Sunday 6 January 2019


Khaybar Fort


It is most fascinating to discover that a flourishing Arabian Jewish community had existed in Arabia (present-day Saudi Arabia) since biblical times.

According to Hagai Mazuz, “The Jewish community of northern Arabia was one of the largest ancient Jewish communities in the history of the Jewish people.”[1] 

Not only had Jews been living in Arabia for almost two thousand years, spanning the pre and post-Islamic era, but they had adopted much of the Arab culture to the extent that some were regarded as being ethnically Arab.

While most of the Jews who inhabited the Arabian Peninsula were descendants of the Tribe of Judah, many were also considered to be Cohanim. In fact, Simon Schama refers to these Jews as ‘the Cohens of Arabia[2].

The Arabian Jews spoke their own dialect of Arabic, known as Yahudiyya.


These Jews were the early innovators of a new field of knowledge which involved the cultivation of the desert oasis. The Arabian Jews, as a result, became financially successful as they traded in the valuable date palm trees which they were able to propagate.

They mastered the art of capturing rainwater and used a technology to harness underground streams to irrigate the desert.

[One cannot help but draw parallels with how modern Israel also succeeded in getting the desert to bloom.]
Additionally, these Arabian Jews were also expert at creating weaponry, including siege-engines (a device made for breaking thick and huge city walls) and were thus also successful arms dealers, selling their weapons to the rivalling Arab tribes.


For well over a thousand years Jews lived in the oases of Teyma, Khaybar, and Yathrib (later known as Medina). In fact, these Jews were among the very founders of Yathrib/Medina!

When Muhammad established his new religion in Medina, the Jews numbered sixty percent of the population of the city!

Referring to Medina, Schama writes that “Islam, then was born in a Jewish urban crucible....”

Furthermore “...Muhammad, who had lived among Jews all his life, could assume at the very least a sympathetic hearing among them...”

There were at least three major Arabian Jewish tribes at that time. And because they traded in weaponry and agricultural produce, this resulted in them sometimes backing and supporting opposing Arab tribes in their warfare and getting caught up in the middle of various conflicts which had nothing to do with them.


In 622, Muhammad was asked to come to Medina to broker peace between these warring Arab tribes. He arrived with his followers and built the first Mosque in Medina.
Finding a huge Jewish population in Medina, Muhammad established the ‘Constitution of Medina’ between the new Muslims and the various Jewish tribes.
These conditions included a clause that the Jews refrain from “extending any support to them (the opposing Quraysh tribe)” as well as “defending Medina, in case of a foreign attack.”

It is amazing and a double historic irony to see that Muhammad originally enlisted Jews to help defend Medina from invasion by his own birth-tribe, the Quraysh[3]!


The Arabian Jews typically had their own independent fortified cities. There were several of these independently held Jewish fortified enclaves of Jewish Arab tribes throughout Arabia. There were also nomadic Jewish tribes who followed the herds as Jewish Bedouin.[4]

In some instances, the Jewish presence was so strong that were able to impose Judaism on an entire city of pagans and Christians.[5] Schama informs us that, contrary to popular perception, Jewish missionary work in the area was actually rather prolific, with missionaries sent from places like Tiberius, in the Holy Land.

These missionaries became known by the Arabs as Kahinan (Cohanim) or priests.[6]


Schama writes that it is even recorded by “church historian Philostorgius, that when emperor Constantius II send missionaries to Arabia in 356, they found themselves frustrated by heavy and successful competition from Jewish proselytisers, those whom the Muslim sources called the rabban’iyun.”[7]


Although subject to some controversy (as to the full extent, not necessarily the event) but the entire Kingdom of Himyar (present-day Yemen) - a dominant power in the area for 250 years - converted to Judaism in pre-Islamic times.

