Thursday, 3 September 2009

Islam Vs. Christianity: Equivalent Traditions? (Part 2)

Following on from part 1, here.



To say that Christianity does not justify violence seems laughable when we are confronted with one simple fact: Christians have waged wars, witch-hunts and Inquisitions in the name of their faith for centuries. In the face of this, how can we not draw the conclusion that both Islam and Christianity are equal in their capacity to inspire violence in their followers?

It cannot – and should not – be denied that Christians have done terrible things in the name of their religion, just as people have done terrible things in the name of all belief systems. But as should be clear by now, their actions were not supported by traditional interpretations of the teachings of Jesus and Christianity, and it is for this reason that they did not even attempt to justify their actions by appealing to their scriptures in the way that Muslims have done for centuries. They couldn't, since there has never been a Christian tradition or authority which used these verses to formulate a developed doctrine and theology of holy war equivalent to jihad.

Compare this to the ferocious jihad campaigns waged against infidel non-Muslims in the centuries following Muhammad's death. The Muslims who waged these expansionist wars based their actions on the Qur'an and the teachings of Muhammad. For example, Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second caliph to rule the Muslim community after Muhammad's death, is reported to have said to his lieutenant regarding his invasion of Iraq in the seventh century: “Summon the people to God; those who respond to your call, accept it from them (this is to say, accept their conversion as genuine and refrain from fighting them), but those who refuse must pay the poll tax out of humiliation and lowliness. If they refuse this, it is the sword without leniency.” In this, Umar was quoting almost verbatim the words of Muhammad himself:

“When you meet your enemies who are polytheists, invite them to three courses of action. If they respond to any one of these, you also accept it and withold yourself from doing them any harm. Invite them to (accept) Islam; if they respond to you, accept it from them and desist from fighting against them...If they refuse to accept Islam, demand from them the Jizya. If they agree to pay, accept it from them and hold off your hands. If they refuse to pay the tax, seek Allah's help and fight them.” (Sahih Muslim b.19, no.4294)

This view has been perfectly echoed fourteen centuries later by Osama bin Laden. In 2002, bin Laden wrote a scathing response to a group of Saudi theologians who had written letters to the U.S. government advocating peaceful coexistence with the West. After quoting Qur'an 9:29 and the hadith tradition quoted above, he summarises: “There are only three choices in Islam: either willing submission [i.e. conversion to Islam]; or payment of the jizya, through physical though not spiritual submission to the authority of Islam; or the sword – for it is not right to let him [an infidel] live. The matter is summed up for every person alive: either submit [convert], or live under the suzerainty of Islam, or die.”

When have Christians ever made statements of this kind?

Clearly, any powerfully presented ideology can be used and abused to foment violence – as history attests. In this light, the violent history of Christianity is no surprise: strong faith-based belief systems, if allowed to wield power over men, will result in abhorrent acts committed in their name, regardless of the tenets of their ideology. That is just the way human beings are.

But imagine how much more difficult such violence is to eradicate from societies governed by Islam, which promotes war and violence as part of its central doctrines. This is the major difference between Christianity and Islam: traditional Islam inherently mandates warfare and supremacism, and so will continue to produce adherents who live out these doctrines, while Christianity has no such traditions, and thus can be continually refashioned and secularised until it becomes fully compatible with modern liberal democracy.


In any discussion of historical Christian violence, two major examples spring instantly to mind: the Crusades and the Inquisitions.

The Crusades are often falsely depicted as unprovoked attacks on a peaceful Muslim world, during which Muslims were forced to convert to Christianity. But in fact, the Crusades were a late, limited and ultimately unsuccessful response to Islamic jihad attacks which began 450 years before the First Crusade. By 1095, over half of Christendom had been brutally taken by waves of Islamic conquests. Hundreds of thousands were killed, converted or subjugated by the Islamic invaders, and those who survived often faced fierce persecution. The Crusades were originally intended to recapture this land, particularly Jerusalem, which was taken by the Muslims in 638, and bring aid to the oppressed Christians in the Holy Land.

The exact nature and purpose of the Crusades has been hotly debated, but whether you consider them to be offensive or defensive, just or unjust, it is absurd to compare them to Islamic jihad, for two main reasons:

  • They lasted for two hundred years (only about twenty years of which consisted of actual military campaigns) and only targeted lands that had formerly been Christian, whereas the jihad conquests lasted for over a millennium and targeted the entire world and all non-Muslims
  • The Crusaders did not, and could not, quote the Bible to justify their actions. In his speech at the Council of Clermont in 1095, Pope Urban II, who called the First Crusade, quoted a handful of Bible verses to show that Christians should be loyal to God, but he did not quote a single verse from the Bible to support the assumption that warfare in the name of Christ is justified.

