Thousand Years of Jewish History - Maurice Harris

Islam and the Jews.

Mohammed never forgave the Jews for their refusal to accept him as "The Prophet" of God, superseding all others. He had accepted so much from them—the fundamental idea of monotheism, the chief points of the Calendar, the Sabbath, the Day of Atonement, much of the Scripture and Midrashic narrative, and many details of the ceremonial law. He asked of them so little—it seemed—to regard him as God's chosen and supreme messenger to man, to all intents and purposes the Messiah, whose advent was foretold in their own Scriptures, and to whom they should henceforth look for the interpretation of their Faith. But that "little" they could not conscientiously give. For not even Moses, their only recognized lawgiver, "greatest of their prophets," were they prepared to regard quite in the way in which Mohammed asked allegiance. Their hearts told them that this man was not sent by God on a mission to them, however much he may have been sent to the Arabians. He was not their Messiah. So to accept him would be traitorous to their traditions and to the teachings of the Scripture (Deut. xviii, 15-22). For the acceptance of Mohammed would have ultimately meant the stultification of their religion and its submergence in a new cult of which he would be the founder. At that rejection, his regard for them turned to hate, and instead of allies, he chose to look upon them as rivals, as enemies of the true Faith, Their endorsement was the one thing needed for the complete confirmation of his mission. Therefore, forgetting how much he owed to their spiritual treasures, he became their persecutor.

Christianity and Islam.

How history was repeating itself! Was not this identically Israel's experience with that other creed to which its religion had given birth—Christianity? Its adherents likewise said to the Jews, "We accept your Scriptures, ethics and divinity. Accept only from us this individual Jesus, greatest of all prophets, the Messiah, in whom all your prophesies have been fulfilled, who represents God's new covenant with man." And because they refused, they were hated and spurned.

From endeavoring to pattern his religion as closely as possible after the Jewish example he now in sullen resentment sought by arbitrary changes to emphasize its differences. Instead of turning to Jerusalem in prayer, Mohammedans were told to turn to Mecca. He changed the Jewish Yom Kippur (Ashura), which he had adopted, for the holy month of Ramadhan. He altered the Sabbath from Saturday to Friday, making it a day of worship, but not of rest. Here again was an attitude towards Israel parallel with its experience with Christianity; for after three hundred years the Church had changed the Sabbath to Sunday and rearranged its calendar to make Easter independent of Passover. Then like Christianity, too, he inserted in his Scripture—the Koran—unkind things and calumnies about the Jews. Yet, on the whole, the Koran holds up many Bible characters as exemplars.

There was a third parallel between these two daughters of Judaism. Just as Christianity, to win the heathen to the fold, accepted into its theology many heathen rites and even beliefs, so now Mohammed, to win the allegiance of the heathen Arabs, accepted many of their most cherished traditions. The Kaaba Stone—an idol—was still to be regarded reverently in the new Faith. Lastly, Islam, like the Church, also claimed to be the one true and universal Faith, (See pp. 198-9). Judaism that had given birth to both, never made such claim.

Mohammed's conception of the future life was not as spiritual as that of Jews or Christians. In promising gross pleasure in the realm beyond, he unconsciously gratified the expectations of sensual natures.

The Koran or the Sword.

Let us hasten over the sad conflicts between Mohammed and the Jews—his wars against their chiefs, until he had succeeded in crippling their once powerful clans. The "Battle of the Foss," 627, is one of the unfortunate blots on the reputation of this really great man. Seven hundred Jews were gathered in the market-place and offered the alternative of "the Koran or the sword." But the Jews had been inured to martyrdom. There was no hesitancy in their choice. The grim warrior-prophet carried out his savage threat against them. They were all slain and the surviving women were sold.

All through Arabia this religious crusade was waged against them. Thus fell the city of Chaibar, but no such ruthless massacre was repeated. Many of the defeated Jews were even left in possession of their lands. They continued their losing fight but little longer against the triumphant advance of Mohammed. By the year 628, all the Jewish tribes had lost their independence; the sword was taken from them. So that era of arms and chivalry was now closed for the Jews of Arabia.

