Muhammad's wars v. God's wars

It is frequently stated by Muslim apologists that Muhammad's wars on Arab polytheists are just like the wars on the pagan peoples in the Old Testament. But this is not true.

First, a warning to the reader:

This topic leads us into the harsh realities behind some divine commands. If the reader believes that God would never ordain any killing whatsoever, then he or she does not understand all of the Bible, and he or she should skip over this unpleasant article.

Before we begin, though, it should be pointed out that God's best is always to do good to people, and annihilation is not the sweep of the entire Old Testament; rather, this extreme policy is used only in exceptionally rare cases.

The unbridgeable differences between the two extreme commands from God and Allah can be made clear in the following comparison.

We examine the Old Testament first.

The LORD listened to Israel's plea and gave the Canaanites over to them. They completely destroyed them and their towns (Deut. 21:3)

In the Old Testament, sometimes (1) God commands all inhabitants of a region or town to be wiped out entirely, like Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18:16—19:29). That is the big lesson of Genesis. If God had found even only five righteous in those two cities, then he would not have destroyed them. No region or town that had a hope of repentance is ever wiped out. [1] But when it is, then we can be sure that God is acting wisely and justly, even if our modern emotions do not like this aspect of God's character.

(2) God is very specific about who should be wiped out entirely, and who should live. He was not feeling His way, moving against one tribe in Canaan to the next in an ad—hoc way. He did not offer progressive revelations of letting some live and others die, as circumstance dictated. Rather, we can trust that since God knows the heart, if the Canaanites had to be wiped out entirely, then they were so degenerate that they were beyond hope—all of them, even the women and children.

(3) Also, God in the Old Testament was not interested in converting these pagans or at least influencing them for righteousness, but only because they were too far gone. Reading their hearts, He commands, rather, that they should be eliminated—an extreme measure to be sure, but for those who trust God it is a necessary extreme, because the pagans' corrupting influence was so great that they had to be taken out. If peaceful co—existence were possible, then God would have ordained that; He did not purpose to kill them just for the sake of bloodshed or in a confused, ad—hoc way. Peace was always the better goal.

We now turn to Muhammad and the Quran, in an analysis that mirrors the analysis of the Old Testament.

And fight them, so that sedition might end and the only religion will be that of Allah. Then if they desist, Allah is Fully Aware of what they do. (Quran 8:39, Fakhry's translation)

In early Islam,

(1) Allah never commands Muhammad to wipe out all the inhabitants of a region or town in Arabia. Rather, Allah and his Prophet kill some and let others live, based on whether they accepted Islam ('the only religion will be that of Allah'). If they desisted from fighting, then Muhammad should let them live. Is this mercy or confusion?

(2) If it is mercy, then this policy of letting some pagans live and killing others necessarily means that the pagans of Arabia were not as hopelessly degenerate as the utterly annihilated Canaanites were. But it is more accurate to say that the policy is ad hoc and confused. 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. Allah and Muhammad do not act thoroughly, but stumblingly, fluctuating between a treaty with the Meccans one year and war with them the next, between ransoming rich prisoners and selling the poor ones into slavery, between negotiating with some desert tribesmen and then it calling off, between 'marrying' female prisoners of war and selling them into slavery—all of which Muhammad did under Allah's guidance. This zigzagging elicits a vote of no confidence and differs entirely from the (admittedly severe) clarity and thoroughness in the Old Testament.

(3) Allah and Muhammad, then, are feeling their way because their ultimate goal was to convert the polytheists (and Jews). This means, again, that if he can convert some of the Arab polytheists to his monotheism, then they were not as degenerate and far gone as the targeted Canaanites were. After all, historically speaking, Christ appeared 600 years before Muhammad, and the Arab churches had some influence in Arabia (but not enough, apparently), so the ground of their hearts was broken up, so to speak, ready for Muhammad to plant the seeds of his own brand of monotheism. This means that Muhammad's historical context should not be compared to the historical context of the verses in the Old Testament, separated as they are by 2,600 years and wide cultural differences.

This last reason, which does not appear in the analysis of the Old Testament, above, provides further evidence that Muhammad is feeling his way and that the comparison is misguided.

