Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home


ARABIA, the Arabian Peninsula. Arabia attained a high level of civilization and culture continuing from antiquity until the rise of Islam in the seventh century C.E. In its southwestern part several developed states existed (see *Ḥimyar); the northern part however was inhabited by a variety of peoples who, whenever circumstances were favorable, raided the countries of the Fertile Crescent – Ereẓ Israel, Syria, and Mesopotamia. There is a theory that northern Arabia was the cradle of the Semitic peoples. The peninsula declined when the majority of the inhabitants left to take part in the great Arab conquest following the rise of Islam in the seventh century. Only Mecca, the birthplace of *Muhammad the Prophet of Islam and the place from where he spread his teachings, maintained its special position – one of the five fundamental duties of the Muslim faith is a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime. *Medina, to which Muhammad fled in 622 and where he was buried in 632, also acquired the status of a holy place. In the 20th century, geopolitical and economic factors restored to the peninsula its historical importance.

The Bible deals extensively with the Arabian Peninsula and its inhabitants. There are lengthy accounts of family ties, relations in war and peace, and trade between the Israelites and the various tribes of the Arabian steppe and the inhabitants of the Red Sea ports, beginning with the era of the patriarchs. In genealogical lists of the sons of Joktan (Gen. 10:26–29), the sons of Abraham (25:1–5) and Ishmael (25:13–16), Esau-Edom (36:11–12), in biblical stories (I Kings 9:26–28; 10:1–13, the stories of the *Queen of Sheba), and in Job 2:11, the names of nomadic tribes, countries, and settlements can be identified, which local sources (inscriptions) and external sources (Assyrian, Babylonian, and Greek) show existed at that time in both the north and south of the peninsula. The relations between the Jews and the Arabs are reflected in the literature of the Second Temple period and the Talmuds. At that time most of the Jews lived in Babylonia, largely in the vicinity of the Arab country of the Lakhmites in northeastern Arabia. Owing to prevailing circumstances many of the Jewish inhabitants of Ereẓ Israel were transferred to wilderness areas in the Negev and in Transjordan, ruled by the *Nabateans and near-Bedouin Arabs.

Any survey of the history of the Jews in the Arabian Peninsula must take into account the great geophysical, anthropological, sociological, and political differences which have always existed between the north – called from the early Muslim period Ḥijāz *(Hejaz), and the southwest – known in the late pre-Islamic period as Ḥimyar and since then as *Yemen.

Pre-Islamic Jewish settlement in the Arabian peninsula. Pre-Islamic Jewish settlement in the Arabian peninsula.

These differences also made their mark on the history of the Jewish communities, and the regional division between north and south is a valid factor in a survey of Jewish history in the peninsula. The north (which for simplicity's sake will be called Ḥijāz) must therefore be discussed separately from the south.

The Jews in Ḥijāz

Arabic historical literature and commentaries (which were written much later) contain many legends about the settlement of the Israelites and the Jews in Ḥijāz. One story dates this settlement as early as Moses' war against the Amalekites (Ex. 17:8–16), while another relates that King David fought against the idol worshipers in Yathrib (Medina). It is related that after the destruction of the First Temple, 80,000 priests who were saved made their way to Arabia and joined those who had settled there previously. Some inscriptions of Nabonidus, king of Babylon (555–539 B.C.E.) – several of which were discovered in 1956 – in which he described the establishment of his capital in Taymāʾ (552–542) from where he conducted his campaigns as far as Yathrib, combined with Nabonidus' Prayer (discovered among the Qumran (Dead Sea) Scrolls) and in which he mentions a Jewish priest and visionary from the Babylonian Diaspora who accompanied him, suggest that some of the Babylonian Jewish exiles settled with him in Taymāʾ and in Ḥijāz. Charles C. *Torrey (The Jewish Foundation of Islam (1933), 10, 17–18) thinks that even before that time Jewish traders began to settle in the oases of Ḥijāz. However, definite confirmation of Jewish settlement here appears only with the advent of people who had distinctly Jewish names or were designated as Jews in Aramaic, Nabatean, and Liḥyān inscriptions beginning from the first century B.C.E. or C.E. These tomb inscriptions or grafitti were found for the most part in al-ʿUlā (formerly Dīdān: Dedan), Madāʾin Ṣāliḥ(al-Ḥijr), and their environs. Most interesting is the inscription published in 1968: "This was dedicated by ʿAdnōn bar [son of] Ḥani bar Samawʾal resh Ḥijra to his wife Mūnā [the daughter of] ʿAmrū bar Samawʾal resh Taymāʾ, who died in the month of Av 251 [355/56 C.E.] at the age of 38." This Nabatean inscription appears to be the latest dated of those discovered so far. Among the finds at al-Ḥijr there is a sundial with the inscription, "Menashā bar Nathan Shelam." This may have been the name of the craftsman who set up the sundial, or possibly that of the astronomer. The names in these inscriptions are worthy of attention. Among them are the purely biblical Manasseh, Nathan, Zadok, Samuel, Simeon, and Shalom, but several names have changed under the influence of Aramaic (or Arabic?) into forms like Isḥaq and Ismāʿīl (b. Zadok). There are also pre-classical Arabic names such as Shabīt(o), Ha-Yehudi ("The Jew"), Yaḥ'yā (b. Simeon), and Naʿīm (b. Isḥaq). Though there are only a few of these inscriptions, they reveal a great deal about Jewish life in Ḥijāz.

