Jewish tribes of Arabia

The Jewish tribes of Arabia were ethnic groups professing the Jewish faith that inhabited the Arabian Peninsula before and during the advent of Islam. It is not always clear whether they were originally Israelite in ancestry, genealogically Arab tribes that converted to Judaism, or a mixture of both. In Islamic tradition the Jewish tribes of the Hejaz were seen as the offspring of the ancient Israelites.[1] 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.[2] Certain Jewish traditions records the existence of nomadic tribes such as the Rechabites that converted to Judaism in antiquity.


Some of the Jewish tribes of Arabia historically attested include:

History of immigration

Contemporary researchers have pieced together a mosaic of Judaized Arabian Tribes but we have little evidence that Judaism found its place in the Arabian Peninsula by immigration of Jews, which took place mainly during five 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.

Arabized Jews

The Sanaite Jews have a legend that their ancestors settled in Yemen forty-two years before the destruction of the First Temple. According to Jeremiah some 75,000 Jews, including priests and Levites, traveled to Yemen.[10] The Banu Habban in southern Yemen have a legend 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.[11]

The Himyarite royal family in exile commanded vast wealth and resources, particularly the Nabatean bedouin with whom they had controlled the market of trade by Land from North-East Africa for centuries.

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.

Judaized Arabs

In about 400 CE, Himyarite King tubba Abu Karib As'ad Kamil (385-420 CE),[12] a convert to Judaism, led military expeditions into central Arabia and expanded his empire to encompass most of the Arabian Peninsula.[13] His army had marched north to battle the Aksumites who had been fighting for control of Yemen for a hundred years. The Aksumites were only expelled from the region when the newly-Jewish king rallied Jews together from all over Arabia with pagan allies. The relationship between the Himyarite Kings and the polytheistic Arab tribes strengthened when, under the royal permission of Tubba' Abu Karib As'ad, Qusai ibn Kilab (400–480 CE) reconstructed the Ka'aba from a state of decay, and had the Arab al-Kahinan (Cohanim) build their houses around it.[14] Qusai ibn Kilab was the great-great- grandfather of Shaiba ibn Hashim (Abdul-Mutallib). Shaiba ibn Hashim was fifth in the line of descent to Muhammad, and attained supreme power at Mecca. Qusai ibn Kilab is among the ancestors of Sahaba and the progenitor of the Banu Quraish. When Qusai came of age, a man from the tribe of Banu Khuza'a named Hulail (Hillel) was the trustee of the Kaaba, and the Na'sa (Nasi)—authorized to calculate the calendar. Qusai married his daughter and, according to Hulail's will, obtained Hulail's rights to the Ka'aba. Hulail, according to Arabian tradition was a member of the Banu Jurhum. Banu Jurhum was a sub-group of the Banu Qahtani from whom the Himyarites originally descend.

Around 455 CE, the last Himyarite King is born, Zur'ah Yusuf Ibn Tuban As'ad Abu Kaleb Dhu Nuwas or Dhu Nuwas. He died in 510. His zeal for Judaism brought about his fall. Having heard of the persecutions of Jews by Byzantine emperors, Dhu Nuwas retaliated by putting to death some Byzantine merchants who were traveling on business through Himyara. He didn't simply kill them with hanging—he burned them in large pits—earning him the title "King of the burning pit".

These killings destroyed the trade of Yemen with Europe and involved Dhu Nuwas in a war with the heathen King Aidug, whose commercial interests were injured by these killings. Dhu Nuwas was defeated, then he made war against the Christian city Najran in Yemen, which was a dependency of his kingdom. After its surrender, he offered the citizens the alternative of embracing Judaism, under coercion, or being put to death. As they refused to renounce their faith, he executed their chief, Harith ibn Kaleb, and three hundred and forty chosen men.[15]

Rise of Islam

The Jewish tribes played a significant role during the rise of Islam. Muhammad had many contacts with Jewish tribes, both urban and nomadic, and apparently was influenced by Judaism, as his early teachings seems to borrow from Jewish tradition. Muhammad could neither write nor read, and history attests to this fact;[16] However, when the Jews began to distance themselves from Muhammad, not recognizing him as a prophet, he started to minimize the Jewish influence on Islam, shifting the direction of prayers from Jerusalem to Mecca, making Friday a holy day, and shifting from the Jewish dietary laws, although the eating of pork has always been strongly prohibited in both religions, which contradicts the suggestion that he aimed to only oppose them.[17] It is noteworthy to mention that the holy day of Friday was never considered holy in the sense it is to Jews. And although Islamic and Jewish dietary laws share many similarities, the two sets of rules are not identical nor equal. The shift of the prayer direction from Jerusalem to Mecca can be viewed from a religious perspective: As a divine test from Allah to distinguish the true believers that followed the Prophet Mohammed, from those who would turn their back on the Prophet of Allah. (Quran 2:143).

