Violence in Islam and Christianity
Often I am challenged by Muslims here in the West for my seeming duplicity; willing to condemn the violence committed by Islam, yet refusing to condemn our violent Christian history, evidenced in the Crusades, and the Spanish Inquisition, or by the colonial powers, or more recently, manifested by the Catholic/Protestant communities in Northern Ireland. Yet, ironically, I am the first to condemn them, for one very obvious reason because my authority, and my paradigm, the Lord Jesus Christ, would have done so. He, who was violated against, unjustifiably, to the point of death, categorically condemned the use of violence throughout his life and ministry. In Matthew 26:52, he demands that Peter put away his sword, and stated emphatically that He who lives by the sword must die by the sword, and exemplified it in his own life, by neither advocating it nor practising it (even to the point of refusing to save his imprisoned cousin, John), and then provided us with our best model concerning how we are to act towards our enemies in Matthew 5:38-44.
But I don't stop there, for I then ask Muslims to do the same, to condemn any form of religious violence, whenever and wherever it is perpetrated in the name of God. It is this that I find so many Muslims unable to do, though they continue to call that which they believe a religion of peace, and desire it for themselves today.
Some Muslim historians have even gone so far to reject some well-known and well-documented incidents because they were unable to produce the apologetic justification they needed. For example, one such writer denies Ibn Ishaq’s reports concerning the slaughter of the warriors of Qurayzah, although these reports are confirmed in the books of hadith, Sirah and history. It is as if he doubts the fairness of killing them. The Islamic interpretation of history is not apologetic, nor is it a defensive justification. It is based on the conviction that Islam is the truth, and whatever contradicts it is falsehood. Whatever God has legislated in Islam, be it jihad or anything else, is right and has no need of apology or justification, however strange or unacceptable it may appear to the dominant Western mentality of the twentieth century. We should not modify Islam and its history to suit the tastes and ideologies of people in any particular age. What people commend at one particular time may be distasteful at another, and what is considered good by people in one place may be regarded as bad by the people of another place. Only God can truly or evaluate anything and this is reflected in His law, the Shariah. True judgment cannot come from the whims, desires and subjective personal opinions of mere mortals. God is victorious over what he ordains.
Read "Jihad in the Qur'an and Sunnah" to understand a Muslim view of war in the name of God. Here are some excerpts:
The Verses of the Qur'an and the Sunna (the Prophet's legal ways, orders etc.) have exhorted greatly for Jihad and have made quite clear its rewards, and praised greatly those who perform Jihad (the holy fighting in Allah's Cause) and explained to them various kinds of honours which they will receive from their Lord (Allah swt). This is because they-Mudahidin are Allah's troops. Allah (swt) will establish His religion (Islam), with them (Mujahidin). He will repel the might of His enemies, and with them He will protect Islam and guard the religion safely.
And it is they, (Mujahidin) who fight against the enemies of Allah in order that the worship should be all for Allah (Alone and not for any other deity) and that the Word of Allah (swt) (i.e. none has the right to be worshipped but Allah (swt) and His religion Islam) should be superior. Allah has made them (Mujahidin) partners in reward along with all those who guard Islam with their weapons, along with their good deeds which they performed even if they sleep in their homes.
Jihad is a great deed indeed and there is no deed whose reward or blessing is as that of it, and for this reason, it is the best thing that one can volunteer for. All the Muslim religious scholars unanimously agree that Jihad is superior to Hajj and 'Umra (pilgrimage) and also superior to non-obligatory Salat (prayer) and Saum (fasting) as mentioned in the Qur'anand Prophet's Sunna. It is obvious that the benefits of Jihad for us are extensive and comprehensive, it(Jihad) includes all kinds of worship both hidden and open, it also includes (a great) love for Allah (swt) and it shows one's sincerity to Him and it also shows one's trust in Him, and it indicates the handing over of one's soul and property to Him- it (Jihad) shows one's patience, one's devotion to Islam, one's remembrance to Allah (swt) and there are other kinds of good deeds which are present in Jihad and are not present in any other act of worship.
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.
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. …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. Needles 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…
2. When we turn our attention to the Old Testament 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.
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…
Read "The Goodness of God", Chapter 8: "The Abominations of the Heathen" if you wonder at the ferocity with which God commanded Israel to annihilate the Canaanite nations. It was necessary to preserve Israel (physically and spiritually) from which the Messiah, Jesus Christ, was to come. And it was a justified punishment meted out by a holy God on evil peoples. Here are a few excerpts:
The heathenism from which Israel emerged and against which it had to struggle bore all the characteristics of its author. Just as Satan may at one time appear as a roaring lion to terrify the saints, and at another as an angel of light to deceive them, so his false religions possessed the same qualities - now towering above them in pitiless might, now enticing them with entrancing seductiveness. Over against the might of heathen idolatry the Bible is at pains to set with chilling candour the starkness of Israel's physical and moral weakness. The patriarchs learn the life of faith only because they are taken bodily out of the city life of Ur and Haran, and are made to live a self-contained nomadic existence, separated from their heathen neighbours. Lot, when he gets involved in city life, is soon in trouble.
