Home inFocus Anti-Semitism: The Oldest Hate Renewed (Spring 2020) Interfaith Relations in the Quranic Tradition

Interfaith Relations in the Quranic Tradition

Harold Rhode Spring 2020
Artwork from the 13th-century showing Abbasid Caliph Al-Ma’mun, ruler of the seventh Caliphate, sending an envoy to Byzantine Emperor Theophilos.

To understand any potential agreement between Israel and its neighbors, or for that matter between Muslims and non-Muslims, it is essential to understand how Muslims operate theologically regarding territory, and how Islam understands it relationships with non-Muslims. Only then can we address the question whether Muslims can ever accept a Jewish state on land they believe is theirs forever.

Territorially, Islam divides to the world into two realms:

1. Dar al-Islam (World of Islam): the area Islam has conquered. Once territory has been conquered by Muslims, it must remain Muslim forever. The Hamas constitution explains this clearly, calling all of pre-1948 British Mandatory Palestine waqf, meaning it belongs to God. Once it belongs to God, it belongs to God forever.

2. Dar al-Harb (World of War): the part of the world not yet conquered by Muslims.  According to the Quran and Shari’a (Islamic law), its time is coming. 

There cannot be permanent peace between these two worlds.  There can, however, be territorial accommodation, modeled after agreements the Muslim prophet Muhammad reached when he was unable to defeat his enemies.  According to Islamic tradition, Muhammad fought the tribe of Quraysh at Hudaibiya near Mecca, but could not defeat it.  To buy time, he signed a temporary truce, or armistice, (Hudna or Sulh in Arabic) which was supposed to last for 10 years.  It lasted two years, until Muhammad realized he had sufficiently rearmed and was strong enough to defeat the Quraysh. He attacked them and won.

Muhammad’s Hudaibiya agreement then became the model for other agreements Muslims signed with enemies, right through modern times. Two weeks after signing the Oslo Accords with Israel on the White House lawn in 1993, Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat spoke at a mosque in South Africa. He explicitly stated that what he had signed in Washington was like the Hudaibiya agreement. His message at that mosque, and to the entire Muslim world, was that he was not a traitor to Islam; he did not sign an agreement to end the war with Israel.

Restoring the Land to Islam

In the century after their prophet died, Muslims conquered huge swaths of land—from part of India to Spain. That proved to them that Allah was on their side and Islam was the true religion.  With time however, the Muslim world went into decline and Muslims lost control over territory they once ruled.

They ruled most of Spain and Portugal, for example, from 712 to 1492 C.E. Even though they were defeated, they never gave up their desire to reconquer that part of Dar al-Islam. In fact, when Muslims write about Spain or any place in the Iberian Peninsula, they almost always add the phrase “may it be returned speedily to the bosom of Islam.” In short, once Muslim, always Muslim.

Where does this principle come from?  And as a corollary, do signed agreements mean anything in the Muslim world? Can Muslims accept an agreement recognizing the non-Muslim right to rule over any territory that had ever been part of the Muslim world? What are the ramifications for any agreement between Israel and the (Muslim) Palestinians?  Is there a difference from the Islamic point of view between Tel Aviv—part of the pre-1967 Israel, and Efrat, a town established near Bethlehem on territory Israel won during the 1967 Six-Day War?

Fourteen hundred years of Muslim sources provide the answer. The Arabic word for a Muslim conquest is futuh.  The root is F-T-H, the same as the Hebrew root F-T-H, meaning “to open.”  But in Arabic, that root has an additional meaning: “to conquer a territory for Islam.”

In Arabic, as in other Muslim languages, a Muslim conqueror is called Fatih, again from the root FTH, meaning a warrior who has opened up a territory for Islam.  The Ottoman ruler who conquered Constantinople for Islam from the Byzantine Empire in 1453 was known at Fatih Mehmet (Mehemet being the Turkish form of the Arabic name Muhammad).  Once a territory has been opened to Muslim rule, i.e., conquered by Muslims, it must remain under Muslim rule forever, and cannot be ruled by non-Muslims.  All agreements between Muslims and non-Muslims, therefore, are temporary by their very nature.  Muslims must return lost territory to Islamic rule as soon as they are able.

