Tag Archives: Islam

Jews of the Week: Sarah of Yemen and Qasmuna bint Ismail

Great Arabic Poets

The single surviving poem of Sarah of Yemen

Sarah (fl. 6th-7th century) was born to the Jewish Banu Qurayza clan of the Arabian Peninsula, in the pre-Islamic era when much of the peninsula was inhabited by Jews. Her family originally hailed from what is today Yemen. They lived in Yathrib, the flourishing oasis of the Banu Qurayza Jews. In 622, Muhammad entered the city, and in 627 he annihilated the Banu Qurayza tribe (and renamed the city “Medina”, making it the first capital of the Islamic empire). Sarah was a poet, and one of her poems describing the devastation of Yathrib has survived. It was first printed in a 10th-century anthology of Arabic poems called Kitab al-Aghani. She wrote: “By my life, there is a people not long in Du Hurud; obliterated by the wind. Men of Qurayza destroyed by Khazraji swords and lances; We have lost, and our loss is so grave…” According to legend, she fought in the battle against Muhammad and was killed. (In a little-known quirk of history, Muhammad actually took two of the Jewish captives for himself as wives, and one of them is even considered a “mother of Islam”!) Incredibly, Sarah of Yemen may be history’s oldest and first known Arabic poet.

Another famous Jewish-Arab poet was Qasmuna bint Ismail (fl. 11th-12th century), who lived in Andalusia (today’s Spain). She was the child of a wealthy and well-educated Jew, who made sure his daughter was literate and taught her the art of poetry. Qasmuna is the only Sephardic Jewish female poet whose work has survived. Three of her poems were published in a 15th century anthology. In one of her poems she wrote: “Always grazing, here in this garden; I’m dark-eyed just like you, and lonely; We both live far from friends, forsaken; patiently bearing our fate’s decree.” In another she describes reaching the age of marriage and the struggle of finding the right partner: “I see an orchard, Where the time has come; For harvesting, But I do not see; A gardener reaching out a hand, Towards its fruits; Youth goes, vanishing; I wait alone, For somebody I do not wish to name.” She has also been referred to as “Qasmuna the Jewess” and “Xemone”.

The Guardian Angels of Israel

Back When Palestinians Insisted There’s No Such Thing as Palestine

Words of the Week

In Judaism the word for “education” (chinukh) is the same as for “consecration”. Is your child being consecrated for a life of beneficence for Israel and humanity?
Rabbi Dr. J.H. Hertz, former Chief Rabbi of Britain

Jew of the Week: Benjamin of Tudela

The Jew Who Inspired Marco Polo

A 19th century engraving of ‘Benjamin of Tudela in the Sahara’

Binyamin MiTudela (1130-1173) was born to a religious Sephardic family in the town of Tudela, now in Spain. In 1165, he set out for what is believed to be a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He had a larger objective in mind as well, since this was at the height of the Crusades and a perilous time for anyone to make a pilgrimage, especially Jews. Binyamin wanted to explore all the Jewish communities along the way and to create a detailed map showing the route one should take and where a Jew can find safe refuge on his journey. This would open the door for more Jews to take a trip to their beloved Holy Land. A lover of history and geography, he also wished to leave a record of what the Jewish (and non-Jewish) world looked like in the 12th century. Binyamin recorded all that he saw in his Sefer haMasa’at, “Book of Travels”, also known as Masa’aot Binyamin. His adventures were so popular they were soon translated into just about every European language. Today, the book is among the most important historical documents for scholars of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, as well as of Jewish and Muslim history. A great deal of what we know about that era, including the daily lives of simple people, comes from his book. Some believe that it was this book that may have inspired another, more famous, adventurer about a century later: Marco Polo. Binyamin’s travels took him to France and the Italian Peninsula, then to Greece and across what is today Turkey to the Near East, then to Persia, back around the Arabian Peninsula, to Egypt, and returning to Iberia by way of North Africa. While in Ethiopia, he describes a large Jewish community, which was a key source of information allowing modern-day Ethiopian Jews to be accepted by the State of Israel and the rabbinate. He is possibly the first writer to detail the community of Al-Hashishin, better known as “Assassins”, as well as among the first to describe the Druze. In Posquières, he meets and describes the great Raavad. In Rome, he sees a Rabbi Yechiel, who is an advisor to the Pope, and has “free access to the Pope’s palace”! While in Baghdad, he writes of the Caliph, who is “like a Pope” for Muslims, and that the Caliph is fluent in Hebrew and knows Torah law extensively, though he rules with an iron fist. All in all, Benjamin of Tudela visited and wrote about some 300 cities. Today, there are streets named after him in Jerusalem and in Tudela, Spain, where there is also a high school bearing his name.

Words of the Week

One day I learned that dreams exist to come true, and since that day I do not sleep for rest. I sleep just to dream.
– Walt Disney

Jews of the Week: Rayhana and Safiyya

The Jewish Wives of Muhammad

A map of the Arabian Peninsula showing the Jewish-Arab Kingdom of Himyar, together with other notable Jewish villages

A map of the Arabian Peninsula showing the Jewish-Arab Kingdom of Himyar, together with other notable Jewish villages

Rayhana bat Zayd (c. 600-631 CE) was a woman of the Arab-Jewish tribe of Banu Nadir which inhabited the Arabian Peninsula before the advent of Islam. At a young age, she married a man from the neighbouring Arab-Jewish tribe of Banu Qurayza. By 627 CE, Muhammad was taking over the Arabian Peninsula and invaded the Banu Qurayza territory. What followed is known as the “Massacre of Banu Qurayza”, where every Jewish male was slaughtered, and every woman and child enslaved. The beautiful women among the slaves were taken as wives by Muhammad’s men. Rayhana caught the eye of Muhammad himself, who wished to have her as his own wife. However, Rayhana refused time and again to convert to Islam, preferring to remain a slave. At the end, Muhammad married her anyway. Her refusal to wear a hijab brought further tension to their marriage. Some say she reverted to being a slave and died shortly after, while others say Muhammad freed her and she went back to live among the Jewish tribes.

Rayhana’s compatriot, Tsofiya bat Chai (c. 610-670), was born to the rabbi and chief of the Banu Nadir tribe. In 629 CE, Muhammad’s armies defeated the Jewish tribes at Khaybar, once again slaughtering much of the village, including Tsofiya’s husband. Tsofiya was enslaved, then given to a Muslim warrior. After spotting her, Muhammad wanted Tsofiya, too, for himself, and traded seven other woman for her. He freed her from slavery and she converted to Islam under duress. She went on to become among the greatest of Muhammad’s wives, and highly influential in the history of early Islam, where she is known as Safiyya bint Huyayy, and is considered one of the Umm-ul-Mo’mineen, or “Mothers” of Islam. When Muhammad’s other wives teased Safiyya for being Jewish, Muhammad instructed her to remind them that “your father was the prophet Aaron, and your uncle the prophet Moses” and to tell them: “Therefore, I am superior to you.” Safiyya never bore any children for Muhammad, and at her death, she left her estate of 100,000 dirhams to her Jewish nephew. Both Safiyya and Rayhana were buried in the Al-Baqi cemetery in Medina (part of today’s Saudi Arabia), where Muhammad was also buried.

Words of the Week

The Jews are like everybody else, only more so.
– Heinrich Heine