Why Would A Rabbi Risk His Life For Prophet Muhammad?

Ibn Ishaq, the earliest biographer of Prophet Muhammad, relates an amazing story about Rabbi Mukhayriq, a wealthy and learned leader of the tribe of Tha’labah, one of three Jewish tribes that had lived in Medina for centuries; who fought along side Prophet Muhammad in the battle of Uhud on March 19, 625 AD, and died in that battle. 

That day was a Saturday. Rabbi Mukhayriq had addressed the people of his tribe and urged them to go with him to fight alongside Muhammad. The tribe's men said that today is the day of Sabbath.  According to Halakah (orthodox Jewish Shari’ah) we are not supposed to go to war on the Sabbath unless we are being attacked. The pagan Arabs from Makkah will not attack us, they only want to persecute the Muslims in Medina as they did for so many years in Makkah. 

The Torah (Deuteronomy 20:8-10) says: Jewish men who are afraid or disheartened (by thoughts of fighting on the Sabbath) should be told to go home. The Mishnah, the first legal code (Fiqh) of the oral rabbinic Torah states that there are two types of war. A war of defense which is obligatory for all Jewish adult men, and all other wars, which are voluntary. 

But the majority of the Jews in the three Jewish tribes living in Medina, who did support Prophet Muhammad, were hesitant to fully support him because they were afraid that after his death, the majority of Muhammad’s ex-polytheist followers would return to polytheism, and turn Muhammad into a son of God, just as the majority of the ex-polytheist, non-Jewish followers of Prophet Jesus had done. Those ex-pagan trinitarians then persecuted Jews for centuries because Jews would not accept Jesus as the Son of God. No Jew wanted to see that happen again. 

Perhaps Rabbi Mukhayriq did not believe that this would happen again because he knew the Prophet had said, "Do not exaggerate in praising me as the Christians praised the son of Mary, for I am only a slave [of God]. So, call me the Slave of Allah and His Apostle" (Bukhari: Prophets. 654).

In any case, Rabbi Mukhayriq announced that if he died in the battle, his entire wealth should go to Muhammad. Mukhayriq did die that day in battle against the Makkans. When Muhammad, who was seriously injured in that same battle, was informed about the  death of Rabbi Mukhayriq, Muhammad said, "He was the best of Jews."

Rabbi Mukhayriq's view was unorthodox. He must have seen Muhammad as a Prophet of the One God. He also knew Prophet Muhammad had told his Muslim followers to pray facing north toward the site of Solomon's Temple, although this was later changed to facing south towards Makkah. Thus, this unorthodox rabbi viewed fighting alongside Muhammad as his personal voluntary fight in support of monotheism.

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; who with his Arab followers would enable and facilitate the Jewish people's return to the land of Israel as was predicted in the Bible; just as the Persian King Cyrus the Great; who is called one of God's Anointed by Prophet Isaiah (45:1) had enabled and facilitated the return of Jews to Israel eleven centuries earlier. 

The Persian King Cyrus is mentioned twenty-three times in the literature of the books of the Hebrew Bible. Isaiah refers to this non-Jewish king as God’s “shepherd,” and as the Lord’s “Anointed,” who was destined to facilitate the divine plan to return the Jewish People to the Land of Israel.

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 other pre-Messianic Age figures including Elijah and a Son of Joseph Messiah, who will precede the the Son of David.

This is not only my view. There is a ninth or tenth century apocalyptic Midrash called “The Prayer of Rabbi Shimon ben Yokhai”, an end of the second century CE, well known mystic and visionary, who after 40 days and nights of prayer, had a vision of the Kenites (Byzantine Romans); followed by a vision of the kingdom of Ishmael (the Arabs) who will succeed the Byzantine Romans. 

The archangel Mettatron then informed Rabbi Shimon ben Yokhai that: “The kingdom of the Kenites (the future Byzantine Romans) will come to Jerusalem, subdue it, and murder more than thirty thousand (people) in it. Because of the oppression which they (the Byzantine Romans) oppress Israel (the Jewish People) the Blessed Holy One will send the Ishmaelites (Arabs) against them (the Byzantine Romans) to make war with them, so as to deliver the Israelites from their hand.”

The anonymous author of the “Prayer of Rabbi Shimon ben Yokhai” viewed the replacement of the Christian Byzantine Roman Empire, by the Muslim Arabs, as an act of God; which rescued the oppressed Jewish communities throughout the Near East, and especially in Jerusalem, from Christian Byzantine persecution. 

In 614 CE a Persian army, supported by thousands of Persian Empire Jewish volunteers, had captured Jerusalem. This event is referred to in the Qur’an: “The Romans (Byzantines) have been defeated in the nearest land (Syria/Israel). But after their defeat, they will overcome (the Persians) within a few years. To Allah belongs the command before and after.” (30:2-4) 

In 628 CE the Romans (Byzantines) did recapture Jerusalem, and they massacred all those Jews who had returned to Jerusalem during the period of Persian rule. Yet just one decade later, Arab armies had conquered and displaced the Roman (Byzantine) rulers from Egypt to Iraq.

If Rabbi Mukhayriq had not died fighting alongside Prophet Muhammad in the battle of Uhud, he could easily have lived long enough to see the Arab conquest of Jerusalem, and himself been able to return to live there. 

Instead, Prophet Muhammed inherited seven date palm orchards and other forms of wealth from Rabbi Mukhayriq and he used this wealth to establish the first waqf (a charitable endowment) of Islam. From this rabbi's endowment Prophet Muhammad helped many poor people in Medina. Perhaps this example of interfaith charity and devotion can inspire Islamic and Jewish religious leaders today to heal past wounds, and make Jerusalem a city of peace for the future.

Rabbi Maller’s web site is: www.rabbimaller.com. His new book ‘Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms: A Reform Rabbi's Reflections on the Profound Connectedness of Islam and Judaism’ (a collection of 31 articles by Rabbi Maller previously published by Islamic web sites) is now for sale ($15) on Amazon