The Challenge of Islam
By Mordechai Nisan

Danish translation: Islams udfordring
Source: NATIV Online, 2004
Published on May 25, 2012

Islam, as a later and last monotheistic faith appearing in Arabia in the seventh-century, never considered itself just another religion, but the last and final religion totally complete in doctrine and superior in rule. [1] The Muslim believers sought power for Islam as the supra-successor faith to Judaism and Christianity, and the ultimately universal faith for all of mankind. The frenzy of religious struggles in history would, from that moment on, set Islam on an ineluctable course to conquer the world. The Qur`an elucidated the religion’s warring spirit by praising those Muslims “who fight for the cause of Allah” (4:95-96) rather than those who avoid the battle and prefer to stay at home. In distinction from Judaism and Christianity, the Muslim community considers that “the holy war is a religious duty because of the universalism of the mission and the obligation to convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force”; and this, added the classical 14th century historian Ibn Khaldun, is because “Islam is under obligation to gain power over other nations.” [2]

Islam cannot be compared with any other religion or understood by analogy. It bears a unique militant ethic from its origins. This cannot be said of ascetic Buddhism or otherworldly Hinduism. Judaism, though equipped with “commandments for war”, did not promote conquest or experience power in any exceptional way. Christianity was born beset with sin, preaching poverty and practicing withdrawalism by fasting and virginity, pining for martyrdom through persecution. [3]

Islam evoked a far different collective sensibility. It brandished the sword, yelled Allah Akbar (God is Great) – as at Qadisiyya in southern Mesopotamia/Iraq in 637 – charged into battle, and plundering its spoils with delight.

We live at the beginning of the 21st century when the “return of Islam” has raised the challenge against the Jewish state of Israel, Christianity world-wide, Buddhism, and virtually all and any other belief systems and faith communities. Islam, far more than just a traditional faith, has resurfaced in Muslim and some non-Muslim lands as social energizer, political protest, and military catalyst. Muslim bellicosity against Christians has been evident in Nigeria and Sudan in Africa, Indonesia and the Philippines in the Far East, Chechnya and Azerbaijan in the former Soviet Union, Pakistan in the Indian subcontinent, Lebanon and Egypt in the Middle East, and Kosovo and Macedonia in the Balkans. In Afghanistan, the Taliban movement destroyed Buddhas. In India, Muslims fight for Muslim rule in Kashmir. The tried and tested methods of Islamic struggle and victory from the past are evoked today: conquest, colonization, and conversion.

The legendary abuse of Jews in Muslim history was illustrative of the inferiority of dhimmis who were by law, however, to enjoy protection under Islamic domination. There were some bright moments in the Muslim Orient, two examples being: the role of a Jewish mercantile class in Abbasid times centered in Iraq beginning in the eighth-century, [4] and the Ottoman Turk “open door” policy welcoming Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal in 1492. But the evidence of co-existence is mixed and the daily toll of humiliation should not be overlooked. Muslim soldiers housed their horses and donkeys in a Tiberias synagogue in 1852 and the enlargement of a synagogue in Jerusalem in 1855 was forbidden. When a Jew merely passed in front of the Great Zaytuna Mosque in Tunis in 1869, he was killed on false charges that he intended to enter it: a would-be “crime against Islam” [sic.] was preempted by an act of cold-blooded murder. [5]

The Strategy of Muslim Victory

In its early emerging period for the first hundred years after the death of Muhammad in 632, Islam conquered the lands of the Middle East, like Syria, Iraq, and Egypt, while penetrating into Europe and Central Asia. [6] The Arabs of Arabia, who founded the faith and initially manned the armies of Islam, then settled en masse in their conquered lands: mosques hovered high above older churches, Arabic replaced native languages, and Muslim states arose as representative of a new brand of religious imperialism in history. The local Berber peoples of North Africa and the Persians of Iran, among others, adopted Islam as their religion and thereby joined their masters.

