Islam and Violence: Actually, It’s Complicated
Why bumper-sticker thinking on Islam and violence falls short of the more complex reality
When it comes to Islam and violence, there are main two bumper-sticker schools of thought.
One is the irenic line popularized by the George W. Bush administration: Islam as a religion of peace hijacked by radical Islamists.
The other is the bellicose stance popular among conservatives: Islam as a religion of violence, even terrorism, but given a friendly face by liberal elites and the media.
Proponents of the first view treat Christianity and Islam as similarly great world religions regrettably subverted by violent movements and factions which are not truly Christian or Islamic at all.
Proponents of the second treat any show or sign of goodwill or tolerance from Muslims as a betrayal of Islam, if not outright deception. When a Muslim tells a Christian, “The Quran teaches me to love you,” many Christian critics of Islam reply, or at least think, “No, actually, the Quran teaches you to kill me.”
Both of these bumper-sticker views blend elements of truth and falsehood. As so often, the reality is more complicated than bumper stickers.
Here are three reasons why.
1. Islam is in a way more like Protestantism than Catholicism.
Islam is somewhat like Catholicism in having authoritative traditions as well as a central sacred text, but it’s also somewhat like Protestantism in having no magisterial teaching authority binding on all Muslims.
If you want to know what Catholicism teaches, you can check the Catechism or review the authoritative declarations of popes and councils, but Islam has no catechism, no popes, no councils.
Islam is complex, not simple. There are two main sects or denominations, Sunni and Shia, and as many as eight widely recognized schools of thought and jurisprudence — four Sunni, two Shia, and two others. There are also various minority schools.
Each of these schools ascribes differing levels of emphasis and authority to the Quran, hadith, legal traditions, and other sources, so it’s not just a question of how to interpret, say, ahadith, but how much weight ahadith are given. Some of these schools are more open to change and development, others less so. Some are more militant, others more peaceful.
All Muslim schools of thought are principally founded, of course, on the Quran, which they believe was revealed to the prophet Muhammad by the archangel Gabriel.
The Quran and the Bible are very, very different types of books, even on a purely neutral, literary level. But in one specific way they have something in common: Both have inspired widely divergent interpretations and systems of exegesis, in part because both contain passages that could at least appear to some readers to entail divergent ideas or teachings.
With respect to the Bible, as believing Christians we hold that the whole of scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit, and whatever the Holy Spirit asserts in one passage of scripture is not contradicted by what the Spirit asserts in another passage. Any apparent contradictions result from improper interpretation.
Muslims, of course, have a similar belief regarding apparent contradictions in the Quran — but there’s no reason in principle that Christians should regard apparent contradictions in the Quran as anything other than actual contradictions.
There are principles and strategies that Muslims employ to resolve these difficulties, such as the principle of “abrogating,” which holds that passages in the Quran which are chronologically later may abrogate earlier passages.
Even so, there are differences in interpretation when it comes to violence and peaceful coexistence. Thus the Egyptian Catholic Islamologist Samir Khalil Samir, S.J. (whose work on Islam informed Pope Benedict XVI’s approach to Islam) writes in 111 Questions on Islam: Samir Khalil Samir on Islam and the West (Ignatius Press):
We must honestly admit that there are two readings of the Qur’an and the sunna (Islamic traditions connected with Muhammad): one that ops for the verses that encourage tolerance toward [non-Muslim] believers, and one that prefers the verses that encourage conflict. Both readings are legitimate.
Consequently, in the Quran there are two different choices, the aggressive and the peaceful, and both of them are acceptable. There is a need for an authority, unanimously acknowledged by Muslims, that could say: From now on, only this verse is valid. But this does not — and probably never will — happen.
This means that when some fanatics kill children, women, and men in the name of pure and authentic Islam, or in the name of the Quran or of the Muslim tradition, nobody can tell them: “You are not true and authentic Muslims.” All they can say is: “Your reading of Islam is not ours.” And this is the ambiguity of Islam, from its beginning to the present day: violence is part of it, although it is also possible to choose tolerance; tolerance is a part of it, but it is also possible to choose violence. (69–71)
By the same token, when Muslims coexist without violence with Christians or advocate tolerance for other believers, no one can tell them “You are not true Muslims.”
Some critical scholars speak today of “Christianities” rather than Christianity. Whatever we make of that, it is certainly valid to speak of “Islams” rather than one true Islam.
2. Islam has a radically different relationship with violence than Christianity.
There is no question that Christians have committed heinous acts throughout history, including acts of violence ostensibly in the name of their faith (for example, the killing of Muslim and Jewish women and children in the wake of the Siege of Jerusalem during the First Crusade).
It is also true, as noted above, that a tolerant, peaceful interpretations of Islam are possible and legitimate.
Nevertheless, Christianity and Islam have radically different relationships with violence — and by “radically different” I mean different in a way going back to the roots, to the very beginnings of both religions.
The first followers of Jesus and Muhammad had very different formative or constitutive experiences with violence. These different experiences led to very different emerging foundational self-understandings, and very different treatment of violence in early writings.
Christianity’s founding figure led no armed forces, waged no wars, and conquered no mortal enemies, and occupied no territories. On the contrary, the only violent death he was involved in was his own execution — and the Gospels celebrate him precisely for accepting this death willingly, without protest or resistance of any kind.
It was not only Jesus who suffered violence. Acts and other New Testament writings present persecution as a normative Christian experience (Acts 7:52, 8:1, 1 Thessalonians 3:4, Romans 8:35, John 15:18-20, 1 Peter 4:12-16, etc.) — and, following the celebrated example of Jesus, enduring, rather than inflicting, violence and even death as the normative Christian response (Acts 5:40-41, 1 Corinthians 4:12, 1 Peter 4:16, etc.). The whole early Christian cult of the martyrs, beginning with Stephen, continues this trajectory.
