THE BLOG
09/04/2014 11:43 am ET Updated Nov 04, 2014

Are Muslims Violent?

Nicolaas Traut via Getty Images

I wonder how many times I've been asked that question. It has now been a popular debate-starter for anyone thinking about Islam since 9/11. And today the horrendous brutalities of ISIS (ISIL, IS) in Syria/Iraq as well as the recent brutal slaying of two journalists are simply intensifying the question. Is Islam a religion of violence? For those with long memories, the late Rev. Jerry Falwell (the outspoken conservative Christian leader) once referred to Muhammad as a "terrorist" on CBS's 60 Minutes in 2002. That comment both started a conversation and in some cases started riots.

Dr. Indira Gesink's essay last month demonstrated that for the most part, when we refer to examples of Islamic violence we are pointing to fringe groups: ISIS, Boko Haram, the Taliban, etc. And she provides evidence for the many times that Muslim leaders have spoken against violence and condemned, say, the activities of ISIS. For example, the Grand Mufti of the distinguished al-Azhar University in Egypt is considered by some to be one of the world's leading Sunni theologians. His denunciations of ISIS have been explicit. As one friend told me, these violent Muslims groups have as much to do with Islam as the Klu Klux Klan has to do with Christianity.

But there is another historical or theological angle to this topic that I've been discussing with some Jewish theologians. Their argument: if you press the historical origins of a religion, you will uncover its true character. They then point to the later years of Muhammad's leadership, his attack on the Jewish tribes (the Qurayzah) in Medina, warfare-sayings in the Qur'an, and perhaps the violence or conquest that accompanied the expansion of the earliest Muslim caliphate. Qur'an 33:25-27 describes the defeat of these Jewish tribes and justifies the confiscation of their properties. From Arabia the Muslims tribes moved north and conquered peoples as far as Damascus. And, my friends argue, the violent conquests have continued for centuries. Hence Islam is violent at its core.

Muslims respond to this criticism by explaining that these early Muslim conflicts in Arabia arose not out of religious intolerance but out of political and security issues. So when Muhammad killed the men of the Jewish tribes of Medina (the Qurayzah) it was not because of their faith but because of treason. In the mediated trial, the arbiter Sa'd ibn Muadh even cited the Jewish Torah in their conviction. The tribe had broken its pact with the Muslims.

Other Muslims will refer to verses in their scriptures that promote peace and tolerance. Typical might be Qur'an 16:9 which tells how Allah requires the doing justice and good to others and forbids the doing of evil. Or 49:13 that describes how Allah made the world with diversity so that we may come to know each other and not despise each other. These verses then become the basis of the Muslim claim that theirs is a religion of tolerance and love. Muslims will list many of these and argue that Muhammad never participated in battles of territorial expansion but this was the work of later caliphs who perverted the faith for purposes of conquest.

On the other hand Jewish scholars tell me that the Torah command to "love your neighbor" (Leviticus 19:18, 19:34) is at the core of their religious history. Ancient Israel was a slave in Egypt so therefore they should treat all non-Israelites with respect. Similarly ancient Israelite society was built with strong protections against exploitation of non-Jews. However there is just one problem here. When we unearth the earliest accounts of Israel's contact with the original inhabitants of Canaan, it is a story of genocide (see the Book of Joshua). Various other books in the Hebrew Scriptures likewise describe the violent destruction of rival neighboring tribes and the burning of cities leaving no living thing behind. I add to this the much-later history of Judaism in the Hellenistic period that was intolerant of gentiles who lived in what was considered Jewish land. The ancient Jewish historian Josephus provides ample evidence of this violence (Wars 2:457).

Jews will rightly respond with verses from throughout their scriptures that promote the goodness of God, his commitment to justice, and the importance of love. The prophet Amos is a case in point: "Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you... Hate evil and love good and establish justice at the gate" (5:14). There is no doubt that a rich trove of ethical teaching has come to us from the Jewish theological world.

But what do we do with these tensions? How can the Grand Mufti of Cairo condemn violence when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (the chieftain of ISIS) promotes it?

It strikes me that if you peel back many religions (including the three Abrahamic faiths), there are both episodes of violence and expressions of tolerance. But what later evolves is that subsequent leaders exploit those religions for tribal or national interests. In Islam, the early caliph Umar immediately used his military to expand the Islamic empire. And soon Muslims had captured thousands of cities from North Africa to the Indus River. And their treatment of non-Muslims was less than admirable.

Even Christianity whose founder was powerless and ended up on a cross inspired a community committed to servanthood and sacrifice but also was followed by others who would turn their faith into an ideology of conquest. The Byzantines and later Latin kingdoms of Europe are textbook examples. Need I mention the Crusades or more recently Serbia or the Lebanese "Christian" militias? I'd like to say that Christians are different. But we have a complicated history as well.

But perhaps the deeper issue here isn't simply your religious preference. The issue is our humanity. We have a remarkable tendency to coopt religion in the service of our private interests. When he wants land, the Jewish settler in the Occupied West Bank claims "God has promised it to me" and he takes it. When he wants to conquer, the Muslim fighter in Syria conveniently distorts the Islamic spiritual idea of Jihad and he kills. And then there is the relationship of the church to colonialism for at least 200 years.

Remarkably a Christian will look in vain inside the gospels to find any text that can be used to justify violence. In an unexpected and surprising turn, Jesus set a counter-cultural standard for non-violence that cost him his life. The Sermon on the Mount makes it explicit, "You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven," (Matthew 5:44-45).

Love your enemy? That is a virtue -- my non-Christian friends have told me -- that is unique to Jesus.

Are Muslims violent? Yes. Are Jews and Christians violent? Yes. The problem is not one's religious affiliation. The problem is spiritual: There is something bent inside each of us that inspires us to distort the higher values of the faith we profess.

(Personal thanks to five scholars -- Muslim, Jewish, and Christian -- whose editorial contributions improved this post enormously.)

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Gary M. Burge, Ph.D., is a professor of theology at Wheaton College in Chicago, IL. He writes extensively on the Middle East and has traveled frequently to countries from Iraq to Libya. He is also the author of numerous books and articles on theology as well. His recent publications on Israel/Palestine include Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to Holy Land Theology (2010) and Whose Land? Whose Promise? What Christians Are Not Being Told About Israel and the Palestinians (2013).