When did Judaism come to Arabian Peninsula? A Historical overview

By: M. Zakir Azmi Nadwi – Riyadh
History does not record many details regarding the first Jewish migration from north of Arabia to Yathrib (Madinah) began as their numbers remained small throughout their stay there; nor even mentions their origin.[1] However, it is still worthy to refer to some accounts that mention migration and settlement of some Jewish tribes in Yathrib.
Ibn Rustah (d. 310H), probably the most ancient source that attempted to answer questions related to the existence of the Jews in Yathrib, insists that their presence inYathrib dates back to the period of Prophet Moses when he dispatched the first military troops of ‘Banu Israel’ to Hejaz to discipline the rebellions ‘Amaliketes’ who played the tyrant in the region.[2]
Then Quraidah and their brothers Banu Hadal, Amro bin al-Khazraj bin al-Sareeh and Banu al-Nadhir traveled from Syria to Yathrib to follow the earlier Jews. They landed alongside the two famous valleys of Muthainib and Mahzour. Banu Nadhir settled in Muthainib and instituted the financing over there; Banu Quraidah and Hadal lived in Mahzour and grew their business over there. They are the first people who excavated the wells and initiated finance in Yathrib.[3]
Ibn Rustah adds to these three tribes another groups of Jews who settled in Yathrib during the time when the Aws and Khazraj migrated there after the fall of ‘Sadd-i Marab’. These groups are: Banu Zakhm, Banu Za’aura, Banu Masikah, Banu al-Qam’ah and Banu Zaid al-Laat (according to ibn Rustah, these tribes belong to the group of Abdullah bin Salam), Banu Qainuqa, Banu Hajar, Banu Thalaba, peoples of Zahra, Zubalah, Yathrib, Al-Qasees, Banu Akwah and Banu Mizayah.[4]
Abul Faraj al-Asfahani (d. 356H) brings another narration, which is not much different than that of Ibn Rustah, concerning the beginning of Jews’ existence in Hejaz and its relation to the troops which is said to be sent by the Prophet Moses to fight against ‘Amalekites’. After that, he lists some Jewish tribes and groups that inhabited Yathrib where the two tribes of Aws and Khazraj had already existed. These groups include; Banu Akwah, Banu Thalaba, Banu Mehmim, Banu Za’aura, Banu Qainuqa, Banu Zaid Banu, Banu Nadhir, Banu Quraidhah, Banu Hadal, Banu Awf and Banu al-Fasees.[5]
In addition to the above mentioned groups, there existed in Yathrib some original Arab tribes such as Bani Aneef (a quarter of Bali), Bani Marid (a quarter of Bali), Bani Ma’aviyah bin al-Harith, Bani al-Hazami or al-Hazma (a quarter of Yeman).[6]
Al-Asfahani adds to these tribes Bani Al-Hirman (a quarter in Yeman), Bani Al-Shatbah (a quarter of Ghassan).[7] Irrespective of whether these Arab tribal names are correct, it should be  noted here the variation in names of Jewish tribes stated by Ibn Rustah and that which were recorded by al-Asfahani. Amongst the reaons why these differences exists between the narrations of Ibn Rustah and Al-Asfahani might be that al-Asfahani relates the migration of Banu al-Nadhir, Bani Quraidhah and Banu Hadal from Syria to Yathrib to the event of Roman conquest of the Syrian territories and bringing the Jews under their rule.[8] Meanwhile, it should be noted that Ibn Rustah correlates the migration of these tribes and the assault on Hejaz by the Prophet Moses.
On the other hand, Wilfinson elucidates the incident of Jewish migration from Syria to Hejaz as, “After Roman-Jewish war (70BCE), which resulted in destruction of Palestine and the Temple Mount and wandering of Jews around the world, another big company of Jews attacked the Arab lands considering it as their preferred home due to its nomad system and its strategic location in the dessert protecting the well-organized Roman powers to conquer it”.[9] Moshe Gil is also of opinion that Jews entered the Hejaz and settled there in two different periods of Roman occupation of Palestine in the year 70C.BCE or in 135C.BCE.[10]
From the above discussion, it is clear that both researches refuse implicitly to accept the accounts of narrations that provide the existence of Jews in Hejaz to the period of Prophet Moses.
In any case, if it is possible to admit that Jews entered Hejaz during 70-135CE, which is a valid assumption because of its connection to the historical incidents that took place in Syria, shall we also accept the narrations which relate the existence of Jews in Hejaz i.e., to the period of Prophet Moses?
It seems difficult to agree with such narrations because they do not refer to reliable sources. Jawad Ali is of view that the source of all these narrations is the Jews of Hejaz alone or those who converted to Islam to prove that they are the real inhabitants of this land who enjoyed power and prosperity over the passage of time. And, their history in the region goes back to the prophetic times beginning with Israel and they are a selective group of Hebrews.[11]
It is interesting to note here that despite the many Jewish tribes that have been mentioned by Ibn Rustah, Al-Asfahani and Al-Samhoudi, none were known at the time of Prophet Mohammad’s (PBUH) migration to Madina but a few including the famous three: Banu Qainuqa, Banu Nadhir and Banu Quraidah.
