The Crescent and the Gun: Islam and Violence

It’s hard to watch Francis Bok remember. He speaks softly, haltingly. His piercing eyes stare out, sometimes at you, sometimes into space, but always to that morning 15 years ago in Sudan.

He was seven years old and living with his family in a small southern village. His mother had sent him to the local marketplace to sell eggs and beans for the family. It was a busy day in the town square — the locals bustled from stall to stall, buying and selling as they had always done. But the steady hum of business was silenced when hundreds of Muslim gunmen rode into the market on horses. As the villagers looked up from their baskets of produce, the riders opened fire.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

All around Francis, bodies fell. People screamed, ran, tried desperately to flee the massacre around them. But it was hopeless. The gunmen had boxed them in. There was no escape.

“It was terrible,” Francis remembered. “Men were killed, the women were raped. Everything happened in front of us. It was terrible.”

Amid the low moans of the dying, the gunmen grabbed the children and tied them to the sides of donkeys, to be carried off and sold into slavery. Francis was on one side of a donkey, two young girls on the other. “The girls couldn’t stop crying, so the men shot them. After that, I learned to be quiet.”

He was sold to a Muslim family, where he was beaten every day and called “Abeed” — meaning “black slave.” Even the family’s children had a hand in the brutality, taunting and whipping him in imitation of their parents.

For ten years, Francis lived like an animal, sleeping in the barn. “For ten years, I had no one to laugh with… no one to love me.”

One morning when he was 17, he decided to escape. He’d tried twice before and failed. This would be his final attempt. “I said to myself, ‘This is the last time.’ If they caught me, I’d tell them to kill me, or I’d kill myself. I wasn’t going to be a slave anymore.”

He rose early, prayed, and with the kind of luck only God can provide, left ten years of unimaginable horror behind him. Only last year did Francis learn that the day he was abducted, the Muslim gunmen had murdered his family as well.

It would be easy to chalk up such atrocities to Sudanese fanaticism alone. But these things aren’t happening only in East Africa. Every day, the newspapers bring more horrifying examples to the public consciousness — Islamic extremists kidnapping and murdering villagers in the Philippines… Islamic gunmen walking into a Pakistani church and machine-gunning the worshipers… Islamic fundamentalists hijacking planes and crashing them into buildings… Islamic militants storming Christian villages in Indonesia, brutalizing the women and murdering the men.

Islamic extremists. Islamic gunmen. Islamic fundamentalists. Islam.

In these past few months, we’ve heard a stream of voices — from President George W. Bush down — assuring us that Islam is a religion of peace. But the statistics point in the other direction. Of the 30 or so active conflicts going on today, 28 involve Muslim countries. That’s over 90 percent — a grossly disproportionate number when one considers that only 20 percent of the world’s population is Muslim.

There has to be a reason.


Mohammed was born around 570 A.D. (the exact date is uncertain) in Mecca, a small trading post in today’s Saudi Arabia. He grew up surrounded by polytheism, idolatry, and tribal violence. Orphaned at a young age, the prophet was passed from relative to relative.

At the age of 25, the handsome Mohammed married a wealthy 40-year-old widow named Khadija. The union was, by all counts, a happy one. While the prophet later took nine wives, he did so only after the death of his beloved first.

In 610 A.D., Mohammed’s life took a sudden, historic turn. According to Islamic belief, the angel Gabriel came to the man and commanded him to “Recite!” The result was the Koran — the holy book of Islam and the foundation of the religion.

Mohammed’s initial attempts to make converts were unsuccessful. Apart from his faithful wife, he only managed a handful of followers. This changed when he decided to leave his unreceptive neighbors behind and travel to Medina (then known as Yathrib). There, the new religion prospered. Soon, the prophet had attained not just religious influence but political power as well. No longer was he subject to the dictates of local rulers. Now, Mohammed was in charge.

And that’s when critics say the trouble began.

