Two events recently transpired that forced mainstream media to address a question they habitually dodge: Is Islam intrinsically violent? First, on New Year’s Day, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi—a world leader, and a Muslim—did the unthinkable when he publicly asserted that Islamic texts and thinking have made the Muslim world a scourge to humanity. The MSM ignored it until, as if to prove his point, Muslim gunmen shouting “Allahu Akbar” killed a dozen people in offices of a satirical newspaper in Paris.
Two separate editorials—by the New York Times and CNN—responded by purportedly tackling the question of whether Islam is inherently violent in the context of the Paris attack and Sisi’s speech. Both quoted me as responding in the affirmative —and both instantly dismissed my partially presented views in “straw-man” fashion.
In “After Paris attacks, 7 questions being asked about Islam,” CNN’s religion editor Daniel Burke writes that ongoing Islamic attacks
have led some critics to argue that Islam is inherently violent. To make their case they point to the “Sword Verse” in the Quran as Exhibit A.
Here’s what the verse says:
“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.”
Raymond Ibrahim, an author and frequent critic of Islam, argues that, based largely on that verse, “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.”
Many Muslims scoff at that argument, noting that the vast majority of Muslims are clearly not warring with other religions.
Even if “the majority of Muslims are clearly not warring with other religions,” is that evidence that Islam does not call for it? Since when have the actions of every single member of a religion perfectly mirrored that religion’s teachings? If most Christians do not turn the other cheek, does that mean Jesus never taught it? Does it mean not a single Christian will try to live according to this ideal?
In “Raising Questions Within Islam After France Shooting,” New York Times’ Cairo correspondent David Kirkpatrick tersely presents my position only to dismiss it in the same breath:
Raymond Ibrahim, the author of “Crucified Again: Exposing Islam’s New War on Christians,” argued in an interview that the passages in the Bible are descriptive but the Quranic ones are prescriptive. But most scholars say such distinctions are matters of interpretation.
Both CNN and the NYT seem to cite me in connection to my 2009 Middle East Quarterly essay, “Are Judaism and Christianity as Violent as Islam? (currently viewed almost 100,000 times; CNN even links to it). It is therefore surprising that Kirkpatrick, in the paragraph introducing my position writes:
A handful of non-Muslim researchers in the West — typically outside the academic mainstream — seek to build a case that Islam is inherently more violent than Judaism or Christianity by highlighting certain Quranic verses. But they struggle to explain away approving passages about violence in other religious texts, such as the book of Joshua in the Old Testament, the Book of Revelation in the New Testament, or the statement attributed to Jesus by the Gospel writer Matthew that “I come not to bring peace, but a sword.”
“Struggle to explain away”? My nearly 5,000 word essay is dedicated to doing precisely that; it specifically examines and refutes the notion that violence in the Books of Joshua and Revelation and Jesus’ so-called “sword verse” are similar to Koranic violence and Muhammad’s calls to violence. Anyone interested in seeing how much of a “struggle” it is to show the difference is encouraged to read it.
More generally, anyone interested in learning how to respond to the “all religions have violent texts” argument is strongly urged to read “Are Judaism and Christianity as Violent as Islam?” Along with addressing that question, I also dissect the writings of those making the exact opposite argument, including Karen Armstrong and academics John Esposito and Philip Jenkins (even as the Washington Post still gushes over the latter’s discredited attempts to portray the Bible as inspiring more violence than the Koran in a recent post titled “The Problem Isn’t Islam … It’s ALL Religious Fundamentalism”).
For those not up to reading nearly 5,000 words on the topic, a less comprehensive and shorter version I wrote nearly a decade ago follows.
Is Islam Worse than Other Religions?
Since the terrorist strikes of 9/11, Islam has often been accused of being intrinsically violent. In response, a number of apologetics have been offered in defense of the religion. The fundamental premise of almost all of these is that Islam’s purported violence—as found in Islamic scriptures and history—is no different than the violence committed by other religious groups throughout history and as recorded in their scriptures, especially Jews and Christians. The argument, in short, is that it is not Islam per se but rather human nature that is prone to violence.
