Holy Writ and Holy Violence

Religion, Tolerance and Violence

Religion we think we know and violence we know very well indeed, so let us turn directly to the troublemaker of the trio, tolerance, and save the easier notions for later. Literary critics are extremely fond of the figure of “unpacking” when it comes to explaining a word or a notion or a concept. I am not a literary critic and so for me unpacking somehow summons up the image of dirty laundry, and that’s as often as not what we discover when we start “unpacking” the suitcase marked “tolerance.” There is a whole wardrobe of meanings there, some of them old and wrinkled and others still in their plastic wrappings. Tolerance used to mean “to bear with,” to put up with, to endure someone else’s bad looks, bad manners or bad ideas. Or, if we wish to be somewhat more philosophical about it, their sheer “otherness.” George Washington thought of it as a kind of indulgence, that virtue that we lavish on our kids. On this view, tolerance was an attitude, a kind of impatient acceptance—a resigned “What are you going to do?”—which, it turned out, could be quite useful. Cicero, who had a nose for the practical, was of the opinion that various non-Roman religions should be put up with, even if they were little more than superstitions, because that kind of tolerance was very useful for maintaining political order. He wasn’t saying exactly that religion was the opiate of the people; perhaps just a mild sedative.

But there amidst the rumpled shirts and disagreeable socks is a newer and crisper meaning of tolerance which regards it not as an agreeable attitude but as a prescriptive principle. Tolerance is not recommended because it is socially or politically useful, which doubtless it is; rather, it is required, and not because it is good for me but because it is a responsibility that corresponds to some intrinsic right in that other guy who is annoying me with his accent or his tattoos or his beliefs. According to this view, and it is now a general one, tolerance is not an “indulgence” but an “inherent natural right.”

Cicero, needless to say, was neither a Jew nor a Christian nor a Muslim, and his pragmatic view of religious tolerance was not generally shared by those three religious communities. Cicero was a pagan, a paganus or “outbacker” as the Christians called them. Some species of pagans were quite unpleasant—a few were known to favor human sacrifice—but by and large they were a tolerant lot, perverse, we might say, but polymorphous. On one side of their flag they carried the motto “Live and let live,” and on the other, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Whether we find these sentiments attractive or just opportunistic, it is difficult to imagine notions more remote from the primordial beliefs of monotheism.

The practice of tolerance, or in this instance, of intolerance, goes back to the very origins of monotheism. Religious fanaticism grew out of the rich soil of the monotheist tradition, which demanded worship of the Creator God and of Him alone. “You must have no other god beside Me,” the Lord intoned from Sinai. “You must not bow down to them in worship; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.” (Ex. 20: 3, 5). This is the famous First Commandment of the monotheists’ Declaration of Dependence, and the great body of Torah law that followed upon this programmatic statement had in fact as one of its primary ends the separation of His holy people from the unclean masses who surrounded it and whom God had “vomited” out of the promised land. The Torah set up a protective wall of purity around both the people and their God in His temple, a wall that later generations of Jews strove to make higher and sturdier and more impermeable.

The followers of the Creator High God eventually broke into three communities, and went on to further exclude all but themselves from the fellowship of that jealous deity they all worshipped. There is in fact no community of monotheists; there are only sects within a purely imaginary whole, each of which lays an exclusive claim to be the unique and authentic representative of monotheism. But it is not merely the title of “monotheist” that they crave; what is principally at stake are the rewards that follow from being the authentic claimant.

This monotheist intolerance flows, then, in part from the very nature of monotheism, for which all else is polytheism, idolatry or heathenism, and in part from a peculiar feature of the monotheist tradition. The foundation text of the entire tradition is, of course, the Hebrew Bible, which Jews and Christians both accept as the words of the Creator God and which Muslims “receive” as revealed in the Quran. In the Bible their God makes an election and bestows a promise. The election is of a single “chosen people,” who, if they remain true to His exclusive worship, will be generously rewarded. The original reward was the rather specific one of plentiful offspring and a land for their dwelling, but in the course of time it has been magnified into something far more grandiose and consequential, “a share in the life to come” or, more briefly and tantalizingly, “salvation.”

Over the course of their long history the monotheists, that is, the Jews, Christians  and Muslims, have all dutifully scorned, vilified or persecuted the “pagans” as circumstances required and permitted. But they have probably devoted far more energy, hostility and, yes, circumspection with respect to their rivals in the fields of the Lord. How, in short, are they to think of and treat each other? As enemies without or as rebels within? As heathen to be eradicated or as heretics to be restrained?

