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The Political Violence of the Bible and the Koran: A Response

This essay has to do with an argument which was put forth by one Bill Warner of the Center for the Study of Political Islam. His post which can be found on Scribd, is one of typical Judeo-Christian hypocrisy, where the pot calls the kettle a war monger.

In his argumentation for the dissimilarity of the Hebrew Bible, Christian New Testament, and the Islamic scriptures of the Qur’an and Hadith, Bill Warner makes several blunders in comparative theology and the delivery of what he calls quantitative evidence. What will follow is far from an exhaustive list of rebuttals, but rather what I would consider to be the most important counter-arguments to consider before applying the label of war-mongering to Islam without also applying it to Christianity and Judaism. Firstly, Warner claims that there is a political agenda of Islam. This can be stated as either a misconception of Islam or as an understatement of the political agendas of all religions save Islam. As all religions strive for control, especially the Abrahamic faiths, this is certainly not a legitimate grievance. Secondly, Warner states that said political agenda is derived from the “trilogy” of Islamic scripture, the Qur’an, Hadith and Sira. The Sira, the biographical work depicting the life of Mohammed, is not scripture in the way that the gospels are. They are more a reflection on the nature of the prophet in the same way that reading deuterocanonical books would give one insight into the life of Jesus, important to the faithful but not necessarily authoritative. In reality the bulk of Islamic scripture is the Hadith, Qur’an, Tawrat (Pentateuch), Injil (Gospel given to Jesus), and the Zabur (Psalms).

Warner’s primary blunder is one of terms. He relies on the term “political violence” one which he seems reluctant to provide a definition for. Perhaps because if defined, a rebuttal would be much more clear. As such, I will now infer a definition based on his loose statement of what political violence is not. “Cain killing Abel is not political violence. Political violence is not killing a lamb for a meal or making an animal sacrifice.” As his premise is most likely that political violence is violence solely against other humans and solely for the purpose of religious expansionism I will ignore all passages of animal sacrifice or cruelty (although one could read these as worthy trespasses as well) or of human on human violence without socio-political pretence.

Warner makes the claim that only 34,000 words in the Hebrew Bible are dedicated to political violence and makes the unabashed claim that there is no political violence in the Christian New Testament while there are 328,000 words dedicated to political violence in the Islamic scriptures. These claims are sorely understated if not intentionally misleading. Firstly, the Hebrew Bible is much shorter than the Islamic scriptures (1,163 pages of Old Testament[1] vs. 3,138 pages of Islamic Scripture[2]) so his one for one comparison falls apart under even slight scrutiny as the Islamic literature being compared is nearly three times the length of the Hebrew Bible. Beyond this, one need only read until Exodus to find the Hebrew Bible is abundant with political violence. Even if one doesn’t recognise the Plagues of Egypt[3] as political violence as they are atrocities committed by God and not the Israelites one needs read no further than when Israel is finally out of bondage that they are told to go out and kill everyone who resides within the Promised Land[4]. If that were not enough the message that they should ultimately kill anyone who offers sacrifice to any god but YHVH[5] would mean, in any literal sense, that Christians and Jews are demanded by divine command to slaughter the 4 billion people who are not believers. This concept is no doubt the basis of the fundamentalist strain of thought within Islam but it is important to remember that this is heavily tied into scriptural references within the Christian and Hebrew liturgical tradition. The list goes on, execution for anyone who breaks the Sabbath,[6] the fate of the Midianites at the hand of the Israelites,[7] or God’s command to kill all the inhabitants of Canaan and destroy their relics.[8] This is not exhaustive as certainly this is simply a few examples found in the Pentateuch (in my edition I am only 210 pages into the book with the final example given) and not the militaristic histories given in Judges, Chronicles, 1 & 2 Kings or 1 & 2 Samuel.

