In the wake of the Paris attacks, voices across the West are once again debating whether or not Islam is an inherently violent religion. One side, represented by Muslims, Western Islamic scholars, and political liberals, argues, to quote Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton, that Islam is peaceful and has “nothing to do with terrorism.” The other, represented by nationalist, conservative, or Christian thinkers, cites Quranic excerpts or Islamic history as evidence for its essential bloody character. Both sides are misguided. Although it is natural to want to take action or offer explanations after horrendous and mind-jarring terrorist attacks perpetrated by religious extremists, we would do well to remember that few of us are actually qualified to speak authoritatively on Islam – a 1,400 year-old religion with more than 1.5 billion adherents spanning the globe, offering a diversity of languages, cultures, and theological traditions that rival the diversity of Christianity. Furthermore, this enterprise is reliant on a wrong-headed Western twist on the Protestant doctrine of perspicuity — a belief that Scripture is clear to any reasonable person on matters of salvation — though now applied to the Koran, and awkwardly reoriented to determine whether Islam is violent or peaceful.
One such reflection by a prominent Catholic apologist after the Paris attacks asks: “Is Islam a peaceful religion? Let”s not ask the news sources or the Islamic Studies college profs. Let”s just look at what the Quran itself says. You make the decision for yourself.” Such a proposition appeals to our often historically Protestant sensibilities that presume the perspicuity of religious texts. Surely we should be able to pick up the Quran and determine for ourselves — it”s the Muslim”s Bible, isn”t it? Any sensible person should be able to interpret its meaning on some issue, we surmise. Indeed, eschewing those obviously-biased “Islamic Studies college profs” has historical roots in perspicuity”s suspicions towards authority. Moreover, the apologist immediately – and predictably, given he is himself asking us to trust his authority as a religious thinker — contradicts this approach, urging the reader to first consider some extra-Quranical data points “before you look at the verses,” such as Islam”s often violent legacy. This is suggestive that the text may not be sufficient for the task.
Admittedly, it is not difficult to find the pro-forma Quranic verses urging the mutilating or killing of one”s enemies. Yet after centuries of anti-Christian polemics citing the also stereotypical “violent” Bible verses, one would think that this methodology would be avoided. Jewish and Christian “violent” verses are just as easy to find with a quick Google search: the conquest of Canaan, where God orders the Israelites to “not leave alive anything that breathes… completely destroy them,” (Deuteronomy 20:16-18) or the commandment to exterminate the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15), come to mind. One might even cite Jesus” proclamation that He does not bring peace “but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). Of course, Christian apologists would rush to arguments citing historical context, metaphorical language, and literary genre to reconcile these verses with the idea of a loving and merciful God. But when it comes to Islam, casino scholars employing this same exegetical nuance are viewed with suspicion and scorn.
We also forget how we react when skeptics of our own religion cite verses from our Scriptures purportedly demonstrating contradictions. Such attempts are often scornfully resistant to the theological, historical, or literary training needed to understand our beliefs, and frequently ignorant of centuries” worth of counterarguments or how those verses function within interpretive traditions. But Islam is itself an old religion with complex streams of thought. If we bother to read beyond the anti-Islam proof-texts and try to study the whole Quran, it”s rare we study various philosophical or theological interpretive traditions, be they Avicenna, Averroes, or thousands of others who have influenced the myriad categories and sub-categories of Islamic thought.
Epistemically, what evidences would one cite to prove whether a particular religious system is intrinsically violent? A simple examination of religious texts is problematic and insufficient. Analyzing history is equally complex — Christian and Jewish history both have their fair share of violent episodes: the conquest of Canaan, Charlemagne”s forced conversions, European colonialism. Some sort of statistical model counting the number of people killed by adherents to various religions bears obvious a priori logical problems – did the Enola Gay “represent” Christianity because America was a Christian nation? Moreover, in a time where many claim terrorists do not represent true Islam, it is challenging even to determine what “real” Islam is. With no agreed-upon temporal authority to guide interpretation, every self-proclaimed imam or mullah can claim to teach the true path to submission to Allah. It is for this reason that the alternative thesis, that Islam is a religion of peace, is just as problematic. Who is to say that ISIL or al-Qaeda don”t represent Islam? Nobody who calls himself a Muslim has more authority than anyone else to delineate the lines of authentic faith. Any attempt to do so reeks of Anthony Flew”s “No Trust Scotsman” fallacy.
Let”s be clear: I am not arguing that Islam should be “off-limits” for all but the most senior “experts,” as if we are incapable of judging Islam. But we will need a bit more nuance and a lot more humility. If it is possible to prove that Islam is essentially violent it will be a steep, uphill ascent even for the most learned scholar. The question is about as nebulous as asking whether a belief system is fundamentally happy, healthy, or efficient. Yet a blend of pride and unhealthy faith in scientism encourages us to think that we can easily quantify such categories in a meaningful way, and that unschooled individuals with limited training or knowledge are capable to do it. I myself took one course in Islam in Protestant seminary a decade ago, and have since read a handful of books on the religion – hardly enough to qualify as an Islamic scholar. It”s natural to want to understand a religion who claims adherents responsible for ISIS, Boko Haram, and Paris. But let”s conduct our study not with the oversimplifications and bravado of our own detractors, but with the same attributes we hope those interested in our faith will exemplify: humility, patience, and charity.
Casey Chalk is a writer living in Thailand, and an editor of the ecumenical website Called to Communion. He is a graduate student at the Notre Dame Graduate School at Christendom College in Alexandria, Virginia.