What is religious violence?

I’m slowly collecting enough of a backlog of questions to be able to update this thing regularly.  Maybe one day I’ll even have a set schedule for updates!  (Although honestly, ‘schedules’ have never been one of my strong suits.)

For today’s question, Peg asked: for a religious historian, when is violence religious, as opposed to political, social, or just violent?

This is a tough one – I’ve taught a class on the religious conflicts between Christianity and Islam, and I still don’t have a precise definition for “religious violence”.

The problem, from the historian’s standpoint, is that we don’t know the true motivations of the people we study, and so, to a certain degree, we have to accept the motivation that they give for their actions.  In some cases, it’s obvious that the stated motivation is not the only one, or even the most significant one – for example, America’s entrance into World War Two wasn’t just to offer aid to the Allies, even though this was the motivation given the most often by American leaders at the time.  In other cases, however, the real motivation that drives someone is impossible to know – often at the times when the person’s actions seem the most strange to the historian.  As a historian, I’m almost willing to accept that Napoleon invaded Russia because space aliens told him to, because it seems like such an obviously failed plan that I’m willing to accept almost any explanation for why he would do so.

Actions which claim a religious basis are perhaps the hardest to judge, in terms of their motivation, because we can never know how someone else truly experiences their own beliefs.  There are plenty of examples from history of someone doing something because he or she believed God had told him or her to do so, and many times, it has led to events of great violence – the Crusaders, Joan of Arc, even the formation of the Klu Klux Klan, they all have a religious element.

For me, as a religious historian, I would not count every one of these events as “religious violence”.  There are two reasons for this.  The first is that, in many cases, the motivations are obviously more varied than a strict interest in God’s Will.  So, for example, there was a religious element behind the original call for the Crusades.  But some of the actions of the Crusaders themselves obviously had nothing to do with faith, such as Bohemond’s decision to keep the city of Antioch for himself, rather than turning it over to Raymond of St Gilles.  Bohemond never claimed a religious justification for doing so – he just felt that the city was rightly his, because he had negotiated its surrender – and the event serves to illustrate that the Crusaders were not single-mindedly acting out of a religious conviction.

The second reason is that these figures and events did not affect the religion they claimed to be following.  I know this seems like a bit of a strange requirement, but for me, for something to be consider part of a religious tradition, it has to have some influence on that tradition.  Most examples of what are traditionally termed “religious violence” had no lasting effect – the Crusades created a new form of indulgence through works, but this didn’t last after their end, and there is now a saint’s day for Joan of Arc, but those are both fairly minor changes.

For me, I consider “religious violence” to be violence which is understood as necessary to follow God’s commands.  Into this category would fall the execution of Christian heretics, as well as executions or violent punishments for adultery and fornication, be it in Christianity or Islam.  These actions are undertaken for almost exclusively religious reasons – obviously no one is purely single-minded, but these actions come as close as possible – and they represent a precise theological argument, a claim about what Scripture says and how the religion should be practiced.

But also here, there is a problem, in that theology is not a set idea, but is a constantly evolving stream of thought.  Therefore, although the execution of Christian heretics was undertaken as recently as the Reformation, and those who did so had solid theological claims for why it was necessary, it strikes modern Christians as abominable.  In the same way, although there are still some Muslim communities that practice stoning as a punishment, many modern Muslims feel that this is a barbaric practice, and that the references to it in the Qur’an should be understood in part allegorically, using a brutal punishment to highlight just how wrong the act is.  And yet, the people who performed these acts considered themselves to be doing God’s Will.  Were they wrong?  Was it not God’s Will?  Or does God’s Will change over time?  None of these are comfortable concept theologically, and so there is always the problem in defining how something could have religiously sanctioned once, but not be acceptable now.

If anyone is interested in more information, there’s a very interesting discussion of this problem in Eamon Duffy’s most recent work, Fires of Faith, in which he attempts to elevate the burning of heretics from the modern perception and understand it in the Reformation-era conception of ethics.  There is also a very good chapter on religious violence in Islam in Malise Ruthven’s Short Introduction to Islam.

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About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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2 Responses to What is religious violence?

  1. Michael Mock says:

    Very interesting. Do please keep going. (Not necessarily on this topic, but in definitely in general!)

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