A Critical Examination of the Qur’an
The ethical and legal rulings of the Qur’an
Islam is a religion founded on the principle of unquestioning submission
to the supposed will of God; indeed, the word Islam means submission. On
the topic of how human beings should conduct their lives, the Qur’an explicitly
demands an unthinking, uncritical acceptance of its rulings. As such, it
presents a totalitarian vision of the ordering of human affairs. Of Allah,
the Qur’an states that ‘He cannot be questioned concerning what He does’
(21.23) and that ‘the command of Allah is a decree that is made absolute’
(33.38). Likewise, Muhammad appears to be beyond criticism and beyond question:
The Prophet has a greater claim on the faithful than they have
on themselves (33.6).
Certainly you have in the Apostle of Allah an excellent exemplar for
him who hopes in Allah and the latter day and remembers Allah much (33.21).
And it behoves not a believing man and a believing woman that they should
have any choice in their matter when Allah and His Apostle have decided
a matter (33.36).
Let’s examine some of these ‘absolute decrees’ over which we do not have
In the Qur’an we find the basis for many of the well known aspects of Muslim
practice. For example, we find that the eating of meat from pigs is forbidden
(2.173, 5.3), that fasting during Ramadan is required (2.185), that Muslims
should participate in the Hajj (2.196), that drinking alcohol is
forbidden (2.219, 5.90), that gambling is forbidden (2.219, 5.90), that
earning interest on loans is forbidden (2.275-6), that washing is required
before prayer (5.6), that women should wear head coverings (24.31), and
that sex outside of marriage is forbidden (4.24, 24.2-3, 60.12).
For some acts, punishment is to be given in this world, while for some,
eternal punishment will follow after death. In terms of worldly punishments,
we find rulings such as the following:
O you who believe! retaliation is prescribed for you in the matter
of the slain, the free for the free, and the slave for the slave, and the
female for the female (2.178).
And (as for) the man who steals and the woman who steals, cut off their
hands as a punishment for what they have earned, an exemplary punishment
from Allah; and Allah is Mighty, Wise (5.38).
(As for) the fornicatress and the fornicator, flog each of them, (giving)
a hundred stripes, and let not pity for them detain you in the matter of
obedience to Allah, if you believe in Allah and the last day, and let a
party of believers witness their chastisement. The fornicator shall not
marry any but a fornicatress or idolatress, and (as for) the fornicatress,
none shall marry her but a fornicator or an idolater; and it is forbidden
to the believers (24.2-3).
If the hypocrites and those in whose hearts is a disease and the agitators
in the city do not desist, We shall most certainly set you over them, then
they shall not be your neighbors in it but for a little while; Cursed:
wherever they are found they shall be seized and murdered, a (horrible)
murdering. (Such has been) the course of Allah with respect to those who
have gone before; and you shall not find any change in the course of Allah
So, in the Qur’an we find a primitive system of ‘justice’ based on retaliation,
the cutting off of hands, flogging, and ‘murdering’. Such brutal notions
underpin the Shari’ah law system of which we hear so much.
While murder and theft are universally regarded as criminal acts, the
Qur’an demands vicious punishments for misconduct in the private sphere and
lays down many rulings on marriage. According to the Qur’an, anyone having
sex outside of marriage should be whipped a hundred times, without pity,
and before witnesses. This is not simply a ruling against adultery, for ‘fornication’
covers any kind of sexual activity which is not taking place between a husband
and wife. Therefore, in a society governed by the Qur’an, cohabiting couples
or gay couples could expect to be dragged before a ‘party of believers’
and severely flogged. Assuming these ‘fornicators’ then repented of their
supposed ‘sin’, they would only ever be allowed to marry other ‘fornicators’
because ‘Bad women are for bad men and bad men are for bad women. Good
women are for good men and good men are for good women’ (24.26). As for
freedom of choice or for gay rights, when it comes to Qur’an, you can forget
The question of arranged marriages has become a thorny issue in recent years,
especially in regard to Muslim communities in the West. It is often stated
that arranged marriages are not a part of Islam and derive from other cultural
traditions. However, one searches the Qur’an in vain for any condemnation
of ‘marriages’ of this sort, which simply tells Muslims to ‘marry those
among you who are single and those who are fit among your male slaves and
your female slaves’ (24.32) and that ‘Allah has made wives for you from among
yourselves’ (16.72). As noted earlier, the Qur’an clearly presupposes a male
audience and it frames issues of marriage and divorce in terms of instructions
to a male readership. For example, we read that Muslim men must ‘not marry
the idolatresses until they believe’ and must ‘not give (believing women)
in marriage to idolaters until they believe’ (2.231). Men are instructed
what to say and do regarding their wives when ‘they ask you about menstruation’:
‘Say: It is a discomfort; therefore keep aloof from the women during the
menstrual discharge and do not go near them until they have become clean;
then when they have cleansed themselves, go in to them as Allah has commanded
you’ (2.222). With the exception of the period of mentruation, men are told
that ‘[y]our wives are a tilth for you, so go into your tilth when you like’
(2.223). Likewise, regarding the termination of marriages, we read instructions
on ‘when you divorce women’ (2.231) and ‘when you have divorced women’ (2.232).
