Salma, the Prophet Mohamed’s wealthy Jewish grandmother who vanished from history

Wednesday 12 January 202206:22 pm
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سلمى... جدّة نبيّ الإسلام التي انشقّت الأرض وابتلعتها تاريخياً

On the day of the Prophet’s hijrah (migration) to Madinah, according to historical accounts, the people flocked to celebrate his arrival. The “Banu al-Najjar” family was no exception, after its members stood and chanted for the Prophet: “We are neighbors from Banu al-Najjar / What better neighbor to have than Muhammad himself.”

As soon as the Prophet walked through the city gates, its elders hurried to welcome him and offer their homes for him to stay in, but he told them: “I will stay with Banu al-Najjar, the maternal uncles of Abd al-Muttalib, out of respect.”

This line in particular comes from the story of the Prophet’s camel, which was said to have blessed a plot of land (the location where the she-camel first rested when they arrived in Madinah) owned by two orphan boys from the Banu al-Najjar family. The Prophet bought the land from them and established a mosque on it.

A strong relationship had formed between the Prophet and Banu al-Najjar before his arrival in Medina. That is why the Prophet honored them as soon as he entered Yathrib (Madinah). According to Sahih al-Bukhari, the Prophet said to the people one day: “The best of the Ansar families are those of Banu al-Najjar.”

Not only that, some Islamic history books have even described the al-Najjar family as “uncles of the Prophet” quite a number of times.

A strong relationship formed between the Prophet and Banu al-Najjar... The secret behind this is wrapped in stories and legends surrounding the Prophet’s lineage, specifically the history of his grandmother “Salma”

So far, it does not seem strange, since the Prophet had formed close relations with most of the people of Madinah, so why is it that we consider his relationship with the Banu al-Najjar family in particular an unusual one?

The beginning: Ibn Abd al-Muttalib marries a Najjar from Yathrib

The story told in most Islamic history books is that Hashim (his real and lesser known name being Amr) ibn Abd Manaf, the grandfather of the Prophet, was a skilled merchant who traveled frequently.

In the year 430 CE, Hashim embarked on one of his trips to the Levant, and on his way he stayed with the Banu al-Najjar family of the Khazraj tribe residing in Yathrib, later know as Madinah.

During Hashim’s stay at the Banu al-Najjar household, he took a liking to Salma. He asked her father for her hand in marriage, and she agreed if she stayed at her family home and give birth there if she were to become pregnant.

Commenting on this marriage in his book “Al-Sīrah Al-Nabawiyyah” (‘The Life of the Prophet’), Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi said that the Quraish tribe recognized the integrity of the Aws and Khazraj tribes, and have united their families through marriage, but members of the Quraish tribe thought themselves to be a little better, because they looked down on the farming that the people of Madinah practiced.

Hashim agreed and married Salma. He took her back to Mecca with him, and after she became pregnant with her son - grandfather of the Prophet - Hashim fulfilled his promise and took her to her family in Yathrib. He left her there to give birth and went on a work trip to Gaza.

Hashim died in Gaza, and was buried in a grave still known and visited to this day. The tomb was erected over a mosque that now bears the name the “Sayed al-Hashim Mosque”.

As for Salma, she gave birth to a child that she named “Shaybah al-Ḥamd”, or ‘the white streak of praise’ (for the streak of white hair through his black hair). He lived with her for 7 years, until his uncle al-Muttalib took him back to Mecca to live with him.

When al-Muttalib entered Mecca with the boy, he was wearing tattered clothes and was dirty from many days of travel. The Meccans had never seen white hair like this before, so they thought that al-Muttalib had bought a new slave, and began calling the unknown child ‘Abd al-Muttalib’ (or the “slave of Muttalib”), the name he carried until the day he died.

Later on, Abd al-Muttalib will marry Fatimah bint Amr, and they will have Abdullah, the father of the Prophet.

What wasn’t said about Salma: wealthy and Jewish

In his newly published book, “Muhammad, the World-Changer: An Intimate Portrait”, Islamic scholar Mohamad Jebara presented a comprehensive biography of the Prophet, using both Sunni and Shiite sources. Jebara claims that Salma, a successful “master merchant”, was a noble Jewish woman descended from the people of David.

He states that Salma was a self-made wealthy businesswoman who had earned acclaim for her “legendary business deals in Yathrib’s markets”.

And in another part of his book, the author also claimed that not only Salma had Jewish roots, but the entire Banu al-Najjar tribe as well.