(4) His practice of killing was not limited to polytheists only; he also committed atrocities against Jews, who were not polytheists, but monotheists. Because the Jews of Medina held to the Torah and were taught by Rabbis, they were not as degenerate as the polytheists, whatever Muhammad says to the contrary in the Quran, calling them 'apes' and 'pigs' (Quran 2:65; 5:60), believing that they were not as righteous has he. At first, Muhammad wanted to be accepted by the Jews, which shows that he did not believe that they were as bad as polytheists. But they correctly rebuffed him as being outside of Biblical revelation. As the conflict with them grew and his power grew, Allah's and Muhammad's policy progressively changes, but never improves. He clears the Jews out of Medina first by exile (Qaynuqa tribe); then by besiegement and exile (Nadir tribe); and finally by extermination of the men (Qurayza tribe). (Read more about this policy on the Jews here.) Since Allah and Muhammad exert the same extreme practice of death on the monotheist Jews as well as on the polytheists, they seem confused, for Arab polytheists and Jewish monotheists were not the same, and certainly this situation differs entirely from the Canaanites of the Old Testament.

Therefore, the wide differences between the true God's specific and clear—cut (but extreme) policy enforced two millennia before Christ on the one hand, and Allah's ad—hoc and confused (but extreme) policy enforced 600 years after Christ on the other hand, permanently shut out any clear parallels between the two policies. And the differences challenge whether Muhammad should have killed any polytheists or forced Islam on them with an army behind him. He managed to convert some peacefully. If he can convert them in that way, then they were not as degenerate as the Canaanite pagans and so not beyond hope. He should have kept on with this peaceful policy.

Thus, God's severe clarity and Allah's severe unclarity make the comparison between the two untenable.

To the Christian, this challenge to Muhammad's misguided wars on polytheists is not surprising, for Christians believe that the coming of 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 or Muhammad. Christ died for all peoples everywhere—even for the Arab polytheists whom Muhammad slaughtered. His sacrificial death clears the way to heaven for everyone who believes and trusts in Christ. The Holy Spirit (who is not Gabriel) is available for all people, and he woos them to Christ, once the true Word of God is preached.

Therefore, the believer in Christ does not have to do good works, like praying five times a day or fasting for a month, in order to reach heaven. Rather, the sequence must be right: he does good works only after his destiny to heaven is secured in Christ; he does not do good works in order to become good enough for heaven, in the vague hope of securing his 'up—in—the—air, maybe' destiny. First, Christ saves him; second, only then are his good works worth anything of eternal value. In the new era of salvation, the anno domini, the year of the Lord Jesus, the Arab polytheists were not beyond hope of conversion by peaceful means. 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 Christ—but that church's 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. Needless to say, this blueprint never includes violence and killing—Constantine and the Crusaders do not represent the original gospel of good news.

A prominent Muslim scholar living in the US says that Muhammad was different from 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. [2]  But this assessment is wrong on three points.

First, it misrepresents the life of Christ. He 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 killed by a crowd, but He simply walked away (Luke 4:28—30). He did not seek revenge on them, as Muhammad did on the Meccans who persecuted him (Quran 8:39). Therefore, Christ did not retreat from the world, but engaged it and is still in the process of transforming it.

Second, comparing Muhammad to the prophet—kings is to insult them, given the contrast between the Old Testament and Muhammad, analyzed above, (1), (2), (3), and (4). God's severe commands better be clear. If they are, then they should be carried out in a thorough and clear way—which Muhammad did not do. This therefore calls into question whether God gave him these commands to kill polytheists on one day, but not on another.

Third, even if the comparison were somewhat close, that would be sufficient grounds for Christians to reject Muhammad, because Christ 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]' (Matt. 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. God's kingdom has taken a new direction.

Therefore, why would any Christian want to follow a prophet who is modeled after the Old Testament? Muhammad brings a diluted, derivative old law, which is not even as good as the Old Law, the Torah.

[1] Sometimes God allowed only woman and children to live. Cf. Deut. 31:31—40. Whichever the case, God was very specific and very clear. He was not growing in knowledge and feeling His way.
[2] 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. Nasr is obliquely defending Muhammad's warfare and violence as an Old Testament way of God's dealing.

Jim Arlandson (PhD) teaches world religion and introductory philosophy at a college in southern California. He has written a book, Women, Class, and Society in Early Christianity (Hendrickson, 1997).

