To my Christian friends who consistently misunderstand Islam

I would like to begin by acknowledging there are some troubling verses in the Qur’an, which at first glance can seem quite violent.

I will fill your mountains with the dead. Your hills, your valleys, and your streams will be filled with people slaughtered by the sword. I will make you desolate forever. Your cities will never be rebuilt. Then you will know that I am God.

Make ready to slaughter [the infidel’s] sons for the guilt of their fathers; Lest they rise and posses the earth, and fill the breadth of the world with tyrants.

Then I heard God say to the other men, “Follow him through the city and kill everyone whose forehead is not marked. Show no mercy; have no pity! Kill them all – old and young, girls and women and little children.”

Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.

A [holy man’s] daughter who loses her honor by committing fornication and thereby dishonors her father also, shall be burned to death.

Everyone who would not seek God was to be put to death, whether small or great, whether man or woman.

But if [a girl wasn’t a virgin on her wedding night] and evidence of the girl’s virginity is not found, they shall bring the girl to the entrance of her father’s house and there her townsman shall stone her to death, because she committed a crime against God’s people by her unchasteness in her father’s house. Thus shall you purge the evil from your midst.

If your own full brother, or your son or daughter, or your beloved wife, or you intimate friend, entices you secretly to serve other gods, whom you and your fathers have not known, gods of any other nations, near at hand or far away, from one end of the earth to the other: do not yield to him or listen to him, nor look with pity upon him, to spare or shield him, but kill him. Your hand shall be the first raised to slay him; the rest of the people shall join in with you.

Anyone arrogant enough to reject the verdict of the [holy man] who represents God must be put to death. Such evil must be purged.

I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

All [who are disobedient] will be thrown into the everlasting lake that burns with fire and sulfur.

Of course, those of you with a discerning eye know that none of these quotes come from the Qur’an. Rather, they come from the Christian Bible.

Over the course of time, Christians have found ways to explain these texts of terror away: “Well, these are part of the ‘old law,’ so they don’t apply anymore;” or, “These were written for a specific context within a certain time and place, but aren’t to be taken literally for all time,” or, “These are passages about ancient warfare; they’re only about how to act on the battlefield;” or “These should be taken figuratively, not literally,” etc. etc.*

Yet for whatever reason, numerous Christians don’t allow Muslims the same courtesy when it comes to interpreting and understanding the Qur’an — despite the fact that Islamic scholars have shown time and again that the violent passages in the Qur’an pertain to certain contextual circumstances that do not apply in the same way today. There are responsible interpretations of the Qur’an, just as there are responsible interpretations of the Bible. I won’t do all the work for you, but see here and here and here and here for a simple introduction.

When we as Christians naively assume that the vast majority of Muslims interpret the Qur’an like ISIS interprets it, we ignore the tens of thousands of Islamic clerics who condemn ISIS as being anti-Islamic. The truth of the matter is that virtually all religions have problematic scripture verses and extremist factions. It’s not a matter of determining which scriptures are the most violent, then correlating such a response to the question of which religions are the most violent. When Christians think about religion and violence, we often forget about–or compartmentalize–the Troubles in Ireland (between Catholic and Protestant Christians), or the white Christian KKK militia types in the U.S., not to mention the Third Reich, which was avowedly Christian in its antisemitism and white supremacy. (This list goes on and on: For example, were any of these domestic terrorists Islamic? How about these domestic terrorists? Why is there such a discrepancy between the Right’s treatment of white terrorism and Islamist terrorism?).