The Qur’an clearly presupposes polygamy, defined, of course, in terms
of men having multiple wives, not women having multiple husbands. Marriages
are easily ended and in order to divorce a woman, the man simply pronounces
twice that he is divorcing her (2.229); however, in the Qur’an no such right
exists for women wishing to divorce their husbands. Various provisions are
made for the fair treatment of divorced women and the Qur’an tells men to
‘set them free with liberality’ (2.231), but it still reminds the reader
regarding women that ‘the men are a degree above them’ (2.228).
When it comes to Muhammad and his wives, the Qur’an addresses him directly:
O Prophet! surely We have made lawful to you your wives whom
you have given their dowries, and those whom your right hand possesses out
of those whom Allah has given to you as prisoners of war, and the daughters
of your paternal uncles and the daughters of your paternal aunts, and the
daughters of your maternal uncles and the daughters of your maternal aunts
who fled with you; and a believing woman if she gave herself to the Prophet,
if the Prophet desired to marry her — specially for you, not for the (rest
of) believers (33.50).
Clearly, then, Muhammad was offered quite a selection of potential wives.
One of his wives in particular has been the subject of much controversy.
This is hardly surprising, given what we read in the Hadith collection of Imam al-Bukhari:
The Prophet wrote the (marriage contract) with ‘Aisha while she was six
years old and consummated his marriage with her while she was nine years
old and she remained with him for nine years (i.e. till his death).
Muhammad’s marriage to ‘Aisha is clearly particularly problematic given
the Qur’an’s claim that ‘you have in the Apostle of Allah an excellent exemplar’
and that, regarding his decisions, ‘it behoves not a believing man and
a believing woman that they should have any choice in their matter when
Allah and His Apostle have decided a matter’.
The existence of records of Muhammad’s marriage to ‘Aisha (and his reported
intercourse with her at only nine years of age) are used as justifications
for child marriage in the Muslim world today. In June 2008, LBC TV in Lebanon
aired an interview with Dr. Ahmad Al-Mub’i, a Saudi Marriage Officiant,
who stated: ‘The
Prophet Muhammad is the model we follow. He took ‘Aisha to be his wife when
she was six, but he had sex with her only when she was nine’. In the same
month, a story emerged from Yemen involving a nine year old girl who ‘walked
out of her husband’s house … and ran to a local hospital, where she complained
that he had been beating and sexually abusing her for eight months’. As
the New York Times reported at the time: ‘Hard-line Islamic conservatives,
whose influence has grown enormously in the past two decades, defend it,
pointing to the Prophet Muhammad’s marriage to a 9-year-old’.
The case of ‘Aisha clearly demonstrates the fact that Islam developed
in a place and time incredibly far removed from modernity. Perhaps Muhammad’s
behaviour regarding ‘Aisha was normal and acceptable for the period, just
as undoubtedly the ideas and world view found in the Qur’an were acceptable
at the time it was written, but the danger inherent in the Qur’an and in
the uncritical admiration of Muhammad that it encourages is all too obvious
in the examples of child marriages in Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
The ethical and legal rulings of the Qur’an are clearly the work of a
deeply conservative and reactionary mind. They are not presented with any
kind of logical argument to back them up, but that is entirely to expected
in a pre-modern book proclaimed to contain the very words of the creator
of the universe. So, just how impressive are the moral and legal aspects
of the Qur’an? It is a book that encourages blind submission to a system
that presupposes a male dominated society, that presents women as something
akin to property, that strips human beings of the right to make their own
decisions in the private sphere, that bans the free expression and enjoyment
of sexuality outside of inflexible laws that are stifling and homophobic,
that accepts the validity of slavery, and that seeks to control human behaviour
through threats of violence and death, coupled with threats of eternal torment
What would a society based on the Qur’an look like?
