An Open Letter to Atheist Muslims – or – Is The Quran A Violent Text Or Is Your Reading A Tad Off?

Joe Bradford

| 10/08/2014

Dear Self Described Atheist Muslims,

Let’s start with what I am not going to do.

I am not going to accuse you of never knowing anything about Islam. Most of you have grown up in Muslim families, attended Muslim Sunday school, gone to Muslim summer camp, etc. You know the drill and the day to day of what many Muslims experience, especially in a communal sense. Also, I will not accuse you of being sympathetic to the bigotry and hatred projected towards Muslims. Despite your self-declared apostasy and atheism, I am sure that when you are in line in the airport, pulled over for a minor traffic violation, or opening an account at a bank, you are wholly identified as an “other” and your “Muslimy” name doesn’t help you in the least. I get it. You are still, like it or not, culturally tied to the community that you have identified with much of your life, despite now rejecting the faith that that community holds dear.

A number of Assumptions

There are several of you who have written on this topic. See here, here, and here. You say you want to help. I am sure you do. Your advice to Muslims that label themselves as “Moderate” can be summarized in a few bullet points:

  • Muslims believe in the Quran as “God’s literal word” and this you say needs to stop
  • Muslims claim that the Quran is misinterpreted, while terrorist groups around the world use the same text to justify violence; this you claim, shows that something is missing.
  • Claims that the Quran contains metaphor, allegory, and is an interpreted document are just unacceptable, because unless all Muslims around the world accept these interpretations, then no one can accept them.
  • The only way past all of this is to admit that the Quran is an errant document, can be changed or discarded, and for Muslims to adhere not to an ideological identity but instead to a community identity.

I will not engage in appeals to emotion by waxing poetic on my background growing up as a Muslim. You know “as a distraught teen, I never X. Then I did, and my life changed because then I could Y, which lead me to Z…” all the while peppering the conversation with where I’ve lived and all of the random factoids on how Muslims around the world revere the Quran unrelated to the topic at hand that I know about. We get all that, because you’ve already said you identified with Muslims as a community of people.

What I do want to talk to you about is your propensity to conflate your years, if not months, in Sunday schools around the world as some form of expertise on Islamic thought, theology, and scripture. Clearly, by mere frequency of mentioning that you’ve attended Sunday school, or that you’ve lived in a Muslim Majority country (extra points if you mention the KSA or the UAE) you are more than well qualified to speak about issues that members of other faiths reserve for clergy, subject matter experts, and seminarians. This is something that many of you are not in the least qualified to do. In fact if having lived in the Middle East is somehow indicative of your familiarity with Muslim doctrine, scriptural veracity, and its theological underpinnings, then living and studying there makes one more than qualified to comment on these issues. So at risk of sounding condescending and/or vain, I must state for the record that I am qualified to speak on issues of interpretation of religious texts. I have an undergraduate degree in “Shariah and Islamic Studies” from the Islamic University of Medina. I hold a Master of Islamic Law degree from the same university. I have studied in faculty and privately with scholars, professors, and experts from around the Muslim world. I did say at the beginning that I’m not going to accuse you of never knowing anything about Islam. You do know something. But I will say that this one thing, namely Quranic interpretation, is something you severely lack expertise in to put it politely. You’ve based a lot of what you’ve said on several assumptions. Let’s talk about the assumptions above and some of the issues related to them.

Who speaks for Islam

Who really speaks for Islam? This is a crucial question when we talk about interpreting religious texts. We hear it all the time: Muslims do not have formal clergy. This is a true statement, well at least in part. It does not take into consideration that “clergy” is a term with considerable cultural baggage, namely the sacerdotal function of the priesthood in Christianity. By sacerdotal I mean “relating to or denoting a doctrine that ascribes sacrificial functions and spiritual or supernatural powers to ordained priests.” So yes, Muslim Imams and scholars are not imbued with supernatural powers, although they do fulfill a function in the community. Some of those functions are merely pastoral in nature, while others are scholarly and interpretive. The Muslim “Shaikh” or religious scholar is probably a lot closer in concept to the Jewish Rabbi than he is to the Catholic priest. Depending upon where he is in his studies and the role he fills in any given community, he may be a bit of a chaplain and counselor as well.

In the end of the day, there is a broad self-regulating body of scholars that parse issues of interpretation and applicability to any given context. They are sometimes known as Muftis, Shaikhs, and as Imams (although this latter title is paradoxically reserved in Islamic circles for functional community prayer leaders as well as paragons of spiritual and juristic leadership).