In March of 624 A.D., 300 Muslims raided and robbed a caravan of Meccans ten miles south of Medina. Alerted to the coming ambush, the Meccans increased their numbers to 1,000. Though greatly outnumbered, the troops of Mohammed swept aside their opponents, leaving the survivors running for the hills.

The following year, the vanquished Meccans struck back, routing the Muslims. But that defeat was soon avenged. When Mohammed’s troops were attacked again, they beat back their opponents in what has become a legendary battle for Muslims. A few years later, Mohammed and 10,000 men marched unopposed into Mecca, his old home and the city that would become the capital of Islam.

The centuries since have been filled with conquest… the Middle East, North Africa, Asia, western Europe. Many argue that this is Islam’s idea of evangelization — conversion by the sword. But this view ignores the historical reality that in most cases, the conquered peoples were allowed to retain their chosen beliefs. Non-Muslims living in Islamic states were forced to pay jizyah — a tax that allowed them to practice their own religion. While seemingly unfair, it should also be noted that non-Muslims were exempt from both military service and the zakat-an alms tax required for believers.

When looked at objectively, the historical record suggests that with some important exceptions, few non-Muslims in the conquered regions were compelled by force to take up the mantle of Islam. Indeed, the Koran itself commands this: “Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from error” (Surah 2:256), and “If it had been the Lord’s Will, they would all have believed — all who are on earth! Wilt thou then compel mankind, against their will, to believe!” (Surah 10:99).

But while the Koran clearly condemns conversion by force, Muslims today don’t always take heed. Francis Bok recalls, “The government in Khartoum [the capital of Sudan] wanted everyone to be Muslim. But the Christians in the south refused. We didn’t want to be ruled by the Koran. That’s the reason they kill us and enslave us, because we won’t give up, even in the face of evil.”


Cadherine Shaheen wouldn’t give up either. A 38-year-old Pakistani Christian, Shaheen fled her homeland to escape almost certain death at the hands of Islamic fundamentalists. Now, two years later, the small woman with long, black hair and a shy, girlish smile sat on the edge of her couch, hands folded on her lap.

“I was a schoolteacher. I taught science.”

As the only Christian teacher in a school that was entirely Muslim, Cadherine was often pressured to convert to Islam. When she was promoted to superintendent, it got worse. At one point, she was given a choice: Either become Muslim or quit. She refused.

Soon after, she was accused of blasphemy against Islam. Her name and photo were posted in all the local mosques. “You have to understand, this was a death sentence for me. It’s considered an honor for one of the Muslim men to kill a blasphemer. Just before me, the Muslims murdered a school principal accused of blasphemy. I was next.”

Cadherine went into hiding. The police came to raid her home, and her 85-year-old father and brothers were arrested. After a week, her father was released. He was never the same again and died shortly thereafter.

After months spent in hiding, she was finally smuggled out of the country with her two younger sisters, and has since settled in the United States. “It’s horrible for Christians in Pakistan. The Muslims take our land, rob our homes, try to force us to accept Islam. Young girls are kidnapped and raped. Then they’re told that if they want a husband who will accept them after that defilement, they must become Muslim.”

She told me about Asia, a 13-year-old girl she lived with when she was in hiding. Asia worked for a Muslim man who wanted to marry the beautiful, young Christian girl. She refused and was consequently abducted along with her family and raped. Her father and mother were tortured repeatedly. After many months of imprisonment, the shattered girl and her family were freed. They remain in Pakistan; they remain Christian.

“Not all Muslims are like that,” Cadherine said. “Not all are violent. There are different kinds. But the moderates don’t speak out against the violence. They remain silent, because they don’t want to be seen opposing other Muslims. And so the violence and the killing continue.”

But doesn’t the Koran speak of peace — of there being freedom in religion and worship? “They don’t follow the Koran. If they followed the Koran, there would be no problem,” Cadherine said firmly. “They claim Islam is peaceful, but then they preach and live violence.”


