Arabian Judaism and the Rise of Islam

For the Public
Wednesday, April 13, 2022
12:00 PM - 1:00 PM EDT

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March 30, April 6, and April 13

Registration fee: $60

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Explore a whole new world of Late Antique Judaism. This three-session course will draw you into the political, religious, and cultural context of the Jews who lived in and among the founders of Islam. From the Jewish kings of Yemen to Muhammad’s Jewish wife, the course sheds light on early Judeo-Islamic relations and offers a rich portrait of Arabian Jewish life in its own right.

Please note: Enrollment is limited, first come first served. Friends of the Katz Center receive advance access to all mini-courses and waived tuition for one mini-course per year. Limited scholarships are available. Please contact Dajana Denes-Walters ( if cost is a barrier. 

March 30: The Jewish Kings of Yemen and the Red Sea Wars

In the 4th century CE, the elites of Himyar, a powerful kingdom in southern Arabia (modern-day Yemen and Saudi Arabia), began to convert to Judaism. At the same time, across the Red Sea, the elites of Axum, a powerful kingdom in the Horn of Africa (modern-day Ethiopia and Eritrea), began to convert to Christianity. The two elites had been religiously, linguistically, politically, and economically tied to each other for generations. But, following their respective conversions, an ideological rift emerged resulting in the so-called "Red Sea Wars" of the 5th and 6th centuries CE. The wars resulted in the dethroning of Himyar's Jewish Arabian king Dhu Nuwas (d. 525 CE), the occupation of southern Arabia by the Christian kingdom of Axum, and the subjugation and dislocation of Yemen's Jewish population. The Red Sea Wars are the historical background for the birth of the historical Prophet Muhammad in the 570s CE in the city of Mecca, on the peripheries of Himyar, in the wake of the Axumite occupation. In this lecture, I will provide a historical portrait of Arabian Judaism in Late Antiquity by focusing on the Jewish kings of Himyar, their Arabian Jewish culture, language, and religious practices.

April 6: Arabian Judaism and the Quran

As a historical document, the Quran provides evidence about the belief and practices of Arabian Jews during Late Antiquity. This evidence is found in numerous forms. First, the Quran makes numerous references to narratives from the Hebrew Bible, especially the Books of Genesis, Exodus, Kings, and Jonah. The text assumes that its contemporary audience, which included communities of Arabian Jews, was already steeped in Jewish scripture. Quranic retellings of Biblical stories provide clues about how these stories were understood by Arabian Jewish communities at the time. Second, the Quran engages with various aspects of Jewish law, both Biblical and Rabbinic. Quranic commentary on these laws contain evidence of Jewish legal culture and practice in Arabia at the time of the Quran. Third, the Quran contains communal addresses to Jewish communities in its historical context. These communities are called "The Sons of Israel," "the Nation of Moses," "the People of the Book," "the Judeans", etc.  In this lecture, I will provide a textual overview of the Quran and how it relates to the Hebrew Bible and Arabian Judaism. I will focus on how the Quran represents a particular interpretive engagement with Jewish scriptures, which appear collectively throughout the text as "The Book" (al-kitāb).
April 13: Safiyyah, Muhammad's Jewish Wife

According to early Muslim histories, the Prophet Muhammad married a Jewish woman named Safiyyah, daughter of Huyayy, who came to him as a war captive. Safiyyah's father and husband were the chiefs of their community, the Qurayzah, and belonged to the Aaronid line. Both men were killed during Muhammad's siege on their city and Safiyyah was taken captive. Muhammad freed Safiyyah and married her, giving her the title "Mother of the Believers".  While early Muslim historians disagree about Safiyyah's Jewishness after her marriage to Muhammad, they all agree that she left her sizeable estate to Jewish relatives. She outlived Muhammad by several years and is responsible for key elements of early Muslim teachings. Safiyyah is memorialized adoringly in early Muslim histories as a favored wife by Muhammad and her legacy is particularly celebrated by Shiite Muslims. In this lecture, I will provide a short biography of Safiyyah based on the earliest sources. As an Arabian Jewish woman of the 7th century, she represents a complex historical figure shaped by the social, religious, and political transformations of her day.

About Katz Center Mini-Courses

Mini-courses examine special topics in Judaic studies and are designed specifically for public audiences. They offer a chance to re-experience the college seminar, taught by international faculty to adult learners online. They are designed to be cumulative and interactive, so registration is for the entire course, not individual meetings, and enrollment is limited to 25. Each one-hour session will include lecture and discussion.


About the image above: a map of Matrakçı Nasuh, Ottoman Polymath, courtesy of


Hamza M. Zafer

University of Washington

Hamza M. Zafer is a historian of premodern Arabian and African languages and textual traditions of the Red Sea region, and is currently the Associate Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization at the University of Washington. His work explores the historical interface between Jewish and Muslim religio-political thought in the Red Sea region from the sixth to the sixteenth century.

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We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Klatt Family and the Harry Stern Family Foundation.