In the last round of talks between Israel and the Palestinians in Munich in 2014, an unusual discussion was held between Saib Arikat, the head of the Palestinian delegation, and Tzippi Livni, head of the Israeli delegation. Arikat offended Livni when he announced that his ancestors were Canaanites who lived in Jericho 3,000 years before the nation of Israel came to the city. The Israeli delegation was surprised and unprepared for this argument. Arikat argued that the Palestinians, with himself as their representative, are, in reality, the descendants of the Canaanites and therefore they have more rights to the land of Palestine than the Jews. Livni replied that Israel and the Palestinians shouldn’t be asking which historical narrative is more accurate but should instead focus on how to build a future: “I do not look at a peace agreement in a romantic way. Zionism is not any less dangerous than naiveté. Israel wants peace because it is in its interest.”1
Livni’s reply reflects a common attitude of commentators and diplomats to religiously-based arguments regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They usually consider them as propaganda meant for domestic consumption. According to them, these arguments are not reflective of a practical political reality because in realpolitik, it is interests and not abstract ideas that win.
Yet Arikat is far from alone in suggesting that the roots of the conflict date back millennia. Consider Musab Hasan Yusuf, the son of Sheikh Hasan Yusuf, one of Hamas’ senior leaders in the West Bank. By virtue of his family, background, and education, Musab Hasan Yusuf won the trust of Hamas’s upper echelons and took an active part in the first intifada. As a result of his revulsion at Hamas’ brutal tactics, he became an Israeli secret service agent. Until he was exposed, he provided the Israeli Secret Service with information that prevented many terrorist attacks and saved hundreds of Israeli lives. Today, he lives as a Christian in the United States. Musab Hasan Yusuf begins his autobiography, The Son of Hamas, like this:
Today, when I associate with Americans, I discover that most of them have a million questions regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict but very few answers and even less accurate information. I hear questions like:
“Why can’t people in the Middle East get along with each other?”
“Who is right, the Israelis or the Palestinians?”
“To whom does the land of Israel really belong?”
“Why doesn’t Israel return the land that it captured in 1967?”
“Why do the Palestinians hate Israel so much?” and
“How can Israel protect itself from suicidal terrorists and missile attacks?”
These are good questions. All of them. But none of them touches on the real subject, the root of the problems. The current conflict begins with the hatred between [Abraham’s two wives,] Sarah and Hagar, which is described in the book of Genesis.2
That Arikat and Yusuf, who are poles apart politically, both see ancient roots in today’s conflict suggests those roots are a topic worth exploring. Hamas and Fatah see the roots of the conflict reaching back to Abraham’s tent and to the hatred between his two wives, which ended with the banishment of Hagar and her son Ishmael. The contemporary Islamization of Palestinian society and the Palestinian struggle emphasizes the notion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is just the latest phase of a now ancient conflict between Judaism and Islam which was first expressed in the war between Muhammad and the Jews of the Arabian Peninsula. For example, at a public rally for Fatah—which is not a religious movement but rather a national independence movement—the head Mufti of the Palestinian Authority defined the war with Israel thusly:
[As a] war of religion and faith, a war with the descendants of the apes and pigs [a nickname for the Jews according to the Quran], which will only end in the end of days when there will be a final battle between us and them, and then the Jews will hide behind the trees and the stones, which will open up their mouths and say to the Muslims, “O Muslim, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.”3
To illustrate how the religious-historical language in the Middle East is unlike the modern Western language of political-interests, this article will analyze the way Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, one of the top religious personalities in the Sunni Muslim world and the religious leader of the Hamas movement, understands the religious sources of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Born in 1926, Qaradawi is a popular Egyptian-Qatari scholar with great influence. Many researchers have described him as the most influential Muslim jurist in our generation.4 His popularity and his influence are mostly credited to his successful use of television and the Internet and the distribution of his books. His weekly program on Al-Jazeera, al-Sharia wa-l-Ḥayyat (Islamic Law and Life), draws 60 million viewers from around the world. In addition to condoning the use of suicide bombers and a struggle without concessions to free Palestine, Qaradawi is a supporter of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad morally and economically through many charitable donations that pass through his hands.5
In his many books, Qaradawi seeks to deal with the Jewish claim to Israel by rewriting various verses in the Bible as well as the Quran and by creating a new narrative aligned with his political agenda. Just as Zionism looks to the Bible as the source for its claim on the land of Israel, so, too, does Qaradawi return to the stories of Abraham as the theological source of the political struggle taking place today. According to him, the reason for the current struggle is the fact that Israel occupied Palestine, which is rightfully a part of the lands of Islam (Dar al-Islam).6 But this struggle was expected as it is a part of the struggle that is supposed to take place between the Muslims and the Jews at the end of days. This is the reason, according to Qaradawi, that the Quran talks so much about the Jews. God wants the Muslims to keep their character and nature so that when the time comes, they can overcome the Jews.7
Qaradawi’s overall goal is political: he seeks to use religion to close off any argument which would support Jewish rights to the Holy Land and to provide religious justification for the destruction of Israel. He evidently hopes that the aggregate of all these arguments will make a convincing case for all sectors of Muslim, Arab and Palestinian opinion. The difficulty, for Qaradawi, is that his arguments are different in kind and they also frequently contradict one another. They also sometimes involve innovations with regard to the Quran and its standard interpretations as well as errors regarding the Biblical text and its standard meanings.
