The eighth chapter of the Qur’an is famous for its violence, at least in anti-Islamic circles. Litanies like this…
.. give more examples of violent verses from the eighth chapter than from any other. The chapter’s name — “The Spoils” — hardly helps. Yet, the litany’s violent impressions of the first several chapters don’t match my impressions of chapter 2, “The Heifer,” chapter 3, “The Family of Amram,” or chapter 5, “The Table.” So is chapter 8, “The Spoils,” that bad in the context of the Bible?
Let’s use one verse as a key, and open the door of the Qur’an…
Prepare against them whatever you can of power and war-horses,
awing thereby the enemy of God and your enemy,
and others besides them,
whom you do not know, but God knows them.
And whatever you spend in the way of God will be repaid to you in full
and you will be not wronged.
Within this one voice, there’s promises of payback, victory, a faithless adversary, total consecration to God, and all things being made right.
Let’s dig in.
The Qur’an’s promise that God will pay to men what men deserve continues the Biblical theme of pay back:
Christ himself references the Maccabean promise to pay back to the gentiles exactly what they deserved:
Judas Maccabeus has been a mighty warrior from his youth; he shall command the army for you and fight the battle against the peoples. You shall rally around you all who observe the law, and avenge the wrong done to your people. Pay back the Gentiles in full, and obey the commands of the law.”
1 Maccabees 2:66-68
As Christ ensured us to be sure that Caesar collects, and Judas Maccabeus wanted to ensure that Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Qur’anic author is warning the reader God can pay back to you, too. No debts will be left outstanding. But if you go with God, with way will be easier. This is because the burden we have been given from the Father is easy, and the burden manageable:
Now God has lightened your burden, knowing that there is weakness in you. So if there be a hundred steadfast men among you, they will overcome two hundred; and if there be a thousand, they will overcome two thousand, by God’s leave, and God is with the steadfast.
Or as Christ said:
All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.
Come to Me, all you who labor
and are heavy laden,
and I will give you rest.
Take My yoke upon you
and learn from Me, for I am gentle
and lowly in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.
The reference to the multiplicative power of God in the verse we began with — that God’s help makes your own efforts a rounding error — seems to reflect the reference to David’s successes relative to Saul’s.
Now it had happened as they were coming home, when David was returning from the slaughter of the Philistine, that the women had come out of all the cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with tambourines, with joy, and with musical instruments. So the women sang as they danced, and said:
“Saul has slain his thousands,
And David his ten thousands.”
Then Saul was very angry, and the saying displeased him; and he said,
“They have ascribed to David ten thousands,
and to me they have ascribed only thousands.
Now what more can he have but the kingdom?”
The Qur’anic author, like Joseph Lozovyy in his analysis of David, Saul, and Doeg, views David’s success as the result entirely of God’s effort, and not reflective on David’s own skill or work. Faith — which the Qur’anic author sees as humility before God’s presence, and not as obedience to a king — makes one part of the heavenly host:
The faithful are only those whose hearts tremble when God is mentioned, and when His signs are recited to them, they increase their faith, and who put their trust in their Lord, maintain the prayer and spend out of what We have provided them. If is they who are truly faithful. They shall have ranks near their Lord, forgiveness, and a noble provision.
The righteous victory then is a victory where one does nothing (except having a heart that tremble, put their trust in the Lord, maintain the prayer, and use what God gives), and God smites the enemy. Faith, and not works, matter to the Qur’anic author. So the analogy of God smiting Pharaoh’s army, which the Israelites did little else to help other than escape…
Like the precedent of Pharaoh’s clan and those who were before them, who impugned the signs of their Lord; so We destroyed them for their sins and We drowned Pharaoh’s clan, and they were all wrongdoers.
… highlights perhaps the only work that God accepts, according to the Qur’anic author: belief.