Certainly the Crusaders committed many atrocities which cannot be excused, but for their part, they generally did not resort to forceful conversion of Muslims, and those Muslims who lived in the Crusader states were mostly left alone and allowed to keep their property. For example, one twelfth-century Spanish Muslim, Ibn Jubayr, admitted rather begrudgingly that Muslims actually preferred to live in lands controlled by the Crusaders than in their own lands, since the Franks treated them better than their own rulers did:

“Upon leaving Tibnin (near Tyre), we passed through an unbroken skein of farms and villages whose lands were efficiently cultivated. The inhabitants were all Muslims, but they live in comfort with the Franks – may God preserve them from temptation! Their dwellings belong to them and all their property is unmolested. All the regions controlled by the Franks in Syria are subject to this same system: the landed domains, villages and farms remain in the hands of the Muslims. Now doubt invests the heart of a great number of these men when they compare their lot to that of their brothers living in Muslim territory. Indeed, the latter suffer from the injustice of their coreligionists, whereas the Franks act with equity.”

Although the Crusades failed at their primary objective – to reclaim the Christian lands – it may be that they achieved something much more important. During the period in which Christians controlled territories in the Holy Land, between 1099 and 1291, there were no further Muslim incursions into Europe. It is quite likely that had the Crusades not been fought, the Muslims would have swept across Europe much earlier, and probably Islamised it. Only the Crusaders, who marched thousands of miles from home to keep the Muslim armies held up in the Middle East, kept Europe from potentially being a much different place than it is today. Without their efforts, it is likely that many more would have suffered.

The Inquisitions, which began in 1478, were a completely inexcusable display of murderous intolerance on the part of the Catholic Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, who were willingly aided in their efforts to cleanse Europe of heresy by the Church. However, once again, their actions were in clear transgression of the teachings of the New Testament and of the early Church Fathers.

In the Parable of the Tares, Jesus speaks of the kingdom of heaven as containing tares among the wheat, and directs that the weeds not be uprooted, “because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest.” (Matthew 13:24-30). Working with this basic assumption, numerous early Church Fathers spoke out against forced conversion, emphasising that religion must be discovered through free will and not coercion. Early Christianity also appears to have benefited from the absorption of ancient Greek and Stoic ethics into its theology.

For example, Tertullian (d.220) wrote to a Roman pagan that “it is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his own convictions: one man's religion neither harms nor helps another man. It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion – to which free will and not force should lead us.”

Origen (d.254), one of the most distinguished of the early Church Fathers who was heavily influenced by neo-Platonism, pointed out, as discussed in the previous post, that the Mosaic Law was no longer binding on Christians: “We must refer briefly to the difference between the constitution which was given to the Jews of old by Moses, and that which the Christians, under the direction of Christ's teaching, wish now to establish...For Christians could not slay their enemies, or condemn to be burned or stoned, as Moses commands, those who had broken the law.”

Another Father, Lactantius (d.320), who was influenced by Cicero, declared that “[r]eligion cannot be imposed by force; the matter must be carried on by words rather than by blows, that the will may be affected.” He also wrote poignantly:

“Oh with what an honorable inclination the wretched men go astray! For they are aware that there is nothing among men more excellent than religion and that this ought to be defended with the whole of our power; but as they are deceived in the matter of religion itself, so also are they in the manner of its defense. Religion is to be defended not by putting to death but by dying, not by cruelty but by patient endurance, not by guilt but by good faith...If you wish to defend religion by bloodshed, and by tortures, and by guilt, it will no longer be defended but will be polluted and profaned.”

This conception began to change as the Church accumulated (and abused) greater political power, but even then there was no consensus. Saint John Chrysostom (d.407), one of the most influential Church Fathers of all, wrote that “[i]t is not right to put a heretic to death, since an implacable war would be brought into the world.” And Saint Augustine wrote: “For we do not seek to revenge ourselves in this world...we love our enemies, and we pray for them. It is not their death, but their deliverance from error, that we seek to accomplish”.

It is, of course, inexcusable that Christians ever resorted to violence and murder at all, but in any case invoking the Spanish Inquisition does not establish what apologists wish it established. While the murder of even one person is a horrendous crime, the numbers killed in the Inquisition do not amount to the kinds of fantastical figures some people envision. Estimates of the death toll generally don't reach any more than a few thousand, taking into account that only a tiny percentage of those processed during the Inquisition were actually executed. The rest were made to do various good works, such as church-building. Given that this took place over three hundred and fifty years, this is a minuscule number compared to some of the crimes of Islam. For example, Indian historian K.S. Lal has estimated that between 1000 and 1525, Muslim armies massacred almost eighty million Hindus on the Indian subcontinent. No Christian crime can equal this. And more people have been killed by Islamic jihadists in the few years since 9/11 than died in the entire Spanish Inquisition. This demonstrates that historical Christian violence was not as widespread as some would have us believe, and certainly did not amount to any kind of continuous campaign of violence akin to the jihad.

Tune in for the third and final part, coming soon...

No comments:

Post a Comment