For Jews and Christians, and especially for the premier monotheists stubbornly rejecting Muhammad’s prophetic claim and Qur`anic revelation, life was precarious and humiliating. A powerful Jew like Samuel the Nagid, secretary and counselor to the Muslim Sultan in Spain in the mid 11th century, was suddenly murdered in Granada in 1066.

Another Jew, Saad Al-Dawla, who headed the administrative bureaucracy in a late 13th-century Muslim regime stretching across Iran and Iraq, was also suddenly killed. These individual cases suggest that personal advance unleashed the wrath of the Muslim populace. In the 20th century, pogroms burst upon the Jews of Baghdad in 1941, and in Libya and Aden before the decade ended.

Paying the jizya poll-tax, as prescribed in the Qur`an (9:29), demonstrated that the hierarchy of power and social status depoliticized and impoverished the dhimmis. Undeterred and unintimidated, Maimonides nonetheless definitively rejected Muhammad in his Epistle to the Yemenite Jews, as did European Christian authors who considered him an imposter.

This did not, however, dissuade Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed from respectfully pondering Muslim philosophical and theological works that dominated the intellectual climate of the era.

The methods of conquest, colonization, and conversion are today the very same methods of Muslim struggle and victory in the world. In the earlier Islamic centuries, conversion struck down subjects shamed by the poll-tax, tempted by public opportunities, and attracted by the simplicity of the conversion process. [7] In our days, conversion is influenced by the modern Western spiritual plight that has convinced many to find meaning in an Islam radiating tranquility and unity, communal vitality and self-assertive power. In America, Black conversion to Islam is bound up with the identity of White Americans with Christianity: choosing Islam is a way to avenge the history of Negro slavery in the United States.

It was reported that the startling impact of September 11 attracted new Muslim converts in Europe. The sweep of Muslim power on the continent includes the independent Muslim state of Bosnia in Europe following the dissolution of Serbia-dominated Yugoslavia; Kosovo, NATO-protected, may follow suit as the next Muslim state in the Balkans.

Chechnya is fighting for its Muslim independence from Russia. Europe is home to over 15 million Muslims, of which at least six million reside in France. While initially seeking migrant job opportunities, the Muslim influx has acquired a broader significance as the vanguard of mass Muslim colonization in Europe. Low birth rates and a loss of integral Christian faith ill prepare the Europeans to withstand the long-term impact of a strident and enveloping Muslim presence across the continent. Yet, anti-immigrant sentiments are growing in Europe, as we witness the forces of reaction resonating in France, Denmark, Holland, Britain, and elsewhere.

Unlike other minority immigrant communities that have made their way to America, the Muslims do not want to integrate and adopt America as their home in an emotional and political fashion. Basically, the Muslims want to reshape America in their image rather than themselves be shaped by the reality of America. Of growing importance is the institutionalization of Muslim influence in American public affairs, and this will become an increasing electoral factor in local and national politics. The so-called “Jewish vote” will be overtaken by the role of Muslim voters in Michigan, California, and other states.

The Muslim jihad in all its aspects is now mobilized to redress Islamic losses suffered at the hands of the West centuries ago. The Muslims had earlier impotently witnessed Europe’s arrogant entry into the lands of Islam. By the 19th century, France controlled North Africa while Britain conquered the Nile Valley countries and the Persian Gulf emirates. In the period of World War I and its aftermath, France expanded its Middle Eastern possessions into the Levant, Syria and Lebanon, and Britain captured Iraq and Palestine.

But perhaps the central lesson of Islamic history is that even when the Muslims lose, they are really not defeated. The Crusader interlude in the Holy Land, that began in 1099 and finally ended in 1291, left no impression on Muslim social, political, let alone religious or cultural life. In the modern period, following the termination of European imperialism and colonialism in the Muslim Arab lands of the region, one could not identify any major foreign Western impact on the deeper recesses of Muslim thought and belief, or in the arenas of politics and ideology. Turkey is a special exception whereby secularism is the bedrock constitutional principle since the Republic’s modern founding in 1923. Christianity made hardly a mental dent at all, and secularism was rebuffed by the spiritual sturdiness of Islam.

