A Critical Examination of the Qur’an
The Qur’an, Muslims believe, is the final revelation of the creator of
the universe, a book dictated by an angel to the final in a long line
of prophets sent by Allah to guide human affairs and to make known the
will of the creator for how we should order our lives. Indeed, time and
again, it makes this bold claim, so this really seems a non-negotiable
article of faith and statement of reality. As such, it is said to be
a book whose message is universal in scope, and whose message is not
historically or geographically specific or conditioned, but which speaks
with equal relevance to us all, in all places and at all times. Islam,
the religion proclaimed by the Qur’an, means simply ‘submission’, and
we are called to acknowledge the divine origins of the book and to submit
our will and intellect to the proposition that this book and this religion
constitute the undeniable pinnacle of moral teaching and literary creativity,
and that we must all adopt this ‘total way of life’ or face stern consequences
As a non-Muslim, coming to the Qur’an unburdened by the heavy
influence of communal reinforcement that is given by being brought up
to accept these notions as self-evidently true, I am at a complete loss
as to understand how anyone can hold such a high opinion of a book which,
it turns out, is so crude, so blatantly a product of a specific time and
place, and so filled with childish threats and superstition. Reading
the Qur’an is an arduous task, for in translation at least it is not a
book whose literary style naturally commands admiration in the reader;
in fact it is an exceedingly tedious book, made up of a collection of
disjointed and often self-contradictory texts, filled with tiresome repetition
of certain key phrases and themes, and brimming over with threats of
torture and torment for those who will not accept its authority. It seems
to me vitally important in a time in which this book and this religion
are proclaimed so widely and so loudly to be the Truth and to be beyond
criticism that those of us who value the fruits of the Enlightenment –
rational, secular thought and discourse, freed from the often horrific superstitions
of ignorant men of the past – should endevour to both examine and critically
evaluate Islam and its much vaunted ‘holy book’.
The Enlightenment and the huge social changes it ushered in are
precious gifts that it is our duty to protect against the forces of
resurgent irrationalism in the world today. The values and achievements
of the Enlightenment are things which should be open to all, regardless
of skin colour or ethnicity: in short, they are not simply a luxury for
white Western elites. In seeking to ‘understand’ Islam and in offering
an unthinking and servile ‘respect’ for the Qur’an, many feel they are
championing the cause of minorities and protecting them from bigotry and
Western ‘cultural imperialism’. This is utter condescending nonsense. There
is no reason why brown skinned people should be left in the chains of superstition
and there is no reason why the things many of them hold dear should be beyond
rational criticism. Beliefs have consequences, and in the case of this
particular religion one of those consequences is that many of its followers
feel duty-bound to attempt to roll back the Enlightenment and to ‘Islamify’
the West. This is an unpopular statement to make, considered in the minds
of many self-proclaimed liberals and progressives to border on ‘bigotry’
or to actually constitute a form of ‘racism’. But bigotry and racism are
enemies of Enlightenment rationalism – they belong to precisely the same
realm of irrational, petty, provincial thinking that produced competing
religions, all proclaiming to be bearers of the Truth without a shread
of real evidence, and all quite unsatisfactory if we are to be serious
about developing further together as a global community in the years to
In this article, I shall look at exactly what the Qur’an says,
and I hope to demonstrate to the reader quite what a divisive, primitive,
and insulting book it actually is; not to provoke hostility towards Muslims,
nor to be deliberately and gratuituously offensive, but for the important
reasons outlined above.
The intended readership of the Qur’an – universal or localised?
As already noted, mainstream Muslims proclaim the Qur’an to be
the final revelation of the creator of the universe, a book given in
a specific time and place, but a book whose message is not dependent
on that time and place. Hypothetically, the belief goes, the Word of
God could have been given anywhere in the world, in an place, time, or
language, and its message would have been exactly the same. Given the Qur’an’s
constant proclamation that it is of divine origin, we would be safe in assuming
that its message will be found to be universally applicable, equally relevant
to all, and lacking signs that it is culturally or historically conditioned.
In fact, unsurprisingly, this is far from the case.