The Dilemma of Interpretive Egalitarianism 

We are faced with a dilemma when talking about interpretation: Either everyone’s interpretation is valid or it isn’t. If it is, then in reality regardless of whether Muslims call themselves “moderate” or not, your opinion of them and what they believe really matters very, very little in the large scheme of things. If everyone’s interpretation, on the other hand, is not valid, then there must be some qualifications for engaging in interpretation. I’d go on about the qualifications for those involved in interpretation of texts, but the details of that are beyond this article. The least we can say is that when someone makes a claim about the application of a verse to a particular context, the uninitiated will almost always ask “Is she qualified to do so?” much like when a person advises you to undergo a medical procedure the uninitiated will ALWAYS ask “Is she qualified to do so?” So if there are those that are qualified, through years of study to speak on the interpretation of the Quran and its application to a given context, then again your opinion and what they believe in reality matters very, very little in the large scheme of things.

We seem to be at an impasse then. If we can no longer juxtapose our personal ideas of what the Quran says against the average “Moderate” Muslim, what are we supposed to do? We aren’t referencing scholarly opinion to validate our personal ideas about what the Quran says. In this case, how are we to know if the root cause is as stated again and again: the moderate Muslim’s inability to recognize scriptural inerrancy? In other words, the Quran makes people “Kookoo for Cocoa Puffs” crazy, so why won’t they just give it up?

Is the Quran a “violent text”?

Before we talk about reconsidering the infallibility of the Quran, let’s talk a little about the idea that the Quran justifies violence and is the catalyst for violence in the Muslim community. A recent Pew study showed that when asked about violence against individual civilians is justified, about 23% of respondents in 15 Muslim majority countries said that it can often or sometimes be justified. Crazy right! I know, it’s a shocker. But what is even more shocking, is when respondents from the US, Canada, East and Western Europe were asked a similar question, 24% of all respondents said the same thing. What is that allows a large segment of the Western world to allow (even if only sometimes and in certain situations) violence against individual civilians? Is it the Quran? Certainly not. Is it the Bible? Highly doubtful. Is it popular media? Not sure. Could it be some other combination of factors? Possibly, but let’s leave that to statisticians and political scientists. We can only judge based on results. So far, violence and/or support for violence against individuals among all populations regardless of religion or region seem roughly split 25%/75%.

“God’s literal word” and the Quran as an errant document

Do Muslims believe the Quran to be God’s “literal” word? Yes and No. Yes, in the sense that the Quran is seen as representing the exact words of the original text as revealed by God. And No, in the sense that the Quran is not a book that is devoid of metaphor and allegory. What would be more correct then is to say that Muslims believe the Quran to be “God’s immutable word” because they believe it to be unchanging over time and unable to be changed.

I know, I know. You say that even this change in definition is not enough. You say the Quran is used by violent terrorists, and “Moderate Muslim” claims of the Quran being misinterpreted just don’t cut it. Even if “Moderate Muslims” accept their own interpretations, until all Muslims around the world accept these interpretations, then they are useless. But the Quran is written in a human language, and languages do not work the way that you want them to. They are ambiguous, equivocal, and indefinite at times. One word may have several meanings. One sentence may mean numerous things when read in or out of context. A group of sentences may be stated in a certain context or time, then no longer be applicable. The author of those sentences may include them for historical value, but not make them effective or part of the story line. All of these topics are included in the disciplines studied to interpret the Quran, because all of these topics are inherent to understanding language.

“Strike [them] upon the necks”

Therefore, when I read in the Quran “so strike [them] upon the necks and strike from them every fingertip” I naturally say “Wow that sounds really bad!” But when I back up and read the ENTIRE verse, and see that the verse begins with a conjunction

“When your Lord inspired to the angels, “I am with you, so strengthen those who have believed. I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieved, so strike [them] upon the necks and strike from them every fingertip”

then immediately calls the reader’s attention to God’s command to a group of angels, not men. For the rational, fair-minded individual who understands what function language plays in speech, he should immediately realize that

  1. A) this verse is not speaking to me or any other human, and
  2. B) the conjunction is for “…tying up words and phrases and clauses. (here’s a link if you forgot)

Because of the conjunction, he will read a few verses before this to see what the overall context is, and find out what this is referring to. Earliest exegetes of the Quran state that this is referring to Angelic assistance to the Prophet and Believers during the Battle of Badr.

Yes, you don’t have to believe that this took place. And you certainly don’t have to believe in Angels, God, Angelic military forces, or anything of the sort. However what you do have to do is allow language to function the way it is supposed to. Allow texts to speak without projecting a particular meaning on to them detached from the text and the context. You claim that Moderate Muslims aid bigots by not accepting the Quran as fallible, and thus fall into the same category as the “extremists” who also believe the Quran to be immutable.

Perversion of Texts for Political Gain

What you fail to recognize is that you have projected an extra-textual meaning (the general use of violence in this case) onto a verse revealed about and speaking directly to an incident in medieval history (angelic hosts attending a medieval battle). Even if we do not accept the exegesis provided in the link above tying this to the Battle of Badr, the language of the verse is clear. This is not a general exhortation to commit violence in the name of religion. None of us are angels (literally or figuratively).

