Imaginary Islamophobic Strawman: Isn’t Islam a violent religion?

So I’ve been considering for a while doing a series of blog posts on “conversations with an imaginary Islamophobic strawman.”  The problem I run in to, trying to answer a lot of the questions that come through on this site, is that they have so many problematic assumptions behind them that I can’t really answer them; the best I can do is deconstruct them.  So this would sort of be an answer to those preconceptions.  However, it would also absolutely be a strawman argument – no one specifically asked me these questions; they would just come from my own nearly-decade-long experience working in this field and having people say weird stuff to/at me.

I’m going to start out with the most obvious one, and depending on the feedback I get, I may or may not do more.  (Also, anyone want to take bets if I get a comment accusing me of using a strawman argument?)

Imaginary Islamophobic Strawman: But isn’t Islam a violent religion?  Violence is approved in the Qur’an!  The history of Islam is a history of conquest!

This is probably genuinely the concept that comes up the most often when people hear about my research, which is a fairly terrifying illustration of how engrained Islamophobia really is in the West.  It’s also the first google result if you type “is Islam..”

[The second is “is Islamic a religion,” which I can answer right now: no.  “Islamic” is an adjective.  “Islam” is a noun, and a religion.]

The problem with answering “is Islam violent?” is that, on some level, the answer has to be yes.  Because as I’ve said before, every religion has violence because every religion has humans, and some humans are violent.  But saying that a religion is violent implies, at least to me, something more substantial than that people within that religion commit acts of violence, or even that the people within that religion use the religion to justify their acts of violence.  Because again, both of those things are true for every religion on the planet.

In order to approach this question from an academic perspective, we would need a more precise definition.  What do we mean by “a violent religion?”  And why are we singling out Islam for consideration when religious violence is so widespread?  From this perspective, the strawman’s argument almost always appears tautological – Islam is a violent religion because of its history or traditions, which are those of a violent religion, without ever actually defining the term.

I think there are three main points to be made to counter this belief:

1.) Ye olde tymes were just really violent.  Everywhere.  For everyone.

2.) The Qur’an is a massive and complicated text – it can’t be said simply to approve or condone any one thing (except probably monotheism).

3.) The Islamic expansion was successful largely because Muslim rule was less violent than its neighbors, which made people like them more.

So, to start with:

1.) Ye olde tymes were just really violent.  Everywhere.  For everyone.

This is not to say that the entire Late Antique and Medieval periods were exactly like Game of Thrones.  Actually, as a historian, the often mindless violence of historical fiction really annoys me – there is a ton of violence in historical texts, but it’s never pointless.  It’s generally really, really pointed (no pun intended for stabbings).  Both torture and capital punishment were made regularly use of by political leaders for specific reasons – to break up coups, to eliminate potential threats to the throne, to end heresy/heteredoxy, and to demonstrate the legitimacy of their rule being among the most common.

Regions also regularly went to war with each other, although this may have been less violent than most people think (especially if you’ve seen movies like Kingdom of Heaven and 300).  Although infantry charges (where two armies on foot stand on opposite sides of a field and then run at each other while carrying sharp/heavy things) were employed, rulers and generals were quite clever when it came to not wasting men.  It was not necessarily out of kindness – standing armies were expensive to recruit and train, and conscripted soldiers were just pretty useless as anything but fodder, so there was no reason to lose an entire, trained army unless you really needed to.  Thus, armies regularly employed tactics like sieges (more on that below), designed to starve out cities to force them to surrender, tributes/bribes, spying, and assassinations to avoid outright battle.  Even infantry charges had pretty precise rules for their execution – raids normally happened in the Near East in spring or summer, during daylight hours, with the expectation that armies would have time to tend to their wounded and regroup in the evenings.

All of this applies to the Muslim caliphate, but also to every other empire and kingdom in the Near East.  Violence = part of being in charge in the Middle Ages.

2.) The Qur’an is a massive and complicated text – it can’t be said simply to approve or condone any one thing (except probably monotheism).

This one pretty much goes for any religious text.  And for most books, for that matter.  There’s a reason there’s a whole field of literary analysis – very few books can be summed up in a sentence.  Moreover, theological texts are often read as philosophical works, giving a system of thought that applies beyond the specific circumstances it describes, often with multiple layers of meaning (thus, in perhaps the most famous example, Plato’s Republic is not simply about how to run a city; it’s an analogy for personal fulfillment, which, in turn, was also a discussion of the failings of Athenian governance and Hellenic polytheism).

The Qur’an is made up of 114 suras, which range in length from a few lines to several pages long.  They were revealed over a period of roughly a decade.  Some refer to specific settings or circumstances (such as the references to the Battle of Uhud and the treaty with the Meccans in the sura al-Imran), while others are abstract.  Some retell the stories of the other Biblical and Arabian prophets (peace be upon them all) as lessons to the listener, others give direct commands and admonitions.  Some passages are abrogated by later revelations.