For orthodox Muslims, the Qur’an is a perfect book and Muhammad is the
model human. If we accepted both of those assertions to be correct, then
what form would a society based on those ideas take?
- Non-Muslims, with the possible exception of some Jews and Christians,
would be banned from the country, for ‘Allah is the enemy of the unbelievers’
(2.98), who are ‘unjust’ (6.157), ‘evil’ (7.177), and ‘the vilest of animals
in Allah’s sight’ (8.55). Children would be raised to have contempt for
non-Muslims, who are destined for eternal torment in the flames of hell.
- Jews and Christians would be second class citizens, banned from
proselytising or publicly declaring their faith, seen as ‘unjust’, and shunned
by Muslims, for ‘whoever amongst you takes them for a friend, then surely
he is one of them’ (5.51).
- Jews would be seen as untrustworthy and anti-Semitism would almost
certainly be endemic.
- All criticism of Islam, the Qur’an, and Muhammad would be banned.
- The society would be male dominated and men would have multiple
- Women would be required to wear the hijab or a similar garment.
- Arranged marriages would be permitted, as would child marriages.
- Homosexuality would be outlawed and any sexual activity outside
marriage would result in public floggings.
- The criminal justice system would be based on retaliation and enforced
with violent punishments. All court cases would be brought before religious
- Slavery would be permitted.
- Consumption of pork and alcohol would be forbidden, as would ‘games
- Evolutionary biology would be rejected in favour of creationism.
- Studying, learning, and reciting the Qur’an would be seen as the
most important aspect of a child’s education.
This society represents the antithesis of Enlightenment thinking and
the liberal, secular, free societies that have developed with the modernisation
of the West. Almost every aspect of social and intellectual progress that
has been made over the last couple of centuries would be undone by a society
such as this. In short, we would see a society with many similarities to
countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistian under the Taliban.
The people of those countries are not intrinsically, genetically inclined
towards living in socially backward, superstitious, and brutal regimes.
At the very heart of the problems seen in the Middle East and beyond lies
a deep reverence for the Qur’an and an attempt to puts its teachings into
practice. Put simply, strict Islamic societies quickly become failed societies,
and the Qur’an underpins the backwardness and stagnation that we see in
many majority Muslim countries. Many like to point to the supposed ‘golden
age’ of Islam, and talk of successful, tolerant societies of the past that
were (nominally) Muslim. However, they are missing the point. Muslim societies
of the past that did not represent a totalitarian theocratic nightmare were
only so because of a lacklustre approach to enforcing the teachings and rulings
of the Qur’an. Muslims are liberal and questioning and thoughtful precisely
when they throw off the shackles of Islam. When we encounter self-professed
Muslims exhibiting the qualities that we associate with a modern, rational,
and cosmopolitan outlook, this is not the result of their proclaimed devotion
to Allah, Muhammed, and the Qur’an, but rather it is the result of the influence
of, and their acceptance of, secularism and Enlightenment values.
Islam, ‘Islamism’, and the importance of intellectual honesty
At present, many apologists for Islam, including a large number of non-Muslims,
claim that there is a wide gulf between authentic Islam and ‘political
Islam’ or ‘Islamism’. Islam, they say, is a personal religious belief system
based on respect for others and reverence for the creator of the universe,
whereas Islamism is some kind of totalitarian perversion. Islam, they claim,
is a religion that has been ‘hijacked by extremists’. This is obviously
a nice idea to have, given it splits Muslims up into ‘normal citizens just
like you and me’ (‘Muslim moderates’) and right-wing theocrats (‘Islamists’).
But is such a simple destinction logical or accurate? Given what we found
having delved into the Qur’an, this idea of Islam Vs Islamism seems to be
wholly artificial. The fact of the matter is that the Qur’an quite clearly
advocates ‘political Islam’. Indeed, ‘political Islam’ is a misnomer for
Islam itself is by definition political. Islam as presented in the Qur’an
is, quite simply, Islamism, and the Qur’an is a manual for the Islamification
of societies. Muhammad, the supposed ‘prophet’ of Islam, was by modern standards
an Islamist – indeed, he was the very first Islamist. The Qur’an does not
present itself as having a message that is one of many valid options. It
doesn’t provide arguments in its favour that can be rationally evaluated.