So whenever the argument is made that the Koran as well as the historical words and deeds of Islam’s prophet Muhammad and his companions evince violence and intolerance, the counter-argument is immediately made: What about the historical atrocities committed by the Hebrews in years gone by and as recorded in their scriptures (i.e. the Old Testament)? What about the brutal cycle of violence Christians have committed in the name of their faith against both fellow Christians and non-Christians?
Thereafter two examples—one biblical, the other historic—are often cited as paradigmatic of the religious violence inherent to both Judaism and Christianity.
The first is the genocide-like conquest of the land of Canaan by the Hebrews (c. 1200 BC). Yahweh told Moses:
But of the cities of these peoples which Yahweh 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 Yahweh 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 Yahweh your God (Deuteronomy 20: 16-18).
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 Yahweh God of Israel had commanded (Joshua 10:40).
The second example revolves around the Crusader wars waged by European Christians between the 11th-13th centuries. To be sure, the Crusades were a “counter-attack” on Islam—not an unprovoked assault as is often depicted by revisionist history. A united Christendom sought to annex the Holy Land of Jerusalem, which, prior to its conquest by Islam in the 7th century, was an integral part of Christendom for some 400 years.
Nonetheless, these Crusades were violent and bloody and countless atrocities were committed—all in the name of Christianity and under the banner of the cross. Perhaps the most infamous act of villainy perpetrated by these “fighters-for-Christ” is the 1204 sack of Constantinople, wherein Christian slew Christian in a violent bloodbath.
In light of the above—one a prime example of violence from the Bible, the other from Christian history—why should Islam be the one religion always characterized as intrinsically violent, simply because its holy book and its history also contain violence? Why should non-Muslims always point to the Koran and ancient history as evidence of Islam’s violence while never looking to their own scriptures and history?
While such questions are popular, they reveal a great deal of confusion between history and theology, between the temporal actions of men and the immutable words of God. The fundamental error being that Judeo-Christian history—which is violent—is being conflated with Islamic theology—which commands violence. Of course all religions have had their fair share of violence and intolerance towards the “other.” Whether this violence is ordained by God or whether warlike man merely wished it thus is the all-important question.
Old Testament violence is an interesting case in point. Yahweh 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 (i.e. the Halakha).
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 have become standardized in Islamic law (i.e. the Sharia) and apply at all times. Thus while the violence found in the Koran is in fact historical, its ultimate significance is theological. Consider the following Koranic verses:
Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the pagans wherever you find them—take them [captive], besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush. But if they repent and establish worship and pay the poor-due [i.e. submit to Islam], then leave their way free. Lo! Allah is Forgiving, Merciful (9:5).
Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger [i.e. Islamic law], nor acknowledge the religion of Truth [i.e. Islam], from the people of the book [i.e. Jews and Christians], until they pay tribute with willing submission, and feel themselves utterly subdued (9:29).
As with Old Testament verses where Yahweh commanded the Hebrews to attack and slay their neighbors, these Koranic verses also have a historical context. Allah (through Muhammad) first issued these commandments after the Arab tribes had finally unified under the banner of Islam and were preparing to invade their Christian and pagan neighbors. But unlike the bellicose verses and anecdotes of the Old Testament, these so-called “sword-verses” subsequently became fundamental to Islam’s relationship to both the “people of the book” (i.e. Christians and Jews) and the “pagans” (i.e. Hindus, Buddhists, animists, etc.).
In fact, based on the sword-verses (as well as countless other Koranic verses and oral traditions attributed to Muhammad), Islam’s scholars, sheikhs, muftis, imams, and qadis throughout the ages have all reached the 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. (It is widely held that the sword-verses alone have abrogated some 200 of the Koran’s more tolerant verses.) Famous Muslim scholar and “father of modern history” Ibn Khaldun articulates the dichotomy between jihad and defensive warfare thus:
In the Muslim community, the holy war [i.e. 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 Israeilites 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 (The Muqudimmah, vol. 1 pg. 473, emphasis added).