The readership of the Qur’an is clearly presupposed to be male,
and this is a book for men, by men. We find numerous examples of the
audience being given information and instructions about women, in texts
that speak of women in the third person. So, for example, we read statements
such as ‘Your wives are a tilth for you’ (2.223), ‘And those of you who
die and leave wives behind’ (2.240), ‘And when you divorce women’ (2.231),
‘And when you have divorced women’ (2.232), ‘And Allah has made wives
for you from among yourselves, and has given you sons and grandchildren
from your wives’ (16.72), ‘when you marry the believing women’ (33.49),
‘Enter the garden, you and your wives; you shall be made happy’ (43.70),
‘when you divorce women’ (65.1), and so in, in passage after passage.
The readership of the Qur’an is also clearly presupposed to be
made up of Arabs. So, we read ‘Surely We have revealed it — an Arabic
Quran — that you may understand’ (12.2), ‘And thus have We revealed
it, a true judgment in Arabic’ (13.37), ‘In plain Arabic language’ (26.195),
‘An Arabic Quran without any crookedness, that they may guard (against
evil)’ (39.28), ‘A Book of which the verses are made plain, an Arabic
Quran for a people who know’ (41.3), ‘Surely We have made it an Arabic
Quran that you may understand’ (43.3). Most telling of all, we read ‘And
if We had made it a Quran in a foreign tongue, they would certainly have
said: Why have not its communications been made clear? What! a foreign (tongue)
and an Arabian!’ (41.44)
So much for the much vaunted universal message for a universal
audience. There is plenty more evidence that the Qur’an, more than simply
being a book specifically tailored for Arab men, is also a book firmly
situated in a particular place and time. Animals and food are written of
in the Qur’an, often in the many passages presenting the natural world
as evidence of Allah as creator, and the choice of animals and food, and
the uses of animals that are referred to, situate the text both historically
and geographically. So, for example, we read of camels – important animals
for Arabs but irrelevant as examples for readers in places such as Europe,
where they were largely unknown at the time of the writing of the Qur’an:
And (as for) the camels, We have made them of the signs of the
religion of Allah for you; for you therein is much good; therefore mention
the name of Allah on them as they stand in a row, then when they fall
down eat of them and feed the poor man who is contented and the beggar;
thus have We made them subservient to you, that you may be grateful (22.36).
Will they not then consider the camels, how they are created?
We read of working animals, again situating the Qur’an as a product
of its time, as opposed to being a universal trans-historical book.:
And He created the cattle for you; you have in them warm clothing
and (many) advantages, and of them do you eat.
And there is beauty in them for you when you drive them back
(to home), and when you send them forth (to pasture).
And they carry your heavy loads to regions which you could not
reach but with distress of the souls; most surely your Lord is Compassionate,
And (He made) horses and mules and asses that you might ride upon
them and as an ornament; and He creates what you do not know (16.5-8).
Allah is He Who made the cattle for you that you may ride on
some of them, and some of them you eat (40.79).
Of the ‘gardens of bliss’ promised to believers after death, we
read that there will be ‘thornless lote-trees, and banana-trees (with
fruits)’ (56.28-9). Elsewhere, we read of palm trees, grapes, olives,
pomegranates and clover (6.99, 12.49, 13.4, 16.11, 16.67, 17.91, 18.32,
23.19, 36.34, 80.28). All of these were useful examples for the Arabs
of Muhammad’s time, but are useless as examples for many people in other
places and other times. Of how much relevance is talk of bananas to the
Inuit? How many Scandinavians would have found palm tress a meaningful
example? The claim that the Qur’an’s message is of equal relevance to all
people in all times is revealed to be utterly bogus.
Central concerns of the Qur’an – universally relevant or historically
Reading the Qur’an, we find that huge chunks of the text are devoted
to Muhammad’s disputes with his fellow Arabs and their rejection of his
message. If the message of the Qur’an transcends time and place, then why
is there so much talk of this issue? We read much of the ‘polytheists’
– those who followed the traditional Arab religions of Muhammad’s time,
and how many of them have rejected the message of Islam and scoffed at Muhammad’s
claim to be a prophet, and we also read of Jews and Christians (‘followers
of the Book’) who likewise rejected the Qur’an :
Those who disbelieve from among the followers of the Book do not
like, nor do the polytheists, that the good should be sent down to you from
your Lord, and Allah chooses especially whom He pleases for His mercy, and
Allah is the Lord of mighty grace (2.105).
