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Top 10 Leaders of Religious Violence

Updated on May 21, 2014

Religion and violence

In the history of religious violence, some have stood out and made a name for themselves as the most influential and effective purveyors of oppression and hatred. Here are the top ten of all time, in chronological order.

1. Emperor Theodosius I

Theodosius I, or Theodosius the Great, was the last emperor of the united Roman empire. He reigned from 379 to 395, and effectively made Nicene Christianity the official religion of the empire. He persecuted pagans and non-Nicene Christian groups, including the Arians. He established the death penalty for certain pagan practices, made private pagan worship illegal in some cases, destroyed a number of pagan temples and abolished their holidays. Theodosius also succeeded in battle against the forces of the pagan Eugenius, who sought the throne. He is recognized as a Saint by the Eastern Orthodox.

Muhammad's night journey
Muhammad's night journey

2. Muhammad

Muhammad (570-632) was the founder and prophet of Islam, and the first political and military leader of the Islamic community. Believing that it was God's mission for him to convert and conquer for Islam, he organized fighters early on to resist persecution from polytheistic Arabs, and then to establish sovereignty over them.

The Islamic empire conquered the entire Arabian peninsula under Muhammad, and subsequent caliphs expanded its dominion over the entire Middle East, Southwest Asia, Northern Africa and Iberia. Muhammad established political, religious and even cultural norms that remained in place for many centuries across large segments of Africa and Asia.

The Quran, Islam's holy book, includes many verses supportive of violence, persecution and oppression. These ideas were inspired directly by Muhammad's militant activities and the violent world that he and his earliest followers were a part of. The justification and exaltation of violence in various elements of Islam continue to inspire militant Muslims to this day.

Early Islamic expansion
Early Islamic expansion | Source
Pope Urban II
Pope Urban II | Source

3. Pope Urban II

Pope Urban II established the First Crusade (1096-1099) in an attempt to support Christians in Anatolia in their conflict against Muslim armies, and also to recapture the Holy Land from Muslim control. Jerusalem had not been under Christian control for over 400 years.

Thousands of men from around Europe participated in the Crusade. The Christian zeal stirred up by Urban and his supporters had the unintended consequence of mob killings of Jews in France and Germany, as Crusaders and prospective Crusaders travelled east. Many Crusaders never made it out of Europe. Those that did reach the Levant successfully expelled the Muslims and established several Christian states. In the process, an unknown number of Muslims and Jews were massacred by the Crusading armies.

Urban's crusading legacy remained in place as eight more Crusades followed in subsequent centuries, some begun by popes and others by monarchs. The chaotic and undisciplined nature of a transcontinental religious adventure, undertaken largely by illiterate peasants fired up with radical rhetoric, remained a distinguishing feature of the Crusades.

Urban's Crusade, and the later Crusades, bolstered tensions between Muslims and Christians that arguably continue to this day.

Pope Gregory IX
Pope Gregory IX

4. Pope Gregory IX

Pope Gregory IX founded the Papal Inquisition in 1231 (not to be confused with the Spanish Inquisition of several hundred years later). The Papal Inquisition was an attempt to better organize, systematize and centralize existing Inquisition activities. An Inquisition, in all its manifestations, was a procedure designed to identify and punish or rectify those holding beliefs heretical to official Catholic doctrine.

A variety of punishments were used for those convicted of heresy, ranging in severity from prayer to social ostracism to flogging to death. Since the church itself could not harm anyone, Gregory and subsequent popes employed secular authorities to torture and execute suspects and convicted heretics. Those who were executed were typically burned at the stake. The inquisitional procedures and standards established by Gregory remained in force for centuries thereafter.

5. Ferrand Martinez

Archdeacon of Ecija, a town near Seville, Martinez made a name for himself incessantly preaching against Jews in the late 14th century. Despite requests to stop from political leaders (who benefited from Jewish contributions in medicine, law and other fields), Martinez was steadfast in his violent rhetoric, calling for Jews to be killed or baptized.

Finally, in the massacre of 1391, somewhere between 2,000 and 10,000 Jews were killed by mobs inspired or led by Martinez and his clerical allies. The mass killings began in Seville, but soon spread to other Spanish cities in an environment of near-anarchy with incompetent secular authorities unable to protect the innocent. Many Jews opted to convert to Christianity. However, suspicion of heretical activities by recent Jewish converts contributed to the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition about 100 years later.

