Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Conclusion of the Sword in Early Christianity and Islam

James M. Arlandson, Ph.D.

This article is the final one in the series, which was a comparative study of the two religions.

Here, at last, we summarize, with some analysis, the major differences between the two religions, side by side, so to speak.

Geopolitical Holy Sites, Warfare, and Taxes

Early Christianity and Islam differ widely on these issues.

Early Christianity

When Jesus was just twelve years old, his parents went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover (Luke 2:41-52). He taught in the temple, and called it his Father’s house (vv. 46-49). There is no doubt he had an attachment to it. But he also grew in stature and wisdom and favor (v. 52). The Jerusalem religious establishment did not like the grownup Jesus and many times looked for opportunities to arrest him.

How would he choose to respond? Stoop to their level and attack them or go in another direction?

In Jesus’ culture, the larger Roman empire, ruling the known world involved raising and sending out armies that took power and resources away from people. Hypothetically and only potentially, he could have formed secret societies out in the desert and sent out assassination hit squads to kill his opponents, while at the same time he could have sent out teams of preachers to proclaim some sort of gospel, to inform people that he was starting a new movement, and anyone who wished to join him may come out to see him. He could have raised a militia and conducted guerilla warfare against synagogues and villages that may have rejected him. He had the motive and the means to go down this path, for other messianic figures in his days did exactly that.

Then he might have been able to take on Jerusalem and maybe Rome itself. However, he rejected that path.

If his path began with stones at the temple, a geopolitical sacred site, his path did not end there. He foresaw that his new movement would have to expand beyond the temple and even Israel itself. He said during his ministry that he is greater than the temple (Matt. 12:6). In a sense he outgrew the sacred place and turned his body – the body of Christ – into the temple of God. He did not fight for the stony temple by picking up a sword. He rose above his own violent culture. He chose a higher path. He decided to proclaim the kingdom of God which can penetrate all cultures at all times.

In his ministry, a major theme was keeping the kingdom of God distinct from the kingdom of Caesar. His kingdom teaching in the Gospels, the church’s progress in Acts, and the apostolic teaching in the epistles reflect this path of peace.

Nothing epitomizes the separate kingdoms more clearly than money and taxes, for behind them resides political power, backed by the sword. A thorough review is therefore in order.

The most revealing passage about the two separate kingdoms and political power and taxes is found in the Gospels. In the context of paying taxes, Jesus said:

24 "Show me a denarius. Whose portrait and inscription are on it?" 25 "Caesar’s," they replied. He said to them, "Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s."[1] (Luke 20:24-25; cf. Matt. 22:19-21; Mark 12:15-17)

Thus, Jesus hands the power to collect taxes over to Caesar. There is nothing immoral in a government collecting them for such things as the relief of poverty, administration, and upkeep of the roads, the military, and law enforcement. However, God’s kingdom does not worry about such matters, when it comes to imposing and collecting such taxes by law backed by the police and military and courts – the sword. Now the kingdom of God does not have to get enmeshed in bloody wars and the subsequent confiscation of people’s property, both real and monetary. The kingdom does not have to sue citizens or maintain a huge bureaucracy to ensure they pay up, threatening them with the sword.

Likewise, his followers – the early Christians – did not become so attached to things like stones that they picked up swords, raised a militia, and attacked people to get their wealth and property, whether a pagan temple, a Jewish synagogue, or even the Jerusalem temple itself. They kept the two kingdoms separate. “For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves” (Colossians 1:13).

The use of the physical sword found its proper place in the kingdom of Caesar (Romans 13:4).

The metaphorical sword found its proper place in the kingdom of God: “Take ... the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17); and “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12).

Early Islam

Muhammad’s ancestors were devoted to the pagan black stone in Mecca, walking around it. He too used to circle it and touch and kiss it. When he preached his new religion, he continued his devotion to the stone. And he said to the Meccans, “You have your religion and I have mine” (Quran 109:6). But Islam offended them, since he preached against their religion. In 622 he was driven out of Mecca, and he went about 250 miles to the north, in the city of Medina. He concluded it was unjust that the Meccans deprived him of his hometown and the main object of veneration.

