Episode 30: Religious affairs of the Jews
The Jews considered themselves to be blessed with divine religion and law. They had their own seminaries, known as Midras which imparted instruction in their religious and secular life, science, law, history and the Talmudic lore. Similarly, for offering prayers and performing other religious rites, they had synagogues where they normally put their heads together to discuss their affairs. They observed the laws brought about by the Pentateuch together with the many other rigid and uncompromising customary rules imposed by their priests and rabbis and celebrated Jewish feasts and fasted. As for example, they commemorate, on the tenth day of the month of Tishri, The Fast of the Atonement. (Banu Israel Fil-Qur’an wal Sunnah, pp. 80-81)
The financial relationship of the Medinan Jews with the other tribes was mainly limited to lending money on interest or on security or sequestration of personal property upon payment failure. In an agricultural region like Madinah, there was ample scope for money-lending business since the farmers very often needed capital for purposes of cultivation. (Banu Israel Fil-Qur’an wal Sunnah, pp. 80-81).
The system of lending money was not limited merely to pledging personal property as security for repayment of the loan, for the lenders very often forced the borrowers to pledge even their women and children. The following incident bears a testimony to the prevailing practices:
“Muhammed b. Maslamah said to K’ab: “Now, we hope that you will lend us a camel-load or two (of food). K’ab answered: I will do so (but) you shall pledge something with me. [The Muslims] retorted: What do you want? - (K’ab) replied, “Pledge your women with me”. Then they responded, “How can we pledge our women with you, the most beautiful of the Arabs? K’ab parried, “Then pledge your sons with me. [The Muslims] countered, “How can we pledge our sons with thee, when later they would be abused on this account, and people would say: “They have been pledged for a camel-load or two (of food)! This would disgrace us! We shall, however, pledge our armor with you. Such transactions produced naturally, enough hatred and repugnance between the mortgagees and the mortgagors, particularly since the Arabs were known to be sensitive where the honor of their womenfolk is concerned. Concentration of capital in the hands of the Jews had given them power to exercise economic pressure on the social economy of the city. The markets were at their mercy. They rigged the market through hoarding, thereby creating artificial shortages and causing the rise and fall in prices. Most of the people in Madinah detested the Jews owing to such malpractices of usury and profiteering, which were against the substance of the common Arabs. (Banu Israel Fil-Qur'an wal-Sunnah, p. 79).
The Jews, in their social transactions with the Arab tribes, Aus and Khazraj, spent lavishly, though judiciously, in creating a rift between the two tribes. On a number of occasions in the past, they had successfully pitted one tribe against the other, leaving both tribes worn out and economically ruined in the end. The only objective Jews had set before themselves was how to maintain their economic dominion over Medinah. An incident related by Ibn Hisham that took place after Madinah became Muslim sheds light upon this strategy. Sh’ath b. Qays was an old jewish man and he felt bitter against the Muslims. He passed by a place where a number of the Prophet’s companions from Aus and Khazraj were talking together. He was filled with rage seeing their amity and unity. So he asked the Jewish youth who were friendly with the Ansaars to join them and mention the battle of Bu’ath and the preceding battles, and to recite some of the poems concerning those events in order to stir up their tribal sentiments. The cunning device of Sh’ath was not in vain, for a few years before Islam, the two tribes had been at daggers with each other. Their passions were aroused and they started bragging and quarreling until they were about to unsheathe their swords when the Prophet peace be and blessings upon him came with some of the Muslim emigrants from Mecca. He pacified them and appealed to the bonds of harmony brought about by Islam. Then the Ansaars realized that the enemy had duped them. The Aus and Khazraj wept, embraced and welcomed back one another as if nothing had happened. (Ibn Hisham, Vol. I, pp. 555-6).
For many centuries, the Jews had been waiting for a redeemer. This belief of the Jews in the coming Prophet peace be and blessings upon him, about which they used to talk with the Arabs, had prepared the Aus and the Khazraj to give their faith readily to the Prophet peace be and blessings upon him. (Dr. Mohammed Syed al-Tantawi, Banu Israel fil-Qur’an wal-Sunnah, pp. 73-101.)
The Jews of Arabia spoke Arabic although their dialect was interspersed with Hebrew for they had not completely given up their religious aspirations. In regard to the missionary activities of the Jews, Dr. Israel Welphenson says:
“There is less uncertainty about the opportunities offered to the Jews in consolidating their religious supremacy over Arabia. Had they so willed, they could have used their influence to the best advantage. But as it is too prominent among every student of Jewish history, they have never made any effort to invite other nations to embrace their faith, rather, for certain reasons, they have been forbidden to preach this to others.” (Dr. Israel Welphenson; Al-Yahud fi Balad il-‘Arab, p. 72).
Be that as it may, many of the Aus and the Khazraj and certain other Arab tribes had been Judaized owing to their close social connections with the Jews or ties of blood. Thus, there were Jews in Arabia, who were of Israelite descent, with a fraction of Arab converts. The well-known poet K’ab b. Ashraf (often called an an-Nadir) belonged to the tribe of Tayy. His father had married in the tribe of Bani an-Nadir but he grew up to be a zealous Jew. Ibn Hisham writes about him: K’ab b. Ashraf who was one of the Tayy of the sub-section of Bani Nabhan whose mother was from the Bani al-Nadir. (Ibn Hisham, Vol. P. 514).
There was a custom among the pagan Arabs that if the sons of anybody died in infancy, he used to declare to God that if his next son remained alive, he would entrust him to a Jew to rear him up on his own religion. A tradition referring to this custom finds place in the Sunan Abu Dawud. “Ibn ‘Abbaas said: Any woman whose children died used to take the vow that if her next child remained alive, she would make him a Jew. Accordingly, when Banu an Nadir were deported they had the sons of Ansaar with them; they said, “ We would not forsake our sons”, thereupon the revelation came: “There is no compulsion in religion.” (Sunan Abu Dawud, Kitaab-ul-Jihad, Vol. II).