Schama writes:

The conversion of the Himyar was only possible because it would never have occurred to the converts that the belief they were adopting was in any way foreign. Jews were so anciently and deeply planted in Arab lands that they became an organic part of its world...
They carried Arabic names, dressed indistinguishably from Arabs, were organised in semi-tribal extended family clans like Arabs, and...many of them were ethnic Arabs.
There had been so many conversions over the centuries since the Hasmoneans forcibly imposed Judaism on the desert-dwelling, ethnically Arab Itureans and Idumeans, that it is impossible to differentiate Arabian Jews who had originated as emigrants from pre- or post-Temple destruction Palestine, and the multitudes of erstwhile pagan Arabs who had chosen Judaism rather than Christianity as their monotheistic faith...
This pre Islamic merging of Arab and Jewish identities was reinforced when the last and most militantly proselytising Jewish king Dhu Nuwas, Lord of the Curls[8] (also known as Yusef As’ar), was defeated by the Christian Aksumite king of Ethiopia, Kaleb, in an all out battle in 525.
Prior to that, it looked as though the Lord of the Curls would take his aggressive Judaism deep into the Arabian peninsula.”[9]

Accordingly, we see evidence in pre-Islamic Arabia, of a surprising programme of the aggressive converting of some indigenous Arabs to Judaism. To what degree is subject to debate. Nevertheless, it obviously was an issue because it would have intensified further had it not been thwarted by a war with a Christian King in 525.

This is a very little-known chapter of Jewish history.


Another Jewish city (or kingdom) in Arabia was Khaybar.

According to Ibn Khaldun, the Jewish presence in Khaybar, which is situated about 95 miles from Medina, goes back to the time of King David in around 1000 BCE.

Jawad Ali, however, places the first Jewish immigration to Khaybar at the time of the Babylonian Exile in around 586 BCE.

Either way, Jews had certainly been living in Arabia for a very long time.  There is still an old Jewish cemetery in Khaybar today, dating back 1,400 years.

However, with the rise of Islam in the 7th century, Jews were ousted from Khaybar during probably the first Muslim-Jewish War.


In 628, under Caliph Umar, the first Muslim-Jewish war erupted. Caliph Umar was “the architect of Islam’s military-religious empire.”[10]

The war took place under the Muslim leadership of Muhammad Ali, who led 1,600 fighters. The Jews were led by al-Harith ibn Abu Zaynab who led 10,000 fighters from Khaybar. These fighters were additionally joined by several thousands of other Arabian Jews from Medina, known as Banu Nadir.
During the battle, less than 20 Muslim fighters were killed, while 93 Jewish fighters perished.
The Jews, together with the Christians of Khaybar, were defeated and transported to the newly conquered (now Muslim) regions of Syria and Iraq – as non-Muslims were not allowed to remain for more than three consecutive days in that western section of Arabia which included Mecca and Medina.

Since then, many of the original Jews of Khaybar maintained a unique character as perpetual travelers and merchants throughout the Arabian Peninsula, right up till the 12th century. 
However, Caliph Umar saw to it that both Jews and Christians were to be treated well in their new location in Syria and Iraq, and were allotted new land equal in size to the land they owned in Khaybar. 

According to some historians, the Jews were allowed to remain in Khaybar in return for a payment of half their harvest produce.

One of the main reasons for the war was, on the surface, simply to secure food from Jews, who had an abundance of it due to their agricultural expertise.

According to Ibn Umar: “We did not eat our fill except after we conquered Khaybar.”[11]
Muslim scholars suggest that capturing Khaybar had been a divine promise implied in the Quran verse below:
"Allâh has promised you abundant spoils that you will capture, and He has hastened for you this."[12]

But there was another reason for the war: Muslim historians accused the Jews of Khaybar of planning to unite with the other Jewish community situated 95 miles away in Medina, the Banu Nadir - and then to attack Medina as well as Muhammad himself and depose him as leader of Medina. These Banu Nadir were wealthy and lived in some of the best agricultural lands in Medina.

During the Battle of Khaydar, the chief of the Banu Nadir’s son-in-law was killed and his wife, Safiyya taken as Muhammad’s second Jewish wife.


To relate this chapter of history to current times, the following is a recent extract from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency[13]:

“At the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which houses the Al-Aqsa mosque, thousands participated in an unauthorized protest that featured calls about killing Jews after Friday prayers.

Jews, remember Khaybar, the army of Muhammad is returning,’ many of the men present shouted.

The cry relates to an event in the seventh century, when Muslims massacred and expelled Jews from the town of Khaybar, which is located in modern-day Saudi Arabia.

Also Friday, the same shout was heard at an event in Vienna, Austria...”


As mentioned, the Jews were later to return to Khaybar. When the adventurer rabbi, Benjamin of Tudela visited Arabia in the 12th century, he described a Jewish presence still existing in Khaybar which consisted of fifty thousand Jews.

