They’ve been known as people of the desert. To the Western eye, they appear backward, undeveloped, fanatical, bizarre, and irrationally violent. Yet they are the remnants of one of the greatest empires the world has ever known. And they are destined to affect your life more directly than you can ever imagine.
They are the people of Islam, more commonly known as Muslims.(1)
There are 2.4 billion Muslims around the world. Eight million of them live in the United States, 56 million live in Europe, 582 million live in Africa, and nearly 1.4 billion live in Asia.(2) The worldwide Muslim population is growing at a rate of 1.84% annually. These numbers beg the question: How many of them could be considered radical?
You’ll get as many answers to that question as the number of sources you search. Estimates range from a low of 1% (24 million) to as high as 50% or more, depending on where they reside.(3)
Muslim countries surrounding the small country of Israel have a much higher ratio of radical Islamists than most other countries—and it’s the stated goal of those terrorist states to eradicate Israel.
The violent acts of radical Islamists didn’t begin with the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Towers as some young people might think.
Our first confrontation with radical Muslims, as a nation, was when President Thomas Jefferson went to war with the Barbary pirates off the coast of North Africa in 1801. Jefferson sent our newly formed navy to fight this war because Muslim pirates were seizing our merchant ships, enslaving the crew members, and demanding high ransoms.(4)
During the Carter administration, after radical Muslims took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, they held 52 American diplomats and citizens hostage for 444 days. The siege began on November 4, 1979, and all the captives were released during Reagan’s inauguration on January 20, 1981.
Since the destruction of the World Trade Towers in 2001, Islam and radical Islamists have gained momentum in Northern Africa and the Middle East. Terrorist groups (such as Al Qaeda, ISIS, Hamas, Hezbollah, and others), once thought to be in check and under control, are becoming increasingly violent and aggressive as they sweep across new territories, claiming them as their own.
Islam is an Arabic religion; its holy cities, Mecca and Medina, are located in Saudi Arabia. As an accident of fate, or as a result of divine providence, Saudi Arabia sits on roughly one-fourth of the world’s oil reserves and supplies about 18% of the free world’s oil.
When we add Iran, Iraq, North Africa, the rest of the Arab world, and the oil producing Islamic nations of the Far East, it is plain that the followers of Mohammed have a stranglehold on the most strategic commodity in the world. When they can agree on policy, they can bring the world economy to its knees. When OPEC decides it will be so, even a powerful nation with its own oil reserves can end up with shortages of heating oil, lines at the gas pumps, and raging inflation.
It seems strange, in a nation that has already experienced two severe oil shortages and high gas prices at the hands of Islam (combined with bad policies controlling our own oil production), that we know so little about these people, their religion, where they come from, and where they are going. We look upon them as backward, illiterate, if not inept, and hold them in contempt. We have no idea what drives them because we know little or nothing of their history. Many assume there is little history to know.
How wrong they are.
The Arab peoples are brothers to Israel. They are the descendants of the firstborn son of Abraham. When Abraham and Sarah were old and despaired of having children, Sarah suggested they try something not entirely unheard of even in our world—surrogate motherhood. She suggested that Abraham take her maid, Hagar, and beget a child by her. The child would then theoretically belong to Sarah (Genesis 16:2).
It didn’t work out. Once Hagar was pregnant, Sarah made her life so miserable that she fled into the desert. She nearly died there. But an angel appeared to her and told her to go back and submit herself to her mistress. Then, she was given an astonishing prophecy: “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.” The angel of the LORD also said to her: “You are now pregnant and you will give birth to a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the LORD has heard of your misery. He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers” (Genesis 16: 10-12 NIV). It is not a bad description of the Arab peoples, even now.
Abraham was 86 when Ishmael was born.
When Ishmael was 13, God appeared to Abraham, made it clear that the promises to Abraham would be fulfilled in Isaac, and made yet another promise concerning Ishmael: “And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation” (Genesis 17:20).
Ishmael would wait a long time for the fulfillment of that promise. The Bible has little to say about Ishmael after this, but we do know he lived 137 years and had twelve sons—the promised twelve princes. They are named in Genesis 25:12-18 and their land was the land we now call Arabia.
