Conflating History with Theology-Judeo-Christian Violence versus Islamic Violence
by Raymond Ibrahim
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.
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).
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 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Religion and History
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