Theological Inhibitions to Peace in the Middle East

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Professor of Anthropology McGill University

Among the many issues that separate Arabs and Israelis could be listed conflict over territory, water, and refugees, and the more general question of security. And there are also less tangible but salient questions of honor, pride, and independence.

Is it also possible, in a conflict that is not infrequently framed in terms of Muslims vs. Jews, that there are religious or theological issues that tend to contribute to conflict rather than to resolution and reconciliation? This is the question that Bat Ye’or has raised and discussed in Islam and Dhimmitude: Where Civilizations Collide (translated from the French; Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2002). Here I will set out a few of her main points that may well be relevant to the continuing conflict.

Bat Ye’or first reminds us, by way of background, that the founding of Islam by Mohammed in the seventh century was the occasion-under the leadership of Mohammed and subsequent caliphs-for the explosive expansion that became the Arab Empire. Beginning in central Arabia, the Arab bedouin tribesmen struck north and east, conquering and occupying the Christian and Jewish lands of the Levant, the Zoroastrian Persians, the Hindu Sind, then Christian Egypt, Libya, and the Maghreb (Arabic: “the west”: Tunesia, Algeria, and Morocco) to the west. Next southern Spain and Portugal and Sicily were conquered and occupied, although the thrust into France failed. Later the northern subcontinent of Hindu India in the East was conquered, and the Ottoman Turks, who conquered Christian Anatolia and took Constantinople, then leading the caliphate, attacking Christian Europe, conquered and occupied Greece and the Balkans, and were stopped at Vienna. For 800 years, from the time of Mohammed’s conquest of Mecca until 1492 (the beginning of the reconquista of Al Andalus, Islamic southern Spain), the warriors of Islam conquered and dominated the Middle East and Mediterranean without successful challenge.

Islam Must Dominate

The theological foundation of the Arab Empire was the supremacy of Islam and the obligation of each Muslim to advance its domination. Ye’or (pp. 40-41) sums this point as follows:

The general basic principles according to the Koran are as follows: the pre-eminence of Islam over all other religions (9:33); Islam is the true religion of Allah (3:17) and it should reign over all mankind (34:27); the umma [community of Muslims] forms the party of Allah and is perfect (3:106), having been chosen above all peoples on earth it alone is qualified to rule, and thus elected by Allah to guide the world (35:37). The pursuit of jihad [holy war], until this goal will be achieved, is an obligation (8:40). (Comments in brackets added.)

The relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims is thus defined by Islamic doctrine as one of superiority/inferiority, and of endless conflict until the successful conquest of the non-Muslims. As Ye’or (p. 43) explains, Jihad divides the peoples of the world into two irreconcilable groups: the Muslims- inhabitants of the dar al-Islam, regions subject to Islamic law; and infidels [kafir]- inhabitants of the dar al-harb (harbis), the territory of war, destined to come under Islamic jurisdiction, either by the conversion of its inhabitants or by armed conflict. Jihad is the Muslim’s permanent state of war or hostility by the dar al-Islam against the dar al-harb, until the infidels’ conclusive submission and the absolute world supremacy of Islam.

Ye’or (p. 43-47) substantiates this generalization with quotes from Muslim sources. I include one here, from Ibn Taymiya, a famous Hanbali jurist of the 14th century:

In ordering jihad Allah has said: “Fight them until there is no persecution and religion becomes Allah’s”. [2:189]

Allah has, in fact, repeated this obligation [to fight] and has glorified jihad in most of the Medina suras: he has stigmatized those who neglected to do so, and treated them as hypocrites and cowards.

Jihad is the best form of voluntary service that man consecrates to Allah.

Therefore, since jihad is divinely instituted, and its goal is that religion reverts in its entirety to Allah and to make Allah’s word triumph, whoever opposes the realization of this goal will be fought, according to the unanimous opinion of Muslims. (Quoted in Ye’or, p. 44.)