Virulent anti-Western Arab nationalism as a native ideological sentiment erupted on to the political stage. Under the charismatic leadership of Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser (1953-70), Pan-Arab politics converged comfortably with socialist economies, political dictatorships, and pro-Soviet alliances as their national panoply. Islamic fundamentalism, as another nativist belief-system, proposed a radical program for a comprehensive and integral religious way of life. Iran’s revolution in 1979 illustrated that choosing Islam provided the symbol for opposing the United States. We recall the torturous tale of 50 US hostages held for 444 days in Tehran by revolutionary youth. Donning old “cultural costumes” constituted a way to counter the alien culture of Western civilization.

Fundamentalism was, therefore, not just a return to God but a cultural statement against the godless West.

The Mystery of the Muslim Culture Code

The hard fiber of Islamic faith and proud Muslim identity has defied any disruption or erosion when in contact with other peoples or religions. And it is this formidable fact that will always be the springboard for challenging and threatening the Western world, and Israel. Forums in search of Arab/non-Arab cultural coexistence and Islamic/Christian/Jewish ecumenical religious dialogue confront the obdurate Muslims, proud and impenetrable. All cultures, but Islam emphatically, are incommunicable to the outsider. There is a certain concealed Muslim/Arab mental domain (batiniyya) that a stranger cannot enter. It is closed cultural territory, while housing a defiant and mendacious well of subtle seduction and deception. Carleton S. Coon, noteworthy anthropologist of the Middle East, had once remarked that among the Arabs “two kinds of personality are at play: that which your man presents to the outside world and that which is known to his kin.” [8]

A few examples can illustrate the dexterous political practice of Muslim stratagems.

Muhammad, the prophet of Islam himself, carried out a paradigmatic ruse by numbing his Quraysh opponents when agreeing to the Hudaybiyya Agreement in 628, only to nullify it when he felt powerful enough less than two years later and overwhelmed his adversaries.

The story is told of the Muslim Umayyad Caliph Mu’awiya in the latter part of the seventh-century who, with great patience and dexterity, trapped a Byzantine Christian and took revenge for an insult he had much earlier administered to a Muslim. [9] Richard Burton, that insightful British traveler to the Muslim Orient in the mid-19th century, hid his travel itinerary from his friends, recalling the advice of an Arab proverb: “Conceal Thy Tenets, Thy Treasure, and thy Traveling.” [10]

In the contemporary political arena, the culture-code is no less relevantly subtle and effective. In 1990, Saddam Hussein told Husni Mubarak that Iraq’s contentions and claims against Kuwait would be resolved without resort to force. A few days after the conversation, Kuwait was conquered and occupied by Saddam’s army. In 1993, Yasser Arafat promised Yitzhak Rabin to amend the PLO covenant so that it would not contradict the peace process codified with the signing of the Oslo Accords. Despite Arafat’s political theatrics performed in front of President Clinton in Gaza in 1998, the covenant was never nullified as the Palestinians acquired territories and weaponry to enable them to engage in incessant terrorism against Israel. Approximately 850 Israelis had been murdered by Palestinian terrorism from the beginning of Intifada al-Aqsa in October 2000 and until three years later, by late September 2003.

The Arab/Muslim art of rhetorical deceit remains incomprehensible to most Americans, even Israelis, and certainly collaborative Europeans. When Muslims offer peace to an adversary, explained Majid Khadduri, this is typically “a device to achieve certain objectives, since the state of permanent war was the normal relationship between Islam and other nations”. [11] Indeed, when President Anwar Sadat of Egypt signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1979, the Al-Azhar Islamic University of Cairo penned - undoubtedly with Sadat’s approval if not command – a traditional religious judgment (fatwa) to justify this otherwise politically unthinkable act. The Islamic scholars merely listed the concrete benefits accruing to the Muslim and Arab peoples from this agreement, with no reference to the ideal of peace. No less a sophisticated ruse was the argument proposed by Egyptian thinker Muhammad Sid Ahmed who, in his book, When the Guns Fall Silent, in 1974, explained that peace with Israel is acceptable because in the process, Zionism will dissolve.

