The Palestinian Hamas between islamic religious tradition and modernity

Scientific Essay, 2006

38 Pages, Grade: eins



1. Introduction

2. Hamas, Modernity, and Religious Adherence

3. The Genesis of the Movement’s Ideology

4. The Manifestation of Populist and Radical Concepts in the Charter of the Islamic Resistance Movement

5. Theoretical Consideration of the Armed Struggle against Israel

6. Consequences of Hamas’ Contradicting Political Concepts and Messages

7. Modern Strategies of Warfare

8. The Dilemma of Suicide Attacks

9. Conclusions


1. Introduction

At the dawn of the 21 century the unsolved Middle East conflict is one of the most serious challenges the region has to face. A compromise solution between Israel and the Palestinians which were satisfactory for both sides would increase the chances for a permanent peaceful future. The Islamic Resistance Movement Harakat al-Muqāwama al-Islāmīyya, which is generally known as Hamas, is asked to play its part in reaching this compromise.

Since the outbreak of the First Intifada at the end of 1987, the year of its founding, the Palestinian Hamas has become an important agent in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.[1] On 25 January, 2006, the Palestinian Hamas for the first time run for a parliamentary election and eventually won these elections in the Palestinian Territories with a majority of 74 out of 132 seats. The political predominance of the National Movement for the Liberation of Palestine (Fatah) lasting more than 35 years had come to an end.[2]

Hamas’ victory in the parliamentary elections indicates a significant political event in the history of the Middle East conflict: for the first time an Islamist movement has managed to gain a parliamentary majority by means of democratic elections. Immediately, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and President of the Palestinian National Authority (PA), Mahmud Abbas, announced that Hamas would be entrusted with the formation of government.

Against this background, the article deals with the following questions: what does modernity mean for Hamas in the Middle East and how is Hamas responding to the extensive social and political changes and challenges of modern times? To which extent do significant inconsistencies result from the Islamist movement’s forceful adherence to the Islamic religious tradition (naql) on the one side and the diversity of modernity’s manifestations on the other side? In many respects, Hamas as a radical movement has to do with modernity revealing itself for the Palestinians in the Middle East. For Hamas, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, above all, a conflict with modernity. In this conflict, Hamas, on the one hand, acts as an adaptive, modern movement. On the other hand, it reveals its radical nature, claiming the indisputable monopoly on the interpretation of the Islamic religious tradition.

While attempting to bring the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations back to the starting point after the 1967 war – after the unsuccessful period of unequal and unilateral negotiations between the Israelis and Arafats Fatah – Hamas aims at improving the fate of the Palestinian people by establishing an Islamic system (nizām islāmī). This is precisely the main preoccupation of the movement’s social and from now on also political commitment.[3] However, in order to achieve its objectives and to lead promising negotiations with Israel as well as with the four secular agents[4] involved in the Middle East conflict, Hamas must undergo a process of reflection about its cultural and religious identity. Only by means of such an internal process can Hamas exert a positive impact on Palestinian politics.[5] Congruently, Habermas stresses that in view of the manifold challenges of modernity traditional religious communities must overcome cognitive dissonances.[6] Furthermore, as a prerequisite of political negotiations, the movement has already been asked by the Quartet on the Middle East to renounce terrorist violence, to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist, and to esteem the agreements reached between Israel and the Palestinian people.

2. Hamas, Modernity, and Religious Adherence

Here a more profound consideration of the seemingly contradictory terms modernity (hadātha) and Islamic religious tradition (naql) is helpful in order to demonstrate how they are related to Hamas.

Following the historical key incidents of Reformation, Enlightenment, and the French Revolution, European modernity has manifested itself as a profane cultural and institutional “project”. As a result, Within Western Europe religious certainties, beliefs, and traditions have gradually been doubted and finally exposed by the logic of the enlightened mind as a self-made illusion.[7] With the full awakening of the self-consciousness of reason in the period of Enlightenment nothing may expect acceptance any more by the individual’s mind which is not confirmed by plausible reasons.[8] Therefore, the experiment of modernity is the first cultural “project” being merely based upon itself. However, currently a development can be observed where the organized voices of Christianity again claim to be the advocators of public morale.[9]

