The Bible and the Koran - Coke vs. Kool-Aid?

Back in 1992, The End of History argued that with the collapse of communism, ideological conflict had ended.  Without vast collisions of competing ideas, there would be no further advances in human history.  Then came 9-11 and, as President Bush put it, a reawakening of the Crusades.

The ongoing conflict between Christianity and Islam, or, if you prefer, between Islam and godless Western society, has the potential to be much longer and much more difficult than the conflict with Communism.

By saying that God did not exist, communists gave up religion as a tool to motivate their followers.  Women were supposedly equal under communism, so women couldn't be given as rewards to the faithful.  The only reward communists could offer was power, which isn't a bad motivator, but is only one of many ways to motivate people.

By giving up other motivations, communists seriously limited the ways their ideas could be spread.  Power, after all, is only as valuable as it is unique.

Militant Islam offers its followers power and religious satisfaction, of course, and it also offers the chance to find a wife or wives.  Being served by 72 virgins in the afterlife rewards suicide bombers, and women captured from defeated enemies can be awarded to heroic followers.

Communism was so ineffective economically that President Reagan was able to bankrupt what he called "the evil empire" by funding "Star Wars" at a level that the Soviets couldn't match.  The more we drive cars, however, the more money Middle Eastern governments can afford to spend spreading Islam.

Is Religion Dead?

Every so often, Western society decides that religion is dead.  Back in 1966, Time magazine wrote about the "God is Dead" movement which had been started by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.  The idea gained great publicity, but religious people fought back.  I saw bumper stickers, "My God is alive - sorry about yours."  Religious faith survived that movement.

Fads in atheism, or lack of religion, go in cycles.  The current atheism fad, or the current boom in publicity about atheism, started with al Qaeda, whose attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001 created a search for someone or something to blame.

Militant atheists tell us not to trust any religion because of the religious forces behind the current wave of terrorism.  Books by Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Daniel C. Dennett (Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon), and Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation), argue that the Islamic militants who carried out the attacks shouldn't be blamed for 9-11, nor should Islam as a whole, but blame ought to be shared among all religions.

In his book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Christopher Hitchens contends that organized religion is "violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children."

He and his fellow anti-religionists conveniently overlook the fact that the 20th century's death toll due to irreligious, secular governments killing their own citizens dwarfs the death toll in all religious wars, at least so far.  "Unmasking the Terrorists" on p 93 of the Winter 2006 issue of the Wilson Quarterly says:

Over the centuries, according to terrorism researcher Clark McCauley, terrorists and other guerrilla practitioners of political violence have killed approximately half a million people.  By contract, what might be called "state terrorism" - state sponsored attack against a country's own citizens, such as the Nazi campaign against German Jews, the Soviet gulag, Mao's massacres during the Cultural Revolution, and Pol Pot's blood-soaked march backward in history toward year zero - killed 30 million people in the 20th century alone.  We have no apparent problem finding rational motive when states murder their own people, yet when faced with the much smaller number of terrorist murders, we seem unable and often unwilling even to contemplate rational motives.

People who understand the all-too-human motivation toward power can understand why Stalin would kill anyone who might oppose his policies or why Hitler would kill Jews to motivate his people to unite behind him in fighting a common "enemy."  Religious people have no trouble understanding how religion can motivate people to murder, particularly if the religion teaches that God commands His people to kill unbelievers; only people who lack direct experience with religious faith can fail to understand religious terrorism.

One of the supreme ironies of our time is that a religiously-motivated US president went to war in the name of God to set up a non-religious state in Iraq to protect Americans against a highly religious movement known as Al Qaeda.

Religious terrorism is far behind state terrorism in body count so far.  Religious conflicts could touch off a nuclear war, however, in which case the death rankings could change, but for the moment, non-religious governments are far more dangerous to their citizens than religion or terrorism have ever been.

That said, the current conflict between nations that came from a Christian background and political movements that claim to adhere to Islam could get nasty.

The Selling of the Books

In "The Battle of the Books", the Economist discussed the Bible and the Koran as if they were two products being marketed by competing organizations.  The sort of reasoning about the birth of Christ that we discussed earlier illustrates a major difference between how Christians approach the Bible and how Muslims approach the Koran.  According to the Economist,

The goal of Koranic study is to memorize the Koran.  "The Koran does not document what is other than itself," one scholar notes.  "It is not about the truth, it is the truth." [emphasis added]

Given that Muslims believe that the Koran has no relationship to other writings or to the archaeological record, there's no reason to study the Koran from any viewpoint other than what the Koran itself says; scholars who take different points of view are often threatened with death.

