Luther's "On War Against the Turk":
Inspiration for America's War on Islamic Terrorism from an Earlier Protagonist

By Garry J. Moes

The protestations of our national leaders notwithstanding, the current world war against Islamic terrorism is the third millennium's first outbreak of a religious conflict which dates back to the first millennium and which has reached climactic points in each of the millennia of the Christian era. Nearly three-quarters of the way into the first thousand years, a fierce Christian warrior hammered the Moors back from the gates of Europe. And a crisis midway through the second millennium roused one of history's most courageous Christian leaders to produce a potent clarion call which could serve to motivate the new American-led crusade against the Mohammedan infidel.

October 10, AD 732, marks the conclusion of what arguably was one of the most decisive battles in all of history, the Battle of Tours, as upon its issue depended whether Christian Civilization should continue or Islam prevail throughout Europe

A Muslim army, in a crusading search for land and the end of Christianity, after the conquest of Syria, Egypt, and North Africa, began to invade Western Europe under the leadership of Abd-er Rahman, governor of Spain. Abd-er Rahman led an infantry of 60,000 to 400,000 soldiers across the Western Pyrenees and toward the Loire River, but they were met just outside the city of Tours by an incisive Christian opponent, Charles Martel, known as the Hammer, and the Frankish Army.

Martel gathered his forces directly in the path of the oncoming Muslim army and prepared to defend themselves by using a phalanx style of combat. The invading Muslims rushed forward, relying on the slashing tactics and overwhelming number of horsemen that had brought them victories in the past. However, the French Army, composed of foot soldiers armed only with swords, shields, axes, javelins, and daggers, was well trained. Despite the effectiveness of the Muslim army in previous battles, the terrain caused them a disadvantage. Their strength lay within their cavalry, armed with large swords and lances, which along with their baggage mules, limited their mobility. The Christian army displayed great ardency in withstanding the ferocious attack. It was one of the rare times in the Middle Ages when infantry held its ground against a mounted attack. The exact length of the battle is undetermined; Arab sources claim that it was a two-day battle whereas Christian sources hold that the fighting clamored on for seven days. In either case, the battle ended when the French captured and killed Abd-er Rahman. The Muslim army withdrew peacefully overnight and even though Martel expected a surprise retaliation, there was none. For the Muslims, the death of their leader caused a sharp setback and they had no choice but to retreat back across the Pyrenees, never to return again.

Not only did this prove to be a decisive battle for the Christians, but the Battle of Tours is considered the high water mark of the Muslim invasion of Western Europe (Source: Jewish Virtual Library).

By the early sixteenth century, Muslim conquerors were again threatening to overwhelm western civilization. The lands from Morocco in the west to Indonesia in the east were already under the influence of Islamic rule and culture. The area was controlled by three dominant groups — the Ottoman Turks, rulers of the Middle East and North Africa and conquerors of much of Eastern Europe; the Mogul of India, who advanced southward; and the Safavids, who held Persia (modern Iran). Other areas of Africa and Asia also fell to Islam during this era.

The Islamic expansion led to a rash of new converts, some of whom were coerced by sword into accepting the Muslim faith. Others were converted through contact with Islamic traders and preachers. Many Muslims, especially merchants, married local women who were persuaded to embrace the Islamic religions. Muslim schools were then started to educate their children. Often non-Muslims attended these schools, later converting to the faith.

The Ottoman Empire reached its height after conquering Constantinople in 1453. Nearly three-quarters of a century later, Suleiman the Magnificent, their greatest ruler, led the Turks across the Danube River to destroy the Hungarian state (1526), part of the empire of the Catholic Hapsburgs and within three years, laid seige to Vienna. Had Vienna fallen, the tide of Islam may well have swept into Western Europe (Garry J. Moes: Streams of Civilzation, Vol. II (Arlington Heights, Illinois: Christian Liberty Press, 1995), p. 4).

