By Nabeel Qureshi
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).
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