And those who disbelieve say: This is nothing but a lie which
he has forged, and other people have helped him at it; so indeed they
have done injustice and (uttered) a falsehood (25.4).
And those who disbelieve say: Why has not the Quran been revealed
to him all at once? Thus, that We may strengthen your heart by it and
We have arranged it well in arranging (25.32).
And they wonder that there has come to them a warner from among
themselves, and the disbelievers say: This IS an enchanter, a liar.
What! makes he the gods a single God? A strange thing is this, to be
He it is Who sent His Apostle with the guidance and the true religion,
that He may make it overcome the religions, all of them, though the
polytheists may be averse (61.9).
Those who disbelieved from among the followers of the Book and
the polytheists could not have separated (from the faithful) until there
had come to them the clear evidence: An apostle from Allah, reciting pure
pages, Wherein are all the right ordinances (98.1-3).
So, we read that many Arab polytheists of Muhammad’s time rejected
his new monotheistic religion, calling it a lie that he had invented,
questioning why the whole Qur’an was not ‘revealed’ at one time, and calling
Muhammad himself an ‘enchanter’ and a ‘liar’. These are records of arguments
that Muhammad had with those he tried to convert to his new faith, but
teach us absolutely nothing of value for how to live in the modern world.
For those who accept Muhammad’s claims, the Qur’an promises numerous
rewards after death, with a life of bliss in gardens of paradise, complete
with an unending supply of delicious food and drink, as well as wives
and a life of relaxation and pleasures. But for those who reject Muhammad
and his message (largely the aforementioned polytheists), the author of
the Qur’an, with seemingly endless repetition, offers threats and promises
of unspeakable suffering after death. As we shall see, the author seems
to relish the thought of the infliction of these punishments with great enthusiasm,
and a sadistic and perverse mentality is clearly in evidence.
What does the Qur’an say about non-Muslims?
In their proper historical context, the following texts from the
Qur’an can be seen as threats made by Muhammad to people of his time who
rejected his message. However, for Muslims the Qur’an is not a text that
refers only to the time of Muhammad, but instead offers a universal message
for all peoples and all time, given by God and perfect in its every statement.
Given this is the case, the Qur’an calls upon Muslims today to understand
the fate of those who do not accept Islam to be an eternity of unending
torture and torment, not simply of a ‘spiritual’ variety, but in literal,
corporeal terms. If you are an atheist or a follower of another religion
(there may be some exceptions among Jews and Christians, as we will
see later), then here is what the perfect Word of God has to say to about
Surely those who disbelieve, it being alike to them whether you
warn them, or do not warn them, will not believe. Allah has set a seal upon
their hearts and upon their hearing and there is a covering over their eyes,
and there is a great punishment for them (2.6-7).
Allah is the enemy of the unbelievers (2.98).
(As for) those who disbelieve, surely neither their wealth nor
their children shall avail them in the least against Allah; and these
are the inmates of the fire; therein they shall abide. (3.116).
Let it not deceive you that those who disbelieve go to and fro
in the cities fearlessly. A brief enjoyment! then their abode is hell,
and evil is the resting-place.(3.196-7).
[S]urely Allah will gather together the hypocrites and the unbelievers
all in hell (4.140).
[A] painful chastisement shall befall those among them who disbelieve
And (as for) those who disbelieve and reject Our communications,
these are the companions of the flame (5.86).
And they who reject Our communications are deaf and dumb, in utter
darkness; whom Allah pleases He causes to err and whom He pleases He
puts on the right way (6.39).
And (as for) those who reject Our communications, chastisement
shall afflict them because they transgressed (6.49).
And leave those who have taken their religion for a play and an
idle sport, and whom this world’s life has deceived, and remind (them)
thereby lest a soul should be given up to destruction for what it has
earned; it shall not have besides Allah any guardian nor an intercessor,
and if it should seek to give every compensation, it shall not be accepted
from it; these are they who shall be given up to destruction for what they
earned; they shall have a drink of boiling water and a painful chastisement
because they disbelieved (6.70).
Who then is more unjust than he who rejects Allah’s communications
and turns away from them? We will reward those who turn away from Our
communications with an evil chastisement because they turned away (6.157).
