Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Are Judaism and Christianity as Violent as Islam? Part I


by Raymond Ibrahim

1st part of 2

"There is far more violence in the Bible than in the Qur'an; the idea that Islam imposed itself by the sword is a Western fiction, fabricated during the time of the Crusades when, in fact, it was Western Christians who were fighting brutal holy wars against Islam."[1] So announces former nun and self-professed "freelance monotheist," Karen Armstrong. This quote sums up the single most influential argument currently serving to deflect the accusation that Islam is inherently violent and intolerant: All monotheistic religions, proponents of such an argument say, and not just Islam, have their fair share of violent and intolerant scriptures, as well as bloody histories. Thus, whenever Islam's sacred scriptures—the Qur'an first, followed by the reports on the words and deeds of Muhammad (the Hadith)—are highlighted as demonstrative of the religion's innate bellicosity, the immediate rejoinder is that other scriptures, specifically those of Judeo-Christianity, are as riddled with violent passages.

More often than not, this argument puts an end to any discussion regarding whether violence and intolerance are unique to Islam. Instead, the default answer becomes that it is not Islam per se but rather Muslim grievance and frustration—ever exacerbated by economic, political, and social factors—that lead to violence. That this view comports perfectly with the secular West's "materialistic" epistemology makes it all the more unquestioned.

Therefore, before condemning the Qur'an and the historical words and deeds of Islam's prophet Muhammad for inciting violence and intolerance, Jews are counseled to consider the historical atrocities committed by their Hebrew forefathers as recorded in their own scriptures; Christians are advised to consider the brutal cycle of violence their forbears have committed in the name of their faith against both non-Christians and fellow Christians. In other words, Jews and Christians are reminded that those who live in glass houses should not be hurling stones.

But is that really the case? Is the analogy with other scriptures legitimate? Does Hebrew violence in the ancient era, and Christian violence in the medieval era, compare to or explain away the tenacity of Muslim violence in the modern era?


Violence in Jewish and Christian History

Along with Armstrong, any number of prominent writers, historians, and theologians have championed this "relativist" view. For instance, John Esposito, director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, wonders,

How come we keep on asking the same question, [about violence in Islam,] and don't ask the same question about Christianity and Judaism? Jews and Christians have engaged in acts of violence. All of us have the transcendent and the dark side. … We have our own theology of hate. In mainstream Christianity and Judaism, we tend to be intolerant; we adhere to an exclusivist theology, of us versus them.[2]

An article by Pennsylvania State University humanities professor Philip Jenkins, "Dark Passages," delineates this position most fully. It aspires to show that the Bible is more violent than the Qur'an:

[I]n terms of ordering violence and bloodshed, any simplistic claim about the superiority of the Bible to the Koran would be wildly wrong. In fact, the Bible overflows with "texts of terror," to borrow a phrase coined by the American theologian Phyllis Trible. The Bible contains far more verses praising or urging bloodshed than does the Koran, and biblical violence is often far more extreme, and marked by more indiscriminate savagery. … If the founding text shapes the whole religion, then Judaism and Christianity deserve the utmost condemnation as religions of savagery.[3]

Several anecdotes from the Bible as well as from Judeo-Christian history illustrate Jenkins' point, but two in particular—one supposedly representative of Judaism, the other of Christianity—are regularly mentioned and therefore deserve closer examination.

The military conquest of the land of Canaan by the Hebrews in about 1200 B.C.E. is often characterized as "genocide" and has all but become emblematic of biblical violence and intolerance. God told Moses:

But of the cities of these peoples which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance, you shall let nothing that breathes remain alive, but you shall utterly destroy them—the Hittite, Amorite, Canaanite, Perizzite, Hivite, and Jebusite—just as the Lord your God has commanded you, lest they teach you to do according to all their abominations which they have done for their gods, and you sin against the Lord your God.[4]

So Joshua [Moses' successor] conquered all the land: the mountain country and the South and the lowland and the wilderness slopes, and all their kings; he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord, God of Israel had commanded.[5]

