A Longstanding Violent Legacy
If Islam's peaceful image was tarnished by 9/11, a continuing barrage of worldwide terror attacks has further dented this image. A couple years ago an Imam told me he was embarrassed at seeing Muslims killing fellow Muslims in Syria in the name of Allah. Now two years later, the death toll exceeds 150,000. As if this isn't bad enough, there is the recent outcry over gross human rights violations in Nigeria, Sudan and Iraq, i.e. the abduction of 300 school girls, the sentencing of Meriam Ibrahim to death for apostasy and the violent takeover of Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, which has caused 800,000 Iraqis to flee. Indeed, the situation is rapidly deteriorating as ISIS forces continue to pursue their bloody campaign pushing toward Baghdad with a view to establishing a Caliphate.
While many Muslims see such despicable acts as a distortion of Islam,1 others feel deeply perplexed, disillusioned and are searching for peace. In fact, increasing numbers are finding the answer to their heart longings in Jesus Christ whom the prophets call the Prince of Peace.
David Garrison reports in his carefully researched book, “A Wind in the House of Islam,” that unprecedented numbers of Muslims are put off by the widespread violence which they see in their societies and are turning to Christ. Indeed, he believes this is “one of the greatest recurring motivations for Muslims coming to Christ.” (p.58)
A similar trend has been noted in Iran, where thirty five years ago, the Ayatollah Khomenei imposed a repressive, radical regime. More recently in Egypt (2013), millions of Muslims were embarrassed at seeing Islamists perpetrate the bloodiest violence against Christians in 700 years. This intensified violence, coupled with the gracious and forgiving attitude of Christians, has raised heart-searching questions among many Egyptians. In fact, Christian leaders in Egypt believe that, “Never before have so many asked so much about a faith that has oppressed so many for so long... This situation presents the church with one of the greatest opportunities of this generation,” that is, openings to share the Good News of Jesus Christ.
There are, however, other reasons why there is so much violence in Muslim societies. Muhammad Fahad al-Harthi, an expert on the Middle East, says, “This extremism transcends borders and language barriers; and affects people across all sectors of society, regardless of religion, class or gender.” This trend calls to mind a Bible prophecy of Ishmael, “His hand will be against everyone, and everyone's hand will be against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.” (Genesis 16:12)
The spectre of escalating violence prompted Daniel Greenfield to write an article significantly entitled, Islam's Religious War with Everyone. I highlighted the word everyone because it correlates with the above-mentioned prophecy in Genesis 16:12.
Considering the prevailing winds of political-correctness which suppress criticism of Islam, it isn't surprising that Christians are reticent to cast Ishmael in a negative light. Could this be an underlying reason explaining why some translators prefer to render the last half of Genesis 16:12 in a less harsh manner? This approach may suit the current climate, but it doesn't fit the wider context and flow of Scripture.
This prophecy is evident in various ways throughout Scripture as we will see. It is also reflected in our world. Let me begin by tracing a credible ancestral link between Ishmael and a significant number of Arabs. The Bible says Kedar was a son of Ishmael. For this reason, among others, Cornelius, an evangelical writer concludes his article, "Not all Arabs are descendants of Ishmael. Some Arabs probably are descendants of Ishmael..." A Wikipedia article provides further evidence suggesting an even stronger link, particularly with Arabs living in the northern region of Saudi Arabia.
Still further evidence can be seen in Chris Flint's article, God's Blessing to Ishmael with Special Reference to Islam. St Francis Magazine, Vol. 7 No 4, October 2011.
Flint says, “a stronger case can be made for Kedar, of whom, Knauf argues, the Nabataens are a sub-clan. In Old Testament prophetic literature, “Kedar” is associated with Nebaioth, and can also be used as shorthand for all the North Arabian tribes. Kedar is portrayed similarly to the Arabs: far from Israel, and known for camels, tents, trade, military power, and aggression.” (p. 22) I have purposely added bold font as I intend to comment on this later.
Further support for this connection comes from the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. ISBE explains who the Hagarites are, “The correspondence of names in Genesis and 1 Chronicles leaves little doubt that 'Hagarite' is a generic term roughly synonymous with “Ishmaelite,” designating the irregular and shifting line of desert tribes stretching along the East and South of Palestine."
Not only can Ishmael's descendants be traced through Kedar, but also there are other Arab descendants of Ishmael through his other eleven sons. They probably became 'mixed' with other Arab peoples. (Note: the word Arab has several meanings, one being mixed.) The violent trait as seen in Genesis 16:12 fits the pattern of a radical, violent brand of Islam which emanated from Saudi Arabia under Muhammad after he had consolidated his rule over Mecca. This trait can be seen in modern history, e.g. Bin Laden and his nineteen Saudi Al Qaeda cohorts who killed nearly 3,000 people on 9/11.
