What Happened to the Jews of Arabia?
A story that should make every Jew shudder.
Did you know that Saudi Arabia once hosted a thriving Jewish community? For almost a thousand years (three times longer than the Jews have been in America), Jews lived in the oases of Teyma, Khaybar, and Yathrib (later known as Medina), in the northern Arabian Peninsula. According to Dr. Hagai Mazuz, an Orientalist specializing in Arabic language, Islam, and Islamic culture, “The Jewish community of northern Arabia was one of the largest ancient Jewish communities in the history of the Jewish people.”1
They were powerful and wealthy. They were respected by the local Arabian tribes for their religion, culture, erudition, and literacy. They built castles on mountaintops and developed productive plantations. They had military prowess, horses, and advanced weaponry. And they were almost totally annihilated in the short span of a few years.
Their story should make every Jew shudder.
The Jews of Medina were divided into three groups: The Banu Qaynuqa were blacksmiths, weapon wrights, and goldsmiths. The Banu Nadir had date plantations. The Banu QurayUa were wine merchants. These groups often quarreled. Sometimes the hostility among them broke out into actual fighting.
When Mohammed fled from Mecca in 622, he went to Medina. At first, he entered into an alliance with the Jews. He studied in their study halls and adopted many of their customs into his incipient religion (e.g. not eating pork). But when, after two years, Mohammed could not convince the Jews to accept him as a prophet and convert to his religion, his attitude turned toward open hostility. He instructed his friends to murder and decapitate Ka’b Ibn al-Ashraf, a renowned Jewish poet and chief of the Banu Nadir (date farmers tribe), and ordered his followers, “Kill every Jew you can.” 2
Mohammed then besieged the Banu Qaynuqa (blacksmith tribe), knowing that the other two Jewish tribes would not come to their aid. Although the Banu Qaynuqa were proficient warriors, the lack of food and water due to the siege weakened them to the point of surrender.
Stop the story here! If I were reading a Hollywood screenplay that developed like this, I would reject it as unrealistic and absurd. Here the protagonist, Mohammed, has openly declared his intention to kill every Jew. And he has started his killing campaign with the grisly beheading of the head of the date famers tribe.
Is Jewish unity such a bitter pill that Jews would rather swallow cyanide?
Mohammed’s forces at that point were weaker than the combined Jewish forces would have been. Why didn’t the date farmers and the wine merchants unite to break the siege and save the blacksmiths? How could they sit on their hands and let their brethren perish? Even if they hated their fellow Jews, surely they should have realized that uniting in order to eradicate the murderous Mohammed’s forces would be in their long-term self-interest. And these are supposed to be smart Jews? With a sneer, I would toss this screenplay into the wastebasket.
History, however, is less sensible than Hollywood. The other two Jewish tribes did nothing to save the Jewish blacksmiths. After the surrender, Mohammed wanted to slaughter the vanquished tribe, but his ally Abdullah Ibn Ubayyy prevented the massacre, and instead they were exiled to Edri (now in Jordan).
Mohammed confiscated their considerable assets. Strengthened by captured Jewish wealth, one year later Mohammed turned his attention to the next Jewish tribe, the date growers. To ensure that the tribe of the wine merchants would not come to the rescue of their fellow Jews, Mohammed made an alliance with the wine merchants.
This is crazy! The reviewer in me, who has rejected many a far-fetched plot, cannot abide this one. The Jewish wine merchants must have drunk their own stock and become totally plastered to ally themselves with a sworn enemy of the Jews against their own people. Is Jewish unity such a bitter pill that Jews would rather swallow cyanide?
Mohammed’s forces laid siege to the strongholds of the Jewish date farmers in 625. Like the previous Jewish tribe, they succumbed to the siege. Again Abdullah Ibn Ubayyy intervened, and instead of slaughtering the vanquished Jews, Mohammed exiled them to the city of Khaybar, which, according to Muslim tradition, was inhabited by descendants of the Jewish priestly tribe.
Three years later Mohammed conquered Khaybar, the wealthiest city in northern Arabia. Because the Muslims did not know agriculture, Mohammed permitted most of the Jews to live as dhimmis, officially second-class citizens who had to pay exorbitant taxes. Eventually the second Caliph banished the Jews of Khaybar, in obedience to Mohammed’s policy that permitted no religion other than Islam to be practiced in Arabia.
Back in Medina, the wine merchant tribe had only two years to relish their position as the sole surviving Jews. Then, in 627, Mohammed, with 3,000 soldiers, laid siege to their fortress. The Jewish tribe had only 450 trained warriors. Because Abdullah Ibn Ubayyy had died a few months before, the Jews knew that no one would intercede on their behalf. The leader of the besieged Jews proposed that they either convert to Islam or, similar to Masada, kill their own women and children to prevent their being ravished and enslaved, and then fight the Muslims to the death. The Jews rejected both options and offered to surrender and leave Medina.
Mohammed rejected their offer. The vanquished wine merchants tribe, who had twice refused to help the other besieged Jewish tribes, suffered the worst fate. The children were sold as slaves; the women were given to the victorious soldiers “for the Muslims to use,” and the men (except for three who agreed to convert to Islam) were decapitated in the marketplace. According to Muslim tradition, the blood of the decapitated Jews flooded the marketplace of Medina.
A large, powerful, affluent Jewish community was destroyed in just three years. Was it destroyed by Mohammed’s forces or was it destroyed by its own divisiveness?
Our sages say that the Holy Temple was not destroyed by the superiority of the Roman forces. It was destroyed by sinat chinam, senseless hatred among Jews.
“Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” Apparently the Jews of Arabia did not learn from our tragic history.
How many times will we have to play this re-run?
- “Massacre in Medina,” Segula Magazine, issue 3.
- Ibid. Dr. Mazuz, who is a Senior Advisor to the Gatestone Institute, based his article, “Massacred in Medina” on exclusively Muslim sources.