I have heard the 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 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.”
Rabbi Mukhayriq was a learned leader of the tribe of Tha’labah, a tribe made up of Jews from the land of Israel who had settled in Medina several centuries earlier, plus a large number of local Arabs who had converted to Judaism over the ensuing generations.”
Rabbi Mukhayriq fought and died alongside Prophet Muhammed in the battle of Uhud on March 19, 625 CE. That day was a Saturday (a very important holy day for Jews).”
Rabbi Mukhayriq spoke to his congregation asking them to go with him to help Muhammed. His tribe’s men declined because it was the day of the Sabbath.”
Rabbi Mukhayriq announced to his people that he would fight to protect Muhammad from the pagan Arabs of Mecca; and he did fight and die in battle against the Meccans on that Shabbat.
“When Prophet Muhammed, who was seriously injured in that battle, was informed about the death of Rabbi Mukhayriq, he said, “He was the best of Jews.”
Why did the Jews of Medina not join the fight against the pagan Arabs of Mecca? Most Orthodox Jews in those days would not wage war on the Sabbath, unless it was clearly a defensive war.
Since the pagan Arabs of Mecca were not coming to attack 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: this is not a defensive war and so we do not fight on the Sabbath.
Rabbi Mukhayriq’s view was unorthodox. He, like many of the Jews in Medina, must have seen Muhammad as a Prophet of the One God. He, like all the Jews in Medina, also knew that when Prophet Muhammad and his followers first arrived in Madinah in 622 CE, Muhammad had found Jews there who were fasting.
When he asked them the reason for their fasting on this day. They said,” This is a blessed day. On this day Allah saved the Children of Israel from their enemy (in Egypt) and so Prophet Musa [Moses] fasted on this day giving thanks to Allah.”
Among Orthodox Jews all firstborn males should fast on the day before Erev Pesach. The fathers of firstborn boys under the age of 13 fast in their stead.
The prevailing custom among most Orthodox Jews today however, is for the firstborn to exempt themselves from the obligation to fast by participating in a seudat mitzvah (a meal marking the fulfillment of a mitzvah), such as the conclusion of the study of a section of Torah).
The Prophet said, “We are closer to Musa than you are.” He fasted on that day and commanded Muslims to fast on this day. (Al-Bukhari)
The following year, Allah commanded the Muslims to fast for the month of Ramadan, and the fasting of ‘Ashura’ became optional.
Prophet Muhammad had also 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.
All of these actions made a positive impression on many of the Jews in Medina.
But, why did Rabbi Mukhayriq give such extraordinary support to Prophet Muhammad?
Perhaps Rabbi Mukhayriq believed that Prophet Muhammad was not only a Prophet, but was also one of God’s Anointed.
Muhammad, with his Arab followers, would enable and facilitate the Jewish people’s return to the land of Israel as it is predicted in the Bible; just as the Persian King Cyrus the Great (who is called one of God’s Anointed by prophet Isaiah) had enabled and facilitated the return of Jews to Israel eleven centuries earlier.
The fact that the Persians had just a few years previously (614 CE) captured the Land of Israel from the Eastern Roman Empire may, in the rabbi’s mind, have stimulated this belief.
Thus, this unorthodox rabbi viewed fighting alongside Muhammad as his personal voluntary fight in support of monotheism as well as a witness to his faith in the arrival of one of God’s Anointed Messiahs.
Although everyone has heard of the final Son of David Messiah, the rabbis also speak of a Son of Joseph Messiah who will precede the the Son of David).
Of course, when Rabbi Mukhayriq made the decision to risk his life fighting along side Muhammad at the battle of Uhud, much of the Qur’an had not yet been revealed.
But since the chapter Al-A’raf had already been revealed in Makka, this unorthodox rabbi may also have been inspired by the Qur’an’s statement:
“Moses said to his people: “Pray for help from the Lord, and (wait) in patience and constancy: for the Land is his, to give as an inheritance to whoever He wanted”. (7:128) and “We made people, who were considered weak (oppressed slaves like The Children of Israel), inheritors of lands in both east and west, – lands whereon We sent down Our blessings. The fair promise of your Lord was fulfilled for the Children of Israel, because they had patience and constancy”. (7:137)
The only verses in the Quran that mentioned God giving land to a people as an inheritance are the ones just quoted and this specific statement: “Thus it was, but We made the Children of Israel inheritors of it [the Land of Israel]”.(26: 59)
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.” (3:199) and believed that it applied to Jews like him.
Unfortunately, Prophet Muhammad died just four years before the Muslim conquest of the Land of Israel. Although Jews were then able to settle in Jerusalem, there was no equivalent of King Cyrus’s decree supporting rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem.
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.”
Dr. Kahn writes that when Muslims forget Rabbi Mukhayriq’s story, and other stories that epitomize good 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 almost 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.
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 I wrote at the beginning of this essay, Rabbi Mukhayriq announced to his congregation that he would fight to protect Muhammad from his enemies among the pagan Arabs of Mecca.
Rabbi Mukhayriq also stated that if he died in the battle he wanted his estate to go to Prophet Muhammed to be distributed as charity.
Prophet Muhammed inherited seven date palm gardens and other forms of wealth from Rabbi Mukhayriq and he used this wealth to establish the first waqf (a charitable endowment) of Islam.
It was from Rabbi Mukhayriq’s endowment that the Prophet of Islam helped many poor people in Medina.
Perhaps if the legacy of Rabbi Mukhayriq’s endowment had been known by most of the Jewish and Muslim population in Palestine during the 19th century the conflict in the 20th century could have been avoided.
It is still not too late for it to inspire both Jews and Muslims in the 21th century to understand and appreciate each other better. May the faithful believers in the religious legacy of Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac commit themselves to this holy goal.