Now he had a choice. “Let harm be requited by an equal harm, though anyone who forgives and puts things right will have his reward from God Himself” (Quran 42:40).

Would he relinquish the stone or fight to get it back?

He chose to fight. All dates are A.D.

From 622 to 632 he either sent out or went out on seventy-four expeditions, ranging from small raids and assassinations to large-scale wars. We have surveyed only a very small number of them. In 623 he conducts raids on Meccan caravans (except one time) with limited success.

In 624 he won a surprise victory against them and got the spoils of war. This victory is called the Battle of Badr, named after wells on the north-south trade route along the Red Sea, about eighty miles from Medina (two or three days journey).

In 625, they engage in the Battle of Uhud, named after a hill near Medina. That was a minor defeat that, upon Muhammad’s further reflection, was really a draw.

In 627, the Meccans muster out thousands of soldiers and go up to Medina. Muhammad dug a trench to stop their cavalry, hence the name Battle of the Trench. After a month the Meccans withdraw, gaining nothing.

In 628 he signs a treaty with them, so peace won the day, but things fall apart shortly afterwards. Yet he negotiated a treaty so that he could take a short pilgrimage to the black stone in Mecca a year later, and he does. The Meccans leave him unmolested, while he was in the city. Apparently they were willing to keep their religion, while he could have his. But his army grew.

In early 630 he conquers the city with 10,000 soldiers and takes the black stone. Equal harm was answered by equal harm. Victory at last. But he is not finished. Shortly after that he wins another battle against the pagans who lived around Mecca.

Then in late 630 he is so powerful he leads 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers to the far north to wage war on the Byzantines who never mustered out. He did manage to extract payment from disunified and small tribes who must have been impressed with such a large army. Along this warpath he also collected the spoils of war. The Quran reflects this rise of his military.

Finally, he expels pagans from the Kabah shrine (Quran 9:28), just as they had done to him.

Nothing epitomizes these conquests more than money and taxes, backed by the sword. In Chapter 9 of the Quran, reflecting the events in 630, he imposes taxes on the three competing religions surrounding him: Judaism, Christianity, and paganism (if they converted to Islam), that is to say, everyone in his culture. This next passage speaks of the jizyah or poll (submission) tax in the context of warfare against the People of the Book (Jews and Christians). It reads:

29 Fight those of the People of the Book who do not [truly] believe in God and the Last days, who do not forbid what God and His Messenger have forbidden, who do not obey the rule of justice, until they pay the tax [jizyah] and agree to submit.[2] (Quran 9:29)

What was the justification for these attacks? Verse 29 says, “[W]ho do not obey the rules of justice.” The letters and negotiations conducted while Islam expanded often said that Islam is justice. If the nation or tribe or governor or king does not follow Islam, then they are unjust. And an unjust nation, tribe, governor, and king deserve to be attacked until they submit to justice – Islam.

That is a perfect description of a holy war.

This passage in the same chapter speaks of imposing the zakat tax on pagans:

5 ... Then fight and slay [q-t-l] the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity [zakat], then open the way for them.[3] (Quran 9:5)

The zakat tax is the third of the Five Pillars of Islam,[4] the foundation of the religion; the tax is legally and religiously imposed, designated for the poor, but first going to the state. In the Arabian peninsula pagans had to convert (and pay) or die.

In addition to pagans, Muslims are not exempt from the zakat tax

110 Keep up the prayer and pay the prescribed alms [zakat]... 277 Those who believe, do good deeds, keep up the prayer, and pay the prescribed alms [zakat] will have their reward with their Lord[5].... (Quran 2:110, 277)

Thus, Islam merges political power, conquests, taxes with a sacred text and religion. Muhammad got control over all of it.

