Are Judaism and Christianity as Violent as Islam?

By Ibrahim, Raymond | Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Are Judaism and Christianity as Violent as Islam?


Ibrahim, Raymond, Middle East Quarterly


"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."1 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 JudeoChristianity, 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.2

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.3

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. …

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Are Judaism and Christianity as Violent as Islam?
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