War in Monotheistic Religions – Islam

July 11 - WAr in Monotheistic religion

In the new millennium, the term ‘holy war’ has come in such a frequent use that nearly everyone is ready to offer its interpretation. In her book “Holy War”, Karen Armstrong, a renowned modern religion writer, takes a detailed look at the history of the three Monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – in order to find the origins of war in all three religions. She also discusses the effects these religions have on the current ideas of ‘holy war’ and political situation in general. In the previous two articles in this series, we took a look at the origins of war in Judaism and Christianity. This time, we will search for the roots of the concept of war in Islam, as interpreted by Karen Armstrong.

Armstrong starts her discussion of Islam with a historical look at its founding and early formative years. She describes the situation of the Arabs just before the advent of Islam as a time of crisis for Arabia. The increasing trade had brought prosperity to Hejaz, which facilitated formation of elitist lifestyle among the rich Arabs. The old tribal values of sharing of resources and generosity were breaking down, creating a vast gap in the society between the rich and the poor. Along with this social disaster also came the political disorders in the form of increasing tribal warfare and crisis of faith, which left Arabs feeling inferior in front of the Jews and Christians living along with them. This is because, unlike the other two religions, they had received no revelation of their own.

Islam came as a solution to the many problems Arabs faced at the time, which was reflected in the early commands Allah (swt) gave to Muslims through Prophet Muhammad (sa): they were to believe in One God only, prepare for the imminent Last Judgement and care for the poor and oppressed in the society. Islam, however, was seen not as a new religion but as the ultimate revelation of the Jewish-Christian tradition.

As can be concluded from the above, in the initial years of Islam, there was no concept of war as such. The focus of Prophet Muhammad (sa) was on spreading the message of Islam among his people. The anti-elitist nature of Islam attracted people from the lower classes of society first. But it was only when the nobles of Makkah started to convert that the rich Makkans began to see this new religion as a potential threat to their regime. Soon the Quraish, the ruling clan of Makkah, started persecutions of Muslims and inflicted upon them numerous hardships. However, even at this point Muslims received no command from Allah (swt) to oppose the oppressors. They were to hold onto their faith with patience and perseverance, until finally, in 622 C.E., they received the permission to migrate from Makkah to Madinah – the city, where Muslims would have the chance to build the first Islamic society.

With the support of the inhabitants of Madinah, Muslims started gaining strength and popularity. In fact, according to Armstrong, conversion to this new faith, which raised the self-esteem of the Arabs as recipients of God’s ultimate revelation, became an irresistible trend in the peninsula. The peaceful spread of the influence of Islam was further facilitated by the treaties the Prophet (sa) made with the neighbouring tribes, without forcing conversion upon them, as that would mean denial of freedom of belief, which was one of the central beliefs of Islam. Non-Muslims were granted protection by the Muslim state, in return for paying a Jizya tax.

As the Muslim state grew, Makkans started to see a serious threat in it. They began using their trade caravans for inciting the neighbouring tribes of Madinah to fight against the Muslims. Since these caravans were usually accompanied by an army, they themselves bore a threat to the security of Madinah. Armstrong points out that this was the time, when the Prophet (sa) received revelation that justified the use of violence as a means of self-defence. (Al-Hajj, 22:39-40) However, Muslims were not allowed to open hostilities. If the ancient Israelites were commanded by God to exterminate the Canaanites living in the Promised Land, and Christians denied violence as such, even for self-defence, then the concept of self-defence stood central in the Islamic view of warfare since the very beginning.

According to Armstrong, at the time, the practice of making a Razzia (raid) on an enemy tribe was deemed normal and acceptable. The code of Razzia was such that the raiders attacked only their enemies, capturing their cattle, animals and booty, without killing people. This is what Muslims started to practice against the Makkan caravans. One day in 624 CE, a small group of 313 Muslims went out to Badr for just that – to attack a particularly important Makkan trade caravan, which was accompanied by most of the Quraish leadership. As Muslims attacked the caravan, they were not aware of the fact that Makkans had requested from back home additional forces for support. However, although Muslims found themselves vastly outnumbered, they won the encounter, which later became known as the Battle of Badr – the first battle in the history of Islam.

Comparing the concepts of war in the three religions, Armstrong maintains that out of all three, Islam has the most realistic view of the warfare. Islam neither justifies a total aggressive war of extermination, as was practiced by ancient Israelites, nor insists on complete pacifism, as was advocated by the early followers of Christianity. According to Armstrong, Islam recognizes that war is inevitable and sometimes a positive duty in order to end oppression and suffering. Moreover, the limits and extent of warfare in Islam are clearly defined and must be followed, in order for war to be legitimate.

Although, for centuries, in the West Islam has been described as ‘the religion of the sword,’ Armstrong says such a perception is inaccurate and has been inherited from the time of the Crusades. It is certainly true that war played a role in the establishment and spread of Islam, but it is not correct to see Islam as a bloodthirsty and aggressive religion.

Compiled from Karen Armstrong’s “Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World” published by Anchor Books (www.anchorbooks.com)

War in Monotheistic Religions – Christianity

Apr 11 - War in monotheistic religion

Throughout history, many wars have been waged with religion being their stated cause and peace as their desired outcome. In the previous article, we took a look at the history of Judaism and traced the origins of war in this religion. This time, we will search for the roots of the concept of war in Christianity, as interpreted by Karen Armstrong, a renowned modern religion writer.


