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Jews in Arabia

A map of the peninsula made in 1720 by the German publisher Christoph Weigel Public Domain

The history of the Jews in the Arabian Peninsula dates back to Biblical times. The Jewish tribes of Arabia were ethnic groups professing the Jewish faith that inhabited the Arabian Peninsula before and during the advent of Islam. In the north where they were connected to the Jewish populations of the Levant and Iraq, in the Turkish coastal plains. In the south, in Yemen. In Islamic tradition the Jewish tribes of the Hejaz were seen as the offspring of the ancient Hebrews. According to Muslim sources, they spoke a language other than Arabic, which Al-Tabari claims was Persian. This implies they were connected to the major Jewish center in Babylon. Currently, some Jewish communities develop in the Arabian peninsula as a result of expanding business and commerce as well as increased tolerance to Jews, such as in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

Jewish Immigration to the Arabian Peninsula

There is some evidence that Judaism found its place in the Arabian Peninsula by immigration of Jews, which took place mainly during six periods:

  • After the collapse of Kingdom of Judah in 586 BCE.
  • After the Roman conquest of Judea.
  • After the Jewish rebellion in 66 CE, and the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 CE, exiles found a home in the desert.
  • Survivors of the Bar Kochba Revolt, in 135 CE, who sought religious freedom in the Arabian desert rather than live under the yoke of the Romans.
  • Immigration, around 300 CE, by people who are known in Islamic literature as the Banu Aus and the Banu Khazraj who fled the Ghassanids in Syria.
  • Migration from Judea into southern Arabian Peninsula to ride the ascent of the Himyarite Kingdom around 380 CE. Immigration to the Arabian Peninsula began in earnest in the 2nd century CE, and by the 6th and 7th centuries there was a considerable Jewish population in Hejaz, mostly in and around Medina. This was in part due to the embrace of Judaism by such leaders as Dhu Nuwas.

Conversion to Judaism

The Himyarite ( חִמְיָר – Homerite) kings if Yemen appear to have abandoned polytheism and converted to Judaism around the year 380 CE, several decades after the conversion of the Ethiopian Kingdom of Aksum to Christianity (328 CE). Judaism does not proselytize, and often discourages conversion to Judaism; maintaining that all people have a covenant with God, and instead encourages non-Jews to uphold the Seven Laws which it believes were given to Noah. Conversions to Judaism are therefore relatively rare. The step was quite logical and had little to do with religion directly. There were many Jewish merchants living in Himyar , associated with the Jewish communities scattered throughout the East. Associated with the world trade in incense, the aristocracy and the royal court of Himyar took an interest in biblical views. Some went to the end and converted to Judaism. The Himyarite kingdom is said to have been ruled prior to Dhu-Nuwas by the Du Yazan dynasty of Jewish converts, as early as the late fourth century. In 500 CE, at a time when the kingdom of Yemen extended into far into northern Arabia and included Mecca and Medina, the king Abu-Kariba Assad, the father of Zoran Yusuf Dhu-Nuwas (of the Tobban tribe) converted to Judaism, as did several tribal leaders under him and probably a significant portion of the population. The Jewish monarchy in Ḥimyar ended with the reign of Yṳsuf, known as Dhū Nuwās. The mother of Dhū Nuwās may have been herself a Jew hailing from the Mesopotamian city of Nisibis. If so, this would place her origins within the Sassanid imperial sphere, and would illuminate possible political reasons for his later actions against the Christians of Arabia, who were natural allies of the Byzantine Empire.

Word of the slaughter quickly spread throughout the Roman and Persian realms, and refugees from Najran even reached the court of the Roman emperor Justin I himself, begging him to avenge the martyred Christians.

Dhu Nuwas had burned the Christians in Najran. Dhū Nuwās committed suicide by riding his horse into the Red Sea in 510. It was during his reign that the Himyarite kingdom began to become a tributary state of Aksum.

Himyar (lilac) in the 1st century. 
User:Schreiber –

Through Christian and Muslim rule, Jews continued to be a strong presence in the Arabian Peninsula. This is clear not only from Mohammed’s (often conflictual) dealings with them, but also from the influence that Judaism had on the new religion’s rituals and prohibitions (daily prayers, circumcision, ritual purity, pilgrimage, charity, ban on images and eating pork).

The “Homerite Kingdom” is described in the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula in the 1st century Periplus of the Erythraean Sea Photo: PHGCOM
Himyar in the 5th century
Thomas A. Lessman, en:User:Talessman

Arabized Jews or Arab Jews

Jews from the Yemeni city of Sana have a tradition that their ancestors settled in Yemen forty-two years before the destruction of the First Temple. The Banu Habban in southern Yemen have a tradition that they are the descendants of Judeans who settled in the area before the destruction of the Second Temple. These Judeans supposedly belonged to a brigade dispatched by King Herod to assist the Roman legions fighting in the region.

