The Golden Rule and Reading the Qur’an Fairly

The Golden Rule and Reading the Qur’an Fairly March 3, 2015

Our Blessed Homeland

The cartoon above is by Tom Gauld. It seems to me to do a good job of illustrating how people tend to exalt their own heritage and denigrate that of others.

This relates directly to how Islam is being treated in the media. I’ve said it before: any Christian who reads the Qur’an differently than they would want people to read the Bible is ignoring what is arguably Jesus’ most famous and most central moral teaching: treat others the way you would want to be treated.

Mark Sandlin has a wonderful post about this, looking at what would happen if people read the Bible the way that conservative Christians critics of Islam read the Qur’an. I suspect that the only way conservatives might be able to sidestep the point is to insist that they differ from Muslims in that they don’t obey those violent commands in the Bible. But that doesn’t really help their case much, in my opinion, since they still claim that the Bible is inherently better than the Qur’an, which seems less persuasive when they have to disobey its teachings in order to make that seem plausible to themselves.


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  • David Marshall

    The problem is, Dr. McGrath, religious books really are quite different from one another, including the Bible and the Koran. The differenes are obvious: one book versus 66, one language versus 3, to start with. More fundamentally, for Christians the focus of both testaments is Jesus Christ. And it would be hard to find two religious leaders more different than Jesus and Mohammed, whom I see as the author of the Koran.

    After reading through the Koran, I have argued, at, that while Mohammed was not uniformly unpleasant to women, for instance, in general he was in fact extremely unpleasant, and that his rather vile teachings and (perhaps even more) actions have had a huge negative impact on the Islamic world in that regard. By contrast, I have also argued (“How Jesus Liberates Women”) that Jesus’ example and teachings have proven the single most important factor in liberating women around the world, in all of human history.

    And I am not theologically forced to see nothing but evil in other religions. In fact, my books — Jesus and the Religions of Man, True Son of Heaven, and just now How Jesus Passes the Outsider Test — are full of appropriate and fitting (I believe) praise of truth in a variety of pagan cultures.

    If we are going to be just, though, should we first be just to Mohammed, or to his thousands of victims? Frankly, having worked to liberate women in the name of Christ in the Third World, I will have to privilege the weak and oppressed over their imperial oppressors. And if I find the source of oppression in a sacred text, why yes, in the name of Christ, the truth, and liberation, I will point that out, and not hang my head in doing so one bit.

    And if there are Biblical passages that prompt widespread harm in the world today, by all means, let secular critics point that out, and let’s lance the boil at its source. Truth, not hurt feelings, should be our priority, especially as scholars.

    • Christians have been on the side of imperial power quite often in our history, and have not in those instances always shown the willingness to forgive enemies that Muhammad demonstrated. And so one can certainly justify advocating equality for women and opposing oppression in the name of Christ. One can also do so on the basis of the Qur’an. In both instances, what matters is the priorities of the interpreter. And that is precisely what I think that fairness involves, and the application of the Golden Rule. Comparing instances of Christians opposing injustice with examples of Muslims practicing injustice is unfair and unchristlike, when there are examples of both sorts on both sides.

      • David Marshall

        James: Forgive enemies? Mohammed enslaved them, raped them, slaughtered them en masse, created them in the first place by waging aggressive wars in all directions, had them tortured, and told his followers to take them out in the desert and watch them bleed to death.

        You misunderstand me. I advocated comparing like to like — Mohammed to Jesus, Koran to Bible, and only then tradition to tradition.

        And sorry, but your relativistic spin here is more than a bit divorced from reality. Religion can be defined in terms of its founder, sacred texts, or developed tradition, but in Islam and Christianity, the former two are primary. If we define a religion by tradition, then yes, it can mean anything and everything or nothing. But comparing Mohammed to some anonymous Christian in thousands of years of history, simply is not legitimate. And texts do mean things, and as I show in detail, the Koran emphatically does not mean liberation for women, while the teachings and life of Jesus, emphatically do.
        You may disagree, but you can’t dismiss my analysis sight unseen as illegitimate, based merely on your personal philosophy of how religions ought to relate.

        • Your comments continue to illustrate the point of the original post. You make assertions about what Muhammad did, without citing any sort of evidence, and are unaware of counterevidence or deliberately ignoring it because it doesn’t support what you wish to believe about Islam. And you either pretend that Jesus and Muhammad, and the Qur’an and the Bible, have parallel roles in these two traditions, or are unaware that they are different in important ways.

          No one suggested comparing Muhammad to some anonymous Christian. Muhammad was a statesman, and so comparing him with Jesus who was not is obviously going to mean that the former’s military and political actions and decisions can be contrasted with the latter’s lack thereof. Why not compare like with like – Muhammad with the emperor Constantine, for instance?

