Rights and Refugees

A Muslim Edict Recognizes Israel and Rejects the Palestinian Right of Return

A resurrected 50-year-old Fatwa offers a chance of a religious modus vivendi. It recognizes Israel as a fait accompli similar to other lands where Moslems formerly ruled.

Nir Boms (10/23/2007)

A Fatwa, a Muslim religious ruling, generally crops up in the Western media primarily in the context of extremist religious arbiters such as Youssouf al Qadarawi or Ayman al Zawahiri (bin Laden’s lieutenant), who occasionally provide religious imprimaturs to holy war (jihad) or suicide bombings. Unfortunately it is precisely these voices that are considered representative of the Muslim religious world, which may not be justified.

Like Halachic rulings, Fatwas typically deal with less emotionally-loaded topics related to social, family and commercial life, while providing directives and a framework to the religious person who chooses to embrace them.

Any Muslim person can issue a Fatwa, on condition it is thoroughly grounded in religious doctrinal sources. Individuals can choose the ruling they find convenient, a sort of “pick your own rabbi,” says Professor Isaac Hasson of the Hebrew University.

The process of the politicization of religion, such as the ancient pacts between political leaders and religious leaders in the Muslim and Arab world, led to an exploitation of the theological authority in order to promote political agendas via religious interpretation. Professor Hasson adds that radicalization in the Arab world began when the Wahabbi movement arose and, thanks to Muslim and Saudi money, extreme Wahabbi centers formed (from which Al Qaeda split off). Alliances between radical political leaders and extremist religious leaders, such as the pact between the Ibn Saud family and Ibn Wahab in Saudi Arabia – from which the Saudi Wahabbi movements arose – created a situation in which it was precisely the more extremist streams that acquired greater visibility. But reality sometimes differs from the impression it creates.

Recently Sheikh Abdullah Algharib, a Syrian cleric who opposes the Bashar Assad regime and presently lives in Lebanon, sent me a Fatwa (a translation of which appears at the end of this article) addressing the questions of holy war and the refugees in the State of Israel. The Fatwa was originally authored by Mohammed Nahbahn, the Mufti of Syrian Aleppo during the 50s, and was revived by Sheikh Abdullah  in response to recent events in the region.

The request for a religious edict was submitted to Sheikh Nahbahn after the 1948 war against Israel and in the wake of the difficulties encountered by the Palestinian refugees who attempted to settle in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon (all three countries did not want to admit the refugees, preferring to keep them in refugee camps rather than accept them as citizens with equal rights). The new situation –  following the UN proclamation and the Arab defeat –   required a response to a number of questions, including the stance on a possible jihad against the State of Israel, the issue of Palestinian refugees, their citizenship and the “Right of Return” and the question of visiting Israel.

The basis for the approach adopted by Sheikh Nahbahn is rooted in the principle of “the conquered land” (Ard al Muchtala). Sheikh Nahbahn, who apparently grasped back in the 1950s that the Jewish state was a fait accompli, decreed that the lands conquered in 1948 were not Muslim, but a Jewish conquered  soil where in principle Muslims should not be encouraged to live, because then they would be living on the soil of an enemy conqueror.

But in the same breath, the Sheikh also notes the Muslim obligation to grant rights to the Palestinian refugees living in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon: “Returning the Palestinian refugees to live in the shadow of the State of Israel is not a legal obligation, and is even despicable and prohibited, and activity to return them to their country from which they were displaced should take place while they receive legal rights and will not be discriminated from other Muslims, and they will not be deprived of any legal right that other Muslims are entitled to.”

In a sophisticated political appraisal, the Sheikh declares that after the Muslims had failed to preserve their lands (a failure that he attributes to the political leadership of the time, and not to the believers in general) and after it is understood that  the lands can not be restored by battle, one should respect the given sovereignty, and definitely not work to restore Muslim believers to life under an alien sovereignty. He also acknowledges the possibility of establishing a peace and trusteeship agreement that would be honored by the two sides and would permit Muslim life in the conquered territories and under some conditions. .

In summation,  the Sheikh argues that the “liquidation of Israel is not a religious commandment enjoined upon the chosen of Islam” and that Muslims are even forbidden to fight this country without a pretext, and especially if such a war could endanger Muslims and their property. In the event of the signing of a peace agreement with Israel, one should honor it and not undermine it unless “the State of Israel were to undermine the terms of a legal agreement.” 