By the close of the fifth century, the Banu Aus and Banu Khazraj had become masters of Yathrib. During these events, or possibly in coordination with them, Yathrib was host to a noble visitor. In 470 CE, Persian King Firuz was attempting to wipe out the Exilarchate. The Exilarch Huna V, who was the son of Mar-Zutra bar Mar-Zutra, whisked his daughter and some of his entourage to Yathrib (Medina) for safety.

It is believed that the main reason the Banu Aus and Banu Khazraj chose to settle in this city is because their prophecies has predicted the coming of a new prophet in the Arabian peninsula near the city of Yethrib, but when Mohammed came to them most of the Jews rejected his message as he was not a Jewish descendent.

Arab Jews are Jews living in or originating from the Arab world. The largest Jewish communities in the Arab world are in Morocco and Tunisia. Smaller Jewish populations of 100 people or less exist in Egypt, Algeria, Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. Some Arab countries, such as Libya, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Jordan, are no longer home to any Jewish communities.

Jewish Tribes of Medina

By the 6th and 7th centuries there was a considerable Jewish population in Hejaz, mostly in and around Medina (or Yathrib as it called by the time), Khaybar, and Tayma. Notable are the three main Jewish tribes that had settled in Medina before the rise of Islam in Arabia: the Banu Nadir, the Banu Qainuqa, and the Banu Qurayza. Banu Nadir was hostile to Muhammad’s new religion. Other Jewish tribes lived relatively peacefully under Muslim rule. Jewish tribes reportedly arrived in Hijaz in the wake of the Jewish-Roman wars and introduced agriculture, putting them in a culturally, economically and politically dominant position.

Map showing the region of Hejaz outlined in red Public Domain

Jewish tribes:

  • Banu Alfageer: one of the Jewish tribes of Arabia during Muhammad’s era.
  • Banu Alkahinan:  patrilineal descent from the biblical Aaron (also Aharon), brother of Moses.
  • Banu Awf: One of the Jewish tribes of Arabia during Muhammad’s era. The Banu Awf: was an Arab tribe who wished to settle in the Jewish-ruled Tayma. The local people in Tayma insisted as a condition of settling in Tayma, Banu Awf must adopt Judaism. After having done so, they moved on to Yathrib.
  • Banu Aws: They fled Syria under Ghassanid rule, then fled Yathrib (presently known as Medina), and after expulsion by Muhammed, back to Syria.
  • Banu Harith: or Bnei Chorath were rulers of Najran.
  • Banu Nadir: Sub-clan of the al-Kāhinān, located in Yathrib (Medina). One of the three Jewish tribes that had settled in Medina before the rise of Islam in Arabia
  • Banu Najjar:  (“sons of the carpenter”) or Banu al-Naggar is the name of several unrelated historical and modern-day tribes throughout the Arab world. The individual tribes vary in religious composition.
  • Banu Qainuqa: Most powerful of all the Jewish tribes of the peninsula before Islam. One of the three Jewish tribes that had settled in Medina before the rise of Islam in Arabia. The great-grandfather of Banu Qaynuqa tribe is Qaynuqa ibn Amchel ibn Munshi ibn Yohanan ibn Benjamin ibn Saron ibn Naphtali ibn Hayy ibn Moses and they are descendant of Manasseh ibn Joseph ibn Jacob ibn Isaac son of Abraham.
  • Banu Quda’a: Himyarite tribe of converts to Sadducee Judaism. A group of Arab tribes with unclear genealogical origins, with traditional Arab genealogists ascribing their descent to Ma’add ( ancient ancestor of the Islamic prophet Muhammad), Himyar Kingdom or both.
  • Banu Qurayza:  Sub-clan of the al-Kāhinān, located in Yathrib (Medina), “principal family” fled Syria under Ghassanid rule, then fled Medina, after expulsion by Prophet Muhammed, back to Syria. One of the three Jewish tribes that had settled in Medina before the rise of Islam in Arabia.
  • Banu Sa’ida: A clan of the Banu Khazraj tribe of Medina in the era. Their Jewish allies or clients are mentioned in the Constitution of Medina of Muhammad.
  • Banu Shutayba: One of the Jewish tribes of Arabia during Muhammad’s era. They were included in the Constitution of Medina as allies to the Muslims.

