A Dā’ī’s Perspective on Violence in the Qur’ān and Bible
A recent computer analysis of the Bible and Qur’ān has been making waves on social media. OdinText, developers of analytics software, recently announced results from a comparative analysis of the Qur’ān and the Old and New Testaments using the latest data mining technology. The aim, according to the researcher, was to uncover with as little bias as possible the extent to which the content of any of these texts is more violent than that of the others. Their inspiration was pundits’ claims that the rise of terrorism connected with Islamic fundamentalism reflects something inherently and distinctly violent about Islām compared to other major religions. Tom Anderson, CEO of OdinText, states:
“Obviously, to understand any religion one must start with its literature. So, we thought it would be an interesting exercise to compare the primary books of Islam and Judeo-Christianity—arguably the core of their philosophies and tenets—using the advanced data mining technology that Fortune 500 corporations, government agencies and other institutions routinely use to comb through large sets of unstructured text to identify patterns and uncover insights,”
Their findings included:
– Of the three texts, the content in the Old Testament appears to be the most violent. Killing and destruction are referenced slightly more often in the New Testament (2.8%) than in the Quran (2.1%), but the Old Testament clearly leads—more than twice that of the Qur’ān—in mentions of destruction and killing (5.3%).
– The concept of ‘love’ appears most often in the New Testament (3.0%), significantly more than in either the Old Testament (1.9%) or the Qur’ān (1.26%).
– The concept of ‘forgiveness/grace’ occurs significantly more often in the Qur’ān (6.3%) than in the New Testament (2.9%) or the Old Testament (0.7%).
– On the concept of ‘faith/belief,’ the Qur’ān leads (7.6%), followed by the New Testament (4.8%) and the Old Testament a distant third (0.2%).
Tom Anderson comments on the findings:
“While we’ve only scratched the surface here, it appears safe to conclude that some commonly-held assumptions about and perceptions of these texts may not necessarily hold true. For instance, those who have not read or are not fairly familiar with the content of all three texts may be surprised to learn that the content in the Quran is not more violent than that of the Bible”
Full details of their findings can be read on their website.
WHAT TO MAKE OF THESE FINDINGS
One obvious application for such findings would be in field of dawah to counter the widespread polemic that the Qur’ān is somehow inherently violent or more violent than other religious texts. Whilst it may be tempting to pull out these findings as some kind of trump card, I personally would advise against it. I do not think such arguments should be used in dawah generally speaking as it really amounts to nothing more than an appeal to Tu quoque, Latin for “you also”, which is a logical fallacy. By trumpeting such findings we as Muslims are essentially saying “you may accuse our Qur’ān of being violent, but at least it’s not as violent as these other books!” Arguably such sentiment does nothing to correct the distorted view that many have of Islām.
Furthermore, although the intentions of the researchers were to analyse the extent to which the content of any of these texts is more violent than that of the others, there is a subtle subtext that is at play. It is that violence of all kinds in religious texts, regardless of the context, is negative, or that somehow having less violence means that a religious text is superior. Scripture cannot separate itself from violence, because violence is a fact of life. Violence manifests itself in many different forms, such as criminal acts, racism and war. The one constant about violence is that it has been around since the beginning of time. Therefore any genuine book of revelation must provide a practical way of life which tackles violence as it has to deal with the reality of the world that we live in.
SOME ISSUES WITH THE METHODOLOGY
Such findings are of little value when they are detached from the context of their source material. Does the software take into account the different authorship of the texts? It seems that they treated each as a homogeneous text, and while the Qur’ān is from a single author, the Bible is a library of 66 books written by over 40 authors over a span of thousands of years. The researcher took the effort of analysing the Old and New Testaments in isolation, but even within each there are many contextual factors at play such as genre (the Bible is a mixture of history, poetry, proverbs, biography and the apocalyptic), historical backdrop and the target audience that the author was writing to. Is the software sophisticated enough to distinguish between the literal and allegorical? The Book of Revelation in the New Testament is undoubtedly one of the most violent and would weigh heavily in the results, but it is highly symbolic.
From the researcher’s own testimony it seems that language was not considered an important factor, their primary concern was ease of analysis, not accuracy:
“Secondly, there are obviously multiple versions and translations of the texts available for study. We’ve selected the ones that were most accessible and best suited for this kind of analysis.”
The software used English translations of all three texts for its source material, but the question must be raised as to how accurate the translations were. If you are not completing the analysis in the native language of a text, then you are just analysing the translators’ understanding and interpretation which could be far removed from the originals.
Part of the study analysed the Old Testament and New Testament separately. They were split apart for the following reasons:
“1) They were written hundreds of years apart and 2) their combined size relative to the Quran.”