Ishmael and Isaac: Who is Abraham’s Heir?
Like Musab Hasan Yusuf, Qaradawi argues that the current battle between Islam and Judaism has roots connected to the complicated relations between Hagar and Sarah. When the childless Sarah despaired of ever giving Abraham her own child, she gave Abraham her servant, Hagar, for a wife. Hagar bore him Ishmael. When Ishmael was thirteen years old, Sarah bore Isaac. That is when Sarah commanded Abraham to banish both Hagar and Ishmael. According to the Muslim version of the story, Abraham took Hagar and Ishmael to the area of Mecca. Abraham missed his son very much and went to visit him. On one of these visits, Abraham and Ishmael established the Kaaba in Mecca as a house of prayer to the one God. Abraham was the first monotheist (hanif), and the Arabs are the descendants from the sons of Ishmael.8
In the book of Genesis, chapter 17:1-8, God promises the land to Abraham and his descendants: “God appeared to Abram and said to him….and I will give to you and your offspring after you the land of your sojourns.” In chapter 21:12, Abraham’s descendants are defined as from Isaac alone: “Because from Isaac will be called my offspring.”
Qaradawi asks: Why did the Jews limit Abraham’s offspring to just Isaac? Did they forget Abraham’s first born son Ishmael? Is it possible that Allah, the just judge, prefers only the Children of Isaac over the Children of Ishmael? Qaradawi explains that the Jews determined that Isaac would be Abraham’s heir because Ishmael was the son of a servant and Isaac was the son of the wife. In the Jewish religion, Qaradawi claims, the son of a servant is worth less than the son of a wife. Qaradawi rebuts this argument with a line of reasoning of his own. According to him, it is well-known that a person’s lineage is determined according to the father and not according to the mother. He argues: Do not the children of the father inherit despite who their mothers were? Were not both Isaac and Ishmael prophets?9
It is important to note here that when determining relationships, there is a difference between the law today and the law in the days of the Bible. During the Biblical period, genealogical relationships were determined according to the father (as is the custom in Islam) since there was widespread inter-marriage at that time. Talmudic law altered the custom in the 5th century BCE when Ezra the scribe commanded that Jewishness be determined according to the mother. According to this updated law, any children born to a non-Jewish woman were not Jewish.10 However, when Jewish scholars write about the Biblical period, they do so with the understanding that during that period, it was the Jewishness of the father that was determined the status of the child. Therefore, Qaradawi’s argument, which asserts that Jews consider Ishmael to be ‘lesser’ than Isaac due to the modern Jewish preference for matriarchal lineage, is problematic because it is based on a misunderstanding of how Jewish scholars treat Biblical relationships. Indeed, the Jewish tradition agrees that Ishmael and Isaac were equal by birth since they came from the same father. Thus Qaradawi’s criticism of the Jewish discrimination against Ishmael is unfounded. In fact, the reason for Hagar and Ishmael’s expulsion was due to God’s command to Abraham following a conflict between Sarah and Hagar, not because of a discrepancy in status.11
Qaradawi continues his argument: Jacob had four wives, Rachel and Leah, who gave their servants Bilha and Zilpah to Jacob so that he could father more sons. Half of the Jewish nation is therefore descended from these servants. Despite this, they are an integral part of the Jewish nation and are not discriminated against.12
Also, when examining the rest of the books of the Bible, it is apparent that marriage to concubines was very popular among the Jewish people. For example, King David had 100 wives and 200 concubines.13 His son Solomon had 300 wives and 700 concubines. There is no doubt that these concubines gave birth to children from David and Solomon and that these children are a part of the Jewish nation. Qaradawi asks: How do the Jews explain the serious discrimination between Ishmael, the son of the servant and the sons of the other servants mentioned in the Bible? He concludes that there is a Jewish double standard in regards to themselves and their relationships with others.14
Qaradawi’s additional examples to this end do not strengthen his previous argument and, in fact, achieve the opposite. These examples clearly show that in the Biblical period, there no basis for discrimination against a Jewish individual in regards to the status of their mother. That is because during the Biblical period, a child’s lineage is determined by the father. However, Qaradawi interprets this evidence to conclude that Ishmael’s expulsion is proof of an ethical double standard, wherein only some children born of servants are considered to be part of the Jewish nation.