Any male infidel who resists Islamic domination may be killed or enslaved; women and children must be taken in slavery (Ye’or 44-45).

We may ask whether the doctrinal views of the 14th century are outdated, or whether they have been carried down to the present day. Here anthropologists have a contribution to the discussion. E. E. Evans-Pritchard, later Professor of Social Anthropology at Oxford University, had close contact with the Bedouin of Libya during WWII, and, as reported in his brilliant account, The Sanusi of Cyrenaica (Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1949), the Bedouin saw it as their special religious responsibility to carry out holy war, jihad, leaving others to pray and study the Qoran (p. 63). When Libya was invaded by the Italians early in the 20th century, the Bedouin of Cyrenaica (the eastern half of Libya) were unwilling to accept the Italians as rulers under any terms, no matter how generous. Although the Bedouin were heavily outgunned, they chose to fight and continued to fight courageously for decades until they were virtually exterminated.

While jihad may never be terminated until Islam is universal and all follow Allah’s way, a break in military hostilities is lawful. An-Nawawi, Shafi’i jurisconsult of the 13th century (quoted in Ye’or, p. 46) says,

An armistice is only allowed when some advantage to Muslims ensures: for example, if we are weak in numbers, or if we lack money or ammunition, or even if there is hope that the infidels may convert or offer to surrender and pay the capitation tax…. On the other hand, it is perfectly lawful for the sovereign, when he agrees to an armistice, to reserve the right of recommence hostilities when it seems good to him.

Strategic pauses are thus sanctioned, as long as the obligation to continue the jihad is honored.

The World Was Made by Allah and Belongs to Muslims

The Islamic dominance of the world extends to all material aspects of the world. Allah made the world, and thus Muslims, as the true followers of Allah, had a right to all that Allah made. As Ye’or (p. 44) describes,

Because the Islamic community is sanctified by possession of the only true religion, it is also the only legitimate beneficiary of the material wealth created by Allah. Thus jihad, which strives to “restore” to Muslims the possession which the infidels illegally control, unfolds in accordance with the divine will.

For example, all conquered territory was taken from its infidel false owners and became state property, fay, “administered by Islamic law for the benefit of Muslims and their descendants” (Ye’or, p. 59). Ibn Taymiya (theologian and jurisconsult of the Hanbali school, 13th-14th centuries; quoted in Ye’or, p. 59) explains:

These possessions received the name of fay since Allah had taken them away from the infidels in order to restore (afa’a, radda) them to the Muslims. In principle, Allah has created the things of this world only in order that they may contribute to serving him, since he created man only in order to be ministered to. Consequently, the infidels forfeit their persons [in death, slavery, or dimmitude] and their belongings which they do not use in Allah’s service to the faithful believers who serve Allah and unto whom Allah restitutes what is theirs; thus is restored to a man the inheritance of which he was deprived, even if he had never before gained possession of it.

Infidels thus have no right to property, even what they have built, grown, or made. All material of value in the world was given by Allah for the benefit of the Muslim community, the umma, who are simply fulfilling their duty in reclaiming it from infidel holders.

All Children Are Born Muslim

“Islamic dogma teaches that all children are born Muslim,” (Ye’or, p. 64) and thus only become Christian, Jewish, Hindu, or pagans through the corrupt imposition of false beliefs. Muslims can only look upon this corruption with pity and disgust. It is understandable that efforts should be made to save the children who were intended by Allah for the umma. In Yemen, for example, under a law renewed as recently as 1925, Jewish orphans were taken so that they could “revert” to Islam. Elsewhere throughout the Muslim world, children were commonly or sporadically abducted and converted to Islam (Ye’or, p. 88):

The conversion of children to Islam was based on numerous hadiths asserting that every child was born a Muslim, based on Koran 30:29-30…. The removal of these children from their families thus “restored” children to the umma.

