Bible and Qur’an: equally violent?

Recently the Boston Globe published two pieces pushing the prevailing assumption that the Bible and the Qur’an are equally likely to inspire those who believe in them to commit acts of violence — or to act benevolently: “The other good book” on March 6, and “Dark passages: Does the harsh language in the Koran explain Islamic violence? Don’t answer till you’ve taken a look inside the Bible,” by Philip Jenkins on March 8. (dissected by Robert Spencer)

Since almost everyone takes this for granted nowadays, it is odd that the Globe would think it necessary to shore it up with not one, but two pieces making this case. On the other hand, it is such a patently absurd and false proposition that, despite its popularity, it does need constant propping up.

Jenkins’s thesis, of course, is that since there are violent passages in the Bible as well as in the Qur’an, and yet Jews and Christians are not committing acts of violence and justifying them with reference to their holy texts, therefore Muslims who commit acts of violence and justify them with reference to their holy texts must actually be motivated by something else.

It’s a common view that many others have previously enunciated. When confronted with material from the Qur’an that calls upon Muslims to wage war against unbelievers, Islamic apologists and their non-Muslim allies frequently claim that such passages from have been “cherry-picked” from a holy book that teaches peace, and that they only seem to incite to violence when ripped out of context. Usually accompanying such claims is the assertion that the Bible is just as violent, if not more so, than the Qur’an. The Lutheran theologian Martin E. Marty has written disdainfully of “people who selectively quote the Qur’an to show how it commits Muslims to killing ‘us’ infidels.” He then goes on to enumerate numerous violent passages in the Bible, quipping: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor’s God or Book, nor witness at all until thou comest clean on what thy book portrays, a holy warrior God.”

As Ralph Peters put it, “As a believing Christian, I must acknowledge that there’s nothing in the Koran as merciless as God’s behavior in the Book of Joshua.”

While not going as far as Peters’ assertion that the Bible is actually more violent than the Qur’an, Dinesh D’Souza suggests that the Qur’an and the Bible are at least equivalent in their capacity to incite violence: “the Koran, like the Old Testament, has a number of passages recommending peace and others celebrating the massacre of the enemies of God.” The problem is that some people focus on the wrong ones. He says: “I realize that you can fish out this passage or that passage and make it sound like the Muslims want to convert or kill everybody. But that would be like taking passages out of the Old Testament to make Moses sound like Hitler.” D’Souza even claims that Moses would have pursued an aggressive policy of religious imperialism, a la Islamic jihad, if he had had the chance: “Moses wasn’t exactly a believer in religious freedom. When he came down from the mountain and discovered the Israelites worshipping the golden calf he basically ordered a massacre. Don’t you think that if Moses could he would have imposed the laws of Yahweh on the whole world? Of course he would.”

But is all this really true? Are these two prominent conservative thinkers, who after all are only echoing a widespread opinion, right that the Bible and the Qur’an are at least roughly equivalent in their capacity to inspire violence?

This is an important question, for it goes to the heart of whether or not the actual teachings of either religion has anything to do with the violence committed in its name. After all, that is not a question that can be determined wholly by examining the historical record of each religion – for in every religious tradition the teachings of the religion are one thing and the way they are and have been lived out is quite another. No body of people has ever lived in complete fidelity to any set of principles, religious or otherwise, and there never will be such a group of people. Moreover, a central tenet of Christianity is that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). This is, as many have noted, one Christian dogma for which there is abundant empirical evidence: the dividing line between good and evil doesn’t run between one group and another, or one race and another, or one nation and another. Nor does it run between the adherents of one religion and those of another. It is said that the British writer and superlative wit G.K. Chesterton once responded to an invitation from the Times of London to write a piece about what is wrong with the world by writing: “Dear Sir, I am. Yours, G.K. Chesterton.” Chesterton wasn’t just being flip; he was expressing the fundamental Christian belief that the dividing line between good and evil actually runs through every human heart. With this as a core assumption, neither Christians nor anyone else should never be surprised by evil, even when it is perpetrated by Christians in the name of Christianity. That is the way human beings are.

Islam’s view of this is vastly different in some ways and identical in others. While acknowledging that any human being is capable of evil, the Qur’an says that Muslims are the “best of peoples” (3:110) while the unbelievers are the “vilest of creatures” (98:6). It is easy, if one takes such a worldview seriously, to see evil in others but have a harder time locating it in oneself. And that is indeed a recurring tendency in the Islamic world today – an unwillingness to engage in self-reflection and self-criticism, and to locate the source of all ills on a malignant outside force: “Zionists,” “the Great Satan,” and the like. Still, most Muslims, like most Christians, would acknowledge that the gap between theory and practice has sometimes been quite large, although that is an argument also made by jihadists, including those who in recent decades have spearheaded a revival of jihadist sentiment around the world by publishing material such as the tract “Jihad: the Forgotten Obligation.” In any case, the teachings of each religion – as those teachings have been understood by the mainstream sects of each faith — will make it clear whether those who claim to be acting in the name of Christianity and Islam have a creditable claim to do so in fact, or if they are actually transgressing against the teachings of the religion they are claiming to defend.