This argument is also tendentious. The difference in the Bible between the relationship of Hagar and Sarah and its attitude towards Bilha and Zilpah and their mistresses can be explained by the relationships that existed between Sarah and Hagar on one hand and the relationships among Jacob’s wives on the other. Sarah, who was barren, wanted Abraham to have a child, which is why she was willing to give her servant, Hagar, to him as a wife. But Hagar, instead of being grateful for her new improved standing, began to degrade her mistress.15 In other words, she did not accept Sarah’s authority. Hagar’s behavior is what ultimately led to her expulsion. On the other hand, Jacob’s servants Bilha and Zilpah did not attempt to rebel against their mistresses and instead became an integral part of Jacob’s family, which is why their children are considered to be part of the Jewish nation.
Ishmael, Abraham’s Spiritual Heir
According to Qaradawi, there is no justification for total Jewish ownership of the land. Indeed, the fact that Muslim Arabs occupied the land from the period of the Caliph Umar until today, a period of more than 1,400 years, suggests there is another meaning to Genesis (15:18) where God speaks to Abraham and says:, “To you I will give this land.” It is not Isaac’s descendants that will inherit the land, argues Qaradawi, but rather Ishmael’s.16
Qaradawi maintains that one must test the realization of the godly promise by comparing the length of time that Muslims ruled over the land with how long Jewish rule lasted. According to Qaradawi, Muslims ruled for 1,400 years, beginning in the 7th century and up until the beginning of the 20th century with the fall of the Ottoman Empire.17 Jewish rule, on the other hand, lasted only 511 years. Qaradawi reaches this conclusion thusly: The rule of the Jewish nation over the land of Israel lasted only for the period of time when the two temples stood in Jerusalem. The period when Abraham and his sons lived in the land is not included in this calculation for two reasons: first, Abraham was not in control of the land when he lived there and second, according to Quran (3:65-67), Abraham was a Muslim. The period of rule by the Jewish nation over the land can be broken into two main parts: The Kingdoms of Israel and Judea, which existed simultaneously from 1020 BCE until 586 BCE, and the Hasmonean Kingdom, which existed from 140 BCE until 63 BCE. If we add the two, we will find that the total equals 511 years of control by the Jewish nation. If one compares the two periods of rule, one clearly sees that descendants of Ishmael controlled the land for a much longer period. One cannot add the time that Abraham and his sons spent in Canaan as they did not own any land at that time and they did not rule the land in any way.
According to Jewish theology, Isaac was Abraham’s chosen son: “From Isaac your offspring will be called.” (Genesis, 21:12) After him, came his son, Jacob. God had the right to pass on his blessings to whomever he wanted. Thus, God chose Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau. What determines continuity is God’s choice and not a biological right.
Qaradawi disputes this argument by saying that God’s chosen descendants—His ‘real’ descendants, as it were—are those who follow Abraham’s practices. Spiritual descendancy is important, indeed priceless, when it comes to prophecy and is much more significant than biological descendancy. One can see from the stories in the Bible that not all of the sons of the prophets continued on their fathers’ paths. Qaradawi uses the story in the Quran about Noah and his sons as an example. According to the Bible, Noah had three sons, but the Quran gives him a fourth. This son of Noah, whose name is not mentioned, refused to enter the ark.18 Noah prayed to Allah to save his son. He was answered that his biological son was no longer considered his son. This unnamed son was a heretic because he refused to heed his father’s call to enter the ark.19 From this story, Qaradawi infers that the question of Abraham’s heirs is not just a question of biological inheritance but also one of spiritual inheritance. The Quran (3:68) determines who the real spiritual inheritors of Abraham are:
Those who are most worthy to inherit from Abraham (Awla al-Nas bi-Ibrahim), they are those who followed in his footsteps, this Prophet and his followers. God is the protector of the Believers.
This verse concludes a long argument in the Quran between Muhammad and the People of the Book:
Verily, you are those who have disputed about that of which you have knowledge. Why do you then dispute concerning that which you have no knowledge? It is Allah who knows, and you know not. Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but he was a true Muslim (Hanif) and he was not one of the infidels. Verily, among mankind who have the best claim to be Abraham’s heirs are those who followed him, and this Prophet and those who have believed. And Allah is the Protector of the believers. (Quran 3:66-68)
According to the Quran, as seen in the verses above, Abraham’s worthiest descendants, the ones who follow in his path, are Muslims and not Jews or Christians. This verse dates back to the Medina period when there was a dispute between Muhammad and the Jews which led to an abrupt end to the relations between the two religious groups. It is at this time that Abraham became the most ancient religious personality in Islam as he served as an exemplary symbol of subservience and surrender to the word of God and to the message of the Islamic religion, which Muhammad founded anew. He became the most important prophet in Islam and, in essence, its founder.
