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Religion, violence and “holy wars”

  • Hans Küng


The author analyzes the impact of religion in current conflicts throughout the world. The main focus lies on the monotheistic religions, i.e. Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all of which have recently been reproached for potentially fostering the temptation to resort to violence. The article focuses on this accusation and departs from an analysis of the concept of “holy war” in the three religions. The article concludes with setting out a pragmatism of peaceableness highlighting that wars in the twenty-first century can neither be regarded as just, nor holy, nor clean and that absolute pacifism will not only be politically impossible but might as a political principle even be irresponsible.



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1 The article by Gerlitz, P., “Krieg I (Religionsgeschichtlich)”, in Theologische Realenzyklopädie, Vol. 20, 1990, de Gruyter, Berlin, gives an overview of the vast number of comparative theological studies on the subject of war.

2 See Ex 20:1–17; Deut 5: 6–21. The biblical quotations are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, WM. Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., New York, Glasgow and Toronto.

3 See H. Küng, Judaism, Ch. 1-A II, 5: “The establishment of monotheism.”

4 Girard, R., La violence et le sacré, Paris 1972 (in German: Das Heilige und die Gewalt, Zurich, 1987), and Le bouc émissaire, Paris, 1982 (in German Der Sündenbock, Zurich, 1988).

5 Gen. 4.

6 Is. 2:4; Mic. 4:1–3.

7 Deut. 1–3 and the Book of Joshua.

8 For an overview of the various attempts at reconstruction, see H. Küng, Das Judentum, Ch. 1 -C 1,1: “Die Landnahme.”

9 See N. Lohfink, Art. aeraem (Vernichtungsweihe), in Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Alten Testament, Vol. III, Stuttgart, 1982, Col. 192–213; Cit. col. 206.

10 See Soggin, J. A., “Krieg II (Altes Testament)”, in Theologische Realenzyklopädie, Vol. 20, 1990, de Gruyter, Berlin.

11 1 Kings 18–19.

12 Gen. 1: 26–28.

13 Gen. 6:11–13.

14 Gen. 9:6.

15 See Lichtenstein, A., The Seven Laws of Noah, New York 1995.

16 On the importance of the Noahide Laws for a universal code of ethical conduct, see also Kuschel, K.-J., Streit urn Abraham, Düsseldorf, 2002, pp. 224 f.

17 M. Luther, The Large Catechism, The First Commandment, 1st para. Translated from the German, Groβer Katechismus, by E Bente and W.H.T. Dau.

18 On holy war/jihad, see Noth, A., Heiliger Krieg und heiliger Kampf im Islam und Christentum, Bonn, 1966; Peters, R., Islam and Colonialism: The Doctrine of Jihad in Modern History, The Hague, 1980; Watt, W. M., Welch, A. T., Der Islam I: Mohammed und die Frühzeit — Islamisches Recht — Religiöses Leben, Stuttgart, 1980, esp. p. 150 ff.; Bürgel, J. C., Allmacht und Mächtigkeit: Religion und Welt im Islam, Munich, 1991, esp. p. 80 f.; Ende, W., Steinbach, U. (eds.), Der Islam in der Gegenwart: Entwicklung und Ausbreitung — Staat, Politik und Recht — Kultur und Religion, Munich, 1996, pp. 279282.

19 Sura 22:78. The Koran, translated by N.J. Dawood, Penguin Classics, Penguin Books, London, 1990.

20 Sura 61:11.

21 Sura 61:12.

22 Sura 9:73.

23 Sura 9:5.

24 Sura 2:190–193.

25 For instance Ragab, A. el Kalim (lecturing in Bamberg and Cairo), “Die Lehre vom ‘yihåd’ im Islam: Eine kritische Diskussion der Quellen und aktueller Entwicklungen” in Renz, A., Leimgruber, S. (eds.), Lernprozeβ Christen Muslime, Münster, 2002, pp. 5788.

26 See Peters, R., Jihad in Medieval and Modern Islam, Leiden, 1977, and his article Jihåd”, in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, Vol. 2, 1995, pp. 369373.

27 On this whole development, see Bürgel, J. C., “Der Islam und die Menschenrechte” in Kley, R., Möckli, S. (eds.), Geisteswissenschaftliche Dimensionen der Politik: Festschrift für Alois Riklin zum 65. Geburtstag, Bern, 2000, pp. 3160, in which he refers to the work of Hans Müller, Die Kunst des Sklavenkaufs nach arabischen, persischen und türkischen Ratgebern vom 10. bis zum 18. Jahrhundert, Freiburg/Br., 1980. In his book Attmacht und Mächtigkeit (see note 18 above) Burgel explains various phenomena and processes of Islamic cultural history by placing them in the context of religion's claim to power and the conflict between it and the profane counterforces to be subjugated.

28 Sura 47:4–6.

29 Meddeb, A., La Maladie de l'lslam, Paris, 2002 (in German: Die Krankheit des Islam, Heidelberg, 2002, p. 247).

30 Sura 64:14.

31 Sura 41:33–35.

32 Sura 8:61.

33 See Rittberger, V., Hasenclever, A., “Religionen in Konflikten”, in Küng, H., Kuschel, K.-J. (eds.), Wissenschaft und Weltethos, Munich, 2001, pp. 161200; Hasenclever, A., “Geteilte Werte — Gemeinsamer Frieden? Überlegungen zur zivilisierenden Kraft von Religionen und Glaubensgemeinschaften”, in: Küng, H., Senghaas, D. (eds.), Friedenspolitik: Ethische Grundlagen internationaler Beziehungen, Munich, 2003, pp. 288318; Gebhardt, G., Zum Frieden bewegen: Die friedenserzieherische Tätigkeit religiöser Friedensbewegungen, Hamburg, 1994.

34 For a detailed exposé, see Kung, H., Weltethos für Weltpolitik und Weltwirtschaft, München 1997, Ch. A V: “Weltfrieden — Herausforderung fur die Weltreligionen.”

35 See Sura 22:38 f.

36 Dunant, Henry, A Memory of Solferino, English version by, and reprinted by courtesy of, the American Red Cross, ICRC, Geneva, 1986, p. 127.

* The present article draws on the author's book on Islam (Der Islam. Geschkhte, Gegenwart, Zukunft, Piper Verlag GmbH, Miinchen 2004, in particular pp. 688–719). Together with Judaism, SCM Press London, 1992 and Christianity, Its Essence and History, SCM Press London, 1995. This book forms part of the trilogy on monotheistic religions. It will be published by Oneworld, Oxford.


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