Of course this is all moot when one does the math, by Warner’s calculations the Islamic trilogy is 328,000 words dedicated to “political violence” but then realize that the Sira is not Islamic scripture. If Warner isn’t going to include the deuterocanon and apocrypha then we should not allow the Sira in this. That then brings the amount of words back down to 118,080 words dedicated to political violence assuming that the Sira makes up 67% of its references. This math means that there are only 118,080 references in 1,205 pages means that there are 98 words per page in the Islamic texts—a questionable amount in any sense—versus 29 words per page in the Hebrew bible.[9] Upon this conclusion I want to digress that words themselves are not a good measure of how much violence is in a text but rather how many verses refer or condone violence.

However, even if the Qur’an and Hadith are more violent than the Tanakh does that really matter? If the expression of God’s will to slaughter all non-believers occurs once or a hundred times is it any different? Weren’t Christianity, and Judaism before it, spread through political warfare? Indeed, the Catholic symbol IHS stands for In Hoc Signio, Vinces, (Latin: By this sign, conquer) attributed to a vision purportedly beheld by Constantine before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. Considering the long military history of European Christianity, the forced conversions of Jews and Slavs in Central and Eastern Europe, of Native Americans and other indigenous peoples, the Crusades, and the various witch hunts and inquisitions couldn’t one also call Christianity to the fore on the charge of political violence?

As for the claim that political violence is absent from the Christian New Testament, one needs turn no further than the third chapter of the first gospel, that of Matthew, to find the first example. “Even now the axe is laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”[10] This startling threat that is given by John the Baptist to the Pharisees is more than just a side note. This is a theological claim to the superiority of Christendom. Further into the gospel Jesus references back to the Law of Moses, not abolishing its abhorrent rules but making them more strict. “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, shall pass from the law until all is accomplished.”[11] Now taking into consideration that the law, and that means its penalties are still enforced, reflect upon his statement on adultery. “You have heard that it is said ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every one [sic] who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”[12] Now what does the law say about adultery? The law clearly states that both adulterers—yes, in this case that means the woman being lusted after, regardless of her involvement—must be put to death. Adultery is serious business in God’s eyes.[13] One could continue to read into the socio-political message of Jesus by continuing through the final three gospels, Acts, the epistles, and finally the ultimate socio-political treatise, Revelation. Judeo-Christianity is rife with political violence in very comparable a sense as Islam.

Warner also makes the statement that Islam is singularly unique for making threats against artists, videographers, and authors. This is an exquisitely false statement. The Catholic Church maintained the Index Librorum Prohibitorum until 1966, a list of all books, banned by the church, where it was not only illegal but at times punishable by death to own one. The John Wycliffe, the first man to translate the bible into English, was heavily persecuted during his life and after his death had his remains exhumed and destroyed. The church also declared that translation of Scripture into English is a crime punishable by charges of heresy, coinciding with the 1401 law De heretico comburendo (Latin: Regarding the Heretic who is to be burned). Percy Bysshe Shelley was expelled from Oxford simply for writing his pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism. In the 1930s there was the Catholic League of Decency, its sole purpose was to object to what they saw as questionable content in films. Though these are not violent crimes per say, Christianity has simply not been as harsh on the arts as contemporary Islam. Christianity is much more obsessed with sexuality and political power.

The comingled religious/political propaganda used by Hitler in his rhetoric was unabashedly Christian in nature. Concerning atheism and its perceived threat to his Christian nation Hitler made the statements:

Today they say that Christianity is in danger, that the Catholic faith is threatened. My reply to them is: for the time being, Christians and not international atheists are now standing at Germany’s fore. I am not merely talking about Christianity; I confess that I will never ally myself with the parties which aim to destroy Christianity. Fourteen years they have gone arm in arm with atheism. At no time was greater damage ever done to Christianity than in those years when the Christian parties ruled side by side with those who denied the very existence of God. Germany’s entire cultural life was shattered and contaminated in this period. It shall be our task to burn out these manifestations of degeneracy in literature, theater, schools, and the press—that is, in our entire culture—and to eliminate the poison which has been permeating every facet of our lives for these past fourteen years.[14]