And (as for) those who reject Our communications and turn away
from them haughtily– these are the inmates of the fire they shall abide
in it (7.36).
Surely (as for) those who reject Our communications and turn away from
them haughtily, the doors of heaven shall not be opened for them, nor shall
they enter the garden until the camel pass through the eye of the needle;
and thus do We reward the guilty. They shall have a bed of hell-fire and
from above them coverings (of it); and thus do We reward the unjust. (7.40-1).
What! do the people of the towns then feel secure from Our punishment
coming to them by night while they sleep? What! do the people of the
towns feel secure from Our punishment coming to them in the morning while
they play? What! do they then feel secure from Allah’s plan? But none feels
secure from Allah’s plan except the people who shall perish (7.97-99).
Evil is the likeness of the people who reject Our communications
and are unjust to their own souls. Whomsoever Allah guides, he is
the one who follows the right way; and whomsoever He causes to err, these
are the losers. And certainly We have created for hell many of the jinn
and the men; they have hearts with which they do not understand, and they
have eyes with which they do not see, and they have ears with which they
do not hear; they are as cattle, nay, they are in worse errors; these
are the heedless ones. (7.177-9).
Whomsoever Allah causes to err, there is no guide for him; and
He leaves them alone in their inordinacy, blindly wandering on (7.186).
I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve (8.12).
And had you seen when the angels will cause to die those who disbelieve,
smiting their faces and their backs, and (saying): Taste the punishment
of burning (8.50).
Surely the vilest of animals in Allah’s sight are those who disbelieve,
then they would not believe (8.55).
Allah will bring disgrace to the unbelievers (9.2).
[A]nd announce painful punishment to those who disbelieve (9.3).
The idolaters have no right to visit the mosques of Allah while
bearing witness to unbelief against themselves, these it is whose doings
are null, and in the fire shall they abide (9.17).
Allah has promised the hypocritical men and the hypocritical women
and the unbelievers the fire of hell to abide therein; it is enough for
them; and Allah has cursed them and they shall have lasting punishment
O Prophet! strive hard against the unbelievers and the hypocrites
and be unyielding to them; and their abode is hell, and evil is the
And never offer prayer for any one of them who dies and do not
stand by his grave; surely they disbelieve in Allah and His Apostle and
they shall die in transgression (9.84).
Surely those who do not hope in Our meeting and are pleased with
this world’s life and are content with it, and those who are heedless
of Our communications: (As for) those, their abode is the fire because of
what they earned (10.7-8).
Whoever desires this world’s life and its finery, We will pay
them in full their deeds therein, and they shall not be made to suffer
loss in respect of them. These are they for whom there is nothing but
fire in the hereafter, and what they wrought in it shall go for nothing,
and vain is what they do (11.15-16).
They shall have chastisement in this world’s life, and the chastisement
of the hereafter is certainly more grievous, and they shall have no protector
against Allah. A likeness of the garden which the righteous are promised;
there now beneath it rivers, its food and shades are perpetual; this
is the requital of those who guarded (against evil), and the requital
of the unbelievers is the fire (13.34-5)
Hell is before him and he shall be given to drink of festering
water: He will drink it little by little and will not be able to swallow
it agreeably, and death will come to him from every quarter, but he
shall not die; and there shall be vehement chastisement before him. The
parable of those who disbelieve in their Lord: their actions are like
ashes on which the wind blows hard on a stormy day; they shall not have
power over any thing out of what they have earned; this is the great error
Therefore do not think Allah (to be one) failing in His promise
to His apostles; surely Allah is Mighty, the Lord of Retribution. On
the day when the earth shall be changed into a different earth, and the
heavens (as well), and they shall come forth before Allah, the One, the
Supreme. And you will see the guilty on that day linked together in chains.
Their shirts made of pitch and the fire covering their faces (14.47-50).
(As for) those who do not believe in Allah’s communications, surely
Allah will not guide them, and they shall have a painful punishment
Whoever desires this present life, We hasten to him therein what
We please for whomsoever We desire, then We assign to him the hell; he
shall enter it despised, driven away (17.18).
And whomsoever Allah guides, he is the follower of the right way,
and whomsoever He causes to err, you shall not find for him guardians
besides Him; and We will gather them together on the day of resurrection
on their faces, blind and dumb and deaf; their abode is hell; whenever
it becomes allayed We will add to their burning (17.97).
