Looking for content on a specific topic?
Islamic origins | The Qu'ran | Muslim practice | Muslim-Christian Dialogue | We humans Home

Is Islam inherently violent? Karen Armstrong gets it wrong

Posted April 28, 2018 by Mark Anderson Leave a comment

Is Islam inherently violent? Karen Armstrong gets it wrong

Posted April 28, 2018 by Mark Anderson Leave a comment

We should commend religious scholar Karen Armstrong for using her TED Prize to champion compassion in interfaith and other relations. She’s also right to condemn anyone whose criticism of Islam is “neither accurate, fair, nor well-informed.”[1] But her moral crusading doesn’t exempt her from her own standards. And she’s neither accurate, fair nor well-informed in what she says of Islam.

When a Dutch interviewer asked, “Is there any difference between Jesus and Muhammad in terms of violence—or in other words, how do you explain that most terrorism now is inspired by Islam?” she replied:

“Terrorism has nothing to do with Muhammad, any more than the Crusades had anything to do with Jesus. There is nothing in Islam that is more violent than Christianity. All religions have been violent, including Christianity. There was nothing in the Muslim world like anti-Semitism: that is an import of the modern period. They got it from us. The missionaries brought it over…”[2]

Armstrong is technically right to say that:

  • Muhammad* was unfamiliar with modern-day terrorism
  • He never commanded terrorism per se
  • Historically speaking, all of the world religions have been violent
  • Christians may have slaughtered as many people as Muslims have
  • Zionism has made modern Judaism violent

But she altogether sidesteps the question about the difference between Jesus and Muhammad.* Jesus only ever calls his followers to love their enemies—never to engage in warfare. Muhammad* repeatedly urged his followers to engage in warfare. She clearly wants to erase this major difference between Jesus and Muhammad.*

Armstrong is right to defend Muhammad’s honor against the charge that he was a terrorist. But she’s wrong to suggest that he didn’t reinstate religious violence, as a military general.

Muhammad* clearly

  • Required his followers to enlist in his military campaign to take Mecca
  • Fought and killed people unwilling to submit to his rule
  • Promised that God would give any of his soldiers killed in battle immediate entrance to paradise[3]

Furthermore, Armstrong’s claim that Muslims weren’t anti-Semitic before Christian missionaries brought anti-Semitism to them is really preposterous.

Muhammad* was no more violent than Emperor Heraclius, his Byzantine contemporary. But the Qur’an clearly reinstated religious violence, giving it a place well beyond mere self-defence. And we have abundant historical documentation that the early Muslims did as commanded, engaging in armed struggle (jihad) so effectively that they conquered much of the world within a century.

Unfortunately, when Armstrong claims the Qur’an authorizes only self-defensive warfare, people assume she’s a trustworthy authority on Islam’s formative history. In fact, she’s simply determined to remake Muhammad* into a Christ-like advocate of nonviolence—let history be damned. She knows reformist Muslims have no hope have of ridding their faith of its violent legacy except in separating Muhammad* and his first followers from their historical context. If she’s convinced herself that what she says is actually true, then she’s self-deceived. I sincerely wish this were not so—that the Qur’an and early Muslim history aligned with my many warm, peace-loving Muslim friends. But we can’t simply wish the past away.

I wish I had a different answer to the question of whether or not Islam is inherently violent—as this leaves me holding two things in tension.

The vast majority of Muslims want to live peaceably with non-Muslims, and I don’t question their sincerity. But I can’t join Armstrong in denying early Islam’s religious violence. She doubtless sees it as vital to avoid unleashing untold hatred on our Muslim friends. But we’re called to speak truth, not twist it. And that isn’t just wrong here. It’s also counterproductive, strengthening both Islamic extremism and all its alt-right imitators.


*Peace be upon his descendants.

[1] https://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/12/26/the-blame-game-karen-armstrong-talks-about-fields-of-blood Accessed May 2, 2018.

[2] https://www.nieuwwij.nl/english/karen-armstrong-nothing-islam-violent-christianity/  Accessed May 2, 2018.

[3] The vast majority of Muslims, both Sunni or Shia, accept these statements as true. Only moderate Muslims—or better, reformist Muslims—don’t.


  1. I prefer Armstrong’s interpretation of Islam. And her scholarship of the meaning of words such as “jihad”. I think she is correct. The politics of empire and the politics of the Catholic church, in particular, have given incorrect meaning to both Jesus Christ and Mahommad, through history. And look where we are now.

    1. I have no trouble understanding why you prefer Armstrong’s interpretation, Keith. Personally, I prefer it also. But I don’t think we can allow our preference (or Karen Armstrong’s) to decide which interpretation is correct. It’s got to be based on the historical record. And unfortunately, Armstrong fails us spectacularly there.

Leave a Reply

To keep Understanding Islam Today a safe place for everyone, please ensure that your comments show consideration and respect for others. We understand that you may feel strongly about the topic, and we welcome disagreement. But we will edit or remove comments that don’t show respect for others of different religious beliefs. Your email address is required but will not be published.

Discover the story R
We all come to the Qur’an with some chronological story sequence in mind, however tentative—or unacknowledged. Indeed, without a basic context, the Qur’an becomes a hopeless muddle. Discover the background story of the Qur’an.

Who was Muhamed?
Discover why Muhamed's story matters for understanding Islam.

Sign up for Understanding Islam updates

Sign up to get Understanding Islam updates straight to your inbox.
Updates are sent every two months featuring the latest stories and videos.

Send this to a friend