Before the question can be answered, some further attention has to be paid to the difference between “to think of” and “to treat.” The first, how each thinks about the other, is a matter of ideology and of doctrine, and its shows little change over the course of time. In brief, the Jews accorded no special status to either Christians or Muslims: both were goyim or Gentiles to exactly the same degree that Hindus or animists were. What made the situation gravely different in the Christian and Muslim case was, of course, that most Jews for long stretches of history lived under Christian and Muslims regimes that had a particular view of them. The Christians, for their part, judged the Muslims as Gentile as the Jews did: their prophet was false, their “revelation” was man-made, and they had no particular or special standing in Christian theology. But the Jews had a very special place in Christian thinking. They were the recipients of a genuine revelation (the Bible) and had once been the Chosen People of God. They were also the first to be offered the New Covenant in the person of Jesus, the promised Messiah: they rejected it and, more terribly, contrived to put Jesus to death.  Thus the Jews were “authentic” as long as the Christians accepted the Bible as authentic, but were perfidious in their rejection of the Messiah. In the end, the Jews were to be “spared,” first to validate the Bible (from which the Christians made their essential argument that Jesus was the prophesized Messiah) and second, as an illustration (by their miserable state) of God’s terrible justice. Jews should be converted but not annihilated: they were theological museum pieces.

Muslims sharply distinguished Jews and Christians, whom they called “People of the Book,” from pagans or heathens. Muslims regard each community as having been founded by an extraordinary prophet (Moses and Jesus), who had brought them a genuine revelation (the Bible and the Gospel). Each community had, however, become faithless toward that revelation, whose text they had moreover falsified. Though the Quran had superceded the two earlier revelations, and Muhammad was the founder of the last and preeminent social form of monotheism, Jews and Christians were nonetheless, genuine monotheistic communities, albeit faithless ones. As a result, once Jews and Chrsitians accepted Muslim political sovereignty, they were allowed to maintain their confessional identity and worship in their traditional fashion. It was a privilege not accorded by Islam to the pagans, who had to “submit” both politically and religiously to their new rulers.

The second question, how each community deals with the other, has an ideological foundation but is more generally a matter of circumstance. How much will and power does each have to act with respect to the other? Are the instruments available? What would be the consequences of such acts? We have already seen how the Torah attempted to create a cordon sanitaire around the Chosen People. Building a protective political wall around Eretz Israel was a different matter, however, and here the Israelites showed a kind of pragmatic and selective intolerance of the peoples who lived around them, sometimes in and sometimes just outside the land the Lord had promised the Children of Abraham. Where the Israelites were strong enough to impose their will and conversion, they did; where they could not, as was increasingly the case after the Exile, they lived, with difficulty, and let live. The end of any form of Jewish sovereignty, and so too of Jewish ability to dictate political or social or religious terms to others, occurs incrementally between their 6th century BC exile to Babylonia and the final destruction of the Jewish enterprise in Palestine in 135 A.D.

Thus, by the time the Christians and, a fortiori, the Muslims had become full fledged communities, the Jews had been deprived of all political power (and remained so until 1948) and so were incapable of moving  in a hostile fashion against either of their monotheistic brethren save as an act of self-immolation, a course they did not choose for themselves. Christians and Muslims, on the other hand, had long had large numbers of each other’s believers, and well as large numbers of Jews, under their political control and so were free to contrive, on ideological and pragmatic grounds—theologians and politicians are only rarely in agreement—any policy from toleration to annihilation. What they actually did to one another is the subject of a long and detailed history of different times and places, which obviously cannot be recounted here.

If this somewhat bloody characterization seems to ill fit the overwhelming number of actual Jews and Christians in the Monotheist Club, the reason has to do with something quite extraneous to their belief systems. For roughly four centuries Jews and Christians of the West have lived in secular societies that have constrained and, increasingly, convinced Jews and Christians that the secular state in which they, and increasing numbers of Muslims,  live will not permit them to use violence or any form of constraint on the consciences of others; or to put it in another somewhat more pointed way, that the rights, or, as they prefer to put it, the claims of God, which they had all hitherto been so zealous in advancing, would now have to be abridged in the face of what was to the monotheists a somewhat novel notion, the rights of humans. The monotheists had of course recognized human rights—private property was a particular favorite, and there was a spirited medieval debate on whether it existed in Eden before the Fall or whether the realty market was a consequence of Original Sin—but these were always and invariably trumped by God’s rights, the Creator’s claim on His creation. The sovereignty of human rights is a very recent entry on the perpetual calendar of the monotheists.

