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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
March 8, 2009
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WE HAVE A good idea what was passing through the minds of the Sept. 11 hijackers as they made their way to the airports.

Their Al Qaeda handlers had instructed them to meditate on al-Tawba and Anfal, two lengthy suras from the Koran, the holy scripture of Islam. The passages make for harrowing reading. God promises to "cast terror into the hearts of those who are bent on denying the truth; strike, then, their necks!" (Koran 8.12). God instructs his Muslim followers to kill unbelievers, to capture them, to ambush them (Koran 9.5). Everything contributes to advancing the holy goal: "Strike terror into God's enemies, and your enemies" (Koran 8.60). Perhaps in their final moments, the hijackers took refuge in these words, in which God lauds acts of terror and massacre.

On a much lesser scale, others have used the words of the Koran to sanction violence. Even in cases of domestic violence and honor killing, perpetrators can find passages that seem to justify brutal acts (Koran 4.34).

Citing examples such as these, some Westerners argue that the Muslim scriptures themselves inspire terrorism, and drive violent jihad. Evangelist Franklin Graham has described his horror on finding so many Koranic passages that command the killing of infidels: the Koran, he thinks, "preaches violence." Prominent conservatives Paul Weyrich and William Lind argued that "Islam is, quite simply, a religion of war," and urged that Muslims be encouraged to leave US soil. Today, Dutch politician Geert Wilders faces trial for his film "Fitna," in which he demands that the Koran be suppressed as the modern-day equivalent to Hitler's "Mein Kampf."

Even Westerners who have never opened the book - especially such people, perhaps - assume that the Koran is filled with calls for militarism and murder, and that those texts shape Islam.

Unconsciously, perhaps, many Christians consider Islam to be a kind of dark shadow of their own faith, with the ugly words of the Koran standing in absolute contrast to the scriptures they themselves cherish. In the minds of ordinary Christians - and Jews - the Koran teaches savagery and warfare, while the Bible offers a message of love, forgiveness, and charity. For the prophet Micah, God's commands to his people are summarized in the words "act justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8). Christians recall the words of the dying Jesus: "Father, forgive them: they know not what they do."

But in 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. The Koran often urges believers to fight, yet it also commands that enemies be shown mercy when they surrender. Some frightful portions of the Bible, by contrast, go much further in ordering the total extermination of enemies, of whole families and races - of men, women, and children, and even their livestock, with no quarter granted. One cherished psalm (137) begins with the lovely line, "By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept"; it ends by blessing anyone who would seize Babylon's infants and smash their skulls against the rocks.

To say that terrorists can find religious texts to justify their acts does not mean that their violence actually grows from those scriptural roots. Indeed, such an assumption itself is based on the crude fundamentalist formulation that everything in a given religion must somehow be authorized in scripture. The difference between the Bible and the Koran is not that one book teaches love while the other proclaims warfare and terrorism, rather it is a matter of how the works are read. Yes, the Koran has been ransacked to supply texts authorizing murder, but so has the Bible

If Christians or Jews want to point to violent parts of the Koran and suggest that those elements taint the whole religion, they open themselves to the obvious question: what about their own faiths? If the founding text shapes the whole religion, then Judaism and Christianity deserve the utmost condemnation as religions of savagery. Of course, they are no such thing; nor is Islam.

But the implications run still deeper. All faiths contain within them some elements that are considered disturbing or unacceptable to modern eyes; all must confront the problem of absorbing and reconciling those troubling texts or doctrines. In some cases, religions evolve to the point where the ugly texts so fade into obscurity that ordinary believers scarcely acknowledge their existence, or at least deny them the slightest authority in the modern world. In other cases, the troubling words remain dormant, but can return to life in conditions of extreme stress and conflict. Texts, like people, can live or die. This whole process of forgetting and remembering, of growing beyond the harsh words found in a text, is one of the critical questions that all religions must learn to address.

Faithful Muslims believe that the Koran is the inspired word of God, delivered verbatim through the prophet Mohammed. Non-Muslims, of course, see the text as the work of human hands, whether of Mohammed himself or of schools of his early followers. But whichever view we take, the Koran as it stands claims to speak in God's voice. That is one of the great differences between the Bible and the Koran. Even for dedicated fundamentalists, inspired Bible passages come through the pen of a venerated historical individual, whether it's the Prophet Isaiah or the Apostle Paul, and that leaves open some chance of blaming embarrassing views on that person's own prejudices. The Koran gives no such option: For believers, every word in the text - however horrendous a passage may sound to modern ears - came directly from God.

We don't have to range too far to find passages that horrify. The Koran warns, "Those who make war against God and his apostle . . . shall be put to death or crucified" (Koran 5.33). Other passages are equally threatening, though they usually have to be wrenched out of context to achieve this effect. One text from Sura (Chapter) 47 begins "O true believers, when you encounter the unbelievers, strike off their heads."

But in such matters, the Bible too has plenty of passages that read painfully today. Tales of war and assassination pervade the four books of Samuel and Kings, where it is hard to avoid verses justifying the destruction of God's enemies. In a standard English translation of the Old Testament, the words "war" and "battle" each occur more than 300 times, not to mention all the bindings, beheadings, and rapes.

The richest harvest of gore comes from the books that tell the story of the Children of Israel after their escape from Egypt, as they take over their new land in Canaan. These events are foreshadowed in the book of Deuteronomy, in which God proclaims "I will make my arrows drunk with blood, and my sword shall devour flesh" (Deut. 32:42). We then turn to the full orgy of militarism, enslavement, and race war in the Books of Joshua and Judges. Moses himself reputedly authorized this campaign when he told his followers that, once they reached Canaan, they must annihilate all the peoples they find in the cities specially reserved for them (Deut. 20: 16-18).