After Pharaoh’s army was drowned, the Children of Israel were in the Wilderness between the sin of Egypt and the promise of Canaan. During this time, spies were sent into Canaan to investigate the land. All agreed with the basic facts — that the land of Canaan was good, but that it held the faithless — Amalekites:
Now they departed and came back to Moses and Aaron and all the congregation of the children of Israel in the Wilderness of Paran, at Kadesh; they brought back word to them and to all the congregation and showed them the fruit of the land. Then they told him, and said: “We went to the land where you sent us. It truly flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. Nevertheless, the people who dwell in the land are strong; the cities are fortified and very large; moreover we saw the descendants of Anak there. The Amalekites dwell in the land of the South; the Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites dwell in the mountains; and the Canaanites dwell by the sea and along the banks of the Jordan.”
The Qur’anic author summarizes what happened next:
As your Lord brought you out from your home with a judicious purpose, a part of the faithful were indeed reluctant. They disputed with you concerning the truth after it had become clear, as if they were being driven toward death while they looked on.
Caleb and Joshua advocated for an attack…
Then Caleb quieted the people before Moses, and said, “Let us go up at once and take possession, for we are well able to overcome it.”
and [Caleb and Joshua] spoke to all the congregation of the children of Israel, saying: “The land we passed through to spy out is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord delights in us, then He will bring us into this land and give it to us, ‘a land which flows with milk and honey.’ Only do not rebel against the Lord, nor fear the people of the land, for they are our bread; their protection has departed from them, and the Lord is with us. Do not fear them.”
but the other spies urged Israel to turn back, leading even Moses and Aaron to despair:
But the men who had gone up with him said, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we.” And they gave the children of Israel a bad report of the land which they had spied out, saying, “The land through which we have gone as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people whom we saw in it are men of great stature. There we saw the giants (the descendants of Anak came from the giants); and we were like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight.”
So all the congregation lifted up their voices and cried, and the people wept that night. And all the children of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron, and the whole congregation said to them, “If only we had died in the land of Egypt! Or if only we had died in this wilderness! Why has the Lord brought us to this land to fall by the sword, that our wives and children should become victims? Would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?” So they said to one another, “Let us select a leader and return to Egypt.”
Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before all the assembly of the congregation of the children of Israel.
The Qur’anic author identifies the fear of the ten as ultimately Satanic, as it placed trust in human strength and not God’s. In this view the purpose of the spies was simply to see what God had prepared for them, and not worry about the practicalities of seizing a new land:
Do not be like those who left their homes vainly and to show off to the people, and to bar from the way of God, and God encompasses what they do.
When Satan made their deeds seem decorous to them, and said, ‘None from among those people will defeat you today, and I will stand by you.’But when the two hosts signed each other, he took to his heels, saying ‘Indeed, I am quit of you. I see what you do not see. Indeed, I fear God and God is severe in retribution.’
The Lord does not need human strength. He will send Angels to give victory to those He wishes:
When you appealed to your Lord for help, He answered you: ‘I will aid you with a thousand angels in a file.’
Sure enough, when Joshua assumed command and led the people into Canaan, the Lord’s commander personally promised support:
Then the manna ceased on the day after they had eaten the produce of the land; and the children of Israel no longer had manna, but they ate the food of the land of Canaan that year.
And it came to pass, when Joshua was by Jericho, that he lifted his eyes and looked, and behold, a Man stood opposite him with His sword drawn in His hand. And Joshua went to Him and said to Him, “Are You for us or for our adversaries?”
So He said, “No, but as Commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.”
And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped, and said to Him, “What does my Lord say to His servant?”
The Faithless Adversary
In our everyday life the faithless, according to the Qur’anic author, are those who label religion as superstition. Or, to put it another way, those who fail to see that ancient stories are are true:
When Our signs are recited to them, they say, “We have heard already. If we want, we can say like this: ‘These are nothing but myths of the ancients.'”
But in the Hebrew Bible, as referenced in the Qur’an, the paradigmatic unbelievers are the Amalekites:
Now Amalek came and fought with Israel in Rephidim. And Moses said to Joshua, “Choose us some men and go out, fight with Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the rod of God in my hand.” So Joshua did as Moses said to him, and fought with Amalek. And Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. And so it was, when Moses held up his hand, that Israel prevailed; and when he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses’ hands became heavy; so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it. And Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side; and his hands were steady until the going down of the sun. So Joshua defeated Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword.
