The Land of Israel or Ishmael?
Islam’s Claim to Palestine
“This land is mine. God gave this land to me,” is the opening line of the beloved song “Exodus.” Although deeply moving lyrics to the ears of an Israeli, they are inflammatory words to a Muslim, for the message of Islam is clear: The land of Israel belongs to the Muslims, not to the Jews.
To understand the Middle East conflict over the land of Palestine, we must recognize that the objections of the Arab nations to the existence of the State of Israel are not inherently political or nationalistic, although the Arabs may claim that they are. Not all Arabs are Muslims, but the majority of them are adherents to the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad and his holy book, the Koran. The objections of Israel’s Arab neighbors to its existence are therefore primarily religious in nature. As stated by the Supreme Islamic Research Council in February 1970, “The Palestine Question is not a national issue nor is it a political issue. It is first and foremost an Islamic question.”1
Islam’s Holy Land
Islam considers the land of Israel to be holy land, second only to the land of Arabia in importance. It is holy because, according to the Koran, it is blessed by God (Surah 7.137; 21.71, 81).2
Israel is also considered holy land because it contains sacred Islamic sites, such as the tomb of Abraham in Hebron, hallowed because Abraham was the father of Ishmael, who is regarded as the father of the Arab peoples.
The holiest Islamic place in the land of Israel is the city of Jerusalem, known as al-Quds (the Holy). Al-Aqsa mosque, believed in Islamic tradition to have been the second mosque built on the surface of the earth,3 is located there.
Jerusalem is also consecrated in Islam because it is the place to which the Prophet Muhammad was purportedly carried by a horse on his well-known “Night Journey.” Based on an obscure Koranic passage (Surah 17.1), Muslim tradition teaches that Muhammad tied his horse to the Western (Wailing) Wall and, from the Temple Mount, was transported to heaven, where he received the revelation instructing Muslims to pray five times a day. Muhammad then returned to the earth and was conveyed back to Arabia. To sanctify the holy spot from which Muhammad ascended, a gold-domed structure known as the Dome of the Rock was built there in AD 691. Thus, Jerusalem became the third holiest city in all of Islam, subordinate only to Mecca (Muhammad’s birthplace) and Medina (the place of his death).
Surprisingly, Islam not only regards the land of Israel as being holy but also acknowledges it as having once been given by God to the Jewish people. This is unmistakable in the Koran: “O my people [said Moses to the children of Israel], enter the Holy Land which Allah [God] has ordained for you and turn not your backs, for then you will turn back losers” (Surah 5.21; see also 7.137). If the Koran itself teaches that God gave the land of Israel to the Jewish people, why then is there such heated protest from the Muslim world today over the existence of a Jewish state in the land they refer to as “Palestine”?
Islam’s Holy War
Islamic fundamentalists consider the land of Palestine to be “the heart of the Arab world, the knot of the Muslim peoples.”4 Although it was given by God to the Jewish people, Muslims believe that it belongs to them. And because it is not at present under Islamic sovereignty, they believe they have good reasons to declare jihad (holy war, lit., striving) to return it to its rightful owners.
The first reason is to reinstate the true Chosen People of God to their homeland. In Islam, the covenant God made with Abraham regarding the Promised Land (Gen. 17:8) was forfeited by the Jewish people because of their disobedience to God (Surah 17.4). As a result, they suffered expulsion. God promised to restore them to the land, but only once (Surah 17.6). After they rejected Christ, they were expelled again, never to be restored. God then gave the kingdom promises to those more worthy and faithful—the descendants of Ishmael and their representatives, the Muslims (Surah 2.124; 3.25; 17.104).
The second reason for Islam’s holy war is to save Islamic face. Although the Jewish people are referred to at times as the “People of the Book” (along with Christians), the Koran considers them to be inherently evil and fallen from God’s favor. Islamic fundamentalists regard the Jews as a cursed, hardened, treacherous, subservient people. Because of their disobedience to God and their rejection of Muhammad as God’s prophet, the Koran teaches that “abasement and humiliation were stamped upon them [the Jewish people], and they incurred Allah’s wrath” (Surah 2.61; also 5.13).
To the Muslims, therefore, the State of Israel represents the defeat of believers by unbelievers, the humiliation of “righteous Islam” by the “evil Jews.” The shame that brings is almost too much to bear, thus the call for a holy war to compel the Jewish people to return to the submissive, menial role God has decreed for them, which does not include possession of the Holy Land of Palestine.
A third reason for an Islamic holy war is to resolve nagging questions about Islamic beliefs. With a demeaning perception of Jewish people, modern Muslims must wrestle with a variance between their theology and their experience. Their theology prescribes a lowly status for the Jewish people, but their experience sees them advancing, reclaiming the land of Israel after 1300 years of Muslim rule, and obtaining victory after victory in military conflicts. This paradox raises questions in the minds of Muslims: How can the Jews be experiencing these apparent successes? Do they mean that God is blessing the Jews after all? Is Islam wrong in this matter? Fundamentalists conclude that they must retake the Holy Land for Islam and, by so doing, reestablish and confirm Islam’s superiority over the discredited faith of the Jews.