The questions that arise here are what was the fate of the above tribes? Did they simply become extinct or did they move out of Hejaz? Did they mix with the prominent Arab tribes of Yathrib and its adjacent areas? Or were all the Jewish groups, exceeding 10 in number, excluding the famous 3, of Hebrew origin?
With regard to questions 1 and 2, it is difficult to give a positive or a negative answer because it bears the two viewpoints. As for the probability of mixing with the other Arab tribes dwelling in Yathrib, it can certainly be taken into consideration. As Al-Asfahani states, when Malik bin Ajlan was assassinated by a group of Yathrib’s Jews,[12] they became powerless and less protected. As a result, they sought support from Aws and Khazraj in order to maintain their survival in Yathriband tried to intermix with them.[13]
If we take this narration into consideration, which is probably a correct one, it helps shed light on the origin of Jews of Aws and Khazraj who have been mentioned frequently in the ‘constitution of Madinah’.
As for the question related to the origin of these tribes whether they were of Hebrew origin or the Arab tribes converted to Judaism, a satisfactory answer cannot be provided because the names of all these tribes are Arabic.  Al-Yaqoobi (d. 284H) had reported in his history that the majority of Jewish tribes in Hejaz are Arab origin who embraced Judaism.[14] Thus, Jawad Ali did not find in the names of these groups any name having Hebrew features except for the name of the Za’aura tribe.[15]
It is interesting to point out that Za’aura is a clan of Aws from Jasham i.e., a descent of Bani Abd Al-Ashhal.[16] Thus, it’s not easy to reconcile between Za’aura of Jews and Za’aura of Bani Abd Al-Ashhal, for it brings a misunderstanding.
Moshe Gill does not denounce the relationship between the famous nomad tribes of “Juzam” in the land of “Median” and the Jews of Hejaz, although this represents a problem for them.[17]
With regard to the origin of Banu al-Nadhir and Bani Quraidah, Al-Yaqoobi, who used the most ancient accounts, discussed their origin. He claims they are of Arab origin because Banu Nadhir are a branch of “Juzam”. They are said to have converted to Judaism and stationed in a mountain called “al-Nadhir” from where the tribe takes its name[18]. According to al-Yaqoobi, Bani Quraidah are also a tribe of “Juzam” who are said to have embraced Judaism during the time of Samuel, then lived in a mountain known as Quraidah, hence their name Bani Quraidah[19]. However, he did not provide any evidence in support of his view.
On the contrary, Ibn Rustah relates the origin of Quraidah and Nadhir to the Prophet Haroon bin Imran.[20] This is also followed by Al-Asfahani as he asserts that Bani Quraidah and Nadhir were two priests belonging to Aaron bin Imran and Moses bin Imran. They settled in adjacent areas of Yathrib after death of Prophet Moses.[21]
According to Jawad Ali, both Noldeke and Oleary do not reject the origin of Banu Al-Nadhir and Quraidah to the priest who migrated from Palestine after the events that took place  and then settled in Hejaz.[22]
As for the case of Banu Qainuqa, the third famous Jewish tribe that already existed inYathrib at the time of Prophet Mohammad’s migration, it is the only known tribe that they was one of the three famous Jews tribes ofYathrib.  They were also the first tribe who infringed the agreement that was signed between them and Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) after the war of Badr. One of their priests and man of status, Al-Haseen bin Salam, was the first Jew who embraced Islam and named by the Prophet (PBUH) as Abdullah.[23]
Some researchers elevate doubts about the origin of Banu Qainuqa and assert that either they are of Arab origin who converted to Judaism or a descent of Bani Adum.[24] This opinion lacks any evidence.
Perhaps the reason behind relating the origin of Bani Qainuqa to Hebrew is the biography of Abdullah bin Salam recorded by Ibn Hajar, who does not provide the source, is that: “Abdullah bin Salam bin Al-Harith Abu Yousuf from descents of the Prophet Yousuf, the ally of Khazraj of Israel origin, then Ansari………. who belonged to Bani Qainuqa”.[25]
With regard to Safiyah bint Haye (d. 52H),[26]she is descended from both tribes of Bani Al-Nadhir and Bani Quraidah as her father Haye bin Akhtab was from Bani Al-Nadhir and his mother, Birah bint Samuel belonged to Bani Quraidah. According to some narrations, the Prophet (PBUH) had attested to her origin from Israel. When she and Ayesha (the two wives of the Prophet Mohammad “PBUH”) had quarreled with each other, the Prophet (PBUH) said to Safiyah: “Why you did not say to her that my father was Haroon and Uncle was Moses?”[27]
The Qur’an mentions Bani Israel in 43 places, 23 times in connection with the Makkan period and the rest related to the Madinian period. It is known that, in the Madinian context, they are the Jews of Hejaz and from the foremost of them are the famous three tribes of Yathrib.
Therefore, if there has been any controversy among the historians about origin of Jewish clans in Hejaz, the origin of Banu al-Nadhir and Bani Qainuqa is less disputed. They are remnants of the People of Scripture” from the descendants of Israel in Hejaz. This is what we understand from the Qur’an and Sunnah.
In brief, it can be said that Aws and Khazraj on one hand, and different tribes of Jews on the other, used to clash over sovereignty ofYathrib. Very often, wars erupted for that reason and the last one took place just before Prophet Mohammad migrated to Yathrib.[28]These wars even continued after migration of Prophet Mohammad (PBHH) to Yathrib.[29