The problem here is two-fold: You have not contextualized. You have not interpreted. You have not even allowed language to function as it should. Because the plain language composing this verse and surrounding it does not denote general, wanton violence against individuals. What you have done is misrepresented and perverted a text by injecting shallow meaning into a verse which aligns itself with your preferred construing of this text. In this case, that objective would be the necessity to reject it due to a perceived command to commit violence. This is outside of what the text and context actually denote, but if that allows you to appeal to your idea of the Quran as errant, so be it. This is not only disingenuous, it is the same thing that extremists do to bend texts to justify their use for violence. This is but one example of why the words we use, how we use them, and how we read them matter. There are many, many other examples of this, not just in the Quran but even in our own expressions and speech.

What Is The Problem?

Immutability is not the problem. Unqualified interpretation is. Those that take dichromatic stances as to what the Quran means are extremists. To solve these problems we need to let languages and interpretive disciplines function as they are designed. I find it telling that the shallow misinterpretations of religious and irreligious extremists almost always lead to one thing: the escalation of conflict and the promotion of violence, instead of leading to dialogue and mutual understanding.

 

Image from JPAllen, Flickr. labeled for reuse with modification.

 

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32 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Atheist Muslims – or – Is The Quran A Violent Text Or Is Your Reading A Tad Off?”

  1. Wonderful! I pray this article is read by a very wide audience, including Literalists of all stripes. J/K

  2. Nice warning to not get bigger than our britches. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the ahadiths.

  3. Joe, being an atheist doesn’t mean rejecting Islam. It means rejecting all religions because you don’t believe in god. And your post totally ignores that basic fact.

    1. He’s responding to a recent letter labeled “Atheist Muslims”, and he is referring to a very specific segment of ex-Muslim atheists who still identify highly with the community despite disbelieving in God.

    2. Ana, this is actually a reply to an open letter from a certain self-described ‘atheist Muslim’. Look it up. Please understand the context, THEN you’ll know where the author’s coming from.

      1. Mohd, Rayan, thank you for the clarification. I haven’t been following the discussion, I just came across this because a friend shared it on Facebook – and, when I made the same comment to her, she also seemed unaware of the ongoing discussion. I think the post should make it explicit.

  4. Salam,

    Thank you for the well-written article. I believe that this topic touches on something very sensitive indeed in the Muslim community, and very relevant to how we construct our identities – who is qualified to interpret the Quran? Which interpretations are qualified?

    For example, does your explanation mean that the only way that one can understand anything from the Quran is by being a huge scholar or referring to a scholar? Does this mean that a person cannot, in fact, just read the Quran and fulfill what God wants of him or her? That seems problematic, as it seems to imply that the religion is not accessible to the everyday person.

    Secondly, although it’s definitely easy to explain away common misconceptions such as the one about violence that you mentioned, when the verses are read in context – but what about much larger, ‘iff-ier’ issues, the ones that remain even after being placed in context? For example, one cannot interpret away the fact that the ahadith very obviously order that a Muslim apostate be killed, and show that the Prophet pbuh and Sahaba carried this out – and the scholars, the qualified interpreters, were fairly in consensus about this, there was no caveat as we say nowadays that the apostates must somehow be ‘fighting the community’, the crime was changing their faith, or even just committing heresy or not obeying the ruler. We also know that the ahadith allowed for men to freely take concubines from the enslaved prisoners of war, and that qualified interpreters/scholars very clearly said, using well-known ahadith, that not only was it a crime for the slave to run away, but a slave woman had no right to refuse her master’s sexual advances. Today, people would say that these were examples of violence and rape – can we tell them that they’re just ‘interpreting wrong’?

    I’m not saying that I have the answers to these questions – but as someone who considers herself a traditional Muslim who very much respects the objectivity of Islamic interpretation, these are the deeper issues that I’ve found popping up.

    1. Excellent point, Rayan. But you write you still consider yourself a Muslim. How do you reconcile your faith with the misgivings you express here?

    2. Mr. Razan, I have the same issues. My conclusion is that many ahadiths are not teaching points because they don’t apply anymore, they are false to begin with, they aren’t divinely inspired, or any combination thereof. I haven’t encountered the same ambivalence with quranic verses.

      1. I think you mean Ms. Razan. 🙂 I don’t believe that discarding the ahadith we don’t like is the answer – we then are acting subjectively and stripping the Quran and Islam itself of much of its context. Not to mention that the ‘issues’ that I mentioned are not confined to the ahadith, we can also find difficulties accepting Ayat in the Quran if we wish to do so. But I usually find that over time, I find explanations for anything that I struggled with at first.

