A Jewish View of Prophet Muhammad as an Abrahamic Prophet of Tawhid
Rabbi Allen S. Maller
Almost all parents love their own children much more than they love the children of their neighbours. This is only natural. Most parents are also able to acknowledge that some of their neighbours’ children exceed their own children in some, even occasionally in many, aspects of character, personality or talent. Nevertheless, normal parents still love their children much more than their neighbours’ children.
The same preference is also found among religious believers. In every religious community, people think that their own prophet, their holy book, their saints and their religious traditions are the truest and the best. This natural human feeling can sometimes lead to an arrogant pride that results in verbal abuse that can lead to physical conflict between believers in different religions.
This arrogant pride in the superiority of one’s own religion should be condemned by all religious leaders. An excellent account of just this kind of condemnation is found in the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad, when he was called upon to judge between a Jew and a Muslim in a conflict-laden situation.
Abu Huraira related: Two men, a Muslim and a Jew, verbally abused one another. The Muslim said, “By Him Who gave superiority to Muhammad over all the people.” At that, the Jew said, “By Him Who gave superiority to Moses over all the people.” The Muslim became furious at that and slapped the Jew on his face.
The Jew went to God’s Apostle and informed him of what had happened between him and the Muslim. God's Apostle said, “Don’t give me superiority over Moses, for everyone will fall unconscious on the Day of Resurrection and I will be the first to gain consciousness, and behold Moses will be there holding the side of God’s Throne.”
“I will not know whether Moses has been among those people who have become unconscious and then has regained consciousness before me, or has been among those exempted by God from falling unconscious.” (Bukhari Vol. 8, Book 76, #524)
God’s Messenger is so well known for his sense of justice that a Jew can appeal to him, even in a conflict with a Muslim who has attacked this Jew. It is only natural for Jews to think that Moses is the best; and for Muslims to think that Muhammad is the best.
Muhammad rebukes the Muslim, telling him not to claim that Muhammad is superior to Moses, because even on the day of Resurrection, Muhammad himself will not know their relative merit, for although Muhammad will be the first of all the comatose to be revived, Moses will already be there holding the side of God's throne.
Prophet Muhammad teaches us that claims of religious superiority are wrong, for no human in this world, and perhaps even in the world to come, will know who is the best prophet. Only God knows. Such arrogant comparisons do not help anyone to become kinder, wiser or a better believer in the one God that all mankind should worship, but only polarize believers by inciting partisan fervour.
I am a Reform Rabbi, and I can state that all Reform Rabbis would applaud this teaching of Prophet Muhammad because we are all aware that during the Middle Ages all three religions’ adherents claimed religious superiority over each other. If Jews, Christians and Muslims had only followed this teaching of Prophet Muhammad, we could have avoided many centuries of bloodshed and massacres: three of the best-known examples being the many Christian Crusades in Spain, Poland and the Middle East; the Roman Catholic Inquisition in Spain and Portugal; and the 30 year war between Catholics and Protestants in Germany and central Europe.
One of the wonderful aspects of the Qur’an is that it is the only book of revelation that includes within itself a theory of prophethood which includes other religions. Of course, there have always been (since the days of Adam) people inspired by Allah who urged their community to avoid destruction by turning away from their corrupt and unjust ways and turning to the One God who created all humans.
Unfortunately, almost all prophets are unsuccessful. They are like Hud, who was sent to Ad; or Salih, who was sent to Thamud. They come to warn their own people of their impending destruction due to their corrupt and immoral ways, and to call them to repentance. In almost all cases, their teachings are rejected; or if these prophets were successful in influencing their own people to embrace monotheism and abandon idols, their influence faded away in a few generations, and their people reverted to polytheism and idolatry and then disappeared.
The prophets of the Children of Israel are different. First, Abraham is the only prophet we know of who has two sons, Prophets Isma’il (Ishmael) and Ishaq (Isaac) both of whom were also prophets. Indeed, Abraham's grandson Ya'qub (Jacob) and great grandson Yusuf (Joseph) were also prophets. Thus, starting with Prophet Abraham, Allah established a family dynasty of prophets which is as far as we know was a unique event for as far as we know this was a unique event which began with Prophet Abraham and ended with Prophet Muhammad.
None of the recent messengers like Joseph Smith of the Mormon Church were descendants of Prophet Abraham.
With Joseph and his brothers (the tribes) the extended family of Ya’qub became the 12 tribes of Israel, or as they are usually called, the Children of Israel/Ya’qub. The Children of Israel did succeed in establishing an ongoing monotheistic community because they were blessed with many of God’s prophets, who were all descendants of the Children of Israel/Ya’qub, who, generation after generation, urged the Jewish people to stay firm in their covenant with God.
