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Summary Article: The Origin of the Jewish Tribes of Arabia in the Kitab al-Aghani
from A History of Jewish-Muslim Relations: From the Origins to the Present Day

According to the Arab tradition, the predecessors of present-day Arabs in Arabia were originally known as “Amalekites.” They were tyrannical, and nearly all were exterminated by Jews sent by Moses. These victorious Jews then settled in the northwestern part of Arabia (al-Hijaz). In the Kitab al-Aghani, written by ‘Ali ben al-Husayn Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani (897-967 C.E.), we discover the origins of the Jewish tribes established in Medina, the Banu Qurayza and the Banu Nadir. They considered themselves the two “priestly” (al-kāhinān) tribes, descendants of the Temple priests who had fled Jerusalem after the Romans’ destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. That story is a reworking of the biblical accounts of the Amalekites found in the book of Numbers (Bamidbar) 24:20 and in Samuel (Shmuel) 1:15, and reformulated in the rabbinical Haggadic literature. These founding legends were probably spread by the Jewish tribes of Medina to show their superiority over their neighbors and to reassert their ancient rights in Arabia.

The History of Aws and the Genealogy of the Jews Living in Medina, as well as Their Chronicles

Aws, son of Dana the Jew, was a member of the Banu Qurayza. It is said that the Banu Qurayza and the Banu Nadir were the two “priestly” (al-kāhinān) tribes, because they were descended from al-Kahin, son of Harun [Aaron], son of ‘Amran, brother of Musa [Moses] ibn ‘Amran —may the prayers of God be upon Muhammad, upon his family, and upon Harun and Musa. They settled near Yathrib after the death of Moses —may peace be upon him—and before the migration of the Azd, following the breach of the Ma'rib dam and the establishment of the Aws and Khazraj in Yathrib.

This account was transmitted to me by ‘Ali, son of Sulayman al-Akhfash, who learned of it from Ja'far, son of Muhammad al-’Asi, who had it from Abi al-Minhal ‘Uyayna, son of al-Minhal al-Muhallabi, who for his part had it from Abu Sulayman Ja'far, son of Sa'd, who received it from the mouth of al-’Ammari.

He reports: “The inhabitants of Medina in the early days, before the sons of Israel, were a people from the vanished communities called the Amalekites. They were dispersed throughout the region and were a people of great power and great iniquity. Included among these Amalekites, residents of Medina, were the Banu Haff, the Banu Sa'd, the Banu al-Azraq, and the Banu Matruq. The king of Hejaz, who was of their lineage and was named Arqam, wandered as a nomad somewhere between Tayma and Fadak.1 These Amalekites settled in Medina in great number: there they had quantities of date palms and farms. Musa ibn ‘Imran [Moses] -may Peace be upon him -dispatched his troops against the tyrants of Ahl al-Qura, in order to launch hostilities. Musa -may Peace be upon him -thus raised an army composed of the sons of Israel to go against the Amalekites, and ordered them, should they be victorious, to exterminate them all and to leave none alive. The army of the sons of Israel penetrated into Hejaz, and God, powerful and great, gave them the advantage over the Amalekites. They exterminated all of them, except one of the sons of King Arqam: he was harmless and a beautiful boy, and so they were loath to kill him. They declared: ‘Let us take him with us to Musa, who will give us his opinion on that question.’ So they returned to the land of Sham, where they found Musa —may Peace be upon him - dead. The sons of Israel [living in the land of Sham] said to them: ‘What have you done?’ They replied: ‘God, powerful and great, has granted us victory: we have exterminated them, and none of their people is still alive, save a young and beautiful boy, whom we were reluctant to have perish. We therefore decided to bring him to Musa —may Peace be upon him -so that he might give his opinion on the question.’ The sons of Israel replied: ‘That is an act of disobedience: you received the order to spare no one. By God, never again will you enter our country of Sham!’ When they had been driven off, the war troops of the sons of Israel declared: ‘How could we do better than to occupy the dwellings of those we killed in Hejaz? Let us return and establish ourselves there.’ So they rejoined their rear guard and arrived in Medina, where they settled. That army constituted the first settlement of Jews of Medina. The community grew up all around Medina, even to the province of ‘Aliya. They built forts, accumulated wealth, cultivated the land. They continued to live thus in Medina for a long time, until Rome rose up against all the sons of Israel in the land of Sham, trampled them underfoot, killed them, and raped their women. And so, when Rome had defeated them in the land of Sham, the Banu al-Nadir, the Banu Qurayza, and the Banu Bahdal fled to Hejaz, where they rejoined the sons of Israel [who had been living there since the war against the Amalekites]. When they left the land of Sham with their families, the king of Rome ordered that they be pursued and brought back, but the fugitives arrived at their goal. Now there is between the land of Sham and Hejaz a waterless desert. And so, when the Romans pursuing the sons of Israel reached Tamr, they perished, tormented by thirst. That is why that place was named Tamr al-Rum, 2 and that name has remained to the present.”

Abu al- Faraj al- Isfahani, Kitab al- Aghani (Cairo, 1390/1970), 19:94ff.

Tayma is an oasis located northwest of Arabia, four hundred kilometers north of Medina; Fadak is a village near Haybar in Hejaz.


Tamr al-Rum: the “Tamr” of the Romans.

© 2013 by Princeton University Press

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