Violence in the Bible and the Qur'an
A Christian Perspective
After the events of September 11th, the issue of violence and religion has once again come into intense discussions and debate. As soon as Christians and others of good will condemn the Islamic justification and foundation for resorting to violence in the name of God—justifications found both in the Qur'an and the life of prophet Muhammad—we are quickly told that the Bible (especially the Old Testament scriptures) and Christian history are also filled with violence and that we should not single out Islam or the Qur'an in this regard.
For example, Fareed Zakaria, in his report in Newsweek, entitled "Why they hate us: The roots of Islamic rage—and what we can do about it" writes, "The historian Paul Johnson has argued that Islam is intrinsically an intolerant and violent religion. Other scholars have disagreed, pointing out that Islam condemns the slaughter of innocents and prohibits suicide. Nothing will be solved by searching for ‘true Islam’ or quoting the Qur'an. The Qur'an is a vast, vague book, filled with poetry and contradictions (much like the Bible). You can find in it condemnations of war and incitements to struggle, beautiful expressions of tolerance and stern pictures against unbelievers. Quotations from it usually tell us more about the person who selected the passages than about Islam. Every religion is compatible with the best and the worst of humankind. Through its long history, Christianity has supported inquisitions and anti-Semitism, but also human rights and social welfare."
How can Christians respond to such counter-charges? Are Christians and their scriptures no different than Muslim terrorists and others who use violence in the name of God to destroy their enemies? What can we say in light of our own dark Church history and also graphic passages found in portions of the Old Testament that do not seem to cast any better light on the roots and actions of our own faith tradition? The following are some of my reflections on these questions. Time does not allow me to develop each point fully, but I hope that they can be of some help and bring some clarification to these issues.
- As Christians we must be very emphatic that Christians have and continue to do many shameful things in the name of Christ, BUT the issue is this: Christians who use violence in the name of God to destroy their enemies have no justification for their actions from Jesus Christ, his life and teachings as found in the New Testament. Whereas, Muslims who are engaged in violence and destruction of anyone who opposes Islam, have ample justification for their actions from the Qur'an and the life and sayings of prophet Muhammad. It is beyond the scope of this paper to quote verses and passages from the Qur'an, the Hadith and biographies of prophet Muhammad (the reader can refer to other articles on this web site, e.g. in the sections Muhammad and his enemies or Islam & Terrorism), but suffice it to say that it is beyond doubt that the prophet of Islam did encourage the killing and intimidation of his enemies, not just in self defense as it is commonly reported by Muslims, but in the promotion of the cause of God and the spread of Islam. Needless to say, the actions of the prophet were in direct contradiction to the teachings and actions of Jesus Christ and his disciples. So the point is not that Christians have never resorted to violence and other horrible atrocities. They have indeed committed many horrible acts, but when they have done this, they have betrayed the very person that they claim to follow. But when Muslims commit such acts, they can in fact claim that they are following the example of their prophet and thus fulfilling the will of God and promoting His cause. That, certainly, is a big difference!
However, when one reads the early accounts of prophet Muhammad's raids and wars, not only one sees no mention of the theme of divine holiness and its opposition to sin, but the primary motivations that one constantly encounters are the looting of the enemies and the obtaining of booty and the spoils of war or the relief and pleasures of Paradise or conquering the enemies and spreading the rule of the prophet. I am not just repeating an old stereotypical charge against Islam. I have just finished reading the most ancient Muslim biography of prophet Muhammad, written by Ibn Ishaq in the second century of the Islamic era (translated by A. Guillaume and published by Oxford University Press in 1955). I truly encourage all Muslims and non-Muslims to read this book to see for themselves the violence in the actions of prophet Muhammad and his early followers.
I hope that the above comments have been helpful in clarifying some of the issues that we are facing these days regarding the use of violence in the Qur'an and the Bible. As Christians, we must not forget that the lens through which we must look at everything in life and even the Bible is the cross of Jesus Christ. Ultimately, it is the cross that defines for us who God is, what is He like and the means by which He is redeeming the world.