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Judaism and Islam: War and Religion

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War has a special place in human history. Not only have essentially all human societies involved themselves in armed conflict at some point in their histories, but religion has often used a pretext and condition for war. This sample religious studies essay discusses the nature of warfare in Judaism and Islam and explores the ways in which warfare is justified and explained in the two faiths.

War in Judaism and Islam

War and violence in Judaism and Islam hold a unique place in each of the two religion's core tenets. As a product of historical practices and strong sociocultural links with the past, war is both a means to an end and, oftentimes, a goal in and of itself for each of the faiths. Conservative Judaism and Islam offer several different theoretical justifications for war ranging from a divinely-mandated struggle against biblical outsiders to more practical wars involving smaller general action.

The act of war and the reasoning for engaging in it provide valuable insight into the ways in which Judaism and Islam approach the matter of violence in contemporary times. For the modern period, the creation of the state of Israel, which functions as a blend of ethnoreligious views, is a polarizing entity that is of substantial importance when discussing Jewish views on warfare, as for the first time in thousands of years, an independent Jewish state exists with a strong military arm.

Likewise, the presence of Israel in a Muslim-dominated Middle East is highly contentious and plays into the ways in which Islam views the matter of warfare, both as a mix of holy and secular interests. For Islam, the act of war shares a surprisingly similar set of justifications, including both holy war against infidels and more “voluntary” wars, or conflicts started without explicit direction from God. Thus, both faiths offer similar parallels in their justifications and rationales for war and share a common outlook with regards on how to approach the issue of aggressive outsiders.

Judaism and the Jews' view on war

As one of the world's oldest living religions, Judaism has had its share of conflicts. Though many of the details about the wars involving the line of David and Solomon are recorded in biblical history:

“up until modern times, one can hardly find an attempt to articulate a category of banned or forbidden war within the framework of Judaism” (Afterman 1183).

The presence of warfare in Judaic history is a topic that, while critically important to the historical legacy of the Jewish people, mattered little until the advent of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948. The creation of Israel allowed for the matter of warfare to become, again, a practical and required topic of discussion for Jewish leaders, as the need to both establish and protect an independent Jewish state would necessitate the use of armed conflict.

Jewish theories regarding war

Jewish theories on war are divided into three principle groups:

  1. Milhemet hova (obligatory war)
  2. Milhemet reshut (optional war)
  3. Preventative or perhaps pre-emptive war

Past conflicts between other people and the Jewish faith and people have taught them to view war as a way of life, connecting it intimately with their beliefs and culture. Judaism approaches the issue of warfare involving these primary classifications as both a religious and secular interest. (Kuzmarov 52).

Islam, likewise, shares the same three principal subdivisions of justified warfare—the obligatory war, or the war required by God or otherwise divinely inspired; the optional war, such as one dictated by religious or secular leaders as a conflict with practical, achievable goals; and the preventative war, where the people of the faith act to prevent their own destruction by initiating conflict first.

“The Bible refrains from providing a special code for wars of defense, and from introducing the category of forbidden war” (Afterman 1185).

As both Judaism and Islam share these similar ideas regarding war and violence, it becomes clear that the three justifications for conflict provide a valuable framework on which to further analyze the matter in contemporary terms.

Creation of Israel

Religious justification for warfare is not an unusual phenomena, nor is it limited in any real sense to merely just Judaism and Islam. As:

“religious justification for warring has become an increasingly important motivation among certain sectors of the Jewish population”

It can be seen that the creation of the state of Israel has influenced the global Jewish community strongly with a more radicalized and classically Zionist philosophy, based in large part on religious notions that create an umbrella of historical and sociocultural justifications for violence and warfare (Firestone 955). Indeed, the ability of religious leaders to redraw contemporary conflicts into religious terms is a hallmark of Judaic thought in recent years.

For example, portraying the Israel-Palestine conflict in religious terms is a relatively recent occurrence, having only been a factor in the post-independence era of the state of Israel. Moreover, as:

“there is no value attached to war or to warriors in Rabbinic literature […] if someone comes to kill you, you kill him first”

It becomes clear that painting secular conflicts in religious terms allows for a much greater capacity to both deride war as an ideologically justified creation and, at the same time, promote ethnoreligious conflict in an effort to secure further bases of support for violence (Kuzmarov 53). Thus, while the war in modern times is often the result of necessity, it maintains a particular place in Judaic thought as a means to conduct oneself in proper religious terms.

The Halakhah of war

In Judaic theology, the Halakhah of war, or the section of Rabbinic and religious law that govern warfare, is divided into necessary and optional war. Highly codified and regulated, the Halakhah maintains:

“two sections of unequal volume, a sizable exposition of Deuteronomy 20, with its rules of conduct and […] a distinction between votive and obligatory wars” (Neusner 136).