The Duty to Humiliate Infidels

Bat Ye’or’s main subject is the dhimmi, those Christians and Jews who accept Islamic dominance, recognize the perfection of the umma, and pay kharaj/jizya tax for their lives to be spared. Of the many aspects of their lives and histories she discusses, I will mention only one here: “the compulsory degradation of the dhimmi.” Ye’or (p. 81) provides an overview:

To the [Muslim] believer, humiliating the [Christian and Jewish] dhimmi constitutes a good deed, an act of faith, and a religious duty, kept constantly alive in the umma’s consciousness by a series of ordinances meticulously governing, down to the smallest detail, the organization of degradation that is sacralized into an ethical code.

Ye’or (p. 81) quotes an ordinance of the caliph al-Amir bi-Ahkam Illah (12th century): “Now, the prior degradation of the infidels in this world before the afterlife-where it is their fate [to be degraded]-is considered an act of piety;….

A fatwa by the Maliki Sheikh al-Adawi (18th century), quoted by Ye’or (p. 84), states that

Now there is no doubt that one of the principal conditions of equity consists in banishing infidels from any distinction and any possibility of raising their status, and of reducing them to humiliation and abasement.

There are many means at hand to humiliate and degrade Christian and Jewish dhimmi, catalogued in detail by Ye’or. For example, dhimmi cannot defend themselves by word or force against any act by a Muslim, subject to immediate death; cannot testify in court; cannot not ride horses or camels; cannot build houses of worship; cannot ride on a donkey past a Muslim, but have to dismount; cannot raise their voices in the presence of a Muslim; cannot walk to the right of a Muslim, but have to walk to the left; and cannot wear prestigious clothes. When paying their dhimmi tax, which they must do in person, they are, by law, slapped. Ye’or (p. 89) concludes that

…the corpus of his legal disabilities imprisoned the dhimmi in that state of ignominy and degradation which provided irrefutable proof of the triumph of Islam. Its superiority is inherent in the relationship between its strength and the humiliation forcibly imposed on others. This opinion, constantly stated in legal and religious texts, expresses a fundamental doctrinal element of government and foreign policy.

Adam and Eve Were Muslims

Having appropriated all the world, all its wealth, and all its newborn, Islamic theology then turned to appropriating the past. Far from accepting that Islam was an historical phenomenon which followed Judaism and Christianity and drew on them for inspiration, Islam was project back in time to the origin of humanity, defining Judaism and Christianity as minor, corrupt offshoots of Islam. Abul Ala Mawdudi (in Islam: An Historical Perspective, London: The Islamic Foundation, 1980; quoted by Ye’or, pp. 308-309) explains that

The day Adam and Eve were sent down to live on earth, Allah told them that they were His servants and he was their Master and Creator…. This was the simple beginning of Islam. Adam and Eve invited their children the follow the Islamic way of life. They and their children and their later generations followed the teachings of Islam as propounded by Prophet Adam (peace be upon him) for quite a long period.

Later prophets were sent by Allah to teach Islam: In short, they were asked to perform a mission-to make people righteous and true Muslims…. All of them preached the same religion-Islam. To mention a few names- Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus… The people who followed the Prophets became Muslims.

In 1999, Sheikh Kamal Khatib (vice chairman of the Islamic Movement of Israel, quoted in Ye’or, p. 310), asserted that “for us Islam is not only the religion of the Prophet Muhammad, but also the religion of Moses, Jesus and Abraham.”

From this “historical negationism,” as Ye’or calls it, it is but a small step to asserting Arab presence beyond Arabia prior to the time of Mohammed. As Yassar Arafat said to the U.N. in 1974 (quoted in Ye’or, p. 317),

The world must know that Palestine was the cradle of the most ancient cultures and civilization. Its Arab people were engaged in farming and building, spreading culture throughout the land for thousands of years, setting an example in the practice of [religious tolerance and] freedom of worship, acting as faithful guardians of the holy places of all religions. (Emphasis added.)

