James M. Arlandson
Muslim polemicists sometimes assert that Allah commanded Muhammad to fight polytheists in the same way that God commanded Moses and Joshua to fight Canaanites (Sura 2:246-251). The two situations are similar, so why would Christians and Jews complain about Islamic jihad today?
However, the comparison between the two cultures is completely flawed.
This article leads us into the harsh realities behind some divine commands. If the reader believes that even the true God would never ordain any killing whatsoever, then he does not understand all of the Bible, and he or she should skip this article.
However, it should be pointed out, importantly, that Gods best is always to do good to people, and annihilation is not the sweep of the entire Old Testament; rather, this extreme decree is used only in exceptionally rare cases, especially concerning the Canaanites.
The Hebrew Bible says:
However, 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 . . . as the LORD your God has commanded you. (Deuteronomy 20:16-17, NIV)
It must be admitted that from our perspective two thousand years after Christ came, this passage is difficult emotionally. But we must place ourselves around 1,400 years before Christ. This present article may help us to do this.
The Quran says:
9:1 A release by God and His Messenger from the treaty you [believers] made with the polytheists [is announced]2 you [polytheists] may freely move about the land for four months, but you should bear in mind both that you will not escape God, and that God will disgrace those who ignore [Him] . . . 5 When the [four] forbidden months are over, wherever you find the polytheists, kill [q-t-l] them, seize them, besiege them, ambush thembut if they turn [to God], maintain the prayer, and pay the prescribed alms, let them go their way, for God is most forgiving and merciful. (MAS Abdel Haleem, The Quran, Oxford UP, 2004)
Muhammad is warning polytheists that he is canceling treaties with them or letting the treaties expire according to their terms, but they will not be renewed. Hence, polytheists must either convert or be killed (q-t-l). This Arabic root means killing, warring, and slaughtering.
This passage in the Quran comes 600 years after Christ, who showed us a better way, so the passage is doubly hard to accept.
At least five major factors make the comparison between Allah and God misguided and weak. In this article, God means the God of the Bible, whereas Allah means the god of the Quran.
1. The historical span of Quranic and Biblical history must be considered.
The Old Testament books covers around 1,400 hundred years before Christ, and God did not send out leaders to wage war in most of these years. For example, the Book of Judges alone says that ancient Hebrews enjoyed many decades of peace between each judge who was raised up in order to fight off aggression, sometimes as long as eighty years, longer than Muhammads 63 years (Judges 3:11, 31; 5:31; 8:28, to cite only these examples).
In Islam, Muhammad lived in Medina for only ten years (AD 622-632). In this brief time, he either sent out or went out on seventy-four raids, expeditions, or full-scale wars. They range from small assassination hit squads to eliminate anyone who insulted him, to an Islamic Crusade during which Muhammad led 30,000 jihadists against Byzantine Christians.
Allah compelled Muhammad to fight often in his ten years according to the evidence in the Quran and Islamic history, but the true God for over 1,400 years did not wage nearly as many wars per year in Israels existence according to the Bible and Biblical history.
2. The Canaanites were beyond hope, whereas the Arab polytheists could be converted.
In the Old Testament, sometimes God commands all inhabitants of a region or town to be wiped out entirely, like Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:16-19:29), The Quran also approves of this destruction (Suras 7:80-84; 11:77-83; 15:61-77; 26:165-173; 27:54-58; 29:28-30). This is the big lesson of the Genesis passage. If God had found even only ten righteous in those cities, then he would not have destroyed them. But he did destroy them, so Sodom and Gomorrah did not have even ten righteous, except Lot and his family, who were forewarned and escaped.
An analysis by Samuel J. Schultz in his basic introduction to the Old Testament describes the irretrievable degradation of the Canaanites. After describing the Canaanite deities, he writes of the Canaanite people:
Since the gods of the Canaanites had low moral character, it is not surprising that the morality of the people was extremely low. The brutality and immorality in the stories about these gods is far worse than anything found in the Near East . . . The Canaanites in Joshuas day practiced child sacrifice, sacred prostitution, and snake worship in their rites and ceremonies associated with religion. Naturally their civilization degenerated under this demoralizing influence. (Samuel J. Schultz, The Old Testament Speaks, 2nd ed., New York: Harper and Row, 1970, p. 92)
Thus, by comparison with surrounding nations in the Near East, which were not beacons of monotheism and righteousness, to say the least, the Canaanites practiced religious rituals far worse than surrounding nations in the Ancient Near East. Carthage, a city on the North African coast and settled by Phoenicians, who were part of the Ancient Near East, has yielded countless baby skeletons that had been used in sacrifice. So these people were too far gone.
