April 21, 2005
Did Jesus or Muhammad wield the sword�or did both?By James Arlandson
Muslim apologists over the worldwide web quote Luke 22:36 in which Jesus says that if his disciples do not have a sword, they should sell their cloak and buy one. Therefore, why would Christians complain about jihad and the sword in Islam since Jesus endorses the use of a sword?
The reasoning of the Muslim apologists is completely flawed because they take the verse in Luke completely out of context. In truth, the Muslim apologists who say that Islam is the religion of peace are misleading the public.
In truth, these apologists want to divert attention away from the violence in Muhammad's life and in his Quran and misdirect it to the life of Jesus—which does not include any physical violence whatsoever; neither did he tell his disciples to engage in violence.
On the other hand, Sura or Chapter 8:12 in the Quran relates directly to physical and literal warfare—one of many, many verses throughout the Quran that speak of battles and killing.
To understand the differences in the two verses from the two sacred Books, we follow a specific method of exegesis (detailed analysis of a text).
First, the two verses are quoted from reputable translations, and sometimes from several translations to get the fuller meaning of a word or clause.
Second, the historical context of each verse is examined, so that we do not take them in isolation and so we can therefore reach a clearer meaning.
For the third step, we either quote or summarize the literary context—the verses surrounding our two target verses—in order to clarify their meaning.
These second and third steps are important in our analysis of Sura 8:12 to prevent the standard, reflexive 'out of context' defense of Muslim apologists when they see the violence that inheres in the verse. Also, these apologists take Luke 22:36 out of context, but this leads to all sorts of confusion. The context determines and clarifies the meaning of any verse.
Fourth, to interpret Sura 8:12 and Luke 22:36, we analyze key components within the verses or the larger literary contexts.
Finally, we will be in a position to contrast early Islam and early Christianity, so we will see the utter differences between the two religions on the subject of violence.
Sura 8:12 has been selected as a counter—verse to Luke 22:36 because either the verses themselves or their larger historical and literary contexts mention swords and angels. However, as we will see, both verses diametrically oppose each other, once we understand them in context.
The first step in our exegetical method is to quote the verse from a reputable translation. MAS Abdel Haleem (The Qur'an, Oxford UP, 2004) translates Sura 8:12 as follows:
8:12 Your [Muhammad's] Lord revealed to the angels: 'I am with you: give the believers firmness; I shall put terror into the hearts of the disbelievers. Strike above their necks and strike their fingertips.
The second step in our exegetical method is to examine the historical context of Sura 8:12. No scholar doubts the historical context of all of Sura 8—it was revealed after the unexpected victory of the Muslims over the much—larger Meccan army at the wells of Badr, some seventy to eighty miles west of Medina, Muhammad's new city since 622. Taking place in March 624, the Battle of Badr pitted about 320 Muslims against around 1000 Meccans who had marched north to protect their large caravan returning south from Syria, laden with goods. To intercept and capture this caravan would relieve the financial strains of the fledgling Muslim community in Medina. Also, it would weaken the Meccans who had soundly rejected Muhammad two years earlier. However, the Meccans heard of Muhammad's plan to attack their caravan, so they mustered a force and marched north.
Thus, three parties coming from three directions converged at the wells of Badr: Muhammad's jihadists from the east, the caravan from the north heading south back to Mecca, and the Meccan army heading north. Surprisingly, Muhammad won the battle and collected the goods and returned to Medina, believing that Allah saved the weak Muslim community (Sura 8:26, 30, 72).
Some Muslims argued over how to divide the spoils (Sura 8:1), but Allah tells his prophet that he gets twenty percent for himself and for his close relatives and orphans and other needy people (v. 41); everyone else was to get eighty percent. Now his financial standing in Medina improved immeasurably, as well as his social standing. It was at this time that he ordered some of his enemies to be assassinated.
Thus, all of Sura 8 reveals the elation of a real—life, historical military victory, and Muhammad presses home this victory, as we now see in the literary context—the verses surrounding Sura 8:12.
The third step in our exegetical method is to explore the literary context of Sura 8:12, in this case vv. 5—14. These verses show Muhammad reveling in victory and promising all unbelievers the same fate as the defeated Meccans. For example, in vv. 7—8, he admits that his Muslims wanted the unarmed group (the caravan), but Allah gave them that group as well as the army in order to prove the 'Truth to be true and the false to be false' (v. 8). This demonstrates that Muhammad connected military power with the spread of the truth or Islam—always a dubious connection. Next, in v. 9 Allah promised Muhammad reinforcements of 'a thousand angels in succession.' This gave Muhammad the hope of victory. Finally, vv. 13—14 says that anyone who opposes Allah and his messenger would get the same punishment that the Meccans got: 'That is what you get! Taste that!'—and the torment of the Fire awaits the disbelievers' (v. 14). This is standard deduction in the Quran. Hell is for losers.
