Israel was abuzz over the weekend after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman tapped a man known in the Middle East as the “Zionist imam” to address the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.
Could this move portend normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia? Has Islam’s rejection of the Jewish state come to an end?
Sheikh Dr. Mohammed bin Abdul Karim al-Issa is an interesting figure. A former Saudi justice minister and head of the Muslim World League, he has become known to Israelis for visiting Auschwitz, inviting rabbis to meet him in Riyadh and speaking at Yeshiva University in the US.
Clearly the man has an affinity for the Jewish people.
Israeli media commentators interpreted Al-Issa being chosen to address the hajj as a “significant signal” that Saudi-Israeli peace is around the corner.
Can Islam truly accept Israel?
Saudi Arabia normalizing relations with Israel is today seen as a foregone conclusion.
The normalization process with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco has proved a resounding success thus far, and citizens of several other Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, are calling to immediately join the Abraham Accords.
But from the start, there’s been a nagging question for those those who acknowledge the spiritual aspect of the Middle East conflict.
Can Islam, a religion that insists all land its followers have lost must eventually be reconquered, coexist with Judaism, a religion that insists its people must live and rule over a particular piece of land that Islam once ruled?
Because that is the situation in Israel, and it is why groups like Hamas, Hezbollah and the ayatollahs of Iran view the Jewish state as wholly illegitimate.
When the Holy Land was conquered by Mohammed’s successors, it became part of Dar al-Islam, that part of the world under the sway of Islam and submissive to Allah. When it was liberated by the British and handed back to the Jews, it reverted to being Dar al-Harb, that part of the world that is in “chaos” and which must be brought under the sway of Islam.
What is jihad?
It is naive to think that devout Muslims are now prepared to abandon this foundational tenet of Islam and accept that at least one small sliver of the earth, the Land of Israel, will forever remain outside Islam’s political and religious sphere.
At the same time, some Islamic commentators have taken a more holistic view of the Koran and say passages in which the Promised Land is identified as belonging to the Children of Israel are still relevant today.
These same voices insist that jihad is no longer a matter of the sword, but rather of compassionate proselytization, reaching non-believers through goodwill. That was the main thrust of Al-Issa’s hajj address in Mecca.
From an Israeli Jewish point of view, that should be cause for both optimism and skepticism. It essentially echoes the transformation of the Christian Church, when it went from trying to violently convert the Jews to realigning with the Jewish people and the reborn Jewish state, though still with an eye to preach Jesus to Israel.
The issue ultimately boils down to whether or not Allah and the God of the Bible are one and the same.
If they are, then there are surely just some misinterpretations that need working out.
If they aren’t, then this is a battle between two spiritual forces that at best can only be delayed by human agreements.
In Israel, many, if not most believe that Allah and the God of Israel are the same deity. But there are some, including those who’ve written for Israel Today, who say this is not the case, and that the differences between the Bible and the Koran are evidence that Allah and the God of Israel are not the same. This view is most common among those who have converted from Islam to Christianity.
What was once a clear-cut distinction between the two religions and their deities is now muddier than ever with the proliferation of inter-faith dialogue, “Zionist” imams and the political rapprochement between the Jewish state and Muslim countries across the region.