The Bible, in contrast, can be compared with any and all writings on any subject.  The Bible has been studied from many different points of view, each of which has spread information about the Bible to different groups and made Christians think about what they believe.  The vast range of commentary on and about the Bible constitutes a significant marketing advantage.

The Bible has another marketing advantage in that there are on the order of 900 different English translations available.  Muslims are uncomfortable with the idea of translating the Koran from Arabic and tolerate translations reluctantly.  Pious Muslims are supposed to learn Arabic.  Although no serious Bible scholar would be content with a translation, the Bible is much more accessible to non-specialists than the Koran because of the variety of translations available and the number of profit-oriented publishers who market them.

On the other hand, the Saudis spend a significant fraction of their oil profits supporting mosques, Islamic schools, and Islamic publications all over the world.

Islam is growing faster than Christianity despite Christianity's head start and whatever marketing advantages Christianity may possess.  This is mostly due to a higher birth rate and larger Islamic families than to conversion.  Muslims don't do a lot of marketing to non-Muslims; the main goal of Islamic education is to strengthen the faithful and keep them under the sway of the mullahs.

We don't yet know whether Islamic families will have fewer children as they become wealthier or even if they will become wealthier.  If Islamic women have fewer children in the future, the numbers may balance out.

Points of Conflict

Devout Muslims believe that the Koran is complete in its exposition of truth whereas Christians believe that the Bible is complete only in telling Christians what they need to know about God.  Also, the Bible tells Christians to study the world around them as a help in understanding the mind of God.  This makes Christians far more likely to gain knowledge outside the Bible than serious Muslims are to study subjects outside the Koran.

This article quotes the Islamic general who conquered Alexandria early in the history if Islam and was asked what to do about the famous library there.

"If the books agree with the Koran, we don't need them; if they disagree with it, we don't want them: burn them all!"

Since the Koran tells Muslims all they needed to know, they didn't need any other books.  Devout Muslims believe that the Koran is the only curriculum worth of study.  Actively discouraging young people from studying technology, business, medicine, and all other non-Koranic subjects is not the recipe for economic progress.

This deliberate ignorance of all things non-Koranic is one reason so many Islamic countries are so poor - learning is the basis of economic growth.  The only reason why modern Islam has any influence at all is the economic wealth earned by drawing oil out of the ground.

Poor Muslim countries are jealous of Western economic success, but if their children study the technical subjects which underpin our economy and take their lessons to heart, they'll lose their Islamic character.

In spite of the well-known economic limitations of Koran-only education, there are political reasons why Muslims are told not to study secular subjects.  Consider the leaders of the Muslim communities in France whose riots are discussed in the article mentioned above.  The Imams know that they could never make it as leaders in French secular society.  Like the Milwaukee Mullahs, they know that their only chance to hang onto power is to keep their youth from being assimilated into French society.  They teach young men that the Koran is the only worthwhile study.

Muslims believe that women aren't qualified to be Koranic scholars.  Young Muslim Frenchmen study the Koran and end up unemployed; young Muslim women study secular subjects and find jobs.  The unemployment rate for Muslim women is half that of Muslim men.

How do unmarried young men feel about being unemployed after spending years studying the Koran as they were told?  How do they feel about women having more money than they do?  This article tells how young Islamic men feel - they try to kill policemen.

We see similar effects of Muslims refusing to assimilate in Denmark and in Holland.  The Danes are almost militant in their insistence on toleration - they've essentially made a secular religion of tolerating any and all other beliefs.  Therefore, Denmark has a serious existential problem - what do tolerant people do with a group who not only refuses to assimilate into the larger society, the group's leaders insist on all their people being intolerant?  Can a nation which makes a religion of tolerance tolerate an intolerant religion?

Although Muslims in America are better integrated into society than Muslims in Europe, religious conflict could break out in America.  Some years back, I visited Windsor, Ontario, just across the river from Detroit and found an Islamic newsletter in a snack bar.  In trying to explain American politics to Muslims, the lead article pointed out the following:

  • Right and wrong are irrelevant; the only thing that matters in American politics is whether your issue swings elections.
  • Well-organized Jewish voters swing New York State; no Democrat can become President without carrying New York; no Democrat will ever criticize Israel no matter what happens.
  • There are enough Muslims to swing Michigan elections.  Swinging Michigan wouldn't be as nice as swinging New York, but it would get Islam onto the national radar.
  • Unless they organize and vote as a block, Muslims won't matter in American politics.