It must be clearly repeated that according to the Bible no region or town that had a hope of repentance or righteousness was ever wiped out. But when it was, then we can be sure that God was acting wisely and justly, even if our modern emotions do not like this aspect of Gods character.
See this lengthy article on how the Canaanites were worse than the surrounding pagan nations. The article also has a thorough explanation of Gods severe decree.
In contrast, Allah never commanded Muhammad to wipe out all the inhabitants of a region or town in Arabia at first. Rather, Allah and his prophet killed some and let others live, based on whether they accepted Islam. Evidently, the pagans of Arabia were not beyond hope.
Therefore, the historical context in Arabia 600 years after Christ is the exact opposite of the situation in Canaan 1400 years before Christ. Jesus ushered in a new era of salvation, and Christianity made some impact in Arabia. Hence, Muhammads treaties with pagans differ widely from Gods command to Moses and Joshua in their historical timeframes.
Allahs and Muhammads policy of letting some pagans live and killing others in the same tribe necessarily means that the pagans of Arabia were not as hopelessly degenerate as the utterly annihilated Canaanites wereso Allah and Muhammad should never have waged war on them in the first place. Granted that the pagans of Arabia were not completely righteous, they still had hope and light that the Canaanites did not. But it is more accurate to say that Allahs and Muhammads policy is ad hoc and confused.
The fact that Muhammad kept calling Arab pagans to convertand some didmeans that they were not beyond hope, so the parallel between God and Allah in the convertibility of the different pagans in the widely different historical contexts (ancient Israel and Late Antiquity Arabia) breaks down.
This therefore means that the comparison between the two historical periods is misguided.
3. God is very specific about who should be wiped out entirely and who should live, whereas Allah feels his way.
Gods decrees are clear and specific, based on his wisdom. Here are four examples. First, God decreed that Edom should live, for the Edomites descended from Esau, the brother of Jacob. They were also outside of the Promised Land (Numbers 20:14-21; Deuteronomy 2:4-6). Second, God decreed that the Midianites should be battled because of their seduction of the people of God into a specially degraded immorality and idolatry (Numbers 25:1-18; and 31:1-54). Third, in the textual context of laying down the rules of warfare, the ancient Hebrews were commanded to offer peace to the pagan cities outside of the Promised Land of Canaan. But if these cities refused peace, then the Hebrews were to battle them. After victory, the pagan women and children were spared, but the men were killed (Deuteronomy 20:10-15). Fourth, in the same textual context of warfare, all cities within the Promised Land should be wiped out (Deuteronomy 20:16-18).
In these policies that are related to blood-ties, special punishments, geographical distance from Canaan (see point no. 5, below), and the Promised Land itself, God is very specific and very clearthough admittedly severe. He has a divine foundation and explanations for his tough actions. He was not growing in knowledge and feeling his way, for he laid out these policies before battle began and before the ancient Hebrews entered the Promised Land.
This divine clarity does not mean that the ancient Hebrews carried out Gods decrees perfectly; they did not. For example, Joshua failed to consult the Lord in the Gibeonite deception, so he failed to wipe them out (Joshua 9). In the period of the Judges, Israels disobedience was worse. But Gods command was still clear. So the peoples disobedience did not mean that the decrees were unclear or evolving or changing. Their disobedience is just thatdisobedience on the human level.
Further, God was not feeling his way, decreeing annihilation on one people to the next in an ad-hoc way, based, for example, on the ancient Hebrews military might. God said to them: "When you go to war against your enemies and see horses and chariots and an army greater than yours, do not be afraid of them" . . . (Deuteronomy 20:1). God decreed this goal of purging the land without concern for the size of the military of the ancient Hebrews or their enemiesbefore the Hebrews started the conquests. He did not send down progressive revelations of letting some live and others die, strictly because of fluctuating circumstances that God learns about from one moment from the next.
In contrast, Muhammads god fluctuates according to circumstances. He goes from one treaty or command to the next in regard to the polytheists in Arabia.
