Judging by the numerous works looking to provide a treatment of the subject, there are a few things more pressing for Christians than some of the more violent verses found within the pages of the Bible. However, the Koran has its fair share of violent passages too, and many Islamic apologists have looked to divorce the violence committed in the name of terrorism from the Koran itself. Well, is that warranted? Here we’ll briefly examine how the two books differ in this regard. Bear in mind that the violence focused on here is that of physical, bodily harm whether allegedly commanded by God, performed by God, or via the efforts of human beings.
Outside of the Koran, one of the more informative books I’ve read on early Islamic history is Lesley Hazleton’s The First Muslim (2013). It’s a succinct work that looks to best piece the Prophet Muhammad’s life together from the available historical sources. Hazleton captures Muhammad’s journey from Mecca to Medina, and him eventually, along with his followers, becoming the most powerful force in Arabia. However, as his community grew he called for the violent subjugation of non-Muslims, and passages of the Koran during this period emphasize fighting people because of their beliefs, rather than because of any aggression towards Muslims.
Allah’s command to Muslims who rise to power is to “Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the Religion of Truth, from among the People of the Book [Jews and Christians], until they pay the Jizyah [tribute money given in acknowledgement of one’s inferiority] with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued” (9:29). Obeying this command to fight, Muhammad marched an army against the Byzantine (Roman) Empire, though the Romans chose not to fight. It is clear that the motive for fighting was because they did not believe in Allah (Muhammad saw the Roman Empire as Christian and wanted to call them to Islam (1)), and Muhammad desired their money as much lucrative trade in Mecca had ceased at the time.
Muslims are also declared superior to unbelievers, and the latter are to be subjugated as a result. Even in the context of Jizyah, the paying of tribute money, it is an extreme act of submission, and was to be paid in humiliating conditions (2). The Koran calls Muslims “the best of peoples ever raised up for mankind” (3:110), and those who reject Muhammad “the worst of creatures” (98:6). Allah is partial as he “does not love the unbelievers” (3:32), and also promises to bestow a vast reward on those who die having waged jihad (4:74). The Prophet Muhammad was instructed to “Rouse the believers to wage war” because those of whom they are to fight are unbelievers who are a “people without understanding” (8:65). Allah will fight on the side of believers and help them to overcome overwhelming odds.
We also find some of Muhammad’s teachings in the Hadith literature. In an effort to spread Islam by way of force, Muhammad declared, “I have been commanded to fight against people till they testify that there is no god but Allah, that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah, and they establish prayer, and pay Zakat” (Sahih Muslim 33). Even from some of these later sources (also see Sahih Bukhari 2810) the basis for war is because other people hold to religious beliefs incompatible with Islam. It also didn’t matter to Muhammad if women and children were caught in the middle. For example, after townsfolk refused to submit to him in around 630 AD, Muhammad authorized his army to use catapults during their siege of Ta’if even though he was aware that women and children were sheltered there.
It is clear that the Bible has numerous violent passages that are arguably more numerous in number than the Koran. Some of these passages may detail violent episodes including battles between tribes and nations, and between individuals and people. God is often drawn into the violence, for example, God ordered the Israelites to annihilate the Canaanites and surrounding tribes as we witness in the book of Joshua. There the Israelites used their god’s divine approval as permission to wage war (also known as “herem” in which something was to be fully devoted to destruction); their goal was to destroy all that lived and breathed (men, women, children, and sometimes animals) in the land they desired (3).
We won’t branch off of our topic too much but historically much of the Joshua conquests is questioned by the majority of professional historians (4), including Christian historians (5) (6), outside of reflecting a core historical memory (7). For a fuller look at the conquest narratives consult my essay in Old Testament Studies. However, the violence implied in these passages and others is obvious. In the words of Christian Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann such violence was “well entrenched in Israel.” It was “a way whereby raw military violence and the will of YHWH are intimately linked, wherein the will of YHWH is seen to justify and authorize and legitimate acts of extermination. The rhetoric mandates nothing less than genocide” (8). The conquest narratives similarly fit the overall Ancient Near Eastern context in which battles between armies of different tribes, nations and groups were seen as battles between deities (see 2 Kings 3:27 for a biblical case). Other violence cited might include Old Testament laws calling for capital punishment (usually by way of stoning) for certain sins, the harmful influences of patriarchal culture, and several narratives in which the vulnerable are abused (9). Where the New Testament is concerned, the book of Revelation incorporates much imagery and symbolism of war, genocide, and destruction as depictions of God’s judgment against mankind. Some have also tried to link violence to the historical Jesus, but we’ll examine that in the following section.
Overall, it is not particularly surprising that the Bible includes a greater number of violent narratives than the Koran (10). This would best be explained by the fact that it is far larger in scope by some ten times, stems from multiple authors over many years, and covers far more numerous historical contexts.
A Crucial Distinction.
There is an important distinction that’s well worth noting. If a Christian uses this in an argument against the Koran, a Muslim might retort that the Bible also contains numerous violent passages. That is a fair response because it is true. The major difference is, however, that unlike the genocidal texts from the Old Testament, or some of the harsh laws that offend modern sensibilities, the Koran doesn’t simply describe the violence that has occurred in the past, but instead calls for ongoing violence. When it comes to the genocidal texts of the Old Testament the Bible simply declares it to have happened because God commanded it. But it revolved around a specific time and place and was directed against a specific people. It was not standardized as if a part of Jewish law.
