Islam, Peace and Tolerance

by Dr. Zahid Aziz

Chapter 8: The Bible and War

In the previous sections, a clarification of Islamic teachings has been presented in order to refute various objections and correct common misrepresentations and distortions. Here we refer to certain passages in the Bible about war, which should be of concern to the Western critics of Islam since most of them regard it as their religious scripture. Even those who do not accept it as their authority nonetheless must admit that it holds a position of importance in the Judeo-Christian Western civilization probably unequalled by any other book.

God of War in the Bible:

Moses and the Israelite people sang1:

“I will sing to the Lord, For He has triumphed gloriously! … The Lord is a man of war; The Lord is His name.” — Exodus, 15:1, 3.

It appears that being war-like is a most primary attribute of God, being mentioned next to His name. If any such words depicting God as “a man of war” had appeared in the Quran, our critics would have been repeating them again and again.

It is promised and stated several times over that God Himself fights in war for the followers of the Bible:

“You must not fear them (i.e., other nations), for the Lord your God Himself fights for you” — Deuteronomy, 3:22

“Hear, O Israel: Today you are on the verge of battle with your enemies. Do not let your heart faint, do not be afraid, and do not tremble or be terrified because of them; for the Lord your God is He who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you.” — Deuteronomy, 20:3–4

“One man of you shall chase a thousand, for the Lord your God is He who fights for you, as He promised you.” — Joshua, 23:10

Law of War in the Bible:

The Israelites were commanded by God as follows on how to deal with a defeated enemy:

“When you go near a city to fight against it, then proclaim an offer of peace to it. And it shall be that if they accept your offer of peace, and open to you, then all the people who are found in it shall be placed under tribute to you, and serve you. Now if the city will not make peace with you, but war against you, then you shall besiege it. And when the Lord your God delivers it into your hands, you shall strike every male in it with the edge of the sword. But the women, the little ones, the livestock, and all that is in the city, all its spoil, you shall plunder for yourself; and you shall eat the enemies’ plunder which the Lord your God gives you. Thus you shall do to all the cities which are very far from you, which are not of the cities of these nations. But of the cities of these peoples which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance, you shall let nothing that breathes remain alive, but you shall utterly destroy them: the Hittite and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite, just as the Lord your God has commanded you…” — Deuteronomy, 20:10–17

Thus, if a city “very far from you” does not surrender but fights, then after its defeat all its men must be executed, and its women and children taken into slavery. However, in case of the cities that “God gives you as an inheritance”, the punishment is even more stern and everyone “that breathes” must be killed.

Instances of Conduct of War in the Bible:

The war by the Israelites against the Midianites is described thus:

“So Moses spoke to the people, saying, “Arm some of yourselves for war, and let them go against the Midianites to take vengeance for the Lord on Midian. … And they warred against the Midianites, just as the Lord commanded Moses, and they killed all the males. … And the children of Israel took the women of Midian captive, with their little ones, and took as spoil all their cattle, all their flocks, and all their goods. They also burned with fire all the cities where they dwelt, and all their forts. And they took all the spoil and all the booty—of man and beast.” — Numbers, 31:3, 7, 9–11.

But when they brought back the captives and the booty, Moses was displeased that they had let the women and children live:

“And Moses said to them: “Have you kept all the women alive? … Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man intimately. But keep alive for yourselves all the young girls who have not known a man intimately.” — Numbers, 31:15, 17–18.

The book of Joshua records several instances in which, under the leadership of this great general, the Israelite army killed all the inhabitants of the various cities that they captured. After the well-known tumbling down of the walls of Jericho Joshua’s army took the following action:

“And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, ox and sheep and donkey, with the edge of the sword.” — Joshua, 6:21.

Next, moving from Jericho to Ai:

“And it came to pass when Israel had made an end of slaying all the inhabitants of Ai in the field, in the wilderness where they pursued them, and when they all had fallen by the edge of the sword until they were consumed, that all the Israelites returned to Ai and struck it with the edge of the sword. So it was that all who fell that day, both men and women, were twelve thousand — all the people of Ai. For Joshua did not draw back his hand, with which he stretched out the spear, until he had utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai. Only the livestock and the spoil of that city Israel took as booty for themselves, according to the word of the Lord which He had commanded Joshua. So Joshua burned Ai and made it a heap forever, a desolation to this day.” — Joshua, 8:24–28

In Joshua chapter 10, verses 28 to 39 list the taking of seven cities, one after another, by Joshua and in each case words such as the following are used to describe their fate:

“He utterly destroyed them — all the people who were in it. He let none remain” (v. 28)

And

“utterly destroyed all the people who were in it. He left none remaining” (v. 39).