The historical and literary contexts, then, reveal that Allah helps Muhammad with angels, that his military victory demonstrates the truth of Islam and the falsehood of polytheism, and that the unbelievers go to hell. Clearly, Muhammad is now firmly in charge of his community in Medina.
The fourth step in our exegetical process is to analyze and interpret key elements in Sura 8:12, which reveal three bloody truths. First, the verb 'to strike' (Daraba) is used two times: 'strike above their necks' and 'strike their fingertips.' Some translations exceed the fingertips and say: 'fingers and toes' (Hilali and Khan); 'every joint of their bodies' (Maududi); 'every pore and tip (Zafrulla Khan); and 'every joint' (Ahmed Ali). Regardless of the exact joints, the goal was to incapacitate the enemy so that he cannot fight again. Second, striking 'above' the neck seems misplaced, but Yusuf Ali in his short comment on the verse says that the sword should strike 'on the neck, face or head,' which 'finishes him off.' So we must not take the preposition 'above' too literally, unless Muhammad meant the head or the face. Regardless, the enemy would have died.
Third and finally, Allah sends the angels to fight either for or with the Muslims. Their purpose is to put 'terror' into the hearts of the unbelievers. Did the angels actually fight or just help the Muslims by their sides?
S. Abdul A'la Maududi holds the opinion that the angels merely helped the Muslim:
[T]he angels were not employed directly to take part in fighting and killing, but probably they were used to help the Muslims in making their strokes hard and effective. But the true knowledge is with Allah. (The Meaning of the Qur'an, vol. 2, pp. 133—34)
This last line is a polite way of saying that he really does not know, but favors the belief that the angels did not actually hit the Meccans.
On the other hand, Egyptian radical Sayyid Qutb says that angels did strike the unbelievers, but he does not know the details.
God also ordered them to strike the unbelievers over their necks and strike off their fingertips. So they did all this, but in a fashion unknown to us. (In the Shade of the Qur'an, vol. 7, p. 85)
Hence, these two prominent modern commentators go in opposite directions, so they have not decided the question. What did the first generation of Muslims think?
More important than Maududi and Qutb are the earliest Muslims who witnessed the Battle or who heard from firsthand testimony. Bukhari (AD 810—870) collected the most reliable traditions and edited them in his hadith (words and actions of Muhammad outside of the Quran).
Narrated Rifa'a who was one of the warriors who participated in the battle: Jibril (Gabriel) came to the Prophet and said: 'How do you look upon the warriors of (the battle of) Badr among yourselves?' The Prophet said, 'As the best of the Muslims,' or a similar statement. On that Jibril said, 'And so are the angels who participated in (the battle of) Badr.' (5:3992)
However, this report does not say how exactly the angels participated. Did they strike the necks and the fingertips?
Next, Bukhari offers this report from Ibn Abbas, Muhammad's cousin, who is considered a highly reliable source for the hadith:
Narrated Ibn Abbas: The Prophet said on the day (of the battle) of Badr, 'This is Jibril (Gabriel) holding the head of his horse and equipped with arms for the battle.' (5:3995).
But this report does not say how the angels participated, so Maududi's words fit the uncertainty: 'But the true knowledge is with Allah.'
Regardless of these inconclusive opinions, they have been briefly cited and discussed as a contrast to the Gospels. Jesus had at his disposal during his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane more than twelve legions of angels, or more than 72,000, but he did not call on them to wage jihad on unbelievers (Matt. 26:53). Rather, he went to the cross and died a physical death in order to ransom the entire world from its sins.
To sum up our interpretation of Sura 8:12, then, this verse is one of many that are found in the context of physical warfare and bloodshed. Muhammad is promised the help of angels who put terror in the hearts of the Meccans. But it is unclear from the Muslim sources and commentators whether the angels or the Muslims strike above the necks and cut off the fingers. Historically and in reality, this was done by the Muslims. Either way, though, Sura 8:12, as we will see, diametrically opposes Luke 22:36. History demonstrates that Jesus never waged jihad on sinners or unbelievers—he did not even swing a sword.
If the readers would like to see the Quranic verse in multiple translations, they should go here and type in the reference, like so: 8:12. Once at the site, they should ignore the request for the transliterated Arabic chapter titles, and just type in the numbers. Typing in the larger context (8:1—14) is interesting as well. Readers should keep in mind the historical context of the Sura, and the verses will then make sense.
