July 20, 2017

Ḥerem & Jihād: Two Sides of the Crusades

A brief linguistic study of Holy War in the Crusades.

The terms ḥerem (which a lot of non-Hebrew scholars likely haven’t heard of) and jihād (which anyone who has watched the news in the last decade or so has likely heard of) have followed similar sordid paths of linguistic and cultural development, often being abused in similar ways. Both terms are functionally and theologically similar, starting out scripturally (in the Torah/Old Testament and the Qur'an) as religious devotional terms, and ending up at the pinnacle of their cultural applications as being synonymous with "Holy War." Ḥerem, an ancient Jewish convention, served to, albeit likely with great degrees of ancestral subtlety and theological undercurrent, create the backdrop of the Christian cause in the Crusades, while jihād a relatively newer Islamic convention that bears striking similarities to its Hebrew forebear, served to establish the Muslim cause through its ongoing current of cultural significance. Both concepts bear out the convictions of the opposing tensions in the struggle for the Holy Land, between the strength of military and the validity of who had the rightful commission by God to occupy it.

The first theologically significant appearance of the term ḥerem in the Old Testament is in Leviticus 27:28 as a “devoted thing” (noun) and the action “to devote” (verb): "No devoted thing that a man devotes to the Lord, of anything that he has, whether of a man or beast, or of his inherited field, shall be sold or redeemed; every devoted thing is most holy to the Lord." First impressions would give the term a connotation of sacredness, be it inherent or imposed on the thing it described. Traditional definitions of ḥerem, particularly with consideration to its root of ḥ-r-m, are characterized by the basic verbal notions of “banning,” “devoting,” or “exterminating,”[1] but also can carry the implication of anathemizing or excommunicating. While this seems to be contradictory, the interaction between the two poles of meaning are the key to understanding the applications of not only the term but the concept at large.

Some scholars have interpreted ḥerem to be the separation of those things that are harmful to worship, as is the sin of Achan in Joshua 7:11-13.[2] Others, that it is more directed at total destruction, as in the prescription for putting the devoted enemy to death in Leviticus 27:29. But, a more comprehensive approach is to consolidate the various facets of meaning under the heading of a devotion—things harmful to proper worship are to be devoted to utter destruction while holy things are to be devoted and offered up to God.[3] In such a framework, it would seem that fighting or destruction under the mandate of ḥerem is not what makes a war “holy” as much as it adds a theological dimension of necessity and protocol to warfare,[4] the violation of which was highlighted in the narrative of Saul’s conquest of the Amalekites and disobediently sparing their king and goods (1 Sam 15).

Jihād, while a younger term in general has undergone no less of a linguistic development as it was largely instituted in the time of Muhammad (7th century A.D.) and is still in use, whereas ḥerem came into scriptural use around the 7th century B.C. or earlier, but had ceased likely sometime after the second temple period, or at least by the turn of the millennium.[5] The word itself means an “effort” or “struggle,” particularly to achieve a laudable goal of doing a good thing or avoiding a bad thing.[6] It’s verbal root, j-h-d, is simply “to exert an effort,” particularly in opposition to something or someone else,[7] as in the verse of the At-Tahrim, “strive against the disbelievers and the hypocrites and be harsh upon them” (Qur’an 66:9). In its purely scriptural context, the term, like ḥerem, does double duty in terms of moral quality or instruction, as it is used to describe both the sinful killing of Abel by Cain (Qur’an 5:30) and the divinely ordained defeat and execution of Goliath by David (Qur’an 2:251).

Likewise, in the Sahih Bukhari’s use of jihād, “A man came to Allah's Apostle and said, ‘Instruct me as to such a deed as equals Jihad (in reward).’ He replied, ‘I do not find such a deed’” (4.52.44). But, in a Qur’anic passage, “Allah does not like transgressors. And kill them wherever you overtake them and expel them from wherever they have expelled you... But if they fight you, then kill them. Such is the recompense of the disbelievers… But if they cease, then there is to be no aggression except against the oppressors” (2:190-193). While this prescription to kill is often taken out of context, to expand the passage still reveals a broader, yet no less brutal, approach to enemies of the faith, not unlike the Canaanites’ condemnation under the ḥerem of Joshua’s conquest in the Old Testament.

The question remains then of if and how the two come together in the time of the Crusades, the former having waned from Judeo-Christianity by a thousand years and the latter having been only part of a five-hundred-year-old Islam. With Christianity and Islam being two stalks of a common root grown from Israelite soil, the concept of holy war resulted in both sides laying claim to that which they deemed was holy (i.e., Palestine), Islam justifying their side through jihād and Christianity theirs through a Christian translation/assumption of ḥerem.