The separation of the mosque and state is not clearly maintained, for both are embodied in the one person of Muhammad. Many passages say that to obey Allah is to obey Muhammad and vice-versa (e.g. Quran 8:1, 13, 20, 24, 46; 9:54, 62-63, 71, 84, 91; 47:33; 48:10, 17).[6] If conquered peoples did not pay up, he punished them with war. A bureaucracy soon sprang up to keep track of all the resources flowing into Medina, the early capital of Islam.

Nothing in history is inevitable, as the saying goes. It can only be left to the imagination what might have been, if Muhammad had risen above his violent culture and relinquished the black stone. Then the raids would have never happened, and his band of raiders would have never grown into a militia, which grew into an army. He could have said that something greater than a black stone is here: Islam. “‘You I have your religion, I have mine.’ Come willingly and voluntarily to the sacred site I have set up in Medina, my sacred mosque!”

Preaching and persuasion alone is the answer; it provides people with freedom of religion and conscience. People vote with their feet. If the pagans had liked Islam, they would have come (and many did, as time wore on). But if they did not like it, they could have their religion and go in peace. This path of peace, however, was not followed.

Muhammad’s successors, the four rightly guided caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali), sent out Islamic armies over vast territories. Time and again they wrote letters to tribes and cities even emperors and kings, saying that if they surrender, they only have to pay the jizyah. If not, they will die in battle. Sometimes the tribes fought – and usually lost. At other times they just surrendered before the battle began. Therefore the caliphs also became religiously and politically authoritarian. They too had to keep track of the conquest money, so they developed a bureaucracy. And they too would punish any newly conquered tribe or city that did not pay their taxes.

They indeed picked up swords and waged war, as armies consolidated Islamic rule in the Arab peninsula. Then they stormed out of this peninsula and conquered vast territories, taking resources and property and imposing Islamic governors and various taxes. As for the pagans, the three caliphs after the first one seem to have adopted the policy that outside of this large area pagans could remain as they are, but they still had to pay taxes.

Relations with the Jews

Early Christianity’s and Islam’s outlook on the Jews is very different.

Early Christianity

Jesus was a Jew, born in Israel to Jewish parents. When he grew up, he entered the ministry about four decades before the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. He preached to his fellow Israelites, and the average one liked him and listened carefully. Many followed him. They especially liked his healing power. He never denounced the ordinary people. But he did use strong rhetoric against the Jerusalem religious establishment and their agents. He believed they put too many burdens on people. His denunciations of them won him very few allies in that high level of his society.

They looked for ways to arrest him. And they designed several trumped up charges when he entered Jerusalem during the Passover feast. They soon induced the Roman authorities to crucify him. But the Gospels all agree that on the third day he was raised from the dead. Through all these ups and downs he showed love for his people, and he never wielded a weapon against them.

The apostles followed his outlook and attitude. They sometimes (though not always) had problems with the Jewish leadership as the apostles traveled and preached around the Mediterranean world. But they never picked up the sword against them. Paul concludes that God has not rejected his chosen people (Romans 11:1-2). Peter, the lead apostle, was called specially to minister to his fellow Jews (Galatians 2:8).

Early Islam

When Muhammad moved up to Medina in 622, he found a large and thriving Jewish community, divided into three main tribes: Qaynuqa, Nadir, and Qurayza. His civic relations with them went from tense (when he had no military in his new home city), to expulsion (when he had much more power) and then the worst of all – death and enslavement (when he had ultimate power).

All dates are A.D.

To begin with, in 625, he chases out the Qaynuqa tribe, because, he claimed, they had betrayed him. As they departed, he told them to leave their tools behind, for they had worked at the craft trades. Many of his Muslims, who had just left Mecca and also worked in the crafts, benefited from their newly acquired tools.

Later in that year he claims that the Nadir tribe had betrayed him at the Battle of Uhud. He also said they refused to pay some blood-wit money (compensation for loss of life). He drives them out of Medina and confiscates their date palms and houses.

In 627, Muhammad massacres the men of the Qurayza tribe and sells the women and children into slavery. He claimed they had betrayed him at the Battle of the Trench.

In 628 he conquers the Jews residing in Khaybar, about seventy miles to the north. He claimed that the leaders were plotting against him. Maybe it is at this time that he envisioned the entire peninsula to be free of Jews.