This overlooks the fact that the texts are inextricably linked. The Gospel of Matthew alone directly quotes the Old Testament over 60 times and alludes to it even more.
Last, but by no means least, has the intent of the researcher been considered? On the one hand they claim that they have eliminated as much bias as possible:
“So, we’ve conducted a shallow but wide comparative analysis using OdinText to determine with as little bias as possible whether the Quran is really more violent than its Judeo-Christian counterparts.”
Yet on the other they have introduced bias by their approach to categorising the texts:
“‘Jesus’ is also mentioned a few times in the Quran, and, for obvious reasons, not mentioned at all in the Old Testament.”
It is one of the few givens across the plethora of Christian denominations that Jesus is the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament, and yet the researcher has adopted a pro-Jewish, anti-Christian (and perhaps even anti-Islamic) interpretation that Jesus is nowhere to be found in the Old Testament.
These are just some of the considerations that are needed in order for me to take the findings of such a study seriously. Without them, such computer analysis is nothing more than a glorified word count. The researcher boasts about the speed at which their software “reads” the religious texts:
“Considering many people take at least a year to read just one of these texts, you may find it interesting that it took OdinText less than 120 seconds to read, parse and analyze all three texts at once!”
Such sentiments are symptomatic of the age we live in, where we judge matters superficially. We have been conditioned to communicate in 140 characters and express our emotions using memes. In the age of mass media propaganda we are bombarded 24/7 with sensationalist language. As Muslims we should look beyond the surface level, we need to ponder deeply and have insight into matters.
A BETTER APPROACH
As someone who has experience in inter-faith apologetics, I hope my insight can be of benefit. Let us analyse the core findings of the research which I will expand on using my own research. I believe what follows is a much more beneficial approach to discussing such issues:
- Of the three texts, the content in the Old Testament appears to be the most violent. Killing and destruction are referenced slightly more often in the New Testament (2.8%) than in the Quran (2.1%), but the Old Testament clearly leads—more than twice that of the Quran—in mentions of destruction and killing (5.3%).
Whilst it is undeniable that all three texts contain violence, the question should not be whether they contain violence, but rather what is the nature of the violence. One problem with such statistical analysis is that it reduces violence to a numbers game, but not all violence across the texts is the same.
Let us take the Old Testament for example, which contains some severe acts of violence:
This is what the Lord Almighty says: “I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.”
It must be noted that the genocide of the Amalekites in Samuel’s time was a punishment for what their ancestors had done over 300 years previously. Violence of such a nature, which does not distinguish between combatant or civilian, adult or child and even animal or human, is common throughout the Old Testament. It is by no means an exception but rather the norm:
However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you.
We are led to believe that these are the protocols of war that were revealed by God to Prophet Moses, the same Moses who in the Qur’ān reacted with shock when Khidr killed a single child. By comparison nowhere does the Qur’ān command believers to slay innocents. As with all matters in life, Muslims are bound to act according to the code of conduct laid out in the Qur’ān, and war is no exception. If Muslims happen to be at war, then even when we might be facing severe opposition, we must be just. We are prohibited from the extreme acts of violence such as those found in the Old Testament:
“Fight in God’s cause against those who fight you, but do not overstep the limits: God does not love those who overstep the limits.”
This ethos can be seen in the instructions given to the Muslim army by the first Caliph Abu Bakr (may God be pleased with him):
“I advise you ten things: Do not kill women or children or an aged, infirm person. Do not cut down fruit-bearing trees. Do not destroy an inhabited place. Do not slaughter sheep or camels except for food. Do not burn bees and do not scatter them. Do not steal from the booty, and do not be cowardly.”
The extreme violence of the Old Testament sits rather uncomfortably with the New Testament. When Trinitarians are shown such violent passages in the Bible, they try to distance themselves from the Old Testament because it stands at odds with the pacifist ways of Jesus (peace be upon him) as portrayed in the New Testament. Typically they dismiss such acts of violence by consigning them to a context or reality of the world that was specific to the Israelites. Jesus represents a new way, they say, with his new covenant of love and peace fulfilling and supplanting the warlike and vengeful covenant of old. Yet these same Christians believe that the Jesus of the New Testament is the God of the Old Testament. So when God allegedly commanded the genocide of Israel’s enemies, that was Jesus. When God rained down fire and brimstone upon Sodom and Gomorrah, that was also Jesus. So Christians cannot disconnect themselves from the Old Testament so easily, they have to reconcile these polar portrayals of God’s personality.