As noted, Muhammad argued in the Quran (3:65) that, “Abraham was not a Jew or a Christian, but a Muslim Ḥanif, and he was not one of the infidels.” The concept of a “Muslim” in this verse does not, of course, relate to the Islamic religion, which Muhammad established, but rather refers to the concept that Abraham was dedicated and submissive to God. If so, the logic goes, Abraham was the first actual Muslim before the coming of Muhammad, and Ishmael was his chosen son. An indication of this can be seen in the Quran, where we see Abraham building the Kaba together with Ishmael in Mecca even before the Torah was given to the children of Israel. Mecca later would turn into a central pilgrimage spot for Islam and become the holiest place for Muhammad.20 Thus, according to the Quran, Islam preceded Judaism and Christianity since Abraham was spiritually the “first Muslim.” Quran (3:65) argues against the Jews and the Christians:
O People of the Book, why debate about Abraham? It was only after him that the Torah and the Gospels were brought down from the heavens. Will you not learn to understand? Muhammad and the Muslims are the descendants of Ishmael and therefore have the right to the land.
The idea of a spiritual inheritance as a replacement even without a biological inheritance (as Ishmael had) exists in both Islam and Christianity. Paul, in his missive to the Romans (9:8) argues that:
It is not the sons of the flesh who are the sons of God but the children of the promise; they are the ones who are considered the offspring.”
Thus, inheritance based on biological origin is not important. Spiritual inheritance is. The Jews are no longer Israel. The Christians are the new Israel: “Israel in spirit” as opposed to “Israel of the flesh.” At the beginning of Christianity, the Old Testament posed a problem. On one hand, the Jewish Bible was the basis for the whole religious monotheistic understanding of Christianity. On the other hand, the Jewish Bible presented the Jews as God’s chosen people. To deal with this problem, Christianity developed the “replacement theory,” which Paul created and Augustine refined. This theory is based on the argument that Christianity inherited Judaism. Therefore, there was a need to adapt the Biblical text to the needs of Christianity. The next stage was to adapt Augustine’s formula of the “replacement theory” through a new interpretation of the bible that identifies Christianity as the chosen religion of God.21
This process is similar to what is took place for Islam, which views itself as the final monotheistic evolution after Christianity—the perfecting of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Qaradawi explains that the Jewish argument for ownership of the land rests on the understanding that the Jews are the Chosen People. The idea of the nation of Israel as a chosen nation is expressed upon receiving the Torah and also upon inheriting the land of Canaan. God promises Abraham that the land of Canaan will be his and his descendants’: “And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojourns – the whole of the land of Canaan – as an everlasting possession and I shall be a God to them.” (Genesis 17:8) God informs Abraham that his wife Sarah will give birth to a son named Isaac. In his heart, Abraham doubts this promise and asks God to keep Ishmael alive. But God tells him firmly that he will keep his covenant with Isaac and his descendants. “And God said, ‘Nonetheless your wife Sarah will bear you a son and you shall call his name Isaac and I will fulfill My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.’” (Genesis 17:19) God tells Abraham that he is willing to answer Abraham’s request and also bless Ishmael, “But regarding Ishmael, I have heard you, I have blessed him, will make him fruitful and will increase him most exceedingly; he will beget twelve princes and I will make him into a great nation.” (Genesis 17:20-21) In other words, according to the Bible, Isaac is the son to continue the Abraham’s tradition and to receive the land of Canaan.
The idea of choosing the Jewish nation out of all of the nations appears in the Quran (2:122), where it says: “O Children of Israel, remember the benevolence that I planted for you in my heavens from all those who inhabit the worlds.” To take away status from the Jews, their right as the “chosen people,” the Quran presents a line of sins that explains the disinheritance of the Jews. Qaradawi explains that this verse was correct in its day when the Jewish nation carried the news of the uniqueness of God with pride and therefore had priority over the idol worshippers of their period. But afterward, their behavior as a nation changed for the worse. They left their God, rebelled against the Torah, forged22 it, and refused to hear the admonishments of the prophets whom they murdered. Therefore, they were no longer worthy of their status as the chosen nation. The Muslims replaced them, as it says in the Quran (3:110): “You are the best among the nations that were given to people forever.”
Qaradawi makes it clear that although the Jews of today are descended from Abraham, they are exploiters, conquerors, and murderers. They occupied Palestine. They expelled its Arabs residents. They are continuously murdering and warring with the Arabs that still remain in the land. Therefore, they no longer have the right to be related to Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob. One’s lineage means nothing if they commit evil deeds, argues Qaradawi.
However, one can argue that in making this claim about Jewish lineage, Qaradawi admits that the Jews of today are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. If this is so, the Jewish people are not conquerors who stole the land by force from the Palestinians, but are merely exercising their rights that come from being the descendants of Abraham.
