Religion—while it has its origin in peace, the roots of spiritual practice have often dabbled in war. As far back as the Mesopotamian Ages, people have fought one another over religious dispute, often because they believed that their God was guiding them to do so, in order to conquer land and build their nation. Some stories are legends, others are just plain odd.
In no particular order, here are eight of the most famous or infamous religious wars of all time:
Israel vs Canaan
Since the time of Abraham, in 2,000 B.C., God had promised that his descendants would be granted a promised land. By 1,500 B.C., the promise was made good. While wandering the desert outside of Egypt (knowing that this was the land God had chosen for them to conquer), Moses sent 12 spies to the land of Canaan to size up their enemies.
The method in which this war was won is mysterious, but the strategy that was incorporated into this unorthodox victory was, no doubt, divine. Compared to the Canaanites, the Israelites were very small in stature–they themselves considered their physique like those of grasshoppers in the presence of their formidable foes who were said to have been the descendants of none other than the Nephilims (a race of giants). Even the average stature of a Jewish male today, which is fairly petite, is bigger than the Israelites of three millenniums prior. So, in an era before bullets and gun powder, where physical size mattered and their enemy towered up to three feet over them, how could they possibly win this war?
God told the Israelites to march around the walls of Jericho seven times, carrying the Arc of the Covenant. On the seventh time, the Israelites gave a loud shout and blew their trumpets, as commanded, causing the walls to crumble, in which they “swallowed up” their enemy. Upon entry of the territory, the Israelites wiped out the entire nation as commanded by God, with no one kept as prisoner.
Al Gazawat (Muslim Conquest), also know as Arabic or Islamic Conquest, began through the very source of Islam itself (or restoration, depending on how you view Islam), the Prophet Muhammad. After beginning his life of preaching, life wasn’t so easy, and the Prophet Muhammad began to receive persecution and life threats in his homeland of Mecca. It was then that Prophet Muhammad moved to Medina where he began a new polity consisting of his own followers and the tribes of Medina.
Upon emigrating, the Muslims’ possessions were taken by the people of Mecca, leaving them with little to none in their names and no available professions in their new land. It became a snowball effect from there. Penniless and hungry, the Muslims turned to raiding Meccan caravans–-leading to armed conflict. Soon after, Prophet Muhammad delivered Quranic verses permitting the once peaceful Muslims to fight the Meccans. Following this, the Muslims gained power, wealth, prestige, and a hunger to ultimately conquer Mecca. According to legend, on February 11, 624 A.D., Prophet Muhammad received a revelation from God that he should be facing Mecca, rather than Jerusalem, during prayer.
In March of 624 A.D., the first major battle occurred when Prophet Muhammad led some 300 warriors in a raid on a Meccan merchant caravan at Badr. Aware of this plan, the caravan eluded the Muslims, and the Meccan forces interceded. Though outnumbered more than three to one, the Muslims won the battle. This eventually led to the Siege of Medina, where the Quraysh military leader of Mecca and Banu Qurayza (the Jewish tribe of the land that formed a coalition with the Meccans), Abu Sufyan led 10,000 men into the land of Medina. For two weeks, the Quraysh failed to take over a land fortified with trenches (thanks to a Persian convert to Islam, Salman the Persian). As tradition holds, all of the tribe members of Banu Qurayza, aside from the Muslim converts, were beheaded, while the women and children were enslaved.
In an intermittent 200 year struggle to gain access to the Holy Land, starting in 1095 A.D., the Catholic Church–-via Pope Urban II–-authorized the first of many military campaigns, called the First Crusade. After centuries of competitive coexistence with the Arabs following the initial Muslim conquests, hundreds of thousands of Roman Catholics became crusaders, taking a public vow and receiving plenary indulgences from the church.
A man by the name of Peter the Hermit was particularly responsible for much of the First Crusade, which according to legend, was fueled by the emotions of his own negative experience trying to pilgrimage to Jerusalem just before 1096 A.D., where he was stopped by Seljuk Turks who were rumored to have mistreated him. Single handily, he organized and guided a group of 40,000 peasants from Cologne to Constantinople. Peter claimed that his men, which included a group of spiritually purified paupers and a holy group of pilgrims, would be protected by the heavenly ghost. But by spring 1096 A.D., Peter lost control of the pack and his men went on rampages, killing Jews. By the time of their arrival, 10,000 had either failed to make their way out of Roman Catholic jurisdiction, died of starvation, returned home, been put into servitude or were captured and sold into slavery by various Slavic robber barons.