A fourth reason for Islam’s holy war is to preserve and protect Islamic holy sites. As in the days of Saladin, who drove out the Crusaders (AD 1187), Muslims believe that it is their solemn duty to wrest control of the holy sites in Israel from the “infidel” Jews and place them under the proper custodianship of Islam. The Muslim world is also concerned that, by allowing the Jewish people to “take over Palestine,” Muslim holy sites are in danger of being subjugated in other countries as well.
A fifth reason for an Islamic holy war is to regain lost Islamic territory. According to Muslim law, there are only two realms of habitation in the world: those places that are under Islamic authority (called the “House of Islam”) and those that are not. Once a piece of land becomes a part of the “House of Islam,” it is considered Islamic territory forever, regardless of who dominates it or for how long.
The land of Israel is thus regarded as lost Islamic territory. The covenant of the militant Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, makes this clear: “The land of Palestine is an Islamic Waqf [Holy Possession] consecrated for future Muslim generations until judgment day. No one can renounce it or any part of it, or abandon it or any part of it” (Article 11).5 Therefore, any Islamic territory that is not under Muslim sovereignty must be regained. This thought is instilled in the hearts of observant Muslims from an early age. A 1977 manual for Jordanian first grade teachers states, “It is necessary to implant in the soul of the pupil the rule of Islam that if the enemies occupy even one inch of the Islamic lands, jihad becomes imperative for every Muslim.”6 Thus, it is incumbent upon fundamentalist Muslims to institute a holy war against Israel, because they occupy and rule over “Muslim land.”
Title Deed Search
For those who would stake a final claim to the land of Israel as belonging to the “House of Islam,” it may be good to reconsider the words of Islam’s own prophet. In Islamic tradition, Muhammad warned, “One should not take a span of land without having legitimate right to it, otherwise Allah would make him wear [around his neck] seven earths on the Day of Resurrection.”7 In the search for the title deed to the land of Israel, therefore, we should be careful to look in the proper place of registration; that is, the revealed Word of God.
In Genesis 17:8, God promised the land of Canaan to Abraham and his offspring. It should be noted that the Promised Land was given as an everlasting possession; there would be no end to Israel’s lawful claim to it. Also, there are no conditional clauses in this promise indicating that the fulfillment of the promise was not dependent on the action of Abraham or his offspring. It is true that, through Moses, God warned the children of Israel of the consequences of disobedience to Him (that is, expulsion from the land, Dt. 28:63), but dwelling in your home and losing the title deed to your home are two separate matters. In addition, the Word of God is clear that despite two expulsions, there would be two restorations to the land (cp. Isa. 11:11; Ezek. 37:1–14), not just one, as Islam asserts.
Not a single verse in all of Scripture declares that God has revoked the promise He gave to Abraham in Genesis 17:8. In fact, the opposite is true. More than 130 passages in the Bible reiterate the truth that the land of Israel has been divinely given to the Jewish people (cp. Ps. 105:8–11; Acts 7:5).
Regarding the Islamic claim that the covenant has been transferred to the descendants of Ishmael, again the Word of God speaks for itself. In Genesis 17:18 Abraham pleaded with God to make Ishmael the recipient of the covenant. God not only denied Abraham’s request, but He specifically identified Isaac as the line through which the promise would come (Gen. 17:19). Yes, the Lord would bless Ishmael too (Gen. 17:20). “But,” God said, “my covenant will I establish with Isaac” (Gen. 17:21).
Discerning Christians must understand that underlying the political turmoil of the Middle East is a religious dispute. Although not all Arabs are fundamentalists, many Arab governments still wrap themselves in the cloak of Islam to justify their anti-Israel positions. Christians should also be aware that behind the religious fracas, a spiritual battle is being waged (Eph. 6:12). And, if they want to be on the winning side, if they want to be true to God’s Word, Christians should be hesitant to take a position that undermines Israel’s right to the land God gave them. Otherwise, they may find themselves fighting against God (Acts 5:39).
- Yvonne Haddad, “The Arab-Israeli Wars, Nasserism, and the Affirmation of Islamic Identity,” ed. Andrew C. Kimmens, in Islamic Politics and the Modern World (New York, NY: The H. W. Wilson Co., 1991), 61.
- Reference numbering for the Koran is according to The Holy Quran, trans. Maulana Muhammad Ali, 6th ed. (Lahore, Pakistan: Ahmadiyyah Anjuman Isha’at Islam, 1973).
- Sahih Al-Bukhari, trans. Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan, 9 vols. (Ankara, Turkey: Hilal Yayinlari, 1978), 55/585.
- Edward Mortimer, Faith and Power: The Politics of Islam (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1981), 253.
- “The Covenant of the Hamas—Main Points,” paper published by the Consulate General of Israel in Chicago, Illinois, January 5, 1993.
- David K. Shipler, Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land (New York, NY: Time Books, 1986), 170.
- Sahih Muslim, trans. Abdul Hamid Siddiqi, 4 vols. (Lahore, Pakistan: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 1976-1981), 637.3924.