The Birth of Islam: Muhammad and the Jews

In 610 CE, after years of tortuous oppression by the Byzantine Christians, the Jews of the Arabian Peninsula were living in relative safety as respected craftsmen, metal workers and jewelers. At the same time, in a cave near Mecca, Muhammed, the founder of Islam, claimed he had received revelatory visions. Visions that indirectly would impact Jewish life, for better and for worse, forever. 

  • Review
  • Discussion
  • Activities
  • Reflection
  • Further Learning
  1. What was the angel Gabriel’s command to Muhammad?
    • Convert all of the Jews and Christians to Islam
    • Spread the belief of one God or Allah
    • Run to the city of Medina
    • Institute a tax on the people in Mecca
  2. Why did Muhammad flee from Mecca to Medina?
    • To spread the message of Islam
    • Because he believed that Medina was a holier city
    • To escape an assassination attempt against him
    • To move his followers closer to Jerusalem
  3. Which of these Jewish customs did Muhammad NOT adopt as part of his new belief system in Medina?
    • Praying towards Jerusalem
    • Fasting on the Jewish day of atonement
    • Adhering to strict dietary laws
    • Celebrating the rabbinical holidays of Hannukah and Purim 
  4. Which Jewish population did Muhammad and his followers besiege and then behead all the men and enslave all the women and children?
    • Jews in Israel (then Palestine)
    • The Banu Qurayza tribe
    • Jews in Spain
    • Jews in Khaibar
  5. What percentage of Jews lived under Muslim rule by the middle of the 8th centrury?
    • 100%
    • 90%
    • 50%
    • 20%
  1. While Muhammad initially believed Jews would welcome him and his ideas, he was surprised and angered by Jewish resistance. Quickly, his treatment of the Jewish communities turned violent. As we build upon the promise of the Abraham Accords, do you think reconciliation and peace is possible, even given our tense history?
  2. Reuven Firestone writes in his book, An Introduction to Islam for Jews,
    “The conflict between Israel and its neighbors is at its core one of competing nationalisms, but religion has become increasingly identified with it… As the Muslim population and the impact of it has increased in the West, they have had a growing influence on Jews’ sense of identity and security. Yet, Jews know precious little about Islam. Responsible decision-making is impossible without understanding. For the sake of the future of the Jewish people and the future of the world as a whole, it is important to develop a firm, sober, realistic understanding of Islam and how Islam affects the outlooks and behaviors of Muslims as they act in the world.”
    Given the role that religion plays in the tensions in the Middle East, should Jewish day schools, synagogues, and Jewish community centers dedicate some time to teaching about Islam or are there other subjects that should be taught in its stead?
  3. Muhammad and his followers massacred the Jewish tribe of Banu Qurayza by beheading all of the men and enslaving all of the Jewish women and children who refused to convert. As the video states, he then reportedly said, “Had [only] ten Jews (or ten rabbis) followed me, every single Jew on earth would have followed me.” What did Muhammad mean by this statement?
  4. The jizya tax was an excessive tax placed on non-Muslim populations, including Jews, by Muslim leaders for many centuries. Taxes have been used to exert power and control throughout history. For example, the American Revolution started as a fight against excessive taxes. Why was an excessive tax one of the primary means of discrimination utilized by Muslim leaders, and what do you think the psychological effects were on the non-Muslim communities?
  5. Although generalizations cannot be made about Jewish life under Islamic rule, Jews were allowed to practice their religion and were granted dhimmi status, or legal protection in exchange for loyalty to the state and the payment of the jizya tax. On the one hand, Jews were protected and allowed to retain their traditions and beliefs. On the other hand, they were second-class citizens. Should we look back at this era and be grateful for our freedoms or resentful against the discrimination we endured?
  6. Many people believe that Jews lived safely under Christian leaders and were persecuted under Muslim leaders. As many historians argue the opposite has been historically true, to what extent is this a situation of myth versus reality?
  1. Use a ready-made lesson plan about Muhammad and the Jews HERE.
  2. The three holiest cities in Islam are Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem, in that order. Using this encyclopedia article for reference, summarize why each of these sites hold special meaning to Muslims around the world.
  3. Students should complete a K-W-L (Know, Want to Know, Learned) chart about Islam. They should consider their questions about theology, practice, and history. Additional information about Islam and its religious tenets can be found through the “Everything You Wanted to Know about Islam but Were Afraid to Ask” from The Times of Israel, information from the United Religions Initiative, and Islam Past and Present from The Atlantic.
  4. Read this story about a Muslim and Jew who have had a friendship for 60 years. Write a letter to the editor in response. For example, are you inspired by this story, or do you wish more context was given to why tensions exist between the two communities?
  5. There is a sociological concept called out-group homogeneity, in which we tend to think other groups are homogenous while we are diverse. For example, we know that Judaism has many different denominations, but we may think all Muslims have the same theological understandings. It is important to understand that Muslim thought also varies greatly. There are two groups, Shiites and Sunnis, who not only theologically disagree but also are engaged in regular fighting. Read this History.com article on the Sunni-Shia divide and fill in a Venn Diagram to understand the similarities and differences.
  6. Play our Kahoot about Muhammad and the Jews!
  1. When Muhammad first became frustrated by the perceived inmoralities of the Meccan population, he responded by fasting and meditating. Then, according to Muslim tradition, he was visited by the angel, Gabriel. Fasting and meditation are key tenets in Muslim practice now. Have you tried either fasting or meditating, and what did you feel after? If you haven’t, what do you think people are trying to achieve?
  2. Some Orthodox Jews believe it is forbidden to enter or pray in a church because they believe that the physical representation of Jesus as God violates the Ten Commandments and is a form of idolatry. Yet, they also believe it is permissible to enter or pray in a mosque because Muslims believe in one God. Do these interpretations surprise you, and would you feel comfortable praying in a church or mosque?
  3. The Muslims tried to forcibly convert Jews and other non-believers to their religion. Some Jews resisted and chose to be killed rather than convert to Islam, but others agreed out of fear. Do you consider either or both or neither of these acts to be heroic?
  4. During Muhammad’s lifetime, he forcibly tried to convert non-believers and extend his military and political influence. However, it was only after his death that his followers conquered the Land of Israel (then known as Palestine), Syria, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Persia. Do you think people should be credited or held responsible for what happens after their death?
  5. There are many organizations, including the Interfaith Encounter Association, and individuals like Mohammed Dajani, who are trying to promote interfaith efforts between Muslims and Jews. How do you think we should move forward in the peace initiative? What do you perceive as the biggest roadblocks?

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