    3. Razan,
      To answer your questions:
      First, I am not saying the Quran in unapproachable without scholarship. That would limit its function. There are multiple layers to exegesis and interpretation, but there is also an apparent meaning that everyone understands. Even if not a scholar, a reasonable person will read in context, and ask if that context is not clear. What most who label the Quran as violent do is cherry pick verses (or portions thereof) to prove a point. That is not a “literal” reading, it is a shallow, disingenuous one.

      Second, the purpose of the article was not to use one verse and brush off the question of violence in religious texts. Instead, the purpose was to highlight that there is a process inherent to understanding language that is discarded for dogma. I agree that some texts are not merely instances of “interpreting wrong” but they are (and I alluded to this in the article) instances of incorrect application and lack of contextualization in light of the underlying social assumptions in which that text was expressed in.

      Joe

      1. Thank you very much – I definitely do agree with your assessment that there are multiple layers to interpretation. I would very much like to hear more from you about your last sentence – when and where do we apply this rule of ‘contextualization’? Because, for example, from what I understand, when an issue is ‘clear’ then it cannot be contextualized away – to use a common example, we cannot say that the rules of hijab are only meant for such and such context and we need not adhere to them anymore.

  5. This is incredibly dishonest:

    > when asked about violence against individual civilians is justified, about 23% of respondents in 15 Muslim majority countries said that it can often or sometimes be justified

    1. The question asked in particular whether suicide bombings against civilian targets are justified. That’s a very different question.

    2. The 23% number never appears in the report. I presume the author took a mean of the numbers in this table [*] which makes the phrase “about 23% of respondents … said” only technically true while not actually representing the aggregate view across these countries.

    > when respondents from the US, Canada, East and Western Europe were asked a similar question, 24% of all respondents said the same thing

    1. The “similar” question being “Military Attacks on Civilians [are] Sometimes Justified”. Whether or not you believe the morality of suicide bombings against civilians is any different from the morality of knowingly killing civilians in a military attack, these are still two very different questions.

    2. This wasn’t just a slip-up. The same poll also asked whether “Individual Attacks on Civilians [are] Sometimes Justified”. Which is a *much* more similar question to the suicide bombing question. There the percentage was 17%, which doesn’t fit the author’s narrative so of course it’s not mentioned.

    [*] http://www.pewglobal.org/2014/07/01/concerns-about-islamic-extremism-on-the-rise-in-middle-east/pg-2014-07-01-islamic-extremism-10/

    1. The question as stated in the Pew report (P.9) was:
      Question wording: “Some people think that suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilian targets are justified in order to defend Islam from its enemies. Other people believe that, no matter what the reason, this kind of violence is never justified. Do you personally feel that this kind of violence is often justified to defend Islam, sometimes justified, rarely justified, or never justified?”

      Results:
      Country / Often-sometimes justified
      Palestine 46%
      Lebanon 62%
      Egypt 24%
      Turkey 18%
      Jordan 15%
      Tunisia 5%
      Bangladesh 47%
      Malaysia 18%
      Indonesia 9%
      Pakistan 3%
      Tanzania 26%
      Nigeria 19%
      Senegal 15%
      Israel 16%

      The question from the Gallup report (p.13) was:
      “Some people think that for an individual person or a small group of persons to target and kill civilians in sometimes justified, while others think that kind of violence is never justified. Which is your opinion?”

      Results:
      Region / sometimes justified-depends
      US/Canada 21%
      Europe 23%
      Soviet Union/Other Europe 28%
      Asia 27%
      Sub-Saharan Africa 28%
      MENA 13%

      Neither of the two questions used are about military attacks.
      If I’ve made a mistake in averaging out the percentage, please let me know I will be glad to correct that.

      1. Thank you for clarifying how you came about your numbers.

        But this is still a useless comparison. One question addresses suicide bombings against civilians in defence of Islam. Another asks a broad question about whether targeting and killing civilians is ever justified. If you wanted to make the point that Islamic countries on average are no more likely to support this type of violence than Western countries, the Gallup article alone makes that point, so I’m pretty confused.

        Anyway, this seems to be arguing against a strawman. Apart from a bigoted fringe minority, I haven’t heard any serious person claim that all or most Muslims in aggregate support terrorism. Clearly they don’t. Muslims are targets of Islamist violence too (more so than non-Muslims are.)

        But this is kind of like saying it’s pointless to talk about car safety because the vast majority of car rides do not result in collisions. It’s not the majority that are the problem, it’s the extremes.

        This article is such a torrent of tiny arguments and questions answering unmeaningful questions (“Is The Quran A Violent Text” may as well be completely meaningless) without any fixed goalposts that it’s hard to properly respond to it. In the form of a conversation it would go like this:

        A: The Quran isn’t a violent text like you think it is, hypothetical ex-Muslim atheist.

