I first heard of the Manchester bombing on Facebook. Before the identity of the bomber was released, the comment sections of articles were reduced to fights between those who assumed the bomber was a Muslim and those berating them for being Islamophobic. Of course, the bomber was later revealed to be a Muslim, which came as no surprise to anyone who pays attention to current events. In modern times, if a bomb goes off, or a truck drives into a crowd, or a plane crashes into a building, the first assumption is that the culprit is Muslim. Still, many claim that Islam is a religion of peace, hardly different from Christianity. Of course this is not true. But in reading Christian critiques of Islam, I’ve found that many will simply cite passages of the Koran which are violent, and will have violent Old Testament passages thrown back at them. Christians and Muslims both recognize that their religions are substantially different, and here we’ll go back to their origins to see what set the two churches on such distinctly separate paths.
Of course the Christian Church has been guilty of periods of violence. Many people are more than happy to remind us that Christians fought Crusades and perpetrated the Inquisition. It seems to be at the forefront of the American secular mind that Christian nations enslaved Africans, and had harsh empires that oppressed natives across the world during colonial periods. When a Christian points out that Muslims are responsible for horrible crimes, many people will respond with a tu quoque. There is a prevalent idea that Christianity and Islam have essentially the same views on morality. In a May 21st speech in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Donald Trump said that the fight against terror “is not a battle between different faiths, different sects or different civilizations,” but rather a fight between good and evil (Diamond 2017). This is the common political approach: after a Muslim commits an atrocity in the name of Islam, reassert that all religions are basically the same, and basically good.
As a corporate body, Islam began in an explosion of violence. Its founder Mohammed was born in 572 AD in Mecca, present-day Saudi Arabia. By the time he died in 632, Islam had become a dominant entity in the Arabian Peninsula. Islam was founded after Mohammed claimed to have a revelation from the angel Gabriel. At its root, Islam was a staunchly monotheistic religion, and Mohammed developed a deep disgust for polytheists and idolaters. He drew heavily upon Jewish and Christian scriptures (Gresh 2004, 60-61). In many ways, Mohammed can be thought of as a Joseph Smith figure: an outsider who received a private revelation telling him that those surrounding him had perverted their worship. Like Joseph Smith, he relied upon the Judeo-Christian Scriptures while writing his own, adding modifications as he went. And like Smith, he quickly gained a strong group of followers, which then suffered persecution and expulsion. But the similarities end there.
In 622, Mohammed and his followers fled to Medina to escape persecution. By 629, they had invaded and conquered the city of Mecca (Gresh, 61). In less than twenty years, Islam had progressed from a small group of followers to a conquering army. When people compare Christianity and Islam, they shine light on the similarities: humble beginnings, persecutions of the faithful, a message of renewed devotion to God. They omit (or are simply unaware of) the fact that Mohammed’s response to persecution was military action.
The primary difference between the violence of Muslims and the violence of Christians is its institutionalization. Jesus Christ taught his followers to pray for those who hated them, and to turn their cheek when others struck them. Jesus and his apostles taught early Christians to stand strong through persecution, knowing that they had a reward in heaven. Jesus and his followers were killed and pursued from city to city. Mohammed and his followers took over cities. The Christian Church grew, as we say, watered by the blood of martyrs. Islam grew watered by the blood of infidels.
The first centuries of Christianity saw evangelization, but not coercion. It wasn’t until hundreds of years after Christ’s death that the Roman Empire began forcibly converting people to Christianity. Islam began it within twenty years of the group’s inception at the order of their prophet. The difference between Christian and Muslim violence goes back to their roots. Many Christians would argue that the faith should never have become mandatory, since Christ never tried to force anybody to believe. The Christian mindset is inherently liberal; people are free to accept or refuse the Gospel, since conversion comes as a work of God. Of course there are consequences of this rejection, but it is not the business of Christians to administer these punishments. Muslims cannot say the same Their prophet believed that the faith could be forced. At its roots, the Christian faith is a work of God; the Muslim faith is a work of the sword.
Diamond, Jeremy. 2017. ‘Drive them out’: Trump calls on Muslims to share burden in terror fight. CNN. May 21. Accessed May 27, 2017. http://www.cnn.com/2017/05/21/politics/trump-muslim-speech-saudi-arabia/.
Gresh, Alain. 2004. L’islam, la République, et le monde. N.p.: Pluriel.