The debate over whether or not Islam is an inherently violent religion is misguided. One side, represented by Muslims, Western Islamic scholars, and political liberals, argues that Islam is a peaceful religion; the other, represented by nationalist, conservative, and some Christian thinkers, insists on its essential bloody character. Both cite the Quran as evidence.
Few of us are actually qualified to speak authoritatively on Islam—a 1,400 year-old religion with more than 1.5 billion adherents spanning the globe, offering a diversity of languages, cultures, and theological traditions that rival the diversity of Christianity. But that’s only part of the problem: This enterprise relies on a wrong-headed Western twist on the Protestant doctrine of perspicuity—the belief that the teaching of Scripture is clear to any reasonable person.
A prominent Catholic apologist asked after the Paris attacks: “Is Islam a peaceful religion? Let's not ask the news sources or the Islamic Studies college profs. Let's just look at what the Quran itself says. You make the decision for yourself.” The proposition appeals to our historically Protestant sensibilities that presume the perspicuity of religious texts. Surely we should be able to pick up the Quran and see for ourselves what it says — it's the Muslim’s Bible, isn’t it?
Indeed, the apologist’s eschewing of those obviously-biased “Islamic Studies college profs” has historical roots in perspicuity’s suspicions toward authority. It is not difficult to find Quranic verses urging the mutilating or killing of enemies.
Yet after centuries of anti-Christian polemics citing the also stereotypical “violent” Bible verses, one would think Christians would avoid this method for judging another religion. There’s the conquest of Canaan, where God orders the Israelites to “not leave alive anything that breathes … completely destroy them,” (Deuteronomy 20:16-18) and the commandment to exterminate the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15). One might even cite Jesus' proclamation that He does not bring peace “but a sword” (Matthew 10:34).
Of course, Christian apologists rush to cite historical context, metaphorical language, and literary genre to reconcile these verses with the Christian belief in a loving and merciful God. But scholars employing this same exegetical nuance to understand Islam are viewed with suspicion and scorn by those who insist the Quran is clearly a violent text.
We also forget how we react when skeptics cite verses from our Scriptures that they claim demonstrate how contradictory it is, and therefore that it cannot have a divine origin. Such attempts are often scornfully resistant to the theological, historical, or literary training needed to understand our beliefs, and they are frequently ignorant of centuries’ worth of counterarguments and the way in which those verses have been understood within Christianity’s interpretive traditions.
Islam is itself an old religion with complex streams of thought and interpretive traditions. It’s rare that those who appeal to the perspicuity of the Quran have studied Islam’s various philosophical or theological interpretive traditions, be they Avicenna, Averroes, or thousands of others who have influenced the categories and sub-categories of Islamic thought. They have not considered that Islam might be able to explain the Quran’s violent verses in the same way Judaism and Christianity explain theirs.
Look at the History
Even if the text might be ambiguous, the anti-Islamic apologists insist, look at the history. Look at how violent Islam has been. This is just as big a problem for Christians and Jews as the argument from the Quran.
Christian and Jewish history have their fair share of violence committed in the name of religion and with the approval—and sometimes encouragement—of the religious authorities: the conquest of Canaan, Charlemagne’s forced conversions, the violent repression of religious minorities, European colonialism. And how do we decide which violence expresses the essence of the religion—was the mistreatment of Native Americans a Christian act because America called itself a Christian nation and its churches supported the nation’s expansion? Did the Enola Gay dropping the atom bomb on civilians represent Christianity?
In the same way, it is challenging to determine what “real” Islam is. Do the terrorists represent true Islam, are they a legitimate version of Islam, or are they a perversion of Islam? With no agreed-upon temporal authority to guide interpretation, every self-proclaimed imam or mullah can claim to teach the true path to submission to Allah. Nobody who calls himself a Muslim has more authority than anyone else to delineate the lines of authentic faith. Any attempt to do so reeks of Anthony Flew’s “No True Scotsman” fallacy.
It is for this reason that the alternative thesis, that Islam is a religion of peace, is just as problematic as the thesis that Islam is inherently violent. Who is to say that ISIL or al-Qaeda don’t represent Islam?
The Nebulous Question
I am not arguing that only the most senior experts can judge whether Islam is or is not an essentially violent religion, as if the rest of us are incapable of arguing about it. But we will need more nuance and a lot more humility to make even a tentative judgment. Proving that Islam is essentially violent, or that it is essentially peaceful, will require a steep, uphill ascent even for the most learned scholar. The question is about as nebulous as asking whether a belief system is fundamentally happy, healthy, or efficient.
Most of us would have to stand with Robert P. George, who wrote recently on his FaceBook page that “I do not want any faith, including the faith of Muslims, to be depicted inaccurately and unfairly.” Some Muslims “practice a version of Islam that is anything but a religion of peace,” but “countless others,” he says,
practice an Islam that is indeed a religion of peace. And I will not judge them to be “inauthentic Muslims” or say that the only good Muslim is a bad Muslim. It is not for me, as an outsider, to say who is or is not practicing ‘the true Islam’ or to dictate how passages in the Qu’ran that are interpreted literally by some and figuratively by others ought to be interpreted.
It’s natural to want to understand a religion that claims adherents who are responsible for ISIS, Boko Haram, and Paris. But let’s conduct our study not with the oversimplifications and bravado of our own detractors, but with the same attributes we hope those interested in our faith will exemplify: humility, patience, and charity.
An earlier version of this essay appeared on Ignitum Today.