Joshua, Moses's successor, proves an apt pupil. When he conquers the city of Ai, God commands that he take away the livestock and the loot, while altogether exterminating the inhabitants, and he duly does this (Joshua 8). When he defeats and captures five kings, he murders his prisoners of war, either by hanging or crucifixion. (Joshua 10). Nor is there any suggestion that the Canaanites and their kin were targeted for destruction because they were uniquely evil or treacherous: They happened to be on the wrong land at the wrong time. And Joshua himself was by no means alone. In Judges again, other stories tell of the complete extermination of tribes with the deliberate goal of ending their genetic lines.

In modern times, we would call this genocide. If the forces of Joshua and his successor judges committed their acts in the modern world, then observers would not hesitate to speak of war crimes. They would draw comparisons with the notorious guerrilla armies of Uganda and the Congo, groups like the appalling Lord's Resistance Army. By comparison, the Koranic rules of war were, by the standards of their time, quite civilized. Mohammed wanted to win over his enemies, not slaughter them.

Not only do the Israelites in the Bible commit repeated acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing, but they do so under direct divine command. According to the first book of Samuel, God orders King Saul to strike at the Amalekite people, killing every man, woman, and child, and even wiping out their livestock (1 Samuel 15:2-3). And it is this final detail that proves Saul's undoing, as he keeps some of the animals, and thereby earns a scolding from the prophet Samuel. Fortunately, Saul repents, and symbolizes his regrets by dismembering the captured enemy king. Morality triumphs.

The Bible also alleges divine approval of racism and segregation. If you had to choose the single biblical story that most conspicuously outrages modern sentiment, it might well be the tale of Phinehas, a story that remains unknown to most Christian readers today (Numbers 25: 1-15). The story begins when the children of Israel are threatened by a plague. Phinehas, however, shrewdly identifies the cause of God's anger: God is outraged at the fact that a Hebrew man has found a wife among the people of Midian, and through her has imported an alien religion. Phinehas slaughters the offending couple - and, mollified, God ends the plague and blesses Phinehas and his descendants. Modern American racists love this passage. In 1990, Richard Kelly Hoskins used the story as the basis for his manifesto "Vigilantes of Christendom." Hoskins advocated the creation of a new order of militant white supremacists, the Phineas Priesthood, and since then a number of groups have assumed this title, claiming Phinehas as the justification for terrorist attacks on mixed-race couples and abortion clinics.

Modern Christians who believe the Bible offers only a message of love and forgiveness are usually thinking only of the New Testament. Certainly, the New Testament contains far fewer injunctions to kill or segregate. Yet it has its own troublesome passages, especially when the Gospel of John expresses such hostility to the Ioudaioi, a Greek word that usually translates as "Jews." Ioudaioi plan to stone Jesus, they plot to kill him; in turn, Jesus calls them liars, children of the Devil.

Various authorities approach the word differently: I might prefer, for instance, to interpret it as "followers of the oppressive Judean religious elite," Or perhaps "Judeans." But in practice, any reputable translation has to use the simple and familiar word, "Jew," so that we read about the disciples hiding out after the Crucifixion, huddled in a room that is locked "for fear of the Jews." So harsh do these words sound to post-Holocaust ears that some churches exclude them from public reading.

Commands to kill, to commit ethnic cleansing, to institutionalize segregation, to hate and fear other races and religions . . . all are in the Bible, and occur with a far greater frequency than in the Koran. At every stage, we can argue what the passages in question mean, and certainly whether they should have any relevance for later ages. But the fact remains that the words are there, and their inclusion in the scripture means that they are, literally, canonized, no less than in the Muslim scripture.

Whether they are used or not depends on wider social attitudes. When America entered the First World War, for instance, firebrand preachers drew heavily on Jesus' warning that he came not to bring peace, but a sword. As it stands, that is not much of a text of terror, but if one is searching desperately for a weapon-related verse, it will serve to justify what people are going to do anyway

Interpretation is all, and that changes over time. Religions have their core values, their non-negotiable truths, but they also surround themselves with many stories not essential to the message. Any religion that exists over long eras absorbs many of the ideas and beliefs of the community in which it finds itself, and reflects those in its writings. Over time, thinkers and theologians reject or underplay those doctrines and texts that contradict the underlying principles of the faith as it develops. However strong the textual traditions justifying war and conflict, believers come instead to stress love and justice. Of course Muslim societies throughout history have engaged in jihad, in holy war, and have found textual warrant so to do. But over time, other potent strains in the religion moved away from literal warfare. However strong the calls to jihad, struggle, in Islamic thought, the hugely influential Sufi orders taught that the real struggle was the inner battle to control one's sinful human instincts, and this mattered vastly more than any pathetic clash of swords and spears. The Greater Jihad is one fought in the soul.

Often, such reforming thinkers are so successful that the troublesome words fade utterly from popular consciousness, even among believers who think of themselves as true fundamentalists. Most Christian and Jewish believers, even those who are moderately literate in scriptural terms, read their own texts extraordinarily selectively. How many Christian preachers would today find spiritual sustenance in Joshua's massacres? How many American Christians know that the New Testament demands that women cover their hair, at least in church settings, and that Paul's Epistles include more detailed rules on the subject than anything written in the Koran? This kind of holy amnesia is a basic component of religious development. It does not imply rejecting scriptures, but rather reading them in the total context of the religion as it progresses through history.

Alternatively, one can choose to deny that historical experience, and seize on any available word or verse that authorizes the violence that is already taking place - but once someone has decided to do that, it scarcely matters what the text actually says.

Philip Jenkins teaches at Penn State University. He is the author of "The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia -- and How It Died."

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