This is the fifteenth in a 19-week series from Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward by Nabeel Qureshi, author of Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. Weeks one through eighteen will cover eighteen questions people most commonly ask Qureshi about jihad and Islam. These questions explore the origins of jihad, the nature of jihad today, and the phenomenon of jihad in Judeo-Christian context. After answering these questions, Qureshi will conclude by proposing a response to jihad, in his view the best way forward. His concluding remarks will be presented in week nineteen.
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QUESTION # 15 – How Does Jihad Compare With Old Testament Warfare?
NO MATTER THE CONTEXT in which jihad is discussed, one question invariably arises: How can one condemn jihad in light of the violence in the Old Testament? It is one of the most common questions Qureshi encountered since jihad was cast into the public limelight. In fact, Qureshi had to address this question the morning he wrote this chapter to the book, during a Q&A session in Atlanta.
Qureshi writes, “I do not wish to argue in this chapter that the God of the Hebrew Bible is better than the God of the Qur’an, even though I am a Christian and will not be able to keep this chapter totally free of bias. Nor will I seek to defend the morality of the violence in the Old Testament per se; others have cultivated that task far more thoroughly and accurately than I could here.” As an example, Qureshi cites the 2014 book by Paul Copan and Matt Flannagan, Did God Really Command Genocide?
Qureshi is attempting merely to compare jihad, the Islamic doctrine of warfare, to incidents of Jewish warfare in the Old Testament. The two religious systems conceive of warfare differently, and only after we have understood the details can we analyze the morality and ethics of either.
APPLES TO APPLES
To begin, we must make sure we are comparing apples to apples. The Qur’an is a very different type of book than the Bible, and it is easy to confuse categories when comparing the two. The Qur’an consists almost entirely of Allah’s words in direct address (with a few notable exceptions, such as the words of worshipers in Surah 1). The Bible, on the other hand, contains many genres, including poetry, apocalyptic literature, wisdom literature, prophecy, and history.
This final genre means that the Bible recounts many events not endorsed by God, but simply recorded in God’s Word. Such events should not be placed in the same category as battles that God Himself commanded. The latter category is the one of interest for our purposes.
Qureshi has seen many polemic discussions focus on Genesis 34. In this account, Jacob’s daughter is raped by a Canaanite, and her brothers seek revenge by lying to the men of the Canaanite city and then killing all the males, looting corpses and houses, seizing flocks and herds, and taking women and children captive. Yet Yahweh never sanctioned this. It is inappropriate to consider this an attack that God had commanded. There are other attacks that Yahweh did endorse, such as the ones commanded in Deuteronomy 20:16-18, but we ought to keep these distinctions clear.
RULE NUMBER 1: WAIT 400 YEARS
A dear friend of Qureshi once said, “If you want to follow the biblical model of attaching a land, the first thing you have to do is wait 400 years.” According to Genesis 15:13-16, Yahweh said to Abraham, ‘Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own… [In] the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.” Warfare in the Old Testament was designed to purge the Promised Land of the Canaanites (a group of whom are the Amorites), and this was God’s promise to Abraham. That promise was fulfilled 400 years later, affording the Amorites many generations to repent and change their ways before the Hebrews finally attacked.
This is different from jihad in the Qur’an. Although at times there were buffer periods of a few months before Muslims would attack (9:2), that was not always the case, as with the Muslims’ attack on caravans. Additionally, the warfare the Qur’an commands is not due to any evil action, but rather due to the beliefs of non-Muslims, such as the Christian belief that Jesus is the Son of God (9:29-30).
THE CHOSEN PEOPLE
Another important matter to consider is that warfare in the Old Testament is not about subjugating inferior peoples. Yahweh does not promise the Jews that they are the best of people and that their enemies are less than they are. He makes this quite clear in Deuteronomy 9:4-6:
After the LORD your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, ‘The LORD has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.’ No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is going to drive them out before you. It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations… Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the LORD your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people.
