ISḤAḲ BEN YA'ḲUB OBADIAH ABU 'ISA AL-ISFAHANI (i.e., "from Ispahan"; surnamed 'Obed Elohim):

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Persian founder of a Jewish sect and "herald of the Messiah"; lived at the time of the Ommiad calif 'Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan (684-705). He was of low origin, "a plain tailor"; and his adherents relate that "though he could neither read nor write, yet he wrote books without any assistance" ("J. Q. R." vii. 705).

Abu 'Isa asserted that the coming of the Messiah was to be preceded by five messengers, of whom he himself was the last—the Messiah's herald ("rasul"), summoner ("da'i"), and prophet, whom the Lord had sanctified. In a colloquy with the Lord, the mission was entrusted to Abu 'Isa (so he claimed) of delivering the Jews from the rule of the Gentiles, and of making them politically independent. According to one source, he did not confine himself to being the herald, but declared that he himself was the Messiah. Probably he took this further step only after he had gained followers in his position of herald; and it is even possible that the claim to Messiahship was not made by Abu'Isa, but was only ascribed to him by later adherents.

In any case he found many followers among the Jews of Persia, and raised a revolt against the calif; so that the latter sent an army against him. The decisive battle was fought at Rai (the ancient Rhagæ), and resulted in the death of Abu 'Isa and in the complete defeat of his adherents. The surname "Al-Ra'i," which Al-Biruni gives him, probably had its origin in this event. One of Abu 'Isa's disciples narrates that when the battle resulted so disastrously Abu 'Isa hid in a cave, and that his ultimate fate was never known. An account of the battle which other followers give ascribes a miraculous victory to Abu 'Isa. It is said that he surrounded his camp with a rope and assured his men that they would be safe from the enemy's swords so long as they did not leave the enclosed space. The hostile army fled from the rope, and Abu 'Isa's followers pursued and completely destroyed the enemy. The prophet himself then wandered into the desert, to announce to the "bene Mosheh" the word of the Lord and his prophetic mission.

Abu 'Isa's adherents laid particular stress upon the fact that, in spite of his illiteracy, he wrote books, and they claimed that this furnished the strongest evidence of his divine inspiration. But history has no record of any literary activity on his part.

Tenets of the 'Isawites.

Abu 'Isa became the founder of the first Jewish sect in the geonic period, the members of which were called, after him, 'Isawites, "'Iswanites," or "'Isuyites." Their divergences from rabbinic Judaism as regards dogma and ritual are known only through quotations in several Arabic sources and in one Hebrew source. They abstained from wine and animal food. According to Harkavy, Abu 'Isa, in imposing these restrictions, was influenced less by the custom of the Rechabites (comp. Jer. xxxv. 2-10) than by the Pharisaic view (B. B. 60b) that meat and wine ought not to be indulged in by the Jews so long as they live in exile ("galut"). Divorce was not allowed even in case of adultery—a prohibition which was also observed by the Sadducees and by the early Christians. Alluding to the passage in Ps. cxix. 164, "Seven times a day do I praise thee," Abu 'Isa instituted seven daily prayers in place of the three rabbinical ones. In accordance with the rabbinical opinion, he declared the "Shemoneh 'Esrch," the "Shema'," and the two benedictions before and one after the "Shema'" to be obligatory by divine order. Jesus and Mohammed, whom, according to Maḳrizi, Abu 'Isa had seen in heaven, were recognized by the sect as prophets, each of whom had been sent as a missionary to his nation. Al-Ḳirḳisani, the Karaite, held that Abu 'Isa took this attitude merely for diplomatic reasons; for had he not recognized the post-Biblical prophets, his own claim to prophetic inspiration would not have been so readily accepted.

The 'Isawites used the Rabbinite calendar, which at that time was a very essential point; for upon the strength of this the Rabbinites did not hesitate to associate and even intermarry with the followers of Abu 'Isa. So Jacob ben Ephraim al-Shami answered Al-Ḳirḳisani, who objected to the friendly attitude of the Rabbinites toward the 'Isawites. Altogether, therefore, Shahrastani's judgment that the customs of the 'Isawites differed greatly in many essential points from the laws of the Torah does not seem to be well founded. At the time of Al-Ḳirḳisani (about 930) the sect survived in Damascus only, and numbered not more than twenty persons.

Abu 'Isa and his disciple Yudghan greatly influenced the founder of the Karaites, Anan, who lived about seventy years later; for instance, Anan took from Abu 'Isa the rule of abstinence from meat and wine.

  • Shahrastani, Kitab al-Milal, ed. Cureton, p. 168 (German transl. by Haarbrücker, i. 254);
  • Judah Hadassi, Eshkol ha-Kofer, § 97;
  • Maḳrizi, in Sylvestre de Sacy, Chrestomathie Arabe, i. 307;
  • Ḳirḳisani, in Harkavy, Le-Korot ha-Kittot be-Yisrael, in Graetz, Hist., Hebr. ed., iii. 501;
  • Harkavy, Liḳḳuṭc Ḳadmoniyyot, ii. 193;
  • Bacher, in J. Q. R. vii. 700;
  • Weiss, Dor, iv. 62;
  • Pinsker, Liḳḳuṭe Ḳadmoniyyot, i. 10, 16, 25, 26;
  • Grätz, Gesch. v. 156 et seq., 160, 403 et seq.
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