This translation was the result of Christian philosophy on the topic such as St. Augustine, whose condoning of a just war would later become Church doctrine, “they who have waged war in obedience to the divine command, or in conformity with His laws… and in this capacity have put to death wicked men; such persons have by no means violated the commandment, ‘You shall not kill.’”[8] Thomas Aquinas would later expound on this in a way that would muddy the history of the Crusades even more: “to have recourse to the sword… by the authority of the sovereign or judge… and by the authority, so to speak, of God, is not to ‘take the sword [for oneself],’ but to use it as commissioned by another, wherefore it does not deserve punishment.”[9] But, who then is commissioned by God? Is it the Christian conquest or the Muslim defense (or the Muslim conquest in the 7th century, or the Israelite conquest before that)?

If the question was easily answered then the Crusades would have obviously ended much sooner. Throughout the initial and subsequent spread of Islam, the Muslims waged jihād for the primary purpose of spreading the Islamic faith, while the Christian crusaders engaged the Muslims in the spirit of Israel’s ḥerem to reclaim the Holy Land. What was left was a polarized tension with both sides believing their cause was just, their war holy, and their commission to be charged directly from God. The 9th century Sahih Muslim hadith records the Islamic outlook: “I have been commanded to fight against people, till they testify to the fact that there is no god but Allah, and believe in me (that) I am the messenger (from the Lord)” (1.31). The First Lateran Council gave a succinct counter perspective, exhorting Christians to “offer effective help towards the defense of the Christian people and overcome the tyranny of the infidels [Muslims].”[10]

With two such religions with two such opposing theological stances on what seems like fundamentally common ground, war was bound to erupt with the Muslims occupying the one Holy Land and the Christians making frequent and increasing pilgrimages to it.[11] The Christian Church was also gaining in power and coming into its own sense of worldly authority in its growth—in effect, the Church was discovering and exploring how much she could throw her weight around. It was natural that the next step was to liberate the Holy Land from “infidel” occupation, if for no other reason than to allow freedom of passage for the growing amount of pilgrimages. On the other hand, since Islamic belief was that they occupied the Holy Land by divine ownership and decree (cf. Qur’an 17:1) in much the same way as the Israelites did, it would follow that the Muslims would put up as fierce of a defense as possible by obligation under holy writ (cf. Qur’an 9:41) to defend the sanctity their religion’s culture and worship.[12]

It is clear in historical hindsight that although the scriptural and cultural foundations of Holy War on both sides, i.e., ḥerem and jihād, were the theological starting points of the conflict, they were not the only factors at work in igniting the struggle for the Holy Land. But, with both sides claiming a lineage to the theology of just war for the same land, essentially for the same God but under different traditions and dogmas, Holy War would be exceedingly difficult, both for its contemporary participants and for historians on either side of the perspective, to sort out whose side was truly “holy” and whose was that of the “infidels.”

Aquinas would later give three criteria for what characterized a “just war,” which were that it occur for a legitimate purpose, under legitimate authority, and from a motive of establishing or preserving peace.[13] All such criteria are undeniably “just,” but the question of what a legitimate purpose is, who has legitimate authority, and how much violence can be wrought before the motive is unpeaceful is much more difficult to discern. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks recently wrote, “When religion becomes a zero-sum conceit—i.e., my religion is the only right path to God, therefore your religion is by definition wrong… violence between peoples of different beliefs appears to be the inevitable outcome.”

1. Cf. Joshua 6:16-18.
2. Cf. Numbers 33:52 and the destruction of pagan idols, images, and improper places of worship.
3. J.P.U. Lilley, "Understanding the Herem," Tyndale Bulletin 44, no.1 (1993): 170.
4. Ibid., 177.
5. This may have happened for no other reason than that of the Jews being subjugated and the Hebrew language falling into common disuse under Roman rule.
6. Ahmed Al-Dawoody. The Islamic Law of War (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 76.
7. M.A.S. Abdel Haleem. "Qurʼanic 'Jihād': A Linguistic and Contextual Analysis," Journal Of Qurʼanic Studies 12 (2010): 147.
8. Augustine, City of God, trans. Henry Bettenson (London: Penguin Books, 2003), I.21.
9. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae II-II.40.1 (Lander, WY: The Aquinas Institute, 2012).
10. First Lateran Council (18 March 1123), Canon 10.
11. Heather Selma Gregg, The Path to Salvation: Religious Violence from the Crusades (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2014), 35-6.
12. John Kelsay, Arguing the Just War in Islam (London: Harvard University Press, 2007), 126.
13. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II.40.1.