Muhammad’s Inspiration by Judaism: “It was Islam Which Saved the Jewish People”

Diversity Macht Frei
June 3, 2017

The Jewish scholar Shlomo Dov Goitein gave an important lecture in 1958, titled “Muhammad’s Inspiration by Judaism”. Here are a few extracts from it, prefaced with my comments to make them intelligible. (All the direct quotations from the lecture are in Italics, except for the long extract at the end).

In this lecture, Goitein essentially admits that Jews worked up various schemes to get the Arabs to conquer Palestine for them, defeating the Christian power that was established there. Muhammad was just one of these projects that reached fruition and then, in modern parlance, “went viral”.

The Kohanim were the Jewish priestly caste responsible for performing sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple when it still existed. Their office was hereditary. After the destruction of the “Second Temple” by the Romans in 70 AD and the expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem [138 AD] by Hadrian after the Bar Kochba revolt, these Kohanim were forced to relocate. Living elsewhere, they nonetheless maintained their genetic separateness (not just from Gentiles but also from “lesser” Jews) in order to maintain the purity of their priestly caste by living in segregated towns of their own. There, they dreamed of a return to Jerusalem and another restoration of the Jewish temple. Medina (al-Madina in Arabic), where the first Islamic state was later formed, was one of these towns of the Kohanim.

Muslim accounts of the Jews of Arabia are, of course, our main source of information. They reveal to us that an unbroken chain of Jewish settlements stretched from the border of Palestine to al-Madina, which originally was a town of Kohanim and still was inhabited at the time of Muhammad by, among others, two priestly clans. That Kohanim should live together was nothing exceptional at that time, when the re-erection of the Temple was still a tangible hope and the priests tried to preserve, to a certain extent, the laws of priestly purity. Such priestly towns were found not only in Palestine but even in such far away places as the isle of Jerba off the coast of Tunisia or the town of Yazd in the very heart of Persia. In Yemen, Jewish villages, inhabited exclusively by Kohanim, have existed up to the present time. 

An Arab tribe called the Himyarites were reportedly converted to Judaism by two Jewish scholars from Yathrib (Medina) around the year 380. They are known to have engaged in hostilities (including atrocities) against Christians. This provoked retaliatory action from neighbouring Christian powers, resulting in the destruction of the Himyarite kingdom in 525. But it seems to have been in this Judeo-Arab tribe that the idea of “Holy War” first emerged in the region.

The epigraphic evidence is of different kinds. I confine myself here to one, the old South-Arabian, Sabaean-from Sheba, which is Yemen-or Himyaritic inscriptions. They tell us about judaized South-Arabian kings, i.e. kings who did not invoke any more, as had been usual, a plurality of gods, but one God, who was called Rahman, the All-merciful-as is well known, the official name of God in the Babylonian Talmud. In two inscriptions, this Rahman is styled expressly as Rabb-Hud or Yahud, the God of the Jews. Our knowledge of this epigraphic material has been enormously enlarged through the discoveries made by the Anglo-Belgian expedition to Arabia in 1951/2 and the subsequent publication of the newly found inscriptions by Gonzague Ryckmans, of Louvain, Belgium. We have now inscriptions, in considerable number, of judaized Himyarites from both the middle of the fifth century and from the beginnings of the sixth, about fifty years before Muhammad’s birth. 

The importance of these inscriptions consists not only in their number and geographical and chronological distribution but in the missionary zeal and drive for expansion expressed in them. Thus, inscription Ryckmans No. 508, after having told much about wars, bloodshed, and even the destruction of churches by the Jewish king, Joseph ‘As’ar, formerly known only by his Arabic nickname Dhu-Nuwas, concludes with the prayer: “May Thy mercy, Thou Merciful One, embrace the whole world, for Thou art the Lord.” In another inscription, R. 520, the dedicators pray for a good life and a good death, which implies a belief in a world to come, as well as for sons fighting for the name of the All-merciful-the first indication of the idea of the Holy War on Arab soil. 

Bearing in mind that the principal goal of the Jews was to regain control of the “Holy Land” and Jerusalem, it looks like their initial strategy was to attempt to leverage Arab power to this end through “conversion”. This effort failed with the collapse of the Himyarite kingdom when its Christian adversaries proved too strong. Thereafter, the Jews realised that the only way to fully mobilise Arab power was to canalize it through one of their own.

Finally, having given up the hope of fully Judaizing the immense and barbaric masses of the Arabs among whom they lived and were active, they decided to spread the word of God in a way suggested by Deuteronomy xviii: 18, “I shall raise up for them a prophet amongst their own brothers.” That is why we read so often in the Qor’an in connection with those Arabic peoples: “To ‘Ad we sent their brother so-and-so (incidentally, he is called Hud, which, as we know now from the Himyarite inscriptions, means nothing else but Jew), to Thamud their brother so-and-so, to Madyan-which is Midian-their brother so-and-so” (Sura vii: 65, etc); and that is why Muhammad himself is called in the Qor’an an-Nabial-Ummi, Hebrew: 6=rn nirnl wn: Prophet of the Gentiles; this is a conception frequently found in talmudic literature, referring of course to the past. The mentors of Muhammad made this idea a practical instrument for the propagation of Monotheism in their own time.

The Koran itself gives many indications that Muhammad was being run by Jews, and that this was a source of criticism at the time, before he had established his power base.

In the early controversies between Muhammad and his compatriots, who refused to believe in his message, frequently reference is made to a man or men from the Banu ‘Isra’il or Children of Israel-Muhammad never used the word Jew or Christian, as long as he was in Mecca-who could be asked, or, according to the Meccans, who was the source of Muhammad’s knowledge. Thus we read in Sura xxv: 5-6: “The disbelievers say: ‘This is nothing but a fraud which he has devised-namely Muhammad’s assertion of the heavenly origin of his message-and others have helped him with it.’ They have said too: ‘These are old-world tales, which he has written down for himself; they are recited to him every morning and evening’.”  