Qaradawi goes on to explain that the entire notion of the Jews as a “chosen people” is prejudicial as it places preference on one nation over all the others, and effectively excludes and condemns everyone else. He argues that Islam, on the other hand, allows every believer to come under its wings, regardless of race, color, or nationality.23 Qaradawi defines Judaism as a racist religion because the Jews believe in a particular God and call Him “the God of Israel.” Also, in Jewish law, Jews are commanded to treat non-Jews differently than they would fellow Jews. For example, the Torah prohibits lending money with interest to a Jew but permits it to a non-Jew. The Islamic God, Qaradawi argues, is a universal God who is called the ruler of the universe, ruler of everyone. Although the Jews sometimes use the terminology “the ruler of the universe,” Qaradawi dismisses this and claims that their God is not a universal God but rather a God of a specific nation. In reality, this claim is ludicrous, as it is well-established in the Jewish tradition that the Jewish God is the God of all mankind. Even so, Qaradawi claims that the Jews define him exclusively as the “God of Israel.”24 In contrast, he argues, Muslims have a universal God, and it is therefore more appropriate that they should have the spiritual leadership of the world.25
Who Is the Son Who Was Sacrificed?
In Genesis (22:2), Abraham is commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac:
Please take your son, your only one, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the land of Moriah; bring him up there as an offering upon one of the mountains which I shall tell you.
This story is accepted in Jewish tradition as a lofty expression of Abraham’s trust in God, so great that he didn’t even withhold his son from Him. Isaac was also a full partner to this mission as it is said, “And they both walked together.”26
The story of the sacrifice also appears in Quran (37: 99-113). Allah commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, but the identity of the sacrificed son is unclear. The Quran often refers to Abraham’s “son” without naming him. There are many explanations for this lack of clarity. There are those who argued that Muhammad did not know the identity of the son who was sacrificed. Others contended that the ambiguous wording is on purpose. On the one hand, when writing the Quran, Muhammad did not want to write that the sacrificed son was Isaac because this would strengthen the idea of choosing Isaac’s offspring. On the other hand, he cannot argue that the sacrificed son is Ishmael because the story of the sacrifice of Isaac was already widespread among both Jews and Arabs. This argument would arouse ridicule among the Jews, who already made fun of him. There is a disagreement among the commentators of the Quran regarding the identity of the sacrificed son. The majority of Quranic commentators argue that the son who was to be sacrificed is Isaac, just as it is written in the Biblical story. Only a minority of commentators argue that the son is Ishmael.27
Qaradawi molded the Muslim narrative by asserting that Ishmael was the sacrificed son. The reason for this choice is understandable: Ishmael replaces Isaac as the chosen one and the one who was chosen to be the sacrifice before God. Qaradawi adds this:
The son who was sacrificed is without doubt Ishmael despite the fact that the Quran does not mention his name. All of the proofs indicate the fact that it is Ishmael who was sacrificed and that it took place in Mecca. What is told in the Torah that the sacrificed son is Isaac, “the only,” shows the jealousy of the Jews toward the Arabs and their desire to own the high standing that their forefather Abraham had. Therefore, they acted as if Isaac was the only son of Abraham because they argue that Ishmael was only the son of a servant and according to the Jews, as a son of a servant, he was not equal to the son of the mistress. That is why they added to the Torah to prove that the sacrificed son was Isaac. How is it possible that we are talking about Isaac, as all of the events that took place were in Mecca and Isaac was never in Mecca? The correct narrative is that Abraham went with Ishmael and Hagar to “an unplanted Wally” near the place of the house of Allah in Mecca. Allah repaid Abraham for his faith and his loyalty and thus blessed also Isaac and that from his seed would come righteous men but also sinners.28
Muslims occupied the land in the 7th century. From then on, it was considered to be Islamic territory. Muslims argue the occupation of the land bought them the rights of ownership to the land. In contrast, the Jews occupied the land with strength and violence, and therefore they do not have any rights to it. There is a paradox in the words of Qaradawi: The occupation of the land earns the Muslims rights to the land but the occupation of the land by the Jews does not earn them rights to the land. This contradiction is resolved if we take into consideration what he has said previously: The Muslims are the descendants of Ishmael, the son of Abraham with legal rights to the land. Therefore, the Muslim military occupation of the land is the actualization of Ishmael’s rights. The Jews, on the other hand, have no “forefather” rights to the land. Therefore, their occupation is illegitimate and does not buy them any legal ownership rights to the land. Qaradawi demonizes the Jewish people in his descriptions, calling them cruel and characterizing them as robbers and murderers.
Qaradawi also makes a behavioral argument for Muslim control, citing verses from the Quran and giving them a current explanation. Thus, for example, he quotes chapter 13 verse 49:
O the people were created male and female and we divided them into nations and tribes in order to be able to see the differences between them. But the most honored among all of you to God is the one who is afraid among you and it is truly the most honorable to God the one who is afraid of God between you.
From this verse we see that Qaradawi wishes to prove that the criteria for inheriting the land is the fear of God and faith. The faithful have the right to the land and inherit it because of their deeds. To strengthen this argument, he quotes from the Quran (26:105):
We have already written in Psalms to say my honest servants will inherit the land.
