“There is far more violence in the Bible than in the Qur’an; the idea that Islam imposed itself by the sword is a Western fiction, fabricated during the time of the Crusades when, in fact, it was Western Christians who were fighting brutal holy wars against Islam.” So announces former nun and self-professed “freelance monotheist,” Karen Armstrong. This quote sums up the single most influential argument currently serving to deflect the accusation that Islam is inherently violent and intolerant: All monotheistic religions, proponents of such an argument say, and not just Islam, have their fair share of violent and intolerant scriptures, as well as bloody histories. Thus, whenever Islam’s sacred scriptures—the Qur’an first, followed by the reports on the words and deeds of Muhammad (the Hadith)—are highlighted as demonstrative of the religion’s innate bellicosity, the immediate rejoinder is that other scriptures, specifically those of Judeo-Christianity, are as riddled with violent passages.
More often than not, this argument puts an end to any discussion regarding whether violence and intolerance are unique to Islam. Instead, the default answer becomes that it is not Islam per se but rather Muslim grievance and frustration—ever exacerbated by economic, political, and social factors—that lead to violence. That this view comports perfectly with the secular West’s “materialistic” epistemology makes it all the more unquestioned.
Therefore, before condemning the Qur’an and the historical words and deeds of Islam’s prophet Muhammad for inciting violence and intolerance, Jews are counseled to consider the historical atrocities committed by their Hebrew forefathers as recorded in their own scriptures; Christians are advised to consider the brutal cycle of violence their forbears have committed in the name of their faith against both non-Christians and fellow Christians. In other words, Jews and Christians are reminded that those who live in glass houses should not be hurling stones.
But is that really the case? Is the analogy with other scriptures legitimate? Does Hebrew violence in the ancient era, and Christian violence in the medieval era, compare to or explain away the tenacity of Muslim violence in the modern era?
Violence in Jewish and Christian History
Along with Armstrong, any number of prominent writers, historians, and theologians have championed this “relativist” view. For instance, John Esposito, director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, wonders,
How come we keep on asking the same question, [about violence in Islam,] and don’t ask the same question about Christianity and Judaism? Jews and Christians have engaged in acts of violence. All of us have the transcendent and the dark side. … We have our own theology of hate. In mainstream Christianity and Judaism, we tend to be intolerant; we adhere to an exclusivist theology, of us versus them.
An article by Pennsylvania State University humanities professor Philip Jenkins, “Dark Passages,” delineates this position most fully. It aspires to show that the Bible is more violent than the Qur’an:
[I]n terms of ordering violence and bloodshed, any simplistic claim about the superiority of the Bible to the Koran would be wildly wrong. In fact, the Bible overflows with “texts of terror,” to borrow a phrase coined by the American theologian Phyllis Trible. The Bible contains far more verses praising or urging bloodshed than does the Koran, and biblical violence is often far more extreme, and marked by more indiscriminate savagery. … If the founding text shapes the whole religion, then Judaism and Christianity deserve the utmost condemnation as religions of savagery.
Several anecdotes from the Bible as well as from Judeo-Christian history illustrate Jenkins’ point, but two in particular—one supposedly representative of Judaism, the other of Christianity—are regularly mentioned and therefore deserve closer examination.
The military conquest of the land of Canaan by the Hebrews in about 1200 B.C.E. is often characterized as “genocide” and has all but become emblematic of biblical violence and intolerance. God told Moses:
But of the cities of these peoples which the Lord 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 the Lord 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 the Lord your God.
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 the Lord, God of Israel had commanded.
As for Christianity, since it is impossible to find New Testament verses inciting violence, those who espouse the view that Christianity is as violent as Islam rely on historical events such as the Crusader wars waged by European Christians between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. The Crusades were in fact violent and led to atrocities by the modern world’s standards under the banner of the cross and in the name of Christianity. After breaching the walls of Jerusalem in 1099, for example, the Crusaders reportedly slaughtered almost every 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.”
In light of the above, as Armstrong, Esposito, Jenkins, and others argue, why should Jews and Christians point to the Qur’an as evidence of Islam’s violence while ignoring their own scriptures and history?
Bible versus Qur’an
The answer lies in the fact that such observations confuse history and theology by conflating the temporal actions of men with what are understood to be the immutable words of God. The fundamental error is that Judeo-Christian history—which is violent—is being conflated with Islamic theology—which commands violence. Of course, the three major monotheistic religions have all had their share of violence and intolerance towards the “other.” Whether this violence is ordained by God or whether warlike men merely wished it thus is the key question.