"Geesi dhereb kuma jiro"

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Taking the Quran Out of Context

One does not read very far in the comments section beneath any online blog or article asking hard questions about the Quran before finding the accusation by an offended Muslim that the author took texts "out of context". This is usually accompanied by additional claims that the author is ignorant, Islamophobic, or hates Muslims. Very rarely does the person making the comment try to provide the "correct context" of the passage in question.

There is a reason for this. If you ask any Biblically literate Christian for the context of a book of the New Testament, Paul's letter to the Galatians for example, they can explain that in the first century after Christ the Apostle Paul started several churches in the area of modern Turkey known as Galatia. Soon after Paul left the area, Jewish officials visited the new churches and insisted its members continue the Jewish practice of circumcision, follow Jewish dietary laws, and obey other elements of traditional Judaism. Paul strongly believed the new Christians were to be free from these restrictions, as he saw them, and wrote his letter giving his opinion and advice about the issue.

Now ask a Jewish friend about the context of, say, the Book of Ruth in the Jewish Scriptures. She can explain that about 1000 BCE a Jewish family living in Israel was forced to leave their home during a famine and moved to an area called Moab. The father died and his two sons married local women. Later the two sons also died, and their mother decided to return to her homeland. One of her daughters-in-law, Ruth, chose to return with her and in a remarkable turn of events (you'll have to read them for yourself if you don't know the story!) married a prosperous farmer named Boaz and became the great-grandmother of King David.

Next ask your friend for the context of the only other book of the Scriptures named after a woman, The Book of Esther. She will tell you that about 600 years later, around 400 BCE, many of the Israelites were taken captive to Persia. As the result of another amazing story (again, you'll need to read it if it's unfamiliar to you), the Persian Emperor married one of the captives, a beautiful Jewess named Esther. Queen Esther eventually saved her people from the plans of an evil enemy who plotted their destruction.

Now ask a Muslim friend for the context of a Surah of the Quran; the Cow (al-Baqarah), for example, or the Ant (an-Naml). How do either of them compare with the Spider (al-Ankabut)? And why are all of them named after animals? Don't be surprised when the Muslim is unable to answer, because basically the only context to these and the other 111 Suras is whether they were written in Mecca or in Medina, and whether they were written before or after this or that battle.

The story gets even more intriguing. The reality is that it is Muslims, not Muslim critics, who often take both their and the Jewish and Christian Scriptures out of context. If in doubt, read on.

Walk into any Islamic bookstore in Cairo or Riyadh, as I have, and you will be amazed at some of the titles on the shelves. "The Bible Proves that Jesus Was Never Crucified on the Cross". "Jesus and the Bible Prophesy the Coming of Prophet Muhammad". "Jesus Claimed That He Was Not God". Read those books if you want to see Biblical passages taken out of context!

Now read the Quran and compare the hundreds of passages Muhammad stole from their original renderings in the Jewish Scriptures. These passages were not merely plagiarized, that is, copied and pasted from the Bible into the Quran, they were strategically altered to suit the purposes of Islam's Prophet. Whether Noah, Abraham, Joseph or Moses, whose stories Muhammad repeated dozens of times, the theme was always the same. The Hebrew Prophets faced severe opposition from their own people as they declared the Unity of God. In the end, God always vindicated his Prophets and the disbelieving people were punished. Muhammad never failed to explain that he was exactly the same, and his people would also be punished if they did not accept him as their Prophet. Everyone of these passages was taken out of its original context and inserted into the Quran by Muhammad for his own purposes.

It is, however, in their attempts to make the Quran attractive to Western readers that modern Muslim apologists show the most boldness in taking their own Scriptures out of context. They essentially do this in two ways. First is to ignore the principle, little understood in the West but very important in Islamic theology, of abrogation. The second is to bypass or deny the very historical events that provide the proper context for the passages in question.

Abrogation simply means that earlier texts in the Quran are cancelled out by later revelations. This is not a minor doctrine, but the key to understanding the book. Quran 2:106 is one of several ayahs in which Allah explains that he himself cancels out verses and brings better ones. This developed into a major science in Quranic tafsir, in which different scholars might argue about which precise verses were abrogated, but all agree on the principle. The foundational scholar of this science, Abu Hassan an-Naisaburi who lived 1000 years ago, argued that all the "peaceful verses" of the Quran, those so often quoted by Western Muslims, were cancelled out by the single verse in at-Taubah, "fight the infidels and kill them wherever you find them unless they accept Islam" (9:5).

Other Muslim scholars argue that the immediate historical context of verses must be taken into consideration when trying to interpret them. The reality, however, is that this often results in the verse being much less positive than it appears in the initial text. Muslims love to quote the verse, "There is no compulsion in religion." If ever there was a Quranic text urging freedom of religion, that's the one! The context of the verse is given by Quranic expositor Ibn-Kathir. There was a high infant mortality rate among the Arab tribal women of Medina, and some women whose infants had all died determined that if they had a child who lived, they would give that child to be raised by the Jews who lived there. Considering that the Jews were both literate and observant of the hygienic and dietary laws of their faith, it stands to reason that the children of the Arab women would have a better chance of surviving with the Jewish families. When Muhammad expelled the Jewish tribes from Medina, some of the non-Muslim women were naturally unwilling to abandon or bid farewell forever to their children. Muhammad's response was the children were to go with the Jews, because "there is no compulsion in religion"; the children could not be forced to return and adopt Islam. Instead of this being a verse of religious freedom, it actually resulted in the breakup and eternal separation of children from their natural mothers.

Years ago at Temple University I studied Islam with the late scholar Dr. Ismail al-Faruqi. He was explaining in class one day that Muhammad was a superior prophet to Jesus because Muhammad was sent as a mercy to all mankind (Quran 21:108) while Jesus came only to the Jews. To prove his point, he pointed out that Jesus spoke rudely to a Greek woman who asked him to heal her daughter and even compared her to a dog (to see if you reach the same conclusion, read Mark 7:24-30).

I didn't know much about Islam at the time, but I knew that sometimes even the experts need to be challenged. At the end of the class I walked to the front and said, "Dr. al-Faruqi, you didn't tell us the end of the story." I still remember the look that came across his face. To his credit, he simply replied, "You're right."

The end of the story, of course, is that Jesus granted the woman her request and her daughter was healed. I imagine they both were the happiest women in the country that evening.

So Muhammad is a mercy to us all, and Jesus considers all non-Jews to be dogs. Now I'd call that taking Scripture out of context!



  1. "He was explaining in class one day that Muhammad was a superior prophet to Jesus because Muhammad was sent as a mercy to all mankind" (Quran 21:108)

    Actions speak louder than words don't they?

  2. Unfortunately, for Muhammad, they do. lol

    I know, it's a sick joke. But Jesus would probably forgive me.

  3. Well, Jesus even forgave the people for crucifying him, so I'd rather take my chances with him :-)