Peace is holy, war is not. Nevertheless, holy war is today a main theme in the Western media. Wrongly seen by Westerners as an Islamic innovation, for Muslims it is a bitter reminder of the Crusades of the 12th and 13th centuries. But the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) have more to say about holy peace than holy war, and this is what we need to better explore in our religious and political discourse.
Annihilation at the Order of God
The roots of holy war are to be found in the Torah (which constitutes the first five books of the Hebrew Bible or Christian Old Testament) where the Israelites' experience after their Exodus from Egypt was presented in a bloody sacredness. Though the term holy war is not used in the Old Testament, other close terms were used such as "the battles of the Lord" (1 Samuel 25:28) and "the wars of the Lord" (Numbers 21:14).
Thousands of innocent people, including women and children, were indiscriminately slaughtered in order to prepare the ground for the Israelites' entry into the Holy Land. These Israelite wars of extermination were not in any sense justifiable self-defense, but an offensive war at the order of God — a God Who is presented in the Torah as a warrior: "The Lord is a warrior" (Exodus 15:3); and a soldier fighting on behalf of Israel: "The Lord will fight for you" (Exodus 14:14).
The idea of God supporting His people in the battlefield is not strange in any of the three Abrahamic faiths, nor is territorial expansion novel in the history of Christianity or Islam. What makes the Hebrew experience scripturally distinctive in this context is the legitimization of the indiscriminate extermination of a whole population through slaying every human soul in the defeated towns. The Jews believed they were given a divine order to kill every human being who became an obstacle in their way: "in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you" (Deuteronomy 20:16–17).
The warrior-God of the Torah warned the Israelites against showing any mercy or pity: "When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations … then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy" (Deuteronomy 7:1–2). This "divine" order was followed to the letter: "At that time we took all his towns and completely destroyed them—men, women and children. We left no survivors" (Deuteronomy 2:34).
Illustrating the texts of the Torah, British scholar Karen Armstrong concluded that "in a Jewish holy war, there was no question of coexistence, mutual respect, or peace treaties... When the Jews had to establish themselves in the Promised Land, ordinary morality ceased to apply" (8).
From Just War to Holy War
The idea of holy war was not conceivable in Christianity for almost a thousand years because Jesus was pacifist. But the destruction of the Roman Empire pushed Saint Augustine and other Christian theologians to look for scriptural justification for waging war. They developed a concept of just war strikingly similar to that of Islam.
The idea of holy war was not conceivable in Christianity for almost a thousand years because Jesus was pacifist.
Only a few verses in the New Testament would help a warmonger, such as these verses that make Jesus (peace be upon him) say "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10:34); "I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!" (Luke 12:49); "Do not think I came to bring peace on earth; No, I tell you, but division" (Luke 12:51); "those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them — bring them here and kill them in front of me" (Luke 19:27).
Some non-Christians took these verses as evidence of moral deficiency or logical inconsistency of the message of Jesus (peace be upon him), but most Christian theologians interpreted these texts metaphorically or understood them as an apocalyptic prediction, not a moral approval of violence. The "sword" and the "fire" in these verses were interpreted as the powerful word of Jesus and his spiritual light. The whole context of the words and deeds of Jesus (peace be upon him) supports such peaceful interpretations of the war language of the Gospels, though Jesus in his Second Coming will be far from pacifist — at least if we take seriously what some American evangelicals are saying about him today.
The criteria that make a war just in Christian classical theology include just cause, right intention, proportionality, probability of success, and immunity of non-combatants. These are very important principles from the moral and practical perspectives. But Christians did not give much attention to these principles during their Crusades against the Islamic world and the Byzantine Empire in the 12th and 13th centuries, and during their expansion throughout the New World and beyond. The guide to the Western wars since the 12th century is the extermination of Joshua and David, not the theology of Saint Augustine or Thomas Aquinas.
The Gospel of Jesus was not helpful to justify the new wars of extermination, but Christians found what they needed in the Old Testament (which constitutes about 75% of the Christian holy book). The initiators of the Crusades, such as Pope Urban II and Pope Innocent III, used the Old Testament more than the New Testament Gospels as a reference to justify their call for crusading — a call that led to two centuries of atrocities against Muslims of Palestine; brought suffering to Jews, Syrian Christians, and Byzantines; and devastated the Cathars of southern France who were seen as heretics. Needless to say that the barbarity of these 12th- and 13th-century Crusades left a deep wound that has ever since poisoned relations between the Islamic world and the West.
Sometimes Just but Never Holy
The theology of holy war has no place in Islam, and terms like holy war and war of God do not appear in any Qur'anic verses nor in any Prophetic hadith. But the concept of just war was a part of Islamic teaching since its inception. In Islam, God's grace is not to be separated from His justice, and the right of self-defense is a self-evident right. Therefore, war in Islam is a means to establish justice, but never a holy act.