Tomas de Torquemada
Tomas de Torquemada

6. Tomas de Torquemada

In the closing years of the 15th century, Tomás de Torquemada led the effort in establishing the Spanish Inquisition. He became Spain's first Grand Inquisitor, and significantly increased the size, organization and discipline of the Inquisition. Between 1480 and 1530 the Spanish Inquisition burned about 2,000 people at the stake. While Torquemada was in charge for only the early part of this period, he was essential in developing its zeal and effectiveness. Almost all of those executed were Jewish converts to Christianity.

The Spanish Inquisition continued at a slower rate for several centuries afterward, trying tens of thousands more people and killing several thousand. Torquemada's name has become synonymous with religious hatred, bigotry and fanaticism.

John Calvin
John Calvin

7. John Calvin

John Calvin was one of the most consequential Protestant reformers. As a reformer in mid 16th century Geneva, he successfully implemented a theocracy in which church leaders (including Calvin) enjoyed political and legal authority. His rule saw the imposition of a strict moral code based on a literal interpretation of the Bible.

Laws and punishments directly inspired by the Old Testament were a feature of Calvinist Geneva, including the death penalty for adultery. Calvin considered adultery in particular to be a crime worse than robbery. Calvin implemented public torture or banishment for crimes including heresy and nastiness on the part of children. Dancing, theater performances and singing (even in church) were all ultimately banned. Several children and teenagers were executed or brutally punished for nonviolent offenses. In one famous case, Michael Servetus, a well-known European thinker and critic of the doctrine of the Trinity, was tried, convicted of heresy, and burned to death.

Calvin's greatest impact was felt beyond Geneva in later decades and centuries. His rigid ideas influenced puritanical Protestants in continental Europe, England and the early United States.

Hong Xiuquan
Hong Xiuquan

8. Hong Xiuquan

In the mid 19th century, Hong Xiuquan had visions convincing him that he was the brother of Jesus Christ, and that God wanted him to establish a Christian state in China. With his army of followers, he led the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) against the ruling Qing dynasty. The conflict grew from a guerrilla rebellion to a full-scale civil war that killed about 20 million people. Hong succeeded in conquering a section of southern China before the Qing and its foreign allies ultimately triumphed. The Taiping Rebellion was one of the largest wars of the 19th century by number of soldiers and number of deaths.

While in power, Hong acted as both political and religious leader of the "Heavenly Kingdom," implementing laws including segregation of the genders, land socialization, outlawing polygamy (despite Hong's own harem of concubines), outlawing gambling and prostitution, and the suppression or destruction of Confucian and Buddhist symbols and practices. Brutal and uneven military rule was used to enforce the theocracy's policies.

Grand Ayatollah Khomeini
Grand Ayatollah Khomeini

9. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini

The Grand Ayatollah Khomeini was the leader of the Iranian Revolution (1979) that overthrew the American-backed regime and established a Shiite Muslim theocracy. Khomeini ruled as Supreme Leader for ten years until his death.

Khomeini was one of the primary forces behind large-scale anti-Americanism as well as a movement toward greater piety and traditionalism in the late 20th century Muslim world. Under Khomeini, political dissent was suppressed, thousands of political prisoners were executed, and while Jews and other non-Muslims were treated relatively well, the Bahai were actively persecuted.

Under Khomeini, alcohol, western movies, non-religious and non-martial music were all banned. Sports and beaches were gender-segregated, women were forced to cover their hair, and men were banned from wearing shorts.

Khomeini's rigid and violent beliefs continue to shape Iranian policy. Extramarital sex is illegal in Iran, women can be punished if found in mixed-sex situations, and violent punishments often apply for sexual indiscretions, including death. Women are punished more often than men, while enjoying fewer rights. In 2010, a woman was sentenced to death by stoning for the crime of adultery. The ruling was later tempered amid an international outcry.

Osama bin Laden
Osama bin Laden

10. Osama bin Laden

Osama bin Laden was the world's most prominent Islamic terrorist in the late 20th and early 21st century. As the head of the global Islamist group Al Qaeda, he was an inspiration and a symbolic leader to thousands of fanatical Muslims. He was the architect of the September 11th, 2001 attacks on New York City and Washington DC that killed about 3,000 people. The September 11th attacks were the spark for the American "war on terror," an ongoing global military, police and intelligence campaign against Islamic terrorists. This campaign ultimately resulted in bin Laden's death at the hands of an American special forces unit in May 2011, almost ten years after his most important attack.

After adopting a fundamentalist belief system, bin Laden made a name for himself in the 1970s and 80s as a military leader for the Mujahideen (conservative Islamic fighters) in the American-backed conflict against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. His battlefield experience, arms networks and vast financial resources readily applied to Al Qaeda's terrorist activities in the 1990s and 2000s.

Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople by Gustave Dor
Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople by Gustave Dor

Religious violence: other recent leaders

Muhammad Amin al Huseini: Grand Mufti of Jerusalem for much of the 20th century; loved Nazis, hated Jews; called for the killing of Jews.

Mullah Muhammad Omar: Spiritual and military leader of the Taliban; banned music and entertainment, implemented draconian punishments, banned women from work and education.

Joseph Kony: Leader of a religious terrorist group in Uganda whose anti-government war has killed tens of thousands and displaced 2 million; forces have engaged in child abduction, torture, child rape, slavery and murder; has fathered dozens of children with between 20 and 70 wives--many of them young girls.


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    • secularist10 profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from New York City

      When did I claim that Jesus was "responsible" for anything?

      I repeat--it's just a picture! Get a grip! It's a fantasy, a silly picture that someone made.

      It depends what Persian rulers you are referring to. But those were primarily political figures, not religious ones.

      If you have proof that Egyptian Pharaohs killed scores of people in the name of religion, let's see it.

      If you are going to keep commenting here, at least try to improve your English so it's clearer what you are actually saying.

    • profile image

      Miguel Hijo de Dios (The Observer) 

      4 years ago

      That doesn't mean that Jesus was responsible for that! is that a rhetorical question? by putting a gun in his hand you are making him look as the principal killer, why didn't you put Bush or Obama?? What killings? all humans did using him name! do you think you really know what does that mean and why does it still happen?? if you emit Egyptian Pharaohs and Persian Kings you only know half about what you are talking about!

    • secularist10 profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from New York City

      I did not look into the Egyptian Pharaohs for this article, but I don't think they were responsible for a significant amount of violence in the name of their religion, relative to these other figures.

      Well that is just an image, hardly the most offensive image of Jesus on the internet! How does the image imply that he was responsible for "all those killings"? And what specific killings are you talking about anyway?

      Unfortunately for much of the world, Christianity has been responsible for a significant amount of death and suffering throughout history.

    • profile image

      Miguel Hijo de Dios (The Observer) 

      4 years ago

      and i have to confess that the image of jesus holding a gun like he was the responsible for all those killings... i found it really offensive! in spite of that he knew what was going to happen in his name his message meant the total opposite of that! His motive wasn't power, money or be considered a god! his idea was to promote pure love and peace in human kind. respect for each others!

    • profile image

      Miguel Hijo de Dios (The Observer) 

      4 years ago

      Man what about the egyptian Pharaohs? They all called the gods. Like the Mesopotamian Kings and much others!

    • secularist10 profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from New York City


      I have studied the history of Islam and the Quran. If you do the same, then you will see that Muhammad's life (and his message) was filled with violence and aggression, usually inspired by his religious beliefs.

      Since Muhammad is the founder of the second-largest religion on earth, and one of the most influential men of all time, it makes sense for him to be #2 on this list.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      the author of this page seriously needs to read an authentic biography of the propet mohammed (peace b eupon him) prior to making such allegations about him; such as placing him on the number 2 list of religious violence perpetrators.

    • secularist10 profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from New York City

      Correction: beasts with modern weapons of war are much more effective.

      There were no secular people in medieval or ancient times, so a comparison on that count alone is not reasonable.

      Imagine what the Crusaders could have done with AK-47s. Or what Torquemada could have done with gas chambers.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      5 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Very interesting. I actually was surprised at how low the numbers were. Seems secular beasts are much more effective.

    • secularist10 profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from New York City

      I have read the Quran. Like the Bible, it contains plenty of bellicose content. You can choose to interpret it any way you wish, but the violent material is there, for anyone such as Osama bin Laden who wants to use it to justify violence and war.

    • G Miah profile image

      Gous Ahmed 

      6 years ago from Muslim Nation

      The Quran does not support or encourage violence, persecution or opression at all, that's where you got your facts wrong. Read it from beginning to end and you will realise.

      You cannot just make your own judgement without reading the Quran, so i suggest you read it first before you label it as a book that promotes violence, opression etc.

      Otherwise this is a very interesting hub.

    • secularist10 profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from New York City

      Thanks a lot, glad you liked it.

    • HowToLoveOne profile image

      Joshua Pine 

      6 years ago from San Francisco

      Fun hub! What could be more evil than distorting something intended to help people?

    • IntroduceCroatia profile image

      Ante Rajic 

      7 years ago from Croatia

      I really enjoyed reading this hub, very interesting.

    • secularist10 profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from New York City

      I suppose that's a fair point about his making himself a religious figure. Yes, he certainly enjoyed killing people didn't he.