…in Sura xvi: 105, Muhammad quotes his adversaries as saying: “It is only a human being who teaches him.” That means: not God. On this, Muhammad gives the naive, but as we shall presently see, extremely significant answer: “The language of him they hint at is foreign, but this is clear Arabic speech.”  

Very often Muhammad himself alludes to these foreigners, e.g. in the illuminating passage Sura xxvi: 192-9: “Verily this is a revelation of the Lord of the Worlds . . . in clear Arabic speech. Is it not a sign -a proof-to them that the learned of the Children of Israel know it? If We (Allah is speaking) had sent it down through one of the foreigners and he had recited it to them, they would not have believed it.” Muhammad challenges his adversaries by saying: “Ask the Children of Israel” or “Ask the people of the book” (xvi: 43; xxi: 7). Moreover, God Himself advises Muhammad to ask the Children of Israel whenever he was in doubt. 

It looks like at one point Muhammad himself started to wonder whether the Jews were conning him. So a helpful “revelation” came from (((Allah))) to reassure him, telling him to ask the Jews and trust them. Here are two different renderings of the Koranic text.

And if thou (Muhammad) art in doubt concerning that which We reveal unto thee, then question those who read the Scripture (that was) before thee. Verily the Truth from thy Lord hath come unto thee. So be not thou of the waverers.

So if you (O Muhammad SAW) are in doubt concerning that which We have revealed unto you, [i.e. that your name is written in the Taurat (Torah) and the Injeel (Gospel)] then ask those who are reading the Book [the Taurat (Torah) and the Injeel (Gospel)] before you. Verily, the truth has come to you from your Lord. So be not of those who doubt (it).

In these concluding paragraphs, Shlomo Dov Goitein praises the “Jewish mentors” who ran Mohammed, applauds Islam’s effect on the world, and claims that the occasional atrocities against Jews by Muslims were a price worth paying for the greater goal of getting the Jews back to Jerusalem. He also points out that, like venture capitalists betting on the next big thing, the Jews were running several “useful Arab prophets” at the time and Muhammad was just the one that went viral.


…the most plausible answer to the question “what type of Judaism was cultivated by Muhammad’s Jewish mentors ?” is a combination of the first two possibilities weighed before: a group emphasising certain aspects of Judaism for missionary purposes, and perhaps being under the influence of Christian monastic pietism.

In any case, it stands to reason that the idea of using a medium, “to raise up a prophet amongst their own brethren” for the Arab tribes was not the brainwave of a single man, but a line of action adopted by a whole group. For contemporarily with Muhammad, there appeared Arabian prophets both in Yemen and in Eastern Arabia, countries with important Jewish populations at that time. The prophets of Yemen and Yamama in Eastern Arabia failed, Muhammad succeeded. That group, we may imagine, made various trials. It was the genius of Muhammad, his religious and political genius, which fanned the spark that had been put in him into an eternal blaze and certainly made guidance by his well-meaning Jewish mentors rapidly become redundant.

Nevertheless, the devoted work done by that modest group of “the people of Moses”, who most probably were simple, pious men with little learning, bore rich fruit. It finally resulted in conveying the message of ethical monotheism to a very large section of mankind and in bringing many nations within the orbit of a civilisation very much akin to Western Christian civilisation. Thus it contributed both to the elevation and to unification of mankind.

However, even from the narrower point of view of Jewish history, Muhammad’s mentors worked not in vain. Of course, Muhammad, when moving northward to al-Madina, encountered large Jewish settlements led by scholars, who by no means could be expected to accept a very inadequately informed gentile as a prophet sent by God to confirm the Torah. In addition, the rich plantations and dategroves of the Jewish settlements, which stretched from al-Madina to the border of Palestine, were too tempting a prey for the Muslims who had had to give up their houses in their native Mecca. As is well known, Muhammad attacked all those settlements and expelled or subjected or destroyed their inhabitants. Thus, for the Jews of Northern Arabia, the effect of the missionary zeal of Muhammad’s Jewish mentors was disastrous.

The reverse was the case with the Jewish people as a whole. At that time, the destinies of the Jewish people had reached their lowest ebb. It groaned under the crushing persecutions of a bigoted, decaying church, and the likewise decayed anarchy of the disintegrating Sassanid empire. It was Islam which saved the Jewish people. This fact was fully recognized by the Jews themselves, as we may learn from a section of the Nistaroth de-Rabbi Shim’on ben Yohai, which was composed in early Islamic times. There, the angel Metatron shows Rabbi Shim’on ben Yohai the Malkhuth Yishma’el, the empire of the Arabs, and explains to him that ” God would raise up for them a prophet according to His Will,” and that they would conquer Palestine and resettle the Jews there in great honour. As is well known it was the Muslims who brought the Jews back to Jerusalem, after they had been forbidden access to it for 500 years. 

Thus, both from the point of view of world history and that of Jewish history, those simple, pious men whose missionary zeal and activities we have been able to discern in the Qor’an [note: he means the Jews running Muhammad], have indirectly achieved far more than they perhaps ever dreamed of.


Source: “Muhammad’s Inspiration by Judaism” by Shlomo Dov Goitein, Journal of Jewish Studies
1958, vol. 9,  no. 3 and 4, pp. 149–162

We are forced to conclude that the Jews ran Muhammad like they ran Martin Luther King.

For more on this topic, see “The Jew as Ally of the Muslim“.