Professor Isaac Hasson calls this religious ruling “extraordinary” because it contradicts the approach of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wahabbis. In his opinion,  if there are sheikhs in Lebanon who are willing to promote Fatwas of this sort they should be praised and it should be emphasized they are not departing from Muslim religious doctrine. Thus, for example, according to Muslim religious doctrine one can negate the idea of a war of jihad because it is contingent upon certain conditions.

Professor Hasson adds that the Fatwa raises a number of important points, including the attitude towards Muslim soil. There are countries that were ruled by Islam for hundreds of years (e.g. Spain, Rhodes and Southern France) and were considered part of the “House of Islam” (“Dar el-Islam“), but today nobody would dream of declaring a jihad to restore them to Islam or to restore Muslims to these lands. It is understood that there are alternatives to fighting such as immigration, building mosques or purchasing land.

The Inherent Interest Behind This Approach

According to Sheikh Abdullah , in discussions which he recently had with senior Palestinian leaders in Lebanon, sweeping support was expressed for this line. At the heart of the support lies simple pragmatics: the disappointment with the PLO leadership, the Palestinian Authority and the Arab states that have kept the refugees as hostages has led some of them to the conclusion that another way should be adopted. This reasoning might also explains Palestinian support for Hezbollah in Lebanon. But it can also explain the support for a solution that would preserve their Lebanese or Jordanian citizenship and redeem them from a hopeless refugee status is also understandable.

The Fatwa ties the annulment of the right of return to the restoration of the rights of the Palestinian refugees and criticizes attempts by Arab leaders to keep the refugees hostage to the idea of the right of return and to use this excuse to deny them rights in the countries where they are living.

The main innovation of this religious ruling is the convergence of Muslim religious law and political practicality. The voice of the refugees themselves and the discussion of their rights in the countries where they are residing is generally absent from the political discourse, which has managed to exclude the voices that daringly refused to unfurl the banners of war. Obviously this religious ruling does not accord with the views of the Arab and Palestinian leadership. But the existence of this discourse points to practical voices that are willing to focus on reality and make a distinction between the spirit of national struggle and the practical vision which is also sustained by Muslim religious law.

Such voices are encountered elsewhere as well. For example, the Supreme Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah a-Sheikh, in a proclamation that was widely disseminated (including on Omedia) warned Saudi youth that they should not leave the country to join jihad. “None of you can be considered a believer unless he loves his brother as he loves himself,” wrote the Sheikh, adding that he was writing these words given the ever-increasing phenomenon of Saudi sons leaving the kingdom for places where they intend to fight as holy warriors in the path of Allah.  Like  Sheikh Abdullah,  the Supreme Mufti is also concerned with foreign influence:  “External elements are recruiting young people on behalf of their despicable goals. They turned them into tools by external parties in the name of jihad. These parties exploit them for their vile purposes, on behalf of sordid activities, that are estranged as far as could be from religion, until our young people become merchandise to be bought and sold by Eastern and Western elements for purposes that damage Islam and its adherents.”

The promulgation of such religious rulings will definitely awaken discourse both in the Muslim world and in the Western world. Will this discourse be buried away, just as other “progressive” ideas were in the past? Will other religious leaders arise who will agree to affix their names to such proclamations and will other religious leaders join a more practical discourse backed by religious rulings? If this occurs, then this document could prove viable and even encourage the  moderate camp wherever it may be. But if the voice of Sheikh Abdullah  remains isolated, this religious ruling might be re-interred for another 50 years.

Translation of the Fatwa:

A group of religious sages of the Hanafi persuasion has assembled to respond to a number of questions pertaining to a war of jihad against Israel, the refugee problem (restoring them to Israel or granting them equal rights in Islamic countries) and visits by Muslims to Israel. The Fatwa that was originally authored in 1951 was recently republished by the Syrian Sheikh Abdallah: The Arabic link can be found here: http://www.omedia.co.il/imgs/uploads/Doc/arabic.doc

In the name of Allah the merciful

1. Is a jihad for liquidating the state of “Israel” a commandment incumbent upon any Muslim capable of bearing arms?

2. Must the Muslims use all means to restore the Palestinian refugees to their country?

3. Is it permissible to prevent the Palestinians from obtaining documents and receiving citizenship that would allow them to live under conditions of equal rights to the citizens of the Muslim countries where they took refuge?

4. Is a Moslem permitted to visit “Israel?”

The response:

[The response opens with salutations to Allah and Mohammed.]