Even when juxtaposed to their Old Testament counterparts, the sword-verses are distinctive for using language that transcends time and space, inciting believers to attack and slay non-believers today no less than yesterday. Yahweh 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 Yahweh give an open-ended command for the Hebrews, and by extension their descendants the Jews, to fight and kill gentiles. On the other hand, though Islam’s original enemies were, like Judaism’s, historical (e.g. Christian Byzantines and pagan Persians), the Koran rarely singles them out by their proper names. Instead, Muslims were (and are) commanded to fight the people of the book—“until they pay tribute with willing submission and feel themselves utterly subdued” (9:29) and to “slay the pagans wherever you find them” (9:5). The two conjunctions “until” and “wherever” demonstrate the perpetual nature of these commandments: there are still “people of the book” who have yet to be “utterly subdued” (especially in the Americas, Europe, and Israel) and “pagans” to be slain “wherever” one looks (especially Asia and sub-Saharan Africa).
Aside from the divine words of the Koran, Muhammad’s pattern of behavior—his “Sunna” or “example”—is an extremely important source of legislation in Islam. Muslims are exhorted to emulate Muhammad in all walks of life: “You have indeed in the Messenger of Allah a beautiful pattern [of conduct]” (33:21). And Muhammad’s pattern of conduct vis-à-vis non-Muslims is quite explicit. Sarcastically arguing against the concept of “moderate” Islam, terrorist Osama bin Laden, who enjoys half the Arab-Islamic world’s support per a recent al-Jazeera poll, portrays the prophet’s Sunna thus:
“Moderation” is demonstrated by our prophet who did not remain more than three months in Medina without raiding or sending a raiding party into the lands of the infidels to beat down their strongholds and seize their possessions, their lives, and their women” (from The Al-Qaeda Reader).
In fact, based on both the Koran and Muhammad’s Sunna, pillaging and plundering infidels, enslaving their children, and placing their women in concubinage is well founded (e.g. 4:24, 4:92, 8:69, 24:33, 33:50, etc.).
While law-centric and legalistic, Judaism has no such equivalent to the Sunna; the words and deeds of the patriarchs, though recorded in the Old Testament, never went on to be part of Jewish law. Neither Abraham’s “white-lies,” nor Jacob’s perfidy, nor Moses’ short-fuse, nor David’s adultery, nor Solomon’s philandering ever went on to instruct Jews or Christians. They were merely understood to be historical actions perpetrated by fallible men who were often punished by God for their less than ideal behavior.
As for Christianity, much of the Old Testament law was abrogated by Jesus. “Eye for an eye” gave way to “turn the other cheek.” Totally loving God and one’s neighbor became supreme law (Matt 22:38-40). Furthermore, Jesus’ “Sunna”—as in “What would Jesus do?”—is characterized by passivity and altruism.
And it is from here that one can best appreciate the Crusades. However one interprets these wars—as offensive or defensive, just or unjust—it is plainly evident that they were not based on the teachings of the New Testament or the example of Jesus who exhorted his followers to “love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matt 5:44). The Crusaders—not the jihadists—are the ones who have contradicted their religion.
In fact, far from suggesting anything intrinsic to Christianity, the Crusades ironically help better explain Islam. For what the Crusades demonstrated once and for all is that irrespective of religious teachings—indeed, in the case of these “Christian” Crusades, despite them—man is truly predisposed to violence and intolerance. But this begs the question: If this is how Christians behaved—who are commanded to love, bless, and do good to their enemies who hate, curse, and persecute them—how much more can be expected of Muslims who, while sharing the same violent tendencies, are further commanded by the Deity to attack, kill, and plunder non-believers?