It is worth looking again at the precise terms of the commands given regarding the Canaanites. The primary concern throughout is the total ejection of their evil religions from the land. God is going to clear away the seven nations. Israel must make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. In particular, they are not to marry with them, for this will turn them away to serve other gods. The Baal altars and pillars and the Asherim are to be totally destroyed. God keeps covenant with those who love him, and requites to their face those who hate him, by destroying them. 'Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land; but because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is driving them out.' It is to be noted that these commands are to be thought of, not primarily in terms of one nation against another, but in terms of those who love God against those who hate him. As in the days before the Flood and before the destruction of Sodom there was a way of escape for those who sought the true God, so now there is room within the company of Israel for those who are not Israelites by race. There are the noteworthy examples of Rahab (who by faith gave friendly welcome to the spies) and Ruth the Moabitess, who were both ancestresses of Jesus. There was the 'mixed multitude' who came out of Egypt with the Israelites. There was Hobab, the son of the priest of Midian, who was invited to join the Israelites. Job, who dwelt in the land of Uz, was regarded as an example of blameless piety. In the very context which we are discussing, special injunctions are given for the care of the sojourner. He is to observe the same laws, and he is to be received in love as one of themselves: 'The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself.' There is certainly no obstacle to the individual repentance of a Canaanite, nor even presumably to migration, since the conquest was to be little by little. The one indispensable requisite is that the centres of idolatry must be eradicated from the Promised Land, and the people are to be taught to 'utterly detest and abhor' their abominations. Against the Edomites, Moabites, Ammonites and other more distant nations there was to be no such policy of extermination.
Christians would find no great difficulty with the overthrow of the Canaanites had it taken place at the hands of their heathen neighbours. It is a commonplace of history that civilizations grow weak through their inner corruptions, and it is part of the continuing providence of God that such should be swept away. It is a judgment of God which is readily understood and accepted. It is no more than the desert of those who have become slaves of evil practices. There is possibly a hint that this process was at work in Canaan. The Israelites were told concerning the Canaanites, 'The Lord your God will send hornets among them ... and throw them into great confusion, until they are destroyed.' J. Garstang believed that 'the hornet' was the Egyptian Empire, which first of all dominated and disarmed the area, and then left the nations unprotected. Be that as it may, part of the judgment at least was in this case put into the hands of God's people. It was not left to godless nations to destroy each other under the silent, over-ruling permission of God. It was a direct injunction of God to one relatively God-fearing nation to drive out seven particularly evil nations.
The distinction between the permissive will of God and the expressed will of God is important, but it cannot rightly be used to cut all the knots in the mysteries of providence. Israel suffered what she deserved when the Lord permitted the haughty Assyrians to act unwittingly as 'the rod of my anger' against her. It would have been perfectly just if God had expressly directed some nation wittingly to wield the rod of chastisement against her. Just as it is a moral, if singularly unpleasant, calling to be a state executioner, so it could be a moral, though very unpleasant, duty for one nation to inflict God's chastisement upon another. Everything turns upon the reality and certainty of the divine calling to do the deed. If we are to believe the records of the Pentateuch, the command given through Moses was inescapably clear in itself, and the credentials of Moses were demonstrated repeatedly and with immense force. The only question which remains is the probable effect on Israel of carrying out such a command. The hangman's job might have a most undesirable effect on a morbid or sadistic nature. Would Israel suffer morally, in the execution of such a duty? The answer must surely depend on the spirit in which it was carried out. If it was done for material gain or in love of cruelty, the results would be appalling. If it was done with an intense realization of the holiness of God, and of the horror both of their own sins and of those of their enemies, it could serve as an indelible lesson.
The severity of God's dealings as he trained his people in the principles of holiness becomes intelligible when we see what was at stake. It was nothing less than the salvation of the world. The Chosen People was the precious casket in which was to be placed a priceless jewel: the Messiah of Israel and the Saviour of men. Against this people Satan directed his fiercest attacks, and to the preservation of this people in righteousness God directed his fiercest defence. The battle was real and bloody. Humanly speaking their very survival seemed in doubt. Yet God kept them and prepared them for the coming of Christ. Since his coming the task has been a different one, calling for different methods, but the battle is as real and as bloody as ever before. The battle for souls is relentless and, for many, entry into the kingdom is through great tribulation. For many, quite literally the martyr spirit is still needed. There are many tightly knit, fanatical communities in which to become a Christian may still be to take one's life in one's hands. For many others, in a society conditioned by materialist vices and materialist values, to become a Christian means a costly surrender. It is only through suffering that the kingdom of God goes forward. It is still only the few who find the narrow way of life, while the many take the broad road to destruction. It is those who know most of the fierceness of the struggle who best understand the fierceness of God's commands.
Questions or feedback? Feel free to email me!