In about 27 C.E., many Jews of Palestine were attracted by a new sect which, according to Armstrong, claimed to be a universal form of Judaism. The leader was a Jew by the name of Jesus (Isa), who claimed to be the Messiah that the Jews had been waiting for. He quickly attracted a large following, eventually making his way from his native Galilee to Jerusalem, where he preached of the approaching Kingdom of God. Seeing in his preaching a potential political threat, Romans, who ruled Jerusalem at the time, arrested him and had him crucified, as the history of Christianity has it. Jesus’ refusal to oppose Romans, even in the face of his death, clearly testified to the pacifist nature of his teachings. He taught his followers to turn the other cheek when attacked.

After the death of Jesus, his followers continued to be peacefully practicing Jews, worshiping daily in the Temple and living according to the Torah (Taurat). What distinguished them from other Jewish sects was their belief in Jesus as the Messiah and their expectation of his second coming – his returning to the world for establishing the Kingdom of God.

A Jew by the name of Paul was to take Jesus’ teachings to a new dimension. He started preaching to the Gentiles (non-Israelite tribes or nations), transforming Christianity from a Jewish sect into a universal religion, which was to bring redemption to the entire world. Paul’s version of Christianity had no room for a holy war, because Christians were to show love even to their enemies, as Jesus had enjoined it. According to Armstrong, Paul presented “Christianity as a spiritual religion: salvation now meant liberation from sin and death, not an extermination of the enemies of God”.

Several later historical developments within Christianity can be pinned as contributing factors leading to the formation of the concept of the ‘holy war’ during the Crusades: the image of the Antichrist, movements of martyrdom and monasticism as well as St. Augustine’s philosophy of a just war.


By the end of the first century, Christianity underwent certain transformations, which introduced more violent ideas into the peaceful religion of Jesus and Paul. The author of “Revelation” (one of the books of the New Testament written later) brought back into Christianity the importance for Judaism apocalyptic tradition. He talked of cosmic battles foretold by the Jewish prophets as heralding the final triumph of Christianity, when God would send down the New Jerusalem and a new perfect world from heaven. He described God’s enemies as terrifying monsters, placing a particular emphasis on a great Beast, which would crawl out of an abyss and establish himself in the Temple. It was from this powerful image of the Beast that the later generations of Christians developed a belief in what they called the Antichrist, which became very important in the ideology of crusading. According to Armstrong, “by the time of the Crusades, European Christians firmly believed that before the final apocalypse, Antichrist would appear in Jerusalem, would set himself up in the Temple and fight the Christians there in the great battles”.


Initially, the attitude of the Roman Empire towards Christianity was not a tolerant one – they often persecuted and executed Christians who refused to sacrifice to Caesar. These persecutions eventually formed in Christians a strong sense that ‘the world’ was against them. This insecurity, according to Armstrong, led to a cult of voluntary martyrdom. The martyr was seen as the perfect Christian, “because Christ had said that giving one’s life for the beloved (Jesus) was the greatest act of love”. Eventually, the martyrdom cult acquired an aggressive dimension as martyrs started to denounce themselves to the authorities and believed that they were taking part in a cosmic battle with evil. Although martyrs passively allowed the inflicting of violence upon them, they thought of themselves as the ‘soldiers of Christ’, and considered their deaths as ‘victory’. Even though the Church tried to stop this trend of voluntary martyrdom, it never completely died out and surfaced again during the time of the Crusades.


When, years later, the persecutions stopped and Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the Christians faced a new dilemma: how could they be perfect Christians when there was no more opportunity for martyrdom? The answer was discovered in the movement of monasticism: radical Christians were to flee ‘the world’, which was hostile to them, and take refuge in the wilderness. Although Jesus and Paul had never promoted this type of asceticism, monks and their like-minded Christians believed that it was not possible to practice true Christian values in ‘the world’. In later centuries, Western Christians further developed the movement of monasticism by secluding themselves in monasteries which they saw as “fortresses of Christianity in a Godless world”. The monks living in them were considered as taking part in a holy war against the spiritual enemies of God. When the Crusades began, the monks became some of their most active participants.

Just War

During the early Middle Ages, Europe was under constant attacks by its enemies: barbarians destroyed the Roman Empire which was followed by the invasions of Norsemen, Muslims and Magyars. This constant threat and insecurity brought an aggressive element into the peaceful religion of Christianity. Despite all the attacks, the Church tried to keep the violence under control and remain pacifist. The Greek Orthodox Church of the Byzantine Empire regarded war as unchristian and preferred to hire mercenaries for their wars instead of using Christian soldiers. It was their Western brethren, the Latin theologians, who developed the concept of a just war. This would enable the Christians to fight and defend themselves without guilt.

In early fifth century, St. Augustine of Hippo (North Africa) laid the grounds for the Christian concept of a just war. According to Armstrong, St. Augustine “decided that, while wars against other Christians were always sinful and unjust, God could sometimes inspire a Christian leader to wage war against pagans”. According to him, the difference between a pagan war and a Christian one was that it had to be inspired by love towards the enemy. The war could not be based on revenge; it had to be based on the sense of justice. Violence was to be seen as medicinal – just like disciplining a child for his own good. Although Augustine’s arguments in favour of violence were paradoxical, Christians could no longer survive without war. However, it was only during the Crusades that the involvement of Christians in warfare transformed into a ‘holy war’: in 1095, Pope Urban II summoned the First Crusade for exterminating ‘the enemies of God’ – the Turks, an accursed race that had captured the holy land.

Today, the Christians are divided between two stances on war:

1) Pacifism: war cannot be justified under any circumstances;

2) Just war: war is never good but sometimes necessary and should be conducted within the limits of justice.

Compiled from Karen Armstrong’s “Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World” published by Anchor Books (www.anchorbooks.com)