Qaradawi explains that the words “my honest servants” refer to Muslims, and the word “land” refers to Palestine:
The understanding of the Quran maintains that Allah bequeathed the land to his servants who do the right thing and not to a specific nation or race. Allah does not relate to people according to their race or their genealogy but only according to their faith, their deeds, and their fear of God. “Those who do the right thing” are those who will inherit them the land from the hands of its infidel residents who are exploiters and who deny the Prophets and who hurt them and who stray from the path of Allah: “And the infidels said to the messengers who were sent to them: ‘We will get you out of our land, unless you will return to our religion.’ Then their ruler revealed to them saying, ‘We will annihilate the wrongdoers and we will return you to the land after they are lost.’ This is our recompense for those who fear to stand before me and if my warning will take place.” Quran (14:13-14).29
When Qaradawi describes the infidels as exploiters and those who distance themselves from the way of Allah, he is referring to the Jews since that is how the Quran describes Jews. He claims that at the end of days, the Jewish people—the infidels—will be defeated in a great battle by the Islamic nation—that is, the nation that truly has faith in God and fears Him. As proof, Qaradawi quotes the Quranic verse that deals with the heretical nations of the past, though he takes it out of context and applies it to the Jewish people.
Qaradawi summarizes it all when he says:
We are the ones who are the worthiest for this land from all aspects: From the aspect of the ancient right, as the land is the land of the Arabs and the Canaanites, from the point of view of it being a land captured by the Muslims as it is their land. The Jews have no rights to it because they captured it due to their own might. The Jews captured it with arms, with iron and fire, with violence and blood. These are the attributes of the Jews: If they have the ability they are not merciful. If they can—they blow up. If they have the ability to act, they act. This is their history, and this is what it says in their Torah: “If you go into a city—kill all the residents by sword.” Yes, these are the Jews who claim that they have the rights on Palestine.30
Here, Qaradawi quotes a verse from the Bible, apparently without a source, which he claims teaches that the Jewish people destroy all of the residents of the cities of Israel by sword. It is possible that Qaradawi is referring to Deuteronomy (13:13-16), which deals with the laws of a “remote city,” a city where its citizens, the Jewish nation, decide to worship idols:
If in one of your cities that your God gives you in which to dwell, you hear, saying, “Lawless men have emerged from our midst, and they have caused the dwellers of their city to go astray saying, ‘Let us go and worship the gods of others, that you have not known’”—you shall seek out and investigate and inquire well and behold! If it is true, the word is correct; this abomination was committed in your midst. You shall smite the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword; lay it waste and everything that is in it and its animals with the edge of a sword.
If this verse is the source for Qaradawi’s quotation, then Qaradawi takes things out of context. The verse in the Bible refers to a city that belongs to the Jewish nation and its destruction is due to their sin of worshipping idols. But Qaradawi attributes this as an order that sanctions an unjustified slaughter of the residents of the land. The purported parallel here between the conquests of the land by the Jewish nation during the period of the Bible and the Zionistic capture of Palestine is clear. In both of them, Qaradawi argues, the Jewish people engaged in cruelty and barbarism.
The Canaanite Myth of the Arabs
In addition to the land rights that are given to those who continue in the way of Abraham, Qaradawi adds another argument: that Arabs have an even older entitlement to the land because they are the “descendants of the Canaanites.” The myth that the Arabs are the descendants of the Canaanites and the Jebusites is widespread among the Palestinian population.31 This myth is a recent construct. In the Islamic theology, Jerusalem is a holy city, due to Muhammad’s night journey. Palestinian activists, however, argue that their claim to Jerusalem predates the Muslim conquest, and there is an “uninterrupted continuity” between Canaanites, Jebusites, and the Palestinians. There is no archaeological evidence to support this claim. Experts argue that the origin of modern Palestinians is from other Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Yemen.32
The purpose of Qaradawi’s claim is to trump the Jewish claim for the land of Israel. Jews argue that they are the descendants of Abraham to whom God promised the land. But it is also written in the Bible that when Abraham came to the land, it was already settled by the Canaanites: “Abraham passed into the land as far as the site of Shechem, until the Plain of More and the Canaanite was then in the land.”33 Qaradawi writes about this: “The Arab Jebusites and the Arab Canaanites are those who lived in this land thousands of years before Abraham and his children entered it.”34
Qaradawi’s use of both of these arguments is problematic. On the one hand, he argues for Islamic rights to the land which stem from Abraham’s rights as the first monotheist, the first Muslim. On the other hand, he argues for rights to the land that stem from the Palestinian relationship to the Arabian Canaanites, the idol worshipers, the residents in the land before Abraham. In addition to the fact that this kind of a genealogical link is imaginary, from an Islamic theological point of view, there is an additional problem. By adopting the Canaanite roots, he is effectively returning the Muslims to jahiliyyah, or an age of pre-Islamic ignorance. In other words, the Islamic nation cannot be descended from both the Arab Canaanites and from Abraham. However, by making both arguments in support for an Arab right to the land of Palestine, Qaradawi reveals an internal contradiction in his logic.