From the beginning of their long history, the monotheists have not hesitated to defend the rights or the lands of God—real estate was a very important part of the original promise made to Abraham–by force of arms if necessary and if possible. The God of the Israelites was unmistakably a warrior, even a violent, God, and many of His Chosen People’s wars were equally unmistakably holy wars. The Israelites, quite like the pre-Islamic Arabs, even carried their God with them into conflict on occasion. Chapters 20 and 21 of the book called Deuteronomy lays out the rules for war, with God as the leader, and the terms are not very dissimilar from those later dictated by Muhammad to his vanquished enemies, except that the Bible offers no agreeable “protected minority” status to the Israelites’ enemies. With the progressive loss of Jewish sovereignty, however, and so the capacity to use force against their enemies, war eventually became for the Jews only an anticipated eschatological event, a graphic and traumatic act of the End Time, and then, with the disappointed dampening of their messianic enthusiasm, a school exercise for the rabbis, who continued to lay down in the Talmud the rules of a war that would never take place. From the destruction of the last shreds of Jewish political autonomy in 135 AD down to the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948, the Jews were reluctant pacifists, not because they no longer believed that God was worth fighting for, but because they no longer possessed the means to do so. The ones who assuredly did were the other monotheists, the Christians and the Muslims.

Though there have been Christian states, Christianity, which is an ekklesia, an association of believers, has never been a state—there have of course been Christian states and even a Papal one–and so it has never been able to wage war as such. But its close and often (though not always) sympathetic relationship with various states has enabled it to use these polities in the furtherance of its own aims. The ecclesiastical appropriation of the state’s arms can be quickly illustrated in two of the most notorious instances of the Christian Church’s use of force, the Inquisition and the Crusade. The inquisition was a Roman judicial procedure whereby a magistrate could undertake both to investigate, by summoning witnesses and interrogating suspects, to prosecute and finally to judge an apparent crime. The Church borrowed the practice from Roman law, the crime in this instance being heresy, an opinion (or a practice) that deviated from the teaching of the Church. Those judged guilty by the Inquisitors were abjured to recant, and if they did not, they were handed over to the state for execution, which was quite proper since long before the state had itself formally declared heresy a crime as well as a sin. The Church convicted; it was the “secular arm,” however, that lit the penitential flames.

The Crusades bring us a little closer to our project here. The Crusades were undoubtedly holy wars; the motives of the warriors were doubtless varied, as is true in all such ventures, but the objectives and justification were religious. But we must be clear on how precisely it worked. The war was formally “declared” by the Church in the person of the pope, but it was fought by secular princes and their followers who volunteered for this “pilgrimage in arms,” as it was called. The volunteers were encouraged by guaranteed protection of their properties in their absence and by financial subventions from what would normally be the ecclesiastical incomes of their domains. Those who chose to “take up the cross” bound themselves by a solemn and public vow, and on its completion they were rewarded, out of the Church’s treasury of merits, by the promised “indulgences,” the full or partial remission of the penalties accrued by their confessed but unrequited sins. The Church pointed toward Jerusalem; the princes, some of them, went.

Originally the Crusades had nothing to do with attempts to persuade or force the Muslims to convert—European Christian missionary activity among the Muslims was rarely attempted and notoriously unsuccessful—but the later Crusades began to adopt conversion as an objective, particularly as attempts at taking and holding Jerusalem and Palestine began to seem increasingly illusory. Coerced baptism never found much favor among the Church’s canon lawyers: a person had to assent to Christianity. It was just such a canon lawyer, however, Innocent IV, as he was known when he was elevated to the papacy in 1243, who defined the Church’s position on the matter more closely: though non-believers might not be coerced into conversion, the pope, as vicar of Christ on earth, had the authority to order even non-Christian powers to admit preachers of the Gospels into their lands, and, if they refused, to authorize Christian states to use force to effect their entry. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologiae, echoes Innocent’s reason and adds three other grounds that justify a state’s use of force against the infidel: the latter’s hindering the Christian faith by “blasphemies, evil suasions or open persecutions.” This is somewhat different from a Crusade. The Church is no longer pointing; it is laying down a general principle, when the use of force is permissible in a political context, and the princes were free to apply it when and where they would. We are edging away from the Crusade to a theory of a just war.

