06 May 2011

Holy Wars – Israelites versus bin Laden

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King David wanted to build a temple for God, but the prophet Nathan told him that God had designated his son to carry out that task (II Samuel 7). Years later he recounts to his son Solomon that the reason God did not grant him that privilege was that “he had killed many men in battles . . . and shed so much blood” (I Chronicles 22:8). Though David is the beloved author of the Psalms, celebrated both in the Bible and Quran, he was also a king who greatly extended the borders of the territory he had inherited. Kings and rulers, by definition, wield the sword. The Bible also tells us that several centuries before God ordered mwo4mhua to undertake bloody conquests in the land of Canaan. Yet we forget that mwo4mhua was the great prophet Moses’ underling and disciple.

            When the people of Israel were traveling in the territory to the east of the Jordan River, kings Sihon and Og refused them passage and attacked Israel. In the end, both kings and all their people were slaughtered and their territory occupied by the tribes of Reuben and Gad. In a later episode, after some Israelite men were seduced into idolatry by some Moabite women, God ordered Moses to send a small army to wipe out the Moabites in revenge – which they did in short order. But Moses was “furious” when they returned. “Why have you let all the women live?” he demanded. So he had all the women who had been married killed, saving only the young virgins. “You may keep them for yourselves,” he told them (Numbers 31:1-24).

            Honestly, there is a lot more graphic violence in the Old Testament than in the Quran. But to Jews and Christians, this is not generally disturbing. Enter hermeneutics (the art of interpretation of the sacred texts). Either by putting greater weight on some texts rather than on others, or by saying (as in this case) that what God said in those days does not apply to the present day, people of faith find ways to balance out the tensions in their holy book.

            We’ve all been preoccupied this past week with the news of Bin Laden’s demise. Is this the end of al-Qaeda as we know it? Will we be facing a spate of retaliatory attacks? My own educated guess is that al-Qaeda has taken a serious blow. But Osama bin Laden’s “martyrdom” will likely recruit more “jihadis” to the wider cause. Splinter groups here and there might be emboldened, so attacks will no doubt continue in one form or another.

            But, you might be asking, how could you compare Old Testament/Hebrew Bible wars of aggression with current Islamic terrorism? For most Christians today this has no relevance whatsoever in the light of the gospel of peace. Yes, “ethnic cleansing” as we put it today seems to have been given divine sanction in that part of the Bible. But the Israelites, you say, were not trying to take over the world by force of arms and to impose on all the worship of Jahweh, while smashing all the idols of the nations! True enough, yet the church, from Constantine to Charlemagne, and from the Crusades to the Spanish Reconquista, the Inquisition, the forced conversion of millions of Latin American Indians and the bloody religious wars in sixteenth and seventeenth-century Europe, has managed pretty well to ignore the Sermon on the Mount! Hermeneutics do count . . . and also for Muslims, we shall see.

            With this in mind, allow me to give a bit more background on jihad, first on the bin Laden brand in this blog, and then more generally in the next blog. So what are the “sword verses” in the Quran and what is their context?

            Muhammad received his first revelation in 610 and from the beginning experienced staunch opposition from the Meccan tribal leaders. When in 622 he was able to “emigrate” to Medina (the Hijra), it was after at least one attempt on his life. Mecca had vowed to destroy the nascent community of Muslims, Jews and polytheists ruled by Muhammad in that desert oasis. To be sure, it did not help that Muhammad’s fellow immigrants from Mecca now made it a practice to raid Meccan caravans. But the course of war had been set from the start. And now from Medina it unfolded: first, a decisive victory against great odds – the Battle of Badr (624); then a defeat – Uhud (625); finally, the Battle of the Trench, during which a formidable Meccan army retreated after an unsuccessful forty-day siege (627). All this time, both Jewish and polytheist Medinans (and “hypocrites”) had tried to help the Meccans against Muhammad. This is called political treason in any polity in the world.

            Herein is the context of the “sword verses.” They come from the last revealed sura (“chapter” – there are 114 altogether), Sura 9, so the backdrop is the later Medinan period, up until the year 630 when Muhammad rode victoriously into Mecca with a vastly superior army. (Incidentally, it is the only sura NOT prefaced by “In the name of the Merciful, the Compassionate”). The first verse is often quoted with its second half missing: “When the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them, and confine them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush.” Yet the second half tones it down significantly: “But if they repent and fulfill their devotional obligations and pay the zakat, then let them go their way for God is forgiving and kind” (Q. 9:5). The other verse is more straightforward: “Fight those who believe not in God nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by God and His Apostle, nor hold the religion of truth (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the tax with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued” (Q. 9:29). It should also be noted that the Quran uses the word “to kill” or “fight to kill” in almost all instances of fighting in God’s cause; rarely is “jihad” used for this. But in the legal literature down through the centuries it was used in this way.

Fast forward to the 20th century . . . Sayyid Qutb, the chief propagandist for the Muslim Brotherhood at the time of Egypt’s October Revolution in 1952, disagreed with the more moderate wing of the movement that had renounced violence. In his writings, he advocated a return to the classical version of jihad, that is, that Muslims should fight to extend the borders of the Abode of Islam and thus reduce the size of the Abode of War. Wage an all-out war; aim to conquer the world, and when that is achieved, give people the “freedom” to accept Islam or not. But the state will be an Islamic one, following the classical dictates of Sharia law (as you know from my previous blogs, this is Qutb’s imagining an ideal divine law that could be applied, ready-made, to the world as it is today – Sharia is in fact a very contested term!).

Contrast this worldview with that of the Muslims, who at the risk of their life have been protesting and demonstrating in the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Lybia, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, asking for democracy and civil freedoms. The “Arab Spring,” as they call it, potently proves that bin Laden and his associates badly lost the battle for the hearts and minds of the Muslim masses. Jihad is a much wider, and for the vast majority of Muslims, a much more peaceful idea.