Tuesday, February 2, 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 of families and the 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. And the results of the mercy of Muhammad? Within a few short years of his death every single Christian and Jew in Arabia, members of communities that had prospered for hundreds of years, was either expelled or killed.

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


ChrisLA said...

Excellent article. A good example of how this happens can be seen below an editorial posted on the LA Times website at:

The editorial defends Muslims wearing the burqa as a "religious liberty." Below the editorial is an automatically pegged ad titled, "Find out the origin of women's veiling and head covering." The ad references Paul's letter in the Bible, 1 Corinthians 11:2-6. The reader of the ad is persuaded that veils are a Christian or Jewish practice. The problem with this charade is that Paul was talking about wearing the head covering when praying or preaching about God in a house of worship as a sign of respect to God, not about everyday apparel. Furthermore, that 1st Century practice is no longer the norm in most churches and synagogues today. When you read the Quranic requirement for covering up in Surah 24:31, it is all about sexual exposure to unrelated, sexually aware men, not about showing reverence to God. What is pathetic about the Islamic ideology is that their apologists cannot defend it with their own sacred texts, but rather must use irrelevant texts from the Bible to lend some semblance of rationality to their retrograde practices. Shameful!

Anonymous said...

This article is very ingratiating to Christians and Jews, however I highly doubt your claims that most would be able to recall the context of many specific passages including the ones of which we are given unnecessary detail.

It would have been simpler and briefer just to get to the point that you believe that there is no context to various stories however I imagine this is more of an affirmation of religions you approve of and a denouncement of those you don't than anything so high minded as objective criticism.

Don't get me wrong, I just felt that should be pointed out rather allowing those that agree to ignore the bias. Objectively you all take your beliefs from mystical prophets at least 1000 years old all of which claimed to be the true voice of god with various magic etc... to verify the claim. I don't think context is necessarily important, all that matters is my god has a bigger dick than your god.

Anonymous said...

This illustrates the problem when people blindly follow their faith and throw around the term 'context' whenever they are cornered in a logical argument. Context always goes both ways.

Quotable Quotes: said...

To vbcb,
Thanks for your response to my posting. I was not trying to present "approval" of any religion. The purpose of the article was to state that Muslims accuse critics of the Quran of taking passages out of context, but are themselves unable to provide the context. The illustration of Jews and Christians being able to show the context of their Scriptures was not meant as a plug for those religions. It just so happens that, as a normal American, I know something about them. If I were a Buddhist or Hindu living in India or Thailand, and knew that Indians or Thais are adept at providing the contexts of their Scriptures (I have no idea whether they can or not), I probable would have used those religions as an illustration. The point of my post was just to point out that Muslims often accuse critics of taking Quranic texts out of context just because those texts raise questions that are difficult to answer. Again, thanks for your response.

Quotable Quotes: said...

Thanks for your input. You mentioned that even though the New Testament talks about women covering their heads, "we don't do that anymore". I blogged about that subject at:


with the comment:

When Jews are confronted with the fact that the law of Moses called for the stoning of adulterers and Christians are reminded that Paul taught that women should cover their heads and be silent in church, they have an easy answer. They simply say, “Yes, that is written there, but we don’t do that anymore.”

Fahim kamran mirza said...

What is Holy Quran

The Quran is the most often-read book in the world. Revealed by God to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in the 7th century, and revered by Muslims as being God's final Scripture and Testament, its words have been lovingly recited, memorized, and implemented by Muslims of every nationality ever since.
“It is He Who sends down manifest Ayaat (proofs, evidences, verses, lessons, signs, revelations, etc.) to His slave (Muhammad) that He may bring you out from darkness into light
[Surah (Chapter of) al-Hadeed 57:9 – English interpretation of the Quranic Verse]
Learn Quran, Read tajweed Quran online, learning Quran online Koran

Allah has told us in the Quran (Quran / Koran) the stories of the earlier and later generations and the creation of the heavens and the earth. He has explained in detail what halaal is and what is haraam, the basics of good manners and morals, the rulings of worship and dealings with others, the lives of the Prophets and the righteous, and the reward and punishment of the believers and disbelievers. He has described Paradise, the abode of the believers, and He has described Hell, the abode of the disbelievers. He has made it (the Quran (Quran / Koran)) an explanation of all things:
“And We have sent down to you the Book (the Quran (Quran / Koran)) as an exposition of everything, a guidance, a mercy, and glad tidings for those who have submitted themselves (to Allah as Muslims)”
The Quran (Quran / Koran) confirms the Books which came before it, the Tawraat (Torah) and Injeel (Gospel), and it is a witness over them, as Allah says (English interpretation of the Quranic Verse):
“And We have sent down to you (O Muhammad) the Book (this Qur’aan (Quran / Koran)) in truth, confirming the Scripture that came before it and Muhaymin (trustworthy in highness and a witness) over it (old Scriptures)”[Surah (Chapter of) al-Maa'idah 5:48]
The faithful are inspired, consoled often moved to tears by its eloquence and poetic imagery, especially when recited aloud. And yet, the Qur'an is unique in being the only Scripture that is free of scientific inaccuracies, whose historical authenticity can be verified, and whose text has been so carefully preserved that just one authorized version (in Arabic) exists. Approximately the length of the New Testament, the Qur'an is also the only holy book that can be memorized in its entirety by people of all ages and intellectual abilities - including non-Arabic speakers - which Muslims consider to be one of its miracles.

