Within a few weeks of the 911 attack on the World Trade Center, Karen Armstrong, a former Catholic nun, who now specializes as a scholar of comparative religion, and very popular author, wrote an essay for TIME magazine. In the essay, Armstrong makes the case that the terrorists who destroyed the twin towers did not represent the true face of Islam. The prophet Muhammad, she argues, sought to heal the rifts between different, warring tribal factions in 7th century (A.D.) Arabia. In portraying true Islam as a religion of peace, she concludes:
The vast majority of Muslims, who are horrified by the atrocity of Sept. 11, must reclaim their faith from those who have so violently hijacked it.
I have been listening to an audiobook by a Catholic popularizer of contemporary scholarship, who specializes in Islamic history, Robert Spencer. Listening to The Truth About Muhammad: Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion has been a challenging experience. Spencer notes that while some Koranic texts do suggest that in Muhammad’s early career, the prophet did seek to promote peace, the story of his later life suggests a more complicated, and much darker story. According to Spencer, the theology of jihad, or “struggle,” was used to justify violence against Jews, Christians, and others who resisted Muhammad’s message towards the end of his prophetic career. This tradition is still appealed to today by the followers of extreme Islamic groups, such as ISIS, who are demonstrating their commitment to erase Christian believers from much of Syria and Iraq.
Karen Armstrong, who champions efforts to bring peace between different religious traditions, and who wrote her own book about the life of Muhammad, begins her review of Spencer’s book this way, “Like any book written in hatred, his new work is a depressing read. Spencer makes no attempt to explain the historical, political, economic and spiritual circumstances of 7th-century Arabia, without which it is impossible to understand the complexities of Muhammad’s life.” Spencer, the intellectual force behind JihadWatch.org, and no stranger to visceral public debate, responds with:
“Reading this, I doubt Armstrong actually read the book. Or maybe she just wants to make sure no one else reads it.” (retrieved from jihadwatch.org).
So, which narrative is correct? Is Islam a religion of peace, or a religion of violence?
Strangely, I know many Christians who never give much thought to the study of religious history, considering the matter to be of little consequence to their daily lives. Yet I would contend that such ignorance provides little consolation to the families of those who lost loved ones during the 911 attacks, or to the millions of Syrian refugees fleeing ISIS, looking for sanctuary in Western countries in our current time.
Lurking behind this debate over Islam is the debate among Christians as to the history of violence even in the Bible. I have been studying the Book of Joshua for the past few weeks, and I am struck by the message that God gave to Joshua to drive the Canaanites out of the land, and to claim the ancient land promise given to Abraham and his descendants (see these Veracity posts on Christian Zionism). Here are some vital questions for believers today:
- Is the Book of Joshua a justification of ethnic genocide, or was it a directive by God to execute judgment against the wickedness of the Canaanites? Would God ever command Christians to do the same today?
- What does it mean to “trust God” in the face of evil and wickedness, and to what extent are believers to engage in combating such evil and wickedness?
- What should be our priority, sharing our faith with non-believers, or doing what we can to prevent or restrain acts of violence?
Such questions require thoughtful consideration by Christians. The questions are complicated because people are complicated. For example, while it is surely true that Islamic extremists threaten with acts of violence, the vast majority of Muslims regard their faith as essentially peaceful. Islam is not a monolithic movement. But should our view of Islamic extremism cause us to love our Muslim friends and neighbors any less? I hope not. I hope that we as believers would make the sharing of our faith, the Good News of the Gospel, our highest priority.
Where do we go to sort out these things? For me, I have been strongly encouraged by the testimony of Nabeel Qureshi. Qureshi grew up in high school in Virginia Beach, Virginia, in a family of Muslims who belong to an Islamic sect that strongly believe Islam to be a religion of peace. Yet when Qureshi attended Old Dominion University, he met a Christian friend who challenged his understanding of Islam. After several years of friendly, yet intense, back and forth dialogue, Nabeel Qureshi became a follower of Jesus. Over the years, Qureshi has had a powerful ministry with Ravi Zacharias, encouraging other Muslims to reconsider their understanding of Islam and consider afresh the claims of Christianity. Below is a five minute clip where Qureshi addresses the tough questions (PLEASE NOTE: Nabeel Qureshi recently announced that he has been diagnosed with stomach cancer and his survival chances over the next few years is quite low. Please pray for him and his family).