I’m not sure why a significant percentage of Christians won’t give Muslims the same interpretive courtesy we give to ourselves. My anecdotal experiences indicate that such Christians are either (1) innocently misinformed but open to new information, or (2) willfully ignorant of anything that would threaten their desired prejudice or bigotry against Muslims. And one of these options is clearly more ethical than the other. I’m just one of many people who wonder the same thing:

Why is it that these anti-Muslim ideologues allow theological and textual acrobatics when it comes to the Bible, but meanwhile they forbid the contextualization of Quranic verses? Certainly it is much easier to “constrain” the violent verses of the Quran than it is for the Bible, since the Quran itself almost always cushions these verses in between mitigating verses. This contrasts quite considerably with the Bible, which has violent verses wrapped in violent passages.

prothero-relEver since I published a letter that encouraged Americans not to discriminate against their Muslim sisters and brothers, I’ve received a barrage of messages, emails, and texts from Christians who simply show an extreme lack of education and understanding when it comes to their operative assumptions about Islam. I don’t mean this pejoratively; it’s just that if the same understanding and logic was applied in a research paper about the rich hermeneutical traditions and practices of Islam, it would easily earn an F. That may not be a huge deal in the classroom, but when we are trying to make informed judgments about the way to navigate the complexities of this world, it’s imperative that we proceed with as much understanding and education as possible.

So, to my fellow Christians: You obviously aren’t required to view the Qur’an as sacred scripture. Nor do you have to say that Islam is as valid as your religion; or that you worship the same God. Those are all big theological questions and I encourage you to think through them the best you can. But one thing I do ask: When you form your opinion about 1.6 billion people on this planet–over three million of whom live in the United States–please don’t resort to caricatures based largely on fear, ignorance and manipulation, especially when such caricatures are no more accurate than having people assume that your version of Christianity and your interpretation of the Bible supports and condones the KKK.

It should be noted that while lots of Christians interpret the Bible based on its “inerrancy and infallibility,” this method is not shared by all religions, nor by all Christians. Judaism has a long history of interpretation that doesn’t in the least bit resemble Christian versions of inerrancy and infallibility, and thus Jewish interpreters approach their texts (including but not limited to the Torah) differently than many Christians do. Jewish interpreters have long offered responses to problematic texts that Christians would do well to follow. god-said-itHowever, the long history of Christian supersessionism, combined with the “inerrant and infallible” approach to the Bible, leads to all kinds of problematic and inconsistent interpretations. When Christians want to support verses from what they call the “Old Testament” as still being valid, then they will quote verses like Matthew 5:17-19, in which Jesus says that he hasn’t come to abolish the law or the prophets, but to fulfill them (“I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law”). Likewise, Christians utilizing this approach will say that Jesus Christ (as part of the Trinity) is still also the God of the “Old Testament,” hence God is the same “yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). When you take this into consideration, it’s striking to note how quickly Christians will distance themselves from these claims when they encounter a text they do not wish to support, often imposing and incorporating major interpretive leaps that the text doesn’t even apply to itself. (For the record, there are much more responsible approaches to biblical interpretation from a Christian perspective that aren’t reduced to inerrancy and infallibility.) I say all of this just to point out that interpretation is always at work when it comes to sacred texts. Many Christians say they wish to distance themselves from their texts of terror, but they do not give Muslims the same room to do so. These Christians should therefore follow Jesus’ instructions and take the log out of their own eye before pointing out the speck in their neighbor’s eye. Perhaps the simplest way to understand this dynamic is by recognizing that Christians are familiar with their book and their religion, so they’ve developed ways to compartmentalize and understand these verses in ways that don’t stand out to them, even if at times their official ideology (mode of interpreting) would undermine their conclusions. Personally, I like to recall the words of St. Augustine, who said (I paraphrase): “So if it seems to you that you have understood the divine scriptures, or any part of them, in such a way that by this understanding you do not build up this twin love of God and neighbor, then you have not yet understood them.” And here’s another gem from Augustine, for good measure: “If love is the only measure then the only measure of love is love without measure.” Which probably means it’s not a terrible idea to treat refugees fleeing from violence humanely, or to treat Muslim sisters and brothers with respect.


One thought on “To my Christian friends who consistently misunderstand Islam

  • Phil,
    Love your work! This reminiscent of when you used the words against interracial marriage to make a point about similar vernacular being used contrary to gay marriage.

    Could we get a cite list of the verses herein?


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