Anonymous said...

Saying that the messenger of Islam has stolen scriptures from the torah and the Bible is going a little too far, for you have no reasonable proof to state that,so in turn it shows your biases towards an issue of taking a quote out of context. this article is flawed beyond belief. it does not touch up on the fact that taking quotes out of context is a great problem in media, and it does in fact change the meaning that it is supposed to exhibit, in some cases the opposite of what it means, that is the meaning of "taking something out of context".

What is the main problem with this article? the same problem with many other bloggers... your apparent ignorance of the issue, and your pretentious character, you obviously know nothing about the issue. Do our fellow english speakers a favor and never write another ill-informed article again (please do your research), for it has ill effects on us, and only proves to the others that us Americans are ignorant.

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Quotable Quotes: said...

Ethics MD,
My statement that Muhammad "stole" passages from the Old Testament was not something I just threw out there, or said without thinking. To plagiarize is simply to copy and paste. Muhammad did not do that. He deliberately changed the essense of the stories that he stole and presented them to pretend that he was just like those prophets. That deliberate change is what I meant by theft.

Al said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Staring at the View, thank you so much for your informative and well-written blog. It's heartening to read the truth for a change rather than some mindbending contrivance regarding awesomeness of the Quran. If the Quran was a tome of peacefulness and the true word of God, then its defenders would not have to be threatening and defensive. Their attitude betrays them.

Anonymous said...

In your analysis of the "there is no compulsion in religion" passage, you seem to have gone out of your way to find the most negative connotation possible. Additionally, you seem to have taken the "kill them where you find them" as out of context as the Muslims you complain about have taken Biblical phrases.

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waterborne said...

For all of you shouting that the burqa is not freedom, let me tell you this: Of all the pictures of mary (peace and blessings of Allah be upon her) how many do you see with veils/headscarf? All of them have it. Today which women of which religion do that? Muslims. Thats the point. Muslim women dont wear it because they are forced to but because they want to. Cant you see the racism here. If any women is forced into wearing skirts or bikinis non of you sick people would mind it, rather you would adore it. But if a women out of her own free will chooses to wear the hijab, you people put the whole world upside down. No wonder the world is a mess because of you guys.
Finally, let me tell you the only reason why you will find muslims to be better than non-muslims in terms of manners or the way they talk to people in a friendly way is because they have prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) as their role model since he was of an incredible character and has not even done a fraction of all the non-sense that is being propagated against him.
And, finally because of such a lovely character of the final messenger of God (peace & blessings of Allah be upon him) the majority of arabia within 20 years converted to islam. And, those who choose to remain non-muslims remained so at their free will and the state was responsible for protecting them as well, which it did. So stop lying people and start researching....

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Anonymous said...

I don't understand when someone who calls himself a scholar or something goes about bashing normal every day Muslims for being able to relate to the context of the Quran as if he is completely oblivious of the fact that there are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world and not all, in fact the majority of them are just Muslims, who may or may not even read or listen to the Quran, but were born in to that faith, and practice as much or as little of their faith as they can because THEY ARE JUST ORDINARY MUSLIMS. While it is incumbent upon every Muslim to gain knowledge, not everyone does. Not every one gets a chance to read the context of every verse in the Quran in their lifetime, thanks to the western schooling system which is now prevalent almost every where. Now if you ask a every day Muslim to tell you the context he may not. It does not show his ignorance but your foolishness. If you were anything but a critic trying to justifiably prove which religion is correct and which not, you would be debating with scholars and looking for the context yourself in the books of Tafseer (Commentary of the Quranic verses) yourself rather than quoting some scholars who may have said wrong things as not all so called Islamic scholars are on the right path or rightly guided. You would have seen quoting from so many other books that explain what Islam and what Quran is but you chose to highlight that books in Islamic countries are usually about showing Jesus was not God through Bible or prophecy of P. Muhammad in Bible. It's very clear what your agenda is. Talk about taking things out of context.
Read the most authentic commentary of the verses of the Quran (accepted by both Sunni and Shia) and I am sure you won't end up writing this article so audaciously.
The matter of abrogation in the verse you quoted is completely different, in which God is asserting His power to people who started believing that "His hands are tied up." He showed that by giving a command, and then later changing it to a better one, God has ultimate power and can do as He pleases and has power over all things.
And please every time, when the mention of some Jews comes in Quran mentioning that they didn't believe or caused corruption in religion, there is no need to take it out of context to show that Islam and Quran is spiteful against Jews and Christians, read the numerous other verses where it admonishes any non believer or person with weak faith among the Muslims. Again and again, several times, they have been mentioned as hypocrites who say they have believed in One God with their tongues, but haven't really done so with their hearts. It admonishes Muslims in much the same way it talks about the wrong doing of any person, whether it was a present day Muslim Jews or Christians from the past (BECAUSE THERE WARE NO MUSLIMS BEFORE PROPHET MUHAMMAD AND QURAN!!)

Anonymous said...

normal every day Muslims for being ***UNable*** to relate to the context of the Quran

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