Saudi Arabian kings and princes have cultivated Washington political elites and administrations while pursuing their Wahhabi Islamic version of religious-cum-terrorist campaign in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Wahhabism, an 18th century doctrinaire and violent Arabian movement, provides the contemporary religious leitmotif for the Saudi regime and its global Islamic outreach. This includes extensive mosque construction and university endowment chairs in Islamic Studies in many Western countries.

This religious expansionism constitutes in itself a certain defiance of the values and universality of Western civilization. But more “Wahhabist” yet is Saudi funding of Palestinian terrorism and Syrian arms purchases, though the oil-rich desert kingdom continues to feign friendship for the United States.

September 11, moreover, was very much a Saudi production. Fifteen of the 19 active terrorist attackers were Saudi nationals while Al-Qa’ida, headed by Osama bin Laden, himself a Saudi citizen, was financed by the Saudis over many years. This is true also for the Afghani Taliban regime which provided sanctuary to bin Laden and his murderers.

Yet Washington, naively or otherwise, historically accommodated Riyadh’s central role in the global spread of militant Islam.

A remarkable sense of superiority is at the root of Muslim self-confidence and mastery boldly displayed over history. The fantastic story of Wilfred Thesiger, a mythic European who discovered Arabia with his Bedouin companions in the mid-20th century, offers a personal narrative to express the point. His Bedouin friends recognized that Thesiger, among his other positive qualities, was able to tirelessly withstand the desert challenge. But, in the end, they considered themselves better than him in just one way, saying: “in that we were Muslims”. [12]

That is the religious heart of the entire matter.

War is War, and Peace Too

We now draw the logical conclusion that it is futile and demeaning to engage in any political dialogue or discussion, negotiations or agreements of any kind with the Arabs. It confuses, drains human energy, and is highly dishonorable. To take seriously Arab peace offers, when they are nothing but wile in action, is a self-inflicted humiliation.

Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah floated his “peace initiative” in March 2002 as a call for normalization with Israel. But before the ink was dry on the paper, the word “normalization” was removed, and the Palestinian refugees’ “right of return” was validated by explicit reference to United Nations Resolution 194 from December 11, 1948. Thus, coopting international legitimacy and combining it with the rhetoric of peace-making becomes a lethal concoction in the armory of Arab diplomacy. To flood Israel with hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees is the Arab formula for peace with Israel. This is of course a peace without Israel. For others to politically shun the Arabs will convey that their masquerade of manipulation is exposed and finished.

The Muslims’ assault world-wide cannot be expected to die a natural death. Believing their religion to be dictated from Allah on high is not as innocuous as it may sound to other monotheists and believers in revelation. For the Muslims, we are learning, really take their religion seriously. They cull their determination and fire from a source that is exempt from outside influence or interference. At home, in Arab countries, the Muslim fanatics confront repressive state regimes which block their advance to power. This is the case in Egypt, Algeria, and Syria. Foiled and frustrated from grabbing power in the Middle East, as scholar and commentator Fouad Ajami explained, the Muslim terrorists seek with evermore venom to vent their hated for the West on the turf of infidel Christianity itself.

The vocabulary of our era resonates with Islam and its references. We speak of Hizbullah and Islamic Jihad; Israel contends with the Intifada whose shahid martyrs glorify the Palestinian struggle; Ayatollah Khoumeini and Sheikh Nasrallah are on our lips; and even nominal terms like a fatwa (legal decision) and hijab (woman’s veil) fill the public atmosphere. Arafat’s Muqat’aa Ramallah headquarters assumed the glory of a Palestinian stalingrad in the face of Israel’s siege. The Islamic century has made non-Muslims anxious for the future.