In other words, the Hebrews were not inherently better than the Canaanites; they were a stubborn and stiff-necked people. Yahweh was not affirming the superiority of the Hebrews by giving them victory so much as judging the sins of the Canaanites.
The Qur’an, by contrast, envisions Muslims as the best people: “You are the best of all people, evolved for mankind” (3:110). It teaches that Jews and Christians who do not convert to Islam are the worst of all creation: “Those who do not believe [in Islam] from among the Jews and Christians and the idolators will go to hell. They are the worst of creatures” (98:6; see 98:1-5 for context). This is why the Qur’an in 9:33 commands Muslims to fight Jews and Christians, so that Allah may cause Islam “to prevail over all religions.”
Qureshi said, “I must emphasize that I am not cobbling together verses of the Qur’an to make a point here, but rather am highlighting those verses that were used by classical Muslim jurists and theologians to explain the foundational teachings of Islam. This view of jihad reigned from the tenth until the nineteenth centuries, which leads to the final, most important matter for our consideration.
A TRAJECTORY OF DOMINATION VERSUS A TRAJECTORY OF GRACE
As Qureshi explained in his answers to Questions 4 through 6, it is not just that battles are memorialized in the Qur’an, but also that the final chapter of the Qur’an is the most violent of all, commanding Muslims to fight and subdue non-Muslims. The title of the chapter is “the Disavowal,” and it disavows all treaties of peace that came before it.
Muhammad’s life moved from peaceful to violent in a crescendo, reflecting the trajectory of the Qur’an, and he died just after conquering the Arabian Peninsula. His words in the canonical collections were, “I have been ordered by Allah to fight against the people until they testify that none has the right to be worshiped but Allah and that Muhammad is Allah’s Messenger… [O]nly then will they save their lives and property from me” (Sahih Bukhari 1.2.25). Muslims are commanded to follow Muhammad’s example, and his example was jihad.
By contrast, the stories in the Old Testament do not enjoin Jews or Christians to fight today. Though commands to fight are recorded in the text, no Jew or Christian is commanded to memorialize these battles as ongoing conduct. They were a part of the history of Israel, certainly, but not a mandate or continuing command going forward. Qureshi adds, “Although I cannot speak fairly for the various branches of Judaism, I can speak for the Christian faith: Jesus is the exemplar of Christians, and His message was one of grace and love. The violent stories in the Old Testament, however we understand their moral justification, serve as little more than a historical footnote in the practice and expectation of the Christian life.”
This question deserves much deeper treatment than can be afforded to it here, especially the presence of God’s grace even in the Old Testament, and Jesus’ role in present and eschatological judgment. But when we compare apples to apples, we see that there is a great difference between jihad and violence in the Old Testament. An increasing trajectory of jihad was the model of Muhammad until the day he died, and he is the exemplar for Muslims. It was enjoined upon them, the best people in mankind, in the final commands of the Qur’an so that Islam could prevail over all other religions. Early and classical Muslims interpreted jihad accordingly, systematizing it into a doctrine and ultimately coming to dominate one-third of the known world.
By contrast, the violence in the Old Testament that God commanded occurred after 400 years of waiting. God reminded the Jews that the expulsion of other races was not because the Jews were the best of people, but because others had sinned. Ultimately, Old Testament warfare is not meant to be an example that Christians model their lives around today. The trajectory in Christianity is not from peaceful to violent, but vice versa.
Violence has a very different place in Islam and Christianity’s theological frameworks. The final marching order of Islam is jihad. The final marching orders of Christians are grace and love. Qureshi turns his attention to this matter in the next Question which I will cover next week.
Thanks for reading.
Please join me next Friday for Qureshi’s Question #16–What Does Jesus Teach About Violence? It is important for me to state that I do not support the religion of Islam ideologically or theologically. I am a Christian, who is a novice scholar of comparative religious study and an apologist. Indeed, Nabeel Qureshi is no longer a Muslim, having converted to Christianity after his exhausting study on the question of violence and jihad in Islam.