Tag Archives: Islam

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 Today, the book is among the most important historical documents for scholars of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, as well as of Jewish and Muslim history.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.

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Words of the Week

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

Jew of the Week: Miriam the Jewess

Possibly the Most Enigmatic Woman in History

“Maria Prophetissa” by Maier, 1617

For millenia, the study of alchemy has been pursued by wise men around the world, practised by such greats as Isaac Newton and Chaim Vital. Ironically, the founding figure of alchemy happens to be a woman, called Maria Hebraea or “Mary the Jewess” (c. 3rd century CE). She is considered to be the first real-life, non-mythological alchemist, making her the first true alchemist in history. She wrote several treatises on the subject, as well as other philosophical works (including the Axiom of Maria: “One becomes two, two becomes three, and out of the third comes the one as the fourth.”) She is credited with the monumental discovery of hydrochloric acid, and isolation of acetic acid (vinegar). Maria invented at least three scientific apparatuses: a distillation chamber called the tribikos; a sealed-vacuum for collecting vapours, known today as an extractor; as well as the water-bath that we’ve all used in high schools science labs, which still bears her name, the bain-marie. Naturally, many legends have sprung up about this enigmatic Jewish woman. Some say she was the teacher of Democritus, others that she was a student of Aristotle, and others a princess of Saba. Funny enough, she became a key figure in Islam, listed in the Kitab-al-Fihrist as one of the most important scientists/alchemists of all time.


Words of the Week

The coming into being of a Jewish state in Palestine is an event in world history to be viewed in the perspective, not of a generation or a century, but in the perspective of a thousand, two thousand or even three thousand years. That is a standard of temporal values or time-values which seems very much out of accord with the perpetual click-clack of our rapidly changing moods and of the age in which we live. This is an event in world history.
– Winston Churchill