Faith and Violence

Muhammad_PBUH_by_SoulFlamerGreg has an interesting piece answering the question: Is Islam inherently violent? Definitely something to ponder. I’ve never ventured into social or political issues here on our blog. Maybe we should do more of it. I’m disinclined. But I’d like to chime in on this question because the Muslim world was my world for half my life.

I’d answer Greg’s question in terms of Islam’s normative founder(s) and its formative history, precisely those aspects Greg doesn’t talk about. It’s possible to argue that what Islam and Christianity inherently are has nothing to do with what Christians and Muslims today do or what they did during the Crusades or Inquisition centuries after the formative history and texts in question. The foundational question to ask, it seems to me, is not:

Can we find both violent and non-violent people who call themselves Christians or Muslims and shouldn’t we just then identify what these respective faiths “inherently” are with those non-violent adherents and dismiss the violent ones as perversions?

That’s certainly an easier way to go about it. But it would not be to carefully engage the issues that matter in determining what a major world-faith inherently is. Surely what ought to be in view here are the:

  • normative persons/examples of the faith in question

and the

  • formative history of that faith in light of those examples.

These reveal the inner vision, values, resources and disposition to violence inherent in these religious worldviews.

I don’t think it’s possible to argue that Christianity and Islam are simply equivalent examples of equally, inherently non-violent worldviews each of which just happen to have been misinterpreted at different times as justifying violence. I think we have to examine the behavior of those persons who in each faith’s case are believed to function in a normative and definitive way for that faith. There are other concerns too (what the religious texts command). But for now I’d like to engage only the question of what the relationship is between the founder(s) of these faiths and what those faiths can be said ‘inherently’ to be.

Where do we go to define what a faith inherently is? Greg will argue that in the case of Christianity we go to Jesus who is the normative, defining instance of the Christian faith. I suppose then we investigate to see if his example is really livable, i.e., does it describe what Christianity was for his immediate followers and earliest believers? Can Christ’s example really be normative for a world-wide community? Or, was Jesus violent? Well, no. Where his disciples and immediate followers violent? Did the earliest believers resort to violence against Jews or Romans. We can safely answer, no. Can Christianity’s early growth be attributed to violence? No. In fact, for generations, even when sorely persecuted, followers of Christ were (with exceptions that only prove the rule) not violent. What do I mean by not violent? I mean:

  • they didn’t view violence as a valid expression of their faith,  a way to practice their faith, a means of propagating it, or a means of securing its future against threats and opposition.

Ask the same questions of Islam (i.e., Muhammad, his companions and successors and the earliest generations of followers) and you’ll get, I think, a ‘Yes’ across the board (with non-violent exceptions proving the rule). Muhammad resorted to violence. He wasn’t, arguably, non-violent in an exemplary way, i.e., only violent in extremely rare and unique situations that establish a more normative and widespread non-violent rule. On the contrary, violence accompanies Islam’s formative persons and history. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine Islam’s survival apart from violence. Even Gandhi, in his great admiration for Muhammad, can only claim that the sword wasn’t the fundamental draw or appeal that explains Islam’s expansion. But the sword is there. This is not to suggest Muhammad wasn’t an admirable social and religious reformer in many very important ways. It’s simply to base our answer to Greg’s question on the relevant evidence about how violence relates (or doesn’t relate) to Muhammad’s worldview and the faith he shaped. And here there’s simply no comparison between Christianity and Islam on the question of violence viewed from observing the normative persons and formative histories involved. My point is that these persons and this history ought to be taken into account when attempting to describe what a world-faith inherently is, and Greg completely ignores this.

To the extent that Jesus functions as the paradigmatic Christian, the definitive-normative example of the faith which Christianity is, then Christianity is inherently non-violent. In fact, it’s precisely this normative-definitive role of Christ’s example that Greg elsewhere argues ought to be the measure against which we admit as valid or dismiss as perverse the individual or institutional behaviors of people who claim to be Christian.

However, the normative examples in the case of Islam with respect to violence (i.e., Muhammad and his successors) simply don’t support a view of Islam as not inherently—what’s the word?—accessible to violence, expressible by violence, or compatible with violence. I don’t want to say “inherently violent” without qualification because that may suggest all Muslims must be violent to be faithful Muslims (although this is, arguably, the Orthodox Muslim view where the defense and survival of the Ummah are concerned). What I’m suggesting is that violence is inseparable from the paradigmatic, normative examples of Islam as embodied authoritatively in Muhammad’s life as قدوة (“qidwa” = “paradigm/example”) and exemplified in his successors and the earliest generations of Muslims.

