Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ Metaphor

May 16, 2018 • 8:30 am

Today’s Jesus and Mo, called “full”, came with this artist’s note:

Thanks to Hassan Radwan for today’s script. The comic is basically a rewrite
of his Tweet:

Hassan’s website is here: [“The Agnostic Muslim”]:

And the strip:

The problem here, of course, is that it implies that just as many Muslims as Christians see their scripture as metaphorical. But the data show that a far higher percentage of Muslims are Qur’anic “fundamentalists,” thinking it must be read literally. Thus, while you’ll find “metaphorizers” in both faiths, Islam hasn’t yet quashed its literalism as much as Christianity (or Judaism).

31 thoughts on “Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ Metaphor

  1. I think if 20% of Christians were practicing the old testament literally (ie, using it as the basis for their laws) we’d be a lot more critical of the bible’s teachings. Because virtually no Christians do this, it’s easier to ignore the horrible barbarism in that book.

    I think some day Islam will be similar and no Muslims will interpret the Quran literally, but that day is likely a long way off. But blame the interpretation, not the book, I say.

    (This is one place where I disagree with Sam Harris.)

    1. This point on context turns up a lot, even on MOOCs about Islam. So, I thought I would do a rough stats analysis of how compassionate and angry the Koran is. This was my reply to one lecture.

      “I thought it would be a good idea to have some sort of statistical analysis on the exhortatory language in the Koran. How often is Allah shown being compassionate? And how often, angry? It will also give us an idea of the context of the Koran, about which we read so much.

      Dr. Moosa, Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Notre Dame in the Department of History and the Kroc Institute for International Studies, agreed in his interview that we have a, “sort of hyperbolic or exaggerated language which the Quran uses for the sake of its exhortation”. He continued, “I think that the very fact that the Quran uses terms and flowery language, at times, of how compassionate God is and sometimes very angry language and to make a point, is precisely part of the inimitability that it has this kind of rhetorical effect… And it’s precisely this rhetoric in these conversations between multiple audiences that has that beauty…”, and further, “It’s not enough to isolate one phrase or one turn of phrase… without the context.”

      So, we can get some data on the amount of times the Koran is “angry” or “compassionate” – if we associate that idea with “good stuff”. We will also get an idea of the ratio of anger to compassion and therefore statistics on the rhetorical techniques of the piece.

      We have punishment or carrot passages. If we count them, that can tell us the amount of times Allah threatens or offers rewards. One’s initial impression on reading the Koran is of the overwhelming tone of God threatening the listener. Is this true? If one uses the Sceptic’s Annotated Koran, the site has usefully categorised passages into headings like “Good Stuff”, “Intolerance” and so on. Naturally, the categorization of any text is in principle sub-dividable into an almost infinite number, but we do have to set some reasonable criteria.

      Here are the categories which I have selected as being relevant to “anger” and “compassion”. The number after them is the number of verses or passages which are examples of that category.

      Under “compassion”, we have “Good stuff” – 78

      Under “anger”, we have “Injustice” – 769. “Intolerance” – 537. “Cruelty and Violence” – 532. “Women” – 62. “Family values” – 28. “Sex” – 28. “Language” – 6. “Homosexuality” – 4.

      We have a total of 2,044 passages. (A caveat: some verses may be counted twice e.g. “Injustice” and “Intolerance” may share a passage). Nevertheless, we can make some preliminary statistical conclusions.

      Out of 2,044 passages about Allah’s anger and compassion, 78 are about Allah’s compassion and a maximum of 1,966 are about his anger. 3.8% of the Koran exhorts potential believers using a description of a compassionate Allah. Up to 96.2% of the Koran exhorts potential believers using a description of an angry Allah.

      To sum up, the rhetorical techniques of the Koran are overwhelmingly framed in a context of anger. By contrast, less than 5% of the text is framed in a context of compassion. So, when we refer to the wider context of the book that context is one of anger.”

      Here is the link:

      1. Though as I interpret your summary, by far the largest part of Allah’s anger is directed towards injustice, intolerance, cruelty and violence. I would rate that as a Good Thing.
        Shouldn’t we all get angry about those things?

        So together with the 78 for ‘compassion’, I would count the 769 + 537 + 523 of those instances on the plus side. A total of 1907 on the plus side, against 128 negative. What an amazingly enlightened document!

        I should add that I don’t really believe those figures.

        Also, I’m not sure whether your category of ‘intolerance’ for example, is instances of Allah being angry at intolerance (good) or displaying intolerance (bad).

        But anyway, it seems to me that “God will do horrible things to those who commit injustices” could be counted either way, depending on your point of view and, maybe, how you want the figures to come out.

        So I think your comparisons need a bit of refining.


        1. Infinite, the Koran represents Allah himself as promoting injustice, intolerance etc. That is what the categories mean.

          As examples, under “injustice” we have, “2:6 As for the Disbelievers, Whether thou warn them or thou warn them not it is all one for them; they believe not. 2:7 Allah hath sealed their hearing and their hearts, and on their eyes there is a covering. Theirs will be an awful doom.”