It is difficult to trust that Allah can read the pagans hearts, as Muhammad progressed in his revelations from peace with pagans (and Jews) to their deaths in some cases, but not in others, even at the same time and in the same region, based on his military power. For example, early on, Allah and Muhammad wanted to purify the Kabah shrine, but they were unable militarily (Sura 2:125-126; 190-195). Then, nine years later, after they grow in military power, they set out to purify (read: conquer) Arabia. After this is mostly accomplished, they set out to conquer the Byzantine Empire. Thus, Allah and Muhammad do not act thoroughly, but stumblingly, based on military strength, not a secure divine decree.
Specifically, in Arabia alone, Allah and Muhammad sign the Treaty of Hudaybiyah with Meccan pagans in AD 628. He was caught in a tight squeeze, so he agreed, under Allahs guidance, to live peacefully with the Meccans. Then a year later Muhammad finds (in his own mind) probable cause to break the treaty. Then even later than that, according to Sura 9:1-5, quoted above, Allah permits Muhammad unilaterally to break treaties with polytheists, but in other cases he keeps the treaties until their expiration date. Even the highly respected Muslim commentator Sayyid Abul ALa Maududi says in his comment on those Quranic verses that Muhammad did not fight polytheists sometimes because he was too weak, so he settled for a treaty. But when he became strong, he terminated the treaties (unilaterally) in Sura 9:1-5 (The Meaning of the Quran, vol. 2, p. 218, note 82). This implies that Muhammad and his god should never have waged war on the Arab polytheists in the first place, 600 years after Christ came.
Allahs zigzagging differs entirely from the true Gods clarity in the Old Testament. God does not change his mind based on a surprising circumstance that he does not seem to foresee. In severe decrees especially, God is not in training or in process, as seen in progressive revelations.
Thus, the true God is clear and stable in his severe, divine commands, whereas Allah is unclear and fluctuating in his severe commands. This is significant because Allah gives the impression of feeling his way, but God is decisive.
4. Who was attacked?
In the Bible, the true God orders warfare only against Canaanites who were too far gone in their decadence. Let us assume, contrary to fact, that a nation neighboring Israel was made up of ethical monotheists. Would the true God decree that a war should be waged against them? To reason deductively, Deuteronomy 20:10-15 says explicitly not to attack nearby pagans outside of Canaan. Also, Jonah preached to Nineveh hundreds of miles away, and the inhabitants of this city were neither degraded Canaanites nor monotheists. Jonah preached good news. So how much more would God not attack a nation if it were made up of monotheists?
The bottom line is this: the only reason that God ordered these wars after the Exodus was to purge a small and specific land (see no. 5, below). He did not ordain wars of conquest outside of Israel to spread the Hebrew religion around the known world. If the Hebrew religion were spread, it was done by proclamation, as seen in the calling of Jonah.
On the other hand, Muhammad waged war on polytheists, and Muslims believe that these polytheists were also too far gone morallya questionable belief as seen in point no. two, but let us assume it only for the sake of argument. Then problems still emerge.
Namely, Muhammad also attacked Jews and Christians, who are monotheists.
As for the Christians, Muhammad embarked on an Islamic Crusade against the Byzantines in AD 630. The Byzantines never showed up, so Muhammad the prophet believed a false rumor that the Byzantines were mustering a large army to invade Arabia. But along the way he extracted agreements and protection money from Arab Christians (and Jews) so that they would not be attacked again by Muhammad. Allah ordained wars of conquest outside of Arabia in order to spread Islam by military force. Muhammad and his deity wanted either conversion (the converted paid a "charity" or zakat tax) or money in a jizya tax on the unconverted. Either way, money flowed into the Islamic treasury back in Arabia.
As for Muhammads attacks on the Jews of Medina, they were not as degenerate as the polytheists in Muhammads times. At first, Muhammad wanted to be accepted by the Jews, for they held to the Torah. But the Jews rightly rebuffed him as being outside of Biblical revelation and as being a gentile. As the conflict with them grew and Allahs and Muhammads military power grew, their policy progressively changes, but never improves; it devolves. He clears the Jews out of Medina first by exile (Qaynuqa tribe); then by military besiegement and exile (Nadir tribe); and finally by extermination of the men and enslavement of the women and children, except he kept a beautiful Jewish woman for himself (Qurayza tribe). In this gradual elimination, Muhammad waged a propaganda war, dehumanizing some of the Jews by calling them "apes" and "pigs" (Suras 7:166; 2:65; 5:60).