I think it’s probably fair to say that the work as a whole supports monotheism.  You might be able to compile a list of passages to the contrary, but you would certainly be ignoring more material than you’re employing.  But for nearly any other question, it takes long study and consideration to understand what the Qur’an says about it.  Not surprisingly, there are whole schools dedicated to just that, with the system of Islamic law developing in large part out of the study of the Qur’an.

3.) The Islamic expansion was successful largely because Muslim rule was less violent than its neighbors, which made people like them more.

Again, to understand the Muslim conquest of the Near East, we need to take a step back and consider how rule worked in the period.  For any government, rule was largely confined to the cities – rural areas (generally termed “the provinces”) were often ruled in name only – taxes were levied for an entire territory, with only minimal personnel, either civil or military, installed in any given province.  Cities were understood to be ‘under the rule of’ whomever they paid taxes to without rebelling, even if there were other signs of revolt or outright rejection of that rule – so, for example, prior to the rise of Islam, the Byzantine Empire claimed rule over both Armenia and the western part of the Arabian peninsula, despite both territories having their own governments, laws, and leaders, simply because they were generally allied to the Byzantines and willing to pay taxes/tributes to them in exchange for access to Byzantine trade routes.

Because of this very ‘hands off’ concept of rule, cities and territories regularly flipped allegiance, often repeatedly in a relatively short period of time.  The Persian Sassanian Empire and the Byzantine Empire, both contemporaries of the Muslims (although the Sassanians were wiped out by the Muslims by the end of the seventh century) both regularly sought to ‘conquer’ the Near East, and the territories of modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel-Palestine traded hands repeatedly.  The most common ways to claim cities were sieges or capitulation – or more often, a combination of both.  An army would besiege the city, preventing traders from entering with agricultural goods from the surrounding territories.  Cities had only limited stockpiles of food and fresh water (whereas the armies, if they planned their attack correctly, could raid or trade with those same traders), so the city would be starved out, until it eventually ‘capitulated’ to the new ruler, meaning it agreed to collect taxes and send them to that guy instead of the other guy.

According to contemporary accounts of the rise of Islam, the Muslim army was genuinely terrifying – we have works likening them to demons, Biblical plagues, saying that they were immortal, unkillable, or so big that there were as many of them as there are grains of sand on the beach.  All of these images are used to explain why they were able to successfully knock back the Byzantine and Sassanian armies far enough that they could besiege cities in the Near East (the real reasons have to do with the contemporary state of those armies and the Muslims use of horses and spurs – I can post more about this if people are interested).

But also according to contemporary accounts, once they had pushed back the neighboring armies, their treatment of the cities was actually downright nice.  We find accounts in both Muslim and Christian historical works of the so-called commands of Umar, supposedly the orders of the second caliph Umar (peace be upon him) to the armies who first invaded Palestine, that they should fight against cities only until they capitulate, and then they should not kill or harm anyone in the city, they should not burn fields or orchards, they should not destroy churches, attack monks or stylites, and they should make treaties that treat the cities and their populations fairly.

Now obviously this is partly propaganda, but it actually matches up pretty well with what we see on the ground.  The only works that describe violence against civilians or forced conversion are martyrologies – stories about people being killed for their faith.  Not only is there no historical evidence to support these stories as being historically accurate, even as works of fiction, they go out of their way to explain how unusual the circumstances they were describing were – that the martyrs were being executed by a particularly evil Muslim governor or because these Christians happened to also be the local battalion – suggesting that even these works recognized that their stories wouldn’t ring true to the local Christians who experienced the Muslim conquest without these caveats.  By comparison, Christian apologetics – works arguing for the philosophical and metaphysical superiority of Christianity over Islam – actually often discuss how great Muslim rule is and how bloodless the conquest was, arguing that it was God’s Will for the Muslims to conquer the Near East in order to eliminate the last remaining communities of pagans in the area.

So there you go, a brief overview of how violence is actually just a big part of all Late Antique history.  Fun times.  If people have more specific questions about parts of this, or want to hear more about Late Antique military techniques, or want me to NEVER DO THIS AGAIN, please let me know.


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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4 Responses to Imaginary Islamophobic Strawman: Isn’t Islam a violent religion?

  1. Flowery Hedgehog says:

    A) Thanks for writing this. You’ve said some things I’ve wanted to express, and as usual you’ve done it better than I could.
    B) You’ve piqued my curiosity. What is it about the horses and spurs?

    • Thanks!

      I think I will do a full post about the military tactics of the Islamic expansion, but the short version is that, while the Arabians probably rode bareback, there is evidence to suggest that they used spurs and stirrups, which allowed them to stay seated on their mounts more effectively, and control the animal better in battle, allowing for small bands to orchestrate cavalry charges to break up incoming armies.

  2. Nahida says:

    *sighs happily* In my absence I almost forgot how great you are. Almost.

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