For generation after generation they lived in this hard land, living by raising camels and sheep. The prophecy that Ishmael would be a “wild ass” (KJV) of a man found fulfillment in the fierce independence of the desert Arab. Independence bred tribalism, and tribalism brought incessant wars.
But these wars were nothing like the wars of Persia, Rome, and Greece. They were not so much for territory, control, or slaves. They were fought according to a strict code of honor and chivalry, and they were fought more for glory than anything else. Hence the code of honor. Glory depended on the battle being fought fairly and without treachery. Battles were often fought by appointment, and champions fought before both armies. According to historian John Glubb, “The Arab nomads were passionate poets and every incident of these chivalrous encounters was immortalized in verse and recited every night around the campfires which flickered here and there in the empty vastness of the desert peninsula.”
Their religion was pagan to the core. They worshiped spirits and made pilgrimages to sacred rocks and trees. By the sixth century, the Ka’aba Temple in Mecca contained some three hundred and sixty five idols.
Then came Mohammed, called simply, the Prophet.
Mohammed was known as a quiet, affectionate, and kindly man. He had been a caravan master prior to his marriage. Since his wife was a rich widow, he had plenty of time for solitude and meditation. He was 40 years old in 610 A.D. when he had his first vision. He was sleeping in a cave in the mountains when, by his own account, what he thought was the angel Gabriel spoke to him. The message: Read in the name of the Lord who created, Who created man of blood coagulated. Read! The Lord is the most beneficent, Who taught by the pen, Taught what they knew not to men.
The message frightened Mohammed. He thought he might be demon possessed, but when he rushed from the cave, he saw what he thought was the angel Gabriel “in the form of a man, with his feet astride the horizon.”
Not surprisingly, he made few converts at first. It was three years before another vision commissioned him to preach, and his apostles numbered first three, then four. After four years of preaching, his disciples only numbered about seventy.
But Mohammed persisted. He claimed he was sent to restore the religion of Abraham, and he cited visions and revelations to his disciples. He claimed they were the actual words of God which he repeated word for word. His disciples memorized his recitations, and, after his death, they were written down to form the Koran.
According to Islamic thought, the will of God is made known to man through the Koran—the record of God’s revelation to his messenger Mohammed. Mohammed is believed by Muslims to be the last of a long series of prophets including Adam, Noah, Moses, Jesus, and others.
Islamic doctrine is based on five pillars called the “pillars of Islam.” The first is the profession of faith: “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet.” According to Muslim doctrine, this profession must be recited at least once in one’s lifetime, aloud, correctly, and on purpose, with an understanding of its meaning and with intent from the heart.
The second pillar is the familiar five congregational prayers in a day—bowing toward Mecca.
The third pillar is a welfare tax called the Zakat. The Zakat is a complicated “purification” tax levied at different percentages on different commodities. It’s collected by the state, and is to be used primarily for the poor. An essential part of Islamic teaching is the doctrine of social service which involves the alleviating of suffering and helping the needy. The Koran says: “Man is by nature timid; when evil befalls him, he panics, but when good things come to him he prevents them from reaching others.” The Koran threatens with the direst punishment in the hereafter those who hoard wealth without considering the needs of the poor. In Islam, the practice of usury is forbidden.
The fourth pillar of Islam is the fast of the month of Ramadan in which fasting begins every day at daybreak and ends at sunset. One can presumably eat all night long as long as one fasts in the daytime.
The fifth pillar of Islam is the annual pilgrimage to Mecca known as the Hajj. It is prescribed for every Moslem once in every lifetime, but it is conditional upon his means.
The Arabic term Islam literally means “surrender.” A believer is called a Muslim (from the active participle of Islam) because he accepts “surrender to the will of Allah.” Allah is the one God—creator, sustainer, and restorer of the world. Islam is uncompromising in its monotheism. The belief in the trinity, or the idea that man can become united with God is rejected because that would violate the unity of God. In Muslim theology, pride is the cardinal sin of man. In not recognizing his human limitations, man becomes guilty of ascribing to himself partnership with God and of violating the unity of God.
