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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

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    For most of its nearly six decades as a state, Israel has been a battleground between Jews, who consider the land to be theirs by virtue of God's will and historic rights, and Palestinians, who inhabited the territory for centuries. As a minority in this Jewish nation, Palestinians have struggled to preserve their identity and achieve equal rights. In recent years, some Israeli Muslims have turned to Islam for guidance on social and economic issues.

    Ancient Kingdom to Modern State.

    Israel is the only Jewish nation in the modern world. Situated on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea, it shares borders with Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. Israel covers 7,992 square miles, not including the territories that the country occupied after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. These territories—the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, and East Jerusalem—are still in dispute. About 80 percent of Israelis describe themselves as Jewish in terms of their ethnicity and religion. The remaining 20 percent are largely Arab and Sunni Muslim. Christians account for a small minority of the population. The capital city of Jerusalem contains many sites sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Indeed, one of the most divisive issues in Jewish-Muslim relations is control of this city.

    The region that is presently known as Israel has a long, rich history. Sometime during the Late Bronze Age ( ca. 1500 – 1200 B.C.E. ), Semitic people settled in the highlands of Canaan. They were called Hebrews and referred to themselves as the children of Israel, or Israelites, a reference to one of their ancestors. Around 1000 B.C.E. , they established a kingdom to unite their various tribes. Within less than a century, the ancient kingdom of Israel split into a northern federation (known as the tribes of Israel) and a southern federation (known as the tribes of Judaea). The kingdoms fell under the control of their powerful neighbors, including the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians. In 63 B.C.E. , the region became part of the Roman Empire. When the Jews rebelled against Roman rule, they were sent into exile and not allowed to return. This forced exile is referred to as the Diaspora. The Byzantines later established their rule over the region.

    During the 600s C.E., Muslim armies conquered the area. The Muslim rulers permitted Jews and Christians to make pilgrimages to holy sites in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the region. Between the late 1000s and the 1300s, Christian armies engaged in the Crusades, a series of bloody military expeditions in an attempt to gain control the region, then generally known as Palestine. They failed to dislodge the Islamic armies, except for brief periods, and the area remained under Muslim control until the early 1900s. In 1917 Great Britain issued the Balfour Declaration, stating its support for the creation of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine. After World War I ended in 1918 and the Ottoman Empire collapsed, the League of Nations declared Palestine a mandate territory under British control.

    The British authorities had to mediate the conflicting interests of the Jewish and Arab communities in Palestine. While the Jews immigrating mainly from Europe sought to increase the amount of land that they owned, the Arabs attempted to halt their progress. When the Nazis seized control of Germany in 1933 , they began to persecute Jews throughout central and eastern Europe. Threatened with complete annihilation, thousands of Jews fled to Palestine. After World War II ended in 1945 , those Jews who had survived in Europe urgently pressed for the creation of a homeland in Palestine. Faced with increasing violence and demands to end the protectorate, Britain set May 14, 1948, as the deadline for its withdrawal from the region and asked the United Nations to help resolve the conflict. The U.N. attempted to partition the region into two states, but failed to create a plan acceptable to both the Arabs and the Jews.Israel proclaimed its independence on the date of British withdrawal. Neighboring Arab countries, rejecting its claim to statehood, invaded the new Jewish nation. War lasted until the U.N. was able to broker a cease-fire agreement in July 1949 . Under the terms of the agreement, Jordan occupied the West Bank, the section of Palestine west of the Jordan River. As a result of the war, about 600,000 Arabs living in the part of Palestine that had come under Israeli control fled their homes. They went to refugee camps under U.N. supervision in Gaza, the West Bank, southern Lebanon, and Syria. The Israeli government has refused to allow these refugees to return, and many have lived in the camps for decades.

    Secular Versus Sacred.

    After the Arab-Israeli War ( 1948 ), the life of the Palestinian community in Israel changed dramatically. Many Christian officials remained in Israel, but many members of the Muslim religious establishment fled, including religious court judges, prayer leaders, and other important officials. The Supreme Muslim Council ceased to exist when Jordan took over the West Bank. Muslim religious affairs, including the administration of the waqf (religious endowments), became the responsibility of the Israeli government. The authorities created the Muslim Department of the Ministry of Religious Affairs to oversee these matters.

    It took years to reconstruct the shari'ah court system, mainly because few people were qualified to serve as judges. In May 1961 , the Knesset (Israeli parliament) ratified the Qadis Law, which stated that a committee with a Muslim majority, appointed by the president of Israel, would select judges for the religious courts. The judges, however, were obliged to dispense justice in accordance with Israeli laws.