This lesser-known narrative poses a number of problematic issues, the most important of which is that the Prophet’s lineage contains a Jewish branch, which in turn branches out into many others.

This is what makes “Salma al-Khazrajiya” a unique figure in both Islamic and Jewish history, especially since she’s a rare link between the two religions.

What we know about Salma

It will be difficult to try to recreate Salma’s personality according to what the history books have told us about her. According to what Guillaume Dye, professor of Islamic studies at the University of Brussels (ULB), tells Raseef22, most of what we know about Salma did not come to us in the context of verified history, but rather most of it fell to myth and legend.

Most of what we know about the Prophet’s Jewish grandmother did not come to us in the context of verified history. Rather, most of it fell to legends that make her a unique figure in Islamic and Jewish history.

Despite Professor Guillaume’s advice, I decided to try to piece together the fragments of written information about Salma that were scattered here and there. Perhaps, we might arrive at a definite form for this defining character, if Jebara’s allegations are true.

She is Salma bint Amr bin Zaid bin Labid, descended from the Banu al-Najjar clan. Muhammad bin Habib Al Baghdadi tells us in his book “Mothers of the Prophet” that her mother was called Umira bint Sakhr bin Habib bin al-Harith bin Tha’labah bin Mazen bin al-Najjar.

According to al-Suhaili in the book “Al-Rawd al-Unf”, Salma was a very strong character with noble lineage, so much so that she refused to marry any man unless she held the authority to end the marriage in her own hands, thus if she grew to hate a man, she would leave him.

This is what had happened with her husband, Uhayha al-Awsi. According to the book “Mu'jam Al-Shu'ara' al-Arab”, Uhayha is the warrior-chief of Yathrib. He had a fortress that he called al-Mustadhal, and also owned farms, orchards, and plenty of money. But when Uhayha planned to launch a raid on Salma’s people, she warned them of his treachery and left him, an act that raised her status in the eyes of her people.

It seems that she also had some talent in reciting poetry. In his book “Al Munamaq Fi Akhbar Quraysh”, Al Baghdadi reported that she would recite ‘Rajaz’ poems for her son Shaybah/ Abd al-Muttalib on more than one occasion, praising his person and character.

Some books sought to add a sacred aura or halo around her persona, specifically over her giving birth to the grandfather of the Prophet, Abd al-Muttalib. Muhammad bin Habib Al Baghdadi says in his book “Al Munamaq Fi Akhbar Quraysh” that when Salma was pregnant with Abd al-Muttalib, she had a dream where she heard a voice telling her: “A valiant truthful, righteous lord, and a great destroyer”, heralding that her son will be a leader over his people.

“When Salma was pregnant, she heard a voice in her dream telling her: “A valiant truthful, righteous lord and great destroyer”, heralding that her son will be a leader over his people”... Stories on Salma, the grandmother of the Prophet of Islam

Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri mentioned in his book “Nihayat Al-Arb Fi Funun Al-Adab”, that Salma gave birth to another child  from Hashem, a daughter she named Ruqaiyyah, but she died young.

According to al-Suhaili, Salma resisted al-Muttalib’s wishes to take her son back with him to the city, but then he told her: “My nephew has reached maturity and is a stranger and lives with those who are not his people. We are people who come from a house of honor among the clans, and we take care of the people’s affairs. His people, his land and his clan are better for him to live with than with others… Your son is going to Makkah to restore his father’s authority, and to live in the vicinity of the Sacred House.” In the end, he managed to convince Salma and she allowed him to take her son.

Al-Baladhuri, in his book “Genealogies of the Nobles (Ansab al-Ashraf)”, provides a completely different account of the story; al-Muttalib kidnapped Shaybah from Yathrib without his mother’s knowledge, and told the people that he was his slave so that Salma would not know what had become of him, but Salma knew and objected to this deed in poetry verses that translate to: “We were his guardians / his father and his mother / They took him in secret from his mother / The rights of his (maternal) uncles prevail over the right of his (paternal) uncle”. Al-Baladhuri recounts that al-Muttalib then replied to her in poetry as well, saying: “Oh peace, sister of Banu al-Najjar/ My brother’s son is no dishonorable loan / So be still and be humbled / and stop your complaints / I swear I am of character / He will continue to move among the travelers / Until he sees the verses from his home.