It was this threat that proved a great distraction to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, the Hapsburg ruler in Spain. Charles feared the rise of the Lutheran Reformation, which was splitting the frontline German states away from his empire, and it was this fear, in part, that led Charles to pour out vengeance on the Reformation and its leader, Martin Luther. On his part, Luther feared that the pope would form an alliance with the Turks to thwart the Reformation and the breakup of the Holy Roman Empire. Luther, an outlaw under Charles's ban and the pope's excommunication, saw the Muslim threat for what is was — a religious and civil crisis of the highest order — and with characteristic fearlessness, he called upon the European princes, especially the German rules who had rallied to the Reformation, to repel the heathen invaders.

Earlier, in 1523, Luther had address the general issue of the justice of war in his work, Temporal Authority: To What Extent Should It Be Obeyed? In this work, he warned against armed rebellion and revolution against one's own rulers, who he viewed as God's ordained servants. But he added:

If however, the antagonist is your equal, your inferior, or of a foreign government, you should first offer him justice and peace, as Moses taught the children of Israel. If he refuses, then — mindful of what is best for you — defend yourself against force by force, as Moses so well described it in Deuteronomy 20 [:10-12]. But in doing this you must not consider your personal interests and how you may remain lord, but those of your subjects to whom you owe help and protection, that such action may proceed in love. Since your entire land is in peril you must make the venture, so that with God's help all may not be lost. If you cannot prevent some from becoming widows and orphans as a consequence, you must at least see that not everything goes to ruin until there is nothing left except widows and orphans.

In this matter subjects are in duty bound to follow, and to devote their life and property, for in such case one must risk his goods and himself for the sake of others. In a war of this sort it is both Christian and an act of love to kill the enemy without hestation, to plunder and burn and injure him by every method of warfare until he is conquered.... And when victory has been achieved, one should offer mercy and peace to those who surrender and humble themselves. In such a case let the proverb apply, "God helps the strongest." This is what Abraham did when he smote the four kings, Genesis 14; he certainly slaughtered many, and showed little mercy until he conquered them. Such a case must be regarded as sent by God as a means to cleanse the land for once and drive out the rascals. (Luther's Works, vol. 45: Christian in Society II, trans. J.J. Schindel, revised Walther I. Brandt. Philadelphis: Fortress Press, 1962, pp. 124-125.)

Wittingly or unwittingly, President George W. Bush seems to have taken inspiration from these words of Luther in our new war to "smoke out" the Taliban / Al Quida rascals, vowing unrelenting assault against the aggressor, yet mixing that determination with humanitarian mercy for war's victims. At the same time, the president appears to take a far more tolerant view of the supposed benign nature of mainstream Islam than Luther did. Luther minced few words in describing the brutality of the Islamic holy warrior. He devoted an entire treatise, in fact, to his powerful trumpet call for defense against the Ottoman assault on Europe. In his 1529 On War Against the Turk, Luther called upon the civil authorities to do their duty to protect the citizenry with the divinely ordained application of the sword against the Muslim "abomination," whose adherents he called "blasphemers" against Christ.

Editor Robert C. Schultz points out that Luther made it clear that a war against the Turks was not the prerogative or realm of the church and should not be a religious crusade of the church, but it was properly the duty of Christian men operating in the appropriate civil jurisdiction. "Luther's concern throughout the book is to teach men how to fight with a clear conscience," Schultz says. "In so doing he develops two major points. There are, he says, only two men who may properly fight the Turk. The first of these is the Christian, who by prayer, repentance, and reform of life takes the rod of anger out of God's hand and compels the Turk to stand on his own strength. The second man who may wage war is the emperor. The Turk has wrongfully attacked the emperor's subjects, and by virtue of the office to which God has appointed him, the emperor is duty-bound to protect and defend the subjects with whose care God has entrusted him" (Luther's Works, vol. 46: Christian and Society III, trans. Charles M. Jacobs, revised R.C. Schultz; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967, p. 159).

In warning against any form of appeasement of, cooperation with or accommodation of "the Turk," Luther called the Moslem "a destroyer, enemy, and blasphemer of our Lord Jesus Christ, a man who instead of the gospel and faith sets up his shameful Mohammad and all kinds of lies, ruins all temporal government and home life or marriage, and his warfare, which is nothing but murder and bloodshed, is a tool of the devil himself. See then! He who consorts with the Turk has to be a party to this terrible abomination and brings down on his own head all the murder, all the blood the Turk has shed, and all the lies and vices with which he has damaged Christ's kingdom and led souls astray" (Ibid., p. 195).