Shouldn't Christians encourage love towards Muslims – rather than feeding prejudice and Islamophobia?
I heartily agree we must obey Jesus who taught us to love our neighbors, including our enemies, as he himself demonstrated. It is sad and deplorable to see how some are using horrifying atrocities like 9/11 or the civil war in Syria and the recent kidnapping of 300 Nigerian school girls to fuel hatred or fear of Muslims. Indeed, we must love Muslims but we must also be realists who discern our times and “correctly handle the word of truth.” (2 Tim. 2:15)
Speaking of prejudice, the question may arise, “Does Genesis 16:12 fuel prejudice against Muslims?” Before grappling directly with this question it is helpful to recall that so far we have established a clear link between Kedar and Ishmael. But were there not other Arabs who may also have ancestral links to Ishmael through the other eleven sons of Ishmael? One does not have to be able to trace a complete and definitive genealogical line of these eleven sons to come to the conclusion that there are a substantial number of Arabs who are physically linked to Ishmael. However, we need to bear in mind that most Muslims in the world are not Arabs. They are not physically descended from Ishmael, yet they feel a strong emotional, mental, spiritual connection to Ishmael which implies a significant link. What conclusions can we draw?
Is it perhaps valid not only to see a connection between Ishmael and radical Saudi Muslims, but a link that extends even wider to the Muslim world? Does Scripture justify seeing Muslims as being somehow connected to Ishmael metaphorically just as the apostle Paul portrayed Hagar and Sarah in Galatians 4? Paul said Hagar corresponds to a worldview characterized by bondage-to-law. Also Paul linked this mind-set to Mt Sinai in Arabia.
This makes sense. It does seem that the hostile trait (tendency) in Genesis 16:12 is reflected in our world today in many Muslim-majority areas, particularly among Arab Muslims, more especially the Wahabis of Saudi Arabia. Another strand of supporting evidence is the long history of bloody sectarian clashes within Islam from the earliest days. This correlates with the entire statement as found in Genesis 16:12, especially the latter part: “and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.”
Some writers disagree with my conclusion, for example, Chris Flint, whom I already quoted, and Tony Maalouf in his book, Arabs in the Shadow of Israel: The Unfolding of God’s Prophetic Plan for Ishmael’s Line (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2003). Maalouf discusses Genesis 16:12 at length on pages 69-77. A crucial statement on page 73 reads, “Not only did Hebrew translators of old fail to detect a sense of enmity and hostility in that expression [al-pene all his brethren], but also modern Hebrew translators did not reflect it either.” (p. 73).
This claim seems rather presumptuous considering that four respected translation teams have rendered this phrase negatively, i.e. hostility, defiance, being at odds with, etc. (see NIV, NLT, Holman Christian Standard Bible and International Stand Version) Not only so, three other teams of respected translators used the term “against” which also has a negative shade of meaning, albeit perhaps less intense. (see ESV, American Standard Version and King James 2000 Bible)
There is another weakness of Flint's view, i.e. that Ishmael's descendants are a threat to Isaac's offspring in the sense of “imperilling their inheritance by mimicking their identity.” Flint fails to show how this threat unfolds in subsequent generations. On page 23 Flint, himself, acknowledges this “Arabs are nowhere presented [in the OT] as subverting Israel's identity or challenging their inheritance.”
However, if one examines the alternate interpretation, one sees that it unfolds appropriately in the many OT instances showing hostility between the Israelites and their Ishmaelite or Hagarite cousins, Arabs. See Genesis 37:25-28; Nehemiah 2:19; 4:7; 6:1; Psalm 83:5-8. Notice in this latter passage it speaks of an “alliance” between the Ishmaelites, Ammonites and Midianites. It was these very same groups who are seen in the earlier passages, combining forces to attack their common enemy, Israel. These examples show that this interpretation harmonizes better with the wider flow of Scripture than Flint's view.
As we make the transition from OT to NT times, one wonders, “Did believers after Christ continue to see a connection between Ishmael and Arabia?” Flint believes Paul saw a connection as indicated in Galatians 4:21-31. Indeed, he says these verses draw “on first century beliefs in an Ishmaelite-Arab connection.” (Flint, p. 24)
You may recall that earlier I highlighted a statement by Flint showing he acknowledges “aggression” as an Arab trait in OT times. Unfortunately, he downplays repeated instances of Ishmaelite hostility in the OT and in a similar way he downplays hostility in the NT. For example, Galatians 4:29 says Isaac was “persecuted [by] the son who was born in the ordinary way” but Flint prefers not to see any nuance of hostility.