We have prepared for the iniquitous a fire, the curtains of which
shall encompass them about; and if they cry for water, they shall be
given water like molten brass which will scald their faces; evil the
drink and ill the resting-place (18.29).
Surely you and what you worship besides Allah are the firewood
of hell; to it you shall come (21.98).
And (as for) those who strive to oppose Our communications, they
shall be the inmates of the flaming fire (22.51).
And (as for) those who disbelieve in and reject Our communications,
these it is who shall have a disgraceful chastisement (22.57).
And when Our clear communications are recited to them you will
find denial on the faces of those who disbelieve; they almost spring upon
those who recite to them Our communications. Say: Shall I inform you of
what is worse than this? The fire; Allah has promised it to those who disbelieve;
and how evil the resort! (22.72)
Think not that those who disbelieve shall escape in the earth,
and their abode is the fire; and certainly evil is the resort! (24.57)
As to those who do not believe in the hereafter, We have surely
made their deeds fair-seeming to them, but they blindly wander on. These
are they who shall have an evil punishment, and in the hereafter they
shall be the greatest losers (27.4-5).
And (as to) those who disbelieve in the communications of Allah
and His meeting, they have despaired of My mercy, and these it is that
shall have a painful punishment (29.23).
They ask you to hasten on the chastisement, and most surely hell
encompasses the unbelievers; On the day when the chastisement shall
cover them from above them, and from beneath their feet; and He shall
say: Taste what you did (29.54-5).
Will not in hell be the abode of the unbelievers? (29.68)
And as to those who disbelieved and rejected Our communications
and the meeting of the hereafter, these shall be brought over to the
[S]urely He [Allah] does not love the unbelievers (30.45).
And of men is he who takes instead frivolous discourse to lead
astray from Allah’s path without knowledge, and to take it for a mockery;
these shall have an abasing chastisement. And when Our communications
are recited to him, he turns back proudly, as if he had not heard them,
as though in his ears were a heaviness, therefore announce to him a painful
And whoever disbelieves, let not his disbelief grieve you; to
Us is their return, then will We inform them of what they did surely
Allah is the Knower of what is in the breasts. We give them to enjoy
a little, then will We drive them to a severe chastisement (31.23-24).
And as for those who transgress, their abode is the fire; whenever
they desire to go forth from it they shall be brought back into it, and
it will be said to them: Taste the chastisement of the fire which you
called a lie. And most certainly We will make them taste of the nearer
chastisement before the greater chastisement that haply they may turn.
And who is more unjust than he who is reminded of the communications of
his Lord, then he turns away from them? Surely We will give punishment to
the guilty (32.20-22).
Surely (as for) those who speak evil things of Allah and His Apostle,
Allah has cursed them in this world and the here after, and He has prepared
for them a chastisement bringing disgrace (33.57).
Surely Allah has cursed the unbelievers and has prepared for them a
burning fire, to abide therein for a long time; they shall not find a protector
or a helper. On the day when their faces shall be turned back into the fire,
they shall say: O would that we had obeyed Allah and obeyed the Apostle!
And they shall say: O our Lord! surely we obeyed our leaders and our great
men, so they led us astray from the path; O our Lord! give them a double
punishment and curse them with a great curse (33.64-8)..
So Allah will chastise the hypocritical men and the hypocritical
women and the polytheistic men and the polytheistic women (33.73).
And (as for) those who strive hard in opposing Our communications,
these it is for whom is a painful chastisement of an evil kind (34.5).
[T]hose who do not believe in the hereafter are in torment and
in great error (34.8).
And (as for) those who strive in opposing Our communications,
they shall be caused to be brought to the chastisement (34.38).
(As for) those who disbelieve, they shall have a severe punishment
This is the hell with which you were threatened. Enter into it
this day because you disbelieved (36.63-4).
And thus did the word of your Lord prove true against those who
disbelieved that they are the inmates of the fire (40.6).
Surely those who disbelieve shall be cried out to: Certainly Allah’s
hatred (of you) when you were called upon to the faith and you rejected,
is much greater than your hatred of yourselves (40.10).