    • lizzieBoo profile image


      7 years ago from England

      Yes, I'm back. so sorry, I was held up a bit there. I just wanted to say that Henry VIII made himself head of the Church of England over the Pope. I think you could call that a religious figure. Also, before his mid-life crisis (as I like to call it) Henry was shining example of Catholic devotion in Europe, which at the time, was awash with deviance and hypocrisy. By the time he had given Catherine of Aragon the heave-ho, he had become immersed in the corruption that surrounded him and became a real beast. He ordered the slaughtering of 30,000 Northerners who wanted to remain loyal to Rome, among many acts of atrocity.

    • secularist10 profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from New York City

      "Barging in"? Hardly, lol. I wish all religious commenters were as respectful and articulate as you. You haven't seen some of the lunatics that have assaulted my articles. But I love it all regardless!

      "Religion ... a search for meaning, for patterns, for symmetry."

      Unclear. This could apply to science and rational skepticism as well.

      Religion is simply a system of knowledge, a system for understanding the world and life that incorporates the supernatural. It has two primary functions: (1) to explain the world, explain the unexplainable, and (2) to provide a moral compass, identify right and wrong.

      In light of modern science and rationalism, religion is no longer needed for either. Although it was useful for a long time.

      Oh, I don't think religious people SEEK to live in ignorance. But that is the result. A baby doesn't try to fall down and scrape his knee, but he will--it is inevitable given his decision to run around recklessly.

      There are exceptions to every rule, but the rule is that religion stems from, contributes to, and sustains ignorance. This is why where ignorance is low, there is little religion.

      Now, the largest empires for the first period (beginning in the 1400s) were the Spanish and Portuguese. They originated the transatlantic slave trade. And their Catholic missionaries were all over the Americas for many centuries. It was only later that the British made comparable inroads into North America.

      Slavery was primarily about economics. Its main supporters and participants were merchants, not mercenaries. The Church certainly supported slavery if in no other way than by giving legitimacy to the regimes that practiced it. It could have easily withdrew support from Portuguese, Spanish or French monarchies any time for instance, significantly delegitimizing them.

      In the US, religion became a cardinal legitimator of slavery and then racism and segregation as early as the 1600s.

      Yes, of course Christians were involved in the abolishing of slavery. But (a) Christians also started it, so at best it's a wash! and (b) secular groups were involved in abolishing slavery as well.

      Now, I did not include the monarchs you mentioned for the same reason I did not include Hitler or other rulers--because they were primarily secular rulers, not religious figures.

    • lizzieBoo profile image


      7 years ago from England

      Sorry to turn your Hub page into a debate forum, but I must come back here.

      Religion for the most part, celebrates a philosophical way of thinking. It's a search for meaning, for patterns, for symmetry. It seeks to apply the general rule and natural law. Sometimes it sits within terribly flawed cultures. Sometimes, the religion itself is flawed. Sometimes people use the power of religion to persuade people to act against their better judgement. I have seen scientists and medical professionals do the same thing very much more often. I find a commonality with other religious people, who outnumber secular people in the world generally. An acceptance of the unknown is a uniting factor don't you think? It doesn't follow that we seek to live in ignorance.

      To say that religion is at the heart of good people doing bad things, is as broad as if to say that politics is at the heart of bad things. Which religion? What politics?

      Gold, God and glory describes the 16th century Spanish, really. The enslavement of the Africans began after the Reformation, along with the speedy ascent of the British Empire. The ruling classes in Britain had trampled on their own people. How much easier to trample on other nations once that line had been crossed. The missionaries that subsequently went to the colonies were largely Protestant Calvinist types, since they stemmed from the largest empire, Britain. As you've shown, Calvinism can use religious excuses for why some people are better than others. Very convenient when treading on other people's culture.

      The RC Church didn't give its blessing to slavery, but it didn't condemn it either. Not a good thing, but different from giving a blessing. At times the church was forced to support slave-driving nations or loose it's right to practice faith, such as in Portugal when it was under an atheist king. That is not to say that many Catholics were not very much a part of the slave system. They were. But Mercenaries were at the heart of slavery and it finally took a Christian and Christian pressure groups to call its end.

      Incidentally, you've left a few off your list: Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Edward VI, all guilty of crimes against humanity in the name of religion. Literally thousands and thousands murdered.

      Sorry for barging in though.