Rise of Islam

Islam and Judaism share many similar values, guidelines, and principles and belief and reverence for the prophets Moses, Abraham,  Job, and Joseph. Islam also incorporates Jewish history as a part of its own. Muslims regard the Children of Israel as an important religious concept in Islam. Moses, the most important prophet of Judaism, is also considered a prophet and messenger in Islam. Moses is mentioned in the Quran more than any other individual, and his life is narrated and recounted more than that of any other prophet. Islam shares many traits with Judaism (as well as with Christianity), like the belief in and reverence for common prophets, such as Moses and Abraham.

The Quran makes forty-three specific references to the “Bani Isrāʾīl” (meaning the Children of Israel). The Arabic term yahud, denoting Jews, and “yahudi” occur eleven times and the verbal form hāda (meaning “to be a Jew/Jewish”) occurs ten times. According to Khalid Durán, the negative passages use Yahūd, while the positive references speak mainly of the Banī Isrā’īl. In Quran Jews are not an ethnic group but a religious group while Bani Israel were an ethnic group and according to Quran they weren’t following Judaism. Jews are not mentioned at all in verses dating from the Meccan period.

The Jewish tribes played a significant role during the rise of Islam in the 7th century AD in the Arabian peninsula. Muhammad had many contacts with Jewish tribes, both urban and nomadic. The eating of pork has always been strongly prohibited in both religions. Muhammad viewed Christians and Jews (both of whom he referred to as “People of the Book”) as natural allies, sharing the core principles of his teachings. In the Constitution of Medina, Jews were given equality to Muslims in exchange for political loyalty.

Traditionally Jews living in Muslim lands, known (along with Christians) as dhimmis, were allowed to practice their religion and to administer their internal affairs but subject to certain conditions. They had to pay the jizya (a per capita tax imposed on free, adult non-Muslim males) to the Muslim government but were exempted from paying the zakat (a tax imposed on free, adult Muslim males). Dhimmis were prohibited from bearing arms or giving testimony in most Muslim court cases, for there were many Sharia laws which did not apply to Dhimmis, who practiced Halakha.

Later, as Muhammad encountered opposition from the Jews, Muslims began to adopt a more negative view on the Jews, seeing them as something of a fifth column. According to the Quaran, Jewish violations of the Constitution of Medina, by aiding the enemies of the community, finally brought on major battles of Badr and Uhud which resulted in Muslim victories and the exile of the Banu Qainuqa and Banu Nadir, two of the main three Jewish tribes from Medina, and the mass slaughtering of all male adults of Banu Qurayza.

Tabari and Ibn Hisham mention 600-900 of the Banu Qurayza were beheaded. Detail from miniature painting The Prophet, Ali, and the Companions at the Massacre of the Prisoners of the Jewish Tribe of Beni Qurayzah, illustration of a 19th century text by Muhammad Rafi Bazil. Public Domain

The Journey of Benjamin of Tudela

A historical journey to visit far-flung Jewish communities was undertaken by Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela from 1165 to 1173. One map of his travels shows that he stopped at Jewish communities living in Tayma and Khaybar two places that are known to have a longer significant historic Jewish presence in them, the Battle of Khaybar was fought between Muhammad and his followers against the centuries-long established Jewish community of Khaybar in 629. Tudela’s trek began as a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It has been suggested he may have had a commercial motive as well as a religious one. He catalogued the Jewish communities on the route to the Holy Land and provided a guide to where hospitality may have been found for Jews travelling to the Holy Land. 

One of the known towns that Benjamin of Tudela reported as having a Jewish community was “El Katif” located in the area of the modern-day city of Hofuf in the northern part of the Arabian Peninsula. Al-Hofuf  is the major urban center in the huge al-Ahsa Oasis in Eastern Province, Saudi Arabia.

Map of the route Public Domain

Jews in Yemen

Yemenite Jewish traditions have traced the earliest settlement of Jews in this region back to the time of King Solomon. King Solomon sent Jewish merchant marines to Yemen to prospect for gold and silver with which to adorn the Temple in Jerusalem. The average Jewish population of Yemen for the first five centuries CE is said to have been about 3,000. Maimonides, the great rabbi and thinker of the 12th century, leader of Egyptian Jewry, wrote his famous Letter to Yemen. Emigration from Yemen to Palestine – then ruled by the Ottomom Empire – began in 1881 and continued almost without interruption until 1914. 

Map of the modern state of Yemen Public Domain
Yemeni Jew in traditional costume, from March, 1914 National Geographic Magazine.
Public Domain

Najran – Yemen

There was a small Jewish community, mostly members of Bnei Chorath, in one Saudi-Yemen border city from 1934 until 1950. The Yemeni city of Najran was conquered by Saudi forces in 1934, absorbing its Jewish community, which dates to pre-Islamic times. They settled in the Hashid Camp (also called Mahane Geula) they were airlifted to Israel as part of the larger Operation Magic Carpet. According to Yemenite Jewish tradition, the Jews of Najran traced their origin to the Ten Tribes.

