The common Western image of Islam as one large religion that spreads itself through warfare is primarily the result of the actions of Muslim leaders who, across the centuries, used Islam to gain power and territory, but who would have used any religion into which they were born for that purpose.
They simply equated submission to their rule with submission to Allah and vice versa.
Before condemning Islam, however, we should admit that many Christians across the centuries also have engaged in warfare in the name of God for the same purpose.
The Crusades during the Middle Ages were led by kings who equated their cultures with the kingdom of God and their conquests with bringing infidels under the rule of Jesus Christ.
When warfare has been involved, Christians since the fourth century usually have ignored the teachings of Jesus and have assumed that the God of Jesus blesses their weapons, sometimes on both sides of the war.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught loving the enemy by clothing and feeding them when they were naked and hungry.
But as the military sets out to kill the enemy, the church has sent along chaplains to give the troops “spiritual guidance.”
Considering the United States’ perennial engagement in war for economic advantage and the protection of oil supplies, it is difficult to distinguish between Christianity and the common stereotype of Islam with regard to war.
I’ve written about “jihad,” the Muslim parallel to Christians’ “just war” concept introduced by Augustine in the early fifth century.
Prior to the early fourth century, Christianity had been persecuted by the Roman Empire. Most Christians had associated their suffering with the suffering of Jesus.
When Christianity became the religion of the empire, however, the church reinterpreted Jesus’ instruction to love the enemy as meaning one’s personal enemy, and it approved, under certain conditions, Christians participating in a “just war.”
Two and a half centuries later, Muhammad and his successors developed guidelines for “jihad” that were both similar to and different from criteria for the just war.
A helpful comparison of the two would take another column, but comparisons of various qualities are available on the Internet.
Muhammad specifically emphasized that warfare should never be for purposes of acquiring territory or converting non-Muslims to Islam, and in some places Christians were granted legal rights equal to those of Muslims.
Non-Muslims were to be urged to recognize the truth of Islam, but Muslim law usually did not permit them to be physically abused or killed if they did not convert. This is not to say that all Muslim states granted such rights.
But in the Middle Ages and later, legal protection for Muslims in Christian states was violated by Christians as much as was legal protection for Christians by Muslims in Muslim states.
But the United States itself has not always granted equal rights to all persons or counted as citizens all native-born inhabitants. Even today there is discrimination against some groups.
So the teachings of Muhammad and Jesus with regard to the stranger frequently have been and still are ignored by many Muslims and Christians alike.
There should be little surprise that religion is scorned by so many and that atheism seems such a logical alternative.
Gene Davenport (1936-2018) was Professor Emeritus of Religion at Lambuth University and a columnist for The Jackson Sun.