Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Islam Vs. Christianity: Equivalent Traditions? (Part 1)


Islamic apologists frequently insist that we should not judge an entire religion based on a few apparently violent verses in its holy book, or on the actions of a few “extremists” who misinterpret their faith based on a “selective reading” of its sacred texts.

And almost invariably, these apologists maintain that Christianity is just as violent a religion as Islam. After all, there are violent verses in the Bible, too, aren't there? And Christians have done terrible things in the name of their religion, just as Muslims have, haven't they?

While these statements are technically true, this doesn't necessarily mean that both religions have equivalent traditions, or that they have the same capacity to inspire violence in their followers.

It is certainly true that no group of people, whether Muslim, Christian, or atheist, has the monopoly on evil. But it is also true that not everyone who commits violence in the name of their religion actually does so in accord with the core teachings and principles of that religion. Human beings seem predisposed to war and violence, and will justify their actions in many different ways. They may commit violence in the name of Christianity, or Islam. But this does not mean that all religions are essentially the same, a mish-mash of “good” teachings and “bad” teachings that allow anyone to justify anything. The words on the pages of holy scriptures have meaning, and that meaning gives rise to core traditions and assumptions that define the differences between religions. If all religions were really the same, we would not be able to delineate one from another.

This series of posts will examine and compare the teachings of both religions (focusing particularly on Christianity) in order to determine whether people who commit violent acts in their name are really transgressing against the core principles of their faith.


At first glance, there are many passages in the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, which are cause for concern. Apologists most often point to verses like these:

“When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations – the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you – and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.” (Deuteronomy 7:1-2)

“When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When the LORD your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the LORD your God gives you from your enemies. This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby. However, in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them – the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites – as the LORD your God has commanded you.” (Deuteronomy 20:10-17)

“Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.” (Numbers 31:17-18)

There are similar passages littered throughout the Pentateuch. Elsewhere, we read how God commanded the prophet Joshua to sack Jericho. Joshua and his men “destroyed with the sword every living thing in it – men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.” (Joshua 6:21) Joshua massacres the entire populations of at least ten other cities at God's command, and it all seems to be celebrated as something heroic.

As an atheist myself, I share the sense of revulsion many secularists must feel when reading such passages. But are they really equivalent to the violent verses in the Qur'an?

The answer is no. All of the examples quoted above depict God sanctioning violence against specific peoples at a specific time, until the Israelites had reclaimed land He had allocated for them. Modern Christians could not find a Canaanite or a Jebusite in the world to kill even if they wanted to. As abhorrent and immoral as the violence in the Old Testament is, it is limited to past-tense accounts of God and the Israelites smiting His enemies in a limited, circumscribed manner. It does not call for a permanent war against all non-Christians for all time.

By contrast, the Qur'an contains a number of passages which call on Muslims to fight while not specifying anywhere that only a certain people are to be fought, or only for a limited time:

“Say to the Unbelievers, if (now) they desist (from Unbelief), their past would be forgiven them; but if they persist, the punishment of those before them is already (a matter of warning for them). And fight them on until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah altogether and everywhere; but if they cease, verily Allah doth see all that they do.” (8:38-39)

“Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them (captive), and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush. But if they repent and establish worship and pay the poor-due, 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, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book [Jews and Christians], until they pay the Jizya [non-Muslim poll tax] with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.” (9:29)

“O ye who believe! Fight those of the disbelievers who are near to you, and let them find harshness in you, and know that Allah is with those who keep their duty (unto Him).” (9:123)

Taken at face value, these verses command unlimited warfare against unbelievers until the entire world is submitted to Islam.

However, it is not enough to simply read the texts by themselves, because this says nothing about how Christians and Muslims have interpreted them, in the mainstream, over the years. And the fact is that Christians have never taken the verses quoted earlier, or others like them, as commands to wage war on non-Christians. It has always been believed by Christians throughout history that these verses are descriptive, not prescriptive – that is, they describe acts of violence, but they do not tell Christians to emulate them. For example, the Catholic edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible says that “the physical destruction of an enemy in obedience to the deity...must be seen in light of the imperfect state of moral development reached at that time.” Likewise, the Navarre Bible, a popular Spanish commentary series, says that Biblical violence to us “seems quite incomprehensible, savage and inhuman”, but that it “needs to be seen in its historical context and to be set in the framework of the gradual development of revelation.” It goes on to quote Jesus' admonition to “love your enemies”.

The story is very different in Islam. Traditional, orthodox Islamic scholarship understands jihad as being a permanent war to establish Allah's religion on earth. For fourteen centuries, there has been a scholarly consensus (ijma) on the necessity of this jihad, based on a mainstream understanding of the Qur'an. The idea that the violent verses in the Qur'an are applicable for all time, and not just for one specific time, is an interpretation put forward by many of the greatest and most influential Muslim scholars and thinkers throughout history, including today. Within two centuries of Muhammad's death, Islamic jurists had formulated an entire legal superstructure of jihad against unbelievers, and they used these verses to justify their rulings. For example, the great Muslim philosopher Averroes (d.1198), who was also a legal theorist, explained the purpose of jihad according to all the schools of Islamic jurisprudence: “The Muslims are agreed that the aim of warfare against the People of the Book...is twofold: either conversion to Islam or payment of the poll-tax (jizya).” To support this, he quotes the Qur'anic verse 9:29.

There has never been even one Church Father, let alone an entire movement or institution, who has quoted the above Biblical passages to justify holy war. It is also important to note that these Old Testament passages have never been used to justify the actions of Christians who were waging war, either.