In 622 CE, Muhammad, hoping to capitalize on Jewish-Arab despondency at successive military defeats, abandonment by Persian Jews, loss of Jerusalem, the murder of the Exilarch Nehemiah ben Hushiel, and the renewed opposition of the Banu Quraish, set out for Taif. Muhammad worked hard to turn the hearts of the Jewish-Arabian and Pagan tribes from the Jewish prophesies and Pagan beliefs respectively, hoping that the Jewish Arab tribes waiting for redemption at the hands of a Messiah would receive him well. But when Mohammed arrived in Taif, and called upon the Jewish tribes to hear his teachings, he was rejected.

In late 622 CE, Shallum ben Hushiel [18] went to visit Mohammed in Medina, and offered his submission (desiring conversion to Islam).[19][20] With the submission of an Exilarch, Mohammed found resistance to submission, by some Judaized Arab tribes, begin to wane.

Some of these tribes, or some of their members, were conquered and converted to Islam, some lived as crypto-Jews, while others remained Jews living among Muslims though protected by the Constitution of Medina. After 624 the Banu Qaynuqa, the weakest tribe which was composed of craftsmen, suffered persecution from Muhammad and left with their possessions to Daraa Syria.[21]

See also


  1. Gil, Moshe (1997). The origin of the Jews of Yathrib. pp. 4–5.
  2. Gil, Moshe (1997). The origin of the Jews of Yathrib. p. 5.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Norman A. Stillman, The Jews of Arab lands: a history and source book, p. 117
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Dr. Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, Constitutional Analysis of the Constitution of Madina (excerpt)
  6. Moshe Gil, A history of Palestine, 634-1099, p. 19
  7. Muhammad Farooq-i-Azam Malik (translator), Al-Qur'an, the Guidance for Mankind - English with Arabic Text (Hardcover) ISBN 0-911119-80-9
  8. Ibn Kathir, Trevor Le Gassick, The Life of the Prophet Muhammad: Al-Sira Al-Nabawiyya, p. 227
  9. Joseph Adler (May/June 2000), The Jewish Kingdom of Himyar (Yemen): Its Rise and Fall, Midstream, Volume XXXXVI No. 4
  10. Shalom Seri and Naftali Ben-David (1991), A Journey to Yemen and Its Jews. Eeleh BeTamar publishing; p.43
  11. Ken Blady (2000), Jewish Communities in Exotic Places, Jason Aronson Inc., p.32
  12. Ibn Hisham, I, pp. 26-27
  13. A Traditional Mu'tazilite Qur'an Commentary: The Kashshaf of Jar Allah Al-zamakhshari (D538/1144) (Texts and Studies on the Qur'an)
  14. The History of al-Tabari Vol. 5, The Sasanids, the Byzantines, the Lakhmids, and Yemen, C. E. Bosworth—Translator, SUNY series in Near Eastern Studies
  15. Richard Gottheil and Isaac Broydé, Dhu Nuwas, Zur'ah Yusuf ibn Tuban As'ad abi Karib, Jewish Encyclopedia
  16. "Urdu Qisas-ul-Ambiya - Stories Of The Prophets", by Isma'il bin 'Umar bin Kathir Ibn Daw' Ibn Kathir Ibn Dir, Publisher CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 1 edition (April 28, 2013), page 234
  18. also known as "Salman al-Farsi", "Shallum the Persian", "Salman the Good", "Abu Bakr al-Chaliva al-Saddiq", Hanamel the 37th Exilarch" son of the Exilarch Hushiel
  19. Joseph Schwartz, Descriptive Geography and Brief Historical Sketch of Palestine
  20. Ben Abrahamson and Joseph Katz (2004),The Persian conquest of Jerusalem in 614CE compared with Islamic conquest of 638CE,
  21. Stillman, Norman A. (5739-1979) The Jews of Arab Lands: A history and source book. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America. p. 13 ISBN 0-8276-0116-6
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