It simply demands submission and backs this demand up with gruesome threat
after threat of both violence in this world and in the afterlife.
Having said that, it is certainly not the case that everyone identifying
themself as a Muslim is an Islamist seeking to transform the society they
live in along the lines of the Qur’an and the Hadith. There are indeed
moderate Muslims and I have met plenty. The Roman Catholic Church commands
its followers to reject the use of contraception, but that hasn’t stopped
huge numbers of self-identified Catholics from using it. Likewise, the Qur’an
tells Muslims that God hates unbelievers, but every day I meet Muslims
who do not give the impression that they see me as a ‘vile animal’. However,
there are, unfortunately, large numbers of Muslims in the West who to varying
degrees hold views wholly incompatible with a pluralistic society based
on individual rights and who would very much like to see objectionable
Qur’anic teachings put into practice. There are also large numbers of Muslim
so-called ‘community leaders’ who spend much of their time complaining about
how the West isn’t accomodating enough to Muslims, how they are ‘offended’
by this or that, and how we must show ‘respect’ for Islam (by which they
mean we should adopt a pandering and subservient position regarding this
one particular religion). Various recent studies have highlighted the worrying
views held by many Muslims in the West. For example, in 2008 The Centre for
Social Cohesion produced a report entitled
‘Islam on Campus: A survey of UK student opinions’. The study, based on a
poll of 1,400 students as well as field work and interviews, revealed of
British Muslim students that:
- 32% said killing in the name of religion can be justified.
- 60% of active members of campus Islamic societies said killing
in the name of religion can be justified.
- 50% would be unsupportive of a friend’s decision to leave Islam.
- 24% do not feel that men and women are fully equal in the eyes
- 59% felt it was important to Islam that Muslim women wear the hijab.
- 54% were supportive of an Islamic political party to represent
the views of Muslims at Parliament.
- 28% said Islam was incompatible with secularism.
- 40% said that they thought that it was unacceptable for Muslim
men and women to mix freely.
- 25% said they had not very much or no respect at all for homosexuals,
as opposed to 4% of non-Muslim students.
- 57% said that British Muslim servicemen should be allowed to opt
out of taking part in military operations in Muslim countries.
A 2007 poll of
1,000 of the wider Muslim population in Britain conducted by the think
tank Policy Exchange found that:
- 86% of Muslims feel that religion is the most important thing in
- 36% of 16 to 24-year-olds believe if a Muslim converts to another
religion they should be punished by death.
- 74% of 16 to 24-year-olds would prefer Muslim women to choose to
wear the veil.
- 58% believe that ‘many of the problems in the world today are a
result of arrogant Western attitudes’.
- Only 37% accept that ‘one of the benefits of modern society is
the freedom to criticise other people’s religious or political views, even
when it causes offence’.
A 2006 Populus poll for The Times found that 37% of British Muslims believe that ‘the Jewish
community in Britain is a legitimate target “as part of the ongoing struggle
for justice in the Middle East”‘.
A 2005 Daily Telegraph poll found that 32% of British Muslims agreed with the notion that ‘Western
society is decadent and immoral and that Muslims should seek to bring it
to an end’.
As a whole, then, around a third of British Muslims hold views that would
be described as ‘Islamist’. In reality, that means 1 in 3 British Muslims
are clearly significantly influenced by the ideas found in the Qur’an. If
a massive 86% of British Muslims claim that religion is the most important
thing in their life and a significant 63% were unwilling to agree that ‘one
of the benefits of modern society is the freedom to criticise other people’s
religious or political views’ then this still indicates a problem, and with
the Muslim population reportedly growing ten times faster than the rest of society it is a problem that needs
addressing. The way to address the problem of large numbers of people adhering
to a belief system that is directly opposed to Enlightenment thinking, secularism,
and liberalism is to reaffirm our commitment to those ideals. We need to
stop cowering in fear of being accused of ‘bigotry’ or ‘Islamophobia’, or
‘racism’, or any of the other labels that are all too often attached to those
who dare to critically examine Islam, and we also need to be firm in our rejection
of far-right political parties and organisations that are attempting to make
problems related to Islam ‘their issue’ and who are seeking to slide a racist
agenda in under the guise of ‘defending the West’. As a committed anti-racist
I will not be told by genuine bigots that they ‘speak for me’, because they
most certainly do not.
