Judaism’s Views on Muhammad
Very few texts in Judaism refer to or take note of the Islamic prophet, Muhammad. Those that do, generally reject Muhammad’s proclamation of receiving divine revelations from God and label him instead as a false prophet.
In Judaism, prophets were seen as having attained the highest degree of holiness, scholarship, and closeness to God and set the standards for human perfection. The Talmud reports that there were more than a million prophets, but most of the prophets conveyed messages that were intended solely for their own generation and were not reported in Scripture. The Talmud reports that there were prophets among the gentiles (most notably Balaam, whose story is told in Numbers 22, and Job, who is considered a non-Jew by most rabbinical opinions). The prophet Jonah was sent on a mission to speak to the gentiles of the city of Nineveh.
References to Muhammad
In the Middle Ages, it was common for Jewish writers to describe Muhammad as ha-meshuggah (“the madman”), a term of contempt frequently used in the Bible for those who believe themselves to be prophets.
In the 7th century and during the life of Muhammad himself, many Jewish leaders and individual Jews made public their views on him or those who followed, especially but not limited if it concerned their communities. Among others, the old sage and man of letters Abu ‘Afak from the Ubaeda tribe who wrote a poem which would be indicted by Muhammad himself, as warranting the capital sentence by assassination. The extant of it was preserved in Islamic biography and it may have been less severe,
Long have I lived but never have I seen
An assembly or collection of people
More faithful to their undertaking
And their allies when called upon
Than the sons of Qayla when they assembled,
Men who overthrew mountains and never submitted.
A rider who came to them split them in two
(saying) “Permitted”, “Forbidden”, of all sorts of things.
Had you believed in glory or kingship
You would have followed Tubba.
The apostle [Muhammad] said, “Who will deal with this rascal for me?”
Maimonides referred to Muhammad as a false prophet and an insane man. In his Epistle to Yemen he wrote “After [Jesus] arose the Madman who emulated his precursor [Jesus], since he paved the way for him. But he added the further objective of procuring rule and submission [talb al-mulk; pursuit of sovereignty] and he invented what was well known [Islam].”
In his authoritative work of law the Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Melakhim 11:10–12), Maimonides indicated that nevertheless Muhammad was part of God’s plan of preparing the world for the coming of the Jewish Messiah: “All those words of Jesus of Nazareth and of this Ishmaelite [i.e., Muhammad] who arose after him are only to make straight the path for the messianic king and to prepare the whole world to serve the Lord together. As it is said: ‘For then I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech so that all of them shall call on the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord’ (Zephaniah 3:9).”
Natan’el al-Fayyumi, a prominent 12th-century Yemenite rabbi and theologian, and the founder of what is sometimes called “Jewish Ismailism”, wrote in his philosophical treatise Bustan al-Uqul(“Garden of Wisdom”) that God sends prophets to establish religions for other nations, which do not have to conform to the precepts of the Jewish Torah. Nethanel explicitly considered Muhammad a true prophet, who was sent from Heaven with a particular message that applies to the Arabs, but not to the Jews. However, Al-Fayymi’s explicit acceptance of Muhammad’s prophecy was rare and virtually unknown until recent times beyond his native Yemen.
The apocalyptic Midrash Secrets (Nistarot) of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, compares Muhammad, “a prophet sent to Ishmael according to God’s will”, to the Jewish Messiah. According to this text, ascribed to the famous 1st-century sage and mystic Simeon bar Yochai, and apparently written at the beginning of the Muslim conquest or in the 8th century, Muhammad’s role as a prophet includes redeeming the Jews from the Christian (“Roman” or “Edomite”) oppression and playing a positive role in the messianic process.
Obscure and indirect references
One Yemenite Jewish document, found in the Cairo Genizah, suggests that many Jews had not only accepted Muhammad as a prophet, but even desecrated Sabbath in order to join Muhammad in his struggle. However, some historians suggest that this document, called Dhimmat an-nabi Muhammad (Muhammad’s Writ of Protection), has been fabricated by Yemenite Jews for the purpose of self-defence.
A number of stories from the Islamic tradition about Muhammad entered mainstream Jewish thought incidentally, due to the great cultural convergence in Islamic Spain from the 9th to 12th centuries, known as the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry. For example, Rabbi Jacob Joseph of Polonne, one of the early Hasidic mystics, wrote that one pious man (hasid) taught that the internal struggle against the evil inclination is greater than external battle, quoting Bahya ibn Paquda’s popular treatise Chovot HaLevavot. In the Judeo-Arabic original version of that book, Bahya Ibn Paquda refers to both external and internal battle as jihad and the “pious man” about whom the story is originally told is Muhammad, though the author does not mention his source by name.
- Norman A. Stillman (1979). The Jews of Arab lands: a history and source book. Jewish Publication Society. p. 236. ISBN978-0-8276-0198-7. Retrieved 26 December 2011.
- Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism By Ibn Warraq Page 255
- The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism: From Sacred Texts to Solemn History page 21
- Norman Roth. Jews, Visigoths, and Muslims in Medieval Spain: Cooperation and Conflict, BRILL, 1994, p. 218.
- A. James Rudin. Christians & Jews Faith to Faith: Tragic History, Promising Present, Fragile Future, Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010, pp. 128–129.
- The Bustan al-Ukul, by Nathanael ibn al-Fayyumi, edited and translated by David Levine, Columbia University Oriental Studies Vol. VI, p. 105
- Gan ha-Sekhalim, ed. Kafih (Jerusalem, 1984), ch. 6.
- Abraham’s children: Jews, Christians, and Muslims in conversation, by Norman Solomon, Richard Harries, Tim Winter, T&T Clark Int’l, 2006, ISBN0-567-08161-3, p. 137 Netanel’s work was virtually unknown beyond his native Yemen until modern times, so had little influence on later Jewish thought.
- The History of Jerusalem: The Early Muslim Period, by Joshua Prawer and Haggai Ben-Shammai, NYU Press, 1996, ISBN978-0814766392, p. 304
- Abraham’s children: Jews, Christians, and Muslims in conversation, by Norman Solomon, Richard Harries, Tim Winter, T&T Clark Int’l, 2006, ISBN0-567-08161-3, p. 133 “Nistarot” places the Muslim conquests in an eschatological context, and implies that Muhammad had a positive role to play in the messianic process.
- Yakov Rabkin “Perspectives on the Muslim Other in Jewish Tradition” (126 KB)
- A Sufi-Jewish Dialogue: Philosophy and Mysticism in Bahya ibn Paquda’s Duties of the Heart, by Diana Lobel, University of Pennsylvania Press, ISBN0-8122-3953-9, p. ix “How does a perennially popular manual of Jewish piety come to be quoting Islamic traditions about the Prophet Muhammad? Muslim Spain of the tenth through twelfth century, known as the “Golden Age” of Hispano-Jewish poetry and letters, is a time of great convergence and cultural creativity.”
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