Will beheadings in New York and Washington be cheered on the streets of almost every major Muslim city throughout the world?
Asking such questions betrays both the questioner’s own religious faith and his historical naivete. Our revulsion is a reflex of our Christian worldview; our surprise is the proof of our Islamic ignorance. To understand both our abhorrence at and the Islamic acceptance of such actions will require us to look back to the founders of these two leading world religions to see how they were set in motion.
Christ Our Example
True, faithful, obedient Christianity is committed to the high calling to follow Christ. The Lord urges His would-be disciples: “[F]ollow Me” (Mt. 16:24 ; 19:21). He commands that we should follow His humble example (illustrated by footwashing) so that we “should do as I have done to you” (Jn. 13:15). The earliest disciples in the apostolic era were called “Christians” (Ac. 11:26), which is a compound of christos (“Christ”) and anthropos (“man”); thus, they were “Christ’s men,” followers and emulators of Christ. They were called the people of “the way” (Ac. 9:2; 18:25 ; 19:9, 23; 24:14, 22) because they followed the life and teaching of Christ.
The Lord instructs His followers: “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (Jn. 8:31–32). He teaches: “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me” (Jn. 10:27). But what sorts of things characterize the life and the teachings of Christ that we should follow as true disciples?
A key theme in Jesus’ teaching is His command: “[W]hatever you want men to do to you, do also to them” (Mt. 7:12). Certainly this does not include beheadings.
In Matthew 5:44 He commanded: “[L]ove your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.” He was so insistent upon this that He taught us: “[W]hoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (Mt. 5:39). These directives cannot lead to a culture of beheading and dismemberment.
Christ was so far from urging His followers to fight that He rebuked Peter who sought to prevent Him from being taken away to be tried by the Romans: “Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt. 26:52). Even when faced with the cruel death of the cross, He told Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here” (Jn. 18:36).
When we look at the life of Christ, then, we find that He never lifted a sword in resistance to anyone. Nor did He ever urge His followers to attack others. He even went without resistance to be crucified by the Roman judicial apparatus. And His earliest followers were likewise ill-treated, while not lifting up the sword against their oppressors (1 Pet. 2:12 –17). Now it certainly is true that Christians in later history from time to time took up arms in the “service of Christ.” But they did so against the express teaching and example of Christ. Hence, one element of our perplexity at the Islamic atrocities derives from the fact that the founder of our faith teaches us otherwise — in both word and deed. The faithful follower of Christ could never commit such horrible deeds while being faithful to Christ.
But it is not so with Islam.
Muhammad Their Example
In Islam, the prophet Muhammad is the greatest example for the faithful to follow. He is the model of dedication to God par excellence; in fact, he is deemed the perfect example of submission to Allah. Hence, even deriding this perfect one is blasphemous, as witness the case of Salman Rushdie, who was put under a death sentence for belittling the prophet.
Now then, what can we learn from the example and the teachings of the “perfect” founder of Islam? Do his life and teachings discourage the horrible conduct we see engaged, tolerated, and cheered by so many Muslims today?
The Qu’ran (which embodies Muhammad’s “revelations” from God) certainly does not harmonize with Christ’s peaceable teachings. In the Qu’ran we read: “Those of the believers who stay at home, other than the disabled, are not equal to those who strive in the path of God with their goods and their persons. God has placed those who struggle with their goods and their persons on a higher level than those who stay at home. God has promised reward to all who believe but He distinguishes those who fight, above those who stay at home, with a mighty reward” (Sura 4:95; cp. 8:72; 9:41 , 81, 88; 46:9).
In Sura 9:5 we read: “But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the pagans wherever you find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem.” At verse 29 the devout Muslim is directed to “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, until they pay the Jizyah with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.”
And these teachings of Muhammad himself arose from his own lifestyle. His early caravan raids to finance his new religion, and later wars against the inhabitants of Medina and other cities to promote it, give meaning to his religion of “Islam,” which means “submission.”
Unlike Christianity, “In Islam, the struggle of good and evil acquired, from the start, political and even military dimensions. Muhammad, it will be recalled, was not only a prophet and a teacher, like the founders of other religions; he was also a ruler and a soldier. Hence his struggle involved a state and its armed forces.”1 Thus, “Muhammad triumphed during his lifetime, and died a sovereign and a conqueror.”2 We must understand that “from the lifetime of its Founder, and therefore in its sacred scriptures, Islam is associated in the minds and memories of Muslims with the exercise of political and military power.”3
To make matters worse, Sunni Islam is the largest Islamic sect, encompassing 85% of Muslims in the world. “Sunni” is based on the “sunna,” “the pathway of the prophet” Muhammad (to which all Muslims are committed, whether formally Sunnis or not).4 “Muslims have the duty of da’wa, calling, summoning people to submit to Allah and to follow the sunna, the pathway trodden first by Muhammad.”5
But what is the example, the way, the path of the prophet? He not only engaged in caravan raids early in his career as a prophet and in war later, but he himself was involved in the massacre of the Qurayza Jews wherein he “had trenches dug, and the men were led out in batches and beheaded.”6 Ibn Ishaq’s ancient, authoritative Life of Muhammad records this event: “There were 600 or 700 in all, though some put the figure as high as 800 or 900.”7
How could the recent beheadings and dismemberments of a few “pagans” alarm the devout Muslim today? His “perfect” prophet beheaded upwards of 900 in one setting! We are alarmed because we are Christians. As Rudyard Kipling wrote of the Islamic problem: “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet” (The Ballad of East and West, 1889). The roots of East and West in the founders of their respective religions provide a stark demonstration of the cultural and moral differences separating us.
We can be thankful that not all Muslims accept this sort of behavior. Ironically though, we applaud them for their religious inconsistency. They are out of step with the example of their model prophet, their scriptures, their worldview, and their history. When Christians have engaged in atrocities, they were denying their Great Prophet (Christ), breaking their scriptures (Christ’s teaching), and breaching their worldview and their founding history.
Secularists complain against such negative comparisons between Christianity and Islam. They invariably point to the Christian Crusades as evidence of our own failure. However, internationally renowned Islam authority Bernard Lewis responds: “The Crusade is a late development in Christian history and, in a sense, marks a radical departure from basic Christian values as expressed in the Gospels .… In the long struggle between Islam and Christendom, the Crusade was late, limited, and of relatively brief duration. Jihad is present from the beginning of Islamic history — in scripture, in the life of the Prophet, and in the actions of his companions and immediate successors. It has continued throughout Islamic history and retains its appeal to the present day.”8
Riddell and Cotterell agree, and contrast Islamic jihad with the Christian Crusades: “First, the Christian call for holy war was made by a human pope … and as such was subject to challenge by later theologians. The Muslim call to jihad, however, is cemented within the Qur’an for all time. Second, the doctrine of holy war has now largely fallen into disuse in Christian circles, whereas jihad as a military concept is still widely practiced by some Muslim groups.”9
We could also point out that the Crusades were defensive maneuvers against cruel, unprovoked Muslim conquests of Christian lands and that they were eventually not only forsaken but apologized for by Christianity. Such is not the case with Islamic jihad.
1. Bernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror ( New York : Modern, 2003), 26.
2. Lewis, 10.
3. Lewis, 21.
4. Peter G. Riddell and Peter Cotterell, Islam in Context: Past, Present, and Future ( Grand Rapids : Baker Academic, 2003), 208.
5. Riddell and Cotterell, 118.
6. Riddell and Cotterell, 30.
7. Cited in Riddell and Cotterell, 30.
8. Lewis, 37.
9. Riddell and Cotterell.