Historians Should Take the Jihadi Rhetoric of 1948 Seriously





Mr. Morris is a professor of history at Ben-Gurion University and the author of 1948 (Yale University Press), from which this article is excerpted.

Historians have tended to ignore or dismiss, as so much hot air, the jihadi rhetoric and flourishes that accompanied the two-stage assault on the Yishuv [the Jewish residents of Palestine before the founding of Israel] and the constant references in the prevailing Arab discourse to that earlier bout of Islamic battle for the Holy Land, against the Crusaders. This is a mistake. The 1948 War, from the Arabs' perspective, was a war of religion as much as, if not more than, a nationalist war over territory. Put another way, the territory was sacred: its violation by infidels was sufficient grounds for launching a holy war and its conquest or reconquest, a divinely ordained necessity. In the months before the invasion of 15 May 1948, King Abdullah, the most moderate of the coalition leaders, repeatedly spoke of "saving" the holy places. As the day of invasion approached, his focus on Jerusalem, according to Alec Kirkbride, grew increasingly obsessive. "In our souls," wrote the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, "Palestine occupies a spiritual holy place which is above abstract feelings. In it we have the blessed breeze of Jerusalem and the blessings of the Prophets and their disciples."

The evidence is abundant and clear that many, if not most, in the Arab world viewed the war essentially as a holy war. To fight for Palestine was the "inescapable obligation on every Muslim," declared the Muslim Brotherhood in 1938. Indeed, the battle was of such an order of holiness that in 1948 one Islamic jurist ruled that believers should forego the hajj and spend the money thus saved on the jihad in Palestine. In April 1948, the mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Muhammad Mahawif, issued a fatwa positing jihad in Palestine as the duty of all Muslims. The Jews, he said, intended "to take over ... all the lands of Islam." Martyrdom for Palestine conjured up, for Muslim Brothers, "the memories of the Battle of Badr ... as well as the early Islamic jihad for spreading Islam and Salah al-Din's [Saladin's] liberation of Palestine" from the Crusaders. Jihad for Palestine was seen in prophetic-apocalyptic terms, as embodied in the following hadith periodically quoted at the time: "The day of resurrection does not come until Muslims fight against Jews, until the Jews hide behind trees and stones and until the trees and stones shout out: 'O Muslim, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.' "

The jihadi impulse underscored both popular and governmental responses in the Arab world to the UN partition resolution and was central to the mobilization of the "street" and the governments for the successive onslaughts of November-December 1947 and May-June 1948. The mosques, mullahs, and ulema all played a pivotal role in the process. Even Christian Arabs appear to have adopted the jihadi discourse. Matiel Mughannam, the Lebanese-born Christian who headed the AHC-affiliated Arab Women's Organization in Palestine, told an interviewer early in the civil war: "The UN decision has united all Arabs, as they have never been united before, not even against the Crusaders .... [A Jewish state] has no chance to survive now that the 'holy war' has been declared. All the Jews will eventually be massacred." The Islamic fervor stoked by the hostilities seems to have encompassed all or almost all Arabs: "No Moslem can contemplate the holy places falling into Jewish hands," reported Kirkbride from Amman. "Even the Prime Minister [Tawfiq Abul Huda] ... who is by far the steadiest and most sensible Arab here, gets excited on the subject. "

Nor did this impulse evaporate with the Arab defeat. On the contrary. On 12 December 1948 the ulema of Al-Azhar reissued their call for jihad, specifically addressing "the Arab Kings, Presidents of Arab Republics, . . . and leaders of public opinion." It was, ruled the council, "necessary to liberate Palestine from the Zionist bands ... and to return the inhabitants driven from their homes." The Arab armies had "fought victoriously" (sic) "in the conviction that they were fulfilling a sacred religious duty." The ulema condemned King Abdullah for sowing discord in Arab ranks: "Damnation would be the lot of those who, after warning, did not follow the way of the believers," concluded the ulema.


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Richard Landes - 5/5/2008

I have put up a post on this important comment at my blog:
http://www.theaugeanstables.com/2008/05/05/failed-jihad-1948-the-real-naqba/


Elliott Aron Green - 5/5/2008

Speaking of cover ups of Arab misdeeds, Haj Amin el-Husseini's role in the Holocaust is consistently disregarded by supposedly serious historians and Middle East specialists. Husseini was the leading Muslim cleric in the "Palestine" territory created by the San Remo Conference to embody the Jewish National Home. The British mandatory authorities appointed him to be both 1) the Mufti of Jerusalem [he is often referred to simply as "the Mufti" in contemporary writings] and 2) the head of the Supreme Muslim Council, which controlled the Muslim waqfs [awqaf] throughout the country and the substantial funds that they possessed.


Elliott Aron Green - 5/5/2008

Some accounts conetemporary with Israel's War of Independence did mention the declaration of jihad by Arab/Muslim clerics at the time. But since that aspect has been forgotten. Even today, when the openly Islamic fanatic Hamas group [an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood] governs Gaza, the Islamic aspect is played down in press accounts. In such a climate of pro-Arab cover up, Article 7 of the Hamas charter that reproduces a medieval Muslim Judeophobic fable --that at Judgement Day the Muslims will fight the Jews; the Jews will hide behind rocks and trees which will cry out: O Muslim. A Jew is hiding behind me. Come kill him.-- is obviously going to be overlooked.

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