More to the Story: The Qur’an, Other Religions, and Violence

You’ve read the proof-texts. You’ve seen how violent and intolerant the Qur’an can seem, when choice words are lifted off the page by atheists, Christians and Jews who wish to paint Islam as inherently violent and intolerant. Of course, these same Christians and Jews will object strenuously when their own scriptures are quoted back at them. “No. That verse has to be read in light of this verse.” “You’re taking that out of context. You have to understand the history of the time.” (And so on.) Here is a sampling of passages from the Qur’an which show that there is more to the story that Islam’s accusers are telling:

We [i.e., God] have assigned a law and a path to each of you [Muslims, Jews, and Christians]. If God had so willed, He would have made you one community, but He wanted to test you through that which He has given you, so race to do good: you will all return to God and He will make clear to you the matters you differed about. (5:48)

Believers, argue only in the best way with the People of the Book [Jews and Christians], except with those of them who act unjustly. Say, “We believe in what was revealed to us and in what was revealed to you; our God and your God are one [and the same]; we are devoted to Him.” (29:46-47) [The surah goes on to state that those who disbelieve will be judged by God at the appointed time; the point here is that Muslims are not to take it upon themselves to punish unbelievers.]

But they are not all alike. There are some among the People of the Book who are upright, who recite God’s revelations during the night, who bow down in worship, who believe in God and the Last Day, who order what is right and forbid what is wrong, who are quick to do good deeds. These people are among the righteous and they will not be denied [the reward] for whatever good deeds they do: God knows exactly who is conscious of Him. (3:113-115)

Some of the People of the Book believe in God, in what has been sent down to you and in what was sent down to them: humbling themselves before God, they would never sell God’s revelation for a small price. These people will have their rewards with their Lord: God is swift in reckoning. (3:199)

The [Muslim] believers, the Jews, the Christians, and the Sabians—all those who believe in God and the Last Day and do good—will have their reward with their Lord. No fear for them, nor will they grieve. (2:62)

For the [Muslim] believers, the Jews, the Sabians, and the Christians—those who believe in God and the Last Day and do good deeds—there is no fear: they will not grieve. (5:69)

Say, “People of the Book, let us arrive at a statement that is common to us all: we worship God alone, we ascribe no partner to Him, and none of us takes others beside God as lords.” If they turn away, say, “Witness our devotion to Him.” (3:64)

Prophet, tell them [the People of the Book], “All grace is in God’s hands: He grants it to whomever He will—He is all embracing, all knowing—and He singles out for His mercy whomever He will. His grace is infinite.” (3:73-74)

There is no compulsion in religion: true guidance has become distinct from error, so whoever rejects false gods and believes in God has grasped the firmest hand-hold, one that will never break. God is all hearing and all knowing. (2:256)

Say, “Now the truth has come from your Lord: let those who wish to believe in it do so, and let those who wish to reject it do so.” (18:29)

Had your Lord willed, all the people on earth would have believed. So can you, Prophet, compel people to believe? No soul can believe except by God’s will, and He brings disgrace on those who do not use their reason. (10:99-100)

Say to the disbelievers, “I do not worship what you worship, and you do not worship what I worship. I will never worship what you worship, and you will never worship what I worship. You have your religion, and I have mine.” (109:1-6)

Hurry towards your Lord’s forgiveness and a Garden as wide as the heavens and earth prepared for the righteous, who give, both in prosperity and adversity, who restrain their anger and pardon people—God loves those who do good—those who remember God and implore forgiveness for their sins if they do something shameful or wrong themselves—who forgives sins but God?—and who never knowingly persist in doing wrong. The reward for such people is forgiveness from their Lord, and Gardens graced with flowing streams, where they will remain. How excellent is the reward of those who labor! (3:133-136)

On account of [Cain’s deed], We [God] decreed to the Children of Israel that if anyone kills a person—unless in retribution for murder or spreading corruption in the land—it is as if he kills all mankind, while if any saves a life it is as if he saves the lives of all mankind. (5:32)

Fight in God’s cause against those who fight you, but do not overstep the limits [according to the commentators this means: do not initiate hostilities, do not kill non-combatants, and do not give disproportionate response to aggression]: God does not love those who overstep the limits. . . . If they cease [hostilities], then God is most forgiving and merciful. . . . If they cease hostilities, there can be no further hostility, except towards aggressors. . . . Spend in God’s cause: do not contribute to your destruction with your own hands, but do good, for God loves those who do good. (2:190-195)

But if they incline towards peace, you must also incline towards it, and put your trust in God: He is the All Hearing, the All Knowing. (8:61)

