“Every problem in our region can be traced to this single dilemma: the occupation of Dar al-Islam by Jewish infidels or Western imperialists…The everlasting struggle between Ishmael and Isaac cannot cease until one of the other is utterly vanquished.”
President of Iran (1989-1997)
December 19, 1989
In Islamic theology “Dar al-Islam” is the “house of submission” or the nations under Muslim government. “Dar al-Harb” is the “house of war” or the nations not yet under Muslim government.
The Middle East was the birthplace of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Muslims believe that their Arabian spiritual predecessors and their Prophet, Muhammad, are descended from Ishmael, Abraham’s son by his wife Sarah’s female Egyptian servant, Hagar. Both Abraham and Sarai (later Sarah) were old and despaired of God’s promise to give them a son. Taking things into their own hands, they devised a plan to accomplish God’s promise by having Abraham impregnate Hagar. Later Sarah became jealous of Hagar and dealt so harshly with her that she fled. But God compassionately sought her in the wilderness and advised her to return to Sarah. In addition, He gave her this promise in Genesis 16: 11-12:
“Behold you are pregnant and shall bear a son. You shall name him Ishmael, because the Lord has listened to your affliction. He shall be a wild donkey of a man, his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen.”
Ishmael was circumcised at the age of thirteen at the same time as Abraham and all his male servants. But God again promised to bless Abraham through Sarah with a son who should be named Isaac. In Genesis 17: 19-21 God clarifies his promises for both Isaac and Ishmael:
“…Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation. But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this time next year.”
Later Sarah again became jealous, and on God’s advice, Abraham reluctantly sent Hagar and Ishmael away, where God rescued them from perishing in the wilderness. He again promised Hagar that Ishmael would be the father of a great nation. Hagar found Ishmael an Egyptian wife, and he dwelled in Paran, probably near the northern end of the Gulf of Aqaba on the Sinai Peninsula. He became an expert with the bow. Finally, in Genesis 25, we note that both Isaac and Ishmael buried their father, Abraham.
Although the Muslim and Biblical views of the relationship between Ishmael and Isaac are by no means the same, it is evident that there is a deep spiritual and cultural conflict underpinning the constant strife in the Middle East.
By the “Middle East,” political geographers usually mean Palestine (including Israel), Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran (or Persia), Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, and the nations on the Arabian Peninsula (the largest being Saudi Arabia) and the Persian Gulf. Often the definition is extended to include Ethiopia, Somalia, the Sudan, and sometimes the Arab-Muslim nations of North Africa. With the exception of Israel and Lebanon, the people of all these nations are overwhelmingly Muslim. In 1953 approximately fifteen percent of the population of the Middle East was Christian. That figure has now dropped to two percent.
Besides being the birthplace of the world’s principal religions, the Middle East was also the birthplace of its earliest civilizations, preceding Chinese civilization by several centuries. The Sumerian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Assyrian, and Persian empires arose, flourished, and died there. Alexander the Great briefly established Greek cultural and military dominance there. The Romans conquered and governed much of the area for several centuries. They controlled Judea in the time of Christ and in 70 AD destroyed Jerusalem and dispersed the Jews. The Romans withdrew in the Fourth Century to defend their empire from onslaught by waves of Germanic-speaking barbarians from Northern and Central Europe. Rule of the eastern half of the Roman Empire including the Middle East then fell to the Greek-Christian Byzantium Empire in Constantinople. By the Fifth Century, Christianity became the dominant religion of the Middle East from Turkey and Egypt on the West to the Euphrates River in Iraq on the East.
In the Seventh Century, Islam came, conquering and converting by the sword. Between 634 and 642 AD they conquered all the Middle East except Western Turkey and Constantinople. Within two hundred years they had by oppression or force converted or driven out the Christian majority. Late in the Eleventh Century, Christian Crusaders attempted to halt the spread of Islam and regain the formerly Christian lands of the Middle East. Although successful at first, the Crusaders were driven out of Jerusalem by 1187, and the last Crusader kingdom was crushed by 1291. The Muslim Ottoman Turks captured the last Byzantine stronghold, Constantinople itself, in 1453. Turkish Muslims thus displaced Arab Muslims as the dominant power in the Middle East until the end of the First World War in 1918.
The Turkish Ottoman Empire allied itself with Germany in 1914. With the defeat of Germany and Turkey in 1918, the British and French then proceeded to break up the Ottoman Empire and concluded a secret treaty to divide control of the Middle East between themselves. In the Balfour Declaration that same year, the British also promised Jewish Zionists in Europe that they would help create a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The problem was that Palestine had been predominantly Arab and Muslim for over 700 years. Massive Jewish immigration into their former homeland was met with fierce Arab resentment.