When Aelius Gallus set out to conquer Yemen in 25 B.C.E. and was delayed in al-Ḥijr, Jews were living there. The task of the auxiliary Jewish contingent sent by Herod as part of this expedition was to act as a link between the Roman army and the Jewish communities in Arabia. Apparently, al-Ḥijr was then an important center and therefore was known in Ereẓ Israel and Babylonia. The Talmud mentions al-Ḥijra a number of times; although there were several places of this name, some of these references undoubtedly mean al-Ḥijr in Ḥijāz (e.g., Anan b. Ḥiyya of Ḥijra; Yev. 116a).

At the end of the fourth century the history of the Jews in Ḥimyar intersects with that of the Jews of Yathrib. According to Arab traditions, Abkarib Asʿad (c. 385–420) embarked on widespread conquests. After Ḥimyar had rid itself of Ethiopian domination during his father's reign, Abkarib conquered Ḥijāz among other places, and laid siege to Yathrib (known as Medina after Muhammad settled there). However, under rabbinical influence he became converted to Judaism. He returned to his country with two sages and began to spread Judaism there. Historians tend to accept these traditions as authentic in the main, but doubts have been aroused by certain Liḥyān inscriptions containing allusions to Jewish scholars and therefore suggesting that a Jewish or proselyte kingdom existed at that time in Ḥijāz.

The names and works of Jewish poets who lived in Arabia a generation before Muhammad and in his day have been preserved in classical Arabic poetry. The most famous of them is *Samuel b. Adiya, called the king of Taymāʾ. Other poets are mentioned in connection with events in Medina. Jewish tribes had lived for generations in this important area. Arab historians mention about 20 tribes who lived in the region, among them the well-known Banu-Naḍīr and Banu Qurayẓa who were called al-Kāhinān, i.e., "Two Tribes of Priests," and the Banu Qaynuqāʿ. Many Jews also lived in Khaybar and in other oases of Wadi al-Qurā ("Valley of the Villages"), such as al-ʿUlā (Dīdān), Madāʾin Ṣāliḥ, al-Ḥijr, Fadak, the Transjordanian plains of Adhruḥ, Jarba, Edrei, and the port of Maqnā on the Gulf of Eilat. Apparently, Jewish refugees from south Arabia also settled in the environs of Ṭāʾif after the war of *Yūsuf Dhū Nuwās. The reports from Medina attracted many Arab tribes who settled in this area, in particular two tribes from south Arabia, Banu al-Aws and Banu Khazraj, who from the start were vassals of the Jewish tribes. In the early seventh century they became stronger and the Jews were compelled to seek their protection. This situation is reflected in the pact which Muhammad made with the al-muhājirūn ("the emigrants": his first Meccan followers who migrated with him from Mecca to Medina in 622), the Banu al-Aws, Banu Khazraj, and Jewish tribes, and also with his "helpers" (anṣār), i.e., those men in Medina who supported him on his arrival.

