Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Two Kinds of Swords

James M. Arlandson, Ph.D.

In this one article in the series, the two religions are placed side by side, so to speak.

Physical things can be transformed into metaphors or nonliteral things. Light, for example, can be literal energy, or it can refer to inner illumination that clarifies morality.

Walking can be the physical act of moving one’s feet, or it can mean our life, our conduct or behavior, how we pursue a course of action or navigate moral problems.

Swords can be used in the same way. They can be physical or metaphorical.

Two verses, one in the Gospel of Matthew and the other in the Quran, illustrate that there are two different kinds of swords.

Matthew 10:34

The verse says:

34 "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth, but a sword."[1] (Matt. 10:34)

The historical context 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 (Matt. 10:1-42), who will be reached after the resurrection (Matt. 28:16-20). It is not surprising, historically speaking, that he would spread his word by proclamation to his own, by Jewish disciples. 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. It is only natural that first-century Jews may not understand this Jesus movement, so they resist it. 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 Matt 10:34.

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." (Matt. 10:32-39, emphasis added)

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 a sound interpretive method to let Scripture clarify Scripture. Luke 12:51-53 reveals the meaning of the key verse and metaphorical sword in Matt. 10:34.

51 Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. 52 From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, 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 daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law." (Luke 12:51-53, emphasis added)

In this passage, the sword represents division (v. 51), not a physical weapon. 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 Matt. 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.

Some interpreters believe that it is the new convert’s family who may wield the sword against him. That is a possible interpretation. But the new convert is not the one who picks up his sword and attacks his family.

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 be ready for a sword to be wielded against him that sever away all family ties. He may even have to take up his cross, as his family may “crucify” him – another metaphorical instrument for the disciples. Or the cross symbolizes his dying to self-will. Either way, he may have to suffer abandonment from his family, a division.

It is true that Jesus divides the world into two camps or kingdoms, 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, even if they persecute believers.

Quran 9:123

Muhammad’s outlook and policies contrast starkly with those of Jesus. We take Quran 9:123 as our counter-verse to Mt. 10:34 because, as we will see, both share the context of family relations. Quran 9:123 says,

123 You who believe, fight [q-t-l] those of the disbelievers near you and let them find you standing firm: be aware that God is with those who are mindful of Him.[2] (Quran 9:123)

Recall that the word qital (root is q-t-l) means more than just a struggle or striving; it means warring, fighting, killing, slaying, and slaughtering.

The historical context of this verse takes place after a military expedition in early 630, so it is late in Muhammad’s life. Many scholars regard Chapter 9 as one of the last ones to be revealed, if not the last one. 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 20,000-30,000 soldiers to the northern city of Tabuk in order to confront the Byzantine Christians. The Byzantines failed to show up, so Muhammad’s campaign was fruitless, except he managed to impose the jizyah tax on northern tribes of Jews and Christians.

After the Muslims returned to Medina, 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 group is whom he attacks in v. 123 – the “unbelievers.” He may wage war on them.

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 implies a relational nearness as well as a geographical one. “Believers, do not take your fathers and brothers as allies, if they prefer disbelief to faith” [3] (9:23). Now v. 123 raises the stakes and says fighting (q-t-l) them may be necessary.

The immediate textual context of the verse shows conflict with those refusing to support or even opposing Muhammad. For example, in v. 121 Muhammad complains that the hypocrites do not spend any money in Allah’s cause, so Allah will recompense them accordingly. Next, Muhammad instructs his troops in v. 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 v. 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 deals with them harshly in v. 123.

The elements within v.123 yield three truths.

First, Muhammad uses the Arabic word qital (three letter root is q-t-l), which, as noted, always means physically fighting and killing and warring. This word is usually stronger than jihad (three letter root is j-h-d), which Muhammad uses in Quran 9:73, a companion to v. 123. Quran 9:73 says:

73 Prophet, strive [j-h-d] against unbelievers and the hypocrites and be tough on them. Hell is their final home – an evil destination.[4] (9:73)

Thus, jihad and qital can barely be distinguished in vv. 123 and 73, since the means (swords) and the goal (submission or death) of fighting are the same in both verses. Not only does Muhammad say that his Muslims should fight the unbelievers and hypocrites, but they should do so harshly or sternly.

Second, the translations in the two verses (73 and 123) “tough” and “standing firm” can be translated as “harsh,” “hard,” “severe,” “vehement,” “rigid,” “fierce,” and “stern.”[5]

Third, Muhammad wages military war on unbelievers. Islam divides the world into Dar-ul-Islam (Abode of Islam) and Dar-ul-Kufr (Abode of Unbelief). In vv. 73 and 123 Allah permits the believing world, Islam, to wage war (qital) on and physically struggle (jihad) against the unbelieving world – everyone else – Dar al-Harb (the Abode of War). This “everyone else” may involve kinship and family ties.


Muhammad’s and Jesus’s use of the sword is completely different from each other.

In the later stage of Muhammad’s life, he commanded the believers to kill unbelievers with a literal and physical sword, even those “near you,” that is, family members and neighbors.

In contrast, Jesus says a spiritual or metaphorical sword may sever family ties and divide those near the disciples, so they must be ready for that.


[First published: 1 May 2012]
[Last updated: 24 July 2012]

Articles in the Series:

1. Introduction

2. The Mission of Jesus and the Sword
3. The Mission of Muhammad and the Sword

4. The Gospels and the Sword
5. The Quran and the Sword

6. Two Kinds of Swords

7. The Early Church and the Sword
8. The Early Muslim Community and the Sword

9. The Sword and the Jews

10. Martyrdom and the Sword

11. Q & A on the Sword

12. Conclusion

[1] The New International Version is used in this article, unless otherwise noted. If readers would like to see other translations, they can go to

[2] M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, The Quran, rev. ed. (New York: Oxford, 2010). The bracketed word is added by me. If readers would like to see various translation of the Quran, they may go to the website and type in the references.

[3] The root of “near” is w-l-y, and there are many references in the Quran to it. For our purposes it can mean, depending on the context, “kindred” or “kinship” or close “friendship.” See Quran 3:68; 4:135; 8:72, 75; 33:6 (the prophet is nearer to Muslims than their selves); and 74:34-35.

[4] Abdel Haleem’s translation.

[5] Abdul Mannan Omar, Dictionary of the Holy Quran (Hockessin, Delaware: 2003, 2004), 407-08. The root is gh-l-f. See Quran 3:159; 4:21, 154; 11:58; 14:17; 31:24; 33:7; 41:50; 66:6, 9. The translation by Abdel Haleem chooses the gentler words “firm” and “tough.”

[First published: 1 May 2012]
[Last updated: 1 May 2012]