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A Closer look at Religion and Violence

Nov 25, 2004

Since Joseph Wakim of the Australian Arabic Council has given us a public lecture on what Christianity is meant to be about, perhaps I can return the favor and offer some comments on the nature of Islam. My main thesis is that if Mr Wakim is concerned about religions condoning violence, he really should begin much closer to home, and discuss Islam.

Now Christianity and Islam are in some ways sister religions. Both are monotheistic faiths that share a common ancestry with Judaism. And both share a doctrine of just war theory, that is, that the State and the military does have a legitimate role in the ordering of society.

But the differences are quite pronounced. This is especially apparent in the relationship between religion, society and the state. They are clearly separate – or at least should be – in Christianity.

But no such distinction exists in Islam. Church and state relations – so much of an issue of debate in Western Christian nations – is not even an issue in Islam. The Muslim world is at once both a religious and a political sphere. One can choose between God and Caesar in Christianity. Both are one and the same in Islam.

Another major difference lies in how the faith is to be propagated. The founder of Christianity made it quite clear that use of arms to impel conversion was totally out of place. True, this concern was not always heeded by his followers. Thus if a person kills someone today in the name of Christ, especially for religious reasons, one can rightly argue that they are perverting the very nature of Christianity and the writings of the New Testament.

It is by no means clear however if one could say the same about a Muslim who kills in the name of Allah. The Koran and Islamic law (Sharia) both offer plenty of justification for such actions. Moreover, both the example of Muhammad and Islamic history provide support for the use of force in promoting Islam.

Consider the doctrine of jihad. There are of course different understandings of what exactly is meant by jihad. Muslim moderates and apologists insist that jihad simply means to struggle or strive for a just cause. There is in fact a distinction in Islam between the “greater jihad” which is a kind of spiritual warfare against the selfish nature, and “lesser jihad” which means a struggle against non-Muslims.

It is this latter concept that we must deal with. Because there is no ultimate central authority in Islam, disagreement exists as to interpreting the Koran, the weight of tradition (Hadith), and the example of Muhammad. However, Koranic injunctions to fight are numerous, as they are in the various collections of Hadith. And Muhammad himself set the example of violent conquest.

September 11 was, to a great degree, a logical outcome of the concept of jihad. Some however argue that as the ultimate suicide bombing, Sept. 11 cannot be reconciled with Islam, since suicide is sinful in Islam. But many Muslims defend suicide bombing, arguing that it is not really suicide but martyrdom for Allah, something much praised in the Koran. They insist that the bombers simply use their bodies to kill others, not themselves. And those who are killed while fighting for Allah are promised a one-way ticket to Paradise. Interestingly, in Islam, no other action guarantees one’s eternal destiny.

Still, critics will often point out that Muslims are not alone in their fundamentalism. What about Christian fundamentalists? Defenders of militant Islam like to raise the issue of Old Testament laws to say that fundamentalism can be found amongst Christians as well. For example, doesn’t the Old Testament warrant the death penalty for various crimes?

But Jesus specifically abrogated such punishments (as in the women caught in adultery) and for 2000 years the Christian faith has operated on the concepts of love and forgiveness. Islam however continues to harshly punish various sins, with adulterers still stoned to death in places like Saudi Arabia.

Moreover, there is in Islam no instruction to turn the other cheek, nor an expectation of swords being beaten into plowshares. In addition, there is the theory and practice of assassination in Islam which is foreign to Christianity. It arose at an early period in Islam’s history, and we even get the term from a Muslim sect dating from the 11th century.

Of course the bulk of Muslims are neither fundamentalists nor terrorists, and have little sympathy for their cause. Thus mainstream Muslims and their supporters should be quite vocal in denouncing the crimes of Islam, and not just point the finger at other religions.

[773 words]

2 Responses to A Closer look at Religion and Violence

  • Thanks for this article Bill. In the Old Testament era, were there any military conquests by God’s people that didn’t involve some sort of miraculous intervention by God (such as the walls of Jericho falling down when the Israelities were marching around them)? If there are none, then this can show that it was truly God who ordered and did (through his people) the judgement upon the sinful nations in the promised land.

    Also, on a slightly different note, if the OT laws were fulfilled in Christ and pointed to Christ, how then do you argue in favour of capital punishment? I’m not necessarily against it, as I can see the logic in executing some people so they don’t destroy many others as well as this sort of justice could be a deterrent to others.

    Thanks.
    David Roberts

  • Thanks David

    God usually works in conjunction with men. So the Israelites did their part, and God did his. So it is not always easy to split up human action from divine miraculous intervention. Both often went hand in hand.

    As to the death penalty, you need to be more precise here. Does fulfilling the law mean nullifying the law? And what law? You are probably referring to the Mosaic law, but of course God ordained the death penalty well before Moses – in fact, way back with Noah. But I discuss all this in great detail elsewhere, eg:

    https://billmuehlenberg.com/2012/05/29/the-case-for-capital-punishment-part-one/
    https://billmuehlenberg.com/2012/05/29/the-case-for-capital-punishment-part-two/
    https://billmuehlenberg.com/2006/09/11/is-it-ever-right-to-kill/

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

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