Since almost everyone takes this for granted nowadays, it is odd that the Globe would think it necessary to shore it up with not one, but two pieces making this case. On the other hand, it is such a patently absurd and false proposition that, despite its popularity, it does need constant propping up.

Jenkins’s thesis, of course, is that since there are violent passages in the Bible as well as in the Qur’an, and yet Jews and Christians are not committing acts of violence and justifying them with reference to their holy texts, therefore Muslims who commit acts of violence and justify them with reference to their holy texts must actually be motivated by something else.

It’s a common view that many others have previously enunciated. When confronted with material from the Qur’an that calls upon Muslims to wage war against unbelievers, Islamic apologists and their non-Muslim allies frequently claim that such passages from have been “cherry-picked” from a holy book that teaches peace, and that they only seem to incite to violence when ripped out of context. Usually accompanying such claims is the assertion that the Bible is just as violent, if not more so, than the Qur’an. The Lutheran theologian Martin E. Marty has written disdainfully of “people who selectively quote the Qur’an to show how it commits Muslims to killing ‘us’ infidels.” He then goes on to enumerate numerous violent passages in the Bible, quipping: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor’s God or Book, nor witness at all until thou comest clean on what thy book portrays, a holy warrior God.”

As Ralph Peters put it, “As a believing Christian, I must acknowledge that there’s nothing in the Koran as merciless as God’s behavior in the Book of Joshua.”

While not going as far as Peters’ assertion that the Bible is actually more violent than the Qur’an, Dinesh D’Souza suggests that the Qur’an and the Bible are at least equivalent in their capacity to incite violence: “the Koran, like the Old Testament, has a number of passages recommending peace and others celebrating the massacre of the enemies of God.” The problem is that some people focus on the wrong ones. He says: “I realize that you can fish out this passage or that passage and make it sound like the Muslims want to convert or kill everybody. But that would be like taking passages out of the Old Testament to make Moses sound like Hitler.” D’Souza even claims that Moses would have pursued an aggressive policy of religious imperialism, a la Islamic jihad, if he had had the chance: “Moses wasn’t exactly a believer in religious freedom. When he came down from the mountain and discovered the Israelites worshipping the golden calf he basically ordered a massacre. Don’t you think that if Moses could he would have imposed the laws of Yahweh on the whole world? Of course he would.”

But is all this really true? Are these two prominent conservative thinkers, who after all are only echoing a widespread opinion, right that the Bible and the Qur’an are at least roughly equivalent in their capacity to inspire violence?

This is an important question, for it goes to the heart of whether or not the actual teachings of either religion has anything to do with the violence committed in its name. After all, that is not a question that can be determined wholly by examining the historical record of each religion – for in every religious tradition the teachings of the religion are one thing and the way they are and have been lived out is quite another. No body of people has ever lived in complete fidelity to any set of principles, religious or otherwise, and there never will be such a group of people. Moreover, a central tenet of Christianity is that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). This is, as many have noted, one Christian dogma for which there is abundant empirical evidence: the dividing line between good and evil doesn’t run between one group and another, or one race and another, or one nation and another. Nor does it run between the adherents of one religion and those of another. It is said that the British writer and superlative wit G.K. Chesterton once responded to an invitation from the Times of London to write a piece about what is wrong with the world by writing: “Dear Sir, I am. Yours, G.K. Chesterton.” Chesterton wasn’t just being flip; he was expressing the fundamental Christian belief that the dividing line between good and evil actually runs through every human heart. With this as a core assumption, neither Christians nor anyone else should never be surprised by evil, even when it is perpetrated by Christians in the name of Christianity. That is the way human beings are.

Islam’s view of this is vastly different in some ways and identical in others. While acknowledging that any human being is capable of evil, the Qur’an says that Muslims are the “best of peoples” (3:110) while the unbelievers are the “vilest of creatures” (98:6). It is easy, if one takes such a worldview seriously, to see evil in others but have a harder time locating it in oneself. And that is indeed a recurring tendency in the Islamic world today – an unwillingness to engage in self-reflection and self-criticism, and to locate the source of all ills on a malignant outside force: “Zionists,” “the Great Satan,” and the like. Still, most Muslims, like most Christians, would acknowledge that the gap between theory and practice has sometimes been quite large, although that is an argument also made by jihadists, including those who in recent decades have spearheaded a revival of jihadist sentiment around the world by publishing material such as the tract “Jihad: the Forgotten Obligation.” In any case, the teachings of each religion – as those teachings have been understood by the mainstream sects of each faith — will make it clear whether those who claim to be acting in the name of Christianity and Islam have a creditable claim to do so in fact, or if they are actually transgressing against the teachings of the religion they are claiming to defend.

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