Habermas portrays the process of the believer’s spiritual enlightenment – the Christian as well as the Jewish and the Muslim – as the reasonably learned “reshaping of the religious consciousness”, therefore being able to deal with three significant challenges of modernity: first, the certainty of religious pluralism and the unavoidable encountering of various religious confessions; second, the rise of modern sciences having the monopoly of worldly knowledge; and third, the enforcement of positive laws by means of the modern nation state on the basis of profane societal ethics.[10] Through the materialization of science and technology following the beginning of industrialization Western Europe acted as a dominating military power, exerting its influence as colonial powers also in parts of the Islamic world and, thereby confronting the traditional Islamic communities. According to Habermas, the nation states of today as part of the global scope of modernity are involved in dependencies within a huge interdependent world community whose subsystems pass through national frontiers untroubled with accelerated data-, communication-, and trade flows, worldwide circulation of capital, manufacturing lines, technology transfers, mass tourism, job migration and so on.[11]

Since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union the globalization of institutionalized modernity has manifested mainly as a product of the West. The disbandment of the bipolar balance of the two superpowers has led to globalization advancing very quickly, which particularly affects the situation in the Middle East. Without the Soviet Union as a world power, the states of the Middle East have been solely confronted with the Western understanding of modernity. Moreover, the military and political pressure exerted on the region especially by the United States, the military partner of Israel, – in the sense of a general safety interest – has much increased: “The end of the Cold War and its bipolarity worked to the disadvantage of Hamas, in view of the international consensus that the United States was able to secure on a peace settlement in the Middle East […]. In fact, Hamas was burdened with international condemnation because of its continued use of armed operations.”[12]

Referring to the above mentioned dimensions of secular modernity a more profound depiction of important recent political developments within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might be beneficial in order to understand Hamas’ performance in this conflict. An overview of the political developments following the defeat of the Arab states by Israel in the Six-Day War in June, 1967 reveals that despite political agreements and agendas Israeli occupation and suppression, Palestinian violence, mutual intolerance and distrust continue.[13] Until now, Hamas, as a social and religious movement, has acted as a political outsider, being perceived by the political decision makers involved in the conflict as well as by the Western public mainly as a terrorist movement.

Subsequent to the unsuccessful peace negotiations at the Middle East Peace Summit at Camp David in July, 2000, Ariel Sharon on September 28 – shielded by about hundred policemen and safety guards – visited the Temple Mount (al-Haram aš-Šarīf) in the southeast of the old town center of Jerusalem, a holy place of both the Israelis and the Palestinians, proclaiming equivocally: “I come here with a message of peace. I believe that we can live together with the Palestinians. I come here to the holiest place of the Jewish people in order to see what happens here.” Thereby he brought two different sorts of political messages: that he would preserve the holiest place of the Israelis against Arafat’s political demands – among other things Arafat claimed East Jerusalem to be the capital of the Palestinians and, still more important, he demanded complete sovereignty over the al-Haram aš-Šarīf[14] – and, ironically, that Israelis and Palestinians can peacefully live together. Instead of de-escalating the political crisis, he, as Arafat had predicted, provoked the Palestinians and might have activated, at least from the Palestinian point of view, the “Al-Aqsa Intifada”.

On 27 March, 2002, in the midst of the Pesach Seder, 30 Israelis were killed and 140 injured in a suicide bombing in Netanya, which was the most dreadful suicide attack in the history of Israel. Thereupon, Hamas took responsibility for the terrorist act. After the suicide bombing Israel Prime Minister Sharon expounded: “All this has happened at a time when Israel’s hand was – and still is – extended towards peace. We have done everything in our power to achieve a cease fire and an immediate entry into the Tenet process [named by George Tenet, the Director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency] in order to advance any possibility of a cease fire. All we have received in return was terrorism, terrorism and more terrorism. […] No sovereign nation would tolerate such a sequence of events.”[15] UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, too, condemned the suicide bombing as an immoral, terrorist act: “At the Arab League Summit yesterday, I condemned suicide bombings against Israeli civilians as morally repugnant. Last night’s heartless and indiscriminate attack in Netanya was an especially appalling example of this phenomenon. This is terrorism, and it greatly damages the Palestinian cause.”[16]

As an unambiguous response, tanks of the Israeli Defense Forces moved towards Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah and towards other Palestinian cities. 80 Palestinians and 33 Israelis lost their life within one week. During the Israeli invasion of the Palestinian city Jenin in April, 2002, which was called “Operation Defensive Shield”, the military order was to detain terrorists and their leaders and to confiscate and destroy weapons, explosives, and terrorist facilities. Upon receiving the promise of the US-government that the impending UN-investigations on the military events in Jenin would be cancelled, Sharon gave the command of the withdrawal from Arafat’s headquarters.