It is frequently stated by Muslim apologists that Muhammad's wars on Arab polytheists are just like the wars on the pagan peoples in the Old Testament. But this is not true.

First, a warning to the reader:

This topic leads us into the harsh realities behind some divine commands. If the reader believes that God would never ordain any killing whatsoever, then he or she does not understand all of the Bible, and he or she should skip over this unpleasant article.

Before we begin, though, it should be pointed out that God's best is always to do good to people, and annihilation is not the sweep of the entire Old Testament; rather, this extreme policy is used only in exceptionally rare cases.

The unbridgeable differences between the two extreme commands from God and Allah can be made clear in the following comparison.

We examine the Old Testament first.

The LORD listened to Israel's plea and gave the Canaanites over to them. They completely destroyed them and their towns (Deut. 21:3)

In the Old Testament, sometimes (1) God commands all inhabitants of a region or town to be wiped out entirely, like Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18:16—19:29). That is the big lesson of Genesis. If God had found even only five righteous in those two cities, then he would not have destroyed them. No region or town that had a hope of repentance is ever wiped out. [1] But when it is, then we can be sure that God is acting wisely and justly, even if our modern emotions do not like this aspect of God's character.

(2) God is very specific about who should be wiped out entirely, and who should live. He was not feeling His way, moving against one tribe in Canaan to the next in an ad—hoc way. He did not offer progressive revelations of letting some live and others die, as circumstance dictated. Rather, we can trust that since God knows the heart, if the Canaanites had to be wiped out entirely, then they were so degenerate that they were beyond hope—all of them, even the women and children.

(3) Also, God in the Old Testament was not interested in converting these pagans or at least influencing them for righteousness, but only because they were too far gone. Reading their hearts, He commands, rather, that they should be eliminated—an extreme measure to be sure, but for those who trust God it is a necessary extreme, because the pagans' corrupting influence was so great that they had to be taken out. If peaceful co—existence were possible, then God would have ordained that; He did not purpose to kill them just for the sake of bloodshed or in a confused, ad—hoc way. Peace was always the better goal.

We now turn to Muhammad and the Quran, in an analysis that mirrors the analysis of the Old Testament.

And fight them, so that sedition might end and the only religion will be that of Allah. Then if they desist, Allah is Fully Aware of what they do. (Quran 8:39, Fakhry's translation)

In early Islam,

(1) Allah never commands Muhammad to wipe out all the inhabitants of a region or town in Arabia. Rather, Allah and his Prophet kill some and let others live, based on whether they accepted Islam ('the only religion will be that of Allah'). If they desisted from fighting, then Muhammad should let them live. Is this mercy or confusion?

(2) If it is mercy, then this policy of letting some pagans live and killing others necessarily means that the pagans of Arabia were not as hopelessly degenerate as the utterly annihilated Canaanites were. But it is more accurate to say that the policy is ad hoc and confused. 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. Allah and Muhammad do not act thoroughly, but stumblingly, fluctuating between a treaty with the Meccans one year and war with them the next, between ransoming rich prisoners and selling the poor ones into slavery, between negotiating with some desert tribesmen and then it calling off, between 'marrying' female prisoners of war and selling them into slavery—all of which Muhammad did under Allah's guidance. This zigzagging elicits a vote of no confidence and differs entirely from the (admittedly severe) clarity and thoroughness in the Old Testament.

(3) Allah and Muhammad, then, are feeling their way because their ultimate goal was to convert the polytheists (and Jews). This means, again, that if he can convert some of the Arab polytheists to his monotheism, then they were not as degenerate and far gone as the targeted Canaanites were. After all, historically speaking, Christ appeared 600 years before Muhammad, and the Arab churches had some influence in Arabia (but not enough, apparently), so the ground of their hearts was broken up, so to speak, ready for Muhammad to plant the seeds of his own brand of monotheism. This means that Muhammad's historical context should not be compared to the historical context of the verses in the Old Testament, separated as they are by 2,600 years and wide cultural differences.

This last reason, which does not appear in the analysis of the Old Testament, above, provides further evidence that Muhammad is feeling his way and that the comparison is misguided.

