A Saudi Arabian professor in Riyadh has written – in Hebrew – an article for a Tel Aviv University (TAU) academic journal to improve the image of the prophet Muhammad in the eyes of Jews. The unprecedented article by Prof. Mohammed Ibrahim Alghbban – head of National eLearning Center and Hebrew Studies at the modern languages and translation department at King Saud University – claims that the prophet of Islam had good relations with Jews and clashed with them only on political, not on religious, grounds. 

The latest issue of Kesher, published by TAU’s Shalom Rosenfeld Institute for Research of Jewish Media and Communication, opens with the unique paper, the like of which has never appeared in an Israeli academic journal. It is entitled: “Contribution to Prophet Muhammad’s Image Improvement in the Eyes of the Israeli Public: Muhammad’s Alliances and Mail Exchanges with Jews from the Arabian Peninsula.” 

The paper was published at a time when there are growing calls in Saudi Arabia and the Arab League to use inter-religious understanding for cooperation with Jews and Israel to achieve peace. Kesher editor Prof. Gideon Kouts met Alghbban at academic Hebrew Studies conferences as well as on the Israeli editor’s visit to Riyadh in 2015. 

Alghbban wrote in the introduction that he decided to write the article in Hebrew in order to improve the image of the Prophet Muhammad in the eyes of the Israeli public. “Erroneous assumptions about the origins of Islam, proposed by Oriental Studies researchers in the previous century – some of which were written in Hebrew – led to a distorted understanding of manuscripts, wrong methodology, and negative influences on Hebrew speaking Oriental Studies researchers.” 

He continued that “accusing Islam and the Prophet Muhammad of hate speech and racism against Jewish tribes in Hejaz is erroneous. Muhammad treated equally all social groups in Al Madinah and in other places under his control, regardless of race and religion. The misrepresentations in the research are due to the fact that his letters were never translated into Hebrew,” to right this wrong. Alghbban translated them in his article. 

King Saud University offers an undergraduate program in Hebrew studies, and Alghbban includes contemporary Israeli literature in the texts to be studied. The program is taught to male students only. Works by Israeli writers such as Yosef Haim Brenner, Shmuel Yosef Agnon, and Etgar Keret are included in the students’ curriculum.

Alghbban maintained that the Jewish public’s “misunderstanding of Prophet Muhammad’s thoughts is rooted in faulty or biased translations into Hebrew, or even lack thereof, of Prophet Muhammad’s letters to Jewish tribes from the Arabian Peninsula and the written alliances he had with them.”

“Unfortunately, even today, Middle East exerts and Hebrew-speaking academics rely on old and erroneous approaches they inherited from their predecessors,” he wrote in very good Hebrew. “These approaches are present in their frequently used sources because of their availability and ease of use due to their being written in their language. As a result, many of the misrepresentations of the past have remained intact in the study of modern Orientalism.”

For the Arab reader, he continued, “the study of Orientalism in Hebrew reflects, for the most part, an appropriate representation – whether intentional or inadvertent – of the past, which may reveal in a non-objective way the motives and goals of the scholars themselves. I have set some goals for this article: First, try to correct the misunderstanding that has existed for years among Hebrew speakers regarding this misrepresentation. This misunderstanding embodies one of the most sensitive issues for Muslims and Jews alike. I try to correct it through a study of the original writings of Muhammad’s correspondence with the representatives of the Jewish communities. These writings,” wrote Alghbban, “are the basis for an accurate and reliable description of those relationships and relationships.”

In addition, he wrote, “I will try to help our Hebrew-speaking friends who are engaged in Orientalism to free themselves from the old Orientalist thought that suffered from various circumstances in the past, most of which no longer exist today. To this end and to make unnecessary the need to search for the information in an external source in a foreign language, I am providing an authentic translation of the Prophet Muhammad’s correspondence with the Jewish communities of his day.” 

Prof. Raanan Rein, head of Shalom Rosenfeld Institute, stressed that this article is important for the unprecedented choice of a Saudi researcher to publish his article in an Israeli academic journal so as to bring the two nations closer. “I hope that this academic cooperation is another step towards economic and political cooperation,” he declared.