Christianity and Islam: Texts and Contexts




Geoffrey M. Hodgson

A quiz

Where are these quotes found?

“If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”

“If a man takes a wife … [and] did not find proof of her virginity. … If … the charge is true and no proof of the young woman’s virginity can be found, she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death.”

“When you go out to battle against your enemies, and the … God delivers them into your hands and you take them away captive, and see among the captives a beautiful woman, and have a desire for her and would take her as a wife for yourself, then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and trim her nails.”

“If two men, a man and his countryman, are struggling together, and the wife of one comes near to deliver her husband from the hand of the one who is striking him, and puts out her hand and seizes his genitals, then you shall cut off her hand; you shall not show pity.”

“If you hear in one of your cities … anyone saying that some worthless men have gone out from among you and have seduced the inhabitants of their city, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods’ … then you shall investigate and search out and inquire thoroughly. If it is true you shall surely strike the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying it and all that is in it …”

“A woman must learn in quietness and full submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man; she is to remain quiet.”

All six quotes are from the Bible: the sixth is from its New Testament (see, respectively, Leviticus 20:13, Deuteronomy 22:21, Deuteronomy 21:11, Deuteronomy 25:12, Deuteronomy 13:12-15, Timothy 2:1). None of these quotes is from the Qur’an.

During March 2017 on Twitter I asked people to identify the source of each quote. In each case a minority (of between 7 and 25 per cent) guessed (wrongly) that the quote might be from the Qur’an. A majority identified the correct source in the case of the first, second and fifth quotes only.

The source of each quote can be easily discovered via Google. Maybe some people checked online before voting. In which case the unaided errors are likely to be larger.

Addressing this quiz, I wish to make two points. The first concerns equitable treatment of religious texts. The second concerns the possibilities of reform in different religions. The second point is more complex than the first.

Anti-Muslim prejudice

It is quite rare to find people quoting statements like the above from the Bible. But herein lies a contradiction. Muslims are often judged by their religious texts, but the same standards are less widely applied to Christians.

Sadly, in these dangerous times, there is a rising tide of anti-Muslim prejudice. To fuel this, some quote such inequitable or punitive statements from the Qur’an or Hadith, some chilling in their medieval intolerance. People should be aware of all the important messages in the Qur’an. But they should also be aware that the Bible is equally discriminatory and punitive.

Neither does the New Testament absolve Christianity. The religious laws in the Old Testament were not overturned by the New. Jesus himself is reported as saying: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. … Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (Matthew 5:17-18). St Paul in Colossians (3:18) and in Ephesians (5:22-24) instructed women to submit to the commands and desires of their husbands.

Anti-Muslim bigots want to stop Islam but they do not want to offend Christians. Yet Christianity too has been responsible for a great deal of discrimination around the world. Its ancient punitive laws are no better than those found in Islam. Many Christians have moved on, to preach love and charity. But my initial point here concerns the texts themselves.

The intention here is not to let Islam off the hook. Quotes can be found in Islam’s Qur’an or Hadith that are discriminatory or brutally punitive.

If anti-Muslim bigots were really concerned about some aspects of Islamic religious law, then they should show the same concern about backward statements in the Bible, which are supported by some fundamentalist Christians. All religions have problems – not just Islam.

To defeat the hard right we have to acknowledge that there are popular fears about Islam, albeit often ungrounded in fact. Simply decrying such worries as racist, especially in the wake of terrorist attacks by alleged Muslims, helps to amplify the right-populist fear that elites are covering up the truth. While vigorously defending the universal right of peaceful worship, we should be able discuss the flaws in any religion.

Religion and law

Some problems with religion are bigger than others. These concern not simply the written word itself, but how it is interpreted and the extent to which it is followed. Here there are important differences between major religions.

This leads me to my second point deriving from the quiz above. This point requires an examination of the institutional nature of a religion and its relation to law.

For most (sadly not all) Christians and Jews today, the Old Testament is no longer regarded as supreme law. It does not overturn state laws. Believers are not generally obliged by their religion to punish those that break its rules. Believers agree to accept the authority of democratic states, even if they contradict their religion.

Crucially, despite sharing its Abrahamic roots with Judaism and Christianity, Islam currently sustains a different relationship between law and society. Those that miss-label criticism of Islam as “racism” inadvertently and inappropriately shift attention onto ethnic or racial characteristics, thus ignoring the social rules and norms that religions infuse into cultures.

We need to consider how a religion works, at the level of the promulgation and practical enforcement of its social rules.

The evolution of Christianity

Christianity became the dominant religion in the West when, in the fourth century AD, the Roman Emperor Constantine favoured it, and suppressed other religions. Established as the official religion of the Roman and Byzantine empires, it came to dominate the elites of medieval Europe and spread via colonialism to other continents. Although some were willing converts, many other ordinary people were obliged to become Christian because their rulers hitched onto that faith. It was largely a top-down process, often imposed by higher authorities.

In Christian Europe most ordinary people were denied access to the Biblical texts until the Reformation. In England the Bible was not widely available in English until the seventeenth century, at a time when a large majority of the population were illiterate. The Bible was used selectively and deviously by those in power, to maintain the authority of the state and of the nobility. They did not devolve matters of judgement or punishment to ordinary people.

The chronic disadvantage of the ruling-class monopoly of access to religious texts in Christian Europe was the suppression and ignorance of the population. But the top-down imposition of Christianity did allow for more flexibility. Official doctrine could shift as new circumstances and interests emerged.