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write this for a memorial in the book and recount it in the hearing of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.” And Moses built an altar and called its name, The-Lord-Is-My-Banner; for he said, “Because the Lord has sworn: the Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.”
Moses’s had to have his hands held up because of exhaustion. If man’s strength ensured success, implies the Qur’anic author, Moses would have been defeated. But victory comes from God. Perhaps he even gave Moses the exhaustion on purpose, to prevent Moses from being tempted to try to help himself:But even Moses’s exhaustion was not a weakness, it was from God. Sleep for a faithful warrior is not a dereliction of duty, but trust in God’s strength:
When He covered you with drowsiness as a security from Him, and sent down water from the sky to purify you with it, and to repel from you the defilement of Satan, and to fortify your hearts, and to make feet steady with it.
Then the Lord signaled to the angels: ‘I am indeed with you; so steady the faithful. I will cast terror into the hearts of the faithless. So strike their necks, and strike their every limb joint!”
Thus God granted Moses the victory, as he urged, with outstretched hands held up by others, the people to fight:
Oh prophet! Urge on the faithful to fight: if there be twenty steadfast men among you, they will overcome two-hundred; and if there be a hundred of you, they will overcome a thousand of the faithless, for they are a lot who do not understand.
Just as your own work cannot help you, nor can the work of others. Trusting in the work of others to save you is like trusting the Amalekites as you wander through their land. Would be intercessors should not be sought, according to the Qur’anic author, but dispersed. Trust only in God:
Indeed, the worst of beasts in God’s sight are those who are faithless; so they will not have faith. Those with whom you made a treaty and who violated their treaty every time, and who are not Godwary. So if you confront them in battle, treat them as to disperse those who are behind them, so that they may take admonition. And if you fear treachery, from a people, break off with them in a like manner. Indeed, God does not like the treacherous.
Consecration to God
The Hebrew word translated in the New Kings James Version as “utterly destroyed” is herem. The Hebrew word herem, translated as “under the ban,” “utterly destroy,” totally dedicate to God,” “strike with a curse,” or “reincorporate for God,” is a particularly regrettable example of most translations attempting to explain rather than translate the scripture. Literally “Herem” means to set-aside. like its cognate term harem. This literally means the transformation of the profane to the sacred.
From Lachish Joshua passed to Eglon, and all Israel with him; and they encamped against it and fought against it. They took it on that day and struck it with the edge of the sword; all the people who were in it he utterly destroyed that day, according to all that he had done to Lachish.
So Joshua went up from Eglon, and all Israel with him, to Hebron; and they fought against it. And they took it and struck it with the edge of the sword—its king, all its cities, and all the people who were in it; he left none remaining, according to all that he had done to Eglon, but utterly destroyed it and all the people who were in it.
Then Joshua returned, and all Israel with him, to Debir; and they fought against it. And he took it and its king and all its cities; they struck them with the edge of the sword and utterly destroyed all the people who were in it. He left none remaining; as he had done to Hebron, so he did to Debir and its king, as he had done also to Libnah and its king.
So Joshua conquered all the land: the mountain country and the South and the lowland and the wilderness slopes, and all their kings; he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel had commanded.
The Hebrew Bible itself ends with the word herem, a threat (or hopeful promise!) of total dedication of Israel to God:
Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a utter destruction.”
Christians, who know that John the Baptist is the new Elijah, believe that Israel was made herem as all things were restored to the position they were in Eden: totally dedicated to God. This dedication was made real by Christ’s conquests of the unseen realm.
Jesus answered and said to them, “Indeed, Elijah is coming first and will restore all things. But I say to you that Elijah has come already, and they did not know him but did to him whatever they wished. Likewise the Son of Man is also about to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that He spoke to them of John the Baptist.