In conclusion it is stated:

“… he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel had commanded.” — Joshua, 10: 40.

In chapter 11 of Joshua, it is written about more cities:

“And all the spoil of these cities and the livestock, the children of Israel took as booty for themselves; but they struck every man with the edge of the sword until they had destroyed them, and they left none breathing. As the Lord had commanded Moses his servant, so Moses commanded Joshua, and so Joshua did. He left nothing undone of all that the Lord had commanded Moses.” — Joshua, 11:14–15

All this slaughter is said to be at the commandment of the Lord.

The prophet Samuel told Saul, whom he had appointed King of Israel:

“The Lord sent me to anoint you king over His people, over Israel. Now therefore, heed the voice of the words of the Lord. … Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” — 1 Samuel 15:1, 3

Of the great king David it is recorded:

“Whenever David attacked the land, he left neither man nor woman alive, but took away the sheep, the oxen, the donkeys, the camels, and the apparel…” — 1 Samuel 27:9

Jesus’ Statements on Peace:

Surprisingly, even Jesus said:

“Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword.” — Matthew, 10:34

“I came to send fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! … Do you suppose that I came to give peace on earth? I tell you, not at all, but rather division.” — Luke 12:49, 51

No doubt these statements can be interpreted in a different way rather than as a threat to wage war. But if such words occurred in the Quran, the critics of Islam would very likely seize upon them as evidence of war-like teachings.

Story of Samson and Resemblance to 9/11:

The story of Samson, the Israelite hero of colossal strength, occurring in the Bible in the book of Judges (chapters 13–16), is well known, particularly due to the award-winning Hollywood film Samson and Delilah made in 1949. According to the Bible Samson performed his various astonishing feats of strength against the Philistines, the enemies of the Israelites, after

“the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him (Judges 14:6, 19; 15:14)”.

That is to say, he was acting with the support and inspiration of God. Eventually he was captured by the Philistines, who blinded and imprisoned him, and used him for amusement in public performance shows. The final act in the story of Samson is described thus:

“Now the lords of the Philistines gathered together to offer a great sacrifice to Dagon their god, and to rejoice. … So they called for Samson from the prison, and he performed for them. And they stationed him between the pillars. Then Samson said to the lad who held him by the hand, ‘Let me feel the pillars which support the temple, so that I can lean on them.’ Now the temple was full of men and women. All the lords of the Philistines were there — about three thousand men and women on the roof watching while Samson performed. Then Samson called to the Lord, saying, ‘O Lord God, remember me, I pray! Strengthen me, I pray, just this once, O God, that I may with one blow take vengeance on the Philistines for my two eyes!’ And Samson took hold of the two middle pillars which supported the temple, and he braced himself against them, one on his right and the other on his left. Then Samson said, ‘Let me die with the Philistines!’ And he pushed with all his might, and the temple fell on the lords and all the people who were in it. So the dead that he killed at his death were more than he had killed in his life.” — Judges, 16:23–30

This incident bears similarity to the suicide attacks of the present day, most notably to the atrocity of September 11th, 2001 in New York. In a planned act, Samson brought down a high structure with the intention of crushing and killing the general public who were gathered in and around it, knowing that by his action he would be killing himself along with them. He carried it out in the name of God, believing that God was giving him strength to do it. Even the number of people killed, which would be “about three thousand”, is akin to the number killed in 9/11, and in fact in terms of the much smaller populations of those days Samson’s act constituted a much greater killing.

Such an act committed today by some misguided Muslim, and that too against the place of worship of another religion, would be quite rightly condemned. It would be both un-Islamic and inhuman. On the other hand, Samson is a hero of the Bible, a “judge” of the book of Judges, whose story has been treated with sympathy by millions in the West who watched the Oscar-winning film about his exploits.

The purpose of this Section has not been to attack or misrepresent the Bible, the scripture of the Jewish and Christian religions. Our aim is to make the Western critics of Islam ponder on their own religious traditions while they seek to find material with which to portray Islam as a religion of war and violence.

Footnotes:

  1. All Biblical quotations given here are from the New King James Version, Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. ↩︎

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