Moreover such internal inconsistency is not just limited to the interplay between the Old and New Testaments, it even occurs within the confines of the New Testament. On the one hand we have Jesus preaching a message of ultra-pacifism, with talk of loving one’s enemies and turning the other cheek, and on the other we have prophecies of his terrifying return in the End Times. In this Second Coming the gloves will be off: Jesus will have eyes of fire and out of his mouth will come a sharp two-edged sword. The Book of Revelation goes into detail about this future Jesus, who will “judge and wage war”, his robe will be “dipped in blood”, and he will be accompanied by “armies”, with which he will “strike down the nations”. So in the New Testament Jesus seemingly loves his enemies until he kills them all, a far cry from Christian missionary rhetoric that ”Muhammad is a Prophet of War, Jesus is a Prince of Peace”.
- The concept of ‘love’ appears most often in the New Testament (3.0%), significantly more than in either the Old Testament (1.9%) or the Quran (1.26%).
God’s love for mankind lies at the heart of the Gospel message: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Such emotive language permeates the New Testament and would have certainly registered positively in the OdinText results. While such concepts when reduced to counts of words such as “love” may appear positive, it brings us to a limitation of science. OdinText may very well tell us, with great speed and accuracy, how often “love” is mentioned in the New Testament, but it cannot answer questions about morality. Science can tell us how things are, but it cannot tell us how things ought to be. At face value the notion of Jesus sacrificing himself to redeem mankind may appear to be a noble act and undoubtedly is an aspect of Christianity that resonates deeply with its followers.
The reality though, is that such an act would be a gross act of injustice on the part of God. In the Gospel message, God effectively demonstrates His love by torturing and killing His son (subhānah – may He be exalted high above such a claim). Is such an act befitting of the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful? A human court that punished the innocent in place of the guilty would be considered corrupt, a miscarriage of justice. How much more unjust then would it be if God were behind such a system. You may wonder why is it that such a distorted concept of divine love has gained so much devotion among Christians. It is appealing to human beings because it shifts the responsibility of our sins onto Jesus. If Jesus died on the cross for our sins, then we already have our golden ticket to heaven. There is no need for us to strive, no need to repent, because Jesus has already done the hard work for us.
While such notions of divine love carry favour with Christians, they have long been a stumbling block for Jews to accept Christians’ view of Jesus. They treat Jesus as a Messiah imposter because the very notion of the beloved of God dying on a cross, a fate that the apostle Paul described as Jesus “becoming a curse”, runs counter to the very concept of justice laid out in the Old Testament. It is amidst all this confusion that the Qur’ān was sent down. The Qur’ān unravels centuries of myth making and demystifies for us who the real Jesus was. It solves all of these problems by revealing that it was not Jesus who was crucified, but rather it was made to appear so. In Islamic theology it is up to every human being to take responsibility for their own sins, as long as they have reached the age of discernment and are of sound mind. Not having the safety blanket of the crucifixion means that Muslims have to strive in bettering themselves from the cradle to the grave, in turn making the true believer a force for good in society, the very effect we would expect of God’s true love.
- The concept of ‘forgiveness/grace’ occurs significantly more often in the Quran (6.3%) than in the New Testament (2.9%) or the Old Testament (0.7%).
New Testament theology paints a picture of God whose forgiveness is contingent on the shedding of blood:
“In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”
Sin, Christians believe, is like a debt that must be re-paid, it cannot simply be forgiven. Hence why Jesus was sent to die on the cross, his sinless life represents the perfect sacrifice to wash away the sins of the whole of humanity and reconcile us with God. The theology that underpins the crucifixion is that humanity is inherently sinful, a consequence of Adam (peace be upon him) eating from the forbidden tree. So when Adam violated God’s command not to eat from the tree, sin entered into humanity and has remained ever since:
“Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned—“
The solution according to the New Testament is thus: Jesus died on the cross in order to undo Adam’s “original sin”:
“For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!”
Here we have a bizarre situation of the whole of mankind being held accountable for something we did not do, Adam’s original sin, and rewarded for something someone else did, the crucifixion. Such paradoxes are rampant throughout Christian theology.
Moreover such a drastic and elaborate solution, which effectively amounts to God incarnating Himself into the creation and committing suicide, misses a big point – the very capacity to make mistakes and commit sins was embedded into human nature the moment God gave us free will. God knew before He created us that we would err. So for the New Testament to claim that mankind has only been able to properly access God’s forgiveness the moment Jesus shed his blood on the cross makes a mockery of God’s forgiveness, it is an intolerable challenge to the principle of God’s mercy. We now know that the human story is so old, going back tens of thousands and perhaps hundreds of thousands of years, that to say it has only been 2,000 years since a proper relationship between man and God has been made possible, makes a mockery of the idea of divine love, because that is not loving. A God who coherently shows mercy, compassion and forgiveness for His creation does not stuff all of salvation into a single moment in human history.