Finally, Caliph Umar, following him, expelled all the Jews (and Christians) from the Arab peninsula, in 635.

Thus this huge land mass has become a geopolitical holy land of sorts, reaching far beyond the black stone in Mecca and the new sacred city of Medina.


Early Christianity and Islam have different views on martyrdom. In both, the institutional genetic code set by their respective founders was crucial.

Early Christianity

Jesus never picked up a sword to hit people with it. He only preached the good news of the gospel. When he died, he was falsely accused, but was actually innocent. He did not die because he was violent or collected taxes.

The apostles Peter, James, and Paul and the deacon Stephen died in the same pattern. All of them were falsely accused, but were innocent. They only preached the good news of the gospel. They did not die because they were violent or collected taxes. They are martyrs in Christianity.

Early Islam

Muhammad preached, but he also waged war and imposed taxes. He believed that Jews poisoned him, particularly one from the Jewish Khaybar community, which he had conquered in 628. He died in 632, from the effects of the poison.

All four of the caliphs waged war and imposed taxes and religion on people, with a large army standing outside the city gate. Three of them were assassinated: Umar by a disgruntled taxpayer, Uthman by a faction in power politics, and Ali by a faction taking revenge on him for his suppressing a revolt against him. And one tradition says that Abu Bakr, the first caliph, also died from poison planted by Jews, but he most likely died from natural causes, like a disease or old age.

The three caliphs who were assassinated are considered martyrs in Islam.

Religion, the Sword, and the State

Mixing religion and the state with the sword in the middle is a thorny topic.

Early Christianity

Biblical Christianity, properly understood, separates the two realms of the state and religion. Christianity hands the sword over to the state. This principle can be applied today. In the USA, for example, the government does not subsidize the church, and no church has the Scriptural right to use the sword to wage war on people.

Since the sword is in the hands of the state, Christianity takes a risk. It is no surprise that Scripture encourages the church to pray for the state.

1 I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – 2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. 3 This is good, and pleases God our Savior... (1 Timothy 2:1-3)

In these verses, the goal is peace and quiet in society, not just for Christians, but for everyone. The means to get there is holiness and righteousness, at least for the church. And there is nothing foolish if unchurched individuals decide to live by a kind of civic righteousness.

The means to live in peace and quiet is never by the sword in the hands of the institutional church or any individual taking the law into his own hands or a faction of terrorists.

When the government allows and protects, by the sword if necessary, maximum freedom without chaos, individuals can then create a happy and high quality of life for themselves: Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, to borrow a phrase from the Declaration of Independence

Those three social values are best for a society that lives righteously and peacefully.

Early Islam

Early Islam mixes the state and religion, and the sword is in the middle. Islamic governments to this day follow this pattern. They do not clearly distinguish between the mosque and the state. Saudi Arabia and Iran, for example, are theocratic. Many of them, particularly the Arab states, are authoritarian. All of them declare war in the name of their own country and in the name of Islam. (The Saudi flag has a sword on it.) All Islamic governments can opt to fight in Allah’s name and be perfectly consistent with the Quran.

A Saudi Muslim informed me in an email that the sword on his nation’s flag means that Islam fights injustice. However, from the study laid out in this series of articles, we learned that Islam is justice, and any nation that does not practice Islam is unjust. Therefore, the sword can strike nations that are unjust.

But this definition of justice is much too narrow for all of society, for the nations of the world.

Onward to Reform?

By now it should be clear that this study has a point of view. But it has not been pulled out of thin air; the facts and the conclusions drawn from them lead in a specific direction.

Plainly said, Islam has difficulty relating to the modern world. Islam must reform, for the good of the world.

But maybe extra-devout Muslims believe that reform is unneeded because they should not tamper with truth and justice as revealed in the Quran. If only the world would reform and come under Islam, then the world would no longer call for Islam’s reform.