The 114 chapters of the Koran (called surahs) contain everything from majestic poetry (“Do they not look at the birds, held poised in the midst of the air and the sky?”) to everyday commands (“A divorce is permissible only twice”). While the nonbeliever may find it tiresome and repetitive in places — as Christians and Jews find some portions of the Old Testament — for Muslims, the Koran is the literal word of God.

Indeed, the Muslim view of inspiration is different from that found in the mainstream Judeo-Christian community. The Christian affirms the full inspiration of Scripture but acknowledges that the Holy Spirit used each author’s particular style and frame of reference.

Conversely, Muslims believe that the Koran was dictated directly to Mohammed, who memorized it. The words found therein are the words of God Himself — unfiltered through a human author.

While Muslims also adhere to the Hadith (roughly comparable to Catholicism’s sacred tradition), the Koran is the foundation of belief, action, and morality. As such, it has come under much suspicion from non-Muslims as the primary cause of Islamic violence. Commentators have cited numerous passages that seem to endorse wholesale slaughter of nonbelievers. If you’ve been reading the papers, watching television, or surfing the Internet, you’ve probably seen several of the more popular verses, such as:

The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land (Surah 5:33).

It’s difficult to read this passage and not be shocked by its apparent brutality. Nevertheless, appearances can be deceiving, as they are in this instance. That passage, so often quoted, is taken out of a larger context that mitigates its harshness.

The verse outlines four possible punishments to be given those who take up arms against both Muslims and the state. The response dictated in Surah 5:33 is purely defensive and reactionary. It is not a call to wholesale slaughter. In fact, the very next verse (usually ignored) reads: “Except for those who repent before they fall into your power: In that case, know that Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful” (Surah 5:34).

In other words, the man who has physically attacked the Muslim community and the state can avoid the aforementioned punishment if he sincerely repents for his aggression. Violence and war are only sanctioned in Islam as defensive measures. The Koran forbids Muslims from violent aggression.

A similar carelessness with context shows up in popular citations of Surah 9:5:

Fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem of war.

This passage looks menacing — so long as it’s viewed in isolation from the surrounding verses. Verse 4, immediately preceding it, describes the “Pagans” referred to. At the time the chapter was written, a group of non-Muslims had entered into a peace treaty with the Islamic community and had then violated it. They were given a grace period of four months in which to return to the terms of the treaty. If they failed to do so after that period of time, a state of war would exist. But even that war could be stopped through repentance, as the rest of Verse 5 states: “but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity, then open the way for them: For Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful. If one amongst the Pagans ask thee for asylum, grant it to him” (Surah 9:5-6).

The passage, read in context, refers to a specific group of Arab pagan attackers, in a specific time, in a specific place. In this unique situation, conversion was thought to be the only way to ensure that the nonbelievers would maintain their peace treaty.

Islam and Christianity have very different conceptions of justice. Christianity holds to the gospel mandate of victory through peace — though some episodes in Christian history suggest otherwise. Islam, on the other hand, follows more closely the Old Testament method of victory through the elimination or subjection of the enemy, so long as it’s done in self-defense. If indeed we judge the Koran by the standard of the gospel, we must conclude that it endorses violence and bloodshed. But in doing so, we must also condemn the Old Testament for the same.

Still, even if we accept that the Koran, while promoting a vision of conflict decidedly different from that of Christianity, is nevertheless within the trajectory of the Judeo-Christian tradition, we’re still faced with a question: Why do so many Muslims seem so violent?


Jamal Barzinji has the bearing of the kindly professor all the students liked. About 60 years old and short, his face moves easily from a scholar’s frown to a grandfather’s smile.

He ushered me through the hallways of the Association of Muslim Social Scientists — an Islamic think tank in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. After the brief tour, we settled in a spacious corner office. There, we were joined by Louay Safi, editor of the American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences.

“Islam has an unfair reputation for being violent,” Barzinji began. “Much of this is left over from the Crusades, when Muslims were vilified as savages. We’ve seen this same thing in so many popular movies and television programs. When Muslims appear, they’re invariably terrorists.”