A Jewish woman, Zainab, who won Mohammed's favor, tried to be a Judith to her people and attempted to poison him. The dish was hardly tasted by him, so the plot failed and she paid for her daring with her life.

Spread of Islam.

Mohammed must be studied from the political side as founder of a great State as well as from the religious side as founder of a great creed. Indeed, he was a greater statesman than prophet. His followers believed in him intensely and were united to him by ties that death could no longer break. His fiery words embodied in the Koran became their inspired Scripture. With his name upon their lips, a crescent on their banner and the great watchword, "Allah is God, and Mohammed is his Prophet," these fearless warriors carried all before them. Islam became a great power in half a century, a power that had come to stay. It is accepted by nearly two hundred million souls to-day. Here was surely a great message—lifting the Arab from the slough. We see here, as in the rise of Christianity, the hand of Providence bringing light to the Gentiles.

Under Mohammed's successor Abu Bekr, there was a momentary falling-off, but the movement rallied under the leadership of Omar who followed the master's policy of spreading the new Faith by conquest. At the head of the Mosque, (the Church of Islam) was now an emperor—a caliph. Not so many years after Mohammed's death not only was most of Arabia Moslem, but the sway of Islam had reached Persia, conquered the land and superseded Zoroastrism. Syria and Egypt were next wrestled from the Byzantian or Eastern Roman Empire. Palestine had been taken from Persia by the Byzantines in 628 only to be lost again in 638 and in both wars the long-suffering Jews who saw their old home tossed from one conqueror to another, had looked to the incoming enemies as deliverers.

What changes had Jerusalem seen! When the Jewish Temple was destroyed, it became a heathen capital—Aelia Capitolina, adorned with a heathen shrine. In its Christian era it became a bishopric. Under the Mohammedans a mosque held the place of honor. Such it remains to-day.

Islam was now accepted in Asia, as Christianity had been accepted in Europe, not by individuals, but by whole nations. Somewhat intolerant at first against opposing creeds—some of the Mussulmen were fanatics—it became later renowned for its breadth and enlightenment. Very soon the Jews found the Mohammedans their friends, against whom they had nothing to fear. Jewish poets began to hail their advent. Even in Babylonia the Moslem sway was more liberal than had been that of the Persian Magi in the latter years. The political, social and religious status of the Jews was to remain undisturbed; the same secular official was to be at their head.

In fact, the Resh Galutha was given even heartier endorsement, and was treated as a prince by the government, with his civil and judicial powers increased, making the Jewish community in Babylonia almost a State in itself. It was the Caliph Omar who, in 638 raised Bostonai, a descendant of the House of David, to the post of Resh Galutha (Exilarch). The academies at Sora and Pumbeditha were continued without a break; their heads, called Geonim (Illustrious) had also certain powers and took equal rank with the Resh Galutha. The Jews became loyal subjects of the Mohammedan rulers, and when Caliph Ali's successor was deposed by a rival house (for Islam had also now split into two wings), the Jews came gallantly to his support. Here and there Moslem law in its freshest and noblest expression reacted favorably even on Jewish law. New religious movements in early stages of enthusiasm always reach high moral levels. It will be borne in mind that the Jews in all their past experience were necessarily influenced to a degree by their environment, while remaining loyal in all essentials to the traditional conception of Jewish life.

The ceremony of the inauguration of a Resh Galutha was henceforth more impressive than ever. There was quite a little court about him. Likewise the official organization of the two Academies was very elaborate with their President, Chief Judge, Assembly of Teachers or Senate, and their Greater and Lesser Sanhedrin. Their administration left its lasting impress on all Jewish communities. All looked now to Babylonia as their religious centre and gladly sent contributions toward the maintenance of the Academies. The prestige of the Babylonian community steadily grew with the extension of Mohammedan sway.

Fall of Visigothic Spain.