What is interesting is that Qaradawi’s writings regularly show such internal contradictions and a lack of continuity. Let us take an additional example: the purchase of the Tomb of the Patriarchs. In a switch from his previous position, Qaradawi tries to prove that Abraham lacked ownership over the land. Qaradawi makes this argument through his explanation of Genesis, chapter 23, which describes the death of Sarah, wife of Abraham.
The Purchase of the Tomb of the Patriarchs
Qaradawi argues that the Jews claim that their rights to the land of Israel stem from God’s promise to Abraham and his offspring and Abraham’s purchase of the Tomb of the Patriarchs to bury Sarah. But Qaradawi argues that neither Abraham, Isaac, nor Jacob owned even one centimeter of the land.35 Abraham bought a cave in Hebron for Sarah, which is known by the name “The Tomb of the Patriarchs.” The man from whom Abraham bought the cave wanted to give it to him as a present out of respect for him, but Abraham stubbornly insisted on paying the full price.
A prominent Jewish scholar, Raba, writes in the Midrash (a popular source of Jewish commentary):
Rabbi Yodan says: [There are] three places about which the nations of the world cannot defraud Israel and say that that were stolen in your hands and these are: The Tomb of the Patriarchs, Joseph’s grave, and the Holy Temple.36
Because these three places were purchased with “full” money, Abraham, Jacob, and David—the Children of Israel—have a “Tabu” [registration with the land registry]. Apparently, Qaradawi is unfamiliar with Raba’s commentary, but it is interesting to see how he takes issue with Abraham paying full price for the tomb. He wishes to prove from the act of the purchase that Abraham was not one of the owners of the land:
If this land was his—would he buy it? Is there anybody who would buy his own property? No. A person does not buy his own property. Abraham was never one of the owners of the land, as promised to him by Allah —if this promise is even right at all—Isaac as well was never an owner of the land and neither was Jacob who even went down to Egypt and lived there for approximately 430 years.38
During the lifetimes of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the real owners of the land were the Canaanites, the Jebusites, and the rest of the nations of Canaan. According to this story, Abraham wasn’t able to buy even a burial place for his own wife. If this is so, Qaradawi claims, God’s promise to give the land of Canaan to Abraham has gone unfulfilled. Thus, his conclusion is that there is no basis for the Jewish claim for the land of Canaan in respect to God’s promise to Abraham, because ultimately this promise was never fulfilled (which, Qaradawi argues, is apparent since Abraham needed to buy land to bury Sarah). As a result of this unfulfilled promise, the sons of Ishmael, not the sons of Isaac, were those who ruled the land for the longest period.
While it is true that the amount of time that the land of Israel was actually ruled by the Jews is comparatively much shorter than when the Muslims had control, it is not necessarily true the right to the land is determined by the group that has been there the longest. Secondly, one can argue that the very fact that the Jews were able to return to the land for the third time and established the State of Israel is a theological proof that God gave them the land. In regards to this point, it is interesting to note that in 1968, an international conference of Muslim scholars was held at al-Azhar University in Cairo to discuss the theological question: how is it possible that the Jews returned to the Land of Israel and have defeated the Muslims in 1948 and in 1967? Sheikh Nadim al-Jisr answered this question by pointing out the Islamic prophecy that in the end of days, there will be a great war between the Jews and the Muslims and the Muslims will defeat the Jews. The reason that Allah brought all of the Jews from around the world to the Land of Israel—at the heart of Muslim nations—is to make it easier for Muslims to destroy the Jews in the end of days.38
The Story of the Spies
The Biblical story about the sin of the spies appears in Numbers 13 and a version of it appears in Quran (5:21-26). According to God’s command, Moses sent twelve spies to check out the Land of Canaan after the exodus from Egypt and before the Nation of Israel entered the land. The exploration lasted 40 days, during which time they traveled from the south to the north. When they returned, they described the land as being good but ten of the spies said that the Jewish nation would not be able to occupy the land. They spoke ill of the land of Israel, and said Canaan is “a land that devours its inhabitants.” (Numbers 13:32) Two spies, Caleb, the son of Jaephunneh, and Joshua, the son of Nun, encouraged the nation to go out and conquer the land. But the children of Israel were convinced by the words of the majority of the spies. Caleb and Joshua tried to convince the nation to heed God’s promise that the nation would successfully conquer the land, but the Jewish nation was not convinced. Because of their lack of faith, God wished to destroy the children of Israel and send a plague. He would then create a new nation from Moses. But Moses pleaded for their lives and the punishment was reduced. The Nation of Israel was condemned to wander in the desert for 40 years until the whole generation that sinned had died. Only the next generation (and also Joshua and Caleb who did not sin) had the right to enter the land of Israel.