Instead, he bends over backward to interpret this verse so as to minimize any negative, violent meaning. He sees persecution in this story as only involving mimicry and mockery. While I would not deny those elements are here, does this mean one has to rule out negative elements like hostility?
If one applies Galatians 4:29 to our modern world one is hard pressed to deny that Muslims, who are spiritually or metaphorically children of the slave woman, often persecute “the children of the free woman” not just by mimicry, but also in hostile, violent ways.
I have gone to considerable length to show that Ishmael's mimicry forms only a part of the persecution, which according to the wider teaching of Scripture, clearly includes hostility and violence. It makes sense that Muslims, as spiritual descendants of Ishmael, would mimic and counterfeit God's plan to bring salvation to the world through the Messiah. It is not uncommon to see Muslims portraying Muhammad as a special intercessor or saviour figure. For example, the Hadith quotes Muhammad as claiming to be the “cornerbrick” which implies he was the only one who fulfilled this role of a cornerstone. But the Bible says, “Jesus... is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:11-12) As such Muhammad fulfils this Ishmaelite role as a usurper and a counterfeit. This is precisely the issue: Islam can be seen to mimic and counterfeit the truth – a rivalry that is often expressed in violent ways. Islam, therefore, poses a threat not only in terms of its deceitfulness and subtlety but also in its hostile and violent manifestations.
This article focuses on interpreting Genesis 16:12 so readers may get the impression that the Bible has nothing positive to say about Arabs, but this is not true. God loves the whole world including Muslims, as is evident in the following passages: 2 Chronicles 6:32-33; John 3:16; Revelation 5:9; 7:9-17. There are also several passages which specifically mention Arabs in a positive way: 2 Chronicles 9:1-14; (Note, the kingdom of the queen of Sheba was in the Arabian peninsula – what in modern times is called, Yemen) 1 Chronicles 26:5-8; 27:30-31; Isaiah 42:10-12; Isaiah 60:6-7. If one reflects on these Scriptures you will realize that the Bible definitely does not encourage prejudice, xenophobia or Islamophobia.
In keeping with John 3:16 – mentioned above – let me repeat what I said earlier: “This situation presents the church with one of the greatest opportunities of this generation,” to share the Good News of Jesus Christ. As we grasp this opportunity, let us be aware, as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 16:9, that “a great door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many who oppose me.” The above-mentioned passages from Revelation remind us that opposition implies persecution, even laying down our lives for the sake of the Gospel. Persecution of Christians in our day is a grossly under-reported but undeniable fact. Not only so, persecution is growing especially in those parts of the world where most Christians live, in the non-western world. Several relevant articles are listed here (*, *, *, *).
If you have questions or comments please write me here.
All Biblical quotations are taken from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.
Open Doors International has just released a landmark report, World Watch Top 10 Violence List which covers the period from Nov. 1, 2012, to March 31, 2014. Here is a summary:
“The list shows that violence against Christians for faith-related reasons is spread all over the globe – from India, to African and Middle Eastern countries, and to Latin America,” says Frans Veerman, director of World Watch Research. “Islamic extremism, tribal antagonism and organized corruption are the main persecution engines fuelling violence, with Islamic extremism being the major engine in seven of the top 10 countries.” (bold font mine)
I don't believe it is an exaggeration to describe the two atrocities mentioned in the introduction, i.e. the abduction of 300 school girls and the sentencing to death of Meriam Ibrahim as defining moments in modern history. Moreover, as I write (20 June 2014) the recent escalation of bloody violence in Iraq is almost certainly plunging Iraq into civil war.
As if to confirm my designation of Boko Haram's barbaric abduction of school girls as a defining moment, the report by World Watch Research notes that during the 17 months up to 31 March 2014, Nigeria had a total of 2,073 Christian martyrs – more than any other country. The vast majority – if not all of them – died at the hands of Muslims.
Alana Cook concludes her article, The Worst Places on Earth for Christians, by quoting Middle East expert Mohammed Fahad al-Harthi, “This extremism transcends borders and language barriers; and affects people across all sectors of society, regardless of religion, class or gender.” This quote calls to mind, and indeed confirms, the prophecy of Genesis 16:12, “His hand will be against everyone, and everyone's hand will be against him...”