Armstrong sees Islam as a middle way between the pacifism of Jesus and the annihilation of Joshua. Rejecting a common misconception in the West, Armstrong affirms that "Islam does not justify a total aggressive war of extermination, as the Torah does in the first five books of the Bible. A more realistic religion than Christianity, Islam recognizes that war is inevitable and sometimes a positive duty" (36). The Qur'an speaks of three grounds when it comes justification of war:
Armstrong sees Islam as a middle way between the pacifism of Jesus and the annihilation of Joshua.
First, fighting in self-defense. [ To those against whom war is made, permission is given to fight, because they are wronged; and verily, Allah is most powerful for their aid; those who have been expelled from their homes in defiance of right, for no cause except that they say "our Lord is Allah "] (Al-Hajj 22:39–40).
Second, defending people who cannot defend themselves from oppression and tyranny. [ How should ye not fight for the cause of Allah and of the feeble among men and of the women and the children who are crying: Our Lord! Bring us forth from out this town of which the people are oppressors! Oh, give us from Thy presence some protecting friend! Oh, give us from Thy presence some defender!] (An-Nisaa' 4:75).
Third, safeguarding religious freedom by protecting houses of worship, regardless of the faith of the worshipers. [ Had not Allah checked one set of people by means of another, there would surely have been pulled down monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques, in which the name of Allah is commemorated in abundant measure](Al-Hajj 22:40).
The Qur'an explicitly forbids the expansive use of the right of self-defense to initiate war: [ Fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! Allah loves not aggressors] (Al-Baqarah 2:190). And Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) established war ethics that strictly preserved non-combatants from the perils of war: "Do not be treacherous. Do not mutilate. Do not kill children… " (Muslim) Abu Bakr, his first successor in the leadership of the Muslim Ummah, ordered his army thus: "Do not betray or be treacherous. Do not mutilate. Do not kill the children, the aged, or the women. Do not cut palm trees or fruitful trees. Do not slay a sheep, a cow, or a camel except for your food. And you will come across people who confined themselves to worship in monasteries; leave them alone to what they devoted themselves for." (At-Tabari, volume 3, p. 213)
Playing the Empire Game
Someone might ask, if Islam is against aggressive wars, then why was there this long history of Islamic conquests that led to the establishment of an empire stretching from the borders of China to the heart of Spain? The answer is that in a world divided between empires, wars of expansion were not illegitimate. Empires did not have legally defined borders, nor did they have internationally agreed-upon norms of coexistence and diplomatic relations. What was and remains illegitimate is to annihilate the population or to convert them by force.
Islamic scripture did not ask Muslims to invade other people's lands, but Muslims played the empire game like anybody else when that game was the only available means of survival. No Muslim believes today that imperial expansion and colonization is justifiable because we are no longer living in a world of empires. The international system of today's world, though ineffective and manipulated by the powerful, is morally and legally binding because without it, mankind would go back to the bloody logic of the empires.
History puts Muslims on the highest level of nobility and humane treatment of the defeated.
Muslims subjugated many nations to the authority of their empire in the past, but they never coerced the people to convert to Islam, despite the fact that Islam is a proselytizing religion. The reason for this religious tolerance is unequivocal Qur'anic verses: [ Let there be no compulsion in religion: truth stands out clear from falsehood] (Al-Baqarah 2:256); [ Say (O Muhammad): This is the truth from the Lord of you all. Then whoever wishes let him believe, and whoever wishes let him disbelieve] (Al-Kahf 18:29). Moreover, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is told in the Qur'an that his mission is to teach and preach, not to impose or compel: [ Remind them, for you are only a reminder. You are not a coercer over them] (Al-Ghashiyah 88:21–22); [ You are not one to overawe them by force. So admonish with the Qur'an those who fear My Warning!] (Qaf 50:45).
In terms of war ethics, and within the traditions of the empires, history puts Muslims on the highest level of nobility and humane treatment of the defeated. In his book La Civilisation Arabe, the French historian and sociologist Gustav Le Bon affirmed that the world had never known a conqueror more merciful than Muslims.
From Holy War to Holy Peace
Though the three monotheistic faiths found one way or another to justify war for self-defense, they have much more to say about holy peace than about holy war, and the sanctity of the human life is the core of the teachings of all of these three faiths. Despite the problematic texts of the Torah we quoted before, a fair student of religion cannot ignore the fact that the oldest text on the sacredness of human life in the Abrahamic legacy is a text from the Torah, the fifth commandment that unambiguously warned "You shall not murder" (Exodus 20:13). Peace is presented in the Hebrew scripture as a great bounty from God, though it is not a universal peace for all, but an exclusive peace for Israel: "But those who turn to crooked ways the LORD will banish with the evildoers. Peace be upon Israel (Psalm 125:5); "And may you live to see your children's children. Peace be upon Israel" (Psalm 128:6).