        B: Well I wouldn’t have said that because I don’t even know what that statement means… but there’s certainly violence in it, and some passages seem wickedly immoral in their plainest reading.

        A: You’re not qualified to interpret it, but I am because I have x, y, z credentials. Here’s an example of how one passage used to justify violence doesn’t actually, technically.

        B: Okay. But there are large groups of people who do interpret it as condoning violence. Some of these people are indeed qualified to interpret it, with credentials as extensive as yours.

        A: The large majority of Muslims across the world do not condone terrorism.

        B: I believe you. But that doesn’t change the fact there are large groups who do, and they have the backing of religious leaders, and they are influenced mostly or solely by their religion.

        A: Then they aren’t true Scotsmen.

        B: I… okay. That is completely unhelpful to me, trying to deal with actual harmful experiences perpetrated by actual members of my family/community/country, who I admit aren’t the members of the Correctly-Interpreted, Platonic Ideal Muslim Faith.

        It’s tiring. And it also fails to address the hypothetical ex-Muslim internet atheist who couldn’t even speak up to you because he or she lives in one of the many countries where apostates are *widely* called to be executed or tortured. [*]

        So… yes, you win. The majority of Muslims are good people (or at least, much like anyone else). Islamists are not True Muslims. Standard feel-good arguments that are either true or tautological but don’t help people dealing with actual problems.

        [*] http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2013/04/daily-chart-20

        1. No true scotsman does not apply here, as I never said that Muslims do not commit violence nor that they do not (mis)interpret verses to do so. Additionally, no true scotsman does not apply when there is a clear definition of what inclusion in a group requires and that definition is broken. You can move the goal posts and refute the example, but no where in what you’ve said so far did you deal with the main thesis of this post.

      2. > You can move the goal posts and refute the example, but no where in what you’ve said so far did you deal with the main thesis of this post.

        What is your main thesis? I’m completely serious. You skirt around making an unambiguous claim so much that it’s really hard to tell. Typically you state a thesis, defend it, and summarize your argument.

  6. This appeal to “context” would be brilliant if it could be applied to the many other ayat among the other 6235 in the Qur’an, and indeed to the Hadiths, which in their totality say very many deeply unpleasant things about non-Muslims, homosexuality, apostasy, domestic violence, slavery, sexual slavery and so on. But it doesn’t.

    One other point. Actually, a bit of advice: if you feel 8:12 is being so grievously “taken out of context”, I’d suggest that it might be better to prioritise this appeal to the significant minority of Muslims who are either passively or actively supportive of the likes of al-Shabaab and Islamic State (to name just two) who believe and apply it in a violent way against innocent people, rather than admonishing atheist ex-Muslims for doing so. I know which of the two are the bigger problem…

  7. Do you guys have any idea how big a need there is for this western-style (read quality) type of education about Islam? Islamic scholarship that is objective (read dispassionate), coherent, devoid of cultural elements, understandable and rational to the sincere but short on time, in English, is all but non-existent. Please spread the joy Mr. Bradford and Ms. Razan 🙂 The few arabic texts I attempted to digest were poor quality, with not enough return for my struggles with the arabic language. If there exists a link/links with more of the same, please share.

  8. Salam, Joe. Nice article, and thanks for at least making a real effort to see our perspective. I am an Agnostic Muslim. I don’t believe the Qur’an is God’s word, but is Muhammad’s word – and is fallible. I have “contextualized” and I have “interpreted” but I am still left with the conviction that the Qur’an is not the work of a divine author but a human author. Anyway Peace 🙂

  9. This article seems to me to be, perhaps unintentionally, skirting around a key element:

    Those of us who are not muslim, those of us who view the world from a secular liberal perspective (which, I believe is the direction from which criticism of Islam and the Quran most often comes) DO NOT adhere to or agree with your definition of muslim, or your criteria for interpretation.

    To somebody like me, Islam is not whatever doctrine is prescribed by Hanafi jurists or the Jaafari school. Islam is whatever Muslims claim it to be, and anyone claiming to be a Muslim will be referred to as such by myself. Now, as a man of letters, I will be the first to admit that this broad, all-encompassing plurality is troublesome, because words have meanings, and in this instance, we have cases where the same word (Muslim) refers to things which are very different from each other.

    That is a topic that would require a book in and of itself, and I won’t go into it here. The point is this: The Taliban are muslim. The Wahabis are Muslim. The Ahmadis (yes, those too), are Muslim. The guy that lives down the block who’s never seen the near side of a prayer mat is Muslim.

    The first problem, therefore, is that in so far as matters of interpretation are concerned, YOU may have certain ideas of what qualifies one to make such interpretations and so on – but that’s irrelevant. ALL the interpretations of the text, made by sincere, believing muslims, count. (Which does not mean, by the way, that I don’t think some interpretations are more sensible than others.)