But what about the statistics? Isn’t it true that 90 percent of the wars being waged today involve Muslim countries?

He nodded. “Yes, I think that number is accurate, and each conflict must be looked at individually to judge why this is the case. Nevertheless, there are some broader reasons. First, many Muslims live under cruel and corrupt despots — often, despots elevated and held in power by Western nations. They struggle to free themselves from those situations — much like the revolutionaries did in colonial America. Second, many of these countries only recently were liberated from Western rule. There’s always an extended period of disorder as those peoples work to reestablish themselves. We’ve seen the same thing throughout Western history as well. Third, many Muslims believe that their plight is ignored by the rest of the world. Nothing they’ve done seems to work, so some of them, in desperation, have resorted to armed struggle.”

“But most Muslims are not violent,” Safi insisted. “Most continue to stand up to the injustices done to them peacefully. Thousands of Muslims are dying in prisons because they choose not to take up the gun. A small minority have turned to armed conflict — again, out of desperation. But it’s this minority that everyone sees.”

Barzinji agreed. “Muslims are persecuted and murdered as well.” He knows this through painful, personal experience. A Kurd, he escaped Iraq shortly before Saddam Hussein rose to power and instituted a wholesale slaughter of Barzinji’s people. Thousands of his countrymen died at Hussein’s hands.

But if Islam is peaceful, how do we account for the groups all over the world who carry out violence under the banner of jihad, or holy war?

Safi shook his head. “The first thing you must understand is that jihad does not mean ‘holy war.’ Holy war is a concept from the Western crusaders, not Muslims. True jihad is never carried out with the intention of forcing people to accept Islam. Such a thing is forbidden. Jihad means ‘trying your utmost.’ There are four levels to jihad: First, self-mastery and self-submission; second, protection and responsibility for family and society; third, dialogue and debate; and finally, and as a last resort, physical struggle. But again, physical jihad can only be waged in self-defense or in the defense of the oppressed. It can never be carried out for self-gain. Jihad would be best described as a ‘just war’ — carried out when all else has failed.”

This was consistent with what I’d found in the Koran, but it also left a fundamental question: Who decides what constitutes self-defense? After all, the Koran does endorse total war against an oppressing force, with an aim toward eliminating or completely subduing the threat. This all seems reasonable enough — not so different from the Church’s own just-war theory. But in Islam, where is the authority that can definitively identify an oppressor? Who is it that sorts through the data of the Koran and proclaims authoritatively, “This cause is right. This war is just”?

“There is a legitimacy crisis right now in Islam,” Barzinji explained. “In normal times, a legitimate Islamic state could make such a determination. The problem is these are not normal times. Most Muslims live under corrupt regimes. These governments have no legitimacy in the eyes of the people and can’t be trusted to lead faithfully. So, as a consequence, small fringe groups rise up and attract followers. They end up with power and authority they wouldn’t normally have.”

But even in normal times, what if two legitimate Islamic states disagree in their interpretation of the Koran as it applies to a conflict? What if one calls for an armed jihad and the other does not? Who decides which is correct?

Barzinji leaned back on the couch. “In Islam, there is no equivalent of a pope. There is no single final authority. When disagreements arise, they are debated peacefully by qualified scholars of the Koran. Over time, the stronger, more compelling arguments rise to the top and become accepted into the mainstream. This is how it works in normal times.”


I pulled up in front of the Islamic Center in Washington, D.C., just before Friday’s midday prayers. From blocks around, Muslims with bowed heads walked briskly toward the white stone mosque. I hurried across the courtyard, kicked off my shoes, and entered the well-lit space. Inside, there were already about 200 men gathered. A hundred more arrived just after me.

I took a place leaning against the back wall, doing my best not to look like a journalist. Judging by the number of curious glances from the worshipers, I was unsuccessful.