Muhammad's hopes of converting the Jews of Medina to Islam were disappointed, and at the end of his second year in Medina relations between them began to deteriorate. One after another, Muhammad expelled the Banu al-Aws, Banu Qaynuqāʿ, and the Banu Naḍīr tribes, and had the males of the Banu Qurayẓa put to death. The lands of these tribes were distributed among the muhājirūn, thus solving the problem of their livelihood. After the oases of Medina had been acquired by the Muslims, Muhammad was ready to compromise with the Jews living in northern Ḥijāz – Khaybar, Fadak, Taymāʾ, and the other Jewish settlements – and all surrendered to him. The settlers were obliged by contract to set aside a sizeable portion of their agricultural yield or produce for Muhammad and his colleagues. In practice they remained tenants on their lands. These contracts later served as a model for other agreements negotiated with residents of conquered territories who surrendered willingly to the Arabs (see *Kharāj and Jizya).

During the rule of Omar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb (634–44) the conditions of the inhabitants of Ḥijāz took a turn for the worse. At that time, Muhammad's hitherto-unknown will was suddenly discovered, and stated "there must not be two religions in Ḥijāz." On the basis of this spurious will all Jews and Christians were allegedly expelled from the Ḥijāz. But as attested by Arab authors and in the Genizah sources, many Jews in fact lived in Wadi al-Qurā, Taymāʾ, and other regions in the 10th and 11th centuries. From the 12th century, concrete information about them disappears and from that time Jews are found only in *Yemen. Like its beginnings, the end of Ḥijāz Jewry is shrouded in legend. Travelers such as *Benjamin of Tudela (12th century); David *Reuveni (early 16th century); the Italian, Ludovico di Varthema (early 16th century), who was converted to Islam and therefore allowed to visit Ḥijāz, and others, have much to tell about the tribes of Israel, and especially the people of Khaybar still inhabiting the Arabian Desert, who were skilled in warfare and courageous. Izhak *Ben-Zvi, the second president of the State of Israel, devoted considerable time to tracing these stories and investigating the kernel of truth they contain.

South Arabia

The history of the Jews in south Arabia from the pre-Islamic period, including isolated information on the Islamic period which in time and source material is related to the history of Ḥijāz, is surveyed below. Because of its essentially different nature, the history from the 12th century to the present day is covered in the article on *Yemen. Various legends, resembling those on the origin of Ḥijāz Jewry, circulated about the beginnings of Jewish settlement in south Arabia. Bible stories of the Queen of Sheba and the ships of Ophir served as a basis for legends about the Israelites traveling in the Queen of Sheba's entourage when she returned to her country to bring up her child by Solomon. Large groups arrived before the destruction of the First Temple and others came afterward. Since the Jews of Yemen ignored Ezra's call to immigrate to Ereẓ Israel, he cursed them; they repaid him by refusing to name their sons Ezra. It may be assumed that Jews reached south Arabia at the latest during the reigns of Ḥimyar, i.e., in the first century B.C.E., some for reasons of trade, others with the legions of Aelius Gallus (25 B.C.E.). Although incontrovertible evidence exists from the early fourth century C.E. at the latest, it serves as a definite proof of the existence of Jewish communities in south Yemen for many decades and even centuries beforehand.

The excavations in 1936 of the central cemetery in *Bet Sheʿarim (near Haifa) of Jews from Ereẓ Israel and the Diaspora from the amoraic period, revealed a series of graves of "the people of Ḥimyar." According to a Greek inscription in one of the chambers, Ḥimyar was the name of south Arabia in the classical world of that time. In another room a Ḥimyarite monogram was drawn, reading: "Menahem the Ḥimyarite Qawl" (classical Ar. Qayl), "the head of a south Arabian tribe." In the same room, the Greek inscription Menaē presbyteros (i.e., "Menahem, elder of the community,") was discovered. Whether bodies buried in the Ḥimyarite graves in Bet Sheʿarim were brought from south Arabia or from one of the settlements established by these Jews in northern Arabia, Transjordan, or the Negev is of secondary importance from the point of view of the antiquity of the Jewish community in south Arabia. In any case it is clear that they originated from south Arabia: there is no reason to conjecture that immediately after their arrival in south Arabia the Jews began to wander north to establish settlements. It may be assumed that their settlement there preceded the dates on the graves in Bet Sheʿarim by at least one to two hundred years.