This brings us to Luke 22:26, and we use the same four exegetical steps, ending with a contrast between early Islam and early Christianity, the fifth and final step.
The first step is to use a reputable translation. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) is a translation done by a team of international scholars, and it is respected throughout the English—speaking world.
22:36: [Jesus] said to them, 'But now the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag; and the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one.'
The second step in the exegetical method is to examine the historical context of Luke 22:36. For three years Jesus avoided going up to Jerusalem because he knew that when he set foot in the holy city, he would fulfill his mission to die as a common criminal—as Isaiah the prophet predicted hundreds of years before (Isaiah 53:12). Now, however, Jesus finally enters Jerusalem a few days before his arrest, trial and crucifixion, all of which he predicted. Religious leaders were spying on him (Luke 20:20) and asked him trick questions, so they could incriminate him. One of the deadlier traps was designed to catch him insulting the authorities—Caesar himself. They asked him: 'Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?' (20:22). He demanded that someone show him a denarius, and he asked in return whose image and inscription are on the coin. The religious spies said that both were Caesar's. Then he pronounced the famous line: 'Then give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's (v. 25). These questions happened with some frequency during these tense days in Jerusalem, and he answered impressively, avoiding their traps. Despite the tension, each day Jesus taught in the temple, and crowds gathered around him, so the authorities could not arrest him, for fear of the people. Judas volunteered to betray him, saying that he would report back to the authorities when no crowd was present (Luke 22:1—6).
As Passover drew near, Jesus asked some of his disciples to prepare the Last Supper, when he elevated the bread and the wine, representing his body and blood, which was broken and shed for the sins of the world in the New Covenant (Luke 22:7—20). During the meal, Judas slipped out to search for the authorities because he knew that it was the custom of Jesus to go to the Mount of Olives to pray (Luke 21:37), and that night would be no different.
At this point we pick up the literary context of Luke 22:36 (bold print), the third step in our exegetical method. The context needs to be quoted in full (Luke 22:35—38):
35 [Jesus] asked them [the eleven apostles], 'When I sent you out without a purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?'
This literary context reveals four truths. First, at this time only eleven apostles were present since Judas slipped away to betray Jesus. Second, Jesus contrasts his ministry before his arrival in Jerusalem with the tense few days in Jerusalem when spies and the authorities themselves were seeking to trap him. But does the tension play a part in understanding why he told his disciples to go out and buy swords? This is answered, below. Third, he says that he would be arrested and tried as a criminal, as the prophecy in Isaiah 53:12 predicted. Does this have anything to do with swords? Do criminals carry them around? This too is explained, below. Finally, the words 'it is enough' can either be a statement (as it is translated here), or it can be a command: 'That's enough!' That is, 'Put away your swords! You're taking my words too literally!' But regardless of the translation, Jesus clearly has a deeper meaning in mind than the physical swords. What is it?
This last question brings us to the fourth step in our exegetical method. The interpretation of the verse can either follow a literal direction (Jesus intended to fight with swords) or a nonliteral direction (Jesus is using the physical sword to convey a deeper meaning). The surest and clearest direction is the nonliteral one, but first we analyze why the literal one will not fit the context.
The first direction, the literal one, is inadequate for three reasons, based on v. 38, which says that two swords are enough. First, the obvious question is: enough for what? A physical fight to resist arrest? This is hardly the case because during Jesus' arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane a disciple (Peter according to John 18:10) took out his sword and cut off the ear of the servant of the high priest (Malchus according to John 18:10). Jesus sternly tells Peter to put away his sword, 'No more of this!' and then he heals the servant, restoring his ear (Luke 22:49—51). Resisting arrest cannot be the purpose of the two swords. Second, were the two swords enough for an armed rebellion to resist the authorities and impose the new Jesus movement (as sociologists of the New Testament call it)? Jesus denounces this purpose in Luke 22:52, as the authorities were in the process of arresting him: 'Am I leading a rebellion that you have come with swords and clubs?' (New International Version). The answer is no, as he is seized and led away (22:54). Third, are the two swords enough after the death and Resurrection of Jesus for the disciples to go forth as a military army to force people to convert, die, or pay a special tax if they do not convert (Sura 9:29)? Early church history says no. Since a literal interpretation will not work, Jesus intended to teach a deeper meaning than a physical fight with only two physical swords.
In contrast to the literal interpretation, the three following nonliteral interpretations work smoothly in context so that all the pieces of the puzzle fit together.
