As the world continues to discuss the attacks in Oslo last week, it seems that much of the discussion has returned to the question of whether religions are violent, and whether some religions are more violent than others. I have, for some time, been meaning to write a post about the historical construction of jihad, but I realized to do so, I first need to make some general remarks about violence in history, and I think if I treated these two topics on one post, it would easily violate the internet laws of tl;dr.
But first a quick caveat: this is not going to be a post speculating about why Anders Behring Breivik did what he did. I honestly don’t think there’s any benefit in speculating over the possible reasoning for such barbaric actions, and I’m very aware that in reality, no one but the man himself may ever truly know why he committed these attacks.
What I do what to talk about is the role of violence in history, and what it tells us, if anything, about the development of religions. And it’s here that we come to one of my favourite discussions to have with my students: if we apply modern standards regarding violence towards others, nearly everyone in history, and certainly nearly everyone we know about from the historical record, were total dicks. For better or for worse, violence was considered a common part of life for most of history – and indeed, still is common for many in the world today. Couple with this the fact that historical records tend to preserve violent events – military actions, successions of leadership, political coups, etc – and we very quickly get the image that everyone in history wanted to kill everyone else in history.
The question then becomes – what do we do with this information? We don’t want to abandon our current belief that violence is a negative, but at the same time, it quickly becomes an irrelevant measure of comparison when we stand back and look at really any period of history.
It is certainly the case that there is violence in the history of Islam. What is interesting is that compared to the larger Late Antique world, it would appear that Islam was actually less violent than its neighbors – by comparison, the Byzantine empire, a Christian state, published manuals on how to flay people alive, and the Sassanian Persian empire to the east in the seventh century was apparently still fond of crucifying people. The earliest sources on Islam all put a heavy emphasis on the equality of all humans, that God should want all people to live, and early Islamic law had sanctions that required that anyone who declared “there is no god but God” should be spared, even if they were clearly doing so only to preserve their own life in battle.
Of course, all of these are theoretical concepts, and they don’t correspond consistently to the historical record. Muslims did kill non-Muslims, and each other, sometimes without any clear cause.
And thus we come to the great paradox of historical research, that people only sometimes do what they say they will. This is the problem faced by all historians, to balance the claims of chronicles and histories against those of ideologues, theologians and jurists. But it’s a particular important discussion to keep in mind when discussing the history of religions because the distance between the ideology and the history is often so great, the distance between a theology of righteousness and a reality of political intrigue and military expansion.