In Judaism, prophets were seen as having attained the highest degree of holiness, scholarship, and closeness to God and set the standards for human perfection. The Talmud reports that there were more than a million prophets, but most of the prophets conveyed messages that were intended solely for their own generation and were not reported in Scripture.
The Talmud reports that there were prophets among the gentiles (most notably Bilaam, whose story is told in Numbers 22, and Job, who is considered a non-Jew by most rabbinical opinions). The prophet Jonah was sent on a mission to speak to the gentiles of the city of Nineveh.
References to Muhammad
In his authoritative work of law the Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Melakhim 11:10–12), Maimonides claims that Muhammad was part of God’s plan of preparing the world for the coming of the Jewish Messiah: “All those words of Jesus of Nazareth and of this Ishmaelite [i.e., Muhammad] who arose after him are only to make straight the path for the messianic king and to prepare the whole world to serve the Lord together. As it is said: ‘For then I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech so that all of them shall call on the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord’ (Zephaniah 3:9).”
Natan’el al-Fayyumi, a prominent 12th-century Yemenite sage, rabbi and theologian, wrote in his treatise Bustan al-Uqul (“Garden of Wisdom”) that God sends prophets to establish religions for other nations, which do not have to conform to the precepts of the Jewish Torah. Nethanel explicitly considered Muhammad a true prophet, who was sent from Heaven with a particular message that applies to the Arabs, but not to the Jews.
The apocalyptic Midrash Secrets (Nistarot) of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, compares Muhammad, “a prophet sent to Ishmael according to God’s will”, to the Jewish Messiah. According to this text, ascribed to the famous 1st-century sage and mystic Simeon bar Yochai, and apparently written later, Muhammad’s role as a prophet includes redeeming the Jews from the Christian (“Roman” or “Edomite”) oppression and playing a positive role in the messianic process.
Secrets of Rabbi Shim’on bar Yohai has been published as a part of a number of Midrash collections. A recent Hasidic edition was included in the book called Yalkut ha-Royim, endorsed as authoritative by Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, the former leader of the Satmar Hasidim.
A number of stories from the Islamic tradition about Muhammad entered mainstream Jewish thought incidentally, due to the great cultural convergence in Islamic Spain from the 9th to 12th centuries, known as the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry.
For example, Rabbi Jacob Joseph of Polonne, one of the early Hasidic mystics, wrote that one pious man (hasid) taught that the internal struggle against the evil inclination is greater than external battle, quoting Bahya ibn Paquda’s popular treatise Chovot HaLevavot. In the Judeo-Arabic original version of that book, Bahya Ibn Paquda refers to both external and internal battle as JIHAD and the “pious man” about whom the story is originally told is Muhammad,