Peter, and the few remaining under his command then joined the only other group that successfully reached Constantinople: the men of Walter the Penniless. After joining forces, the men camped in the land while negotiating. Unfortunately, since the Emperor had inadequately provided for these already undernourished travelers, the pilgrims took to pilfering the imperial stores. In order to halt the growing nuisance that the paupers had become, the emperor quickly concluded negotiations and shipped the men across the Bosporus to the Asiatic shore that August, with promise of guards and safe passage through the Turkish line. Though the emperor told the men to wait for his word, the paupers crossed the Turkish line (in spite of warnings) and were immediately met with violence. With that said, Peter crossed back to beg for the emperor’s help, but the pilgrims were cut to pieces at the Battle of Civetot.
The Catholic Crusaders experienced some bumps and bruises while marching toward the Holy Land, but in many minds, there was no way God would allow their enemies to harm the innocent flesh of children. There are two versions to this story, but essentially what happened started with a German (or French) boy named Nicholas, in which he convinced a group of 30,000 children and their families that he would lead them to the Mediterranean Sea, which would split and allow them safe passage to Jerusalem. What really happened– the story goes one of two ways. Option 1: the sea wouldn’t part but two merchants nearby offered free passage on boats to as many children who were willing, but instead, sold them to slavery, lost the children to shipwreck or starvation. Option 2: The sea still wouldn’t part, but much of the children waited on the shore for God to change his mind and part if for them. The Genoese, a nearby nation were impressed by the children and offered them citizenship. Nicholas refused to settle down, and instead traveled to Pisa as his movement continued to disband. Him and a few remaining followers continued to the Papal states. After spending some time with Pope Innocent III, the boys were told to “be good and go home.” Nicholas did not survive the voyage home, perishing at the Alps. Back home, Nicholas’ father was arrested and hanged at the hands of angry families whose children had perished alongside his.
While Buddhism is based on teachings of peace, there have been many moments of aggression in the religion’s history. During the reign of Catholic Ngo Dinh Diem, the Buddhist population of South Vietnam was heavily discriminated against and in turn, they generated the growth of Buddhist institutions in order to participate in national politics and demand better treatment. While the Buddhist Uprising is not characterized by physical bloodshed, there was much political and philosophical turmoil at hand as Buddhists across the nation struggled against Catholic and military rule, especially against leader Nguyen Cao Ky and Nguyen Van Thieu. This time period was stricken with several peaceful movements, such as ‘trick’ protests and broadcast control struggles. One such protest was masked by alternative agendas only to end with anti-Ky signs with his face plastered on them which read, “This is the plaza of demagogy. Ky, Thieu and Co. must be executed.”
Second War of Kappel
After the ongoing religious conflict between Catholic Cantons and Protestants, this war erupted. It was fought in 1531 A.D. in the land of Switzerland. Seven thousand protestants and 2,000 Catholics fought. Against all odds, by the end of the war, the Catholic side was declared victorious. More than 700 people died, including a majority of civilians.
Lebanese Civil War
Though both inherently Muslim, the Sunnis and the Shiites constantly had tension with one another. By 1975, violence broke out, as the two sides fought for government control of Lebanon. After 15 years of fighting and 150,000 estimated deaths, the war ended.
French Wars of Religion
This conflict wasn’t a single event, but exploded into many wars occurring between 1562 A.D. and 1598 A.D.. These wars were fought by the French Catholics and Protestants. By 1598 A.D., after which 2,000,000 to 4,000,000 people had died, the war had subsided and the Protestants were granted freedom and civil rights, and with that, the war ended. The actual number of wars fought and deaths that occurred are still unverifiable.
How did it all start? Protestantism, particularly Calvinism was growing in a land dominated by Catholics. These were not branches of Christianity that got along. Their opinions were very differing. Catholics adhered to the principle that the practice of traditions would atone their sins while Protestants revolutionized the idea of Christian religion by asserting that the only thing that could save them was faith alone. Francis I tried to help the people set aside their differences and create a middle course to this religious rift, but in the heat of tension based around their differences, Protestants began to put up anti-Catholic posters. From here the friction grew– Protestants turned to iconoclasm, which was the destruction of images and statues in Catholic churches. Vandalism spawned murder, and from 1572 A.D. to 1573 A.D., a series of assassinations transpired known as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. For five days, Catholics massacred Calvinist men, women and children, looting their houses and killing an estimated 10,000 Huguenots throughout France.