Reflecting these foundational experience, while the New Testament does ascribe occasional violent imagery to Jesus’ teaching (for example, in parables or apocalyptic contexts; e.g., Matthew 21:33-41), there is no record no exhortations for believers to engage in violence, accounts of them doing so, or endorsements of same. Conversely, New Testament rejections or condemnations of violence are many (Matthew 5:38–45, John 18:11, 1 Tim 3:3, Titus 1:7, etc.).
While the relationship of Old Testament to New Testament is obviously complex, there is both implicit and explicit disjunction as well as continuity. The first Christians embraced both the Old Testament and the New Testament, but the New Testament, not the Old Testament, reflects their own foundational experiences and self-understanding, and they read the Old Testament in light of the New Testament and their own experiences.
In this connection, the strong tradition of pacifism in early Christian thought (cf. Bainton, Ted Grimsrud) is important. Finally, while a few scholars and other writers (e.g., Reza Aslan) see Jesus as a Zealot, the (in my opinion) better supported majority view is that Jesus rejected revolutionary violence (cf. Hengel, Wright, Crossan, Horsley, etc.).
The Quran also contains varying approaches to violence, relating to differing periods in Muhammad’s career. As noted above, though, it is not so easy to show that nonviolence or condemnation of violence have the last word.
Following the role of violence and conquest in Muhammad’s career, Islamic thought has always included a theology of violence quite unlike anything in early Christian thought. The “martyrs” of Islamic tradition — in sharp contradistinction to the martyrs of early Christian piety — are fallen warriors.
Jihad has been interpreted various ways, but that jihad entails, and does not exclude, military jihad against Allah’s enemies has historically been the overwhelming majority view. That non-Muslims can and should be subjugated and brought under Islamic rule was not seriously contested in early Islamic thought. There is no widespread early tradition of Islamic pacifism comparable to early Christian pacifism.
Regardless what subsequent historical developments in later Christian or Muslim thought and praxis may have taken place or may take place in the future, from a historical-critical perspective, one can say that Christianity per se, i.e., in its foundational orientation rooted in its formative experiences and earliest texts, praxis and traditions, is non-disposed to violence in a way quite different from Islam.
3. Islamic legal thought traditionally includes violence but also traditionally limits it in ways that modern jihadist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda untraditionally reject.
Up to a point, various interpretations of Islam are possible and legitimate, including more violent and more peaceful forms. This is particularly evident from a Catholic perspective, given the role of the Magisterium in interpreting divine revelation.
That doesn’t mean that anything goes, though — any more than anything goes in Protestantism.
Not only can we as Catholics recognize that some Protestant traditions (for example, traditional Anglicans, Lutherans and Calvinists) are closer to our own faith than others (for example, Pentecostals, Adventists, Quakers), Protestants relying only on the sources of faith can credibly conclude that some strands of Protestant thought are far more consistent both with the New Testament and early Christian belief than others, while some groups — such as Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Oneness Pentecostals, and others — are not truly Christian at all.
In other words, even without the Magisterium it is possible to reach persuasive conclusions regarding an identifiable mainstream of Christian tradition, and various marginal groups that diverge from that mainstream or even separate entirely from it.
In a not dissimilar way, some strands of thought in the Islamic world are better grounded in the Islamic sources of faith than others, and some strands of thought in the Islamic world may be said to be not truly Islamic at all, or at least not in the traditional Islamic mainstream.
All major traditional schools of Islamic thought are agreed on many things. Some are obvious, like the five pillars of Islam. Violence is unavoidably part of this consensus; for example, there is no mainstream tradition in Islam that rejects execution of adult male apostates (Muslim men who reject their faith). In practice, though, such seeming absolutes have been more or less strictly interpreted and applied.
Restrictions on violence are also part of the mainstream consensus. For example, traditionally women, children, the elderly, farmers and other noncombatants are not to be targeted for death in war. Traditionally, then, jihad is one thing, but terrorism is another.
With the spread of Wahhabist thought in the latter 20th century, though, have come new challenges to this traditional doctrine of restraint.
Radical clerics like Abdullah Yusuf Azzam and Abu Abdullah al-Muhajir have advanced new interpretations of Islamic law justifying the killing of noncombatants and providing the theological rationale for jihadist and terrorist groups like ISIS, Boko Haram, and al-Qaeda, whose actions are widely condemned by mainstream clerics.
In an informative article in First Things from a number of years back, Dr. John A. Azumah, a Ghana-born Presbyterian Islamologist and professor of World Christianity and Islam at Columbia Theological Seminary, argues that the actions of jihadist groups are clearly “illegal” by traditional Islamic standards.
That doesn’t stop jihadist groups from rejecting traditional legal restraints on violence, of course. But Christians shouldn’t fall into the trap of accepting radical jihadist-style Islam as “true” Islam or even a completely traditional and acceptable form of Islam.
Dr. Azumah usefully distinguishes between acknowledging that “Islam has a problem” and charging that “Islam is the problem.” The first, he says, is undoubtedly true; the second he considers neither true nor fair (and certainly I would say it’s unhelpful).
Islam does have problems that must be confronted, and while there are new challenges on this front, including the rise of global Wahhabism in the last few decades, there are also a range of efforts to reform Islam in positive directions.
Christians and all people of good will should be rooting for the reformers and for peaceful Muslims in general, not undermining them by supporting jihadist claims for Islam as a religion of terrorist violence.
That’s too much to fit on a bumper sticker, of course. Reality usually is.