Thus, Judaic law holds a strong element of textual basis for the conduct and behavior of Jews in wartime—governing and guiding Israeli policy as a theoretical backdrop from which to derive action. Obligatory war, or war that must be conducted either by instructions from God or necessity for the defense of the people, is an act that takes ultimate priority for all members of the faith.

In one case, the Halakhah of war justifies:

“the violation of the Sabbath [as] it signals a calling of obedience to God that transcends the restrictions of the Sabbath” (Neusner 137).

In that particular instance, Jewish history teaches that David had laid siege to Jericho and to lift the siege in order to observe the Sabbath would have resulted in the destruction of the Israeli people.

"Obligatory war overrides the laws of the Sabbath, and war overrides peace” (Neusner 138).

In essence, wartime requirements reflect a pragmatism of Jewish thought, namely the acknowledgment that realistic situations may, in fact, necessitate the suspension of proper Jewish religious practices in favor of actions needed to preserve the integrity of the Jewish people.

Jewish and Islamic attacks in the West Bank

In the first half of 2002, a large-scale military operation by the state of Israel commenced with an aerial bombardment and subsequent land incursions into the Palestinian-governed West Bank. Aimed at halting the continuation of the Second Intifada, the invasion raised serious ethical questions amongst the Jewish religious community. The issue of whether the safety of Israeli soldiers takes priority “even at the price of harming innocent civilians” was, at part of its core, a religious issue based on the Halakhah of war (Afterman 1206).

Delving into the annals of Jewish history, religious leaders found evidence that would support the viewpoint that the lives of soldiers, even when operating in an offensive operation in crowded civilian areas, would nonetheless be of paramount in importance and that, if need be, Jewish law would condone actions that would directly endanger innocent civilians in order to preserve Jewish life. This discussion in Rabbinic circles caused a strong controversy over the ways in which a modern Jewish state conducts itself in contemporary conflicts and:

“led to a resurfacing of a discussion on the Jewish laws of war […] questions pertaining to the Jewish collective in terms of the way war itself is conducted” (Afterman 1207).

Moreover, the traditional view of “if someone comes to kill you, you kill him first” is thrown into a severe ethical dilemma with regards to how a Jewish state can realistically conduct itself in a wartime environment. As current practical realities make it nearly impossible to neutralize enemy threats without claiming innocent lives, the ethical dimension of how Jewish law plays into the operational capacity of the Israeli Defense Force is a debate that has not seen an effective conclusion.

Islamic and Jewish religious extremism and war

In contrast to the textually supported and codified sets of Jewish law, modern Muslims are not strictly regulated by religious texts that determine proper conduct in warfare. And, some Islamic terrorist and extremist groups take advantage of the lack of regulation to push their agenda and declare war on other religions and countries.

"If what we mean to inquire into is the authoritative, settled code of conduct within warfare accepted by Muslims, the Islamic analog to the Geneva conventions, then, well, we are simply out of luck” (March, Modirzadeh 368).

Thus, while it is true that there are some general methodologies and policies proposed by traditional Islamic texts found in collections of hadith and fiqh (sayings of the Prophet and Islamic legal texts, respectively), nowhere in Muslim theology does a single agreed-upon source of warfare conduct exist, nor has any Islamic state ever successfully employed the usage of a single codex to guide the ethical dimensions of how warfare can be conducted in line with religious teachings.

However, much like their Jewish counterparts, Muslim writers have:

“distinguished wars against unbelievers from wars against other Muslims” (Hashmi 162).

These conflicts, again eerily reminiscent of their Jewish equivalents, are:

“further divided into defensive fighting to repulse enemy aggression and the struggle to expand the territory in which Islamic law applied (dar ai-Isiam) by reducing the territory of the infidels (dar ai Aarb) […] although expansionist jihad” (Hashmi 162).T

Thus, while Islamic texts support the idea of both holy and secular war, there is no single agreed-upon code of warfare akin to the Jewish Halakhah of war.

Islamic and Jewish radicalization of policies towards war

Since the start of the modern era, one of the most intriguing parallels between Islam and Judaism has the been the radicalization of religious policies and the ways in which religious extremism has arisen as an attractive political ideology. In particular, the adoption of terrorism as a valid form of political, religious, and military expression and the actions of Zionist militias in the years before 1948 are fascinating examples of the ways in which Judaism and Islam have reacted to the challenges placed upon them by outsiders.

With regards to Islamic terrorism, one of the single most common and easily one of the most public forms takes the shape of suicide bombings, an evolution of terrorism and guerrilla warfare that began to truly take global prominence in the 1980s. Regardless of the particular hadith being read and interpreted:

“laws relating to jihad unambiguously state that fighters must not take the lives of noncombatants”, yet “at the same time, anyone who dies while fighting non-Muslims is considered a martyr and guaranteed the highest rank in paradise” (MacEoin 17).

Not only is committing suicide forbidden, but the deliberate targeting of noncombatants in the modern era is not beneficial to the jihad at all.