    Israel granted Muslim religious courts full jurisdiction in cases pertaining to marriage, divorce, and inheritance but restricted their authority over certain matters. With the objective of thoroughly reforming the status of Muslim women, Israeli legislation prohibited the marriage of girls under age 17, outlawed polygyny, and forbade a man from divorcing a woman against her will. The secular laws did not overrule shari'ah, but Muslims who failed to follow them were punished. In other matters, such as awarding child custody to mothers, Israeli law replaced Muslim law. With the 1965 Succession Law, the Knesset abolished the jurisdiction of the shari'ah courts over estates and wills, transferring this power to the state district courts. As a result of these measures, Muslims felt particularly persecuted, and a degree of tension developed between Christian and Muslim Palestinians.

    A Balancing Act.

    Since the late 1970s, the Muslim community in Israel has been undergoing a process of Islamic revival. Renewed contact with the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War strengthened the religious identity of Israeli Muslims. When Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip, they regained access to holy sites in Jerusalem and Hebron. Through the efforts of the Muslim High Council in Jerusalem, which was reestablished after the war, Israeli Muslims were permitted to take part in the hajj. The council also helped young Israeli Arabs enroll at Islamic colleges in the occupied territories.

    Socioeconomic changes also fueled a resurgence of Islam. Rapid modernization weakened the conservative family values and clan structure of Israeli Muslims. The threat to traditional social frameworks created doubts and confusion, prompting many to turn to Islam for moral guidance. At the same time, economic differences between the relatively wealthy Jewish population and the poorer Arabs produced resentment and tension. As these tensions worsened, and Israeli Arab political leaders failed to improve the situation, the Arab community sought to remedy the imbalance on their own. As in other parts of the Muslim world, the Islamic revivalist movement filled the void, stimulating both organized resistance and practical solutions to local problems.

    Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's rise to power in Iran in 1979 led to the formation of the first underground group of Islamic militants in Israel. Usrat al-Jihad (the Jihad Family) aimed to bring about the destruction of Israel. The group carried out acts of sabotage, including arson, and took steps to reverse secular trends among Israeli Muslims. Muslim militancy was dampened, however, when Israel arrested all 70 members of the organization and sentenced them to lengthy prison terms.

    During the mid-1980s, activist Shaykh Abd Allah Nimr Darwish refocused Islamic efforts in Israel to nonviolent change. A former member of Usrat al-Jihad, he organized projects devoted to religious education and community work. His influence led to the formation of Islamic associations in several Arab areas. Mosque attendance increased steadily, and the number of mosques grew from 60 in 1967 to 240 by 1993 . Darwish's movement achieved notable success in inspiring active, Islamically-oriented work in Muslim communities. Muslim volunteers built roads in Arab villages, constructed bus shelters, and established kindergartens, libraries, clinics, and drug treatment centers. The Islamic movement also promoted sports. Darwish's declaration, “If the state is not ready to help us, we shall help ourselves,” became the movement's central motto.

    Darwish's approach helped to promote political change among Israeli Muslims. Political participation increased. In municipal elections in 1989 , Islamic representatives competed in 14 localities and won almost 30 percent of the total seats. In five villages and townships, Islamic candidates won mayoral elections. This trend continued in the 1993 elections.

    The Islamic movement continues to face conflicts related to politics and religion. Activists are torn between religious revival, Palestinian nationalism, which has traditionally focused on secular change, and the need to act within the bounds of Israeli law. These conflicts have caused disagreements about the purpose of Islamic activism and the best approach to sensitive issues, such as the solution of the Palestinian problem and the intifadah (Palestinian uprising). Israeli Muslims do not universally agree on the goal of destroying Israel. Some, like Darwish, support the creation of Islamic states in the region, but reject the notion that such a state should replace Israel. Others, however, embrace the more radical views of militant groups such as Hamas. The continued activities of the Islamic movements in Israel will depend on the resolution of the conflict resulting from Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

    Differences of Opinion.

    Israel, a parliamentary democracy, guarantees all minorities equal citizenship. The law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, religion, political beliefs, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, and age. Israeli Arabs, most of whom are Muslims, have full civil rights. Many Arabs participate in Israeli politics and serve as elected representatives. They are exempt from compulsory military service.

    Despite these legal protections, many Israeli Arabs feel that they live under hostile occupation. Certain economic benefits, such as housing and access to mortgages, are reserved for military veterans and therefore are not available to Arab citizens. Furthermore, within Israel itself, the poverty rate among Arabs—about 30 percent—is almost twice that of the general population. The same pattern exists in the unemployment rate, which is 20 percent for Israeli Arabs—more than twice the national average. Few Arabs have been able to penetrate the ranks of large national employers, such as the airline industry and electricity and telephone companies. Arab municipalities have consistently received less government support than Jewish ones. See also Arab-Israeli Conflict; Great Britain; Hamas; Intifadah; Jerusalem; Jihad; Palestine.

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