Israel’s (and the West’s) Islamic Ribat Problem

By Raymond Ibrahim Published on November 7, 2023

“A Palestinian man,” to quote from a recent report, “handed out sweets following the death of his sons and daughters and shouted: ‘There is no God but Allah’ and ‘Allahu Akbar!’”

While such behavior is, by now, somewhat banal, he did make an important, if cryptic (to the West), statement:

We, our sons and daughters are dead. And we [also] want to die now. We want to die now. No uprooting. Do you [Israel] want to attack Al-Shifaa [Hospital]? Attack! … We are carrying out Ribat [i.e., religious conflict over land claimed to be Islamic] from today and forever. This is our land.

The supplied definition in brackets for the Arabic word ribat is incorrect; ribats are not “religious conflicts over land claimed to be Islamic.” Rather, ribats are formed wherever the jihad is forcibly stopped. There, the jihadists create a base to continue waging war on the infidel frontier. Such strongholds were historically referred to as ribat, from an Arabic word (رباط) etymologically rooted to the idea of a “tight fastening” or “joining.”

Waging War on the Infidel Frontier

According to Koran 3:200, “O you who have believed, persevere and endure and remain fastened [رابطوا verb form of ribat] and fear Allah that you may be successful.” In short, ribats historically referred to chains of jihadist fortresses erected along and dedicated to raiding the borders of non-Muslims.

The word ribat lives on, though few recognize it. For example, Rabat, the capital of Morocco, is so named because it was originally a ribat, whence centuries of Barbary/pirate raids on the Christian Mediterranean were launched. Similarly, Almoravids — the name of an important eleventh century North African based jihadist group — is simply a transliteration of the Arabic al-murabitun, which means they who fight along the ribat. In 1086 these “Almoravids” invaded Spain and crushed the Castilians at the battle of Sagrajas. Afterward they erected a mountain consisting of 2,400 Christian heads to triumphant cries of “Allahu Akbar.”

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Historically, the quintessential ribat existed along the Muslim/Christian border in Anatolia (modern day Turkey) — ironically, not very far from the current ribat against Israel referenced at the start of this article. With the coming and military successes of the Ottoman Turks, the Anatolian ribat continued edging westward, until it finally consumed Constantinople, the last bastion of the Eastern Roman Empire, and most of the Balkans, reaching Vienna twice (in 1529 and 1683).

Another important frontier formed along the Duero River in Spain, separating the Christian north from the Islamic south. For centuries, it too became “a territory where one fights for the faith and a permanent place of the ribat,” to quote historian, Joseph O’Callaghan. As in other borders where Muslims abutted against non-Muslims, a scorched no-man’s land policy prevailed in the ribat of Spain. Ibn Hudayl of Granada (d.812) once explained the logic:

It is permissible to set fire to the lands of the enemy, his stores of grain, his beasts of burden—if it is not possible for the Muslims to take possession of them—as well as to cut down his trees, to raze his cities, in a word, to do everything that might ruin and discourage him, provided that the imam deems these measures appropriate, suited to hastening the Islamization of that enemy or to weakening him. Indeed, all this contributes to a military triumph over him or to forcing him to capitulate.

The Ribat Confronting Israel

Needless to say, such “ribatist” thinking clearly defines Hamas’s approach to the state of Israel.

After explaining how the Muslims intentionally devastated the Duero region of Spain — they later named it “the Great Desert” — French historian Louis Bertrand wrote the following (although dealing with the Medieval Christians of Spain, note, again, how very applicable this description is to the ribat confronting Israel, particularly the italicized sections):

To keep the [northern] Christians in their place it did not suffice to surround them with a zone of famine and destruction. It was necessary also to go and sow terror and massacre among them…. If one bears in mind that this brigandage was almost continual, and that this fury of destruction and extermination was regarded as a work of piety—it was a holy war [jihad] against infidels—it is not surprising that whole regions of Spain should have been made irremediably sterile. This was one of the capital causes of the deforestation from which the Peninsula still suffers. With what savage satisfaction and in what pious accents do the Arab annalists tell us of those at least bi-annual raids [across the ribat]. A typical phrase for praising the devotion of a Caliph is this: “he penetrated into Christian territory, where he wrought devastation, devoted himself to pillage, and took prisoners”…. At the same time as they were devastated, whole regions were depopulated. … The prolonged presence of the Musulmans, therefore, was a calamity for this unhappy country of Spain. By their system of continual raids they kept her for centuries in a condition of brigandage and devastation.

The West Has a Problem of Its Own Making

This historic expostulation on the nature and role of the ribat is important for two reasons. First, it makes clear what Israel is dealing with: a committed jihadist force that defines itself as serving no other purpose than the total annihilation of Israel — that sees itself as serving no other purpose than to “kill and be killed” as the Koran (9:111) advocates.

Secondly, it is a reminder that the so-called Muslim enclaves and “no-go” zones that proliferate throughout the West function as embryonic ribats: ghettoes of radicalization and jihadist activities targeting their immediate infidel neighbors — that is, their European host societies.

One crucial difference between history’s ribats and their modern day counterparts must not be passed over in silence. Ribats traditionally formed wherever Muslims could not, by force, go any further, thereby becoming frontier zones whence the jihad resumed. Conversely, today’s quasi-ribats — aka “enclaves,” “no-go zones,” etc. — are not located on the borders of non-Muslim regions but rather right smack in the middle of European nations. Moreover, those entering in and turning these Western regions into Islamic enclaves did not do so by force of arms but rather because they were welcomed in with open arms.

Put differently, if Israel “inherited” a ribat problem, the West created its own.


Raymond Ibrahim, author of Defenders of the West and Sword and Scimitar is the Distinguished Senior Shillman Fellow at the Gatestone Institute and the Judith Rosen Friedman Fellow at the Middle East Forum.

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