Prospects for Peace

Although Arab nationalism and Arab socialism were important ideological mobilizers in the Arab Middle East during the 20th century, it would be difficult to imagine that thirteen centuries of Islamic dogma and practice did not continue to inform and shape the new strains of thought. In any case, in recent years there has been an explicit return to Islam as the dominant ideological mobilizer in the Arab Middle East (and of course beyond as well, especially in Iran and Pakistan). So the Muslim theological formulations are obviously relevant to the course of public affairs in the Middle East.

No less a figure than President Bush has affirmed his belief that Islam is a religion of peace. Many who present themselves as learned representatives of Islam make the same assertion. And most non-Muslims nourish hopes that this is true. And yet there are disquieting signs in the Muslim world and on its borders, that there is at least a strain in Islam conducive to belligerent confrontation and aggressive militancy. Bat Ye’or suggests that this strain is well supported by the foundational theology of Islam. To the extent that she is correct, prospects for peace would appear to be increasingly dim.

For example, it is not unusual for the Israeli/Palestinian conflict to be framed as a dispute over land. This might lead one to believe that a pragmatic strategy would likely lead to resolution: confidence building measures could be followed by compromises about boundaries, with the final result a peace agreement. But if the problem is not a dispute over land, but a confrontation in which the Muslim side believe that Allah has ordained Islam must rule and that it is the duty of every Muslim to enforce that principle, then a secular pragmatic solution might have no appeal.

In the West, the conflict is often conceptualized as Israelis vs. Palestinians. But the short history makes clear that the opposition is Israelis vs. Arabs, given the repeated attacks by Arab states, or even Israelis vs. Muslims, as non-Arab Iran is in the forefront of current attack on Israel. Is this conflict all about concern and commitment by brother Arabs for the welfare of the Palestinians? It seems doubtful, given the way the Palestinians have been treated by the fellow Arabs with whom they shelter (although we must grant that the Palestinians’ record of attacking their hosts indicates some basis for reticence on the part of hosts). In fact, in the Arab world, the conflict is often framed as Muslims vs. Jews. While this tends to be ignored in the West, it suggests that an element in the conflict is the resistence to accepting Jews in any but a dhimmi role. Jews have been largely despised in dar al-Islam, and there is no Muslim dispensation to allow them independence. And now, as Israelis, they have had the effrontery to defeat the collected might of the Arabs. This from a Muslim point of view is an outrageous violation of Allah’s universe, and cannot be allowed to stand.

Another reason that this dispute over territory might be beyond peaceful resolution in a pragmatic way is that all territory, all of the earth, is deemed by Muslims to belong to the umma. In this view, anyone else occupying land destined for the umma is a thief and usurper. Israel, once conquered and ruled by Muslims, must now and forever belong to Muslims. There can be no compromise with those, the Jews, who violate Allah’s will and rule. However long it takes, whatever sacrifices are required, the umma must and will triumph. Peace would be a violation of Allah’s will. Of course, a temporary armistice, to build strength, to ready a new attack, can be justified. In the meanwhile, let the infidels believe it is peace.

In sum, if the Islamic theological dogma outlined here-dogma that appropriates to Muslims all power, all rule, all material wealth, all history, and allocates to all others, the infidels, only humiliation and degradation-are currently being taught to Muslim children in madrasse, are offered by imams in sermons, and are widely held in the general populace, we would have to fear that current Muslim opinion is little conducive to the pragmatic compromise necessary for peace in the contemporary Middle East.

Philip Carl Salzman is Professor of Anthropology at McGill University. He is member of the Board of Directors of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East

Theological Inhibitions to Peace in the Middle East

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Philip Carl Salzman

Philip Carl Salzman served as professor of anthropology at McGill University from 1968 to 2018. He is the author of Culture and Conflict in the Middle East; the founding chair of the Commission on Nomadic Peoples of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences; the founding editor of Nomadic Peoples; and the author of Black Tents of Baluchistan; Pastoralism: Equality, Hierarchy, and the State; Thinking Anthropologically, Culture and Conflict in the Middle East; and Understanding Culture.

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