Authority, Community & Identity article

Overheard at a Christian Triumphalist Soirée: Channeling the Qur’an’s Critics

I agree with the main themes and arguments advanced by Philip Jenkins, not only in his blog post for Contending Modernities, but also in his interesting and important new book, Laying Down the Sword, which I have reviewed at some length for a forthcoming issue of The National Interest. That said, let me play devil’s advocate here and develop a point of view with which I fundamentally disagree, but which Jenkins does not fully counter in his otherwise compelling rejection of the distorted logic of Islamophobes who describe the Qur’an as a “handbook for terrorists.” What follows is an imagined response to Jenkins, based on eavesdropping on the discourse of (let’s call them) the “cultured despisers” of Islam:

Don’t Islam and Christianity Have Very Different Founders?

“Yes, perhaps it is true that, ever since Christianity first became entangled with empire (Rome, 4th century CE), Bible-toting Christians have taken a back seat to no other religion, perhaps not even to Islam, when it comes to horrific acts of violence — from lynching to genocide — committed in the name of their religion.  But at least millions of other Christians have solid ground in denouncing and resisting these distortions of their faith — Biblical warrants for naming them powerfully as distortions.  For starters, Jesus never killed anyone, or led an army in battle; indeed, he enjoined his followers to “lay down their swords,” and he suffered an unjust death on a cross without resisting. By contrast, Mohammed was, among other things, a warrior, whose military conquests are still celebrated by devout Muslims.

“The deeds and example of the founder of a religion are important (if not always decisive) for how scriptures are read, and how the faith is enacted, by his followers.  That is why Christianity has produced movements of nonviolent resistance against state violence (and on explicitly Christian grounds), and even “peace churches” (i.e., the Quakers, the Mennonites, Church of the Brethren) which endorse pacifism or nonviolence as the orthodox Christian position.  Even the Roman Catholic Church in recent years—mirabile dictum!—is moving toward nonviolence as a counter to just war theory. (Read Pope John Paul II on this question: stunning!)”

Doesn’t Islam Confound Mosque and State?

“The fact of the matter is that Christianity has solved its problem with violence, by and large, because it went through a Reformation, which helped to inaugurate a modern period of church-state separation and religious freedom, thereby helping to disentangle Christianity from its cozy relationship with empires and nation-states. Meanwhile, Islam remains in thrall to the state or regime, and when resistance does occur, it is not motivated by Islamic principles but by secular human rights precepts.”

Don’t Too Few Muslims Read the Qur’an Critically?

“Christians (like Jenkins) have learned to read the Bible critically, weighing different passages differently, according to their conformity with the unmistakable nonviolent example of Jesus Christ in the New Testament. Contra Jenkins’ claim, they do not ignore the Old Testament, but they prioritize the prophets and wisdom passages over the bloody passages Jenkins cites. Only a minority of Christian fundamentalists take every passage literally (or claim they do). Meanwhile, it is only a minority of Muslims, and a tiny one at that, who read the Qur’an critically, prioritizing the nonviolent phases of the Prophet’s career over the period of battle—and that tiny minority puts itself at risk by doing so!”

An Invitation…

Back now to my own voice: I (Appleby) have my own rejoinders to these arguments advanced by Islam’s “cultured despisers.” I will be happy to share them in a subsequent blog. Meanwhile, I invite others to weigh in, to formulate their own (cultured) rejoinders to the Christian triumphalist language I have rehearsed above.  The exercise should be edifying for us all.

Scott Appleby
Scott Appleby (Ph.D. University of Chicago, 1985) is the Marilyn Keough Dean of Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs. Appleby, a professor of history at Notre Dame, is a scholar of global religion who has been a member of Notre Dame’s faculty since 1994. He graduated from Notre Dame in 1978 and received master’s and Ph.D. degrees in history from the University of Chicago. From 2000-2014, he served as the Regan Director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. Appleby co-directs, with Ebrahim Moosa and Atalia Omer, Contending Modernities, a major multi-year project to examine the interaction among Catholic, Muslim, and secular forces in the modern world.

3 thoughts on “Overheard at a Christian Triumphalist Soirée: Channeling the Qur’an’s Critics

  1. Before the rejoinders start coming in, let me add another objection that you may well have eavesdropped on (Maybe it’s an extension of your third point):
    “Because it has no central authority to guide right interpretation of the Qur’an, Islam is perpetually subject to the might-makes-right tyranny of whoever has the loudest voice or can violently force subservience. This makes it easy for such mafia to assume legitimacy and impose their rule as true divine law, even in secular regimes (e.g., The minority who dare challenge these interpretations publicly either meet the fate of people like Ustaz Mahmoud Mohd Taha, or stay sheltered in liberal enclaves where they can, at most, preach to the choir.”

  2. R. Scott Appleby,

    I am not a Christian, and do not think that I am a “triumphalist”, although I’m not sure in what sense I should understand that word. I don’t think you are being fair when you write your own script for your opponents.

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