First, Jesus reminds the disciples of his mission for them before he arrived in Jerusalem (Luke 9:3; 10:1—17). Did they need a purse, a bag, or extra sandals? No, because before Jerusalem those were days of relative peace. Now, however, he is in Jerusalem, and he has undergone the antagonism of religious leaders seeking to trap him with self—incriminating words. When the authorities are not present, they send their spies. The atmosphere is therefore tense, and the two swords—no more than that—symbolize the tension. Jesus' mission has shifted to a clear danger, and the disciples must take note. However, he certainly did not intend for his disciples to use the swords, as we just saw in the literal interpretation, above. But the swords symbolizing tension fits perfectly with the context of Luke 22:36.
Second, by far the clearest purpose of the symbolism of two swords is found in 22:36—37, when Jesus refers to Isaiah's prophecy (53:12) about being numbered with the lawless in the context of swords. He was destined to be falsely arrested like a criminal, falsely put on trial like a criminal, and even falsely crucified like a criminal. After all, he was hung on the cross between two thieves, which is a further fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy (Luke 23:32; 39—43). What are criminals known for carrying with them? Weapons, and to be numbered with them Jesus must also have weapons. That is why he said that only two swords would be enough—to fulfill this prophecy in a symbolic way.
A little knowledge of first—century Greek, the original language of the New Testament, clarifies this interpretation. The Greek word gar (used as the first word in the translation of v. 37, above) means for, whose function and meaning is to explain the preceding clause. Here is an example in English: 'I am bringing an umbrella, for it is raining.' So the word for explains why I am bringing an umbrella—it is raining. This often works in New Testament Greek, as well. So in v. 36 Jesus tells the disciples to buy a sword: 'And the one who has no sword must go out and buy one,' but why must he buy one? Jesus explains why in the next clause: 'For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me' (v. 37). Thus, Jesus wants to go all the way in his identity with common criminals as predicted by Isaiah, and two swords alone would suffice. The use of swords outside of official and legal authority represents criminal behavior. However, Jesus would not let them be used when the time came for his arrest, for he was really not a criminal, but to use them would mean that he was; plus, he was destined to die as he himself predicted (Luke 18:31—33). So he immediately stops Peter's misuse of his sword: 'No more of this!' (Luke 22:51).
A final nonliteral interpretation also explains why Peter or any follower of Jesus must not use swords to maim or kill sinners, unbelievers, or anyone else.
The third and final symbolic interpretation presents itself in addition to Isaiah's prophecy and the tense atmosphere in Jerusalem. Jesus frequently used physical objects (seeds, lamps, vineyards, coins, lost sheep and so on) to teach nonphysical, universal truths, and the same is true with the two swords in this passage. Though Luke 22:36 is not a parable, Jesus is about to instruct the disciples, using two physical swords, on how not to behave when they go out into the highways preaching the gospel after his Resurrection. They will not need swords when Jesus is arrested, and they will not need them even if they suffer persecution later on. Hence, the physical swords teach a nonphysical and universal truth based on Jesus telling Peter to put away his sword: no violence should be used to spread the word of the true God. Tradition says that all of the original apostles but John were martyred as a direct result of persecution (John died from natural causes of old age, but he was imprisoned for his faith on the Island of Patmos), but none of them fought their way out of their fiery trials with swords. Evidently, the example of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane made an impression on them. To repeat, that is the message of Jesus when he tells Peter in the Garden, 'No more of this!' That is, 'Never use a sword again!'
The early history of the church supports this symbolic meaning of swords in Luke 22:36 in its larger context. In the Book of Acts, which was written by Luke and records some of the history of the church after the Resurrection, the disciples never swing a sword. Bloody warfare is excluded as they spread the message of the kingdom of God, throughout the larger Mediterranean world by peaceful proclamation alone.
To sum up, the three symbolic interpretations fit together in both the historical and literary contexts of Luke 22:36. Jesus says that two swords are enough, but clearly they are not sufficient for a physical fight in the Garden of Gethsemane or anywhere else. They are enough, however, to do three symbolic things. First, they embody the tension of Jesus' last days in Jerusalem. Second, they complement Jesus' fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy that he would be numbered among criminals. A mere two swords would nicely fill out the picture of this prophecy, since criminals carried weapons with them. Third, they are enough for Jesus to rebuke Peter when he swings one of them and cuts off Malchus' ear. Therefore, Jesus uses them as object lessons that the disciples should follow his example and not use swords—they must never swing them to bring about the kingdom of God by a holy war, even in the direst moment of Jesus' life, his arrest in the Garden.