Many of the verses of violence in the Koran, however, are open-ended which means they aren’t restrained by historical context. They apply today just as they applied in Muhammad’s time. Islamic commentator, and specialist on the Middle East, Raymond Ibrahim, observes this distinction writing that “Comparing violence in the Bible – both Old and New Testaments – with violence in the Quran conflates history with doctrine. The majority of violence in the Bible is recorded as history; a description of events. Conversely, the overwhelming majority of violence in the Quran is doctrinally significant. The Quran uses open-ended language to call on believers to commit acts of violence against non-Muslims” (11).
This does not mean these Koranic verses exist within a vacuum. They have a historical context although their ultimate significance is theological (12). Sura 9:5, for example, applies to all Muslims at all times, and is the basis for the mandate that idolaters and polytheists must either convert to Islam or be killed. This is unmistakable as sura 9 was revealed late in Muhammad’s career and so cancels out and replaces earlier instructions to act peacefully. Thus, Muslims were, and still are, commanded to fight the people of the book “until they pay the tribute out of hand and have been humbled” (9:29, emphasis added), and to “slay the idolaters wherever you find them” (9:5). There are still “people of the book” existing in the modern world that must be subjugated and/or killed.
However, there is quite another dimension at play when it comes to New Testament Christianity and the ethics thereof. There seems to be a far greater emphasis placed on peace and love within the New Testament. Most famously we find that Jesus commanded his followers to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mat. 5:44-45), to “love one another” (John 13:34), and to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). And although the Bible, the New Testament included, has been used to support and normalize moral evils such as war, racism and slavery as perpetuated by Christians, one cannot find inspiration for such acts in the teachings and actions of Jesus.
Unlike with the Prophet Muhammad, a quick glance at Jesus reveals an individual fairly opposed to violence. In one episode he commanded a follower to put away his sword after he attempted to prevent and defend Jesus from being arrested (Mat. 26:52; also see John 18:36 where Jesus declared to his Roman prosecutor Pilate that his followers would not fight the Roman authorities over his arrest, nor does he intend or hope for them to). However, a critic might point to one of Jesus’ statements in which he says that he has “not come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt 10:34). I have no intention here of being an apologist for Jesus, but we need to understand his statement correctly. Jesus did not literally mean a sword. What he meant was that by putting trust in him, it would result in the unfortunate division of families and relationship bonds. Those who choose to follow Jesus may be hated and turned away by their families. This is the sword that Jesus referred to. Moreover, Jesus commanding people to pick up swords to fight does not make sense in the historical context of Mark 13:31, Matthew 5:44-45, and John 13:34 as seen above, which emphasize the love of one’s enemies and neighbours. A further scenario hoped to tie violence to the historical Jesus, was Jesus’ overturning of the tables of the money changers within the temple (known as the “cleansing of the temple” as narrated in all four canonical gospels). However, violence concerned, this wouldn’t strike many as being extreme on the scale of murder, genocide, or sexual abuse.
One cannot say the same for the historical Muhammad of whom Muslims are exhorted to emulate in all walks of life (33:21). According to most Muslims anything performed or approved by Muhammad is applicable for Muslims today just as it was when he was alive. This is significant when one discovers that Muhammad was at the forefront of many conquests as the Islamic scholar Pickthall elucidates, “The number of the campaigns which he led in person during the last ten years of his life is twenty-seven, in nine of which there was hard fighting. The number of the expeditions which he planned and sent out under other leaders is thirty-eight” (13). Thus, Islamic terrorist bodies are well grounded in carrying out their acts of terrorism from the basis of the Prophet Muhammad’s own martial activities.
Caution & Consistency
There is also a word of caution forthcoming. Most Muslims do not actually obey many of the Koran’s exhortations to kill or subjugate people of other religions and faiths. So, one would do well to avoid insinuating that that is the case. However, the real question is then whether or not such Muslims are living consistently with their religious beliefs. My view is that they are not. If they do not obey Muhammad’s instructions to wage jihad then they can’t be said to be following their Prophet in all walks of life (33:21).
1. YouTube. 2012. Surah 9:29 — A Violent Qur’anic Verse in Context. Available.
2. Lambton, A. 2013. State and Government in Medieval Islam. p. 204-205.
3. Soggin, J. 1972. Joshua. p. 97.
4. Ehrlich, C. 1999. “Joshua, Judaism, and Genocide” in Jewish Studies at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. p. 121–122.
5. Brueggemann, W. 2003. An Introduction to the Old Testament. p. 141.
6. Stark, T. 2011. The Human Faces of God. Location 4314.
7. Stark, T. 2011. Ibid. Location 4314.
8. Brueggemann, W. 2003. Ibid. p. 148
9. Creach, J. 2016. Violence in the Old Testament. Available.
10. Bistrich, A. 2007. “Discovering the common grounds of world religions,” interview with Karen Armstrong. p. 19-22.
11. Ibrahim, R. 2016. ‘Science’: Christian Bible More Bloodthirsty Than Quran. Available.
12. Ibrahim, R. 2009. “Are Judaism and Christianity as Violent as Islam?” in Middle East Quarterly. p. 3-12.
13. Pickthall, M. The Meaning of the Glorious Koran. p. xxvi.