(4) His practice of killing was not limited to polytheists only; he also committed atrocities against Jews, who were not polytheists, but monotheists. Because the Jews of Medina held to the Torah and were taught by Rabbis, they were not as degenerate as the polytheists, whatever Muhammad says to the contrary in the Quran, calling them 'apes' and 'pigs' (Quran 2:65; 5:60), believing that they were not as righteous has he. At first, Muhammad wanted to be accepted by the Jews, which shows that he did not believe that they were as bad as polytheists. But they correctly rebuffed him as being outside of Biblical revelation. As the conflict with them grew and his power grew, Allah's and Muhammad's policy progressively changes, but never improves. He clears the Jews out of Medina first by exile (Qaynuqa tribe); then by besiegement and exile (Nadir tribe); and finally by extermination of the men (Qurayza tribe). (Read more about this policy on the Jews here.) Since Allah and Muhammad exert the same extreme practice of death on the monotheist Jews as well as on the polytheists, they seem confused, for Arab polytheists and Jewish monotheists were not the same, and certainly this situation differs entirely from the Canaanites of the Old Testament.

Therefore, the wide differences between the true God's specific and clear—cut (but extreme) policy enforced two millennia before Christ on the one hand, and Allah's ad—hoc and confused (but extreme) policy enforced 600 years after Christ on the other hand, permanently shut out any clear parallels between the two policies. And the differences challenge whether Muhammad should have killed any polytheists or forced Islam on them with an army behind him. He managed to convert some peacefully. If he can convert them in that way, then they were not as degenerate as the Canaanite pagans and so not beyond hope. He should have kept on with this peaceful policy.

Thus, God's severe clarity and Allah's severe unclarity make the comparison between the two untenable.

To the Christian, this challenge to Muhammad's misguided wars on polytheists is not surprising, for Christians believe that the coming of 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 or Muhammad. Christ died for all peoples everywhere—even for the Arab polytheists whom Muhammad slaughtered. His sacrificial death clears the way to heaven for everyone who believes and trusts in Christ. The Holy Spirit (who is not Gabriel) is available for all people, and he woos them to Christ, once the true Word of God is preached.

Therefore, the believer in Christ does not have to do good works, like praying five times a day or fasting for a month, in order to reach heaven. Rather, the sequence must be right: he does good works only after his destiny to heaven is secured in Christ; he does not do good works in order to become good enough for heaven, in the vague hope of securing his 'up—in—the—air, maybe' destiny. First, Christ saves him; second, only then are his good works worth anything of eternal value. In the new era of salvation, the anno domini, the year of the Lord Jesus, the Arab polytheists were not beyond hope of conversion by peaceful means. 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 Christ—but that church's 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. Needless to say, this blueprint never includes violence and killing—Constantine and the Crusaders do not represent the original gospel of good news.

A prominent Muslim scholar living in the US says that Muhammad was different from 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. [2]  But this assessment is wrong on three points.

First, it misrepresents the life of Christ. He 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 killed by a crowd, but He simply walked away (Luke 4:28—30). He did not seek revenge on them, as Muhammad did on the Meccans who persecuted him (Quran 8:39). Therefore, Christ did not retreat from the world, but engaged it and is still in the process of transforming it.

Second, comparing Muhammad to the prophet—kings is to insult them, given the contrast between the Old Testament and Muhammad, analyzed above, (1), (2), (3), and (4). God's severe commands better be clear. If they are, then they should be carried out in a thorough and clear way—which Muhammad did not do. This therefore calls into question whether God gave him these commands to kill polytheists on one day, but not on another.

Third, even if the comparison were somewhat close, that would be sufficient grounds for Christians to reject Muhammad, because Christ 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]' (Matt. 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. God's kingdom has taken a new direction.

Therefore, why would any Christian want to follow a prophet who is modeled after the Old Testament? Muhammad brings a diluted, derivative old law, which is not even as good as the Old Law, the Torah.

[1] Sometimes God allowed only woman and children to live. Cf. Deut. 31:31—40. Whichever the case, God was very specific and very clear. He was not growing in knowledge and feeling His way.
[2] 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. Nasr is obliquely defending Muhammad's warfare and violence as an Old Testament way of God's dealing.

Jim Arlandson (PhD) teaches world religion and introductory philosophy at a college in southern California. He has written a book, Women, Class, and Society in Early Christianity (Hendrickson, 1997).