The Qur’an, The Old Testament, and Violence: Part 1
In his 2003 book, Is Religion Killing Us?: Violence in the Bible and the Quran,1 Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer takes a popular, moral-equivalence approach to the two texts, arguing that “holy” violence is common in both. But this argument is essentially lazy, as it ignores a clear trajectory from non-violence to greater and greater Allah-sanctioned violence in the Qur’an, in contrast with a more measured and decreasing use of violence in the Old Testament.
The Islamic Trajectory of Violence Reflected in the Qur’an
Ibn ‘Abidin (1783-1836), a famous Sunni Scholar of the Hanafi legal school,2 points to the incremental emergence of official violence in Islam’s formative years—from teaching to disputation to physical attack; first permitted, then commanded; first with qualification, then without qualification.
Know thou that the command of fighting was revealed by degrees, for the Prophet was at first commanded to deliver his message, then to discuss and dispute and endeavour to convince the unbelievers by arguments; then the believers were permitted to fight; then they were commanded to fight, at first at any time, except the sacred months, then absolutely, without any exception.3
This progression reflects itself in the Qur’an, which records the transition in Muhammad’s ministry from peaceful protestor in Mecca to political leader and military commander in Medina. Meccan verses present jihad largely as a personal struggle. Qur’an commentator Muhammad Asad argues that Surah 25 belongs to the middle, moderate group of Meccan revelations.4
25:51-52. Had it been Our Will, We could have sent a warner to every centre of population. Therefore listen not to the Unbelievers, but strive against them [jahid-hum] with the utmost strenuousness [jihadan], with the (Qur'an) [as opposed to the sword].
Surah 29, though still Meccan, comes from the period of transition to Medina.5 But the understanding of jihad still seems to be essentially an internal struggle to be devout.
29:5-6. For those whose hopes are in the meeting with Allah (in the Hereafter, let them strive); for the term (appointed) by Allah is surely coming and He hears and knows (all things). And if any strive [jahada] (with might and main), they do so for their own souls: for Allah is free of all needs from all creation.
However, the tone changes dramatically as Muhammad’s period in Medina progresses. Surah 4 is dated from his fourth year in Medina.6
4.74. Let those fight in the cause of Allah Who sell the life of this world for the hereafter. To him who fighteth in the cause of Allah,- whether he is slain or gets victory - Soon shall We give him a reward of great (value).
Then, by the late Medinan period, by which stage Muhammad and his community had taken part in many battles and raids, jihad had come to signify primarily military, not spiritual, warfare. Surah 9 is one of the latest chapters, dating from around the period of Muhammad’s military expedition to Tabuk in his ninth year in Medina.7
9:5. But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity, then open the way for them: for Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.
9:29. 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, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.
How does this compare with violent passages in the Old Testament which, according to some, are just as bloody as the Qur’an? Part 2 of this article will address this.8
Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, Is Religion Killing Us?: Violence in the Bible and the Quran (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2003).
Abu Hasan, “Imam Ibn Áabidin Shami,” http://www.sunniport.com/books/ibnabidin_v2.3.pdf (accessed June 12, 2007).
Cited by Samuel Zwemer, Studies in Popular Islam (London: The Sheldon Press, 1939), http://answering-islam.org.uk/Books/Zwemer/Studies/chap3.htm (accessed June 12, 2007).
Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qur’an (Gibraltar: Dar al-Andalus, 1980), 549.
See also Kairos Journal Insight by Dr. Mark Durie, "Violence in the Bible -- How Should We Respond?"