It is a worrying situation when only 37% of British Muslims see validity
in being able to criticise religious beliefs, but such a number is perhaps
unsurprising given the patronising attitude that many ‘politically correct’
liberals have adopted with regard to Muslims and Islam. Because Muslims
in the West are a minority group, and a group made up largely of members
of ethnic minorities, a strange form of self-censorship has been adopted
regarding Islam, the Qur’an, and Muhammad. Where anti-Semitism, homophobia,
and other forms of intolerance are found in Muslim communities, all too often
the reaction from liberals is a kind of embarassed attempt at ‘explaining’
or excusing these views, or they are simply glossed over. Likewise, when
some Muslims work themselves up into a frenzy over supposed ‘insults’ to
their religion, the reflexive reaction among all too many is simply to cave
in and apologise. This is a pathetic and hypocritical approach to take to
what is, after all, an ideology. In the West, we don’t hold back from criticising
Marxism for fear of ‘offending’ Marxists, and we don’t adopt an uncritical
stance with regard to the Bible either (quite the opposite). There is no
valid reason why we should treat Islam and the Qur’an any differently. There
seems to be a kind of condescending attitude towards Muslims which has served
only to enbolden reactionaries and encourage even ‘moderates’ to feel they
should have a special exemption from having their beliefs challenged. The
novelist Monica Ali, author of Brick Lane, offers excellent criticism of this approach:
It is striking, she points out, how, in the name of respect for
minorities, minority voices themselves get silenced. The liberal idea of
respect, Ali notes, is patronising: ‘It is a kind of moral superiority. What
liberals mean when they talk about respect is that they can handle complex
fiction, ambiguity, criticism, but other people can’t, especially people in
minority communities, because they are too sensitive’.
For Ali, the giving of offence is not just inevitable. It is also important
because it is ‘necessary for social progress’. Women, she points out, are
often the ones to pay the price for prohibitions against giving offence.
In the past, liberals recognised the importance of free speech to the overcoming
of social iniquities. Today, too many liberals see ‘a clash between freedom
of expression and the defence of minority communities’.
Ali is absolutely right. Criticism is indeed necessary for social progress,
and it was criticism of religious authority that helped usher in modernity
in the West. By refusing to criticise Islam, and by allowing the Qur’an to
go basically unchallenged, we are doing nothing to advance the cause of
ethnic minority communities in the West and we fail to understand what lies
beneath many of the vast social problems in the Middle East. Having examined
the Qur’an, I am of the view that it is vitally important that we shed the
light of reason on its contents loudly and widely. If self-proclaimed Muslim
moderates mean what they say when they claim to be moderates and opposed to
Islamism and Shari’ah, we also need to see a lot more criticism of the Qur’an
coming from Muslims themselves.
I cannot personally see how the Qur’an and Islam can ultimately be ‘saved’.
Given the sheer level of backward, violent, and hateful content in the Qur’an,
it seems quite impossible to me that it can ever be ‘reinterpreted’ in the
same way that liberal Christian thinkers have sought to reinterpret the New
Testament. It seems clear that the Qur’an offers an either/or scenario to
the reader. Either you submit totally or not at all. Either the Qur’an is
the perfect, revealed Word of God or it’s not. Either Muhammad was a ‘prophet’
or he was not. Either you follow God or you follow Satan. Either you are
a ‘good’ person or you are a ‘bad’ person. Either you agree with religiously
sanctioned murder, floggings, and the chopping off of hands or you rightly
reject this for the barbarity that it is. Let’s hope there is a middle ground,
at least for now. But most of all let us hope for the continuing success
of the values of the Enlightenment, values we should promote, cherish, and
seek to protect and defend. And as supporters of freedom and rationalism
let’s have the courage of our convictions to say we really don’t care if
people think that the Qur’an is ‘holy’ – we still have the right to criticise
it. We should also make it clear that we don’t give a damn about stupid words
like ‘Islamophobia’ and we will not cower in fear of such censorious labels.
Nothing should be beyond criticism, least of all a book that shows such utter
contempt for those who do not accept its claims.