For more on this dubious policy on the Jews, please refer to this article, where the standard lines of defense put forward by Muslims are answered.
These changes in Allahs policies on Christians and Jews reveal that Allahs decrees are based on the shifting sands of circumstances, such as military power or weakness, and progressive revelations. He wants to be accepted by both of them at first, but they reject him, so his militancy grows according to those circumstances.
Certainly, the God of Israel would never have exterminated a city that had ten righteous citizens. That is the lesson of Genesis 18:16-19:29, in which Abraham questioned Gods decree to destroy these cities. On the other hand, Muhammad did not kill Jews and Christians to rid Arabia of dark polytheism because the Jews and Christians are not polytheists. So Muhammads warpath is confused. Moses and Joshua were commanded to rid Canaan of paganism that had become darker than the paganism found in the ancient Near East. Any comparison between the two divergent cultures at the time of Moses and at the time of Muhammad is seriously flawed.
Muhammads attacks on monotheists, besides polytheists, in and outside of Arabia demonstrate beyond all doubt that Allah and God at war are worlds apart.
5. Geography is a factor.
God told the ancient Hebrews to cleanse the land of Canaan, but not to do this to surrounding nations (Deuteronomy 20:10-15). To repeat points in nos. three and four, the only reason these wars after the Exodus were decreed was to purge a small and specific land. God did not ordain the conquest of large regions far beyond Israel, in order to spread the Hebrew religion. It is true that King David grew so powerful that he asked tribute of surrounding nations, but by the next generation Israel became divided: Israel in the north, and Judah in the south. True, Jeroboam II expanded northern Israels borders a few decades before the fall of the northern kingdom, but the entire land of Israel, from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River, is about the size of New Jersey (or a little bigger depending on the historical timeframe), one of the smallest states in the US. How does this temporary expansion of Israels power compare to the Assyrian, Babylonian, or Egyptian Empires? How does this compare to the Islamic Empire within only a few decades after the death of Muhammad in AD 632?
In contrast, Muslims could claim that Allah told Muhammad to cleanse only Arabia of polytheists, but Allah also tells his prophet and his successors to expand beyond this region to conquer other territories, like the Persian and Byzantine Empires and a city like Jerusalem. Thus, ancient Israel had a completely different calling that is related specifically to their land, which is small geographically, whereas Islam waged war on peoples of distant lands, far beyond Arabia.
It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of "the land" in Biblical history. God wanted only a specific land to be purified, not worldwide conquest. But Allah waged war on the entire known world. Gods severe decree to Moses and Joshua was confined, restricted, and specific: the Canaanites; Allahs severe decree to Muhammad was not. Allah wants the whole world by military conquest. Thus, Moses and his successors and Muhammad and his successors are completely different as their goals relate to geography, so the comparison of them is flawed and untenable.
Therefore, for these five reasons a comparison between the true God and Allah at war is erroneous. They are worlds apart.
A Christian Perspective
For Christians, this debate is academic, anyway, because they believe that the first coming of Jesus Christ, 600 years before Muhammad, ushered in a new era of salvation, a way to God that excels the one offered in the Old Testament, and much better than the one offered in the Quran; thus, Muhammads wars on polytheists were misguided from the start, for historical and theological reasons.
History demonstrates that Muhammad should have never waged war on polytheists or anyone else, for that matter.
Christians honor the Old Testament and regard it as inspired, but at the same time they acknowledge that it was written for its own times; they also believe that Christ fulfilled it, and hence they must rise above such commands as animal sacrifices, diet restriction, and wars over geopolitical "holy" sites like Jerusalemwhat the Emperor Constantine and the Medieval Crusaders did is not foundational to Christianity; only Christ is. With that said, no Christian should ever believe that the God of the Old Testament and the New Testament are different. They are not. The same God who purified the specific land of Canaan through Joshua by military warfare is now purifying the whole world through Jesus (the Hebrew name is Joshua) by spiritual warfare, that is, by preaching the gospel.
For more information on how Jesus fulfills the Old Testament, click on this article.
Moreover, before and at the time of Christ, the Romans, under the influence of critical and rationalistic Greek philosophers, established laws and law courts around the larger Greco-Roman world; though they were not perfect, at least they stopped the law of the jungle from prevailing. Thinkers contemplated natural justice, and this produced many righteous people (cf. Romans 2:1-16).