Juifs Yéménites entre Aden et Israël, pendant l’Opération Tapis Volant (1949–1950).
Domaine public

Jews of Aden

The Jews of Aden suffered anti-Jewish riots in December 1947 in which 76-82 died and 76 wounded. Virtually the entire population emigrated from Aden between June 1947 and September 1967.

Saudi Arabia – Modern era

There has been virtually no Jewish activity in Saudi Arabia since the beginning of the 21st century. Jewish (as well as Christian and other non-Muslim) religious services are prohibited from being held in Saudi Arabia. Israelis were not allowed to enter Saudi Arabia.

 Jews in Qatar

The earliest known history of Jews in Qatar dates back to when Muhammed became ruler of the Arabian peninsula and exiled many Jewish tribes to the far south and the far east of the Arabian peninsula. Some of the exiled Jewish tribes found their way to what is now called Qatar. In the 1930s the Jewish population of Qatar reached about 3,000, today they number in the tens.

 Jews in Oman

The history of the Jews in Oman goes back many centuries; however, the Jewish community in Oman is no longer extant. The Jews of Muscat, Oman were from Yemen; they lived in Oman during World War II and 1948 but do not live there anymore. 

Speaking at the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ (IISS) 2018 Manama Dialogue, Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah said: “Israel is one of the countries in the region… Maybe it is time that Israel had the same privileges and duties as other countries.” Bin Abdullah said that the Torah and the Israelite prophets emerged in the Middle East and that there had even been Jews in Medina.

The Tomb of Job is one of the alleged burial sites of Job. It is located in the hills overlooking the city of Salalah in Oman’s Dhofar region. Other Tombs of Job are placed in Israel, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey.

Job’s Tomb  9591353082 מוויקיפדיה האנגלית

The documented Omani Jewish community was made famous by Ishaq bin Yahuda, a merchant who lived in the 9th century. Bin Yahuda lived in Sohar, and sailed for China between the years of 882 and 912 after an argument with a Jewish colleague, where he made a great fortune. He returned to Shoar and sailed for China again, but his ship was seized and bin Yahuda was murdered at the port of Sumatra.

In the mid 19th century, the British Lieutenant James Raymond Wellsted documented the Jews of Muscat in his memoirs Travels in Arabia, vol. 1. He mentions that there are “a few Jews in Muskat (sic), who mostly arrived there in 1828, being driven from is believed to have disappeared before 1900.

Jews in Kuwait

The history of the Jews in Kuwait is connected to the history of the Jews in Iraq. In 1776 Sadeq Khan captured Basra, many of the inhabitants left the country and among them were Jews who went to Kuwait. With the Jews’ efforts, the country flourished with its buildings and trades. Around 1860, their number increased and their trade flourished. The government of Kuwait had approved on building a new city called Madinat al-Hareer. A super mega-project that will host 1001 m high skyscraper. The tower will include a mosque, a synagogue and a church under a single roof. There are no Jewish citizens in Kuwait, though there are a dozen foreign Jews.

Jews in Bahrain

Bahrain’s Jewish community is tiny; however, the history of the Jews in Bahrain goes back many centuries. Relations between Bahraini Jews and Bahraini Muslims are highly respected, with Bahrain being the only state on the Arabian peninsula where there is a specific Jewish community. Bahrain is the only Gulf state with two synagogues and two cemeteries next to each other. 

The Arab states of the Persian Gulf
Original map in German: Furfur Translation to English: Ham105

Jews in Iraq

The history of the Jews in Iraq is documented over twenty-six centuries, from the time of the Babylonian captivity c. 600 BCE, as noted in the Hebrew Bible and other historical evidence from the period, to modern Iraq. Iraqi Jews constitute one of the world’s oldest and most historically significant Jewish communities.

1934 Jewish children in Iraq. Photographed on Ben Zion Israel’s journey on behalf of the Jewish Agency Public Domain

In the 1930s, the situation of the Jews in Iraq deteriorated. Following Rashid Ali’s pro-Axis coup, the Farhud (“violent dispossession”) pogrom of June 1 and 2, 1941, broke out in Baghdad in which approximately 200 Jews were murdered (some sources put the number higher), and up to 2,000 injured—damages to property were estimated at $3 million. There was also looting in many other cities at around the same time. From 1950 to 1952, Operation Ezra and Nehemiah airlifted 120,000 Iraqi Jews to Israel via Iran and Cyprus. 

Iraqi Jews reach British Mandatory Palestine after the Farhud pogrom in Baghdad of 1941 Public Domain

The Untold Exodus of Jews from Arab Lands

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