To resume, the Crusades were holy wars, promulgated, justified and approved by the Church to achieve the declared end of deposing the Muslims from the Holy Places of Palestine. They were fought, however, by secular volunteers, the princes of Europe, who, for a variety of motives, spiritual, venal, opportunistic or adventuresome, bound themselves by sacred vows to perform this holy–if violent and dangerous–service. Despite numerous attempts, they failed to gain their objective.

Unpacking “Crusade” is difficult enough, but understanding the Islamic notion of “jihâd” is even more complex. Islam had no centralized authority like the medieval papacy, no Roman curia of highly trained lawyers and archivists, no theologians like those at the University of Paris to define and shape the Church’s magisterium. Jihâd  must be searched out in the opacities of the Quran and in the treatises, important but never authoritative, of a few lawyers; and finally in what some historians describe as an actual jihâd. 

The complex of concerns and conditions that have collected around the Muslim notion of what we translate as “holy war” reduces itself to a discussion of the circumstances under which an individual Muslim or, more commonly, the community of Muslims, is faced with the obligation to use force against an enemy. Although some considerations are directed to the extent or degree of that force, the main thrust of the discussion in Muslim circles from the Prophet down to the present has been about the enemy and the hostile act that triggers the use of force.

In the Quranic passages on jihâd, there is certainly a wider dimension to the term than the use of force. The believer must energetically strive “in the path of God” to overcome the temptations of the world and his own inclinations to sin, and that ethic of striving, the “jihâd of the heart,” is built into the Muslims’ moral code. The question at hand, however, deals with the other component of jihâd,  the “jihâd of the sword,” the use of force, or “killing”  as the Quran calls it in what appears to be the earliest revelation (22: 39-40) to address the question: “Leave  is given to those who fight because they are wronged…who were expelled from their dwellings without right.” The date must have been soon after the Hijra and the verse obviously looks to the cause of the Muslim migrants who had recently had to take refuge in Medina: permission was granted to take up arms against their Meccan oppressors.

In 622 CE Muhammad had accepted an invitation to leave his native Mecca, where he was the charismatic leader of a small and failing conventicle of believers, and to emigrate to Medina as the ruler of a faction-ridden community of Arabs and Jews.  This was a crucial period in Muhammad’s life, and the years following his so called Hegira or “migration” were spent in trying to forge some kind of community (umma) in accordance with his religious principles and the political realities of the situation. Muhammad’s original “community” at Medina included not only his fellow “Migrants from Mecca and the newly converted “Helpers” at Medina, but Jews and Medinese pagans as well. The Jews were soon purged from both the umma and the town, and the pagans were dragged willy-nilly into it; the umma finally became a community of believers who accepted the dominion of Allah and both the prophethood and the leadership of Muhammad.

These were not artificial associations.  Muhammad’s role as a prophet within a community that he himself had summoned into being necessarily included the functions of legislator, executive, and military commander of the umma. God’s revelations continued to spill from his lips.  Now they were not only threats and warnings to non-believers, but more often legislative enactments regulating community life, and particularly the relations of one Muslim with another. Thus was constituted an exclusively Muslim umma, and its institutionalization can be charted in the Medina passages of the Quran, which are devoted not merely to shaping the Muslim sensibilities of the believers but to laying out some of the basic ritual requirements of the Muslim life.

If the Meccan passages of the Quran are circumspect on the subject of violence—the few and defenseless Muslims there would almost certainly have suffered in its use—and generally appear to counsel its avoidance, the mandate for force granted at Medina was eventually broadened until, it seemed, war could be waged against non-Muslims at almost any time or  any place. Quran 9: 5—“Slay the idolaters wherever you find them…”–is as broad a permission for war against the infidels as can be imagined, and in the traditional Muslim understanding of the passage, it was thought to have “abrogated” or cancelled all earlier limitations on the use of violence against non-believers.

It was the thrust of these texts, and of the body of prophetic traditions that grew up around them that led Muslim jurists to divide the world into the “Abode of Islam” (Dâr al-Islâm), where Islamic law and sovereignty prevailed, and the “Abode of War” (Dâr al-Harb), lands that were not yet subjected to the moral and political authority of Islam. In theory, the Abode of Islam is in a permanent state of warfare with the “Abode of War,” as the very name suggests, at least until the latter submits, and jihâd is the instrument by which that subjection will be accomplished. Hostilities between the two spheres may be suspended by armistice or truce, but they can never be concluded by peace, only by submission.

