Tag Archives: Saudi Arabia

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

Jews of the Week: Abu-Kariba & Yusuf Dhu-Nawas

How Arabia Almost Became Jewish

Arabia, one-time home of Jewish Kings

In the 400s CE, before the time of Muhammed, the Arabian Peninsula was dominated by the powerful Kingdom of Himyar, based in Yemen. Their ambitious king was a man named Abu-Kariba, who gathered a massive army to war with the Byzantines (aka. the Eastern Roman Empire). However, Abu-Kariba got only as far as the city of Yathrib, which was then the heart of Jewish Arabia (and today is the second holiest site in Islam, called Medina). While fighting a rebel army in Yathrib, Abu-Kariba fell ill. Two Jewish sages from the city went across enemy lines and healed the king. Their kindness, courage and wisdom prompted Abu-Kariba to convert to Judaism, along with his entire army. Kariba changed his plans and returned home to Yemen to spread the new faith. However, his successor Dhu-Shenstir, was a mad pagan who brutally tortured his people. Thankfully, he was killed by Yusuf Dhu-Nuwas, who became the new king and restored Judaism to the throne. “Dhu-Nuwas” is Arabic for ‘Lord Sidelocks’, because of the long sidelocks he wore, like many Jews do today. Dhu-Nuwas tried his utmost to stop Jewish persecution by Christians in the Byzantine Empire. When his calls went on deaf ears, he kidnapped a handful of Byzantine officials and executed them, sparking a war which he won. Emboldened by his success, he worked mightily to re-establish a Jewish kingdom in Israel, collaborating with the famous Torah leader of the time, Mar Zutra (the Third). Unfortunately, in 525 CE, the Byzantines allied with Ethiopia, as well as the Arab Christians, and destroyed Dhu-Nawas’ growing domain. His dream of a pan-Jewish empire came to an end. This spectacular episode is the reason many historians suggest “only a hair’s-breadth prevented all Arabia from becoming Jewish.”


Words of the Week

I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war.
King David, Psalms 120:7

Modern Arabia, where few Jews may be found…