After a period of prayer and supplication — all accompanied by the rich and melodic singing of one man in the front — the crowd fell silent. At the head of the mosque, in a corner almost obstructed by one of the marble pillars, the imam climbed up into a varnished oak podium. The worshipers sat down on the carpeted floor, some with legs perched alertly beneath them, some Indian-style, and others, like me, leaning against a wall or pillar. With a brief nod, the imam began his sermon.

“Muslims can plant the seeds of good and evil. If good, he will be rewarded with paradise. But if evil, he will be miserable on the Day of Judgment…. It is a sin to promote evil things in society. Islam is good, and Muslims must promote good.” Muslims, he said, must be agents of justice and peace to one another, and to the rest of the world as well.

When the prayers had concluded, I wandered across the street, past the American flag flying in front of the center, to a rival prayer meeting. There on the sidewalk a black-clad imam addressed a group of a dozen young men sitting attentively on rugs. His message was a bit different.

“The United States needs to repent for the bloodshed in Afghanistan,” the man shouted into his handheld microphone. “They must repent to Allah and ask forgiveness of all the people they’ve harmed. Otherwise, war will spread across the planet, and the United States will be consumed by its fires. War will be met by war.”

I asked a man standing next to me why these Muslims were gathered on the sidewalk and not praying in the mosque. He smiled, “This is a kind of protest, a different message.” He winked at me. “But one worth hearing.”

There, within 100 yards of one another, were two imams. Two opposing messages. One book. And no one to say which view was correct.


At the heart of Islam lies a crisis of authority. It may well be true that the Koran promotes peace through justice; the pope said as much when he visited the Umayyad mosque during last year’s trip to the Holy Land.

The problem, then, is not in the Koran but in those who are free to twist it. Because there’s no one to interpret the book authoritatively, it’s vulnerable to any charismatic leader willing to use it to justify his personal ideology. The sad result is clear for all to see: The Koran’s command not to harm civilians is ignored; its prohibition against suicide is interpreted away by suicide bombers; its call for freedom in worship is cast aside in many Islamic states; its order to stand up for the oppressed is ignored by those too afraid to speak out against the persecution of non-Muslims. Islam has the Koran, but the Koran has no interpreter.

An analogous situation can be found in Protestant Christianity, where the inheritors of the Reformation gather around the call of sola scriptura (by Scripture alone). Different Protestant denominations read the Bible in different ways, with no single, authoritative interpreter. Why then don’t we see fringe Protestants strapping bombs around their waists and walking into crowded malls?

The answer brings us back to the different concepts of justice. In Islam, following the Old Testament model, the attacker can be justly destroyed. In Christianity, following the just-war theory, the attacker must be repelled — but only in proportion to the attack.

Ultimately, the violence perpetrated by Muslim fringe groups has two roots: first, the Koran’s command to fight the oppressor, and second, the lack of a single voice to identify who that oppressor is. Without that authority, any group — any people, any nation — can be considered an oppressor by those who feel they’ve been wronged. The result, too often, is bloodshed.

The vision of Islam that Barzinji and Safi promote — a vision shared by most Muslims — is quite different from that sponsored by Islamic fundamentalists. Indeed, in his excellent book, Peace and the Limits of War: Transcending Classical Conceptions of Jihad, Safi outlines a compelling case against the fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran. (He also argues that the jizyah — the tax on Christians and Jews — has no place in the modern Islamic state.)

In normal times, his reasonable arguments would win out. Barzinji and Safi’s commitment to tolerance would overcome the rival call to violence. And the Islam they know and love and live would be recognized finally as a religion of peace.

In normal times.


  • Brian Saint-Paul

    Brian Saint-Paul was the editor and publisher of Crisis Magazine. He has a BA in Philosophy and an MA in Religious Studies from the Catholic University of America, in Washington. D.C. In addition to various positions in journalism and publishing, he has served as the associate director of a health research institute, a missionary, and a private school teacher. He lives with his wife in a historic Baltimore neighborhood, where he obsesses over Late Antiquity.

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...