Reading the Bible and Qur’an like Zach Hunt

Over at the Huffington Post, Zach Hunt is upset that people don’t read the Qur’an before judging it. I wish more people would read it too, including him. His rant is predictable:

“Armed with contextless passages from a book we’ve never read and know nothing about about, we beat the drums of war and sanctify our hatred. Not simply against ISIS, but against anyone of a different skin color who reads the Quran and worships at a mosque.

“But here’s the thing. If we cherry-pick verses from the Bible the way we cherry-pick verses from the Quran, we can read the Bible exactly like we read the Quran and come to the exact same conclusions about Christianity that we do about Islam being a religion of hate, violence, and oppression. For example, Deuteronomy 3:3-7, Joshua 6:20-21, and 1 Samuel 15:3 all sanction the genocide of infidels. 1 Kings 18:40 is clear that we should also kill the infidel leaders of other religions. Exodus 21:1-11 gives us the go-ahead to own slaves. But not just any slaves. Need a little extra money? Exodus 21:7 suggests selling your daughter as a sex slave. Do your children talk back to you? Well, Leviticus 20:9 is clear about what should be done: put them to death.”

These are worn objections and easily refuted. The fact is that Jewish and Christian groups don’t wage holy war or practice a sharia-law equivalent by appealing to the biblical texts cited by Hunt. And there are good reasons for that.

The direction of evolving beliefs

Many theologians believe that the Judeo-Christian tradition (the Tanakh & Talmud for Jews; the Old & New Testaments for Christians) depicts a process of moral evolution — a gradual advance out of primitive savage beliefs into more enlightened thinking. This has always been an artificial reading, to be sure. The increased levels of enlightened thinking in the bible owe to a shared history of being on the “wrong” side of history (after Israel lost its monarchy and political independence), not some inevitable maturity. Islam, by contrast, ascended on the “right” (politically successful) side of history and so never had cause to adjust to the vicissitudes of life. But the accidents of history are irrelevant here. However they actually evolved, the Jewish and Christian texts facilitate a reading of moral evolution, and its adherents naturally read it this way.

Because Islam was politically triumphant, the opposite direction (devolution) is embedded in the Qur’an. It’s known as the doctrine of abrogation (Qur’an 2:106, for instance), which holds that later revelations supersede earlier ones — and the later ones are especially savage and intolerant. When Muslims are weak and in a minority position, they should behave peacefully according to some of the Meccan passages (reflecting the early time when Muhammad was vulnerable and building his power base), and when strong, they are obligated to wage war according to the Medinan passages (written when Muhammad came to power). Whenever the two are in conflict, the later ones trump the earlier ones.

So when modern liberal Muslims cite “there is no compulsion in religion” (Qur’an 2:256) and that if you disagree with someone, “to you be your religion and to me be mine” (Qur’an 109:6), that’s commendable, but a feeble protest, because the doctrine of abrogation refutes their citations in advance. There’s nothing like this in Judaism, Christianity, or other religions. When rabbis debated whether or not children suffer punishment for the sins of their parents, there is no controlling text within the Tanakh that would lead one to favor Exodus 20:5 (“yes”) over Ezekiel 18:20 (“no”), or vice-versa. That’s what makes most scriptures conveniently malleable. Not so in Islam.

Even the bible’s ugly parts that haven’t been officially superseded are usually leavened with enough positive supplements that seed their transformation. Paul’s homophobia is strong, but the New Testament (including Romans, where the most offending text resides) is tempered by pervasive requirements for universal charity that allows many Christian leaders to get around the apostle’s bigotry. You can’t pull that off in Islam. That’s why homosexuality earns the death penalty in all four schools of Islamic jurisprudence.

Descriptive vs. prescriptive warfare

Most theologians also believe that the Israelite holy wars were acceptable for the Israelites alone, not later Jews and Christians. God approved slaughtering the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Jesubites, etc., but none after, and his commands never amounted to “marching orders” for believers. Unlike Allah in the Qur’an, Yahweh never commanded his subjects to fight unbelievers as a general rule.

That difference is critical. The violence of the bible is descriptive. In the Qur’an it’s prescriptive.

Parting blows

As for Hunt’s parting blows:

“I think we find ourselves at an important moment in history when the rubber really meets the road for those of us in the United States who call ourselves Christians. Will we continue to fuel the fires of hate, mistrust, violence, and oppression?”

This is a standard rhetorical trick. Describing the hateful, mistrustful, violent, and oppressive features in a religious ideology doesn’t make one hateful in turn.

“Or will we choose to take the gospel seriously and actually love our Muslim neighbors and treat the Good Samaritans in our midst with the same dignity, grace, and respect that Jesus embodied? In spite of our anger, will we dare to follow Jesus all the way to the cross and pray for our enemies that do seek our death and return their hate with love?”

This is the common error of conflating of the doctrine of Islam with Muslims as people or as a race. Christians should indeed love and respect Muslims as Jesus commanded by the example of the Good Samaritan, and repay evil with good, etc. However, they (and all of us) should not hesitate to point out the inherent problems with Islam — in the Qur’an, the hadiths, and the schools of Islamic jurisprudence. Christians (and all of us) should support and applaud the many nominal, secular, and liberal Muslims, especially reformers who oppose jihad and sharia law. At the same time, they (and all of us) should recognize that reform in Islam is nothing to be optimistic about. But there’s absolutely zero hope when people like Zach Hunt keep repeating the myth that all religions have the same potential for peace or violence. We can’t fix a problem that’s falsely diagnosed.


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