Especially after the terrorist strikes of 9/11, Islam has often been accused of being intrinsically violent. Many point to the Koran and other Islamic scriptures and texts as proof that violence and intolerance vis-à-vis non-Muslims is inherent to Islam. In response, a number of apologetics have been offered. 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, such as 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 (AKA, 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?
Several examples are then offered from the Bible as well as Judeo-Christian history. Two examples especially—one biblical, the other historic—are often cited as paradigmatic of the religious violence inherent to both Judaism and Christianity and usually put an end to the debate of whether Islam is unique in regards to its teachings and violence.
The first is the military conquest of the land of Canaan by the Hebrews (c. 1200 BC), which has increasingly come to be characterized as a “genocide.” 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).The second example revolves around the Crusader wars waged by Medieval European Christians. 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 nearly 400 years.
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).
Moreover, Muslim invasions and atrocities against Christians were on the rise in the decades before the Crusades were launched in 1096. For example, in 1071, the Seljuk Turks had crushed the Byzantines in the pivotal battle of Manzikert and in effect annexed a major chunk of Byzantine Anatolia (opening the way for the eventual capture of Constantinople centuries later). A few decades earlier, the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim desecrated and destroyed a number of important churches—such as the Church of St. Mark in Egypt and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem—and decreed several even more oppressive than usual decrees against Christians and Jews. It is in this backdrop that Pope Urban called for the Crusades:
From the confines of Jerusalem and the city of Constantinople a horrible tale has gone forth and very frequently has been brought to our ears, namely, that a race from the kingdom of the Persians [i.e., Muslim Turks]…has invaded the lands of those Christians and has depopulated them by the sword, pillage and fire; it has led away a part of the captives into its own country, and a part it has destroyed by cruel tortures; it has either entirely destroyed the churches of God or appropriated them for the rites of its own religion (from the chronicles of Robert the Monk).Nonetheless, history attests that these Crusades were violent and bloody. After breaching the walls of Jerusalem in 1099, the Crusaders slaughtered almost every single inhabitant of the Holy City. According to the Medieval chronicle, the Gesta Danorum “the slaughter was so great that our men waded in blood up to their ankles.” Moreover, there is the 1204 sack of Constantinople, wherein Crusader slew Christian.
In light of the above—one a prime example of "Hebraic" 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 what are understood to be 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., Sharia) and apply at all times. Thus while the violence found in the Koran is in fact historical, its ultimate significance is theological, or, more specifically, doctrinal. Consider the following Koranic verses, better known as the “sword-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 (K 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. do not adhere to 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 (K 9:29).
As with Old Testament verses where Yahweh commanded the Hebrews to attack and slay their neighbors, the sword-verses also have a historical context. Allah first issued these commandments after the Muslims under Muhammad’s leadership had grown sufficiently strong enough to invade their Christian and pagan neighbors. But unlike the bellicose verses and anecdotes of the Old Testament, the sword-verses became fundamental to Islam’s subsequent relationship to both the “people of the book” (Christians and Jews) and the “pagans” (Hindus, Buddhists, animists, etc). For instance, based on 9:5, Islamic law mandates that pagans and polytheists must either convert to Islam or be killed, while 9:29 is the primary source of Islam’s well-known discriminatory practices against Christians and Jews.
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 by Muslim scholars that since the sword-verses are among the final revelations on the topic of Islam’s relationship to non-Muslims, that they alone have abrogated some 200 of the Koran’s earlier and more tolerant verses, such as “there is no coercion in religion” 2:256.) Famous Muslim scholar Ibn Khaldun, who is revered in the West for his “progressive” insights, also puts to rest the notion that jihad is “defensive” warfare:
In the Muslim community, the holy war [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).Perhaps what is most unique about the sword-verses is the fact that when juxtaposed to their Old Testament counterparts, they are especially distinct 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” (Koran 9:29) and to “slay the pagans wherever you find them” (Koran 9:5).
The two conjunctions “until” (hata) and “wherever” (haythu) demonstrate the perpetual and ubiquitous 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). In fact, the salient feature of almost all of the violent commandments in Islamic scriptures is their open-ended and generic nature: “Fight them [non-Muslims] until there is no more chaos and all religion belongs to Allah” (Koran 8:39). Also, in a well-attested tradition that appears in the most authentic hadith collections, Muhammad proclaims:
I have been commanded to wage war against mankind until they testify that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah; and that they establish prostration prayer, and pay the alms-tax [i.e., convert to Islam]. If they do so, their blood and property are protected [Sahih Muslim C9B1N31; also in Sahih Bukhari B2N24].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]” (Koran 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 an 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, page 56).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.). And the concept of “Sunna”—which is what 90% of the billion plus Muslims, the “Sunnis,” are named after—essentially asserts that anything performed or approved by Muhammad and his early companions is applicable for Muslims today no less than yesterday. This does not mean that Muslims in mass are wild hedonists who live only to plunder and rape. But it does mean that those particular persons who are naturally inclined to such activities, and who also happen to be Muslim, can—and do—quite easily justify their actions by referring to the “Sunna of the Prophet”—the way al-Qaeda, for example, justifies its attacks on 9/11 where innocents, including women and children, were killed: Muhammad authorized his followers to use catapults during their siege of the town of Taif in 630 A.D., though he was aware that women and children were sheltered there. Also, when asked if it was permissible to launch night raids or set fire to the fortifications of the infidels if women and children were among them, the prophet is said to have responded, “They are from among them” (Sahih Muslim B19N4321).
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 altruism. The New Testament contains absolutely no exhortations to violence. Still, there are some who strive to portray Jesus as having a similar militant ethos as Muhammad by quoting the verse where Jesus—who “spoke to the multitudes in parables and without a parable spoke not” (Matt 13:34)—said, “I come not to bring peace but a sword” (Matt 10:34). But based on the context of this statement, it is clear that Jesus was not commanding violence against non-Christians, but was predicting that strife will often exist between Christian converts and their environment—a prediction that was only too true as early Christians, far from taking up the sword, passively perished by the sword in martyrdom (as they still do today in many Muslim nations). At any rate, how can one honestly compare this one New Testament verse that metaphorically mentions the word “sword” to the literally hundreds of Koranic injunctions and statements by Muhammad that clearly command Muslims to take up a very real sword against non-Muslims?
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 evident that they were not based on the "Sunna" 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).
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 so-called “Christian” Crusades, despite them—man is in fact 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 validated by the Deity's command to attack, kill, and plunder non-believers?