Correspondingly to these events it must be supposed that the process of a true reflection about the meaning of religious beliefs and religio-cultural traditions and the importance of holy places or religious celebrations has not been accomplished so far on both sides. Everyday news and the relapse into deadlocked patterns of political and military behaviour precisely confirm the characteristics of the picture drawn above, otherwise mutual tolerance, acceptance of the pluralism of religious beliefs and of secular requirements – such as national safety interests –, and the acknowledgement of the different perspectives of the negotiation partners would have come into existence at a certain level. “Only the conception of equal freedom for everyone and a definition of a tolerance sphere similarly convincing all partners involved might tolerance unburden from intolerance. Those who are possibly affected have to pay heed to the perspectives of each other if they want to reach an agreement on the condition of mutual tolerance, because everyone needs to be equally respected.”[17] Finally the mutual definition of a collectively defined tolerance sphere where secular, religious as well as cultural issues of both Palestinians and Israelis are respected might be helpful to clarify its boundaries and what lies beyond.

For the Islamic religious fundamentalism, the term of usǔlīyya which comes from the word asl (root, origin, source, beginning) has been widely accepted in the Arab language. The advocates of religious fundamentalism, the usǔlīyyǔn, are the representatives of a particular variant of Political Islam. Since the 1960s they have filled the vacuum which the unsuccessful secular movements and regimes have left in the Arab world claiming the Islamic Revival of state and society. “While Fundamentalists are a minority in most Muslim societies and states, their insistent and vehement discourse has had much effect on the Muslim world, moving into the vacuum left by the failure of secular regimes, redefining orthodoxy, reconstituting the boundaries of political power relations, limiting the borders of the permissible, resonating in the hearts of the impoverished masses, and appealing to a new strata of literate people with modern technical education.”[18] In accordance with the political visions of Islamic Revivalists Esposito comments: “If Islam was to provide the identity and unity of the state, so, Islamic revivalists and reformers concluded, the panacea for failed states must be a return to Islam and its „proper or correct” implementation in state and society.”[19] Islamic Revivalists interpret contemporary Islam as a religion not only practiced in the Muslims private life but rather within the concept of dīn wa daula (unity of Mosque and State) which is historically embodied in the institution of the caliphate.[20]

As the example of the Palestinian Hamas makes clear, the Islamists’ claim of an all-embracing Islamic Revival resulting in a vague Islamic system (nizām islāmī) is, on the one hand, an internal result of Islamic secularists having failed to adequately represent and preserve the cultural traditions and religious beliefs of the faithful Muslim citizens in modern times. On the other hand, it is an answer to – and a rebellion against – modernity as a global Western political, institutional, scientific, and military supremacy and the corresponding Muslim inferiority, especially in those regions where modernization of state and society have proved to fail.[21]

The fundamentalist position of the Jewish settler movement is another cause for the genesis of Palestinian religious counter-fundamentalism.[22] By means of their religiously legitimized claim to seize the whole of the “Promised Land” (“Land of Israel”) through an impeachment of the Arab people living in this region, Jewish fundamentalists – especially since the growing political influence of the right-wing Likud party in the late 1970’s – have stimulated the development of Palestinian counter-fundamentalism.[23] In the Gaza Strip and the West Bank daily intimidation, threat, and violent aggression of the mainly gunned fundamentalist settlers against Palestinian civilians have become a kind of common law.[24]

Never before in the history of mankind had the individual the possibility to satisfy his or her material life requirements and to accomplish his or her education and personal development to such an extent as today. From the other perspective, it was never before, too, that people casted so much doubt on religious certainties, hopes, and ways of thinking, as well as traditional ways of living as in current times. This is the dualism of the nature of modernity – the conflict between secular knowledge and religious faith, as Habermas has argued.[25] As a result, in those regions where people lack the preconditions for personal development which, in theory, is possible modernity is partly being perceived as an imperilment of their existence.[26] This has been – and still is – exactly the case with the Palestinian Territories the inhabitants of which consider Hamas – as the 25 January elections have proved – a serious option to earnestly solve daily difficulties. In any event, Hamas’ supposedly striving for an Islamic system uniting the public with the private sphere contradicts the spirit of modernity. In compliance with that, Meyer lays emphasis on the importance of the private sphere to be independent from the public one because of individual’s chances towards self determination and free decision making.[27] Moreover, an independent private sphere is the premise on a functioning public platform of individuals launching societal and political discussions where pluralist opinions and views can be developed. Whether Hamas will tolerate societal and political debates with an open end depends on the pragmatic political benefit the movement receives thereof.

