Should the Palestinians (or Kashmiris, or Rohingya, or the Uyghurs) just give up, disappear, accept whatever the enemy wants? Why take the risk of resisting, fighting back, speaking up, defending their God-given rights, defending their religion or the Sacred Mosque? Why not accept, bow down, lay down, just disappear? Why not, some “masters” of realpolitik remind us, just normalize relations with Israel and let them take what they want?
After much trial and error over the past century, Muslims are rediscovering the lesson the Prophet’s ﷺ diplomacy, guided by Allah’s eternal message, teaches us. As a prophet, he prophesied what was to afflict his ummah as well as the way out of it. One such miraculous hadith has it:
People will one day summon one another to attack you as those dining invite each other to share their serving dish. Someone asked, “Will that be because of our small numbers at that time?” He replied, “No, you will be a multitude, but you will be like scum carried by a torrent, and Allah will take fear of you from the heart of your enemy and throw weakness into your hearts.” They asked, “What is the weakness?” The Messenger of Allah ﷺ replied, “Love of the world and dislike of death.”
The foregoing account shows what the Prophet ﷺ meant by this, for he embodied it. Through the incredible fortitude and willingness to sacrifice that Allah granted His Messenger and the believers around him against tyranny and oppression, be it through economic sanctions and, when necessary, military action, the bloodshed of both Muslims and their detractors was minimized. By one estimate, some two hundred Muslims (and a similar number of enemy combatants), which amounts to less than one percent of the number of Muslims in Medina, were killed in battle over these eight years in over a dozen encounters.
Typically, many more times this number would have been killed in the endless tribal conflicts just among the people of Yathrib had Islam not blessed them with its just peace. By even secular standards, before we consider the incalculable value of the final revelation from God, the Prophet’s wise governance and willingness to take up arms had brought peace to Arabia. This is why Allah Almighty has declared,
Fighting has been prescribed upon you and it is hateful to you. Perhaps you hate a thing and it is good for you, and you love a thing and it is bad for you. Allah knows and you do not know. (Qur’an 2:216)
Compromise accompanied by weakness and appeasement only emboldens the enemy and aggravates his tyranny. Only unified, disciplined, and persistent action capped by fearlessness and utter trust in God brings an arrogant, unprincipled bully with far greater resources to the negotiation table. No matter how superior in comparative strength, the settler-colonizer can and must be isolated and broken, economically, militarily, and psychologically before he will agree to peace.
What about the argument that today we—nearly two billion Muslims—are helpless, and should follow the prophetic conduct in Mecca rather than Medina, for any resistance is risky? Lack of faith and solidarity are hardly valid arguments. But recall that the Prophet’s strategy at Ḥudaybīyah was rather daring. The hypocrites in Medina, the Qur’an tells us, made precisely these arguments, “looking at [the Prophet] as if overcome by the fainting of death” (47:20). This was a calculated risk, and had the cooler heads not prevailed in Mecca by God’s grace (48:20-24), they could have recklessly attacked the Muslims and caused much bloodshed on both sides. Could it not be said that the Prophet ﷺ took such risks because Allah specifically told him that it would turn out fine, or that such daring strategy was only for him to venture? This doubt melts away the moment we reflect on the Qur’anic texts that speak of general, timeless principles and lessons reflected in the lives of earlier prophets and applicable until the Day of Judgment: that victory does not depend on size or strength, but on God’s backing.
A second question might be: “Who decides what policy to adopt: whether, when, and how to resist?” In the absence of a unified ummah and a leader to organize our affairs and defend our weak—which itself is a great calamity—each part of the ummah must do what it can, and no one has greater right to decide that than our Palestinian sisters and brothers, those who have revived the weakening spirit of the ummah everywhere through their unbending will, who are protecting the Sacred Mosque, standing, smiling, and resisting by throwing little rocks at heartless tyrants, and whose faith and resolve have frustrated the most cunning colonizing powers.
Today powerful media and global powers are bent on dehumanizing the Palestinians. However, the persistence of the Palestinians, with the help of the earnest support and prayers of the helpless Muslim masses and the growing voice of people of conscience worldwide, aided by the spread of social media, has miraculously begun to challenge the mainstream narrative. In fact, just as the Palestinian struggle has done more than anything else to show the world how to resist tyranny, so it has to keep the Muslim ummah alert to its need for unity.
In the absence of the unified leadership of the ummah, only limited actual measures are possible. Even here, the Palestinians have found that the Prophetic policy of sustained economic pressure is the best place to begin. In 2005, the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement was launched seeking to use economic pressure to force Israel to comply with international law. The movement was inspired by the model of the peaceful struggle of oppressed black people in South Africa (the Anti-Apartheid Movement) against the racist government. The movement began to coordinate the boycott of the regime in 1959 and grew to be a global force and achieved its goals by 1993. At first, every Western nation opposed it, and yet the support it garnered among people of conscience worldwide proved decisive. The movement was not only successful, but it also changed the global narrative and inspired oppressed people everywhere. The participation of ordinary people at the global level, including universities and other elements of civil society, was crucial to its historic success, as it gave concerned people around the world an effective way to demonstrate solidarity.
Economy matters; in fact, it can achieve what physical resistance alone cannot. This is why the Israeli state fears the BDS movement and pushes legislation, through lobbies and policymakers in North America and Europe, to punish all who dare support it. As numerous Jewish scholars have noted, Israel routinely weaponizes false anti-Semitism charges to try to stigmatize a movement for justice that includes Jews and people of all faiths.
This, in fact, detracts from the real anti-Semitism that remains a virulent problem in the West, ultimately harming Jews everywhere.
There is yet another thread to the Palestinian conflict whose tug only a believing heart can feel. To yearn to visit the “Farthest Mosque,” as it is named in the Qur’an, is part of faith. We are taught to long for it, to visit it, and to offer prayer in it. Indeed, the Prophet ﷺ said that there will come a time where seeing the holy land would be more beloved to a believer than the world and everything in it.
To those who cannot visit it, in one hadith the Prophet ﷺ advised that they should at least send some oil to light its lamps.
And if it is an act of worship to send oil to the lamps of Al-Aqsa, then surely it is an act of worship to boycott the oil of the lamps of those who illegally occupy it.
In the moment of ultimate victory over the Meccans, the Prophetic model is ready with yet another, equally crucial, lesson for us. This being his conduct at the Conquest of Mecca in 8 AH, when he entered the city with his head bowed in utter humility, honoring and consoling the wounded enemy that had relentlessly persecuted and fought him. This lesson was learned well and practiced by the Rightly Guided Caliphs and numerous Muslim commanders, God be pleased with them all. Most notable among the latter perhaps is Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn al-Ayyūbī who would follow this sunnah six centuries later, when the Crusaders, whose ancestors had massacred Muslims, Jews, and even fellow Christians, were met with legendary forgiveness.
Those, then, who wish to invoke religion to persuade Muslims that they must submit to a humiliating peace at any cost without resisting or demanding justice—this being effectively the magical solution and “only road to progress” being offered by the autocrats of the Middle East to their fed-up and restless Muslim populaces—must distort every message of the Qur’an and the Prophet’s blessed mission. For Allah and His Prophet ﷺ left no doubt that there can be no peace without justice. This is the message of the story told in Sūrat al-Baqarah of the God-fearing Israelite followers of Prophet Moses and his successor prophet: “And how many a small group has overcome a mighty one by Allah’s leave!” (Qur’an 2:249).