Thousand Years of Jewish History - Maurice Harris


The Land and the People.

The Peninsula of Arabia is bounded on the southwest by the Red Sea, on the southeast by the Indian Ocean, on the northeast by the Persian Gulf, and on the north touches the mainland of Palestine and Syria, reaching to the Euphrates (see second map). So that we might say it lies between three continents. It is divided by geographers into three parts: 1. Arabia Felix (fortunate)—the largest—all the land between the three seas. 2. Arabia Petraea (stony)—the end adjoining the Peninsula of Sinai. 3. Arabia Deserta—the desert between Palestine and the Euphrates. The old Ishmaelites used to dwell in Arabia Deserta—a land scorched by burning sands, with scant vegetation and brackish water. These Bedouins were brave, hardy, and of simple habits, but restless and rapacious. The description of the wild ass in the thirty-ninth chapter of Job well fits their character.

The nature of the land made the building of cities and organized society impossible. Conditions encouraged a lawless life, and necessity, rather than choice, tempted the Bedouins to attack merchant caravans. A French proverb runs, "To know all is to excuse all." While not endorsing this dangerous maxim, we can see that their home largely decided their character. We are all influenced by surroundings in some degree. Yet some make the most of even hard conditions and barren soil. Not so the Bedouins. They never rose to greatness religiously—satisfied to worship stars and stones and to gratify the wants of the hour. So they have not advanced. But of the Arabs of central and southern Arabia we have a better story to tell.

Arabian Jews.

Long before the fall of the second Temple—probably before the fall of the first—Jews found their way to Arabia. By the time they made their presence felt there, we find them established in separate groups or tribes.

There were many points of kinship between Jews and Arabians. The Bible hints this in making Abraham the father of both peoples through Isaac and Ishmael (Gen. xvii, 18-20). This tradition the Arabs accepted from their Jewish neighbors. They certainly both belonged to the same race—the Semitic. The Semites included Assyrians, Chaldeans, Babylonians, Syrians, Phoenicians, Hebrews, Arabs and Ethiopians. In spite of the religious divergence, the Jews adapted themselves—externally at least—to the Arabian mode of life. (It is a nice question in how far Jews should assimilate with their surroundings and in how far stand aloof.) So, while the Jews of southern Arabia engaged in commerce, those of the less civilized north were agriculturists and wandering shepherds like their Bedouin neighbors. Like them, too, some even formed robber bands; yet here at least we meet a favorable variation in that the Jews were more humane to their enemies. Further, the Jews adopted the patriarchal status of society of their Arabian surroundings—not so dissimilar to the social life depicted in Genesis—i.e., each group of families lived under the guidance of one patriarch or Sheik; such were Abraham and Jacob. The Sheik was a kind of king and his will was obeyed as law by the particular group under his sway. For there was no central government. In unsettled districts, hospitality becomes the greatest virtue, because it represents the greatest need, and its violation, the gravest crime. This is well illustrated in the Genesis story (chapters xviii and xix) of the contrasted behavior of Abraham and the people of Sodom.

The religious ideas of the Arabians while not gross were primitive. They had a Holy City, later known as Mecca, near the Red Sea border, in the centre of which was a black stone preserved in a Temple called the Kaaba. This they no doubt worshipped as an idol. Indeed three hundred idols were associated with this place. While fierce in warfare, in which they frequently engaged, and remorseless in revenge, they mitigated these rough tendencies by the institution of four holy months, during which the taking of life was avoided.

The Jews as such were better educated than the Arabs, and may have taught them writing, and were altogether looked up to as the intellectual superiors of the Arabs. Far from interfering with the religion of the Jews, the Arabs were rather prepared to take the position of disciples. They adopted some Jewish rites and accepted their calendar; moreover, the Jewish teaching exercised a salutary influence on their character. Many converts came to Judaism unsought, and when a Sheik accepted Judaism, the clan followed. Naturally, under such favorable auspices the Arabian Jews lived up to their religion with ardor and zeal, that is, as best as they understood it. They were students of Jewish law and turned for guidance probably both to Judea and Babylonia. They had their school too at Yathrib, later called Medina—north of Mecca, near the Red Sea. But the Bible was taught in Midrashic paraphrase, rather than in the original Hebrew text.

Jussuf the Proselyte.

The most important convert to Judaism was Jussuf, the powerful king of Yemen, in the southwestern quarter of the Peninsula—about the year 500 A. C. E. The Jewish sages were invited to teach Judaism to the people at large. The enthusiastic but unwise King Jussuf, hearing that Jews were persecuted in the Byzantine Empire, put to death some of its merchants. This only paralyzed trade and brought on war. So the Jews were hardly fortunate in their ally, for he did not grasp the spirit of Judaism and tried to impose it by force—i.e., by the sword. This recalls the forced conversions of John Hyrcanus. Yussuf stirred up enemies against himself and the Jews in many surrounding lands; his foes at last completely crushed him. Thus ended the ill-starred Jewish kingdom. Israel might well exclaim, "heaven save us from our friends." No, Judaism was not destined to spread in that way. "Not by force, not by power, but by my spirit, saith the Lord."

Samuel the Chivalrous.

Like the Arabs, the Jews cultivated poetry and held it in high esteem. Most renowned of these Jewish poets was Samuel Ibn Adiya. His life is perhaps more interesting than his poetry, for it shows how this stimulating environment at its best encouraged a fine spirit of chivalry among the Jews.

For Samuel was also a powerful Sheik in whom the weak and persecuted always confidently sought protection. One day a famous Arabian poet and prince pursued by his enemies, sought refuge in his castle. Going forth to seek the aid of the Byzantine emperor, Justinian, he entrusted to Samuel his daughter and his arms. No sooner had he gone than his enemies hastened to the castle, demanding the arms from Samuel. But Samuel would not break his promise, so the castle was besieged. Obtaining possession of one of his sons, the savage enemies threatened to slay him unless the father gave up the arms. It was an agonizing alternative to the father, but he did not falter. "Do what you will, the brothers of my son will avenge this deed." So at that awful cost, the trust was kept. What wonder that an Arabian maxim should run "Faithful as Samuel." Other poets sang his praise.

But we must pass quickly over the rest of this epoch till we reach the end of the sixth century. By this time Judaism had widely spread and Jewish colonies were found along the whole northwestern coast. In Medina their numbers were particularly large—consisting of three great tribes. They had built their own villages and fortified strongholds.

It was in the year 570 that a man was born whose name, Mohammed, was to ring through all Asia, and whom all broad minds now recognize as one of the great religious teachers of mankind. Closely was his fate linked to Israel's, for again was Judaism to inspire a prophet and give birth to another world-religion.


Carlyle, in his Heroes and Hero Worship, says of the wild Bedouin:—"He welcomes the stranger to his tent as one having right to all that is there; were it his worst enemy he will slay his foal to treat him, will serve him with sacred hospitality for three days, will set him fairly on his way; and then, by another law as sacred, kill him if he can."

Theme for discussion:—Win did Judaism not succeed as a proselytizing religion?