This nation [Islam] was, from the dawn of its existence, subject to the attacks of non-Muslim peoples and many of the countries where Islam ruled for hundreds of years were taken over by non-Muslim nations, and the Muslims were exiled from them, and the Hanafi sages of blessed memory determined rules on the subject which one can rely upon and Fatwas pertaining to similar and analogous issues and we will cite them in concise form.

Firstly: If the enemy enters a country governed by Islam as an aggressor with a view to taking control over part of it, be it an inch or an entire city, then the jihad to repulse the enemy is a commandment incumbent upon any Muslim living in the place where the enemy is attacking and fighting is a duty of every woman, adult, slave and elderly and infirm person, and they should defend their country with all available defensive means, be it a shard of glass or a rock or small pebbles, and it is forbidden to escape confrontation with the enemy or to surrender to him, even if there is a clear knowledge that the enemy will kill [you], for Allah has promised a believer who was killed in defense of the land the status of a shahid, reward and eternity in the pleasures of paradise. Any Muslim who lives in proximity to these lands must enlist in order to defend them with all his strength, arms and equipment in his possession until the defeat of the enemy and the danger that he presents is repelled from the lands of Islam, and if their powers do not suffice then the other Muslims [in accordance with their proximity to the attacked area] must assist them [until this comprises all of the world’s Muslims] and so on and so forth, even if this is to comprise the entire tent of Al-Islam (the nation of Islam), and whoever violates this commandment and refrains from observing it or flees the enemy commits a serious crime by failing from moving [towards the enemy], if he is aware of the obligation imposed upon him by this Fatwa.

Secondly: If the Muslims refrain from assisting the residents of these lands and are unable to defend them, and as a result the enemy gains control over them, this land will be transformed into Dar al Harb (the land of war), and all the principles of non-Islamic lands engaged in war with Muslims will apply to it. Killing the enemy there until he leaves will become an obligatory commandment to the very end. The guilt of refraining from war will rest upon whoever bears the obligation for the commandments, namely the rulers, governors and leaders of the Muslims, and this guilt does not pertain to all the Muslims unless they made peace with the failure and refrained from observing this commandment.

Thirdly: If the enemy takes control over this land it becomes Dar al-Harb and it is impossible for a Muslim to live there even if [he dwells there] in security, although a Muslim is permitted to go there for commercial or study purposes while enjoying security towards his person, or in the event that a peace agreement is signed between the ruler or rulers of the Muslims and the ruler or rulers of this non-Muslim country, because this land will become a land of peace and security via this agreement.

Fourthly: The Muslims who emigrated from a land into which the enemy entered have no obligation to return to this land, as long as it is ruled by the enemy, and their status in the Muslim country to which they have emigrated shall be equivalent to the status of all other Muslims in this country, and they should not be denied any privilege that Allah granted them based on the contention that one wants to incite them or molest them in order that they should demand to return to their country, for the reason that they are not commanded [to observe] a commandment that exceeds what [is demanded of] other Muslims in all that pertains to restoring Muslim rule over their lands over which the enemy has gained control, and if a peace agreement has been signed between the ruler of the Muslims in the land to which they emigrated and the non-Muslim ruler who took control of their lands, they remain bound by the sanctity of this agreement and they are prohibited from violating it, and they are prohibited from again living in the country from which they emigrated under the rule of the non-Muslim unless they are engaged in commerce or for study purposes or are filling a mission.

Based on the above the response is as follows:

The liquidation of the “State of Israel” is not a commandment that personally obligates all Moslems. A Muslim is prohibited from fighting this country if he lacks sufficient strength and backing and if this war is liable to provoke a grave response which will expose the Muslims and their property to extinction, something which is of scant utility.

The return of the Palestinian refugees to live in the shadow of the “State of Israel” is not a religious obligation, furthermore it is even undesirable and prohibited, and efforts to restore them to the ancestral homes from which they emigrated does not impose upon them any special religious obligations whatsoever that distinguishes them from other Muslims and thus denies them a legal right that other Muslims acquire.

The signing of a peace agreement with the “State of Israel” is permissible and during its signing the Muslim ruler and his subjects are obligated not to violate it until its expiration date (i.e. the period to which the agreement applies), unless the “State of Israel” violated the conditions of the legal agreement.

There is no legal religious impediment that prohibits a Muslim from entering the “State of Israel” for purposes of work, commerce or study, as long as he enters with the agreement of its rulers to [guarantee his] security, if his entry constitutes a clear interest for the Muslims and on condition that the Muslim rulers to whom he owes fealty have not prohibited him from doing so because he [i.e. the Muslim who desires to enter Israel] is subject to their authority


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