However, the worldwide web will force Islam to reform or collapse within itself, no matter how much the Saudi government, for example, tries to block the web. Many (not all) people yearn for freedom. Saudi women recently joined forces to protest the illegality of their driving a car. They were crying out for freedom from religious oppression.[7]

True, some parts of the Islamic world will never surrender, but remain hard-core. Yet many people will migrate away from an extra-restrictive religion. Maybe they will choose another religion, or maybe they will go agnostic; or maybe they will not choose any religion, but still believe in God somehow.

Further, Islam must reform, or it faces abandonment. As people discover that they can live outside of Islam, which imposes heavy restrictions on them, they will gradually move away from the religion in which they were born and which they did not choose freely. They will discover other religions that offer freedom. They will discover that Islamic armies conquered vast territories and forced or virtually forced their ancestors to convert. They will discover that they are Muslims only because of these armies.

Then they will ponder a new path, one that rejects violence and heavy-handed religious laws that whip people for not keeping the Ramadan fast or for premarital sex – or that execute people who commit adultery. They will discover that they can live a new way and freely choose not to fornicate or commit adultery, but if they do, they do not have to fear government punishments, like stoning or flogging, for a private sin. They will discover that they can freely decide, without coercive “reeducation,” that they can leave Islam.

Here are some ways that Islam can reform, if it so chooses.

Muslim leaders must interpret the jihad and qital verses as culturally conditioned and restricted. They have an expiration date on them. They applied back in seventh-century Arab culture, but not today. Muhammad’s culture conducted raids and waged wars, and so did he. Arab culture chopped off hands for theft, and so did he. The Quran verses that encourage this are culturally limited and only for back then. Muhammad’s main goal was to get back to Mecca and take the Kabah shrine from the pagans. Mission accomplished.

Now all those jihad and qital verses should not be brought forward to today. Quran 9:29, which speaks of waging qital against Jews and Christians, applies only to the Tabuk campaign in 630. The verse has an expiration date.

If the Quran permits a husband to hit his wife (4:34), as was done among seventh-century Arabs, then the verse has an expiration date, and the same goes for severe punishments like chopping off hands for theft and stoning and adulterers and adulteresses to death. These old laws need to be rejected, for they no longer apply today.

But how does one distinguish between cultural verses that command, for example, pilgrimages, which the seventh-century Arabs did, from the wife-hitting verse and the jihad and qital verses? After all, some cultural practices are good or harmless.

In reply, any verse that promotes violence in society should have an expiration date on them. Any verse that promotes maximum freedom (without chaos) and a high quality of life is valid today. Any verse that promotes oppression and a low quality of life is no longer valid. Freedom and life are basic and fundamental human values that are never culturally defined or restricted, but can be applied everywhere.

The Five Pillars are a good place to start. They have cultural aspects to it, like the pilgrimage. While they may restrict an individual’s freedom (no eating during the day in the month of Ramadan), religions often have requirements. However, they do not harm materially or physically anyone or significantly restrict the freedom of society at large, if segments of society do not choose to follow that religion or any religion. In that case, they must be free.

Further, from Islam’s point of view, a strong case can be made that the Five Pillars improve a Muslim’s quality of life – at least they do not take away from society’s quality of life. But the pillars are just the beginning. Interpretive principles must emerge that deal with the unpleasant verses in the Quran.

To reinterpret the Quran verses promoting jihad and qital and other forms of violence and oppression, Islam must convene a council where many scholars and Imams, especially the radical ones, hash out this cultural interpretation of certain verses.[8]

A new interpretive school must emerge, one that honors the past, but moves beyond it and is not bound by it. Women should be invited to the council, since they are often the object of these culturally restrictive verses. It may take many council meetings to reach a reasonable interpretation and the two fundamental and timeless and cross-cultural values of freedom and life. Call it the Freedom and Life Interpretive School – or whatever. It may take many years of discussion (maybe generations). Perhaps the fanatics will walk out. (Invite them back.) But maybe some will stay and change their mind.