Historically, the loss of the Islamic identity and sovereignty was truly the result of Western – especially British and French – imperialism and colonialism within the Islamic world dating back to the 17th century: “In the Islamic world, Western colonial rule precipitated a religious as well as a political crisis.”[28] The humiliating defeat the Arab states suffered during the Six-Day War in 1967 and later during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, and the unilateral character of political decisions made by Israel in the following years evoked the Palestinian Islamist’s antipathy against the frightening political developments of modernity.[29] The new generation of Islamist visionaries was deeply influenced by the writings of their ideological models Hassan al-Banna (1906-1949) who founded the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in 1928, Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), and Maulana Abu’l A’la Maududi (1903-1979) to name the most influencing ideologues. Their theoretical literary works were broadly disseminated in the Islamic world during the 1950’s and 1960’s and received an enormous attention.[30] Therefore, in their aversion to the relevant manifestations of modernity they deliberatively adhere to the scriptural sources of the Islamic religious tradition (naql) as an effective ideological basis and a counterbalance to the secular shape of modernity which is, among others, accountable for general disorientation and moral breakdown because of its free social practices. Insofar, Islamic religious fundamentalism is not an unreflected and traditional, but rather a modern phenomenon brought forth by the intrinsic contradictions of modernity. Its advocators are engaged in the extensive and radical change of Islamic state and society into an Islamic system in an effort to overcome the negative effects of modernity.[31] They oppose to the incertitude of modernity by means of absolute religious certainties expressed in the eternal and unboundedly valid Koran being of divine origin, and also in the Sunna of the Prophet.

Furthermore, concerning the manichaeical and conspiratorial dimension, religious fundamentalists see themselves involved in a global multidimensional struggle between Islam and its enemies: “Most Islamic fundamentalists accept the prevalent conspiracy theories that see the Christian West, Jewish Zionism, and secularism as three forces combining to corrupt, divide and destroy Islam. Rulers in Muslim states are viewed as puppets of these forces, betraying their countries into dependence and secularization.”[32]


[1] Hamas was officially founded by Sheikh Ahmad Yassin (1938-2004) on 8 December, 1987. But it was not until February 1988 that the movement formally adopted the name Hamas. Yassin was assassinated by Israeli Security Forces on 22 March, 2004.

[2] Fatah, which was founded by Yasir Arafat, has obtained merely 45 seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), i.e. the Palestinian parliament.

[3] In Article 9 of Hamas’ Charter its world view is presented, resulting in the general objectives stipulated: „Nations have been occupied, their people expelled and fallen down. The state of truth has disappeared and the state of evil has been established; as long as Islam does not take its rightful place in the world arena, everything will continue to change for the worse. The goal of the Islamic Resistance Movement, therefore, is to conquer evil, crushing it and defeating it, so that truth may prevail, so that the country may return to its rightful place, and so that the call may be heard from the minarets proclaiming the Islamic state.” As Article 10 suggests Hamas regards itself as the advocate of the oppressed Palestinians: „Meanwhile, the Islamic Resistance Movement, as it is making its own path, will support the weak, [and] defend the oppressed […].” The Hamas Charter, Articles 9 and 10, in Hroub, Hamas, pp. 272-273.

[4] The nations and international entities involved in the Peace Process are the Quartet on the Middle East comprising the United Nations (UN) represented by Secretary General Kofi Annan; the United States (US) represented by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; the Russian Federation represented by Foreign Minister Sergej Lavrov; and the European Union (EU) represented by the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana.

[5] In an opinion poll 191 visitors of the website Ramallahonline were asked if Hamas would have a positive impact on Palestinian politics. 57,07 % answered with an optimistic “yes”, 27,23 % said “no”, and 15,71% said that they were “not sure”. See

[6] Habermas, Zwischen Naturalismus und Religion, p. 143.

[7] Meyer, Fundamentalismus, pp. 21-22 and Habermas, Zwischen Naturalismus und Religion, p. 120.

[8] Meyer, Fundamentalismus, pp. 31-32.

[9] Meyer, Die Ironie Gottes, p. 7.

[10] Habermas, Zwischen Naturalismus und Religion, p. 143 and Habermas, Glauben und Wissen, p. 14.