          Under “intolerance”, we have, “2:10 In their hearts is a disease, and Allah increaseth their disease. A painful doom is theirs because they lie.”

          And so on. My categories for anger show Allah in an immoral light, broadly an angry, unjust god.

          If you do not believe the figures, I provided the link for you to see my working. You can easily replicate it. Of course I put in the caveat that some examples of Allah’s intolerance may be the same passage as appears under Allah’s injustice and thus may be counted twice: but that would still leave a context of an overwhelmingly angry Allah.

          I, like you, was surprised by the clear manner that the Koran presents a fire and brimstone god.

  2. Reading the very interesting book, God’s Philosophers by James Hannam (2010)… (worth a look)

    It suggests that few people in the Middle Ages took the whole bible literally, rather that that was something that was introduced by Reformation thinkers urging people to rely on the ‘word of god’ rather than the interpretations of a priesthood. Which puts protestant christians in the same frame as the mohammedans. (I refuse to capitalise those words!) We know how little attention most RCs take of the Papal rules not to use contraception, but evangelical christians are literalists even when the bible contradicts itself.

    1. “We know how little attention most RCs take of the Papal rules not to use contraception, but evangelical christians are literalists even when the bible contradicts itself.”

      Can’t let rules get in the way of burden free sex. Coincidentally, I just happen to be one who’s existence is due to my then Catholic mother not using contraception, as advised by her doctor because due to blood factor compatibility issues additional pregnancy was deemed to be very high risk, because her RCC priest told her she would go to hell if she did. The doctor was right. I almost didn’t make it.

  3. There is a silver lining to literalists. They disparage the metaphorizers.

    I think being a metaphorizer is not a problem today with abundant information, it’s a burden.

    Fundamentalists have a point that’s not falsifiable: If you are not a fundamentalists you are not a real believer. That puts anyone who accommodates or metaphorizes in a weaker position.

  4. All Abrahamic religions are full of kill and slaughter for God, as one might expect for religions based on a myth about a man willing to murder his son to please an imaginary being.

  5. In Jesus’ defence, “to bring the sword” definitely is a metaphor unless he was planning to reforge the shards of Narsil or something.

    1. Yeah, without detracting from the larger point of the comic, that was a poor example to choose. Jesus is almost certainly speaking figuratively in the “sword” passage, although it’s fun to bring up on unready Christians. Jesus is talking about the overturning of the accepted order required of his followers. The “kill the idolaters” passage, in contrast, is quite literal, although a liberal Muslim will argue it was only meant to apply to some specific group during Mohammed’s time. Christians and Jews make the same excuses for the old testament commands to kill the Amalekites and others.

      Jesus never condemns the Old Testament violence as such, and he promises far worse to unbelievers on Judgment day. (The latter is also one of Mohammed’s favorite themes.) However, there is an important difference in that Jesus, as portrayed in the Bible, never harms anyone during his earthly life, whereas Mohammed was an active warlord.

      1. 1)The character of Jesus wouldn’t have much need to expressly condemn OT violence, as the original christianity viewed the Hebrew’s covenant with Yahweh as one with a malicious & lesser deity than ‘The Father’;

        2) What specific words of Jesus in the gospels lead you believe “he promises far worse to believers on judgement day”?

  6. Totally aside from the main point, while the expression “I came not to bring peace, but the sword” is figurative, it is not a metaphor. It’s a form of metonymy, a figure of speech that consists of using the name of one object or concept for that of another to which it is related in reality or of which it is a part. Other examples would be “hand” for “help” (“Can you give me a hand?”), “dish” for “food” (“This dish is delicious”), or “White House” for the president or an administration (“The White House announced today. . . .”). Metaphor, on the other hand, is an implied comparison between two things that are not related in reality—e.g., “All the world’s a stage,” or “I’m on a roller coaster of emotions.”

    Re the Bible and other religious books the question is not literal vs metaphorical but literal vs symbolic. E.g., the story of Adam and Eve can be taken as literal truth or it can be taken as a story representing some other truth altogether. In neither case is it a metaphor.

    Literal: “I got bitten by a dog today.”
    Metaphor: “Some dirty dog stole my wallet.”
    Symbolism: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

    Forgive the pedantry. We poets seldom get a chance to show off.

  7. Context does matter. The ‘sword’ in the NT is to be wielded against the old Mosaic law. The swords in the koran and haditha are for realz swords leveled against the for realz necks of infidels.

  8. Christianity has had its metaphorical Scripture readers since the very beginning of its history.

    I would be curious to know how far such a thing dates back in Islam.

    “wherever you find them” suggests this is not out of context.

  9. I’ve heard and read about this subject from several speakers and authors, but to me this says it best:

    “When a claim is falsified in science and everybody agrees it’s bogus, it’s discarded. It’s put in the trash bin of bad ideas. When a claim of religion is falsified, it becomes a metaphor.” — Jerry Coyne vs John Haught – Are Science And Religion Compatible – 2011

    Skip to 37:49. Notice how the comment earns laughs and applause from the audience.

  10. To Mr Radwan I would suggest the equivalence is false for a quite simple reason. Whatever the Bible said, Xtians responded by killing a few million, if that, and then said “hey, this isn’t a very nice way to carry on”. Muslims responded by killing hundreds of millions over the last 1400 years and they are still at it.