The Qur’anic vision is very different:
“For every people there has been a guide”
In Islām the salvation offered through all of the Prophets has been the same throughout history, submission to our Creator and forgiveness granted through sincere repentance. That is the true understanding of God as having forgiveness and compassion prescribed on His very nature. Unlike Christianity’s pessimistic view of humanity, Muslims believe that God created man in the best of states. Each baby that is born is pure and sinless. However human beings are prone to making mistakes because we are fallible beings, an inevitable consequence of the free will that God gifted us. When God created man He did not expect us to be angels, He already had countless angels, perfect in their compliance, to do His bidding. In the creation of Adam, God wanted to bring about something different: a creature of free will, submitting to Him out of choice. A consequence is that we commit sins, and if we are believers then we repent and return to God. That is the part that God loves: the repentance, the voluntary return. In Islām what is God’s attitude toward sins? He condemns the sins we commit, but He waits for us to repent, and when we do He welcomes us. The Qur’ān tells us:
“O my servants who have transgressed against their souls! Despair not the Mercy of God. Verily, God forgives all sins: for He is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.”
- On the concept of ‘faith/belief,’ the Quran leads (7.6%), followed by the New Testament (4.8%) and the Old Testament a distant third (0.2%).
While all three texts require that their followers believe in certain tenets, it is only really the Qur’ān that directly engages with its reader in order to have them reason their way to faith. The Qur’ān is unique because it is the only religious scripture that gives its reader the tools needed to identify God’s truth: “Will they not think about this Qur’ān? If it had been from anyone other than God, they would have found much inconsistency in it.” Here the Qur’ān has provided us with an important principle that allows us to determine whether something is from God or not. If one reasons about theology and finds that there are glaring inconsistencies, then it cannot be from God. God is perfect in knowledge and therefore it stands to reason that His revelation will be perfect and free of inconsistencies. So we can use this principle as a falsification test to determine whether a doctrine is from God or is man-made.
Throughout the Qur’ān God constantly reminds mankind of His countless favours. For example the Qur’ān highlights that God gave us the gift of our senses and reason:
“It is God who brought you out of your mothers’ wombs knowing nothing, and gave you hearing and sight and minds, so that you might be thankful.”
The Qur’ān in fact admonishes those who follow trends blindly:
“Indeed, the worst of living creatures in the sight of God are the deaf and dumb who do not use reason.”
An endearing quality of the Qur’anic narrative is that it appeals to its audience to make use of their intellect and reason:
It is He [God] who spread out the earth, placed firm mountains and rivers on it, and made two of every kind of fruit; He draws the veil of night over the day. There truly are signs in this for people who reflect. There are, in the land, neighbouring plots, gardens of vineyards, cornfields, palm trees in clusters or otherwise, all watered with the same water, yet We make some of them taste better than others: there truly are signs in this for people who reason.
By comparison reading the Old and New Testaments is quite a passive experience as they do not really engage with their readers. While they do speak of many miracles performed by Prophets such as Moses and Jesus, peace be upon them, these are not events that we can witness for ourselves, therefore they have to be taken on blind faith. The Qur’ān is the miracle of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and Muslims believe it is the greatest miracle of all the Prophets. What makes the Qur’ān different from all the other miracles is that it is one which everyone can experience for themselves today, simply by opening a Qur’ān and reading it. Muslims do not just believe that the Qur’ān is from God based on blind faith because the Qur’ān is full of signs that it is the truth of God: “We shall show them Our signs in every region of the earth and in themselves, until it becomes clear to them that this is the Truth…”
It is my hope that we as Muslims avoid superficial approaches to comparing religious scripture such as that undertaken by OdinText. We should be people that do justice not only to our scripture but also that of the People of the Book. We should have insight into not only our own religion but also that of our fellow non-Muslims so that we can discuss our faiths properly and fulfil the principles of dawah laid out in the Qur’ān:
“Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good instruction, and argue with them in a way that is best…”
 1 Samuel 15:2-3
 Deuteronomy 20:16-17
 Al-Qur’ān 18:74
 Al-Qur’ān 2:190
 Muwatta Imam Malik, Book #21, Hadith #10
 Rev. 19:11
 John 3:16
 Hebrews 9:22
 Romans 5:12
 Romans 5:17
 Al-Qur’ān 13:7
 Al-Qur’ān 39:53
 Al-Qur’ān 4:82
 Al-Qur’ān 16:78
 Al-Qur’ān 8:22
 Al-Qur’ān 13:3-4
 Al-Qur’ān 41:53
 Al-Qur’ān 16:125