Yet remember, that when confronted by a resolute foe, Muslims often withdraw and founder in fear. Their Bedouin heritage has trained them to exploit weakness, but to pull back from confrontation or any real trial of strength. A “hit-and-run” strategy is the perfect Bedouin mode of action; it is also at the core of Palestinian terrorism the last 50 years.

The daring Swiss explorer of Arabia, John Burckhardt, wrote in 1831 that Bedouin stealth is as real as is Bedouin hospitality: there is no contradiction in these traditional desert qualities. [13] Much of Muslim-Arab success in the early history of Islam was facilitated by the enemy surrendering rather than facing the Muslims in battle. The city of Mecca succumbed to Muhammad in 630, Iran collapsed in the face of Arab armies in the early 640s, Spain was penetrated with ease in 711. Damascus, a Byzantine city, was an exception and resisted the Muslim assaults in 636-37 only to open its gates in the end. Much of Europe today has capitulated, while posing as the repository of democracy, tolerance, and human rights.

The Muslims are masters of bluff and bullying, no less of blackmail and threat, in overwhelming a bamboozled adversary. But when faced in battle, as we saw in Iraq in 1991 and in some Palestinian towns in 2002, the Muslims virtually capitulate. In the spring of 2003, US forces overran much of Iraq with relative military ease; but the typical culture-bound Arab response of terrorism was not long in coming.

Classical, legal, and imperial Islam divides the world by a religious conception: between the Domain of Islam (Dar al-Islam), where the Muslims rule and Islam officiates, and the Domain of War (Dar al-Harb), where the Muslims are subject to foreign rule until effectively expediting the ultimate triumph of Islam. This mental construct is embedded in the minds of Muslims who pray in mosques in Jersey City and Los Angeles, Jerusalem and Beirut, London and Marseilles. Where Muslims reside, they must rule. If Islam will dominate the land of Israel and the lands of Christendom, then the world will more and more become Dar al-Islam. Peace will then be the result of conquest.

It was King David who insightfully implied in Psalm 120 that when the Jews speak of peace with the Ishmaelites, the latter’s Arab/Muslim descendants will respond with a call for war. This realization can be a cause for despondency and trepidation. But that same Ishmael, born of Hagar, Abraham’s maid servant, while defined as a “wild man”, must be confronted by all his protagonists (yado bakol ve-yad kol bo, Genesis 16:12). Is not the Biblical narrative a real-life description of the civilizational clash and challenge in our times?


1 M.M. Qureshi, Landmarks of Jihad, Lahore: Kasmiri Bazar, 1971, points out in the Introduction that the goal of jihad is to break the enemy’s will and to get him to accept Muslim supremacy.

2 Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, Vol. I, Ch. III, Section, 31, Princeton University Press, 1967, p. 473.

3 See Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, London: Penguin, 1988.

4 Norman A. Stillman, The Jews of Arab Lands: A History and Source Book, Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1979, pp. 33-37.

5 Bat Ye’or, The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians Under Islam, London: Associated University Presses, 1985, p. 58.

6 See Hugh Kennedy, The Prophet and the Age of The Caliphates: The Islamic Near East from the Sixth to the Eleventh Century, London: Longman, 1996.

7 Richard W. Bulliet, Conversion to Islam in the Medieval Period, Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1979.

8 In Raphael Patai, The Arab Mind, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1976, p. 105.

9 Mas’udi, The Meadows of Gold: The Abbasids, London and NY: Kegan Paul, pp. 320-324.

10 Sir Richard F. Burton, Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah, Volume One, New York: Dover, 1964 (orig. 1855), p. 140.

11 Majid Khadduri, The Islamic Law of Nations: Shaybani’s Siyar, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1966, pp. 53-54.

12 Michael Asher, Thesiger: A Biography, London: Penguin, 1995, p. 261.

13 John Lewis Burckhardt, Notes on the Bedouins and Wahabys, vol. 1, London: Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley, 1967, p. 157.