If you raise your hand to kill me, I will not raise mine to kill you. I fear God, the Lord of all worlds. (5:28)

God may still bring about affection between you and your present enemies—God is all powerful, God is most forgiving and merciful—and He does not forbid you to deal kindly and justly with anyone who has not fought you for your faith or driven you out of your homes: God loves the just. (60:7-8)

The Prophet said, “When God had finished His creation, He wrote over His throne: ‘My Mercy preceded My Anger.’” (Sahih Bukhari ix, 93:518)

Read the Qur’an. I recommend this translation. Read John Esposito’s What Everyone Needs To Know About Islam. Read Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time. Better yet, go to your local mosque and tell them you want to get to know the people there and learn to understand their religion. Spend two or three months, at least, visiting and discussing, asking questions, and listening. Drop your defenses. Make friends. Put an end to ignorance, fear, and hate. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

13 thoughts on “More to the Story: The Qur’an, Other Religions, and Violence

  1. Wonderful article Thom. These passages from the Qur’an are truly inspiring, it makes me sort of envious that they aren’t a part of our scripture. But I suppose there is nothing wrong about being influenced in some way by a religion outside your own.

    The translation you suggested is pretty good, it’s certainly a lot easier to read than many other translations and it’s allowed me to read sections of the Qur’an at a time. I also promised you that I’d read Kueng, Esposito, and Armstrong when the time allows. But I couldn’t help but be taken in by the discussion you and some other young man were having over at facebook. The one about the authorship the koranic text. Do you have any suggestions for me to read, I’m new to the field so I don’t yet know who the trust and who to pass over. The only popular book I know of that deals with the issue is by Ibn Waqqaq, who from I’ve seen on youtube, is most unplesant, so I’m relucant to pick up anything by him. So if you can help me in this regard I would be most happy.

  2. Hello Thom Starks,
    I attend Deaf Muslim class at Adams’s Center since almost 3 months. Imam is hearing but Adam’s Center provide a Sign language interpreter. I am enjoy learn about Islam.
    I do like to ask you a question. Do you think Muhammad is a prophet? and why? I am just curious that all.

  3. Strangely, Imam in Adams’s Center told me that Christian and Jewish does not go to the heaven. The heaven is reserve for only Muslim. Also, they said Torah and Holy Bible are corrupt.

  4. There are different attitudes and ideas about this within Islam, just as there are different attitudes and ideas about within Christianity. Probably the most moderate position in Islam is that all Jews and Christians prior to Muhammad who followed their prophets will be in heaven. Since Muhammad, if a Jew or a Christian has heard his message, they are accountable. A rejection of his message is likely to lead to hell, but the Prophet incessantly reiterated that judgment is only in the hands of God and he will have mercy on whomever he pleases, and will condemn whomever he pleases. However, the message of Islam is very simple. “There is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet.” I know many Jews and Christians who can affirm this. “Islam” simply means “submission,” so when it says the “religion of Islam” it shouldn’t be taken as a proper-noun so much as in this sense, “the religion of submission to the one true God.” Many Jews and Christians are practitioners of Islam in this sense, according to many Muslims. And to say that Muhammad is God’s prophet may be anathema to some Christians and Jews, but to others it does not entail the negation of their core beliefs as followers of their prophets.

    Islam is exclusivistic, but not nearly as exclusivistic as traditional strands of Christianity. (Judge that how you will.)

  5. Well I for do not see Islam as that exclusive nor do I see Christianity that way either. As far as traditional Christianity goes I feel the situation there is somewhat mixed as we have people like Gregory of Nyssa and his brothers as well as Origen to think about. Though historically these ideas have been looked upon as heritical.
    But I want to know more about Jesus’ view on the matter. Dale Allison pointed out that he clearly believed in judgement but I wondered how he viewed the fate of the Gentiles. Ed Sanders called Jesus “a kind and generous man” when considering what Jesus would have thought about the gentiles but there is always Mark 7 and Matthew 15. But I have always took that as an ancient ripostle, but I wonder if it reflects a genuine change in Jesus’ heart, let us hope so.

  6. Thank you for respond me SMILE… I still like to ask you a question again. Do you think Muhammad is prophet? and why? I am just curious. For me, I am still not sure. I have still learn about Quran and Islam.

