Muslim polemicists frequently quote Matthew 10:34, which mentions a sword, drawing a parallel between Christianity and Islam: They reason: Jesus and Muhammad both endorse jihad, so why would Christians today complain about it in Islam? However, their reasoning is deadly misinformed. Real violence is in the Quran.
To explain more effectively how the two “Founders” differ, this article follows a particular method of exegesis (detailed analysis of a text). First, the historical context of the two verses is explained, so their meaning can be made clear. Second, the literary context—the verses surrounding the two targeted verses—is quoted or summarized, so we do not look at the two verses in isolation. Third, we discuss any important elements within the verses, such as key words. Finally, we will then be in a position to contrast the two verses at the end of the article, applying them to today.
We take Quran 9:123 as our counter-verse to Matthew 10:34 because, as we will see, both share the context of family relations.
9:123 “O you who believe, fight those of the unbelievers near you and let them see how harsh you can be. Know that Allah is with the righteous.” (Fakhry’s translation)
The historical context of this verse takes place after a military expedition in early 630, so it is late in Muhammad’s life (he dies of a fever in AD 632). Some scholars regard Sura 9 as the last sura (chapter) to be revealed from on high. Therefore, it sets many policies for Muslims today, and is often interpreted as abrogating or canceling previous verses, even peaceful ones. During the military expedition, Muhammad led a large army of 30,000 soldiers to the northern city of Tabuk in order to confront the Byzantine Christians. This is clearly a Muslim Crusade, centuries before the European Crusades. The Byzantines failed to show up, so Muhammad’s Crusade was fruitless, except he managed to extort a tax from northern tribes for the “privilege” of living under Islam, that is, for not being attacked again. After the Muslims returned, Muhammad scolded the “hypocrites” who had stayed behind and failed to support him. Then he turns to those people who stirred up strife in the community by expressing doubt in Muhammad’s revelations; they needed to be silenced. This latter groups is whom he attacks in 9:123—the “unbelievers.” He may wage war on them, without flinching.
Another aspect of the historical context should be considered. Muhammad urges his fighters forward in order to kill the unbelievers, even if the latter belong to the fighters’ own family, as seen in the words “near you” in v. 123, which may imply a relational nearness as well as a geographical one. Be that as it may, the Muslim commentator S. Abdul A’la Maududi informs us:
The Command [to fight] has been repeated at [the] end [of Sura 9] in order to impress on the Muslims the importance of the matter and to urge them to do Jihad and crush these internal enemies, without paying the least regard to the racial, family, and social relations that had been proving a binding force with them.
It is clear, then, that Muslims should not pay even “the least regard to the … family … relations,” a “binding force” that had encumbered the expansion of Islam. Muslims have been ordered, therefore, to fight their family members in a physical way, in other words, to hit them with sharp swords. Why does Muhammad order this? According to Maududi, it is to “crush these internal enemies.”
The literary context of 9:123 shows strife with those refusing to support or even opposing Muhammad. For example, in verse 121 Muhammad complains that the hypocrites do not spend any money in Allah’s cause (code for fighting), so Allah will recompense them accordingly. Next, Muhammad instructs his troops in verse 122 that not all Muslims should go out on a campaign of jihad, but some should stay behind to teach Islam, so they may warn people to beware of evil. Finally, in the verses after 9:123 Muhammad condemns the unbelievers for mocking his revelations. Thus, the literary context does not consist of peace and friendship with Muhammad’s opponents, and that is why he goes on the warpath and to deal with them harshly in 9:123.
The elements within 9:123, the third step in our exegetical method, yield two hard truths. First, Muhammad uses the Arabic word qital (three-consonant root is q-t-l), which always means physically fighting and killing and warring—no other meaning is available. This word is usually stronger than jihad (three consonant root is j-h-d), which Muhammad uses in 9:73, a companion verse to 9:123:
9:73 “O Prophet, fight [j-h-d] the unbelievers and the hypocrites and be stern with them. Their abode is Hell, and what a terrible fate!” (Fakhry)
Thus, jihad and qital can barely be distinguished, since the means (swords) and the goal (submission or death) of fighting are the same in both verses. These two verses alone should lay to rest forever the frequent claim that jihad means only a spiritual struggle against sin in the soul. Second, not only does Muhammad say that his jihadists should fight the unbelievers (and hypocrites in verse 73), but the Muslim warriors should do so harshly or sternly. This lends a severity to the verse which is difficult to take in—along with the eternal fate of the unbelievers, which is very, very often stated in the Quran in exactly the same way as verse 73 states it—short and quick and severe.
We turn now to Matthew 10:34.
Many Muslims assert that Jesus either wielded a physical sword, or he endorsed a holy war, of sorts. Thus, he is not different from Muhammad—and the latter prophet is better than Jesus. They say this to defend tacitly their prophet from any accusation of violence. But this is completely wrong.
Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth, but a sword.” (Matt. 10:34)
The historical context, we should recall, is Jewish culture, as Jesus ministers to his own people. He sends out the twelve disciples to the “lost sheep of Israel,” not yet to the gentiles, who will be reached after the Resurrection. It is not surprising, historically speaking, that he would spread his word by proclamation to his own, by Jewish disciples. Second, he predicts that some towns may not receive the disciples and that the authorities may put them on trial and flog them. In that eventuality, they should shake the dust off their feet, pray for them, and flee to another city (not attack the people or the authorities, which Muhammad does to his Meccan persecutors). Third, it is only natural that first-century Jews may not understand this new sect or “Jesus movement” (as sociologists of the New Testament call it), so they resist it. Does this mean, then, that Jesus calls for a jihad with a physical, military sword against his fellow Jews—say, against his own family who wanted to take custody of him because they thought he was “out of his mind” (Mark 3:21)?