As for Christianity, since it is impossible to find New Testament verses inciting violence, those who espouse the view that Christianity is as violent as Islam rely on historical events such as the Crusader wars waged by European Christians between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. The Crusades were in fact violent and led to atrocities by the modern world's standards under the banner of the cross and in the name of Christianity. After breaching the walls of Jerusalem in 1099, for example, the Crusaders reportedly slaughtered almost every inhabitant of the Holy City. According to the medieval chronicle, the Gesta Danorum, "the slaughter was so great that our men waded in blood up to their ankles."[6]

In light of the above, as Armstrong, Esposito, Jenkins, and others argue, why should Jews and Christians point to the Qur'an as evidence of Islam's violence while ignoring their own scriptures and history?


Bible versus Qur'an

The answer lies in the fact that such observations confuse history and theology by conflating the temporal actions of men with what are understood to be the immutable words of God. The fundamental error is that Judeo-Christian history—which is violent—is being conflated with Islamic theology—which commands violence. Of course, the three major monotheistic religions have all had their share of violence and intolerance towards the "other." Whether this violence is ordained by God or whether warlike men merely wished it thus is the key question.

Old Testament violence is an interesting case in point. God clearly ordered the Hebrews to annihilate the Canaanites and surrounding peoples. Such violence is therefore an expression of God's will, for good or ill. Regardless, all the historic violence committed by the Hebrews and recorded in the Old Testament is just that—history. It happened; God commanded it. But it revolved around a specific time and place and was directed against a specific people. At no time did such violence go on to become standardized or codified into Jewish law. In short, biblical accounts of violence are descriptive, not prescriptive.

This is where Islamic violence is unique. Though similar to the violence of the Old Testament—commanded by God and manifested in history—certain aspects of Islamic violence and intolerance have become standardized in Islamic law and apply at all times. Thus, while the violence found in the Qur'an has a historical context, its ultimate significance is theological. Consider the following Qur'anic verses, better known as the "sword-verses":

Then, when the sacred months are drawn away, slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them, and confine them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they repent, and perform the prayer, and pay the alms, then let them go their way.[7]

Fight those who believe not in God and the Last Day, and do not forbid what God and His Messenger have forbidden – such men as practise not the religion of truth, being of those who have been given the Book – until they pay the tribute out of hand and have been humbled.[8]

As with Old Testament verses where God commanded the Hebrews to attack and slay their neighbors, the sword-verses also have a historical context. God first issued these commandments after the Muslims under Muhammad's leadership had grown sufficiently strong to invade their Christian and pagan neighbors. But unlike the bellicose verses and anecdotes of the Old Testament, the sword-verses became fundamental to Islam's subsequent relationship to both the "people of the book" (i.e., Jews and Christians) and the "pagans" (i.e., Hindus, Buddhists, animists, etc.) and, in fact, set off the Islamic conquests, which changed the face of the world forever. Based on Qur'an 9:5, for instance, Islamic law mandates that pagans and polytheists must either convert to Islam or be killed; simultaneously, Qur'an 9:29 is the primary source of Islam's well-known discriminatory practices against conquered Christians and Jews living under Islamic suzerainty.

In fact, based on the sword-verses as well as countless other Qur'anic verses and oral traditions attributed to Muhammad, Islam's learned officials, sheikhs, muftis, and imams throughout the ages have all reached consensus—binding on the entire Muslim community—that Islam is to be at perpetual war with the non-Muslim world until the former subsumes the latter. Indeed, it is widely held by Muslim scholars that since the sword-verses are among the final revelations on the topic of Islam's relationship to non-Muslims, that they alone have abrogated some 200 of the Qur'an's earlier and more tolerant verses, such as "no compulsion is there in religion."[9] Famous Muslim scholar Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) admired in the West for his "progressive" insights, also puts to rest the notion that jihad is defensive warfare:

In the Muslim community, the holy war [jihad] is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the Muslim mission and the obligation to convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force ... The other religious groups did not have a universal mission, and the holy war was not a religious duty for them, save only for purposes of defense ... They are merely required to establish their religion among their own people. That is why the Israelites after Moses and Joshua remained unconcerned with royal authority [e.g., a caliphate]. Their only concern was to establish their religion [not spread it to the nations] … But Islam is under obligation to gain power over other nations.[10]