Ottomans and Arabs are Both Muslims

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey is doing his best today to re-establish Muslim control over formerly Muslim-ruled lands in southeastern Europe including Albania, Kosovo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Religiously and culturally, as a devout Muslim, he is doing his duty.

There is another important insight we can glean from Erdogan and his relationship with the Sunni Arab World. The Ottoman Empire was ruled by Sunni Muslim Turks, who captured most of what we today label the Arab world in the early 1500’s, and ruled these lands for approximately 400 years. During that period, almost no one living there complained about “Turkish imperialism” against Arabs, because the people identified themselves as Sunni Muslims.

But after World War I, the Ottoman Empire collapsed. The lands we today call the Arab World were divided mostly between the British and French. Many of the locals then bitterly complained about British and French imperialism. Why British and French, but not Turkish? 

From a European or North American perspective, all three peoples—the Ottoman Turks, British, and French—were foreigners who conquered Arabs. The difference is that the Turks were fellow Muslims.  Ottoman Turkish rule was acceptable.  British or French was not.

Many years ago, I taught Middle East history at the University of Delaware.  The classes included a significant number of Muslim students from Iran, Turkey, and the Arab lands.  At one point, I spoke about the history of North Africa.  When we came to the French conquest of that area in the 19th century, I asked the students what they thought about the French imposing their culture and language on the locals. Both the American and Muslim students were outraged by French colonialism.

I then referred to the Muslim conquest of these lands in the 7th century, asking whether what the Muslims conquerors had done was any different from what the French had done. The Americans quickly got the point.  But the gut reaction of the Muslim students was to shout out that the Muslims brought Islam to the locals which improved/elevated their lives.

No Muslim would publicly admit that what the Arab Muslims coming out of Arabia had done was imperialism.  Better to be ruled by Muslim autocrats/tyrants than by non-Muslim infidels who had no right to rule over Muslims or any part of the Dar al-Islam, no matter how much freedom or prosperity their governance might bring.

Arabs and Israelis

How does this help us understand an agreement between Israel and Palestinian Arabs, the majority of whom are Sunni Muslims? The largely Muslim Arab world did not succeed in defeating Israel in what the Israelis call the 1948 War of Independence.  In 1949, the United Nations organized a conference on the Island of Rhodes at which Arabs and Israelis discussed future arrangements.

From an Islamic point of view, Muslims conquered all of pre-1967 Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan from Christian Byzantium in 637-638 C.E.  So, all of these lands must be ruled by Muslims.  There is no difference, then, between Tel Aviv and Efrat.

The Arabs insisted that the agreed lines drawn on the maps and that divided pre-1948 Mandatory Palestine (excluding Trans-Jordan, earlier severed by Great Britain from the League of Nations’ mandate), be labeled “ceasefire lines”—not borders. The Arabs further insisted on calling the arrangements “armistice agreements”—not peace treaties.  What was accepted by the Arabs were seen by them as temporary agreements like the one the Muslim prophet Muhammad memorably agreed to at Hudaibiya. 

Many Israelis deluded themselves into believing that if they forced Jews out of the Gaza Strip in 2005, they would have a peaceful border with the Palestinian entity.  But if they had understood their withdrawal in Islamic terms, they would have realized that their Muslim neighbors would see this as a first step in liberating all of Palestine.

Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and PLO leader Yasser Arafat faced similar problems.  In 1979, Sadat signed an agreement with Israel supposedly ending 30 years of conflict between overwhelmingly Muslim Egypt and Jewish Israel.  Sadat understood he had endangered himself, and after signing the agreement at the White House, Sadat returned home and spoke to his people.  He said that what he did was for the good of the Egyptian people.  Egypt had wasted its scarce sources in military ventures which impoverished the country. Sadat said he wanted to use Egypt’s resources to strengthen the people of Egypt.  He then added, oddly to Western audiences, that “what will happen in the future will happen in the future.”