These cultural facts explain the literary context, which shows division among family members. The literary context must be quoted in full to explain the meaning of “sword” in Matthew 10:34 (bold print):
32 “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. 33 But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven. 34 Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn
a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
36 a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household [Micah 7:6]
37 Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
The one key element in this lengthy passage is the word “sword,” and its meaning is now clear. It indicates that following Jesus in his original Jewish society may not bring peace to a family, but may “split” it up, the precise function of a metaphorical sword. Are his disciples ready for that? This kind of spiritual sword invisibly severs a man from his father, and daughter from her mother, and so on (Micah 7:6). It is only natural that Matthew, the traditional author of the most Jewish of the Gospels, would include a pericope (a unit or section) like 10:32-39. Given Jesus’ own family resistance early on (they later came around), it is only natural he would say that no matter what the cost, one must follow him to the end, even if it means giving up one’s family. But this applies only if the family rejects the new convert, not if the family accepts him in his new faith; he must not reject them because the whole point of Jesus’ advent is to win as many people to his side as possible, even if this divides the world in two, but never violently.
Luke explains what sword means:
51 Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. 52 For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. 53 They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:51-53)
So the sword means “division” among family and friends.
Contrasting the two verses
Finally, reaching the fourth step in our method, we may now contrast the two verses (Quran 9:123 and Matt. 10:34), applying them to today, beginning with the Quranic verse.
Muhammad wages military war on disbelievers. Throughout the Quran in verses that speak of qital and jihad, the prophet divides the world into Dar-ul-Islam (Abode of Islam) and Dar-ul-Kufr (Abode of Unbelief). In 9:123 (and 9:73) Allah permits the superior first world, Islam, to wage war (qital) on and physically struggle (jihad) with the inferior second world—everyone else—Dar al-Harb (the Abode of War). This “everyone else” includes kinship and family ties. Muslims today can appreciate this in a literal way, for if they apostatize and become Christians, their family may disown them, or worse, following their Quran.
It is no wonder that non-violent fanatics and violent fanatics like terrorists are inspired by their sacred book. Sura 9 alone has many verses commanding the earliest Muslims to wage military war against disbelievers and hypocrites—and against Byzantine Christians until they, the People of the Book (Christians and Jews), submit to the Muslim army outside the city wall (or die) and pay a special “protection” tax (jizya) for the “privilege” of living under Islam (Quran 9:29). After all, Muhammad’s jihadists conquered Jerusalem in AD 638, only six years after his death (632). Thus, one Saudi cleric today, quoting mostly from Sura 9 (and there are many other verses in other chapters in the Quran), rebukes all Muslims who are indifferent to jihad—not a struggle only within the soul, but a military jihad with real live weapons. He is not misquoting his sacred text; rather, those moderates who misinform unsuspecting Westerners that jihad is an inner struggle of the soul only—these moderates are misquoting the Quran, not the fanatical Saudi cleric.
In contrast, history demonstrates that Jesus never wielded a sword against anyone, and in Matt. 10:34 he does not order his followers to swing one either, in order to kill their family opponents or for any reason. But a true disciple who is worthy of following Christ and who comes from a possibly hostile family has to use a sword of the will (never a physical sword) to sever away all opposition, even as far as taking up his cross—another metaphorical implement for the disciples. It is true that Jesus divides the world into two camps, those who follow him, and those who do not, those in the light, and those in the dark. However, he never tells his followers to wage war on everyone else, and certainly not on one’s family. If people in the second camp do not convert, they will not be harassed with swords in a jihad.
It is true that the Roman Emperor Constantine, Medieval Crusaders, and Protestants and Catholics have used the sword against unbelievers and against each other. However, none of them is foundational to Christianity—only Jesus is, and he never endorses the sword to spread his message. Also, Christianity has undergone Reform (c. 1400-1600) and has been put under the pressure of the Enlightenment (c. 1600-1800), which demanded peace. Both the Reformation and the Enlightenment have deeply influenced the founding of the US; hence, many Americans are the most tolerant and the most fervent in their Christian faith (and other faiths) among the industrialized nations around the world. In any case, according to the historical and literary contexts of Matt. 10:34, Jesus himself never calls for military jihad, and only he sets the genetic code for his movement.
On the other hand, Muhammad is foundational for Islam, and he indeed endorses using a sword, and he actually swings one on his frequent military raids and wars. His later Muslims are merely following their leader with a grounding in his Quran. They are not misinterpreting or misapplying their sacred text, for 9:123 (and many other verses) is clear and unambiguous, according to the historical and literary contexts.
Therefore, Muhammad and Jesus are in fact completely different from each other—as different as dark night and bright daylight. Muhammad commands his believers to kill family members with a physical sword, whereas Jesus says a spiritual sword, not a physical one, may sever family ties, so his disciples must be ready for that.
Thus, the Muslim apologists are misusing Matt. 10:34 in order to mask the violence coming from Muslim fanatics today, who are inspired by Muhammad and his Quran, the source of Islam.
Jesus saves. Muhammad killed.
Sometimes Muslim polemicists point out the wars in the Old Testament and the severe commands of God. But they have been explained and contrasted with Islamic wars in this article and this one. Besides, for Christians, Jesus Christ fulfills this area of the Old Testament and raises our vision to spiritual warfare, waged by preaching and praying, alone. He is our example to follow, and he did not wage military war on anyone, even though, as noted, he had at his disposal twelve legions of angels (Matthew 26:53). What Constantine and later Crusaders did is not foundational to Christianity.