The paper describes the broad contextual setting for Islam’s theological position on Judaism and Christianity which is essential for an examination of the political engagement of the Muslims with the three major Jewish tribes in Medina.
In describing the Islamic theology on Judaism and Christianity, Montville cited Ismail al Faruqi’s explanation that Islam’s clear respect and reverence for Judaism and Christianity, their founders, and sacred texts is not a matter of graciousness and good manners. It is rather recognition of religious truth.
Joe Montville went to say that it is ironic that the organic theology of connectedness of Islam to Judaism and Christianity – that the three monotheistic religions were indeed an Abrahamic family – exposed the Muslims to the pain of rejection by their older siblings who did not accept that they were a family at all. Montville identifies this as the psychological setting within which Muhammad and the Muslims from Mecca found themselves when they began building the UMMA or the community of believers, including the Jews of Yathrib, which would soon be called Medina.
In preparation for the Hijra to Medina, Montville thought that the Prophet looked forward to a warm welcome from his fellow monotheists, and expected the Jews of Medina to join with the Muslims in opposition to the paganism of the Arabs. Indeed, Muhammad told the Muslims to pray in the direction of Jerusalem. He had instructed his representative in Medina to organize Muslims for prayers on Friday, the day on which Jews prepared for the Sabbath starting at sundown and lasting all Saturday until sundown. Montville also noted that Muhammad was impressed by the Jewish twenty four hour fast of Yum Kippur – the Day of Atonement. The Prophet decided that the Muslims would also fast that day. Also, and in line with Jewish custom, the Prophet set noon-time for Muslim prayers. Then came a revelation that permitted Muslims to eat the food of the Jews and Christians and to marry their women.
However, the three major Jewish tribes: Banu Qaynuga’a, Banu Nadir and Banu Quraytha would emerge as serious opponents to the Muslims. They had serial alliances with either the Aws or the Khazraj, the principal pagan Arab tribes. Some of the Arab leaders were unreliable partners of the Prophet. They were called “Hypocrites”. These leaders and the three Jewish tribes became increasingly wary of Muhammad’s growing political and military power, particularly after the Muslims prevailed in the battle of Badr, Uhud, and the Trench in 624, 625 and 627 CE, respectively.
When Banu Qaynuqa and Banu Nadir proved to be disloyal to mutual support agreements they have made with the Prophet and a threat to his security, he ordered the first two tribes expelled from Medina. Indeed, troops from the exiled Banu Nadir joined the confederation to defeat the Muslims at the battle of the Trench. In this conflict, Banu Quraytha apparently colluded with the attacking Meccan commander. After he defeated the Meccans, Muhammad assigned a respected Arab arbitrator, whose tribe had allied with Banu Quraytha. The latter invoked both Torah and traditional tribal law and ruled that the men – 700 to 800 – be executed and the women and children be sold into slavery. Bau Quraytha had some 1500 swords, 200 lances, 300 suits of armor and 500 shields; but they could not resist the more militarily powerful Muslims and their Arab allies in Media.
Montville concluded that as tough and bloody as the power struggles were in Mecca and Medina, the Prophet and Islam ultimately prevailed. The Prophet and the Muslims continued to perceive and deal with Jews and Christians as people of the Book and many Muslims actively pursued knowledge from Jewish and Christian scriptures.