  7. It seems like part of the issue isn’t the existence of “peaceful” verses (typically highlighted by more “moderate” Muslims), but rather, the relation to the “violent” verses within the canon. A question to be asked (don’t know why you didn’t, Thom, or rather, why you didn’t ask [and answer] within this post is, if the violent ones (seemingly) are overturned (if they are) by the peaceful ones (assuming they are) then why do “fundamentalist” Muslims seem to ignore this?
    It’s quite strange given that an extreme minority of Christendom ever acts on any violent impulses from Christianity (hyper-extreme pro-lifers, Catholic IRA in Ireland, etc.), but that a cartoon (ink on paper) satirizing Mohammed in a newspaper can lead to deadly Muslim riots in Europe, Africa, Asia. It’s understandable that not all Muslims are like this, but why are the Muslims that are like this, like this?
    Would have been nice for you to touch on some of this, Thom. Thanks.

  8. The reason I didn’t ask and answer that question is because I thought the answer was extremely obvious. Why do fundamentalists ignore what they don’t like? Hmmm…. 

    Christians have historically been just as violent as some Muslims are today. And Islam is a much younger religion. The reality of violence, however, exists primarily in the third world, under repression, exploitation, etc. It has more to do with these realities than with something inherent in the religion. The holy text is read by extremists to support their political goals, many of which are very reasonable. The violence is a symptom of desperation, because Islam, too, has been a tolerant, peaceful religion for long periods in the past, just as it is in many places today. There continue to be Christian militants today, and usually they are produced in the same economic environments as Islamic militants. Your list of Christian extremists was quite a short one. 

    Why did Muslims the world over react as they did to the picture of Muhammad? I don’t know, why did Yahweh consistently react to small, localized infractions with mass-killings of women and children? While the latter, however, are made up stories that justify violence, the former response is, again, readily explained by social conditions. Poverty and political instability is the breeding ground of extremism. You’re right that not all Muslims responded by rioting. More correctly, the vast, vast majority of Muslims did not respond by rioting. 

    Meanwhile, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, an atheist billboard sends Christians into a frenzy. 

  9. Heh. I suppose I’ll wait to hear the news stories of frenzied Christian in Michigan out rioting, apart from perhaps picketing or otherwise peaceful protests.

    You miss my point, but that’s to be expected.  

    I’d be curious to hear your list of violent Christians, including historically, since you hold to Islam being much younger (if by, say, 600-700 years is considered “much younger”).

    Yes, I am one who “holds to” the position that six or seven hundred years younger makes a tradition “much younger.” But I’m idiosyncratic like that.

    If you seriously cannot come up with a larger list of violent Christians on your own, I’d commend you to go back and take some high school history courses. Start in about the third century CE and move from there to the twenty-first. 

    Where has Islam been large a tolerant and peaceful religion, just out of curiosity?

    What this question displays is that you haven’t studied the history of Islam at all. Please have a read of a basic college textbook on the history of Islam and then I’ll be happy to answer any further questions you might have. 

    You’ll forgive me if I dismiss some of your excusing of Islam and Muslims, since some of the argumentation sounds like academic rationalization (desperation, poverty, etc.) of simple bad/sinful behavior.

    I won’t forgive you because you’re dismissing a straw man. Where did I say that poverty and desperation justify violence? (Answer: I didn’t.) My point was that all religious people can be violent where there is poverty and desperation, and more often than not that violence is couched in religious terms. Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, etc., are often violent in such circumstances. They all have histories of violent tyranny as well. But Muslims can rightly point to the Qur’an, agreeing with you, that unjust violence is sinful. 95% of the time, “religious” violence is actually politically motivated. See William T. Cavanaugh’s book on the subject. 

    There are also millions of peaceful Muslims the world over. They are the majority. And in extremist Islamic nations, they are the majority under the thumb of a well-armed minority. They hold peaceful protests all the time. They just don’t get the press. You have to read independent news if you want to know what’s really going on in the world. 


  10. Kennethos, 

    You’re being silly. I did not “excuse” their violence by reference to an explanation for its existence. “Excusing” and “justifying” and “rationalizing” all share the same domain. It is not “rationalizing” something to provide an explanation for its existence. ‘Poverty begets violence’ does not rationalize violence; it explains it; it does not excuse it; it merely accounts for its existence. My point was not that the violence is excusable because it comes out of poverty, but that wherever there is poverty, there is violence. The relationship between violence and economics is stronger than the relationship between violence and religion. 

    As for your other questions, I really don’t think that you’re “wondering about clarification.” I think that you’re trying to bait me. 

    It is reasonable to be opposed to mass, forced displacement from one’s own land. It is reasonable to be opposed to foreign interference with national natural resources. It is reasonable to be opposed to foreign enculturation in the name of economic policies that benefit the rich and displace the middle class. It is reasonable to be opposed to the carpet bombings of cities which are justified to the public with lies. There are lots of reasonable complaints. Whether some of the responses to these injustices are reasonable or not is another matter. 

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