    • secularist10 profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from New York City

      The most important reason religion has a negative effect is that it glorifies and encourages a flawed way of thinking. It allows subjective and emotional and unverifiable experiences where only objective, rational and testable ones are useful. In short, religion, a manifestation or outgrowth of human ignorance, locks in and perpetuates ignorance, which is why it is so destructive. Now, religion is not the only problem, of course, as ignorance can have many manifestations. But nevertheless it is a problem.

      "Bad people do bad things. In the hands of bad people, religion is like anything, it gets corrupted."

      As a wise man once said, good people will do good things and bad people will do bad things. But to get good people to do bad things, that takes religion.

      "The whole of the white west have dirty hands in regards to them, and it had nothing to do with religion."

      Actually, that's not true. The Catholic Church supported and gave their blessings to the institution of slavery for a long time. More importantly, one of the key reasons the Europeans went into the world was to spread their religion--God, gold and glory are typically the three major motivations cited for European empire.

      Later in the period, the concept of the "white man's burden" was very much laced with religious beliefs as many thought it was their God-given mission to convert and "civilize" savages like the Native Americans and Africans (actually this is a great example of millions of average European people--good people--doing/ contributing to bad things, because of what their religion told them).

    • lizzieBoo profile image


      7 years ago from England

      Hi again. Thanks for these figures. What a fascinating period. Yes the Black Death killed over half of Europe's population. It must have been devastating.

      I wouldn't agree that religion helped create these wicked situations. Bad people do bad things. In the hands of bad people, religion is like anything, it gets corrupted. Ignorance has caused nations to behave awfully against other nations. The Jews were blamed in some cases for the various plagues and were sometimes punished as such. In later centuries Catholics were blamed for many events, such as the fire of London which was seen as a Popish plot and Catholics weren't safe on the streets. Call it religion, call it politics, call superstition, call it ignorance. Look at the people who have been most ill-treated in the last few hundred years: the Africans. The whole of the white west have dirty hands in regards to them, and it had nothing to do with religion.

    • secularist10 profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from New York City

      Remember Spain was and is a pretty big country. Here's some estimates of medieval European populations:

      In 1000, 7 million people in Spain and Portugal

      In 1340, 9 million

      In 1450, back down to 7 million (remember the black death).

      So even 10,000 deaths spread over several decades would be notable, but not make that much of a dent if the population was in the millions. (They would, however, make an impact on the relatively small Jewish population from which most of the deaths came, just as the Holocaust did for European Jews.)

      In 1450, these estimates indicate the total European population was about 50 million.

      I do think, however, that religion in and of itself plays an important role in the creation of these circumstances.

    • lizzieBoo profile image


      7 years ago from England

      It just seems that there would have been a pretty big dent in the population after loosing all that. But I'm willing to accept it....these crazy fanatic types, honestly.

      What I like is when you can narrow things down to a list. OK, so there were ten big, fat baddies at whose door you can place most blame. So much easier to digest than the 'everyone was evil and corrupt' sort of argument. Thanks.

    • secularist10 profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from New York City

      Lizzie, thanks for coming. I don't know if you're familiar with my writing, but I am hardly one to "rant" about anything.

      I don't know, there seems to be some pretty solid information out there about the trials and deaths, even with the gaps and holes and whatnot.

      The National Historical Archive of Spain for one documents tens of thousands of cases, taken directly from primary sources. The purveyors of the Spanish Inquisition themselves kept records of their exploits.

      I think with the actual evidence there is, historians can make reasonable estimates, even if it isn't perfect.

    • lizzieBoo profile image


      7 years ago from England

      Well this is all very interesting and also a relief to read. I thought it was going to be a rant against religions generally. Phew.

      I would query some of the evidence about the inquisition however, since much of what we know comes from protestant propaganda against Catholics which was making great use of the new printing presses of the time. According to a number of Spanish historians, though there are numerous printed depictions of the Spanish Inquisition's torturous regime, made by English and German printers, there is very little documentation to be found relating to actual deaths.

    • secularist10 profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from New York City

      Catholic Mason, thanks for coming.

      Given that (almost) all the prophets say "I'm the real one, the others are impostors" that doesn't seem very useful. Many of these folks are not prophets, or didn't claim to be.

    • Austinstar profile image


      7 years ago from Somewhere near the center of Texas

      CatholicM - I don't think you have gotten the gist of this hub. But then, I wouldn't expect that you would.

    • CatholicMason profile image


      7 years ago

      The coming of all of these people are as it was foretold in the Bible.

      Jeremiah 14:14 “The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I have not sent them or appointed them or spoken to them. They are prophesying to you false visions, divinations, idolatries and the delusions of their own minds."

      It's just a bit painful to realise that some of them were from my own religion :(


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