    The second problem is the fact of the interpretations themselves – the very fact that this same text can be (and has been) interpreted by MUSLIMS in so many ways that are at times in direct conflict with one another very clearly illustrated that as an applicable guide, the Quran is NOT a well composed text. Mortal man is today very capable of producing precise legal texts, with precise language, that conveys exactly the intent of the legislators. The Quran demonstrably falls short of even these human benchmarks.

    Thirdly, as touched on by an earlier commentator – if it is your position, as it seems very much to be, that in order to CORRECTLY interpret the Quran, one must have the requisite training and qualification (and mind you, you cannot have it both ways, there is no such thing as a square circle – either the Quran can or cannot be correctly interpreted by a layman), then it is, firstly, a very poorly written text, as it is rendered largely inaccessible to the general public, and secondly, it seems to be a DANGEROUS text, as those unqualified to interpret it may come to the wrong conclusions.

    Also, while we’re still on the topic, it is extremely misleading of you to compare suicide bombing to attacks on civilians without any clarification. They are patently NOT the same thing. Nor, incidentally, does number of people who approve of either action have any relevance to the objective question of whether or not the Quran promotes violence.

    Finally, stepping away from these matters of who can and how to interpret – I think that this entire debate is an inevitable sort of thing as our world becomes smaller and Muslim communities come into closer contact with the Western world. My personal opinion – and for the record I am a former Muslim – is that Islam (or at least that which is presently propagated as Islam) is, by and large, incompatible with secular liberal ideas. Whether or not violence is promoted in the Quran (and I believe it is – though I will grant that there IS no small amount of taking verses out of context going on), it is beyond a shadow of a doubt that Islam is misogynistic and homophobic.

    On these two counts alone, I find it completely unfit as a system that can be of use to humanity in the coming days.

    1. Ali,

      Thanks for your comment. You seem to be reiterating one point I’ve made here: if everyone’s interpretation is equally valid, then the opinion of someone saying the Quran is bad really doesn’t matter. The only thing we can objectively use as a criterion for judging a person’s commitment to any value system is their actions. Muslims are not an anomaly, and are no more violent or peaceful than anyone else. So to claim, in light of this, that the Quran is a violent text because of the actions of some Muslims is mendacious propaganda used to label all Muslims, not just those that commit violence, as deserving of censure and isolation.

      Also, please do note that the question states “…suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilian targets…” and is compared with “…target and kill civilians…” in reality are no different than each other, both are violence used against civilians. You’ll be hard pressed to come up with a substantial difference between the two.

      On the point of interpretation:
      Words have inherent meaning that all people understand, and context does matter. One does not need advanced knowledge in Quranic interpretation to understand that quoting a portion of one verse and extrapolating out from that that violence in inherent to the message and motive of the Quran is a fraudulent and dishonest position. Its akin to people saying video games cause school shootings. If an exhortation to wide spread violence was an inherent part of the Quranic message, we’d have a lot more of it. But we don’t. We perceive that we do, because media focuses on it. But public perception is not fact.

      My point here was not to apologetically deny the presence of verses that contain violence or to excommunicate those Muslims that commit violence. The Quran mentions violence. Muslims commit violence. So what. That really has no bearing on the inerrancy of the Quran. Is it a dangerous text? No more dangerous than when the US constitution is used to substantiate something violent like drone strikes or prison camps. In the end of the day, it matters HOW that document is interpreted, because interpretation, context, and the nuances of language matter.

  10. Ali, it’s a shame that you didn’t take advantage of Quran classes at your local masjid. Your misgivings are amateur.

    1. Islam is NOT whatever you make of it. Nor can the Quran be interpreted by anyone, in any which way. Can I believe Islam is a religion centered around the liberation of aliens living in the core of Jupiter? Can I believe that the Quran was sent by God to stress the importance of apples? Islamic elaboration and Quranic interpretation is best left to the scholars who have studied it from other scholars, resulting in a chain of narration going back to the Prophet. As a community, the scholars are protected from error.

    2. Your comparison of the Quran’s composition to modern man’s texts is desperate. The former is the World of God that is applicable to all peoples, in all places, for all time. Surely, NOW, it would be conceivable how such an all-encompassing book would have verses that can be interpreted differently, as it is equally relevant to the 8th and 21st centuries, to nomads and cityfolk, to Eskimo and Hells Angels, etc.

    3. You are nobody to determine an either/or scenario regarding effectively interpreting the Quran. Much of the Quran can be understood correctly without prerequisite knowledge. The layman can also make interpretation so long as it does not transgress the legal and theological boundaries that have been set by the experts. When it comes to deriving LAW and CREED, however, that is the job of the scholars.