Modern authorities agree. The Encyclopaedia of Islam's entry for "jihad" by Emile Tyan states that the "spread of Islam by arms is a religious duty upon Muslims in general … Jihad must continue to be done until the whole world is under the rule of Islam … Islam must completely be made over before the doctrine of jihad [warfare to spread Islam] can be eliminated." Iraqi jurist Majid Khaduri (1909-2007), after defining jihad as warfare, writes that "jihad … is regarded by all jurists, with almost no exception, as a collective obligation of the whole Muslim community."[11] And, of course, Muslim legal manuals written in Arabic are even more explicit.[12]


Qur'anic Language

When the Qur'an's violent verses are juxtaposed with their Old Testament counterparts, they are especially distinct for using language that transcends time and space, inciting believers to attack and slay nonbelievers today no less than yesterday. God commanded the Hebrews to kill Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites—all specific peoples rooted to a specific time and place. At no time did God give an open-ended command for the Hebrews, and by extension their Jewish descendants, to fight and kill gentiles. On the other hand, though Islam's original enemies were, like Judaism's, historical (e.g., Christian Byzantines and Zoroastrian Persians), the Qur'an rarely singles them out by their proper names. Instead, Muslims were (and are) commanded to fight the people of the book—"until they pay the tribute out of hand and have been humbled"[13] and to "slay the idolaters wherever you find them."[14]

The two Arabic conjunctions "until" (hata) and "wherever" (haythu) demonstrate the perpetual and ubiquitous nature of these commandments: There are still "people of the book" who have yet to be "utterly humbled" (especially in the Americas, Europe, and Israel) and "pagans" to be slain "wherever" one looks (especially Asia and sub-Saharan Africa). In fact, the salient feature of almost all of the violent commandments in Islamic scriptures is their open-ended and generic nature: "Fight them [non-Muslims] until there is no persecution and the religion is God's entirely. [Emphasis added.]"[15] Also, in a well-attested tradition that appears in the hadith collections, Muhammad proclaims:

I have been commanded to wage war against mankind until they testify that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God; and that they establish prostration prayer, and pay the alms-tax [i.e., convert to Islam]. If they do so, their blood and property are protected. [Emphasis added.][16]

This linguistic aspect is crucial to understanding scriptural exegeses regarding violence. Again, it bears repeating that neither Jewish nor Christian scriptures—the Old and New Testaments, respectively—employ such perpetual, open-ended commandments. Despite all this, Jenkins laments that

Commands to kill, to commit ethnic cleansing, to institutionalize segregation, to hate and fear other races and religions … all are in the Bible, and occur with a far greater frequency than in the Qur'an. At every stage, we can argue what the passages in question mean, and certainly whether they should have any relevance for later ages. But the fact remains that the words are there, and their inclusion in the scripture means that they are, literally, canonized, no less than in the Muslim scripture.[17]

One wonders what Jenkins has in mind by the word "canonized." If by canonized he means that such verses are considered part of the canon of Judeo-Christian scripture, he is absolutely correct; conversely, if by canonized he means or is trying to connote that these verses have been implemented in the Judeo-Christian Weltanschauung, he is absolutely wrong.

Yet one need not rely on purely exegetical and philological arguments; both history and current events give the lie to Jenkins's relativism. Whereas first-century Christianity spread via the blood of martyrs, first-century Islam spread through violent conquest and bloodshed. Indeed, from day one to the present—whenever it could—Islam spread through conquest, as evinced by the fact that the majority of what is now known as the Islamic world, or dar al-Islam, was conquered by the sword of Islam. This is a historic fact, attested to by the most authoritative Islamic historians. Even the Arabian peninsula, the "home" of Islam, was subdued by great force and bloodshed, as evidenced by the Ridda wars following Muhammad's death when tens of thousands of Arabs were put to the sword by the first caliph Abu Bakr for abandoning Islam.

Raymond Ibrahim

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.


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