    1. Meh. You just made up those numbers.

      Xtians have been slaughtering non-xtians for 2000 years – it’s only been the last 70 or so that the rate of slaughter has dropped. Muslims are still killing people for not being Muslim, that’s true, but Christians went a little over 1940 years before they had their last great blood bath (though they have managed to slow it to trickle since).

      It’s a losing game, Simon, making the claim that Muslims are bad because Christians aren’t chopping heads off today. I am olde enough to know people who’s entire families were rounded up and slaughtered because they weren’t Christians.

      1. There are major differences between the phenomena. Jesus did not rush around on a horse or camel chopping heads off. That is exactly the example set by Mo. Conquest by violence is an integral part of Islam and has been from the beginning. The New Testament may have some passages which can be used to excuse violence whereas Islamic Scriptures require violence. It is far easier for Xtians to denounce violence with sound Biblical backing than it is for Muslims to do so with scriptural backing. Islamic Jihad killed 80 million in India alone. There is a consistency to the killing which is missing from the history of Xtianity and it follows very directly from the Quran and hadiths. Islamic exapansion is still going on today in the Far East with Xtians being killed. Islamic law contains an instruction manual for conquest such that it always has the potential to directly inspire violence.

        1. Simon, the problem with “the beginning” of Islam is knowing when the beginning was. Despite the attempts of western historians to find that out, it has been very hard to get to the original texts and to match them with the when the rasm, the original Koranic verses, were written.

          I have now followed 2 MOOCs on the origins of Islam and it is very difficult to initiate a discussion on when this or that sura was written. We know that some suras were lost by the time of Uthman’s recension which is the grand-daddy of the modern Koran, but by no means the same as the several Korans we have today. It looks like the collection of Uthman’s recension is almost a direct copy of the story of the 20 years’ earlier recension: what we are to make of this, I do not know.

          What we do know is this. Gerd Puin, the Islamicist scholar, tells us that 20% of the Koran is unintelligible. This is a fascinating riposte to the apologists who tell us about the beauty of the original Koran. It may be that certain verses of the Koran were written as the early internecine Arabic wars took place in the Ridda Wars, just after Muhammad’s traditional death: some may be later. When one reads the Koran, it certainly looks like some verses have been interpolated, as they have no thematic relation to the ideas before and after. Several Islamicist scholars agree. This could be an example of the biblical criticism concept of “Sitz im Leben” – look to the historical context to get a hang on its genuineness. To give Islamic “scholars” their due, they have a similar concept, “Asbab al-Nuzul” to determine whether a hadith is “strong” or “weak”.

          Yet, the hadith are equally problematic. The first one by ibn Ishaq, was written about 130 years after Mo’s death. But we do not have it. We have ibn Hisham’s version of it. But he said that he got it from a student of ibn Ishaq. (I do not know what the earliest copy of ibn Hisham is). So, we have at best a third hand-copy of the very earliest hadith. Ibn Ishaq mentions various people who told their descendants about Mo, in a sort of game of telephone, a chain of transmission. He is our sole source who tells us that these people were reliable. This is not a good source. He is almost an exact analogy for Papias, the early C2nd Christian whom serious Biblical scholars discount as a reliable source for the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. The later the hadith, in general, the more it claims to have a reliable chain of transmission back to Mo: this is the opposite of what a historian would expect, and looks a lot like apologetics. Indeed, the later the hadith, the more it claimed that the chain of transmission was “proof” of Islam’s “science”.

          I have seen in 2 MOOCs on Islam the deep-rooted hostility with which Muslims – one would assume quite intelligent ones – approach the idea of a rational, historical analysis of the Islamic texts. As a final example, a Sufi, who have the quite unwarranted reputation as being quietist, a very intelligent man, with a higher degree in Physics from MIT, bimbled on about the “virgin soul” of Islam. As I think Feynman might have said, “He’s not even wrong”. Yet, I think it was he who talked about the Koran being a “magical book”. When Sam Harris sneered about it being a magic book, a part of me thought it was rhetoric. But intelligent Muslims really do think that.

          One sometimes despairs at having a reasonable conversation with such people.

          1. I defer to your knowledge on the intricacies of history. Interesting as it is, from a practical point of view we have a broadly consistent Islam, with some Sunni/Shia discrepancies which is codified and mandates violence. This violence has been carried out for 1400 years, not incidental to conquests by cultural Muslims, but because of scriptural dictate. The campaign has been systematic. I do understand that there may have been periods where the emphasis changed.

            The debate over provenance is not relevant to mainstream muslims as the very notion of questioning the validity of the Quran or hadiths is unthinkable. Hopefully that will change, but I suspect it will be a very difficult and perhaps bloody process.

            My limited understanding is that The Quran was aggregated from various traditions at the behest of caliph Abd al-Malik(name from memory, perhaps faulty) around 700AD.

  11. ‘Context shmontext’
    ‘Metaphor shmetaphor’

    Jesus ‘n’ Mo have suddenly started talking mock-Yiddish. 🙂


Leave a Reply