In his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus emphasizes the virtues of peace saying "Blessed are the peacemakers" (Matthew 5:9) and telling his followers "Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also" (Mathew 5:39). God is repeatedly presented in the New Testament as "the God of peace" (Romans 15:33 and 16:33; Hebrews 13:20; Philippians 4:9), "the God of love and peace" (2 Corinthians 13:11) and the "Lord of peace" (2 Thessalonians 3:16). The New Testament unequivocally urges Christians to "be at peace with each other" (Mark 9:50) and to live in peace with other human beings: "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone" (Romans 12:18).
One of the beautiful names of God in Islam is "the Peace" (Al-Hashr 59:23) and His path is described as "the path of peace" (Al-Ma'idah 5:16). Muslims are invited in the Qur'an to "enter into peace" and to avoid war, which is depicted as a Satanic endeavor: [ O ye who believe! Enter into peace whole-h eartedly; and follow not the footsteps of Satan; for he is to you an avowed enemy] (Al-Baqarah 2:208).
Muslims are forbidden from waging war except for the aforementioned reasons: [ If they leave you alone, refrain from fighting you, and offer you peace, then God gives you no excuse to fight them] (An-Nisaa' 4:90). Muslims also have no option but to accept peace whenever the door to it is open, even when their enemy is not honest in his peaceful inclination: [ If the enemies incline towards peace, you must also incline towards peace, and trust in Allah: for He is the One who hears and knows all things. Should they intend to deceive you, then surely Allah is sufficient for you] (Al-anfal 8:61–62).
Foundations of Holy Peace
The way to holy peace is always open, and the three monotheistic faiths provide solid foundations for it. But holy peace requires a commitment to justice, honesty, and wisdom. It also requires a better interpretation of religious texts, by reading these texts within the context of God's grace, mercy, and benevolence.
The way to holy peace is always open, and the three monotheistic faiths provide solid foundations for it.
Justice is the foundation of holy peace. The Qur'an teaches that establishing justice is the goal of all messages and messengers of God: [ We sent aforetime our messengers with Clear Signs and sent down with them the Book and the Balance of Right and Wrong that humans may stand forth in justice] (Al-Hadid 57:25). Oppressors are always asking for "peace" and seeking "stability," but what they want is submission to their wrongdoings, the "peace of the graveyard" as one European philosopher rightly called it.
Honesty is another foundation of holy peace. Honesty means avoiding self-righteousness and self-justification. I was profoundly moved by the graphic description of the Holocaust atrocities in the Night of the great American Jewish novelist and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, and how he and his father passed through a terrifying process that degrades human life and dignity. But I was not impressed by the tone of self-righteousness and self-justification in Wiesel's Dawn, namely when he says "The commandment thou shalt not kill was given from the summit of one of the mountains here in Palestine, and we were the only ones to obey it. But that all over … in the days and weeks and months to come, you will have only one purpose: to kill those who have made us killers" (144).
Every Jew, Christian, and Muslim can claim some true and imagined virtues of the past for his or her people. However, building a holy peace for the future needs everyone to avoid using the past atrocities as a moral justification for the present aggression, occupation, and oppression. Moreover, the Palestinians of today are evidently not responsible for the wrongdoings of the Germans of yesterday.
Wisdom is the third foundation of holy peace. The definition of wisdom in the Arabic language is "putting everything in the right place." Wisdom is a combination of morality and practicality. Some chronic conflicts between individuals and nations are difficult to solve on the basis of justice only. Justice is sometimes too late or too costly. But these conflicts can be solved through wisdom. The goal of conflict resolution based on wisdom is to save the future, not to avenge the past. Since wisdom is a moral process, not a legal one, some level of compassion and forgiveness is necessary to reach a wise solution.
A sound interpretation of the holy texts is another challenge to the holy peace. Religion is a complex phenomenon and can be used as a practical guide for peacemaking and an effective tool for inciting war as well. The intensity of religious texts, and the ease of interpreting them in very different — even contradictory — ways, adds to the complexity of this issue. Because I read the Qur'an differently from some other Muslims, I understand why the pacifist Neturei Karta interprets the Torah differently from the belligerent Yesha Rabbinical Council, and why the pacifist Quakers read the Gospel differently from the apocalyptic Southern Baptists.
Holy peace is the way to discover our common humanity. But it requires a high level of intellectual courage, moral honesty, and a strong desire for forgiveness and reconciliation. A good place to start is to appreciate what the Other has and be honest about one's shortcomings and wrongdoings. No doubt that "it is distressing to examine the sins of one's own culture" (Armstrong xvi), but this painful self-examination is our only way to holy peace in today's world of violence and mistrust.
Armstrong, Karen. Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today's World. Anchor, 2001.
Wiesel, Elie. The Night Trilogy. Hill & Wang, 1987.