When mass education belatedly spread in Europe in the late nineteenth century, its peoples were already entering a more secular and enlightened age.

The adaptability of Judaism

Even before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD, the Jews were dispersed throughout the Roman Empire. Catastrophic destruction in their homeland in Judea led to a further diaspora. The Jews were always in a minority in the places that they were tolerated. They retained their religion and customs, but otherwise adapted as much as possible to local laws and traditions.

For example, laws that required them to kill apostates (Deuteronomy 13:6-10) were eventually abandoned in deference to the laws in their host country. Adaptation was the necessary (but sadly sometimes insufficient) price for their survival.

Dispersed from their homeland, the Jews had to survive as minorities within other states. While keeping their religion, they otherwise adapted to local laws and customs.

Enforcement mechanisms in Islam

By contrast to Christianity, Islam has remained to a large degree a devolved system, with rules enforced by religious conversion and the dedication of its adherents. It offers powerful incentives for conversion and strong disincentives against apostasy.

Islamic scriptures provide a complex legal system governing the spheres of work and civil society, as well as of the family. The enforcement of these rules relies primarily on religious adherence and devotion, with less reliance on legal authority buttressed by the state.

Islamic religious and legal rules developed in communities where states were often weak and societies were fragmented into tribes and clans. Although Islamic legal texts decree that rulers have the duty to enforce laws, many of these laws are derived from religious sources and believers also have an obligation to enforce them.

Islam spread over a vast territory, encompassing many different languages and ethnicities. It did not rely on a strong, centralized, state apparatus. The shared, engrained, cultural dedication to religious rules made a smaller state possible.

Consequently, many legal rules in Islam are enforced bottom-up, by the authority of God as devolved to believers, rather than top-down by the authority of courts or governments.

Islam’s problems with modernisation

Despite its enormous cultural and scholastic achievements, especially from the eight to the thirteenth centuries, Islam turned out to be less adaptable than Christianity or Judaism. It relied on educated local observance from the bottom up. Within a state it was typically the religion of the majority rather than a minority.

Although there was scope for different interpretations, the Islamic fusion of law with religion created a largely conservative system of belief. In addition, the devolution of rights of legal judgment and punishment to individual believers contrasts with legal norms in the modern West, where citizens are prohibited from taking the law into their own hands.

A key problem with Islam is that many of its adherents have not yet modernized and accepted the practical supremacy of secular law. Backward cultural practices, often transmitted from less-developed countries with weak legal systems, have survived among Muslims, and are sustained by the religious customs of immigrant communities. Many Muslims do not accept the authority of secular law and democratic government above that of their religion. Many Muslims live in, or originate from, underdeveloped countries that have not experienced an equivalent of the Enlightenment.

Although the overwhelming majority of Muslim immigrants in developed countries comply with the law and shun violence, some still put religion above law and above democracy. Within this group there are some violent extremists.

This problem stems from the religiously-motivated, devolved mechanisms of reactionary rule-enforcement and punishment within Islam. We should recognize this problem, as well as the hugely valuable, past, present and potential contributions of Islamic culture to Western democracies.

The Muslim reformers

We should support the efforts of those Muslims that are trying to reform and modernise Islam, just as Christians and Jews have largely accepted the authority of secular law. We should not simply oppose all criticism of Islam, for fear that it might offend or cause division. Instead, we should add our voice to the modernisers, in their struggle against fundamentalists and conservatives.

The reformers have issued a Declaration defending gender equality, freedom of speech and freedom of religion, stating that they are for “secular governance” and “against political movements in the name of religion.” They have called for the separation of “mosque and state”, so that law rests on secular rather than religious authority. This is the route towards a tolerant and inclusive society, within a framework of universal human rights, democracy and secular law.

Accordingly, we can accept multiculturalism if it means recognition of cultural diversity, but we cannot accept multi-legalism. Diverse peoples must live together, but within a single framework of law, under a democratic political system.


Unreformed and discriminatory versions of Islamic law represent a problem for any society that is based on Enlightenment principles, and which requires obedience to laws that are enacted by the state. It creates major difficulties for integration and assimilation.

We must, of course, protect the freedoms of Muslims and others to worship, to express themselves, and to obtain a livelihood. Cultural and religious diversity can greatly enrich a modern nation, but only if the state legal system and over-arching secular values remain healthy and intact. Such a diverse society requires a just legal system and strong secular values, not least to protect the human rights of members of minority religions or ethnicities.

The strident but imprecise rhetoric of “Islamophobia” – advanced among others by politicians trying to capture the votes of Muslims in Western democracies – has blocked serious discussion of the merits and demerits of Islamic institutions. It can undermine careful and scholarly attempts by Muslims and others to identify where these institutions are in need of reform.

I have argued elsewhere that the principal focus of liberals and progressives should be on assimilation, rather than on caps on immigration. But an effective policy for assimilation requires some clarity about the institutional backgrounds of the minorities that should assimilate to the rule of law in a democratic society.

It cannot be repeated often enough that informed criticism of some Islamic rules or practices is not equivalent to bigotry toward Muslims. Racism, and persecution of Muslims, are serious problems and should be vigilantly opposed. But the option to criticise Islam, Christianity or any other set of beliefs, is an important human right, and it should be protected.


26 March 2017

Minor edits – 5 June 2017

This book elaborates on some of the political issues raised in this blog:

Wrong Turnings: How the Left Got Lost

Published by University of Chicago Press in January 2018


March 26th, 2017 by