Editor’s note: New York Times bestselling author Nabeel Qureshi, a former Muslim, offers challenging, respectful answers to the many questions surrounding jihad, the rise of ISIS, and Islamic terrorism in his new book, Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward (Zondervan, 2016). Read on for a comparison of Old Testament warfare and jihad.
No matter the context in which I discuss jihad, one question invariably arises: How can you condemn jihad in light of the violence in the Old Testament?
I don’t wish to argue here that the God of the Hebrew Bible is better than the God of the Qur’an, even though I’m a Christian and won’t be able to remain totally free of bias. Nor will I seek to defend the morality of the violence in the Old Testament per se; others have done so far more thoroughly and accurately than I could here. For example, consider Paul Copan and Matt Flannagan’s 2014 book, Did God Really Command Genocide?.
I simply hope 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’ve understood the details can we analyze the morality of either.
Apples to Apples
We must first make sure we’re comparing apples to apples. The Qur’an is a very different type of book than the Bible, and it’s 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 (history) means the Bible recounts many events not endorsed by God, but simply recorded in his Word. Such events shouldn’t be placed in the same category as battles God himself commanded. The latter category is the one of interest for our purposes.
I’ve seen many polemical discussions, for example, focus on Genesis 34. Here 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 retaliation. It’s inappropriate, then, to view this as an attack God commanded. There are other attacks Yahweh did endorse, such as the ones commanded in Deuteronomy 20:16–18, but we ought to keep these distinctions clear.
Rule One: Wait 400 Years
I have a friend who once said, “If you want to follow the biblical model of attacking a land, the first thing you have to do is wait 400 years.” According to Genesis 15, Yahweh said to Abraham:
Know for certain that for 400 years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own. . . . [I]n the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure. (Gen. 15:13, 16)
Warfare in the Old Testament was designed to purge the Promised Land of the Canaanites (a group of whom were 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 wasn’t always the case, as with the attack on caravans. Additionally, the warfare the Qur’an commands isn’t due to any evil action, but rather to the beliefs of non-Muslims—such as the Christian belief Jesus is the Son of God (9:29–30).
Another important matter to consider is that Old Testament warfare wasn’t about subjugating inferior peoples. Yahweh didn’t promise the Jews that they’re the best of people and that their enemies are less than they are. He makes this quite clear in Deuteronomy 9:
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. (Deut. 9:4–6)
In other words, the Hebrews weren’t inherently better than the Canaanites; they too were a stubborn and stiff-necked people.
Yahweh wasn’t 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 don’t 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.”
I must emphasize that I’m not cobbling together verses of the Qur’an just to make a point. Instead, I’m highlighting those verses used by classical Muslims jurists and theologians to explain the foundational teachings of Islam. This view of jihad reigned from the 10th until the 19th centuries—which leads to the final, most important matter for our consideration.
Trajectory of Domination vs. Trajectory of Grace
It’s not just that battles are memorialized in the Qur’an, but also that its final chapter 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. Consider his words in the canonical collections:
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 don’t enjoin Jews or Christians to fight today. Though commands to fight are recorded in the text, no Jew or Christian is instructed to memorialize these battles as ongoing conduct. They were a part of Israel’s history, certainly, but weren’t a mandate or continuing command going forward.
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’s life.
Final Marching Orders
This question deserves much deeper treatment than I can give it here, particuarly regarding the presence of God’s grace even in the Old Testament and Jesus’s role in present and eschatological judgment. But when we compare apples to apples, we see there is a great difference between Islamic jihad and Old Testament violence. 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 among humanity—in the Qur’an’s final commands 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 Old Testament violence God commanded occurred after 400 years of waiting. And God reminded the Jews that the expulsion of other races wasn’t because the Jews were the best of people but because others had sinned.
Ultimately, Old Testament warfare isn’t meant to be an example Christians model their lives around today. In fact, the trajectory in Christianity isn’t from peaceful to violent, but the reverse (John 18:36; 2 Cor. 10:3–5).
Violence has a very different place in Islam and Christianity’s respective theological frameworks. The final marching order of Islam is jihad. But the final marching orders of Christians are grace and love.
Editors’ note: This article is adapted from Nabeel Qureshi’s new book Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward. Find it wherever books are sold. Used by permission of HarperCollins Christian Publishing.