If you have any interest in the politics of the Middle East you might believe that the Muslims and Jews have a long history of conflict and hatred towards one another.
However that is simply not true. The years of cooperation and tolerance seem to have been wiped away. From across the Middle East, North Africa and Andalusia there are countless reports and narratives about two religions flourishing and existing together.
Adherents to both religions are able to exist together because of the similarities of their beliefs. Countless men and women of the Jewish faith have come to Islam because they recognize the inherent truth of a belief system that expands on and consolidates their own beliefs. In this second part of our journey of discovery we will look at journeys undertaken by Jewish people in search of contentment.
Al Hussain ibn Salam
In the period before Islam there was a Jewish Rabbi named Al Hussain ibn Salam living in Yathrib; the original name of the city soon to be known as Madinah. He claimed to be a descendant of Prophet Joseph and was the leader of his community.
Al Hussain was a scholar who devoted part of everyday to study. In the course of his studies he came across words in the Torah that he had probably read many times before. However on this day he was particularly drawn to them and they started him on a journey of discovery that eventually led to his acceptance of Islam.
“The Lord said to me [Moses]: ‘What they say is good. I will raise up for them a Prophet like you among their brothers; I will put My words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. If anyone does not listen to My words that the Prophet speaks in My Name, I will Myself call him to account.’” (Deuteronomy, 18.17-19)
This is just one of the passages from the Torah that Al Hussain came to believe referred to Prophet Muhammad.
He would search for details concerning this anticipated prophet. From the traditions of Prophet Muhammad we can hear, in his own words, what Al Hussain did to further his journey of discovery. “I began to make enquiries about his name, his genealogy, his characteristics, his time and place and I began to compare this information with what is contained in our books. From these enquiries, I became convinced about the authenticity of his prophet-hood and I affirmed the truth of his mission.”
When al Hussain accepted Islam Prophet Muhammad changed his name to Abdullah, meaning slave of God. Although Abdullah and his family all converted to Islam they kept their conversion secret for some time. His story can be read in full in many articles about the companions of Prophet Muhammad, but it is his journey that we are concerned with today.
Abdullah was struck by just a few words that he read. Like many people who convert to Islam today the beginning of the journey begins with just a phrase. Something that you have read many times before that suddenly rings true or something that just doesn’t make sense.
The journey from Judaism to Islam is not a huge leap because both religions agree wholeheartedly with the fundamental basis of Islam; that there is no God but God. Abdullah was anxious about the reaction of his friends and colleagues and many people nowadays have the same fears.
Sometimes it is best to keep the truth in your heart until you establish your faith or, like Abdullah, research and make a plan about how to reveal your new status.
The journeys we are all on today often mirror the journeys of those who converted to Islam in the very early days. From across the centuries we find stories that are very much like our own and we can sometimes follow the footsteps of those who came before us.
Jewish Austro-Hungarian journalist Leopold Weiss came from a long line of Rabbis and his father was the first person in that line to reject rabbinical studies. Leopold’s studies thus led him away from Judaism, but at a later date he acknowledged that it helped him understand the fundamental purpose of religion. Weiss’s life journey took him to Berlin where he became a journalist but by 1922 when he was visiting his uncle in Jerusalem he took a strong dislike to the Zionist ideology that was permeating the city at the time.
Nowadays a lot of people set out on journeys of discovery because of an armed conflict or a political struggle that catches their attention. For some this is the Palestinian Israeli conflict. Palestine was the catalyst for Weiss’s journey too.
Weiss used his journalistic abilities to uncover the truth and he soon considered himself an anti-Zionist. In his book The Road to Mecca he said:
“I considered it immoral that immigrants, assisted by a foreign Great Power, should come from abroad with the avowed intention of attaining to majority in the country and thus to dispossess the people whose country it had been since time immemorial.”
From Palestine Weiss became an overseas journalist for Frankfurter Zeitung, and he wrote against Zionism and for the cause of Muslim and Arab nationalism, with a strong anti-British bias. He was soon commissioned to travel more widely and spent the next two years traveling through Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan, Iran, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, all the time growing more fascinated by the Islam he saw on his travels.
Back in Berlin and after a type of epiphany in September 1926, he went to the leader of the Berlin Islamic Society, declared his adherence to Islam, and took the name Muhammad Asad.
Mohammad Asad’s journey saw him in the inner circle of Ibn Saud and editing the Indian journal, Islamic Culture, first edited by Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall (1875-1936), a British convert to Islam and well known translator of Quran. In 1939 he was thwarted in his attempt to rescue his Jewish family from the Nazi onslaught. There are many accounts of Muhammad Asad’s life and he was a prolific writer so his journey of discovery is very well documented and worth reading.
All our stories and journeys influence others. Mohammad Asad’s book the road to Mecca left an indelible mark on a young Jewish woman named Margaret Marcus (b. 1934- 2012). After finding his books on the shelves of the Mamaroneck, New York library she vowed to God, “that at the first opportunity, I would follow his example.” She converted to Islam in 1961, took the name Maryam Jameelah, and moved to Pakistan, where she became an outspoken defender of conservative Islam.
The journeys of Abdullah ibn Salam, Muhammad Asad and Maryam Jameelah all led them to people and places that are well known but every journey that a person takes to Islam, and to God, is equally important.
Although the people in our lives might not be mentioned in the books of history they hold equal space with those that are, in the records and accounts kept by God.
Read Part 3.
 Muhammad Asad, Road to Mecca, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1954)
 Ibid p93.
 Maryam Jameelah, Memoirs of Childhood and Youth in America (1945-1962) (Lahore: Muhammad Yusuf Khan, 1989), 109.