Peter interpreted Jesus' words literally, but he was wrong, so Jesus rebuked him. Therefore, we should avoid the same mistaken literal interpretation of 'sword' in Luke 22:36, so we do not receive the same rebuke.
This symbolic use of swords in the Gospel of Luke stands in complete opposition to Muhammad's real—life use of swords in Sura 8:12 and in many other verses in the Quran.
Early Islam and Early Christianity
Once in a while I get an email from a Muslim who points out that America, a 'Christian' nation, uses the sword, so who am I to talk about it? First, we should set aside the complications of defining the US as Christian. Rather, we should note that this comparison leaps over two thousand years of history. It is always better to compare the founder of a religion and his sacred texts with the founder of another religion and his sacred texts. Jesus and Muhammad should be contrasted, not Muhammad and the US government.
This contrast between the two religions addresses the two topics of angels and the first generation of followers after the death of Muhammad and after the death and Resurrection of Jesus.
Sura 8:12 was chosen as a counter—verse to Luke 22:36 because of the swords behind the scenes and because of angels. Sura 8:12 says that angels helped the Muslims in their bloody holy war. Where does an angel fit into the Gospel of Luke at the end of Jesus' ministry?
Luke 22:42—44 says that Jesus was in such anguish that an angel came down to minister to him because he was about to take the sins of the whole world on his shoulders. His prayers were so earnest that his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground (v. 44).
Furthermore, in the Gospel of Matthew in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus rebuked Peter, after the lead disciple struck the ear off the servant of the high priest:
26:52 'Put your sword back in its place,' Jesus said to him, 'for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. 53 Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?' (NIV)
These two verses agree with Luke's version and add some details. Jesus denounces violence to accomplish the will of God—at least as Peter imagines the will of God. Then Jesus says that he has more than 72,000 legions of angels at his disposal. This means that he willingly lays down his life and dies for the sins of the whole world. Jesus thus demonstrates that angels will serve a new purpose. They are not involved in slaughtering sinners or unbelievers.
In contrast, Sura 8:12 says that angels either hit people with swords or helped Muslims to slaughter people—six hundred years after Christ came to show us a better way. In Muhammad's theology, angels slaughter unbelievers. In Christ's theology, angels help unbelievers who will inherit salvation.
We also discussed the first generation of followers in Christianity. The Book of Acts and later accounts demonstrate that they preached the gospel and turned the world upside down without the sword. By the third and fourth centuries, Christianity was spreading to the far corners of the known world by mere words, not sharp weapons.
In contrast, the first generation of Muslims used primarily the sword. For example, shortly after Muhammad died of a fever in 632, the tribes who had accepted Islam immediately revolted, for their forced allegiance dissolved upon the holy man's death. The tribes wanted to go back to their old way of life. However, Abu Bakr, Muhammad's successor, would have none of this and spent the next two years crushing the revolts, successfully. It is no wonder that the Saudi flag has a sword on it today.
It is true that the Roman Emperor Constantine, Medieval Crusaders, and Protestants and Catholics have used the sword against unbelievers and each other. However, none of them is foundational to Christianity—only Jesus is, and he never endorses the sword to spread his message. Also, Christianity has undergone Reform (c. 1400—1600) and has been put under the pressure of the Enlightenment (c. 1600—1800), which demanded peace. Be that as it may, Jesus himself never calls for military jihad, and only he sets the genetic code for his movement.
On the other hand, Muhammad is foundational for Islam, and he indeed endorses using a sword, and he actually swings one on his frequent military raids and wars. He sets the genetic code for Islam. His later Muslims are merely following their leader and his Quran. They are not misinterpreting or misapplying their sacred text, for Sura 8:12 (and many other verses) is clear and unambiguous, according to the historical and literary contexts.
Therefore, Muhammad and Jesus are in fact completely different from each other—as different as dark night and bright daylight. Muhammad commands his believers to kill unbelievers with a physical sword, whereas Jesus says to Peter that he must put away his sword, and this teaches Christians today that the word of the true God is not disseminated by violence.
Thus, the Muslim apologists are misusing Luke 22:36 in order to mask the violence coming from Islam, which is inspired by Muhammad and his Quran, the source of Islam.
Jesus saves. Muhammad killed.
This article has a companion piece, which may be read here.
James Arlandson (PhD) teaches introductory philosophy and world religion at a college in southern California. He has written a book, Women, Class, and Society in Early Christianity (Hendrickson, 1997). He may be reached at email@example.com.