[11] Habermas, Zwischen Naturalismus und Religion, p. 346.

[12] Hroub, Hamas, p. 257 and pp. 52-53.

[13] My impressions on these developments are influenced by the remarkable sequel “Israel and the Arabs – The Elusive Peace” broadcasted on the German-French cooperation channel Arte in March, 2006.

[14] The major obstacles in Camp David in the way to an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians were the territory issue, the status of Jerusalem and the al-Haram aš-Šarīf, and finally the problem of Palestinian refugees.



[17] Habermas, Zwischen Naturalismus und Religion, p. 260.

[18] Zeidan, The Islamic Fundamentalist View of Life, p. 27.

[19] Esposito, Islam and the State in Modern Islamic Political Thought, pp. 237-238.

[20] In the Arab world there is by no means a uniform perception of the concept of dīn wa daula which is rather interpreted and legitimized in connection with place, time and social context. Sayyed Qutb interprets dīn wa daula as a comprehensive concept to restore the norms and values of Islamic societies. To redeem the modern Muslim societies from their state of ignorance (ğāhilīyya) according to Qutb, it is necessary to reestablish God’s just power and sovereignty (hākimīyya) by applying the Divine Law (shariah). For Ayatollah Khomeyni, however, the concept of dīn wa daula was the Guardianship of the Jurisconsult (velāyat-e faqīh). This concept of political authority exerted by the righteous jurists, the deputies of the 12th Imam, the Mahdi, is a mere shii concept.

[21] The revolt of fundamentalism against modernity is discussed elaborately by Meyer, Fundamentalismus, pp. 65-154.

[22] An analysis of the manifestations of Jewish fundamentalism is beyond the scope of this essay.

[23] As Meyer puts it, “Violence in the Name of God” appears to be a legitimate means of Jewish fundamentalists to attain salvation, certainty, redemption, and safety. Meyer, Fundamentalismus, p. 106.

[24] Meyer, Fundamentalismus, pp. 151-152.

[25] Habermas, Glauben und Wissen, pp. 9-29.

[26] Symptomatically for the Palestinians being excluded from modern means of communication is the estimated number of merely 160,000 internet users in the Palestinian Territories in 2004 out of an overal number of roughly 4 Mio. inhabitants (Gaza Strip and West Bank). geos/gz.html#people (downloaded on 15 April, 2006).

[27] Meyer, Fundamentalismus, p. 192.

[28] Esposito, Islam and the State in Modern Islamic Political Thought, p. 238 and Meyer, Fundamentalismus, p. 82.

[29] „Thanks to the help from the USA, from Jews around the globe and due to reparation payments from the German Federal Republic, Israel’s economic power had increased. Israel also intensified the efficiency and strength of its armed forces – especially of its Air Force – and was sure about being superior to its Arab neighbors both militarily and politically […]. When tensions grew, Jordan and Syria signed a military treaty with Egypt. On June 5th, Israel attacked Egypt and completely destroyed the Egyptian Air Force. Within a few days it took the entire peninsula of Sinai up to the Suez Canal, the whole of Jerusalem, the Palestinian part of Jordan and also a part of southern Syria (the Golan Heights). […] The war changed the entire balance of power in the Middle East. It was clear from that moment that Israel was superior to whatever the combination of Arab states might be […].” Hourani, Die Geschichte der arabischen Völker, pp. 496-497.

[30] Esposito, Islam and the State in Modern Islamic Political Thought, p. 244.

[31] Habermas, Glauben und Wissen, p. 10.

[32] Zeidan, The Islamic Fundamentalist View of Life, p. 34.

Excerpt out of 38 pages


The Palestinian Hamas between islamic religious tradition and modernity
University of Hamburg  (Asien Afrika Institut)
Radical Islam
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ISBN (Book)
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Having become a political force and having taken national responsibility on the one hand strengthens Hamas’ political legitimacy and position. On the other hand, as long as Hamas – as the prerequisite for making political claims – does not clearly undergo the process of reflection and self-reflection and acknowledge the most prominent demands made by Israel and the agents of the Quartet on the Middle East as a result of this process of understanding, the movement can not profit from its theoretically strengthened position and therefore can not contribute to a political solution of the conflict.
Palestinian, Hamas, Radical, Islam
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Oliver Borszik (Author), 2006, The Palestinian Hamas between islamic religious tradition and modernity, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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