Soaring oil prices, reaching new highs with no end in sight – will it hit $200 a barrel, or $300? – dominate headlines. No one is immune to the effects of the rising costs of energy. America alone consumes over 22 million barrels of oil a day, 25% of the world’s total.
Some are bemoaning the West’s addiction to oil. Others see in this escalating crisis the incentive and opportunity to discover new sources of energy. Where are we headed? There are many angles to this story. But perhaps the most important angle of all is overlooked: The soaring prices of oil bring to the fore the defining conflict of our times – the confrontation between Islam and the West. Every price hike further strangles the West’s energy addiction as they pay for their fix, which directly enriches and empowers the Arab world. [Just for contrast: in 1946 the cost of a barrel of crude oil was $1.17. In 1972 it was $3.00 a barrel. Today it is hovering at about $120 per barrel].
With oil at the heart of this power struggle, I decided to research when this shift of power began. Would you believe it? This week is exactly one century since oil was first discovered in the Middle East: On May 26, 1908 British geologists discovered oil at Masjid-i-Suleiman in southwest Persia.
What is significant about this centennial? You may recall that a few weeks ago this column (The Calling of Our Generation) addressed a prescient Chassidic discourse delivered in 1908 – at the dawn of the 20th century – about the challenges that would unfold in the coming years, namely the confrontations between the two empires: Edom and Ishmael, the Western world (descendants of Rome, Edom) and the Islamic Ottoman Empire (descendants of Ishmael).
Is it a coincidence that oil was discovered in the Arab world in the same year (1908) when the Ottoman Empire began to dissolve, and the Rebbe Rashab defined the battles to come between the Arab/Muslims and the West?!
Ostensibly, superficially, this concurrence of events and distribution of power may seem inconsequential. But from a global, historical perspective a crucial trend is apparent.
The confrontation between the West and the Arab/Muslim world goes back to the time of Abraham almost four millennia ago: The battles between Ishmael, Isaac, Esau and Jacob – ancestors of todays Arabs/Muslims, Westerners and Jews respectively (see Abraham’s Vision: The Root of Today’s Conflicts).
These battles define a recurrent thread that runs through history. Especially over the last two thousand years the children of Ishmael and Esau have been at each others throats, with the children of Jacob and Israel always in the middle. Dominance and supremacy has shifted from power to another. First the Roman Empire was in control, followed by the Byzantines. Then the Muslim Ottoman Empire came to power. For centuries the balance of power would fluctuate from one to the other. Then, in 1908, with the decline of the Ottoman Empire, the Western Empires returned to power.
At the time, it seemed that the West (Esau) had prevailed, particularly following the Allies victories in the two World Wars. But as the 20th century wore on, lo and behold: Who reappears? The children of Ishmael! As petroleum grew into the primary energy that would fuel the engine of the Western world – oil being the lifeblood of the world’s economy – power would shift to the Ishmaelite Kingdoms, up to the point today that they have the ability to blackmail and strangle the world, with no end in sight.
Yet another monkey wrench thrown into the 20th Century quagmire. As Ishmael’s power began to wane (with the fall of the Ottoman Empire), the seeds of their resurgence were buried deep beneath their lands, in the shape of oil and fossil fuels, that would provide them with enormous wealth and the power to hold Esau (the West) hostage.
Who could have written a more surprising script: Without oil the Arab countries would be no more significant than another third world country. At the turn of the 20th Century the Arab countries seemed all but powerless. One century ago, the discovery of oil has empowered then with the energy that fuels the entire earth!
Indeed, the classical mystical text of the Zohar (II 32b) describes the power that Ishmael’s progeny will wield at the end of days.
Why did G-d give them this power – the keys to the energy of the West? For two reasons: 1) As a son of Abraham, G-d blesses Ishmael – “As for Ishmael, I have heard you: behold, I will bless him and make him fruitful, increasing his numbers very greatly, and I will make him a great nation,” fulfilling Abraham’s request “O that Ishmael might live before You” (Genesis 17:17;20).
2) Ishmael’s power balances out the extreme aggressions of Esau over the generations. As the Zohar elaborates, “the sons of Ishmael will fight mighty battles in the world, and the sons of Edom will gather against them, and make war against them, some on land, others on sea, and some close to Jerusalem, and one shall prevail over the other.”
The battles between Esau and Ishmael, spiritually and psychologically speaking, reflect the tension between integrating our material world with its Divine purpose. From, the times of Abraham till the present this has been the defining challenge, and each of his children have gone their way to try and find the path of balance.
3320 years ago at Sinai the children of Esau and Ishmael rejected the Divine mandate that provides a blueprint how to transform the physical universe into a Divine home. As the year passed, these nations slowly began accepting the Sinai principles of civilization. Yet, as long as spirit and matter remain at odds hostilities persist between the children of Abraham.
These battles will continue until the nations of the world come to realize that they must make their peace with the Divine, and reunite as children of Abraham under one G-d – fulfilling the prophecy “then I will turn to the peoples a pure language that they may all call upon the name of G-d to serve him with one consent” (Chaggai 3:9), and on that day “G-d will be one and His name one” (Zecharia 14:9), as the Zohar concludes: “Blessed be the Lord for ever and ever. Amen and amen.”
When we study the events of the past century, in historical context of the ongoing battles between Ishmael and Edom, and we see the power of oil rising to being the prominent commodity of our times – pitting the Middle East against the West – is there a more plausible explanation to understand these circumstances than the spiritual/historical one?
Peace in Abraham’s home, harmony between his children, drives the forces of history. As long as Ishmael, Esau and Jacob have not made their peace the story continues. Now the story is coming to its conclusion; the stage is set: Ishmael has the power to confront Esau and Jacob with their wealth of oil. The presenting question is: Will the nations behave as is befitting the children of Abraham?
And what is the solution? Resolution will come only when the nations of the world recognize and accept the Sinai message that they rejected 3320 years ago (see Esau, Ishmael and Sinai).
Interestingly, oil itself is the best metaphor for transforming the material universe into spiritual fuel; how to dig and excavate the earth and uncover its powerful potential; how each of is charged with the mission of revealing the Divine energy that lies within every fiber of existence, ultimately converting matter into light and warming our cold universe.
Something to think about next time you fill up your car with gas – paying per gallon $4 and counting…