Have you not seen those who dispute with respect to the communications
of Allah: how are they turned away? Those who reject the Book and that
with which We have sent Our Apostle; but they shall soon come to know,
when the fetters and the chains shall be on their necks; they shall be
dragged into boiling water, then in the fire shall they be burned (40.69-72).
Therefore We will most certainly make those who disbelieve taste
a severe punishment, and We will most certainly reward them for the evil
deeds they used to do. That is the reward of the enemies of Allah —
the fire; for them therein shall be the house of long abiding; a reward
for their denying Our communications (41.27-8).
And (as for) those who dispute about Allah after that obedience
has been rendered to Him, their plea is null with their Lord, and upon
them is wrath, and for them is severe punishment (42.16).
Woe to every sinful liar, who hears the communications of Allah
recited to him, then persists proudly as though he had not heard them;
so announce to him a painful punishment. And when he comes to know
of any of Our communications, he takes it for a jest; these it is that
shall have abasing chastisement. Before them is hell, and there shall
not avail them aught of what they earned, nor those whom they took for
guardians besides Allah, and they shall have a grievous punishment. This
is guidance; and (as for) those who disbelieve in the communications of
their Lord, they shall have a painful punishment on account of uncleanness
And on the day when those who disbelieve shall be brought before
the fire: You did away with your good things in your life of the world
and you enjoyed them for a while, so today you shall be rewarded with
the punishment of abasement because you were unjustly proud in the land
and because you transgressed (46.20).
That He may cause the believing men and the believing women to
enter gardens beneath which rivers flow to abide therein and remove from
them their evil; and that is a grand achievement with Allah and (that)
He may punish the hypocritical men and the hypocritical women, and the
polytheistic men and the polytheistic women, the entertainers of evil
thoughts about Allah. On them is the evil turn, and Allah is wroth with
them and has cursed them and prepared hell for them, and evil is the resort
And whoever does not believe in Allah and His Apostle, then surely
We have prepared burning fire for the unbelievers (48.13).
Therefore woe to those who disbelieve because of their day which
they are threatened with (51.60).
So woe on that day to those who reject (the truth), those who
sport entering into vain discourses. The day on which they shall be
driven away to the fire of hell with violence (52.11-13).
And if he is one of the rejecters, the erring ones, he shall have
an entertainment of boiling water, and burning in hell. Most surely
this is a certain truth. Therefore glorify the name of your Lord, the
So today ransom shall not be accepted from you nor from those
who disbelieved; your abode is the fire; it is your friend and evil
is the resort (57.15).
And (as for) those who disbelieve and reject Our communications,
they are the inmates of the fire, to abide therein and evil is the resort
But what is the matter with them that they do not believe, and
when the Quran is recited to them they do not make obeisance? Nay!
those who disbelieve give the lie to the truth. And Allah knows best
what they hide, so announce to them a painful punishment (84.20-24).
Has not there come to you the news of the overwhelming calamity?
(Some) faces on that day shall be downcast, laboring, toiling, entering
into burning fire, made to drink from a boiling spring. They shall have
no food but of thorns, which will neither fatten nor avail against hunger
So today those who believe shall laugh at the unbelievers; On thrones,
they will look. Surely the disbelievers are rewarded as they did (88.34-6).
And (as for) those who disbelieve in our communications, they
are the people of the left hand. On them is fire closed over (90.19-20).
Surely those who disbelieve from among the followers of the Book
and the polytheists shall be in the fire of hell, abiding therein; they
are the worst of men (98.6).
These are clearly not the writings of a rational mind. Deranged
by religious delusions, the author or authors of these passages would
no doubt be considered mentally ill or psychologically unbalanced were
this ‘holy’ book to be written today. Yet, as a religious text, the Qur’an
is all too often given a special exemption from normal criticism, and
we are told that we must show it ‘respect’, despite the hateful attitude
it takes towards those who do not accept Islam. Around the world, children
are taught to revere the Qur’an as the very words of the creator of the
universe, as a perfect book with a timeless message, yet how can texts
like those I have just cited do anything but instill a negative or contemptuous
attitude towards non-Muslims? And why would anyone in their right mind
claim that this book should be held up as the most important book ever
written, or even as a great work of literature?
Sadly, there is worse to come.