It was the spread of this great power that was to bring relief to the Jews of Spain, persecuted almost unto death. Verily the Moslem was unto them as a savior—for his arrival brought liberty, light and peace. After having subjected a large part of Asia, the sway of Islam spread unresistingly westward. All the north coast of Africa was soon under both its temporal and spiritual control. Christendom was alarmed at the rise of this new star and the checking of the advancing hosts from making inroad into Europe became now the first duty of every Christian monarch. Any warrior who could throw them back from his country's border at once sprang into fame.

In the meantime, however, none could withstand them. Nearer and nearer they approached the borders of Spain. There the outrageously treated Jews awaited their arrival as any besieged city at the mercy of a relentless foe awaits the coming of its army of release. Already across the narrow Straits of Gibraltar on the African side, they were making common cause with the Moslem and were prepared for the invasion of the Peninsula.

The destined hour arrived. In the year 711 a great battle was fought in Xeres, in which the last Visigothic king fell before the army of Tarik. City after city—Cordova, Granada, Malaga, Toledo—fell before them, the Jews rendering valuable aid from within. The Mohammedans found they could not entrust their conquered towns into more faithful hands than these Jewish allies. Thus the Jews were raised at once from degration and thraldom to liberty and prestige. A new light had dawned and under the broad and cultured regime of the Moors, as these Western Mohammedans were called, a golden age was now to dawn for the Jews of Spain.


The Koran:—The Moslem Scripture is called the Koran, meaning readings; compare the derivation of Karaites. The Koran was not written by Mohammed, who could not write, but it contains his teachings.

Theme for discussion:—Amplify the probable consequences of the acceptance of Mohammed by the Jews.


I. Discuss the relations between Judaism as law and Mendelssohn's statement that "Judaism is not a revealed religion but a revealed legislation."

II. What was the significance of the defeat of Persia by Greece for civilization in general and for the Jew in particular?

IV. Had the Hasmoneans the right to assume the office of High Priest?

V. Compare the treatment of wisdom in Proverbs (viii) and in Ecclesiasticus.

VI. Are there traces of Greek philosophy in the Septuagint?

VII. Compare modern with ancient parties in Israel.

VIII. Contrast the Wood Festival of ancient Judea with Arbor Day in modern America.

X. Single out great events in Israel influenced by, and influencing the Jews.

XI. Did Herod succeed or did he fail?

XII. Is it possible, as Hillel said, to evolve the whole law from the Golden Rule?

XIV. Does official Judaism discourage conversion? Why did the Jews oppose a census on religious grounds?

XV. Why cannot Jesus be accepted by the synagogue to-day?

XVI. Why did most heathen converts to Judaism ultimately become Christians?

XVII. Why did rabbinic Judaism neglect Philo?

XVIII. If Agrippa had lived and reigned as long as Herod——?

XIX. Compare the Zealots of antiquity with to-day's Russian revolutionists; the Sicarii with the anarchists; the procurators with the Czar's local governors.

XX. Make clear the difference in principle between Judea's "Peace Party" and the "Royalist Party" among the American revolutionists.

XXIII. Should Josephus be regarded as a traitor?

XXIV. Whether the Temple's fall abolished or suspended animal sacrifice is a point of difference between Judaism's two schools to-day.

XXV. In what respect did the "Academy" differ from a school?

XXVI. Contrast the ancient gnostic with the modern agnostic.

XXVIII. Should Akiba's method of law deduction be called casuistic?

XXIX. What degree of pain or peril justifies disregard of ceremonial law?

XXX. Can the number of our duties be specified?

XXXI. What is Revelation, and how did the sages apply it to the Oral Law?

XXXII. Is the Jew's first duty to his countrymen or to his coreligionists?

XXXIV. What right had the Byzantine Empire to the title "Roman"?

XXXV. Compare Bible and Talmud as literatures. In what sense can it be said that the Talmud made the Jew?

XXXVIII. In what respect did mediaeval slavery differ from Russian serfdom and from the bond service in the early colonial era of America?

XXXIX. Why did the higher clergy oppose the mingling of Jews and Christians, and the lower favor it?

XL. Why did Judaism not succeed as a proselytising religion?

XLI. Should Mohammed be called a prophet?

XLII. Amplify the probable consequences of the acceptance of Mohammed by the Jews.