Abraham's Tent

A SMOTJ Web Magazine

Violence in the Name of God

In studying the Mideast, It is wise to investigate the beliefs of those who would endanger life, liberty and safety. Through studying their mindset, one can better anticipate their next attack, be it with weapons or words, guns or propaganda. That being the case, this essay examines one aspect of the thought patterns of those who would drive Christians out of the Middle East, (as presented by author Douglas Johnston in his 2011 book titled Religion, Terror and Error).

Scriptural Manipulation

Douglas M.Johnston, Jr.

It is important to note that Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda operatives did not stand alone in their use of violence in the name of religion. Other Muslim groups like Hezbollah, Jewish extremists like Kach and the so-called Lord’s Resistance Army of Uganda all carry out violent acts in the name of God. And that is just among the Abrahamic faiths. How are such terrorists able to manipulate religion so easily for their own violent ends? In looking at organizations identified with acts of terrorism, one sees a definite pattern in their methods. Perhaps the most used means for achieving religious legitimacy for violent behavior lies in the misuse of sacred texts. In his self-appointed role as religious spokesman, bin Laden cites selected passages from the Qur’an and the Hadith to justify his actions. One Qur’anic verse in particular, verse 29 of sura 9, constitutes a widely used call to violence for bin Laden and his colleagues.

“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 from among the People of the Book (Jews and Christians), until they pay the Jizya with willing submission and feel themselves subdued.”

Taken at face value, it seems clear that it is the duty of Muslims to fight the People of the Book unless they pay a special tax and submit to Muslim rule. But in the historical context to which the Qur’an is intimately tied, this passage refers specifically to the newly organized Muslim community in Mecca defending itself against its opponents, in this case, the Jews of Medina.. This tax, or jizya, is often cited as an example of Islam’s fundamental bias against other religions. This is not supported, however, by the definition provided in the Qur’an. Indeed, it suggests quite the opposite.

As in any secular state, citizens of a Muslim state must contribute to the functioning of its government. This includes mandatory military service to defend the state or, at times, to expand Islam. However, the Qur’an holds that a non-Muslim cannot be compelled to fight for Islam. Hence, non-Muslims are given the choice of either fighting or paying a tax in support of the government’s defense efforts. It is a tax without any of the religious precepts that accompany zakat, the mandatory tax paid solely by Muslims to help the poor. Thus the jizyah is an accommodation to other religions that is intended to provide a fair sense of burden sharing in defending the state. To justify treating Christians and Jews as enemies of Islam, Osama bin Laden consistently highlights this verse without any reference to historical context. It is a kind of selectivity, or isolation of scripture, that is used to justify intolerance (and which perverts the true meaning of what was originally intended).

Another al Qaeda favorite is sura 4, verse 89: “Slay the enemy wherever you find them.” Again, in isolation, this verse seemingly promotes an aggressive spirit of violence. However, if one continues on to verse 90, one finds the opposite to be the case: “If they leave you alone and offer to make peace with you, God does not allow you to harm them.” Muslim extremists purposely overlook this verse and thus compromise the Qur’anic intent.

There is no end of the verses that al Qaeda can find to meet its ends, just as the Dutch Reform Church did to justify apartheid and Jewish zealots currently do on the West Bank. None of the Abrahamic faiths are exempt from the kind of selective theological justification that lays the groundwork for violent extremism. For example, one could highlight the unholy actions of King David in isolation from the rest of the Old Testament and come up with a very inaccurate picture of Judaism and Christianity; yet these words and deeds are part of the scriptural basis for both religions. It is easy to see how a priest or rabbi could elevate such aspects to the position of cardinal teachings and thereby create a divine mandate for violence.

Within Islam, there is a historically institutionalized process of independent reasoning called ijtihad, which has played an integral role in the intellectual history of the faith. Ijtihad allows the believer the freedom to find the true Islam through his or her own studies and thought, giving room to mystic Sufis and militant Islamists alike. Another way of putting it: Ijtihad is the periodic examination of how religious values should inform daily life in light of major changes in the external environment. The doors of Ijtihad were closed by most Sunni scholars in the 10th century, but individual Muslim scholars nevertheless continue their search. As Professor Abdul Aziz Said of American University has noted, however, “When Muslims were strong in various periods of history, they were open to new ideas. When they are weak, they are afraid of new ideas”.

Further observations from this fine book will be published in “Abraham’s Tent” in the future.

Jeffrey Peter Agnes
LTC Thomas P. Curtis II
Contributing Editors
Rev. Michael P. Forbes
David D. Fautua
Readers are encouraged to write in letters to the editor with questions and observations at the following address: tent@smotj.org

Judaism is a monotheistic religion, with the Torah as its foundational text (part of the larger text known as the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible), and supplemental oral tradition represented by later texts such as the Mishnah and the Talmud. Judaism is considered by religious Jews to be the expression of the covenantal relationship God established with the Children of Israel.

Islam is a monotheistic and Abrahamic religion articulated by the Qur'an, a book considered by its adherents to be the verbatim word of God (Arabic: Allāh) and by the teachings and normative example (called the Sunnah and composed of hadith) of Muhammad (c. 570 BC – c. 8 June 632 AD), considered by them to be the last prophet of God.

Christianity is a monotheistic religion based on the life and oral teachings of Jesus as presented in the New Testament. Most Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God, fully divine and fully human, and the saviour of humanity whose coming was prophesied in the Old Testament. Consequently, Christians refer to Jesus as "Christ" or the Messiah.