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Journal of World History 12.2 (2001) 472-476

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Book Review

God of Battles: Holy Wars of Christianity and Islam.

God of Battles: Holy Wars of Christianity and Islam. By PETER PARTNER. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998. Pp. xiii + 310. $16.95 (paper).

Peter Partner's well-written and engaging work of comparative history, God of Battles: Holy Wars of Christianity and Islam, convincingly portrays holy war as one of the most influential and enduring elements in the cultural traditions of the three great monotheistic religions of the historic Middle East. The idea of holy war still has meaning as the world's powers struggle to reposition themselves for the post-Cold War era and frequently invoke the crusading language of the past. Partner, a British journalist who reported from the Middle East for many years and who has written other well-received books dealing with medieval Christianity, intends God of Battles in part as a response to disturbing trends in the West that equate Islam with fanaticism and terror, and assume Islam is a static entity, everywhere embracing the same beliefs and goals.

Partner clearly disagrees with the arguments of prominent theorists like Samuel Huntington, whose widely read Clash of Civilizations suggests a deep and dangerous fault line separating the West and Islam. Instead, Partner compellingly reminds readers of the way in which holy war is rooted in the intertwined histories of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. By sketching the history of holy war and examining the ways in which religion, morality, and political advantage have intersected in its cause, Partner seeks to deprive the concept of its threatening aura and to counter the tendency in the West to demonize an Islamic enemy.

Wide-ranging in both geographical and chronological scope, God of Battles surveys the concept and practice of holy war in Islam and Christianity (with brief excursions into Judaism) from their inceptions to the present. From the outset, Partner argues against imposing [End Page 472] modem concepts, particularly Western thinking about the separation of religion and politics, on earlier periods and cultures. In parallel chapters, "Islam and War" and "Christianity and War," Partner explores the ways in which the idea of holy war responded to changes in the political and cultural environment of the larger society. He notes, for example, that while jihad--"struggle in the way of Allah"--took on a military dimension during Mohammed's lifetime, the doctrine of holy war changed in the century following his death as Islam became increasingly geographically and culturally diverse. By the eleventh century, the concept of jihad, while fundamental to Islam wherever it was practiced, was pursued in varying ways and with varying motives in the diverse regions under Islamic rule.

The concept of holy war in the Christian West also underwent significant evolution. While St. Augustine delineated the concept of the "just war" (a war to right a wrong received) in the early fifth century, Christianity, unlike Islam, did not develop a doctrine of "holy war" (a war pursued at the command of God) until relatively late in its history. Indeed, the term "crusade" did not exist until the thirteenth century. Partner stresses a number of crucial factors in the transformation of Christian attitudes toward warfare, including the conversion of the Germanic tribes, the changes in theological concepts of war at the end of the eleventh century, and the ultimate institutionalization of holy war in Latin Christendom during the Third Crusade. He points out that in Christianity, as in Islam, holy war reflects a complex relationship between religious doctrine, social structures, and political expedience.

Subsequent chapters suggest further parallels between the practices of holy war in Christianity and Islam. In both, Partner argues, the practice of holy war developed earlier and more rapidly than the theory that supported it. Similarly, in both Islam and Christianity, the concept of "holy war" was applied to dissenters within the same faith community. Perhaps most interestingly, both cultures developed modes of co-existence with the recognized object of holy war. As Partner notes...


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