Throughout human history, control over the lands of al-Shām have frequently passed from the hands of one group to another. The strategic, geographic location of al-Shām at the crossroads of three continents by land and two continents by sea have made it uniquely prone to conquests by competing empires. Despite its vulnerability to incursions from outside powers, al-Shām also represents a powerful gateway—one that can either stop the forces of evil from spreading to other lands, or one that can open the way for the forces of good to expand further.
The Prophet ﷺ foresaw many of these dynamics, emphasizing the continual role that the people of al-Shām (including those of Gaza and Palestine as a whole) would play in fighting for the sake of God (jihād), defending Muslim lands against invaders, and grappling with internal conflicts. The Prophet’s companion, ʿAbdullāh ibn Ḥawālah, narrated that the Prophet ﷺ said,
The matter will come to the point where you will be enlisted as soldiers: a group in al-Shām, a group in Yemen, and a group in Iraq. Ibn Ḥawālah said, “Advise me, O Messenger of Allah, if I live to see that.” The Prophet ﷺ replied, “Choose al-Shām, for it is the chosen land of Allah, where He selects the best of His servants. But if you refuse, then choose Yemen, and drink from your own basins. Indeed, Allah has guaranteed me al-Shām and its people.”
After narrating this hadith, the eminent Successor (sing. tābiʿī pl. tābiʿīn) and the Damascan Judge Abū Idrīs al-Khawlānī (d. 80/699) used to remark, “Whomsoever God takes care of, they will not be lost.”
A selection of hadiths also extol Ashkelon (ʿAsqalān), a city now located 13 kilometers north of the border with the Gaza Strip. Such hadiths commend the city for being dedicated to defending Muslim lands, an endeavor known as ribāṭ. This Qur’anic term has garnered various contextual and interdisciplinary interpretations, but in this context, it has evolved over time to signify diverse military and/or religious establishments designed to defend Muslim territories. Such establishments were situated in perilous regions, on frontiers, along coasts, or on challenging internal routes. The Prophet ﷺ was reported to have said,
The beginning of this affair is prophethood and mercy, then it will be caliphate and mercy, then it will be kingship and mercy, then it will be rulership and mercy, and then it will turn into biting like the bite of a predatory animal. So, upon you is jihād, and indeed, the best of your jihād is ribāṭ, and the best of your ribāṭ is in Ashkelon.
Due to the close proximity of Ashkelon to Gaza, some Muslim geographers considered Gaza to be a part of it. Although al-Shāfiʿī is commonly believed to have been born in Gaza, as mentioned earlier, some biographical dictionaries also present an alternate view that he was born in Ashkelon. Acknowledging both perspectives, the eminent Shāfiʿī jurist al-Nawawī (d. 676/1277) remarked, “Both are part of the sacred lands that Allah has blessed, being approximately 80 km away (marḥalatayn) from Jerusalem.” This association between Ashkelon and Gaza led them to share the same virtue of ribāṭ.
The dedication to ribāṭ by the people of Jerusalem and its surrounding areas, including Gaza, was also emphasized by the Prophet ﷺ in the following hadith,
There will always be a group from my ummah manifestly upon the truth, not being harmed by those who forsake them, until the command of Allah comes while they are in that state.
Another rendition of the hadith includes the companions asking the Prophet ﷺ, “O Messenger of Allah, where are they?” To which he replied, “In Jerusalem and its surroundings.” Though some hadith experts doubt its authenticity, reports attributed to the Prophet ﷺ, his Companions, and the Successors affirm the existence of this group in al-Shām.
It’s important to note that Muslim scholars did not attribute the virtuous status of these ribāṭ locations to inherent characteristics of the land or its inhabitants. Instead, they associated the virtue specifically with the ongoing activities of ribāṭ in these areas. Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1328) clarified the origin of this virtue as follows,
The majority of the common themes found in the writings of early scholars regarding the virtues of Ashkelon, Alexandria, Acre, Qazvin, and others, as well as the reports about righteous individuals associated with these locations, assert that the virtue is attributed to these places being frontiers, not due to any specific quality inherent to the locations themselves. The categorization of a place as a frontier for Muslims or otherwise is seen as a circumstantial characteristic, not an intrinsic one. It is comparable to a zone of war or peace, a center of knowledge and faith or ignorance and hypocrisy—factors that vary based on the residents and their characteristics.
As such, many righteous Muslims and scholars intentionally selected these specific locations as their places of residence to secure the promised reward of safeguarding the Muslim lands. Among those who relocated to Ashkelon for the sake of ribāṭ were the Companion Abū Rayḥānah al-Azdī and the great-grandson of ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb, ʿUmar ibn Mūḥammad ibn Zayd ibn ʿAbdullāh ibn ʿUmar, who died there during his ribāṭ, earning the appellation ʿAsqalānī. Furthermore, the tābiʿī and Mecca’s mufti ʿAṭāʾ ibn Rabāḥ (d. 114/732) devoted 40 days annually to ribāṭ in Ashkelon. Similarly, the renowned Kufan tābiʿī Sufyān al-Thawrī (d. 161/778) engaged in ribāṭ on the Ashkelon coast for a period of 40 days.
The aim of ribāṭ is to safeguard Muslim lands and honor. Al-Bukhārī (d. 256/870) titled one of the chapters in his collection “A Chapter on the Merit of Performing Ribāṭ for One Day for the Sake of Allah and on Allah’s Saying, ‘You who believe, preserve, endure, and be ready (rābiṭū).’” In his esteemed commentary, the hadith expert Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī (d. 852/1449), associated with his hometown Ashkelon, asserted that commencing this topic with this verse aligns with the interpretations of the early exegetes (salaf). He then referenced several tābiʿīn who interpreted the verse as a call to persevere in obedience to God, endure the hardships of fighting enemies, and be prepared to repel any attack.
Whether through its connection to the lineage of the Prophet ﷺ, being chosen by Allah, or being honored as a location of ribāṭ, Gaza’s special status is firmly entrenched in our Islamic teachings and history.