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.

  1. 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!
  2. When we turn our attention to the Old Testamet and look at passages that are found in the book of Joshua regarding the extermination of the Canaanites living in the land, we can still notice a dramatic difference in those passages and the events in the early history of Islam. The primary theme in those accounts is the issue of God's holiness. Even hundreds of years before the invasion of Canaan, God had told Abraham that the sins of the people living in the land had not reached its limit, but when the inhabitants had defiled the land to its limit, the land was going to "throw them up." In fact, God later warned the nation of Israel to be careful in not repeating the sins of the previous people, otherwise the land was going to throw them up too. So we see that God is using Israel as an instrument of His justice to purge the land of its sinfulness and later in history God used other nations like the Assyrians and the Babylonians as His instruments to cleanse the land by destroying the people of Israel for their sinfulness.

    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.

  3. Another important point that we need to keep in mind is the fact that the divine command for the destruction of the few cities of Canaan, was for a specific people, a specific time and place and a specific purpose. Nowhere in the later Old Testament period do we see God commanding the nation of Israel to go and attack other pagan nations, either as self-defense or as a way to promote faith in the true God of heaven and earth. However, in the Qur'an, we encounter general commands to kill and destroy the enemies of Islam that are applicable for all times and places and people groups. It is beyond dispute that from the earliest times, right after the death of the prophet, Muslim splinter groups began fighting, killing and assassinating even each other, in the name of God. The history of Islam, down to the present day is filled with the appeals of various Muslims to ever-applicable Qur'anic passages to destroy and kill their enemies.
  4. I would like to conclude this brief article by using a popular Islamic analogy. Muslims generally believe that since Islam is the final great monotheistic religion, it is superior in every respect to Judaism and Christianity. Living in the Middle East and growing up in a Muslim country, we were always told that Judaism was like elementary school, Christianity was like high school and Islam is like university. Each religion was from God, but each one became progressively higher and better. Now the question that we must ask is this, how can Islam claim to have a superior ethics to the New Testament, and yet resort back to the use and justification of violence, elements that were supposedly part of the early Jewish tradition? It seems that Islam not only has not improved on the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament in regard to the use of force, but that in fact Islam has gone back many steps in this regard.

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.

Related articles: The Goodness of God

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