The early jurists appear to have exercised a certain caution on the matter of hostilities with the unbelievers, which is the essence of Holy War, and required that some degree of provocation be present. But not everyone saw it that way. According to one influential authority, war against the Abode of War was not an occasional circumstance but a permanent and continuous state since the cause was precisely the others’ unbelief (kufr). Jihâd was, in the words of a later commentator, “a duty enjoined (on Muslims) permanently till the end of time.” It was in fact this notion of obligation that much exercised the jurists. The obligation to wage jihâd was, Shafi’i explained, a collective one since all that was required was that some Muslims—the obligation bound “adult, free men who had the means and the health”—take up arms against the infidel. If no one does, the punishment will fall upon all, however.

The discussion of holy warfare—no other is permissible–is prolonged and detailed among Muslim jurists, who tried to make sense of what the Quran said about such matters and what the prophetic traditions revealed about Muhammad’s own counsel and practice, though obviously in quite different circumstances. The degree of harm that might be inflicted upon the enemy, to his person, his property or his liberty was a major concern. The caliph had large discretion in such matters, whether to pardon, ransom, enslave or kill prisoners of war. All agreed that adult males might be slain during hostilities but not women and children, provided they were not involved in the actual fighting. There was, however, a sharp division of opinion—the Quran and prophetic example were not clear here—on whether or not it was legitimate to execute prisoners of war. The issue here was the reason there was warfare in the first place: if it was, as many alleged, because of unbelief, then there should be no exceptions to the death sentence. If, however, it was all about war, then the capacity to fight was the determinant and the elderly, infirm, monks and perhaps many others might be spared.

In the centuries after Muhammad, the combination of juridically imposed conditions and political realities has diminished the effectiveness of jihâd as a practical instrument of policy, though it remains a potent propaganda weapon both for Muslim fundamentalists to brandish and for their Western opponents to decry. Muslim jurists have rarely agreed on the exact fulfillment of the conditions they have laid down for a genuine jihâd (and Muslim public opinion even less often), while the Muslim community on whose behalf it is to be waged has now been divided, perhaps irretrievably, into nation states which generally subscribe to a quite different (and decidedly non-Islamic) version of international law.

The future of the Crusade seems problematic. Secular states have understandably had little enthusiasm for religious wars both as a matter of principle and as a traumatic consequence of the prolonged bloodletting of the seventeenth century. We are now more at home with just wars than with holy ones, more comfortable in taking up arms in defense of mother or motherland than of Mother Church or Holy Writ. We much prefer the First Amendment to the First Commandment, treason has replaced apostasy as a capital crime, and we prosecute embezzlers and reward heretics with scholarships to Berkeley. Force may be applied to defend almost anything except religion. Not everyone agrees, of course, with this version of what has been called civil religion, but those who feel differently, though they are free to speak their mind, may not act upon their convictions.

But there are some who would. We are presently engaged in a struggle with Muslims living in both secular and non-secular states who believe, as Jews and Christians used to, that religion is the only grounds for the use of force. They are not afraid to say “Crusade,” spelled in Arabic “Jihad,” and to apply it on a far wider and more radical scale than even Innocent III could have dreamed of. Indeed, for Muslims jihad is not, like a Crusade, a voluntary albeit meritorious act, but an obligation, and indeed a perpetual one. We must be realistic, however. Over the centuries Muslims have been summoned to this obligation on a regular basis. Not many have paid heed in the past. From Salah al-Din’s attempt to interest the rest of the Muslim world in project of wresting Jerusalem back from the Franks, to the Ottomans’ announcement of jihad against the Allies in World War I, to more recent efforts to enlist Muslims in a jihad against Israel, the call to Holy War has fallen on mostly deaf ears. Self-preservation and self-interest are powerful antidotes to religious appeals in all venues, of course, and many modern Muslim states seem reluctant to grasp this particular nettle which is, as everyone is well aware, quite capable of stinging them as it is the kafirs on the other side of the ideological frontier.

How do civil militias and mujahidun fare against each other? History provides no sure guide: both sides have won their share of armed conflicts. What history does indicate is that religious warriors are as comfortable with arms and as familiar with force as their secular counterparts, and that both armies are perfectly at home on a battlefield where tolerance, either as attitude or as principle, has no place.

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