According to the Quran (5:21), Moses said to the Jewish nation: “My people, enter the Holy Land which God has written for you.” But the Jewish nation refused to enter into the land because the nations living there were mighty. They were ungrateful to Allah, who promised them that they would enter the land. As a result of their misbehavior, they were no longer worthy of God’s promise, and they were punished—by being forced to wander in the desert for 40 years until the sinning generation died. After these 40 years, Joshua ben Nun brought the nation into the land of Israel. Afterward, the kingdoms of David and Solomon were established. They lasted for fewer than 200 years. This period of Jewish rule is incredibly short, says Qaradawi. How, then, can the Jews lay claim to the land when they ruled it for only a fraction of the time that the Islamic nations ruled it?39
The Jews argue that God’s promise that the land of Israel would belong to the Jewish people is valid for all of eternity. Qaradawi, however, argues that this is not the case. The Torah shows that God’s promise is contingent upon the Jews keeping the covenant with God and following his commandments. This they did not do, as can be proved through the stories in the Bible. That is the reason for their exile.40 As proof, Qaradawi quotes various verses from the book of Deuteronomy. For example, in chapter 6:18:
You shall do what is fair and good in the eyes of God, so that it will be good for you and you shall come and possess the good Land that God swore to your forefathers.41
According to this verse, inheriting the land is conditional upon good behavior. But did the Nation of Israel act in this way, even according to the words of the Bible itself? No, says Qaradawi. The Bible is witness to the many sins of the Jewish people. They turned their backs on God and worshipped idols, which is exemplified in the story of the Golden Calf. Moses rebukes the Nation of Israel many times for their lack of faith and obedience toward God. As an example of this, Qaradawi quotes the verses in Deuteronomy (9:24-32) that detail Moses’ rebuke to the nation regarding their worship the Golden Calf. God would have destroyed them but for Moses’ intervention with God.
In later books, writes Qaradawi, the Prophet Elijah admits that the Jewish nation tried to kill him and that they lack loyalty. He turns to God with these words:
I have been exceedingly zealous for God, God of Legions, for the Children of Israel have abandoned Your covenant; they have razed Your altars; they have killed Your prophets with the sword, so that I alone have remained and they seek my soul to take it.
Qaradawi cites the book of Joshua and the story of Achan, son of Carmi. Achan lived during the time that the children of Israel entered into the land of Israel as told in the book of Joshua, chapter 7. At the time of the capture of Jericho, Joshua made a vow that all of the property would be dedicated to God. Achan broke that vow when he took some of the property. As a result of this unfaithful act, the Nation of Israel failed to capture the city of Ai, and many of them were killed. Achan and his family were punished by death from stoning. Here is another proof of the infidelity of the Nation of Israel. In addition, Qaradawi quotes the prophet Micah’s admonishment regarding the destruction of Jerusalem that resulted from the rampant greed and corruption among the Jewish people: “Zion as a field will be plowed and Jerusalem will no longer be and the Temple Mount to stages in the forest.” (Micah: 3:12) Qaradawi finishes his criticism with a quote from Jeremiah (3:20) (which he mistakenly cites as a quote from Nehemiah), which describes the unfaithfulness of the Jewish people and compares them to an adulterous woman: “Like a woman who was unfaithful to her mate, you have been unfaithful to Me O House of Israel—the word of God.”
Qaradawi concludes his article by saying that there are many additional Biblical quotations that show the Jewish people are no longer worthy of their status as the Chosen Nation because “They do not keep the covenant that was made between God and Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”42 Because they are not loyal to God, they are also unworthy of the Promised Land. However, one can argue that the punishments against the Jewish people were temporary, and that God has forgiven the sins of the Jews. The very fact that the Jewish people rule the land of Israel is proof that God has given the land rights back to the Jews.
This article presents Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi’s perspective on the historical and religious background for the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. As the spiritual leader of the Hamas, he believes that the current struggle is a continuation of an historical struggle that began with the sibling rivalry between Ishmael and Isaac over the right to be Abraham’s heir. Qaradawi analyzes today’s events through a religious prism and uses the Quran to re-explain the Bible in a way that fits his political agenda. From a theological point of view, Qaradawi does not say anything new. According to him, Ishmael was Abraham’s real spiritual heir and for that reason today’s Muslims, who are Ishmael’s descendants, have the right to inherit Palestine. The Jews, the descendants of Isaac, lost their rights to the land as a result of their unfaithfulness to the covenant between God and Abraham, as the Bible itself shows. Thus, today’s Israeli-Palestinian conflict stems from an ancient struggle over the birthright and choice. That, at least, is how Qaradawi and his followers perceive the roots of the conflict.
His sentiments may be deeply felt both by him and his followers. But neither the Bible nor the Quran—historical, religious, and political books of the highest magnitude—is a real estate deed. In the end, the issue at hand is the present, and building a road to a better future for both Israeli and Palestinian inhabitants of the land. Ultimately, the answer to this conflict does not lie in the distant past.