But the religion of Arabia prior to Mohammed was polytheistic. Mecca was the center of this idol worship. Its central shrine, the Ka’aba became something of a pantheon to many peoples. There were even Christian statues and icons in the Ka’aba. The Meccans encouraged all this, because when people made pilgrimages to Mecca, they brought trade.
Because the teachings of Mohammed threatened both the religion and the commerce of the Arabs of Mecca, they finally forced him to flee to Medina in 622 A.D. His flight, called the Hegira, marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar.
Until his flight, Mohammed had taught a gentle religion, full of care for the poor, concerned with social justice, patient under tribulation and persecution. When he got to Medina, everything changed. As he began to acquire power, he announced that God had ordered all Muslims to fight the unbelievers. According to John Glubb, “The prophet, so patient, humble and devoted under persecution in Mecca, commenced to use power politics after his arrival in Medina. Not only does he resort to war against the Meccans, but in Medina he drives the Jews into exile and arranges for his opponents to be assassinated. Mohammed himself, however, claimed that he preached the same religion as Abraham, Moses and Jesus.” In other words, Allah is Arabic for Yahweh, or Jehovah, the God of Abraham.
It is important for a western observer to realize that Islam draws no distinction between the religious and temporal areas of life. Therefore the Islamic state is by definition a religious state.
Glubb notes that Muslims in general do not believe that men can be made righteous by moral example or intellectual persuasion alone, but they consider that force is also necessary. Classical Islamic doctrine holds that the world is divisible into three parts: The zone of Islam; the zone of peace (those nations with whom Muslims had peace treaties); and the zone of war (the rest of the world).
Out of this grows the concept of jihad—“holy war” or “holy struggle.”
Jihad is not so much concerned with the conversion of individuals to Islam, but rather the gaining of political control over the affairs of society to run them in accordance with the principles of Islam or Shari’a law. Individual conversions are supposed to occur as a by-product of this process as the power structure passes into the hands of the Muslim community. In strict Muslim doctrine, conversions by force are forbidden. This did not keep Arab warriors from offering pagans the option, “Accept Islam or die.” It was one of history’s more effective missionary techniques.
Unlike Christianity, Islam is concerned with seeking to regulate not only man’s relationship with God (through his conscience), but human relationships in society as well. Therefore, there can be not only an Islamic “church” but also Islamic law, and an Islamic state. The dual religious and social character of Islam sees itself as commissioned by God to bring its own value system to the world through the jihad.
Mohammed died in 632 AD, and his successors carried out jihad with a vengeance. Within l00 years, Arab armies had overrun Spain, conquered northern Africa, advanced to Kashgar in central Asia, and taken Sind and Multan in India. As they went, Christians and Jews—considered “people of the book”—were allowed to retain their religion but required to pay a tax. All others were given a choice: accept Islam or die.
Few today appreciate the simplicity and egalitarianism of early Islamic faith. John Glubb notes that, “Prisoners of war brought to Medina expected to see palaces and imperial pageantry such as they had witnessed in Constantinople or in Ctesiphon. Instead, in the glaring, dusty square of a little mud-brick town, they would find a circle of Arabs sitting on the ground. One of them, a tall lean man, barefooted and wearing a coarse woolen cloak, would prove to be the world’s most powerful emperor.”
He was Umar Ibn Al Khattab and he may have been the greatest of all the Khalifs. Glubb remarks that, “in spite, or perhaps because of his humility and his profound piety, his word was law from one end of the empire to the other.”
The Arab Empire
The promise of God to Abraham had found fulfillment. Ishmael’s descendants had created the Arab empire—one of the greatest the world has ever known.
And one of the least understood.
For five centuries after the death of Mohammed, the Arab Empire and its Islamic descendants dominated the world. The Mediterranean was an Islamic lake, and Europe was barred from trade with the rest of the world. Yet few western schoolboys learn that it was the power of Islam that locked Europe in what we call the “Dark Ages.”
We grow up thinking that the Islamic hordes were barbarians, and their modern descendants are ignorant “camel drivers.” And yet, while Europe was in poverty and ignorance, the Arabs were establishing great libraries and centers of learning. It was the Arabs who preserved the great works of the cultures of Greece and Rome. While Catholic monks were locking away the thinking of ancient minds, Arab scholars were translating them and making them available for study. Many works, lost in the original, were finally translated into Latin from Arabic, and so preserved.