Justifying radical Islamic views

However, the practice can be justified with the acknowledgment that martyrdom is assured for all those who fall in the struggle against the infidel, and that, given the nature of the democratic system, there are no truly innocent citizens in the West. If the nation itself commits a crime against Islam or another state, the citizens therein are held accountable for the behavior of their elected government. Thus, there are none who have truly clean hands, thereby helping to void the religious objections to suicide bombings.

At the same time, suicide bombings are some of the only tools available for fighters and organizations unable to marshal the resources to challenge nation-states on comparative terms. Likewise, as a remnant of colonialism in the Middle East and Africa, as well as American support for Israel regardless of Israeli policies, terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and radical Islamic groups in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Iran associate the United States with strong anti-Islam views.

In addition, and despite the widespread acknowledgment amongst Palestinians that terrorism is not an effective tool of resistance against Israel, terrorism nonetheless is one of the principle ways in which radicalized Islam has responded to outside aggression and is an unfortunate and bloody method by which radical Muslims can approach the issues of war and violence in contemporary times.

Zionist militias and extremists

Not alone in their adoption of terrorism, the violent Zionist militias of the post-World War II period are the basis from which Islamic terrorists draw inspiration. Having:

“pioneered many new strategies—truck bombs directed against hotels and embassies, attacks against buses and crowded public places”

The Zionist extremists attacked British and German dignitaries and holdings in Israel to try to effect change, though it was the formal declaration of independence in 1948 that led to the establishment of an independent Israel (Jenkins 27). Indeed, driven by religious and political desires, Zionist groups such as the Irgun, the Lehi, and the Haganah, committed atrocities such as rape, murder, and terrorist bombings in their desire to achieve independence.

Thus, while in modern times and due in large part to the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and the subsequent outbreak of war in the Middle East, Zionist militias are no longer a factor and revisionist history has largely attempted to stem the bad press from such a brutal history, Jewish radicals have an equally tragic past in the loss of innocent human life.

Moreover, eerily reflective of the justifications of modern Islamic terrorists, the Zionists used mirror arguments of the claims that there are no innocents and that British civilians are equally valid targets as military personnel. Regardless of their validity of the argument, it is clear that the Zionist radicals and modern day Islamic terrorists operate from identical moral justifications and logical positions, with the only difference between them being they fought for different sides.


While the Judaic and Muslim faiths differ on many points of theology, they share very similar reactions to the emergence of contemporary social and global political forces in the modern era. Basing their views of war and violence on foundational religious texts, both the global Muslim and Jewish communities share a desire, born out of their religious sources, to draw distinctions between religious and secular war, and between combatants and noncombatants.

Likewise, mainstream Judaism rejects the actions of Zionist extremists, but even today it is difficult to achieve a balanced viewpoint in the Israeli education system regarding the brutality of the militias. Thus, both Judaism and Islam share very close similarities regarding how their respective communities have approached the issue of war and violence both in the modern era and in the cultural and historical legacy of their people.

Works Cited

Afterman, Adam, and Gedaliah Afterman. "Rise Up And Kill Him First": On Modern Attempts To Create A Jewish Ethics Of War." Nova Et Vetera (English Edition) 10.4 (2012): 1183-1213. Academic Search Complete. Web. 5 May 2013.

Firestone, Reuven. "Holy War In Modern Judaism? "Mitzvah War" And The Problem Of The "Three Vows.." Journal Of The American Academy Of Religion 74.4 (2006): 954-982. Academic Search Complete. Web. 5 May 2013.

Hashmi, Sohail H. "Saving And Taking Life In War: Three Modern Muslim Views." Muslim World 89.2 (1999): 158. Academic Search Complete. Web. 5 May 2013.

Jenkins, Philip. "After Al-Qaeda." American Conservative 10.9 (2011): 26-29. Academic Search Complete. Web. 5 May 2013.

Kuzmarov, Betina. "Recapturing" The "Other": Jewish Laws Of War And International Law." Journal Of Law & Religion 28.1 (2012): 47-65. Academic Search Complete. Web. 5 May 2013.

MacEoin, Denis. "Suicide Bombing As Worship." Middle East Quarterly 16.4 (2009): 15-24. Academic Search Complete. Web. 5 May 2013.

Neusner, Jacob. "War In The Halakhah, Peace In The Aggadah." Review Of Rabbinic Judaism 14.2 (2011): 133-157. Academic Search Complete. Web. 5 May 2013.



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Ultius, Inc. "Judaism and Islam: War and Religion." Ultius | Custom Writing and Editing Services. May 02, 2014 https://www.ultius.com/ultius-blog/entry/judaism-and-islam-war-and-religion.html.

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Ultius, Inc. "Judaism and Islam: War and Religion." Ultius | Custom Writing and Editing Services. May 02, 2014 https://www.ultius.com/ultius-blog/entry/judaism-and-islam-war-and-religion.html.

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