By many estimates, the current crisis in the Middle East began some 4,000 years ago. The Jewish patriarch Abraham and his wife Sarah were childless. God had promised Abraham that they would have a son whose descendants would become a great nation. God also promised that this nation would inhabit the land under Abraham’s feet (Genesis 13:14–17). Back then it was called Canaan. We call it Palestine today, and it’s the center of the ongoing conflict between Muslim Arab nations, Zionist Jews, and Christians.
Unfortunately, the years went by and Sarah failed to become pregnant. It’s important to understand that in that Eastern culture it was always the woman’s fault if she couldn’t produce a child, preferably a son. Sarah’s inability was horribly humiliating to her, so she proposed to her husband that in order to fulfill God’s promise that Abraham would have an heir, he father a child by her Egyptian servant, Hagar. While we might recoil at such a blatant suggestion, back then this was an acceptable way for an infertile couple to have a child. (Surrogate motherhood has a long history!)
Consider what must have gone through Abraham’s mind at Sarah’s proposal: God said, “ ‘A son coming from your own body will be your heir’ ” (Genesis 15:4). Abraham reasoned that God hadn’t said the son had to come from Sarah’s body, so he followed through on her proposal.
What followed isn’t surprising. The two women had a falling out, for when Hagar discovered she was pregnant, “she began to despise her mistress” (Genesis 16:4). Sarah complained to Abraham, who, lacking in courage, protested that it was all Sarah’s fault and told her to deal with it. Over the months of Hagar’s pregnancy, Sarah “mistreated Hagar; so that she fled” (verses 5, 6) into the desert, where she almost perished. Eventually, though, she returned to Abraham’s camp. When her child was born, he was Abraham’s son, and he named him Ishmael (verse 15).
Abraham was a wealthy man with an impressive retinue of servants and herdsmen—well over 300. Now stop and think of this: for the next 15 or so years, Ishmael was “the prince.” He was the heir apparent. Everyone in the camp knew it. Everyone talked about it. And Ishmael himself surely reveled in the knowledge.
Then one day, when Ishmael was about 17 years old, God told Abraham that Sarah would have a son, and that her son was to be the inheritor not only of Abraham’s wealth but also of God’s promise to become a great nation in the land of Canaan. Sure enough, a year later Sarah gave birth to Isaac (Genesis 21:2, 3).
Now consider how Ishmael must have felt. After 17 years of seeing himself as the heir to the entire land of Canaan, he is reduced to the status of servant. What a blow!
Again Hagar and Sarah fell out, and Sarah insisted that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away. Abraham was reluctant to do this, but he complied. In the desert, Hagar and Ishmael soon ran out of water and were on the verge of dying when God “heard the boy crying” and came to their rescue. “ ‘Lift the boy up and take him by the hand,’ ” He told Hagar, “ ‘for I will make him into a great nation’ ” (Genesis 21:17, 18; cf 16:10). God promised that he would be the father of 12 rulers or princes (see Genesis 17:20; 25:12–16).
Sarah’s son Isaac became the father of the Israelites, while Hagar’s son Ishmael became the father of the Arab nation. Today’s Jewish nation claims that Isaac was the legitimate inheritor of God’s promises to Abraham, while Arabs claim (with some justification), that Ishmael, the older son, was the rightful heir. And so each claims ownership to the same piece of real estate—Palestine.
So that’s how the Arab–Israeli conflict started: a family feud, fuelled by jealousy. And there’s more. Enter the Christians and the Muslims.
Christianity grew out of the Jewish nation of Roman times. It began in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, the progeny of Judaism. Both Jews and pagans fought Christianity with a vengeance, but Christianity eventually became the dominant religion of the empire.
By A.D. 500, with the Roman Empire in decline, the religion of Jesus flourished, dominating the Mediterranean from the Levant to Central Europe, the Mediterranean coast of North Africa to the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal). Mesopotamia and Asia Minor were also predominantly Christian.
Mohammed grew up in Mecca, outside the area dominated by Christianity. At the age of 40 he felt that God was calling him to be a prophet to his fellow Arabs. Most in Mecca rejected him, though, and in A.D. 622—the year that Muslims consider their religion to have begun—he fled to Medina, where he established a theocratic government.