This view is expressed by Mary’s words. Mary is important because what she is is what all are meant to be by the new Elijah’s work — by the total dedication of everything, by the restoration of everything to the way it was meant to be:
This view of total dedication — of not treating God as transactional partner but as the object of total love — is the view of the Qur’anic author. Consider a tithe. From Genesis this was calculated as ten percent of the spoils:
Now when Abram heard that his brother was taken captive, he armed his three hundred and eighteen trained servants who were born in his own house, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. He divided his forces against them by night, and he and his servants attacked them and pursued them as far as Hobah, which is north of Damascus. So he brought back all the goods, and also brought back his brother Lot and his goods, as well as the women and the people.
And the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley), after his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him. Abram and Melchizedek
Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was the priest of God Most High. And he blessed him and said:
“Blessed be Abram of God Most High,
Possessor of heaven and earth;
And blessed be God Most High,
Who has delivered your enemies into your hand.”
And he gave him a tenth of all.
In the Qur’an, the tithe should be a fifth, not a tenth:
Know what whatever thing you may come by, a fifth of it is for God and the Apostle, for the relatives and the orphans, for the needy and the traveler, if you have faith in God and what We sent down to Our servant on the Day of Separation, the day when the two hosts met; and God has power over all things.
The purpose is not a mathematical formula, but an emphasis that mere rule-keeping is not the point. Consider how many times Christ told us to forgive, when asked for a rule by the first Pope:
Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”
Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.
It’s not that 420 (70×7) times is actually enough — it’s that if you’re counting, you’re missing the point. The world is herem, all things belong to the world.
The opposite of Mary, the opposite of “the apostle” led by God, is the first king of Israel, Saul. The eighth chapter of the Qur’an seems to lean on Saul (who lost control of the land of Israel) as an example of what not to do, and Joshua (who gained control) as the positive example.
A prophet may not take captives until he has thoroughly decimated in the land. You desire the transitory gains of this world, while God desires the Hereafter, and God is all-mighty, all-wise. Had it not been for a prior decree of God, there would have surely befall you a great punishment for what you took. Avail yourselves of the spoils you have taken, as lawful and good, and be wary of God. God is indeed all-forgiving, all-merciful.
While the new Elijah, John the Baptist, placed all of Israel under the Ban as part of lifting the covenant, Saul tried to prevent even giving to God what was his. Saul tried to trick God, placing only “under the ban” that which he did not want:
And Saul attacked the Amalekites, from Havilah all the way to Shur, which is east of Egypt. He also took Agag king of the Amalekites alive, and utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword. But Saul and the people spared Agag and the best of the sheep, the oxen, the fatlings, the lambs, and all that was good, and were unwilling to utterly destroy them. But everything despised and worthless, that they utterly destroyed.
1 Samuel 15:7-9
Samuel the prophet was horrified. The ten spies had melted before the Amalekites — now Saul was letting greed overcome him. Saul did not trust God to provide:
So Samuel said, “When you were little in your own eyes, were you not head of the tribes of Israel? And did not the Lord anoint you king over Israel? Now the Lord sent you on a mission, and said, ‘Go, and utterly destroy the sinners, the Amalekites, and fight against them until they are consumed.’ Why then did you not obey the voice of the Lord? Why did you swoop down on the spoil, and do evil in the sight of the Lord?”
1 Samuel 15:17-19
The Qur’anic author generalizes Samuel’s excoriation of Saul to an instruction for all the faithful:
Fight them until persecution is no more, and religion becomes exclusively for God. So if they desist, God indeed watches what they do. But if they turn away, then know that God is your Master: an excellent master and an excellent helper!
God is not a cosmic foreign power capable of being negotiated with. The Biblical, and Qur’anic, view of the Divine is not the sort of statecraft imagined by Chinese Imperial Religion. God loves you, and wants your love.
So Samuel said:
“Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,
As in obeying the voice of the Lord?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
And to heed than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft,
And stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,
He also has rejected you from being king.”
1 Samuel 15:22-23
This means when God wins something, he does not just demand its destruction: He demands that thing is for Him, as well. The spoils of war are not merely material things: they are the souls of those who submit to God — including yourself:
They ask you concerning the spoils. Say, ‘The spoils belong to God and the Apostle.’ So be wary of God and settle your differences, and obey God and His Apostle, if you are faithful.