We were all taught the difference between Arabic and Roman numerals, but we may not have been told that the decimal system, logarithms, algebra and trigonometry are a legacy of Arab scholars. How many people know that in medical treatment, botany, geography, natural history, zoology, the Arabs were, in John Glubb’s words, “centuries ahead of Europe.” Glubb adds that the Arabs were superior in the manufacture of textiles, silk, embroideries, glassware, weapons, and metalwork.
In all these things, the Arabs were the link with the past, but they made their own unique contributions as well. They introduced, out of their long poetic tradition, rhyming verse—unknown to the Greeks and Romans before them. They brought west the Arab idea of honor, and their code of chivalry was adopted and retained for centuries by the Spaniards—great fighters in their own right.
Islam in Prophecy
Are these people mentioned in the Bible? Plainly, the Islamic peoples in general, and the Arabic peoples in particular, are major players on the world scene. Are they destined to affect the playing out of prophecy at the end?
First, who are they?
To Isaiah, they are Arabians (chapter 21:11-17, descendants of Ishmael, such as Kedar, Tema, and Dumah). But in the Islamic world, there are other families such as Edom (Esau—modern Turkey according to some, chapter 11:14), Moab and Ammon (children of Lot, Abraham’s nephew— modern Jordan, chapters 15, 16), Damascus (chapter 17), and Egypt (chapter 19). These prophecies find both historical and future fulfillment.
Ezekiel also speaks of Edom and Moab in prophecies of the end times (chapter 25), and he adds Persia, Libya, Lud, and Phut, which takes in middle Asia and North Africa (chapter 27:10, 21). In chapter 30, he speaks of the fall of the nations of North Africa, including Egypt, in the time of the “Day of the Lord”—a clear reference to the end time. In the 38th chapter, Gog and Magog, whom many identify with parts of the Soviet Union, are linked with Persia and other Islamic peoples. Remember that there are millions of Islamic peoples in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.
Jeremiah speaks of Sheba (probably the area of modern Yemen, chapter 6), Egypt, Edom, and Ammon (chapter 9), Arabia (chapter 25), Moab (chapter 48), and others.
Among the Minor Prophets, there are references to Gaza (Amos 1:6), Edom (Amos 1:6, 9, 11 and Malachi 1:4), Moab (Amos 2:1), Ammon (Amos 1:13), Edom (Obadiah), and Egypt (Joel 3:19), all Islamic peoples in the modern world.
Then there is Daniel. The prophecies of Daniel are too complex to detail here, but Chapter 11 is a crucial prophecy that, in spite of a typical fulfillment in the second century B.C., is explicitly for the end time. Daniel receives a message from the angel Gabriel which speaks of a king of the north and a king of the south. We believe the final “king of the north” will be a European leading a united Europe. It is plain that the king of the south will, at the time of the end, be an Islamic power.
But which Islamic power?
Remember that Islam is essentially an Arabic religion imposed on much of the Islamic world by force of arms. The fierce and turbulent individualism of the Arabs resulted in continuous infighting. Any weakness was seized upon by potential rivals and war ensued. In the process of time this individualism led not only to war but to Islam’s own version of sectarianism. In Islam, as in Christianity, there are left wingers and right wingers, radicals and moderates, fundamentalists and liberals, traditionalists and moderates.
The individualism and sectarianism of Islam may have saved the world from Islamic domination. According to John Glubb, “The various Arabic-speaking peoples have never been united except by force” (p. 243, A Short History of the Arab Peoples). But he also observes that, “The great majority of Arabs even today are, in their heart of hearts, more emotionally loyal to Islam than to any national feeling” (p. 252).