This of course was perfectly fine by the Catholic Church.  In fact religious identity was heavily intertwined with the beginnings of the Nazi Party,[15] religious iconography made itself present in German military apparel in the form of the motto Gott Mit Uns (German: God with us), and the surprisingly close ties between the Holy See and Germany during the Third Reich in the form of the Reichskonkordat, an agreement between Pope Pius XI and the fuehrer uniting the two. Catholicism was taught in schools, clergy were exempt from mandatory military service should it be reinstated, and the Holy See can maintain communication with its bishops. This close church-state relation was all well and good with the Christians who adopted Nazi politics because they were weaned on the age-old Catholic rhetoric of Jewish deicide and Martin Luther’s famous essay, The Jews and Their Lies and thus were fine with the oppression and even extermination of the Jewish people. Drawn from the account in the gospel of Matthew where Pontius Pilate washes his hands of guilt while the Pharisees answer “His blood be on us and on our children”[16] has been used as a justification for anti-Semitism for hundreds of years and it was one that would have rung familiar with religious Germans attracted to the Nazi ideology.

Turning to contemporary America, all that is needed is a cursory search of the internet to find a news article on recent the murder of a doctor who performs abortions. These slaying seem to always have been carried out by devout Christians who see it as God’s work. These people see the murders of abortion providers as “justifiable homicide.”[17] Sometimes it is not just the doctors themselves that get attacked, in 1998, Robert Sanderson, who worked as a security guard for an abortion clinic was killed when his work was bombed by Eric Robert Rudolph. In 2000, Ronald Gay entered a gay bar in Roanoke, VA and opened fire killing Danny Lee Overstreet. Gay, self described as a Christian soldier doing the Lord’s work. He was sentenced to life in prison for his crime.

In Warner’s final statement he suggests that “It is time for so-called intellectuals to get down to the basics of judging Islam by its actual doctrine, not making lame analogies that are sophomoric assertions. Fact-based reasoning should replace fantasies that are based upon political correctness and multiculturalism.” While it can be said that fanatical Islam should be recognized and dealt with in accordance to its severity, Christianity and Judaism are by no means free of criticism on the matter. Both have and do use political violence to their ends and both will continue to do so as long as they have carte blanche to do so. This is not so much a case of multiculturalism or political correctness as it is calling things as they are. While fundamentalist Islam is violent so is fundamentalist Christianity through justified homicide and sanctioned anti-semitism. Any belief structure which claims ultimate truth will inevitably end up leading to fanaticism and sanctioned violence against any perceived other.

Notes and Citations:

[1] The Oxford Annotated Bible, Revised Standard Edition. Oxford: Oxford University. 1962.

[2] The Qur’an (Oxford World Classics). Oxford: Oxford University. 2008. Calculated based on Warner’s calculation that the Qur’an is 16% of the Islamic Scriptures at 502 pages.

[3] Exodus 5:1 – 12:36

[4] Exodus 23:23 – 28

[5] Exodus 22:23

[6] Exodus 31:14

[7] Numbers 31:1 – 54

[8] Numbers 33:50 – 52

[9] Abdul-Rahman, Ghouroub, trans. The Authentic Holy Hadiths. Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-Ilmiyah. 2010. 703 pages.

[10] Matthew 3:10

[11] Matthew 5:17 – 18

[12] Matthew 5:27 – 28

[13] Leviticus 20:10-21

[14] Norman H. Baynes, ed. The Speeches of Adolf Hitler, April 1922-August 1939. Vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1942. p. 240

[15] Spencer, Heath A. “Catholicism and the Roots of Nazism: Religious Identity and National Socialism.” Church History 3. 2010 p. 731-3.

[16] Matthew 27:25

[17] O’Keefe, Mark. “Anarchy in the name of God”. The Oregonian. January 24, 1999. http://www.rickross.com/reference/a-abortion/a-abortion5.html. Retrieved January 4, 2011 .

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