By the time of his death in A.D. 632, Mohammad’s religion had spread throughout most of the Arabian Peninsula, partly through conversion and partly through force of arms. Within 100 years it had spread—again by conversion and military conquest—across the Middle East as far as India, through North Africa and across the Pillars of Hercules to the Iberian Peninsula.
Thousands of Christians abandoned their faith to become Muslims, some through persuasion, some from persecution, and still others because of the privileges afforded to adherents of the new faith. Christianity, which had flourished throughout the Middle East and North Africa, was reduced to servitude.
Christians felt particularly incensed over the Muslim domination of Palestine, the land of Jesus. In 1095, Pope Urban II preached fiery sermons urging a crusade to deliver the holy sepulcher from the Muslim infidels. Thousands of European Christians rallied to the pope’s call to arms, and the First Crusade ended in July 1099 with the taking of Jerusalem by Christian forces. Both Muslims and Jews were massacred in the thousands.
During the next 200 years, Christians mobilized seven more major crusades and a number of smaller ones against the Muslims. However, these were less and less effective. By A.D. 1300 the Muslims had expelled the occupiers and regained control of the Holy Land, including Jerusalem, which they held until 1948.
Despite their first attempting to conquer Christian Europe (from the east they got as far as the Danube River, in Hungary; from the west as far as Spain), the Arab Muslims have never forgotten the Crusades, and most haven’t forgiven them either.
The Modern Conflict
With strong U.S. support, the UN established the modern state of Israel in 1948, following the withdrawal of the British, who had occupied Palestine since World War I. Thousands of Palestinian Arabs within the state of Israel were evicted and forced into refugee camps, where they’ve lived since without a country and with virtually no political rights.
Understandably, many remain resentful of both the nation of Israel and the Western powers that established and nurtured it. Issues over the control of the Temple Mount— claimed as an extremely holy site by both Jews and Arabs—further fuels the conflict.
Added to this, a large and growing number of Christians view the establishment of the nation of Israel in 1948 as fulfilment of a key part of the Bible’s end-time scenario, and preach this openly. This also inflames the resentment of the Palestinians and other Muslims toward the West and Christians generally. So while tensions exist between various Muslim groupings and states around the world, all are united in their opposition to the state of Israel.
The basic issue is this: which son of Abraham will control Jerusalem and the land that Abraham was promised? This conflict has brought the world to a crisis of global proportions as Arab nationalism and Muslim extremism merge into terrorism and war. Is there a way out?
The world’s leaders seek a military and political solution to the impasse. Unfortunately—as is obvious to any student of history—neither armies nor politicians have been able to bring a permanent peace in the past, and, as we are seeing daily on our television screens, they aren’t doing very well at bringing about peace in the present. Nor will they likely do so in the future.
The only lasting solution is of a spiritual nature. As a Christian, I know God can bring about profound changes in the human heart. People who surrender to His power can love their enemies and forgive them.
However, the only permanent solution to this human conflict, as to most all human conflicts, is the establishment of God’s eternal kingdom that was predicted 2,500 years ago by the prophet Daniel, who said, “ ‘The God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed. . . . It will itself endure for ever’ ” (Daniel 2:44).
It is in this kingdom that swords will be turned into plowshares; it’s in this kingdom that wolves, both metaphoric and literal, will lie in peace with lambs (Isaiah 2:4; 11:6–9; 65:25).
There is much that is good in the Koran that parallels the Bible. For example, care for orphans, help for the poor, and fairness in business. It says to avoid pride, that we should show kindness to others, and overcome evil with good. On the other hand, “both the example of the prophet and some statements in the Koran provide warrant for Islam’s earliest leaders to spread Islam by military conquest” (Christianity Today, January 7, 2002, p. 37).
Following are some directives where the two traditions do not agree:
- “Whosoever desireth any other religion than Islam, that religion will never be accepted from [Allah] and in the next world he shall be among the lost” (ch. 113, p. 394).*
- “And when the sacred months are passed, kill those who join other gods wherever ye shall find them. . . . But if they shall convert . . . let them to their way, for God is gracious, merciful” (ch. 113, p. 471).
- “Men are superior to women” (ch. 100, p. 415).
- “Islam would be the truth, and victorious over every other religion. Jews and Christians were to be attacked for their false gods” (ch.113, pp. 473-474).
- “Thou mayest take to thy bed her of whom thou wilt and whomsoever thou shalt long for . . . and this shall not be a crime in thee” (ch. 103, p. 439).