That was some years ago.  Muslims are learning from the Jews; we recently swore in our first Islamic Congressman.  What would happen if Michigan Muslims voted as a block and did determine Michigan's governorship and its electoral votes?

As the Economist puts it:

But two things are certain in the battle of the books.  The first is that the urge to spread the Word will spark some of the fiercest conflicts of the 21st century.  The area that is being most heavily fought over -- sub-Saharan Africa -- is a tinder box of failed states and ethnic animosities.  The second is that the Bible and the Koran will continue to exercise a dramatic influence over human events, for both good and ill.  The twigs of the burning bush are still aflame with the fire of God.

Religion is still very much with us, history hasn't ended, and it's not at all clear how it will turn out.  We live in interesting times.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments
A very poignant write. Many people seem to see the world as they hope it will be, not as it is. Many Americans are anxious to deal with the Arabs with the false assumption that our value systems are the same. Life has a very different value over there, as torture chambers, suicide/homicide kiddie bombers and female circumcision indicate. Check out some quotes from Winston Churchill about "Mohammedans". Yet we as a country and society refuse to learn from history and see the writing on the wall. Finally, the continued references to "Radical Islam", "Islamofascism" and "Militant Islam" are, in my opinion, inaccurate. A more accurate label would be "Orthodox Islam". In their violent hatred of Israel and other infidels as well as their merciless treatment of their own people is simply them doing what the Qu'ran tells them to do! There is no "turn the other cheek" verse in the Qu'ran.
January 7, 2008 5:18 PM
Your argument about secular states killing more people than religious wars is false.

Religion is just one form hubris, of believing that you know everything. Hitler and Stalin were worshipped as virtual gods who knew everything and as in religion they did away with heretics and dissidents.
January 7, 2008 6:40 PM
Gibson pointed out another difference between Christianity and Islam.

Christians do not "do away" with heretics and dissidents. Christians may not associate with such people, but dissidents are NOT imprisoned, ridiculed, maligned or damaged in any way. Orthodox Muslims (thanks to Joshua for that term) DO encourage and promote such behaviour. It's good to know the religions that you talk about.

Jesus was clear - love thy neighbor as thy self. Judge not that ye be not judged.

Mohammed was also clear - death to the infidel.
January 7, 2008 7:19 PM
Great line, this : "One of the supreme ironies of our time is that a religiously-motivated US president went to war in the name of God to set up a non-religious state in Iraq to protect Americans against a highly religious movement known as Al Qaeda".

How very true and yet from the best of my knowledge completely missed by the mainstream media.
January 7, 2008 7:31 PM
Reeaaaally? A schlock-fest on which is better the bible or the Qur'an, and the bible wins? geeee.... who'd of seen that coming FROM AN AMERICAN WRITER.
January 7, 2008 11:43 PM
Do you know if Muslims practice evangelizing? Do they have missionaries in the sense that western religions have? I always wonder why they want to force their views on people by force. Why not try evangelizing? It takes longer, but the effects seem to be more solid and last longer. This is just my personal thoughts. I have no concrete idea if they actually do this already or not.
January 8, 2008 8:06 AM
I am a former Moslem and been a Christian since 1990. All my family members are still Sunni Moslem. In order to judge a faith we need to look at the founder. Mohammed was a warrior and fought wars and Jesus won hearts by the love of God. I always say that if God is powerless enough so that He would need people to fight for Him, I would not believe in Him. But God is God and He is merciful and just. Religions is bad but only life with God is good.

Shalom and Salam to all,
January 9, 2008 8:34 AM
Sorry, hamesh. Read the texts. What surah reads "Love thy neighbor"? Does the Qu'ran say "Do good unto them that despitefully use you"? As a matter of fact, I heard a Qu'ran verse of safety and hospitality was written on the wall right outside of one of Al-Qaeda's torture chambers in Iraq. Not only that, the US company Pfizer gave more aid to tsunami victims in Indonesia than any Muslim country. READ the texts!
January 10, 2008 5:34 PM
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