Whatever happens at the councils and however long it takes, Islam must find a way out and reform. Parts of the institutional genetic code that was set back in the seventh century must be broken and a new one introduced.[9]

Then, most importantly this reform must be communicated to the violent fanatics within Islam, not necessarily and only to Westerners. If the violent fanatics resist, then the moderates should keep persuading and writing, inviting them to conferences. But can the moderates persuade them, when the fanatics have fuller and wider Quranic support?

See Part 11 and Questions 6 and 21 for possible ways Islam can reform, if Muslim leaders are open to following Christians and how they reformed.

One small step: Muslims leaders must drop the (recently invented) labels “Islamophobia” and Islamophobic” (etc.) that are wrongly thrown at the critics of the negative parts of Islam, like the jihad and qital verses.

If Islam reforms, we shall have a modicum of peace in the world. If not, conflicts will continue.


[First published: 1 May 2012]
[Last updated: 21 July 2012]

Articles in the Series:

1. Introduction

2. The Mission of Jesus and the Sword
3. The Mission of Muhammad and the Sword

4. The Gospels and the Sword
5. The Quran and the Sword

6. Two Kinds of Swords

7. The Early Church and the Sword
8. The Early Muslim Community and the Sword

9. The Sword and the Jews

10. Martyrdom and the Sword

11. Q & A on the Sword

12. Conclusion

[1] The New International Version is used in this article, unless otherwise noted. If readers would like to see other translations, they can go to

[2] M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, in The Quran, rev. ed. (New York: Oxford UP, 2010), inserts the word “truly” in brackets, as if it softens the tough nature of the verse. Apparently the insertion is supposed to imply that Islamic armies are not required to attack Jews and Christians who “truly” believe, but the armies may do so if the Jews and Christians do not “truly” believe – maybe the lukewarm or maybe those who do not worship the Islamic way or follow its theology. If readers would like to see various translations of the Quran, they may go to the website and type in the references.

[3] Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s translation, the Meaning of the Holy Quran, 11th ed., (Belleville, Maryland: Amana, 2004). The parenthetical note is his. The note in the brackets was added by me.

[4] The Five Pillars: (1) Profession of faith; (2) regular prayer five times a day; (3) zakat or required charity tax; (4) fasting during Ramadan; (5) pilgrimage or hajj.

[5] The words in brackets are added by me.

[6] A founder of a new religious movement has the right to command obedience (Jn. 14:15), but Muhammad combined his call with the sword (military), the state, and power politics. It is no wonder that his caliphs took up where he left off.

[7] Alexandra Sandels, “Saudi Women Get in the Driver's Seat to Defy Ban,” Los Angeles Times, June 18, 2011, accessed Aug. 4, 2011. However, there is another cry for freedom currently taking place in the Arab world, the so-called “Arab spring.” This latter freedom movement is political and its outcome is in doubt. This is not what I am talking about, for Arabs may end up with religious oppression. The cry for freedom I envision is one that shakes off heavy-handed and restrictive religion.

[8] See Dennis Prager, “Can Islam Be Reformed?, Aug. 2, 2011. He names some reformers, but none of them are part of the religious hierarchy in Islamic nations. Though living in the West, they are a good first step. In his short article, Prager, ignoring the Quran and hadith, does not grapple with how Islam can reform, only that it should and can. How did Judaism reform? What principles guided the process? So Lord Cromer is still mainly right: Islam reformed is Islam no longer – unless it can reinterpret and modernize its sacred texts.

[9] Sisters in Islam is a Malaysian Muslim women’s organization that is on the right track. They reinterpret misogynistic Quranic verses in light of today’s world. But their efforts have a fatal flaw. They take the verses as valid, so they have to twist their interpretations beyond what ordinary language can bear. Instead, they need to take a big step back and ask whether the verses should be considered valid in the first place. Shouldn’t they instead be taken as coming from seventh-century Arab culture, much like certain verses in the Old Testament are read in ancient Middle Eastern culture? Instead of contorting ordinary language, they need to write about how the cultural context may invalidate the verses for today’s world. They also need to rewrite the Islamic doctrine of inspiration, so they can have some latitude to reinterpret the violent and peaceful verses in light of the world today.