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Laying Down the Sword: An Explosive Look at Holy War

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Can war ever be holy? It is a question that continues to confront us as terror in the name of religion remains very much a tragic part of the human experience. While the news primarily focuses on Muslim fanatics who justify violence through religion, 2011 was also the year that Christian extremists shared their brand of madness. The murderous rampage in Norway on July 22, 2011 by Anders Behring Breivik, a self-proclaimed Christian "holy warrior," left over 70 innocent people dead, mostly teenagers.

The idea that any Christian could proclaim the religion of Christ, the prince of peace, as one of war and murder is repugnant to most Christians. Many Christians felt that calling Breivik a "Christian holy warrior," was not only a misnomer, but an actual media travesty orchestrated to insult the Christian faith. As a Muslim growing up in America, I understand the visceral reaction that Christians had to having their faith associated with horrific crimes. The acts of a few evil men are used to stigmatize the vast majority of believers that live ethical lives filled with compassion.

When I heard Christians respond with sincere outrage that it was unjust to associate their religion with violence, I would respond -- "I understand. As a Muslim, I feel your pain." And sometimes the reaction would be less than gracious, as my colleagues would state with some resentment that there really was no comparison. Islam was a religion of violence, while Judaism and Christianity were religions of peace.

Ah, if it were only that simple.

Philip Jenkins, a renowned scholar of Christian history, has just published a powerful book looking at the scriptural origins of violence in the Abrahamic religions. And his conclusions will be troubling for those who wish to uphold the simple dichotomy of Judeo-Christian peace versus Muslim war.

In "Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can't Ignore the Bible's Violent Verses," Prof. Jenkins makes the case that while both the Bible and the Qur'an contain verses that endorse violence, it is the Bible that actually lauds heinous atrocities, from killing women and children to genocide, while violence in the Qur'an is largely restrained by ethical limitations. And that the blinders many Jews and Christians have toward these differences between the scriptures leads to a breakdown of interfaith dialogue and exacerbates religious conflict.

Prof. Jenkins position is outrageous. It is offensive. And it is also tragically true.

I have written many times on The Huffington Post about my view that authentic Islam rejects the very evils that have been associated with it in the eyes of the Western world -- the murder of innocents and the oppression of women. Prof. Jenkins discusses Islamic scriptural history at length, and reaches similar conclusions -- that the Qur'an's view of war is largely defensive, and restrained by rules of conduct prohibiting aggression and the killing of non-combatants. Rules that are, admittedly, ignored by Islamic extremists today, who find scriptural restraint to be inconvenient in their "ends justify the means" rationalizations.

While "Laying Down the Sword" is definitely eye-opening in its examination of violence in Islam, it is the book's analysis of Biblical warfare that will be most troubling to Western readers. Anyone who reads the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament to Christians) will see that it is a scripture with great beauty and wisdom, but that it is also tragically stained in blood. In many ways, the Bible is a story of holy war. The Biblical accounts tell of how the Hebrews were commanded by God to destroy the native inhabitants of Canaan and take their place. Led by Joshua, the successor to Moses, the Israelites committed divinely sanctioned genocide -- killing not only the men of opposing tribes, but also the women, the children, and even the infants. This policy of religious genocide was not just a "one time incident" but continued for centuries into the days of the Jewish kingdom under Saul, David and their successors. Indeed, Saul, the first king of Israel, was deposed for sparing one enemy Amalekite when God had commanded the entire tribe (including its children and infants) be massacred (1 Samuel 15).

It should not be surprising that religions born in a primitive desert world, struggling to survive against hostile neighbors, have such texts. The brutality of that ancient world is thankfully alien to us today. But as Prof. Jenkins points out, the very fact that later generations found literal reading of these Biblical texts troubling and chose to re-interpret them is a sign of hope. It is the process of historical re-interpretation that reflects the essence of why a religion evolves from desperate survival to a place of lofty moral leadership. Prof. Jenkins discusses at length how Jewish and Christian scholars have confronted these texts over the centuries. He lauds their efforts to interpret them in the best possible light so as not to condone the kind of brutality that appears to be justified from a literal reading of the Bible.

It is that effort to interpret scripture in the light of humanity's evolving moral intuition that allows a religion to grow. It is what makes faith relevant even as human beings transform from illiterate hunter-gatherers into a global civilization with cell phones. And as Prof. Jenkins points out, it is the same interpretative process that has been at the heart of Islam from its inception. The modern phenomenon of Islamic extremism is exactly that -- a modern political movement that is disconnected from traditional Islam and finds its scriptural hermeneutics inconvenient.

The common search for peaceful and wise interpretations of scripture has the potential to serve as a bridge of empathy between Jews, Christians and Muslims. But this cannot happen if there is willful blindness to the historical differences between these scriptures and the different challenges they pose believers. I have often been confronted by Jewish and Christian colleagues who will throw Qur'anic verses relating to violence at me, demanding that I defend my faith. When I simply point out, as Dr. Jenkins, does that Qur'an does not endorse the kinds of atrocities that appear to be embraced in the Bible, the reaction is uniformly shock, anger and denial that such verses even exist in the Bible. A quick look at some of the outraged reviews of "Laying Down the Sword" on Amazon.com will show the same reaction -- lots of name calling against Dr. Jenkins for allegedly being "an Islamist sympathizer," but little actual attention paid to the problematic Biblical texts at all. It is as if the Bible verses he discusses at length simply do not exist in the minds of believers.

Such efforts to "one up" each other's religions are uniformly unproductive, especially when one is ignorant about the problems in one's own tradition. It fuels bigotry and ultimately a crisis of personal faith. If your faith is held together by the slim thread that your scripture is "superior" to someone else's, you may discover that you are throwing stones from a glass house. It was for this reason that I wrote my own novel on the Crusades, "Shadow of the Swords," where I detailed the profoundly different approach to warfare between the Muslim leader Saladin, who was famed for honor and compassion even by his enemies, and the utter brutality of the Crusaders. It was a chance to give my Western readers a look through Muslim eyes at a holy war conducted by Christians. The fact that my readers often identified more with Saladin than Richard the Lionheart was eye opening for them, and forced them to conduct a little soul searching as to whether any religion has a monopoly on either good or evil.

The irony of the Crusades is that Saladin's moral fortitude shattered the false projections that medieval Christians had about Muslims as barbarians, leading to the first stirrings of interfaith dialogue between Islam and the Western world. It is exactly that kind of dialogue that is desperately needed today. And it is through that dialogue, where we seek not only the best in our own faiths but in the faiths of others, that the legacy of men like Osama Bin Laden and Andres Behring Brevik will ultimately be defeated. Our war against religious extremism will not be fought with guns or swords, but with the most powerful weapon of all -- knowledge.

As Prophet Muhammad once said -- "The ink of the scholar is holier than the blood of the martyr."

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