For years, many have worried about a resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism. By now everyone knows about the ancient Shiite sect. They originated in a schism between Ali, the fourth Caliph and son-in-law of Mohammed, and the ruling dynasty of the time (661-750). Shi’ism was originally a political movement, but over time, they developed a theological message to go with it. The political ruler of Shi’ism, the Imam became a manifestation of God and “the primordial light that sustains the universe and bestows true knowledge on man.” The Imam alone can convey the hidden and true meaning of the Koran and the Imam alone is infallible. Of the 2.4 billion Muslims in the world, about 15% are Shiites, but relatively few of them are Arabs. A very large number are of Persian or other central Asian stock. Fully 90% of the population of Iran are Shiites.
But what disturbs many observers is that the Shiites are gaining ground, and compose a significant minority among Muslims in the Arabian Peninsula. It is assumed that Iran is just a matter of months away from having nuclear armaments. But it’s not just Shiites who pose a problem in the Middle East.
The vast majority of Muslims are Sunnis and the rising tide of terror in Iraq and Syria has been from ISIS; also known as ISIL or more concisely, the Islamic State. Their method of operation is utterly barbaric and ghastly; brutally murdering Christians or anyone who won’t conform to their beliefs. Routine beheadings are commonly posted on internet social networks.
Islam is much more than a religion in the diluted sense of the word as it is used in the western world. To Muslims, it is a living and powerful force in the world. Unlike most religions, Islam is very much concerned with government here and now. The doctrine of jihad is very much alive, and it is even directed at fellow Muslims.
For now, the differences between Shiites and Sunnis seem to have subsided. The more radical efforts of the fundamentalists are concentrating more on their common enemies (Israel, the “little Satan,” and the United States, “the big Satan”) than their own differences. The Shiites (Iran) are hurrying to complete their nuclear program and the Sunnis (the Islamic State) are gaining more and more territories in order to strengthen their Caliphate.
Of course, not all Muslims are radicalized. There are many moderate Muslims, but “moderate” is a relative term. The “moderate” Sunni sect of Muslims is dominant in Saudi Arabia, but here, alcohol is banned, drinkers are flogged, adulterers are stoned, and thieves have their hands cut off. It was Saudi Arabia that, in order to accommodate Islamic law regarding women, declared Queen Elizabeth and two of her ladies in waiting, honorary men when they came on a state visit. It was in Saudi Arabia that a princess who eloped with a commoner was shot dead in a public bazaar before her lover’s eyes—he was then beheaded.
So much for moderation.
According to Daniel’s prophecy, “And at the time of the end shall the king of the south push at him: and the king of the north shall come against him like a whirlwind” (Daniel 11:40-41). He will enter into Judea, but Edom, Moab, and most of Ammon will escape. Egypt will not. And since oil is probably at the root of it all, Arabia will not likely escape either.
It is not a difficult scenario to write. Europe, unlike the Soviet Union or the United States, is totally dependent on imported oil for its economy—and for Europe, the economy is everything—almost a god.
In the Middle East, there is too much oil, too much money, too much power, too much pride, and too much religion. Sooner or later, something has to explode. Unfortunately, some of the exploding is probably going to be in the west.
The army of Saudi Arabia is a weak army—too dependent on the United States for help. Saudi Arabia, because of the holy city of Mecca and the annual pilgrimage is too vulnerable to infiltration by Muslim fanatics.
For years westerners have worried about what could happen if some of those fanatics got hold of a nuclear device. It wouldn’t matter if it couldn’t be delivered effectively. They could blow themselves up and still precipitate a major disaster.
That fear is rapidly becoming a realization in Iran.
And can the United States or Russia afford to stand idly by while a European super-state invades the Middle East with all its oil? It does not require a science fiction novelist to see the possibility—even the likelihood—of a spark in the Islamic world igniting World War III.
Europeans and Americans do not understand the Arab people, or their religion—probably because they do not care to understand. That lack of understanding could lead to a disastrous miscalculation.
To a Western eye, continued instability in the Arab world may seem a more desirable alternative than the only kind of stability the Arab people are likely to find—unity against a common foe. Especially when that common foe is Israel and the Western world in general.
The Islamic peoples are destined to affect your life in ways you cannot imagine. Failure to understand or ignore a people who are positioned to give the world so much grief is a formula for disaster.
The sword of Islam is no longer in its sheath.[Editor’s note: This article was last updated by Richard Glasgow in December 2014]
Footnotes & sources