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Violence and Compulsion in Religion

A Critical Examination of Violence in the Sacred Scriptures of Islam and Christianity

In the Feb. 20 seminar, Violence and Compulsion in Religion was the theme for the first session. First up, Jim Walker aptly provided support from Islamic sources and history indicating that indeed violence has been an integral part of Islam since it first began taking root in Arabia.

Muhammad's initial hesitancy to believe his to-be role of God's prophet was mentioned along with his attempts at suicide- which would have been a more honorable end than shaming his family name by his perceived lunacy of receiving divine revelation. After finally finding support and accepting this role, Muhammad's life showed incredible resolve in the face of early persecution. He preached one God and non-violence in these early days, with very little fruit for the first ten years or so.

Upon gaining a following that would support his teaching and even defend him by the sword, it is notable that the Qur'anic revelation changes to include offensive action against those whose beliefs differed from Islam. This convenient abrogation of scripture comes up at other points in the prophets life, but seemingly only after Muhammad's life circumstances or opportunities dictate the need.  In my personal interactions with Muslims, I've noted that such abrogation of verses is rarely acknowledged or understood as the Qur'an is ordered by chapter length, not chronology. In fact, it is highly discouraged from being read in a chronological order; but, doing so, does show Muhammad's clear transition to the violent side as Islam gains adherents and influence in its early days. If the later verses override the earlier, then the more violent side of Islam is the more accurate methodology and face.

The jizya tax was briefly noted as more closely relating to a "mob extortion" than a political tax for protection. Along with monetary payment, jizya also included accepting subjugation and acknowledgment of inferiority to the Muslims. This would apply to all non-Muslims residing in a Muslim land, who refused two other options: a) to convert to Islam and be exempt from the tax, or b) refusal to convert or pay the tax, resulting in death.  

The oft-quoted Qur'anic line, "let there be no compulsion in religion" was debunked by exposing its context. The specific context related to Muslim parents that had given a child over to be raised by Jews. From what I gleaned, upon driving Jewish families out, some Muslims objected to their taking away their own biological children in the process. Muhammad allowed the children to leave with the Jewish parents and dismissed the objection with this phrase; the children (or their adopted parents) could choose which faith to follow without being pulled back to parents and beliefs that were strange to them. Whatever the details, the verse (2:256) was noted as being specific and not bearing on other circumstances, especially when the weight of other and later passages and examples seem to dictate otherwise.  This singular event, however peaceful, does not offset the more offensive actions that were also allowed or commanded by the prophet of Islam.

Next up, Wissam Al-Aethawi presented Violence and Force in the Bible in contrast to the same theme in Islam. Early on, it was noted that those holding that the Bible supports violence come from a perspective of ignorance— wrong beliefs or having an ax to grind with all religions generally, or Christianity specifically.

Three separate types of violence in the Old Testament were mentioned. Violence against the Jews is recorded for their disobedience- this is an exception as it deals with a specific people in a specific time. Violence against non-Jews is condoned, even commanded, as Israel assumed land- this too, is noted as an exception to their general dealings with the removed peoples, aimed at specific circumstances which do not stand today. The Sixth Commandment, "Thou shalt not kill" however, is regarded as not specific and upheld by theology and example throughout the Bible- it is accepted as the rule.

The discussion then turned to the New Covenant, and that New Testament saints are no longer under the same stipulations as under the Old. Scripture upholds this explicitly and debunks any harkening back to Old Testament violence as valid procedure (or argument) for today (Heb.8; Rom.6; Eph.6:12; Mat.5:21-39). The whole of New Testament Scripture sharply denies the use of violence and upholds an opposite argument.

It is interesting to note that, at this point, there seemed to be some question as to whether, biblically, believers would be allowed to defend themselves in situations of "justified" self defense. There was not agreement in the room on this matter. Though in Scripture there is no clear theology or example of self defense- in fact, the opposite seems true- this though brings up strong feelings as it strikes at a cultural value that has traditionally been held by American Christians. Although, all were in agreement that Christians were not given the liberty to take offensive violent actions, as Islam allows. (See the following post by seminar host Steve Schlichter on this question.)

Overall, the seminar was enlightening. The first, dealt in-depth with background and understanding of Islamic texts and history- as presented by a Christian using Islam's own sources. Much of this would not be beneficial to bring up directly if in conversation with a Muslim, though very useful to grasp the ideas behind what true Islam must yield if adhered to intrinsically. The second dealt with violence as seen in the Old Testament- presented by a Muslim-background Christian. It debunked that Christianity can be seen as a violent religion, even if some alleged followers behave and make very different claims. In summary, the truth about any religion must come down to its Scriptures, not necessarily based on the actions or variant interpretations of its adherents, unless accurately based on such texts. This is where Christianity clearly does not allow for violence and the Qur'an can be, even must be, interpreted as a religion that at least condones violence if not demands it.

Author, Anonymous Attendee (Note: Scott Cherry is only the poster, not the author.)

  • 23 February 2016
  • Author: Scott Cherry
  • Number of views: 4724
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