But what of verses such as this: “Whoever sacrifices to any god other than the LORD must be destroyed.” (Exodus 22:20)? Is this not a universal command to kill all non-Christians?

This passage, and many others like it in the Old Testament, was part of the Law of Israel decreed by Moses. Almost all Christians believe, and always have believed, that this Law only applied to the Israelites, and no one else. This is clear from another verse:

“If a man or woman living among you in one of the towns the LORD gives you is found doing evil in the eyes of the LORD your God in violation of his covenant (emphasis added), and contrary to my command has worshipped other gods, bowing down to them or to the sun or the moon or the stars of the sky, and this has been brought to your attention, then you must investigate it thoroughly. If it is true and it has been proved that this detestable thing has been done in Israel (emphasis added), take the man or woman who has done this evil deed to your city gate and stone that person to death.” (Deuteronomy 17:2-5)

The qualifiers “violation of his covenant” and “in Israel” make it clear that these laws were directed at a specific people, in a specific place, at a specific time.

Saint Thomas Aquinas (d.1274) explained the traditional Christian view that God's law is divided up into three aspects: moral, ceremonial and judicial. The moral precepts, such as the Ten Commandments, bind forever; however, Jesus is believed to have “fulfilled” the ceremonial and judicial precepts of the Mosaic Law, based on his words, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.” (Matthew 5:17) Aquinas explained: “The Old Law contained precepts, moral, ceremonial, and judicial...But Our Lord fulfilled the Law in some respects...The judicial precepts did not bind for ever, but were annulled by the coming of Christ.” Thus, penalties of death as prescribed in the Old Testament were no longer applicable: “It is unlawful for clerics to kill [evil-doers]...because clerics are entrusted with the ministry of the New Law, wherein no punishment of death or of bodily maiming is appointed: wherefore they should abstain from such things in order that they may be fitting ministers of the New Testament.”

Moreover, when Jesus showed mercy to the adulteress, saying “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” (John 8:7), he clearly set aside capital punishment in such matters. A commentary on this story at the popular Bible Gateway website explains:

“We see Jesus upholding the law's teaching that adultery is sin while also setting aside the specific regulations concerning the community's enforcement of that law. The implication is that the law contains revelation of right and wrong, which is true throughout history, as well as commandments for embodying that revelation in the community of God's people, which are not true for all times and places.”

Of course, Aquinas himself never quite lived up to his own words, and in his Summa Theologica advocated the execution of all heretics. But it is telling that in the section in which he writes that heretics “deserve not only to be separated from the Church by excommunication, but also to be severed from the world by death”, he does not quote any passages from the Old Testament to support his position.

It is for this reason that whenever Christians have committed acts of violence, they have not invoked verses like this to justify their actions.

Those who claim moral equivalence between Islam and Christianity claim to find verses of violence even in the New Testament. The main criticism centres around these words of Jesus: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law – a man's enemies will be the members of his own household.” (Matthew 10:34-35). Is Jesus, then, sanctioning holy war?

Obviously not. While some Christians have taken the “sword” in this passage to be literal, the more common view casts it in an entirely different light – a light that should have been clear based on the larger context of the passage in question. This view was enunciated aptly by the first-century pope Clement of Rome (d.~99), who stated:

“For it is necessary that, for the sake of salvation, the son, for example, who has received the word of truth, be separated from his unbelieving parents; or again, that the father be separated from his son, or the daughter from her mother. And in this manner the battle of knowledge and ignorance, of truth and error, arises between believing and unbelieving kinsmen and relations. And therefore He who has sent us said again, 'I am not come to send peace on earth, but a sword.'”

In other words, the “sword” in this verse is metaphorical, and Jesus is saying that in order to truly follow him, a person will have to forsake their own family. As morally dubious as this may seem to the secularist, it is not equivalent to the Qur'an's jihad, especially since even if Jesus is calling for literal violence, then it would appear to be only intra-familial rather than a holy war.

And this is a key difference between the Qur'an and the Bible. Muslims understand the Qur'an in a very literal way: it is, after all, the perfect and unaltered word of God. But when Christians say that the Bible is the Word of God, they do not mean the same thing. Rather, they believe the Bible was written by human authors who were inspired by God. This leaves much more room for interpretive freedom than the Qur'an, and as a result Christians tend to see much of the Bible as non-literal, containing poetry, metaphor and allegory. This militates against a literal understanding of the Bible's more violent passages.

This is reflected in popular scriptural commentaries on the Bible. For example, one notorious Psalm ends: “Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks.” (Psalms 137:9) It would thus appear that the Bible glories in the brutal murder of children. However, this passage has traditionally been interpreted as meaning no such thing; rather, it is read as a metaphor. Saint Augustine of Hippo (d.430), for instance, wrote of this Psalm: “What are the little ones of Babylon? Evil desires at their birth...When lust is born, before evil habit gives it strength against you, when lust is little, by no means let it gain the strength of evil habit; when it is little, dash it. But you fear, lest though dashed it die not; 'Dash it against the Rock; and that Rock is Christ.'” Thus, through poetic interpretation, this passage is no longer problematic.

The bottom line with regard to Biblical and Qur'anic violence is this: jihad has been central to the thought and writings of prominent Muslim theologians and jurists since the inception of Islam, into the modern day. In the 8th and 9th centuries, Islamic jurists developed the doctrine of jihad directly from the Qur'an and hadith, and institutionalised them into a fixed part of the Islamic legal system. These laws have remained essentially unchallenged by the majority of contemporary Muslim scholars. Despite any number of apparently violent verses in the Bible, Christianity does not have a doctrine comparable to jihad, and never has done.

Stay tuned for Part 2, coming soon...

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