In his book “Encyclopedia of the Mirror of the Two Holy Mosques and the Arabian Peninsula”, Ayyub Sabri says that the “Hashim-Salma” marriage made the Prophet an Ansar Khazraj, which later placed the Khazraj tribe before the Aws in the bay’a (Islamic pledge of allegiance), because of their blood link to the Prophet. Of course, Ayyub did not address the claims that the Khazraj lineage was connected to Jews.

Salma: the mysterious disappearance

He did not address it, except for a short line that al-Baladhuri casually mentioned during his retelling of the story of Hashim’s marriage to Salma, saying that, following his departure to Mecca, “Abd al-Muttalib used to visit his uncles frequently and honor them.”

Al-Tabari, in his historical narrative, mentioned another incident that spoke of Abd al-Muttalib during the Meccan period of his life where he was subjected to oppression at the hands of his (paternal) uncle Nawfal ibn Abd Manaf. Abd al-Muttalib then wrote to his (maternal) uncles, saying: “Oh, how long my nights are from my sorrows and work / Is there a messenger to go to my carpenter uncles / Banu Adi and Dinar and Mazen / and Malik, to tell them of my state / I was once one of you and I am not afraid of the injustice of those who are / dear, impregnable, soft-minded (to me).”

We hardly know anything about Salma from the moment  Shaybah/ Abd al-Muttalib left her. She basically vanished from history as if the earth had opened up and swallowed her.

From the moment Shaybah/ Abd al-Muttalib left her, we do not know anything about Salma, the grandmother of the Prophet of Islam, basically vanishing from history as if the earth had opened up and swallowed her

We only know that from the bloodline of her ex-husband Uhayha came al-Munthir bin Mohamad bin Uqbah bin Uhayha, a companion who followed the Prophet and witnessed Badr, according to what Ibn al-Athir detailed.

Was she really Jewish?

Any claims of a “Jewish Salma” clash with the well-established Jewish principle that says that a Jew only marries a Jew like her, and this will place some significant narratives and hadiths under layers of complication.

When I asked two experts in Islamic history about the origins of Salma’s religion, they gave me two completely contradictory answers. Dr. Mohammad Abdullah al-Sharqawi, head of the Department of Islamic Philosophy at the Faculty of Dar al-Ulum in Cairo University, adamantly confirmed to Raseef22 that there is no reliable text confirming “Salma Al-Khazraji’s Jewishness”. At the same time, Sameh al-Zahar, a researcher in Islamic history, said that “Salma al-Najjar is Jewish according to the most likely claims”! Perhaps the two views would only agree on the conclusion that what we are relying on are mostly statements that we have no way to verify.

This added to my confusion, not only about the history of Salma, but also about the fact that this contradiction happened in the first place. So I decided to search by myself between the pages of Islamic history books, as much as I could verify their content, remembering the initial Guillaume’s advice that there are more myths and legends within Salma’s biography than there is verified history, and perhaps the cause for the contradiction lies in this reason, or are there other causes?

Despite the extensive research I conducted, I did not find any reliable reports that talk about the Jewish origins - or any other origins - of Salma. Only one where Ibn al-Jawzi tells us in his book “Talqeeh Fuhoom Ahl Al-Athar”: “Salma bint Amr is Khazraj, and they are from Yemen from Sheba (Saba)”, referring to the ancient origins of the entire Khazraj tribe.

The other narrative and the key to “Selma’s Jewishness” tells of an unprecedented position that Hashim had reached among his people before his marriage. The historical account says: “Hashim was the proudest, most honorable and of high-standing among his people, and his table was always set out and full, never empty or cleared in good times and bad. He used to shelter the traveller and protect the afraid. The light of the Messenger of God would shine and reflect in his face, and any person who would pass him by would kiss his hands. Arab tribes and delegations would go to him with their daughters, offering him their hands in marriage.”

This account, which bears heavy Shiite traces, was included in the book “Kuhl al-Basar Fi Sirat Sayyid al-Bashar”, written by Sheikh Abbas al-Qummi, one of the most prominent Shiite scholars who appeared in the 14th century and who is famous for his many books on history and hadith.

Here we know what is behind the claims and allegations of Jebara’s book, in line with what we have explained at the beginning of the article of his pursuit to integrate Sunni and Shiite history together, and in this specific part, it has triumphed over the Shiite historical vision.

According to Shiite narrations, the Khazraj tribe has Jewish origins, which prompted them to regard the Banu al-Najjar tribe - whom Abd al-Muttalib married into - as Jewish, based on a phrase in the Constitution of Medina (also known as the Charter of Medina) that stated that “the Jews of Banu al-Najjar have the same as the Jews of Banu Awf do”.