Luther was adament in his call for duly authorized warfare against the evil of Islam. In words which could well serve as a call on modern America for national repentance in order to merit the blessing of God upon its war against the Islamic terror, Luther wrote:

[T]he emperor should do whatever he can for his subjects against the Turk, so that even though he cannot entirely prevent this abomination, he may nonetheless try to protect and rescue his subjects by checking the Turk and holding him off. The emperor should be moved to do this not only by duty, his office, and God's command, nor only by the un-Christian and vile government the Turk brings ... but also by the misery and wretchedness that befalls his subjects. Doubtlessly they know better than I how cruelly the Turk treats those whom he takes captive. He treats them like cattle, dragging, towing, driving those that can move, and killing on the spot those that cannot move, whether they are young or old. [The Taliban appear to be worthy successors to the Ottomans, in this respect. — GJM]

All this and more like it ought to move all the princes, and the whole empire to forget their own causes and quarrels, or to put them aside for awhile, and earnestly unite to help the wretched so that things may not go as they went with Constantinople and Greece [which fell (with cruel atrocities) to Mohammed II in 1453 and 1461, respectively — GJM].

They quarreled with one another and looked after their own affairs for a long time until the Turk overwhelmed both of them, as he has already come very near doing to us in a similar case. But if this is not to be, and our unrepentant life make us unworthy of any grace, counsel, or support, we must put up with it and suffer under the devil; but that does not excuse those who could help and do not....

Finally, I would have it understood as my kind and faithful advice that if it comes to war against the Turk, we should arm and perpare ourselves, and not underestimate the Turk and not act as we Germans usually do, and come on the field with twenty or thirty thousand men. And even though good fortune is bestowed upon us again and we win a victory, we have no power in reserve, but sit down again and carouse until another danger comes along. ... I must think either that the princes and our Germans do not know or believe the strength and power of the Turk, or that they have no serious intention of fighting against the Turk. ... My advice, then, is that we not insufficiently arm ourselves. ... If we are not going to make an adequate, honest resistance that will have some reserve power, it would be far better not to begin a war, but to yield lands and people to the Turk in time, without useless bloodshed, rather than have him win anyhow in an easy battle and with shameful bloodshed. ... [H]e is a different kind of warrior. The Turk has people and money in abundance; ... Why, dear sir, his people are always under arms to that he can quickly muster three or four hundred thousand men. If we were to cut down a hundred thousand, he would soon be back again with as many men as before. He has reserve power....

If our kings and princes were to agree and stand by one another and help each other, and the Christian man were to pray for them, I should be undismayed and of good hope. The Turk would stop his raging and find his equal in Emperor Charles. Failing that, if things go as they are going now, and no one is in agreement with another or loyal to another and everyone wants to be his own man and takes the field with a beggarly array, I must let it go at that. Of course, I will gladly help by praying, but it will be a weak prayer, for because of the childish, presumptious, and short-sighted way in which such great enterprises are undertaken, I can have little faith that it will be heard, and I know that this is tempting God and that he can have no pleasure in it (Ibid., pp. 200-203).

While it is certainly true that the spiritual and cultural awakening which the Reformation brought to Europe was the foundation from which Europe fought off the Islamic vision and finally repelled the Muslim conquerors in 1683, it must be noted that the civil magistrates of Europe who responded to such advice as Luther gave in his 1529 treatise brought the immediate military victory. A German, Austrian and Polish military alliance ended the Muslim siege of Vienna that very year. When Suleiman died in 1566, the long era of Ottoman victories and expansion ended. The empire slipped into a period of indulgent corruption and decline. And Islam posed no further serious threat to western civilization until Sept. 11, 2001.

The nations of the world now allied in the new global war against the terroristic Islamic blasphemers of Christ would do well to profoundly consider Luther's advice once again.