    4. You don’t decide whether suicide bombing and attacks on civilians are the same or not. To some people, based on their own specific context, they can be EXACTLY the same thing.

    5. Islam is the most natural system for human beings, AS THEY ARE…not who they think they are. Islam does have some differences with “secular liberal ideas” but then again, the latter is not the standard to which humanity must aspire to. The West has its own illnesses as a result of “secular liberal ideas” and its only going to get worse. No other religion has taken on the Monoculture onslaught like Islam, producing a way of life that is fully religious and fully worldly. In the coming days, it will become more and more relevant. You’ll find it suffocating.

  11. Joe,

    Thank you for reasoned response – it is refreshing to be able to speak of these things in a civilized manner. On topic: It is not my position that X interpretations are valid, therefore it is permissible to paint all Muslims as violent and the Quran as a violent text based on the actions of one particular group. It is my position that:

    a) X interpretations are valid, where X includes positions that are both greatly peaceful and greatly violent. Therefore, on a meta-level, the text is too open to interpretation and is consequently not suitable as a point of reference for society as a whole.

    b) X interpretations are valid, where X includes positions that are both greatly peaceful and greatly violent. Therefore, it is at the very least POTENTIALLY violent. We can do better.

    I do not believe that Islam or the Muslims of today are monolithic – I do not believe, therefore, that it is ever sensible to censure or isolate an entire class of people. However, because a thing is not monolithic does not mean that it defies definition, or a broad understanding, or that it cannot be criticized. Particularly when that thing is an ideology.

    The fact that there are millions of muslims in the world who are peaceful and non violent does not negate the fact that millions of muslims also supported Mumtaz Qadri when he shot and killed his employer because he (Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab) was in opposition to blasphemy laws. That many muslims embrace free speech does not negate the fact that 78 percent of Muslims polled in the UK felt that the publishers of the Danish cartoons ought to be prosecuted. That many muslims are have progressive ideas about the rights of women does not mean that women can drive in Saudi Arabia (or travel anywhere without a male escort), or that 32 percent of Pakistanis do not believe that the niqab is the most appropriate way for a woman to be dressed in public.

    Nor is it true to say that all of these things of which we speak are NOT religiously motivated. We are not speaking of a few bad apples here – we’re speaking of vast swathes of the world’s population that have cancerous ideas (in particular, about women and sexual minorities) and that these ideas are, at the very LEAST, endorsed by SOME interpretations of a major world religion. Plainly, this is problematic – and plainly it is something that needs to be talked about.

    (As an aside, I have, in addition to the Quran, also read the Bible, and I do not find that Christianity is in any way a superior moral compass – but Christianity seems to have gone through some sort of evolutionary process and has abandoned some of the worst ideas that plague that particular religion – at least in so far as the masses are concerned. One hopes that Islam too will arrive at that point.)

    So, no – I do not point a finger at every muslim I see walking down the street and accuse them of some heinous crime. But I do believe, and I think it’s well past time that we accepted this, that there are deep socio-cultural problems in the Muslim world and that yes, religion, while certainly not the ONLY factor, has had an important role to play in this.

    Moving on – we are, I think, just going to have to agree to disagree on the suicide bombing issue. The two questions are very distinct in my mind – the suicide element is in itself a hotly contested topic among those who fancy themselves ethicists (I would be surprised if you were not aware of this). To me, personally, the distinction, in theory, is rather slim (though in practice, I take violent opposition – a disproportionate number of suicide bombers are children), but the point remains that the suicide question would have gotten a markedly different response from the western audience had it been asked there. It is disingenuous to suggest otherwise.

  12. Syed Hassan,

    First of all I’d like to point out that it is extremely presumptuous and condescending of you to suggest that, simply because I hold an opinion differing from yours, I must therefore be ignorant. I will thank you most kindly to refrain from assuming what I have and have not studied – if you wish to actually have any sort of meaningful dialogue, it is generally not a good idea to begin by baseless insulting those you disagree with. In response to your points:

    1. You and I are not necessarily in disagreement about this. However, an objective definition of Islam is difficult to arrive at – surely as a Muslim you yourself must be aware of the deep divides that internally splinter Islamic jurisprudence. Not to be condescending but you are speaking of a group of people who have not managed to resolve, in the space of 1400 years, the question of whether or not one ought to fold one’s hands when one offers salat.

    That having been said, the questions ‘What is Islam?’ and ‘Who can call themselves a Muslim?’ are distinct in my mind. As an outsider, I will respect your right to believe whatever you want, and to call yourself whatever you want. If you believe that Islam is about aliens in Jupiter, I might think you’re crazy, but I will still refer to you as a Muslim. However, as I said before (which you seem to have missed) I DO believe that some interpretations make more sense than others.

