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Is The Quran A Violent Text Or Is Your Reading A Tad Off?

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Photo: Asim Bharwani

By Joe Bradford | Originally Posted on

An Open Letter to Atheist Muslims

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 herehere, 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 Qur’an as “God’s literal word” and this you say needs to stop
  • Muslims claim that the Qur’an 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 Qur’an 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 Qu’ran 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 Qur’an 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 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 Qur’anic 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 “Shaykh” 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, Shaykhs, 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 Muslim’s 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 Qur’an 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 Qur’an says against the average “moderate” Muslim. We aren’t referencing scholarly opinion to validate our personal ideas about what the Qur’an 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 Qur’an makes people “Kookoo for Cocoa Puffs” crazy, so why won’t they just give it up?

Is the Qur’an a “Violent Text?”

Before we talk about reconsidering the infallibility of the Qur’an, let’s talk a little about the idea that the Qur’an 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 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 it 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 Qur’an? 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 Qur’an as an Errant Document

Do Muslims believe the Qur’an to be God’s “literal” word? Yes and No. Yes, in the sense that the Qur’an is seen as representing the exact words of the original text as revealed by God. And No, in the sense that the Qur’an is not a book that is devoid of metaphor and allegory. What would be more correct then is to say that Muslims believe the Qur’an 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 Qur’an is used by violent terrorists, and “moderate” Muslim claims of the Qur’an 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 Qur’an 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 Qur’an, because all of these topics are inherent to understanding language.

“Strike [them] Upon the Necks”

Therefore, when I read in the Qur’an “so strike [them] upon the necks and strike from them every fingertip” (Qur’an, 8:12-13),  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” and 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. This verse is not speaking to me or any other human, and
  2. 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 Qur’an 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 Qur’an as fallible, and thus fall into the same category as the “extremists” who also believe the Qur’an 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 Qur’an 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 Qur’an 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 Qur’an 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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  • Assalam Aleykum Brother Suhaib,
    You are making a lot of good points and I am mostly agreeing with all you are saying. However I have a hard time to get over the “qualification” aspect. I am by the way not Atheist, but Muslim and I bear witness that Allah is the only one God and that Muhammad (May the Peace and Blessings of Allah be upon him) is His slave and Messenger.

    In short: I believe that anyone may interpret the Qu’ran as Allah wishes it to be interpreted, but this mainly depends of the inner motive of the reader i.e. his/her inner intention in what the reader is actually looking for (an understanding? The truth? A flaw? Etc…).

    Long explanation:
    I haven’t been in Islamic school but I have been taught to study and research (I am a technology researcher), so whenever I want to understand and/or confirm an opinion, I read and read again until get a satisfactory understanding. In other word I perform research for the sake of finding my way or the truth.

    Those who have academic education in Islam have a great advance in information resource but it doesn’t mean that those without it can’t get a sensible understanding of Quranic text. The Holy Quran is made clear by Allah Himself e.g. (Chapter 16, verse 89: “And [mention] the Day when We will resurrect among every nation a witness over them from themselves. And We will bring you, [O Muhammad], as a witness over your nation. And We have sent down to you the Book as clarification for all things and as guidance and mercy and good tidings for the Muslim”).

    At the end of the day the inner motive of the person is what would drive somebody towards a direction and particular understanding (or interpretation) of the Holy Quran(be it extremism, atheism or innovation or whatever). So if somebody wants to find a flaw he would only focus research on that task, if somebody looks for helpful elements in the Quran then they will focus their research accordingly.

    All the best!

    • I agree with you.

      It is He who has sent down to you, [O Muhammad], the Book; in it are verses [that are] precise – they are the foundation of the Book – and others unspecific. As for those in whose hearts is deviation [from truth], they will follow that of it which is unspecific, seeking discord and seeking an interpretation [suitable to them]. And no one knows its [true] interpretation except Allah . But those firm in knowledge say, “We believe in it. All [of it] is from our Lord.” And no one will be reminded except those of understanding.[3:7]

    • Assalamu alaikum!

      I believe that what the text is trying to illustrate is not that we’re not able to have a good understanding of the Quran and the religion unless we’re scholars, but that we have to me mindful of how we portray our viewpoints. One thing is to say you have a point of view that you believe to be correct – and leaving others to reflect upon it, search for more information and find what resonates more with themselves. Another thing is saying your point of view is the correct, issue fatwas, and determine that people who do not follow them are in great mistake – which is kind of the brainwashing most terrorist groups want people to go through.
      Plus, the text was addressed to the atheist muslims who, for one reason or another, tend to portray Islam through the lenses of their own experiences and perceptions, ignoring important historical and social facts normally considered by scholars.

