“All religions are basically the same.” That mantra is often heard from the secular media and our ruling elites. For those who know little about religion, the phrase sounds sensible enough. But for anyone who has actually taken the time to seriously study the major religions, this remark is recognised as being very wide of the mark.
This is certainly the case when one contrasts Islam with Christianity. Muslims like to claim that Jews, Christians and Muslims are all children of Abraham, and people of the book. Closer inspection, however, shows some fundamental differences.
Mark Durie is an authority on Islam, and the dangers it poses to Christianity in particular, and the free West in general. He has an important article in the Weekend Australian (September 23-24, 2006). Called “Creed of the Sword,” it lays out some of these many crucial differences.
After noting the Islamic reaction to the recent speech by Pope Benedict, Durie explains how an understanding of the Koran is necessary, but how it is also not an easy task: “As it happens, reading the Koran is not without its difficulties. There is, for a start, the thorny problem of context. The Koran gives little help with this: it does not mark off specific passages one from another and its 114 chapters (suras) are not laid out in chronological order.”
He continues, “The keys to unlocking the context for individual passages of the Koran can be found in the life of Mohammed, the Sunnah. The sources for the Sunnah are the traditions (hadiths), of which Sunnis recognise six canonical collections, and biographies of Mohammed (sira literature). Although the volume of this material is considerable, it is now largely available in English translation, much of it on the internet.”
But four further problems arise when coming to the Koran. One is the already mentioned idea of religious equivalence, that all religions are essentially alike. Second is the claim that “anyone can justify violence from any religious text”. Says Durie, “This idea stretches back at least to Rousseau, who considered any and all forms of religion to be pernicious. Either of these views, if firmly held, would tend to sabotage anyone’s ability to investigate the Koran’s distinctive take on violence.”
And there is a third obstacle: “Western culture’s own sense of guilt and suspicion of what it regards as Christian hypocrisy. Any attempt to critique some of Islam’s teachings is likely to be met with loud and vociferous denunciations of the church’s moral failings, such as its appalling track record of anti-Semitism. And did I mention the crusades?”
Fourth, there is the fact “that Muslims adhere to widely varying beliefs and practices. Most people are understandably afraid to come to their own conclusions about violent passages in the Koran, lest they find themselves demonising Muslims.”
Despite these difficulties, one can make a thorough comparison of Islamic beliefs over against those of Christianity. And the issue of violence is an obvious candidate to begin with.
Calls for violence and calls for peace can both be found in the Koran. So what does one do? “Resolving apparently contradictory messages presents one of the central interpretative challenges of the Koran. Muslims do not agree today on how best to address this. For this reason alone it could be regarded as unreasonable to claim that any one interpretation of the Koran is the correct one.”
However, as Durie reminds us, Islamic scholars have developed a way to sort through this confusion. That is by recognising the earlier teachings and practices of Muhammad while he was in Mecca, and contrasting them with his later time in Medina. “At the beginning, in Mohammed’s Meccan period, when he was weaker and his followers few, passages of the Koran encouraged peaceful relations and avoidance of conflict.”
“Later, after persecution and emigration to Medina in the first year of the Islamic calendar, authority was given to engage in warfare for defensive purposes only. . . . As the Muslim community grew stronger and conflict with its neighbours did not abate, further revelations expanded the licence for waging war, until in Sura 9, regarded as one of the last chapters to be revealed, it is concluded that war against non-Muslims could be waged more or less at any time and in any place to extend the dominance of Islam. Sura 9 distinguished idolators, who were to be fought until they converted.”
Thus there is both defensive and offensive jihad enjoined in the Koran. How does this compare with Christianity? “Throughout the New Testament there is a systematic rejection of religious violence. The key to this is Jesus’ message that his kingdom was spiritual and not political. Jesus explicitly and repeatedly condemns the use of force to achieve his goals: ‘Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.’ (Matthew 26:52)”
“As Jesus goes to the cross, he renounces force, even at the cost of his own life: ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.’ (John 18:36) The Sermon on the Mount elaborates several aspects of Jesus’ non-violent ethic.
Retribution was no longer acceptable (Matthew 5:38), enemies were to be loved, not hated (Matthew 5:43), the meek will inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5) and Jesus’ disciples should rejoice when they are persecuted (Matthew 5:10).
In contrast, Islam takes a much different approach to persecution. Muslims are urged to oppose their persecutors. Indeed, in Islam persecution is seen as anything that impedes the spread of Islam, or which could cause Muslims to abandon their faith. Therefore killing the persecutors is a religious obligation.
Of course Christianity does recognise a legitimate use of force: “The New Testament supports the just use of force as a proper function of the state, whatever its religious identity. Thus it is not a specifically religious or sacred act to go to war, or to use force to implement justice. It is just a matter of public duty, one aspect of the ordering of society that God has established for the common good. If only Christians had maintained this New Testament position down the centuries, the world would have been a better place.”
Durie concludes with a call for reform in Islam. Some Muslims are beginning to recognise this need, but there is very little consensus as to what needs to be reformed, how it should occur, or who should initiate it.
“The Muslim world is incredibly diverse and such a consensus may never be developed. Nevertheless it must be attempted. The important work to achieve this consensus is under way, but it remains to be completed, and any debate that can hasten the development of a less sacralised approach to the use of force within Islam deserves everyone’s whole-hearted support.”
Christianity of course has known many periods of reform, not least of which, the Reformation of the sixteenth century. But Islam still needs to make this journey. It is hoped it happens sooner than later. Too much is at stake for Islam to remain in its current condition.