Muhammads Arabia, though not heavily influenced by Roman culture, still had the seeds of righteousness and monotheism sown into its soil through Jewish communities in Medina and elsewhere, and Christian communities scattered here and there, especially along trade routes, on which caravans and ideas traveled. Therefore, the vastly different historical contexts between Moses and Joshua and Muhammad rule out any parallels, especially when Christ appeared to mediate between the two divergent historical contexts.
But the challenge to Muhammads path of jihad is also theological.
It is basic Christian belief (and devout Jewish belief) that it takes time for the light of ethical monotheism to transform the world around it for the better (though it will not succeed one hundred percent), and by Muhammads time, that light penetrated into Arabia. Christ died for all peoples everywhereeven for the Arab polytheists whom Muhammad slaughtered. Christs sacrificial death clears the way to heaven for everyone who believes and trusts in him. The Holy Spirit is available for all people, and he woos them to Christ, as the true Word of God is preached. In the new era of salvation, the anno domini, in the year of the Lord Jesus, the Arab polytheists were not beyond hope of conversion by peaceful means (though one hundred percent may not convert).
Thus, Muhammad should never have set out to kill them. And forcing their conversions by the sword was never the answer, either. It must be admitted, though, that the Arab Christian church in the early seventh century did not seem up to the task of preaching the gospel powerfully enough to ensure the peaceful conversions of multitudes to Christbut that churchs shortcoming does not change the eternal, Scriptural blueprint for the salvation and hope that Christ brings with his life, death, and resurrection, even for the Arab polytheists.
A prominent Iranian Muslim scholar living in the US, Seyyed H. Nasr, says that Muhammad was different from Christ (read: better than Christ) because Muhammad participated in the world in order to transform it, like the prophet-kings of the Old Testament, whereas Christ "retired" from it (Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Muhammad: Man of God, Chicago: Kazi, 1995, p. 46). (Nasr also says that the Buddha retired from the world, but even this assertion is wrong.)
Nasrs purpose is to obliquely defend Muhammads warfare and violence by linking them to the Old Testament way of Gods dealing. But this assessment of Christ and Muhammad is wrong on three points.
First, Nasrs assessment misrepresents the life of Christ who participated and transformed the world around him. He healed the sick, cast out demons, raised the dead, challenged kings and governors, and dodged the traps set by religious leaders. He was even almost thrown off a cliff by an angry mob, but he confidently walked away (Luke 4:28-30). He did not seek revenge on them, as Muhammad did on the Meccans who persecuted him (Sura 8:39). Christ loved sinners; he did not kill them. It is clear, then, that Christ did not retreat from the world.
Second, comparing Muhammad to the prophet-kings is to insult them, given the contrast between the Old Testament and Muhammad. The true Gods severe commands better be clearwhich is not the case with Allahs commands. This unclarity therefore calls into question whether the true God gave Muhammad these commands in the first place, commands to kill polytheists or Jews or Christians on one day, but not on another, merely because Muhammads military power fluctuated. Thus, God and Moses and his successors rise above Allah and Muhammad and his successors. God and Allah are worlds apart.
Third, even if we were to assume, contrary to fact, that the comparison between Muhammad and the prophet-kings of the Old Testament were somewhat close, then that would be sufficient grounds for Christians to reject Muhammad, because Jesus fulfills and completes the Old Testament. Jesus said about John the Baptist, the last prophet of the Old Testament era, representing Elijah: "[anyone] who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than [John]" (Matthew 11:11). Now that the New Testament era has appeared, the ordinary believer is greater than the last of the Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ. Gods kingdom has taken a new direction. Therefore, why would any Christian want to follow a prophet who is modeled after the Old Testament? Muhammad revives a diluted, derivative old law, which is not even as good as the Old Law, the Torah.
To sum up, on the controversial issue of killing in obedience to divine decree, Muhammad and his successors fall short of Moses and his successors in the Old Testament, and Muhammad falls far, far short of Christs new way of converting sinners in the New Testament. Islam does not complete the two earlier western religions; rather, it strays too far from them in the wrong direction. Therefore, Islam should never be placed above Judaism, and especially above Christianity.
Therefore, Muhammad was a deformer, not a reformer of Judaism and Christianity.
Jesus saves. Muhammad killed.
This short and succinct article, filled with references from the Old Testament, explains Gods wars in the Old Testament. This one replies to Muslim polemics.
Articles by James Arlandson
Answering Islam Home Page