I’m happy to concede that “inherently violent” is an unhelpful way to describe what it is about violence in the case of Muhammad and the worldview that holds him to be the definitive, normative Muslim that differentiates him from Jesus and the worldview that holds him to be the definitive, normative Christian. But from where I sit (after living in the Middle East for roughly half my life), I wouldn’t at all view violence in Islam (as defined by Muhammad) as comparably equivalent to violence in Christianity (as defined by Christ), which is precisely the kind of comparison Greg makes, i.e., Islam and Christianity as compared throughout their histories in the behavior of Christians and Muslims are equally violent and equally non-violent, which leads Greg to answer the question ‘Is Islam inherently violent?’ with ‘No’. But it’s not at all that simple. My point is that the founding persons (Jesus and Muhammad), their successors (the Apostles of Christ and the Caliphs and Companions of the Prophet), and the earliest generations of followers ought to be what we examine in attempting to say what Christianity and Islam inherently are. Perhaps the question we ought to be asking is:

  • Would Islam as practiced by Muhammad and the earliest Muslims make the world a more peaceful place to live or not?

And the same question can be put to Christians:

  • Would Christianity as practiced by Jesus and his earliest followers make the world a more peaceful place or not?

(The Arabic name Muhammad)

8 comments on “Faith and Violence

  1. I teach History of Monotheistic Religions and right now we’re exploring the growth and spread of Christianity and Islam. To me, the answer to is “Islam inherently violent” is a layup if it is defined by the practice and teachings of Muhammad. Absolutely.
    I found Greg’s post frustrating. What you’ve said here is exactly what should have been said to address the answer to this question. Obviously no idea is violent until is put into practice by its adherents. Have those claiming to be adherents of both religions aggressed in acts of violence? Obviously, yes. Addressing that does nothing to settle whether or not someone committed to an ideology is being faithful to the ideology in using acts of aggression and violence.
    You’d have to examine the actions of the founders as the best example of the ideology. Jesus and Paul= non violence. Muhammad and Abu Bakr= violence. Done deal.

    Muslims can certainly devise a different hermeneutic with their text to make it a pacifist or simply a just war ideology, and plenty do and make for wonderfully kind, generous and loving individuals, but I’d say they were become more Christ-like in doing so 🙂


    • tgbelt says:

      Totally agree Paul. The question can be qualified by coming at it from different perspectives and definitions.

      I’m guessing the question gets introduced for the most part by people who want an easy way to dismiss Islam, or maybe for the political mileage to be gained. Take the question in the post: Would Islam as practiced by Muhammad and the earliest Muslims likely to make the world a more peaceful place to live? THAT’S a far more interesting and challenging question.

      I wouldn’t know how to answer ‘yes’ to that in Islam’s case, though (and this is important) I do think the world would be made a more peaceful place if Islam was practiced by SOME MUSLIMS I KNOW (just as it is made a less peaceful place by Christianity as practiced by some Christians I know). So when somebody asks if Islam is inherently violent or not, I want to know what Islam they’re measuring, the former (the life of Muhammad, his Companions and earliest followers) or the latter (comparative lives of Muslims today).

      One more thing I found interesting about Greg’s post was his pointing out that Christians didn’t abandon their violent ways until secular governments forced them to, and that once Islam is able to let go its theocratic vision of itself and embrace the division of Church and State, it too will abandon violence. I’m not doubting the effects of secularism upon religious violence. Sure. BUT…what Greg’s use of this in his argument implies is that BOTH Christianity and Islam are inherently violent! Like Greg says, if left to its own devices (without the constraints of a secular state) Christianity would still be on its violent rampage. What is this but an admission that Christianity is ‘inherently’ violent (i.e., it doesn’t have the internal values, vision or inherent ability to live non-violently)?

      My point is this is not true. Christianity did live that way—in Christ, his follows, and for generations, basically until Constantine (as Greg knows but forgets in his post). But this means Christianity isn’t inherently violent and doesn’t require a secular state to restraint its thirst for violence. I might be misreading history altogether, but I don’t see that anything like this is paralleled on the Islamic side.


  2. And now you have one as a son-in-law lol 🙂


  3. tgbelt says:

    Was chatting offline today about this…

    Opinions on this question tend to extremes. In disagreeing with Greg I’m not suggesting that the alternative is to demonize Islam. Whatever the truth of the relationship violence had in Muhammad’s religious worldview and in Islam’s formative years, it doesn’t to me seem so violent-ridden as to make pacifist forms of Islam impossible (thought there’s no way to be a pacifist or Just War theorist as a Muslim on the basis of Muhammad’s example). I know pacifist Muslims, but I’m not so bent on Islam’s being inherently violent that I’m going to say they aren’t Muslims. The truth isn’t on the either extreme end here I don’t think.


  4. rwwilson147 says:

    When Greg posts a spiritually and rationally muddled stuff like this I really think he needs to allow comments to help him think more clearly. I appreciate your thoughtful reflections and especially those of Paul Anleitner. I would definitely NOT call this one of Greg’s best.


    • tgbelt says:

      Good point. I was thinking of several points (about Christianity in Europe) that struck me…thus the best. But come to think of it, you’re right. It’s not the best I’ve read. ;o)


    • tgbelt says:

      My biggest frustration on stuff like this is–Greg dudn’t reply. There’s no engagement/debate. I know he’s super busy. But it’s still frustrating.


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