    2. Re: Applicability – this is a logical fallacy. You can say something is equally suited to the cold as it is to the heat, but if this something happens to be a woolen coat, that would be an exercise in wishful thinking on your part. The fact that a thing has countless interpretations does not mean that it is applicable to everything. It means the opposite, that it is applicable to nothing, for it refuses to be reliably interpreted in a way that forms a broad consensus – a broad consensus which, on many issues, does not exist in the muslim world, thus proving my point.

    3. What an absurd thing to say. I am not a Muslim therefore I cannot comment on the Quran. Either/or scenarios are logical tools – either a thing is real or it is not, either it is black or it is not, either it is cold or it is not. This is not a matter of Islamic jurisprudence. This is a matter of basic logical reasoning – either the Quran is accessible to the general public (on any given issue) or it is not. It is not logically possible for the Quran to be both accessible and inaccessible (on any given issue, or even any given verse) at the same time. Which, in the context of this discussion, is not a matter of Islamic law, but is limited to the much broader question of whether or not the Quran promotes violence. See my previous response to Joe if you’re interested in that, as it’s pointless to repeat myself here.

    4. Actually, as said many times in this thread, words have meanings. The phrases ‘suicide attack’ and ‘attack on civilians’ have distinct meanings from one another. And, as I’ve already said in my previous response, it doesn’t matter what you and I think – what matters is that the people taking those polls might have had different opinions. They were not given the opportunity and it is wrong for anyone to assume on THEIR part, that the questions are the same. That’s disingenuous. “I think these two questions are the same, therefore I’m going to pretend that the people answering these two separate polls also think they’re the same.”

    It’s particularly disingenuous if one does this even AFTER one is aware that there is a significant controversy in the western world over suicide bombings.

    5. Syed Hassan, I appreciate that you are a Muslim and that Islam is the best there is for you. Very good, I’m happy for you. Please appreciate that even as Islam itself is not monolithic, the world at large is even less monolithic. It is not made up entirely of Muslims. If the rest of us thought that Islam is the ‘most natural’ system, or the best one, we would be Muslim. We do not and we are not. Consequently, I’m not sure what you mean to say by this paragraph at all – a reiteration of your Muslim beliefs? You’ve made them quite plain already. For my part, I make no claims as to the superiority of this over that (though plainly, I would not consider myself a secular liberal if I did not feel that it was a superior and more ethical system of life than others that have been presented to me) because I know that those that I am speaking to do not necessarily share my views.

    It is not my intention, therefore, to defend liberalism from such a vague and inarticulate attack as you have made – my contention was the Islam and liberalism are fundamentally incompatible, for the reasons I have previously mentioned. You seem not to be disagreeing with me.

    Also, as you agree that Islam and liberalism have differences, and since most of the people who are no longer beheading people for such crimes as apostasy (or let me retract that statement and just say ‘The Western World’) are more or less secular, and more or less liberal – I really don’t see how you feel Islam is going to be more and more relevant to those people?

  13. By the way, while I was typing out these walls of text to you, a friend of mine who lives in Pakistan had a stone thrown at him as he walked past a mosque because he was wearing shorts. Here’s his account of the incident:

    “I was walking. This mullah in training (was about 17 or 16, had that puberty beard going on), throws a stone at me and runs at me. Confused at where the stone had come from I stopped. Next thing I know, the mini-mullah is in my face and telling me it’s gunah and I will burn in hell (parda Mard ka bhi hota hai). Normally, I would have made an offensive remark but the look in his eye scared me. I apologised, and came back home. Sometimes I think my mother is right when she sends someone with me.”

    “Man, that just pisses me off. I’m really sorry you had to go through that.” (Me)

    “Used to it now. Third bad experience with a Wahhabi in 4 months.”

    For the record, this sort of thing has happened to me as well, though my reaction was less restrained.

    1. Its all quite simple. Muslims claim that Christianity and Judaism, among other religions, were distorted and corrupted beyond recognition. They were all failed religions, that’s why Allah blessed us with Islam. But the thing is, hasn’t Islam also been distorted, misinterpreted and corrupted? Isn’t Islam also a failed religion? Allah should have really sent us a new religion now, to save us from ourselves, but apparently, Allah does not care as much about us, as he did about the Arabs of the 6th and 7th century. So he does not bother to send us a new religion, so we can be freed from the corrupted and misinterpreted Islam.

      Is there any Islamic nation that has implemented Islam rules according to the teachings of Islam? Most Muslims readily admit that Islam is being misinterpreted by just about everyone. KSA following Islam? No. Iran following Islam? No. Pakistan following Islam? No. Al Qaeda following Islam? No. IS following Islam? No.

      So who is following Islam? Allah, please relieve us from this failed and corrupted religion called Islam, and give us a new and pure religion we can follow. Or perhaps Allah has forsaken us?

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