Islam and the Holy Land

Islam and the Holy Land

What is Islam?

What connections do Muslims world wide have to Jerusalem?

To Muslims, Jerusalem is Al Quds (the Holy City).  Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad made a journey from Mecca to Jerusalem in 621 C.E. (Christian Era) where he ascended to heaven and talked with God.  Al-Aqsa Mosque is known as the farthest mosque in honor of this farthest journey the prophet Muhammad made.  Along with the Dome of the Rock, it is located on the Holy Sanctuary (al-Haram ash-Sharif) in Jerusalem.  Praying at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem is a religious practice and it is suggested that it be visited in the same year as Mecca and Medina on the “long hajj”.  A prayer offered there is worth 500 prayers elsewhere.

In terms of government, Palestine, along with the city of Jerusalem, became predominantly Muslim and Arab by the end of the 7th century and was known by its Arab name, “Filastin“. During the ups and downs of history it remained a predominantly Muslim and Arab area even though various empires overran it and ruled it.  In 1516 Palestine became a province of the Ottoman Empire, but it retained its Arab culture and language as well as its Muslim majority.

What is Jihad?

The Arabic word “Jihad” means exerting an effort and struggling in the path of God.  It is basically a struggle for peace and justice, and outwardly carries a moral responsibility, while inwardly conveys a devotional struggle.  Jihad calls Muslims to stand for those who are occupied and who are oppressed because of their religion.  The highest form of Jihad is the personal struggle to make oneself a better Muslim and to overcome one’s lower instincts. 

In the Western mind Jihad is equated with a war waged against non-Muslims or a Holy War (a Christian term).  Some Muslim extremists make reference to Jihad mainly in its military meaning.  Unfortunately the term has been used in the media to mean “holy war” involving Muslims.  This means that the common usage in the West has now distorted its original use.

What is the Muslim attitude toward war and killing?

Islam teaches that the military option can be used if it is the only option to stop a greater evil.  It also allows for armed self-defense if Islam as a religion is threatened.  In this sense, Jihad is more like a Christian Just War concept than a Christian Holy War concept.  Not every military campaign is a Jihad.

 Introduction to Islam

 What is Islam?

Historical Background

Islam arose in the arid peninsula occupied largely by what we now know as Saudi Arabia.  The language of the people was Arabic, a Semitic language, and the culture was organized loosely into tribes or extended family groups with no centralized authority.  Most were nomads but there were also farmers and city dwellers.

Mohammad was born in 570 C.E. (Christian Era) in a respectable Meccan family and he became a commercial agent.  When he was about 40 he experienced revelations.  A group gathered around him but his message of socially responsible behavior clashed with that of the Meccan’s sense of economic priorities and the little group finally moved to Yathrib (later known as Medina). Some Christians and Jews lived in Arabia so Mohammad was familiar with both religions.   He believed they both had made errors of interpretation, despite a succession of Prophets sent by God.  He went back to the Abrahamic faith and an undisturbed monotheism and saw himself as the last of the God’s Prophets and Islam as the purest of the three religions. 

Mohammad taught that Islam was an umma, or community–a society based not on blood ties but on the ties of faith.  The weak and the oppressed were to be protected and liberated; women’s position in relation to man’s was elevated.  Laws of inheritance, of taxation, of warfare and of social welfare, initiated by the Prophet, all moved toward a broad and inclusive program of justice.  By 631 much of the Arabian Peninsula had been united under Islam, although Christians and Jews continued to live in the area under the social system of Islam. Refinements were introduced into the Qur’an and by the end of the first century of Islam the text was stabilized. 

The “sayings” of Mohammad were collected in the Hadith.  Interpretation and exegesis continued for the next two centuries so that at the end of the third century of Islam the first collection and critical study of explanations were written down.  Additional scholarly work has continued until this day. Islam moved west out of the peninsula into the fertile crescent and across north Africa and into Spain.  Islam also went eastward to Pakistan and Persia. 

The Muslims saw themselves as liberating cities from the Greeks and Romans by spreading their more liberal political system.  Christians welcomed them in many places as liberators and often converted freely because their current authorities, especially the church, were experienced as repressive.  By the 10th century Islam was found throughout central Asia and through India into Indonesia.  From the 12th century onward Islam was in parts of China as well.  Thus the great majority of Muslims are not in the Middle East and the largest Muslim country is Indonesia.  Immigration has raised the Muslim population in the USA to a number only second to the Christian population.

The Crusades began with a view of Mohammad as the Anti-Christ.   Because of the extremes of militarism and Crusader attacks on the Eastern Christians by the Western Christians, there was an acceleration of conversion to Islam so that by the 13th century the Middle East because predominantly Muslim. 

Christians had been converting over the centuries as well, because it was more convenient socially and economically and because the Christian world was often in chaos over theological controversies.  Islam, with its emphasis on God as one, was a simple solution to those tired of the controversies over the Trinity and the dual nature of Christ.  Up until the declaration of the State of Israel, every country in the Middle East, except Lebanon, became predominantly Muslim.  Today Lebanon is mostly Muslim and even Israel has a major Muslim population.