Sadat was telling his people that this agreement was like agreements signed by Muslims when they couldn’t advance and defeat their enemies. Interestingly, the Arabic word most often used in the Egyptian press to describe the agreement was tafahhum —best translated in English as “mutual understanding,” not a peace agreement.  There is, in fact, there is no way in Arabic to express the Western concept of letting bygones be bygones.

Others in Egypt did not buy Sadat’s argument; he was assassinated a few years later by a member of an al-Qaeda precursor organization.

Tea with Sadat

Arafat took Sadat’s experience and fate to heart. In 2000, President Bill Clinton hosted Arafat and then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at Camp David in an attempt to end the Israel-Arab conflict once and for all.  Barak offered Arafat almost every square inch of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, plus eastern Jerusalem, in exchange for peace.  Barak only wanted to keep what was under the Temple Mount because there lay the remnants of the First and Second Jewish Temples.

Arafat jumped to his feet, started to tremble are said, “There was no Jewish Temple.” (Ed. Note: Muslims sources make it abundantly clear that Solomon’s Temple was indeed on this very spot.)  He added, “I will not have tea with Sadat.” 

Clinton was astonished. How could Arafat deny the existence of Solomon’s Temple?  But what mattered more to Arafat was his fear of assassination if he ended the war and agreed to let the Jews i.e., non-Muslims, rule what Muslims know as Islamic territory. Sadat paid with his life by signing an agreement with Israel.  Arafat would not suffer the same fate.

Is Reform Possible?

Where does this leave us? This situation seems dire and gloomy. But this is how Muslims understand the land Israel controls, be it Tel Aviv, or Jewish towns and villages in the territory Israel captured in the ‘67 war.  Given this reality, it is essential that Israel and its friends understand that, without a reform in Islam, the situation will not change.

But there are ways for Islam to reform. The Quran is divided into two periods: The earlier period when Muhammad and his new religion were weak; and the later period where Muhammad was strong and the ruler of a state.

In the earlier period, Muhammad was looking for ways to survive.  During that period, Muslims believe that Allah told them to get along with others.  For example, the Quranic verse regarding non-Muslims, “To me my religion, and to you yours.”  Elsewhere, “There is to be no forced conversion (to Islam).”

In the later period, however, when Muhammad ruled his Islamic state, getting along with others was rejected.  Others were to submit. If Allah said both, then Muslims were to follow both.  How did Muslims solve this seeming impossible contradiction?  Almost every Muslim theological scholar accepts the principle that the earlier peaceful verses were supplanted by the later ones. 

But must this be so?  Muslims believe Allah revealed both.  Why did he do this?  Did Allah envision a time when the Muslims might need these more peaceful verses?  Is that time now, when Islam is weak compared to the non-Muslim world?

Today, most Muslims seem to think they have no reason to re-interpret their sources because the West keeps giving into their demands. Maybe only after the non-Muslim world inflicts a catastrophic defeat on the Muslim world, the majority of its believers will be forced to re-examine their sources and find other ways to peacefully co-exist with the non-Muslim world.

It is essential, then, that Asia and the Western world remain vigilant and stand strong against Muslim attempts to infiltrate and take over, by proselytization when not by force, the non-Muslim world.

It is essential for Israel and its friends to realize that there will not be true peace between the Israelis and any Muslim entity in the surrounding region—not a peace like that between Germany and France after two World Wars, let alone like the one linking the United States and Canada. Israel must continue to be strong and resolute, and defend its culture and borders.

Harold Rhode, Ph.D., worked as a Defense Department Middle East analyst for 28 years. He earned his degree in Ottoman history and speaks Arabic, Hebrew, Farsi (Persian) and Turkish.