During the 16th century, according to Rabbi David Reuveni (1490-1535) - whose diary can be found in the Bodleian Library in Oxford - he (Reuveni) was the representative of his brother Joseph, who was the King of Khaybar (also known as Habor or Chavor[14]) and that this independent Jewish kingdom, in the middle of the Arabian desert, had 300 000 Jewish subjects at that time.
He travelled to Europe, met with the Pope and the king of Portugal and King Charles and tried to form a Jewish-Christian alliance to defeat the Muslims.
At one stage he was even offered eight ships and 4000 cannons.


The story of the Jews of Arabia is full of astounding curiosities and surprises even for those fairly well versed in Jewish history.

Because of the provocative nature of some aspects of this story it is understandably subject to some controversy. 
However, many different sources were consulted and yet the same essential kernel of the story persisted to emerge.

From a technical point of view, it would be interesting to trace the lineage of someone like Dhu Nuwas and understand on what basis, if any, forced conversions could have been justified. It should also be borne in mind that throughout history and even today, many peoples did lay claim to being Jewish while in many instances the jury still out as to their Jewish credentials.  
This wouldn’t change the facts but it would be an interesting subject for further study.
And anyway, as we saw with the Hasmoneans, this was not the first time forced conversions occurred in Jewish history. The famous King Herod (74BCE-4CE), who expanded the Second Temple in Jerusalem, was an Idumaean - a nation that experienced such an occurrence.[15]
In the final analysis, when it comes to the Jews of the Arabian Peninsula, the recorded history is truly stranger than fiction.

For more research on Khaybar, see: Miriam Frenkel, Adaptive Tactics: The Jewish Communities Facing New Reality.

[1] Massacre in Medina by Hagai Mazuz.
[2] The Story of the Jews by Simon Schama, p. 230.
[3] The Quraysh were an Arab tribe that historically inhabited and controlled Mecca and its Ka'aba. Muhammad was born into the Banu Hashim clan of the Quraysh tribe which staunchly opposed him until converting to Islam en masse in 630.
[4] Schama, ibid. p. 232.
[5] Schama, ibid. p. 232.
[6] Perhaps these were the ‘Cohanim’ which were referenced earlier?
[7] Schama, ibid p, 233.
[8] Ibn Hisham explains that Yūsuf was a  Jew who grew out his sidelocks (nuwas meaning "sidelock"). 
According to some medieval historians, and based on the account of John of Ephesus, Dhu Nuwas also planned to persecute Christians in his kingdom because they had persecuted the Jews of their realms; a letter survives written by Simon, the bishop of Beth Arsham in 524 CE, recounting Dhu Nuwas.
[9] The following is from my analysis to the article on Benjamin of Tudela:
The famous Raavad presided over 40 Jewish families (obviously his wider influence was far greater). Rome had 200 hundred families - but places like Aleppo, Okbara and Hadara with 5,000, 10,000 and 15,000 Jewish families was far more populated by Jews than places in the West! And very small numbers of Jews lived in Eretz Yisrael at that time! 
I have never fully understood why the modern State of Israel adopted Middle Eastern cultural norms (including general lifestyle, food etc.) as opposed to Western norms, when so much immigration to Israel came from Europe and the West. 

But by looking at the numbers of Jews 800 years ago alone, one has to come to the conclusion that Jews - certainly around R. Binyamin of Tudela's time - were far more Middle Eastern than Western.
[10] Schama, ibid. p.241.
[11] Sahih Bukhari Volume 5, Book 59, Number 548.
[12] Quran 48:20
[13] December 8, 2017.
[14] Possibly as in I Chronicles 5:26. “So the God of Israel stirred up the spirit of Pul king of Assyria (that is, Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria), who took the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh into exile. He took them to Halah, Habor, Hara and the river of Gozan, where they are to this day.”
[15]  When Yochanan Cohen Gadol (John Hyrcanus) conquered the region of Idumaea (or Edom) in 140–130 BCE, he required all Idumaeans to obey Jewish law or to leave.

1 comment:

  1. Read A History of the Jews of Arabia: From Ancient Times to Their Eclipse Under Islam by Gordon Darnell Newby. Excellent book.