The Pillars of Islam

Islam is a way of life and its laws define transactions, the economy, the society, the state, and family relationships.  The Qur’an and authoritative traditions form the guide for personal and social ethics and practices. The duties of worship are known as the five pillars of Islam.

Confession of Faith

Muslims believe in the oneness of God and confess their faith in the exclusive place of one God (There is no deity except God) and Mohammad is his Prophet (the messenger of God).  The word “Allah” simply means God in the Arabic language and is used by Arab Christians as well as Muslims.


Muslims are to pray five times a day at a minimum: dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset and in the night.  The times vary with the seasons of the year and formed an impetus for the Muslims to be leaders in astronomy.   First comes the call to prayer and then the faithful person performs ablutions to purify the body.   The person then faces Mecca (formerly the person faced Jerusalem) and prays with a series of words and movements.  This can be done alone or in a group although the Friday noon prayers are said in a group along with other readings and a sermon.
Fasting during the month of Ramadan

Muslims fast from dawn until sunset during this lunar month in their calendar.  The sick, children, the elderly, menstruating women and the insane are exempt from fasting.  This is not only fasting from food and drink but fasting from smoking, sex, and forbidden words and deeds.   The fast is also not considered valid if the person observing it entertains thoughts of envy or hatred.  
Emphasis is placed on self-discipline, surrender to the will of God, purification, physically strengthening the system, and renewal of the personal relationship with God. Muslims also see themselves as living in a way that shares the hardships of the poor and deprived.  The fast is broken each evening with prayers and an Iftar, special dinner.

At the end of Ramadan the ‘Id al-Fitr (The Feast of the Breaking of the Fast) is celebrated with special prayers, family visits, renewal of friendships, new clothes, the distribution of food to the poor and the giving of gifts to children. 

Contribution to Charity

Muslims believe that God is the owner of all things and, therefore, wealth involves responsibility.  Muslims are required, as an act of worship, to contribute about two and one-half percent of the value of their total wealth each year to care for the unfortunate.  This is not of their income but of their property and possessions.  They are encouraged to give it directly to the poor or to a Waqf (Islamic endowment that administers social services, mosques and religious institutions).

Pilgrimage to Mecca

Every Muslim is to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, at least once in a lifetime, if economic circumstances permit.  If any member of the family needs financial help, the Muslim person is excused from the Hajj at that time.   The Hajj (Arabic for pilgrimage) is made by people from all over the world converging on Mecca at the same time and includes a series of ritual actions including the sacrifice of an animal.  The people wear simple white garments so that there are no distinctions between rich and poor.  During the Hajj, Muslims back home commemorate Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son (Ishmael) on the  ‘Id al-Adha (The Festival of Sacrifice) with communal prayer and animal sacrifice.

Issues Often Misunderstood

Men and Women

Islam does not encourage the intermixing of men and women except in the extended family, and familiarity in public is frowned upon.  Both are expected to dress and behave modestly and few couples even hold hands outside the home.  Marriage is a written contract with witnesses, and the wife is allowed to keep under her own control the money and jewelry given to her by her husband as well as money and property given to her by her family.  The husband is bound by the contract to provide food, clothing and housing for the wife.

Unlimited polygamy was a part of Mohammad’s culture and he limited the number of wives to four providing they are treated equally.  This means the husband must spend the same amount of time with each and buy them the same things.  A bride can write into the marriage contract that her husband cannot marry another wife.


Jihad is an Arabic word meaning to struggle or strive in the path of God carrying the moral weight of a social responsibility.  There are four kinds:
       Jihad of the tongue = the expression of the faith
       Jihad of the hand = good works and striving to express the ethics of the faith
       Jihad of the heart = the throwing over of the self to follow God’s will
       Jihad of the sword = a just war where you have to defend Islam or fight for peace and liberation. (Holy war is a mistaken translation of Jihad and comes from the Christian tradition.)

The highest form of Jihad, according to the Prophet Mohammad, is the personal struggle to make oneself a better Muslim.

Religion and the State

Islam, in contrast to Christianity, does not recognize a line between religion and the state.  It is believed that God has all the power.  Therefore, the State is governed by laws of God (Shar’ia) but not by God or an individual chosen by God.  The State is in charge of seeing that God’s laws are carried out.  The  American version of the separation of “church” and “state” is based on very different principles, not just different laws.

God’s sovereignty, like God himself, cannot be divided between the political and spiritual.  Just as God cannot be divided, so God’s authority is not capable of division.  Religion and politics are one.  Muslim scholars and political leaders continue to debate the relationship of religion and the state and there is a wide diversity in the forms of government of Islamic or Muslim states.  But the nation state is now the norn and there is an examination going on over tha relation of Islam and political order.


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