All Things Made Right
Nothing is bad in itself. When God does prohibit things, like certain foods (as described by both the Qur’anic author and Christ), the things are prohibited for our good, not because they are unclean in themselves.
As an example, take riding horses.
Joshua led an army without horses, and so it was natural that God commanded him to destroy the horses he encountered:
But the Lord said to Joshua, “Do not be afraid because of them, for tomorrow about this time I will deliver all of them slain before Israel. You shall hamstring their horses and burn their chariots with fire.” So Joshua and all the people of war with him came against them suddenly by the waters of Merom, and they attacked them. And the Lord delivered them into the hand of Israel, who defeated them and chased them to Greater Sidon, to the Brook Misrephoth, and to the Valley of Mizpah eastward; they attacked them until they left none of them remaining. So Joshua did to them as the Lord had told him: he hamstrung their horses and burned their chariots with fire.
Later, King David (who finishes the conquest by taking Jerusalem), has different actions. The horses are not fully destroyed, for now the Lord has willed that Israel is capable of learning how to ride horses:
David also defeated Hadadezer the son of Rehob, king of Zobah, as he went to recover his territory at the River Euphrates. David took from him one thousand chariots, seven hundred horsemen, and twenty thousand foot soldiers. Also David hamstrung all the chariot horses, except that he spared enough of them for one hundred chariots.
2 Samuel 8:3-4
The Biblical completion of this is Christ riding on a colt to Jerusalem. What was God had prohibited, Christ now does in glory:
Now when they drew near Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, He sent two of His disciples; and He said to them, “Go into the village opposite you; and as soon as you have entered it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has sat. Loose it and bring it. 3 And if anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord has need of it,’ and immediately he will send it here.”
So they went their way, and found the colt tied by the door outside on the street, and they loosed it. But some of those who stood there said to them, “What are you doing, loosing the colt?”
And they spoke to them just as Jesus had commanded. So they let them go. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes on it, and He sat on it. And many spread their clothes on the road, and others cut down leafy branches from the trees and spread them on the road.
The Army that once helped Joshua, the animal that served Jesus, all are included in glorious End:
Now I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war. His eyes were like a flame of fire, and on His head were many crowns. He had a name written that no one knew except Himself. He was clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, followed Him on white horses. Now out of His mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it He should strike the nations. And He Himself will rule them with a rod of iron. He Himself treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God.
The moral lesson of all this — of Joshua’s hope and faith, of the belief that the impossible is possible if God wills it, is a lesson of redemption. No matter your sins, God can forgive you. Don’t trust in your own strength. It is God who will save you:
O you who have faith. If you are wary of God, He shall save you, and absolve you of your misdeeds, and forgive you, for God is a dispenser of a mighty grace.”
The eighth chapter of the Qur’an combines the stories of Moses and Joshua’s, Samuel’s and David’s, conquests to explain how God is sovereign, but provides and tools and possibilities of all he desires. The faithful do not despair, but obey God, fear Him and not the world, and strive to do His will.
So, is “The Spoils” in particular, and the Qur’an in general, an eliminationist screed? Is it as violent as the anti-Qur’anic litany implies?
Consider two verses, not mentioned above:
Like the precedent of Pharaoh’s clan and those who were before them, who denied God’s signs, so God seized them for their sins. God is indeed all-strong, severe in retribution.
Indeed, the faithless spend their wealth to bar from the way of God. Soon they will have spent it, then it will be a cause of regret to them, then they will be overcome, and the faithless will be gathered toward Hell so that God may separate the bad ones from the good, and place the bad on one another and pile them up together and cast them into hell. It is they who are the losers.
The first states that God will destroy an entire clan of a leader who disobeys. The second is that the faithless themselves are sorted, and the “Bad” faithless are cast down.
To me this is exactly as contradictory on its surface — and exactly as wise — as the Scriptural verse it reference:
You shall not bow down to them nor serve [idols]. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.
Hear, o readers of the Torah and the Gospels, that the Lord our God is one Lord, and you should love him with all your heart, all your mind, and all your life.