According to Philostorgios, the fourth-century author of a history of the Christian church, the Byzantine emperor Constantine sent Theophilus to south Arabia in the middle of the fourth century to bring Christianity to its inhabitants. Theophilus built two churches, one in Ẓafār and one in Aden, but he did not succeed in converting either the Ḥimyarites or their king. The Jews in the country then conducted propaganda against the Christian missionaries. Theodor Lector states that Christianity gained no converts in Ḥimyar until as late as the reign of the Byzantine emperor Anastasius (491–518), and in fact the majority of the monotheistic inscriptions discovered in Ḥimyar attest to Jewish influence; and only two or three of the latest ones, the work of Ethiopian-Christians (Copts), are of a Christian type. Several of the monotheistic inscriptions were placed there by the kings of Ḥimyar and hence it was concluded that they were converts to Judaism. In other inscriptions the following phrase figures: "The Raḥmān ["Merciful One"] who is in the heavens, and Israel and their God, the lord of Judah." One of the tombstone inscriptions includes the characteristically Jewish name Meir (CIS, vol. 4, no. 543).

The last independent king of Ḥimyar, Yūsuf Musuf Asʿar – known by his epithet Dhu Nuwās – was converted to Judaism and waged a prolonged war against his Ethiopian enemies. The Christian communities in Ẓafār and Najrān acted as an Ethiopian fifth column; when Dhu Nuwās was defeated and fell in battle in 525, the country came under Ethiopian rule. At first a native Christian viceroy was appointed, but later a viceroy was sent from Ethiopia. The Jewish community suffered hardship until the Persian conquest of south Arabia in 575. The Jews then prospered and were able to maintain contact with their brethren in Babylonia. In 628 Ḥimyar turned Muslim. In one of his letters to Yemen, Muhammad warned that it is forbidden to force a Jew or a Christian to accept Islam. The spurious will of Muhammad partly enforced in Ḥijāz by the caliph Omar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb (see above) did not include the Jews of Yemen although it severely affected the Christians in Najrān. However, it seems that at that time many of the converts to Judaism of south Arabian origin accepted Islam, and apparently more than a few Jews who were descendants of the exiles. Noteworthy among the converts to Islam are *Kaʿb al-Aḥbār, a contemporary of Omar, and later *Wahb ibn Munabbih.

From Omar's reign on, south Arabian Jewry was not mentioned for several hundred years. Neither Jews nor Christians were permitted to live in Ḥijāz until the discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia in the 20th century. At that time the prohibition against Christians employed in the oil fields was lifted, though it remained in force for Jews.


A. Grohmann, Kulturgeschichte des Alten Orients, Arabien (1963), in the series Handbuch der Altertumswissenschaft; R. Dozy, Die Israeliten zu Mekka von Davids Zeit… (1864); C.J. Gadd, in: Anatolian Studies, 8 (1958), 77–88; A. Jaussen et al., Mission archéologique en Arabie, 1 (1909), 118 ff.; 2 (1914), 231 ff., 428 ff.; J.W. Hirschberg, Der Dīwān des as-Samauʾal ibn ʿĀdijā (1931); idem, Yisrael be-Arav (1946); Ben Zvi, in: Eretz Israel, 6 (1960), 130–48; idem, The Exiled and the Redeemed (1958), 167–208; Ryckmans, in: Miscellanea A. de Meyer (1946), 194–205; idem, in: Le Muséon, 66 (1953), 319–42, RY 507–8; idem, in: Hebrew and Semitic Studies… G.R. Driver (1963), 151–2; W. Caskel, Entdeckungen in Arabien (1954), 14–26; F. Altheim and R. Stiehl, Die Araber in der alten Welt, 4 (1967), 306–17; 5 pt. 1 (1968), 305–9; J.A. Montgomery, Arabia and the Bible (19692).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.