The question is stark. Surely the commandment to kill the Amolekites equates with Nazism, Bin Laden and the evil perpetrators of the September 11 attack!
This week selebrates the anniversary of a reprehensible act of mass murder. The September 11th 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre, Washington and the Pentagon shocked us all to the very core of our souls. I remember not being able to sleep for nights; I was traumatized by the sheer scale and cruelty of the attack. How can such evil exist? I kept asking myself. After two years the world is still struggling to come to terms with this new evil.
You must not forget." Rashi – the great medieval commentator – says that the command to obliterate Amalek includes the killing of men, women and children, even animals belonging to Amalek must not be spared. This presents us with a moral dilemma. How can God command us to commit genocide? Does being true to our religion mean that we must believe that genocide is at times not only justified but obligatory?
The question is stark. Surely this commandment equates with Nazism, Bin Laden and the evil perpetrators of the September 11 attack! Some may reply that killing Amalek is akin to President Truman’s use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 – ostensibly cruel but justified by the overall good it produced for humanity.
But this answer is only plausible if one sees it from the American point of view. The Russians, for example, did not see it this way: Soviet Marshal Georgii Zhukov wrote in his memoirs that from their vantage point, "Without any military need whatsoever, the Americans dropped two atomic bombs on the peaceful and densely-populated Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki."
Whether or not World War II could have been terminated without reverting to such extreme measures is as much debated today as it was then. It is all a matter of perspective. The same applies to the mass murder carried out by religiously motivated Islamic extremists.
Qur’anic scholars throughout the ages have held differing views on the meaning of jihad. The idea of jihad, is derived from the Arabic root meaning "to strive" or "to make an effort." This word has been interpreted to mean an inward spiritual struggle to attain perfect faith or an outward material struggle to promote justice and the Islamic social system.
During the period of Qur’anic revelation while Muhammad was in Mecca, jihad meant a non-violent struggle to spread Islam. Following his move from Mecca to Medina, and the establishment of an Islamic state, fighting in self-defence was sanctioned by the Qur’an (22:39). It was at this stage that the Qur’an increasingly referred to qital (fighting or warfare) as one form of jihad. Two of the last verses on this topic (9:5, 29) suggest waging a war of conquest or conversion against all non-believers.
In the middle ages Islamic legal scholars divided the world into two spheres: Dar al-Islam (land of Islam), where Islamic law applied, and Dar al-Harb (land of war) where it did not. Islamic state’s duty was to extend the Dar al-Islam – through peaceful means if possible but if not, through war.
These medieval Islamic Legal Scholars held that the Qur’anic verses suggesting peaceful accommodation or coexistence with non-believers (especially 2:193, 8:61) were cancelled out by the later, more belligerent ones. In medieval legal sources, jihad generally referred to a divinely sanctioned struggle to establish Muslim rule over non-Muslims as a prelude to the propagation of the Islamic faith.
However, this belligerent interpretation of jihad has not been accepted by all Qur’anic scholars. Some scholars argued that the Qur’an and Prophetic traditions allow war only for self-defence against persecution and aggression. According to this view those that defined jihad as an expansionist war were misguided and distorting Qur’anic ethics. They point out, that the division of the world into Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb does not exist in the Qur’an or Prophetic traditions.
Thus, it is clear that the use of the term jihad to sanction the slaughter innocent people tells more about the people who are interpreting the Qur’an then the Qur’an itself.
In light of this the commandment to obliterate Amalek is fundamentally different from any other ethically, religiously or idealistically motivated killing that the world has seen. Sir Isaiah Berlin – one of the leading thinkers of our age – wrote in an essay entitled "The Pursuit of the Ideal" that if one really believed that Hitler’s "final solution" making man righteous, happy, creative and harmonious for ever was possible, then surely no cost would be too high to obtain it.
The problem with this, maintains Sir Isaiah Berlin, is that history teaches us that the consequences of drastic measures are seldom what is anticipated. There is no guarantee, not even a high probability that such acts will lead to improvements. Thus, Sir Isaiah Berlin concludes that a precarious equilibrium must be maintained to prevent the occurrence of desperate situation and of intolerable choices.
It is clear, however, that if one could be one hundred percent sure that the killing of a group of people would lead to the betterment of humankind then such killing would not only be justifiable but obligatory.
Unlike the Islamic jihad, the Biblical commandment to obliterate Amalek is unequivocal. It is not a decision that came about through human interpretation. When the all knowing God says that killing a group of people will lead to the betterment of humankind one is ethically obliged – however difficult and heart wrenching it may be – to carry out the command. It is only the fact that we cannot conclusively identify any single nation as being Amalek that discharges us of this obligation.
Thus, the now obsolete commandment to obliterate Amalek and the killing of innocents by Islamic extremists are not morally equivalent. These extremists are murderers who hide behind interpretations of a holy book while committing barbaric crimes against humanity.