          If you look at the history of Christian interpretation of the New Testament, you will find that most Christian interpreters did not find it liberating towards women. And as for the meanings of the texts and stories themselves, it is unfair to ignore the positive elements in the Qur’an and the negative elements in the Bible about this subject. Again, why not compare like with like – Thecla with Rabi’a, for instance?

          You say that I am dismissing your analysis “sight unseen” and yet also claim to have shown something in detail. Which is it, and if the latter, then where exactly do you imagine that you have made your case in detail? Is it online somewhere, and you meant to link to it?

          • joriss

            James, you say
            “Muhammad was a statesman, and so comparing him with Jesus who was not is obviously going to mean that the former’s military and political actions and decisions can be contrasted with the latter’s lack thereof.”

            Yes, but you forget why Jesus was not a military man! He could very well have been if he had wanted to. He came to taste death and give his life and save us from our sins. He came not to judge, but to save and to say we should love our enemies, giving us the great example by his death on the cross for us.

            It surprises me that you can’t see the overwhelming difference between Jesus and Mohammed. You can’t compare Mohammed to Constatine. Jesus founded his Church, Mohammed Islam. All Jesus did was loving and blessing. Mohammed did not a redeeming deed for us, did he? If you read the Qur’an, you read the words that Allah is merciful, but I can’t see any deed on his side that sets me free on a righteous basis, so I have to cope with my own sins and guilt without any assurance of eternal life.

          • Of course I can see the differences. That is part of my point – if Jesus was a pacifist, and Muhammad was not, then their responses to persecution are obviously going to be different. But unless someone is a Mennonite and adheres to strict nonviolence as a follower of Christ, then complaining that Muhammad did not embrace non-violence isn’t a criticism (and of course, exaggerating his violence is unfair slander).

            It also depends what one is comparing. You, for instance, are working with a particular theological construct of Jesus, in which he assures one of already having eternal life as in the Gospel of John, rather than talking about a works-based final judgment as in the Gospel of Matthew.

            If one takes the Book of Revelation in a literalistic fashion, one could be persuaded that Jesus will be every bit as bloody a military conqueror as Muhammad is purported to have been in this comment thread – it just hasn’t happened yet.

            This is why I blogged about this – the impression one gets depends on what one is comparing, and the choice of what to compare can be generous, fair, or negatively biased.

          • Nick G

            Yes, but you forget why Jesus was not a military man! He could very well have been if he had wanted to.

            Well the son of a provincial Jewish craftworker under the Roman Empire could perhaps have joined an auxiliary regiment, or emigrated to the Parthian Empire and enlisted there, but his chances of rising to high military rank would have been essentially zero. I suppose he could have tried to start an uprising against the Romans, but the fate of those uprisings in the following century does not suggest he would have had much prospect of success. It won’t do in this context to assume, as you are doing, that Jesus was God and could have been anyone or anything he liked; a Muslim is just as entitled to assume that both Jesus and Mohammed followed the paths laid out for them by Allah, Jesus as a peaceful preacher and healer, Mohammed as a military leader.

        • RNR

          My answer will be simply and straight to the point. The Koran has had sayings added in, taken out and changed to fit the mainstream and orthodox way of Islam as it has been in Christianly. So the description of Mohammed is wrong and no I am not a muslin.

        • scottie1111

          …and Christianity’s barbarism is any better? Sounds like an issue with pots, kettles, and blackness to me. Another delusional rant from the thoroughly deluded Liar for Jesus, David Doesn’t-Turn-His-Cheek Marshall. I said I wouldn’t say anything about your children, but I can’t help but feel remorse that their father is an angry and insane poorly adjusted human. I feel sorry for your wife, too. She’s stuck in a marriage with a complete nutbag. Do the world a favor: get a vasectomy.

  • Andrew Dowling

    “any Christian who reads the Qur’an differently than they would want people to read the Bible”

    Why judge based on a standard you “wish” was the norm? I wish conservative Christians had a different approach to Scriptural interpretation; it doesn’t mean I won’t pass judgment on their interpretation and/or on certain biblical passages.

    A more fundamentalist reading of the Quran predominates the Muslim world . . .and this makes sense given that Quran doesn’t provide the ‘hermeneutical loopholes’ the Bible does.

  • I agree that we should give other religions the same considerations we give our own. It’s my understanding, though, that there is a fundamental difference in the understanding of the inspiration of the Qur’an than that of the Bible: that the Qur’an is supposed to have been dictated word-for-word to Mohammed by an angel, whereas even the most conservative model of biblical inspiration that I’m aware of, verbal plenary inspiration, allows the human authors some room for their own writing styles and personalities to show.

    • It’s a good point, although there seem to be plenty of Christians whose model of Biblical inspiration is essentially the same as that which is considered orthodox within Islam.

  • christo