Reports say that some of Banu al-Najjar converted to Judaism, like Silsilah bin Barham, who was said to be the most hostile of Jews to the Prophet, while some converted to “Hanifiyyah” such as Sarmah bin Abi Anas, who became Muslim at the end of his life

Although this view implicitly prevailed in some Sunni history books without being publicly adopted by them, such as the version mentioned by al-Masudi in his book “The Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems”, about Abd al-Muttalib heading a delegation from Quraysh that visited Saif bin Yazan, the ruler of the Jewish kingdom of Himyar, and according to the account, Saif bin Yazan welcomed Abd al-Muttalib, saying: “The son of our sister?”.

“Despite the extensive research I made, I didn’t find any reliable reports that talk about the Jewish origins - or any other origins - of Salma the grandmother of the Prophet of Islam”.. A quest for answers amongst intertwined historical accounts and legends

However, this account can be interpreted in another sense, which is that Saif bin Yazan meant “brotherhood by geography”. The Banu al-Najjar are descended from the Khazraj tribe, who in turn descended from the Yemeni Azd tribe, which had lived for a long time in the south of the island before choosing to leave for the north following the collapse of Marib, and from there they spread out within Yathrib (the Aws and the Khazraj tribes), near the Levant (the Ghassanids) and near Mecca (the Banu Khuza’ah).

It is striking that the tribe of Azd wasn’t known for embracing Judaism, despite its people having prolonged contact with the Jews while in Yemen, and even after it was torn apart, it neighbored the Jews, befriended them and established relations and alliances with them, but did not join their religion en masse. Only a limited number of groups from each tribe became known for converting.

According to Abdul Latif al-Hassan in his book “The Impact of Jewish Thought on Ultra Shiites”, the only Jewish influence on the collective mentality of the people of Azd is that they have become “the closest Arabs to the monotheism belief”. Therefore, its branch in Yathrib (the Aws and Khazraj tribes) showed immediate enthusiasm for the Prophet’s call to Islam as soon as it emerged, and receptiveness to the notion of Prophecy and revelation, unlike some Arab tribes that refused to understand the logic behind it from the very start.

After the history books distanced the Banu al-Najjar from the story of joining Judaism en masse, they had to differentiate between “Banu al-Najjar” and the “Jews of Banu al-Najjar,” a concept that stemmed from the the Constitution of Medina itself, which in for its part, separated the two groups and mentioned them in two different places.

In his book “Islamic Principles in Dealing Across Religions”, Saeed Ismail divided the city’s communities into a majority - such as Banu Aws, Banu Amr, and Banu al-Najjar - and minority groupings such as the Jews of Banu Awf, the Jews of Banu al-Najjar, and the Jews of Banu Aws. Here he clearly differentiates between the main Banu al-Najjar, which mainly relied on the ancient Arab pagan religions, and a small minority of Banu al-Najjar who converted to Judaism, and were thus seen as a small separate entity.

In his study conducted from the University of Basra, “The al-Najjars from the Shortly Pre-Islamic Era Till the End of the Orthodox Rashidun Caliphate”, Nabil al-Khaqani says that the origin of Banu al-Najjar’s religion before Islam is what the Aws and Khazraj used to worship - idols, the most important of which is the one they call Manat. They revered him and saw him as a god of fate and destiny, and they set up a statue for him between Yathrib and Mecca.

Reports say that some members of Banu al-Najjar converted to Judaism, such as Silsilah bin Barham, who was described as one of the most hostile among the Jews to the Prophet, while some of them converted to “Hanifiyyah” such as Sarmah bin Abi Anas bin al-Najjar, who converted to Islam near the end of his life.

As for the “Muslims of Banu al-Najjar”, Islamic history books allocated them main roles in the founding of religion. Of them, three men - Aba’ad bin Zurarah, Awf ibn al-Harith, and his brother Mu’adh - were among the twelve champions of the first the bay’a (Islamic pledge of allegiance) of Aqaba.

The narratives were keen on emphasizing and separating these names from those affiliated with Judaism, by conceding that they are just “loyalists (allies) to them without sharing in their religion or belief,” in an effort to not mix the “Banu al-Najjar” with the Banu al-Najjar Jews in any situation, and most importantly to ward off any possibility that a Jewish vein would run in the prophetic bloodline.

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