This ongoing prophetic concern is expressed clearly in the Qur’an: “When death approached Ya’qub, he said to his sons, ‘Who will (you) worship after I am gone?' They answered, 'We will worship your God, the God of our forefathers, Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, the One God. Unto Him we will surrender ourselves.’ ” (2:132)
For Jews, the ongoing continuity of God’s covenant with the Jewish People is achieved through the faithful linked chain connection of endless successive loyal generations. This is why the Jewish Umma is both a religious and an ethnic community.
The miracle of Islam’s birth is that this 14 century-old religion was established by just one Prophet of Tawhid (imageless monotheism) acting all by himself. Even Prophet Jesus was preceded by Prophet John the Baptist.
Perhaps this is why Natan’el al-Fayyumi, a prominent 12th-century Yemenite rabbi and theologian, wrote in his philosophical treatise Bustan al-Uqul (“Garden of Wisdom”) that God sends prophets to establish religions for other nations, which do not have to conform to the precepts of the Jewish Torah.
Nethan’el explicitly considered Muhammad a true prophet, who was sent from Heaven with a particular message that applies to the Arabs, but not to the Jews. Al-Fayymi’s explicit acceptance of Muhammad as a Prophet of Tawhid for non-Jews throughout the world in general, and all idol-worshiping polytheists in particular, was rare and virtually unknown until recent times beyond his native Yemen, because Yemen was very remote from almost all the other Jewish settlements in the Muslim world.
Some scholars might object that Orthodox Jews like Rabbi Nethan’el of Yemen could not possibly believe Muhammad was a legitimate prophet because Orthodox Jews believe that prophecy had ended two to three centuries prior to the birth of Jesus.
Just as Muslims believe that there will be no more prophets after Muhammad, and Christians believe that there will be no more ‘sons of God’ after Jesus, Jews believed Jews would receive no more Jewish prophets until the Messianic Age. But that only applied to Jewish prophets.
There is no statement in rabbinic literature that states that no non-Jewish prophet will ever come. Muhammad’s tribe traced their descent from Abraham and Ishmael, so Muhammad is an Abrahamic non-Jewish prophet like Job (Eiyov in Hebrew- Ayyub in Arabic), who has his own book in the Bible, and is considered to be a non-Jew in most, but not all, rabbinical opinions.
There is no reason why a rabbi could not believe that Prophet Muhammad had been sent by Allah as a Prophet of Tawhid and mercy, to all idol-worshipping polytheists worldwide to deliver the book of the Qur’an to them, and to also be a reforming prophet for those groups among the Jews and Christians who had strayed from their own book and needed reforming.
Thus, the Qur'an proclaims, “That which We reveal to you of the book (the Qur'an) confirms the (books) revelations prior to it. Surely God is fully aware of His servants (deeds) and sees well. Then We made those of Our servants whom We chose, heirs to the Scripture. However, among them (the followers of each revealed book) are those who wrong their own selves (by straying), and among them are those who follow a moderate way (average followers) and among them are those who, by God's leave, are foremost in doing good deeds (the exemplary). That is the great favour.” (35:31&32)
I believe Prophet Jesus was also sent to offer Tawhid to non-Jews as a way of attaching themselves to Abraham’s and Israel’s monotheistic Tawhid faith; without converting to Judaism and committing themselves to all, or even a large part of the Torah’s commandments. This is why, although the Gospels are attached to the Hebrew Bible, Christians are not duty bound to observe Jewish holy days.
I also believe that Prophet Muhammad was sent to offer another whole Tawhid sacred scripture, confirming the previous ones, to all idol-worshipping polytheists, so they could join a new universal ummah of monotheists. This book, the Qur’an, also serves as a guide to help both Jews and Christians reform some aspects of the orthodox teachings of their own religion that had developed over the previous five and a half centuries.
For over six decades I have been studying the Qur’an and reading other Islamic books, and I think of myself as a Reform (called Liberal in UK) Jewish Rabbi who is an Islamic Jew. As a Rabbi, I am faithful to the covenant that God made with Abraham—the first Jew who was a hanif muslim (a faithful monotheist) and I submit to the covenant and its commandments that God made with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai.
As a Reform Rabbi I believe that Jewish spiritual leaders should modify Jewish tradition as social and historical circumstances change and develop. I also believe we should not make religion difficult for people to practice by adding an increasing number of restrictions to the commandments we received at Mount Sinai.
These are lessons that prophet Muhammad taught 12 centuries before the rise of Reform Judaism in the early 19th century Germany. Although most Jews today are no longer Orthodox, if the Jews of Muhammad’s time had followed these teachings of Prophet Muhammad, Reform Judaism would have started 1,400 years ago.