    • The point is not that roughly 25% of any population agrees that violence against people can be justified doesnt prove that the Quran itself is not violent.

      Honestly I prefer the fundamentalist muslim’s candid nature when he/she states that we are following the Quran and hence the violence to the so-called moderate muslims who are in denial.

      From the non-muslims perspective, the fundamentalist muslim is definately inspried by the Quran. They quote of verses from the Quran and their actions seem to follow the statements mentioned in Quran. And hence their claim that they are following the Quran seems legitimate.

      And clearly from their perspective the non-believer is an enemy. Interestingly so is a “moderate” muslim who does not help their cause since there are many statements in the Quran that state how to identify a muslim who is a hypocrite and how to deal with them.

      Now the point is as a moderate muslim what is your response to it ? Clearly most of the moderate muslims are too scared and confused to do anything about it and their response is denial.

      But there is no denial that the question/issue is real, else it wouldnt have come up in the first place.

  • Okay, so lets say for arguments sake that it doesnt promote violence against non believers… explain to me the meaning of quran 2: 191-93:

    And kill them wherever you find them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out. And Al-Fitnah [disbelief] is worse than killing…but if they desist, then lo! Allah is forgiving and merciful.   And fight them until there is no more Fitnah [disbelief and worshipping of others along with Allah] and worship is for Allah alone.  But if they cease, let there be no transgression except against Az-Zalimun (the polytheists, and wrong-doers, etc.)

    Oh and this was after Mohammed relocated to medina and was no longer in a fight for his life… so none of that as an excuse please

    • No where does this article claim that violence is never ethical or allowed. What it asks you to for is not quote out of context. That said, you missed a verse. Read one verse before (2:190) and notice the conditional statement, the the qualifers used in verses 2:191-193 that you quoted.
      There is no unconditional, unqualified command to violence expected from every Muslim as an act of faith in the Quran. That is a fantasy of two people: Bigots and Extremists. Both prefer cherry picked, shallow readings that fit their desire to paint each other as an existential threat.

    • Hi, in the beginning of 2: 191-3 does seem as though violence is being promoted but when you look at the preceding Ayah you will see that the reality is quite to the contrary.

      YUSUFALI: Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loveth not transgressors.

  • Here the holy quran has made clear to its readers for as almighty words cant be twisted and change, for the miracle of it wonders is still happenin, It says in sura Al Isra vers(9)Indeed, this Qur’an guides to that which is most suitable and gives good tidings to the believers who do righteous deeds that they will have a great reward.And also verse(12)Indeed, this Qur’an guides to that which is most suitable and gives good tidings to the believers who do righteous deeds that they will have a great reward. Here its talkin about it signs upon us humans as in many verses it says either we accept to believe or not, and sometimes the interpretation of the words to English or other languages is key but the understandin of the holy book is only up to almighty for only Allah guide and make the heart believe as it says in this sura too sura Yunus vers(100)And it is not for a soul to believe except by permission of Allah , and He will place defilement upon those who will not use reason.
    so the holy quran like the other holy books that came before were signs of God and for human to know it selfs and for the good of human spirit and soul,so all the revealations to our holy prophet(saw) was for better of mankind.and is our we use our mind and our surrounding and also how to accept others and difffereces, for thats why islam shows more diversity and how to live with others that differ in faitha nd believe, just as we are all not the same in creation and all arounds us shows the signs of that.

  • I cannot speak to the failures of Muslim “Sunday School” since my Sunday School days were spent as a Catholic, having only converted to Islam once I entered adulthood. That being said, I think the MAJOR issue I have with “Self Described Atheist Muslims” and critics of the Qur’an and the articles they write as of late can be summed up in one word: eisegesis, as in reading into the text, usually with the point of proving an already held bias. These biases are often go unquestioned in this types of conversations. Allahu’Alim.

  • ‘The Stupid Atheist’ in his piece above in response to the article has his views, but is he is not being too clever even for himself. ‘Look’ he’s saying, ‘The Qu’ran says this, it instructs that! I have no reproofs for him but one thing I do know is that the original article by Joe Bradford is a considered piece of writing that must have taken some time,some thought & some perspiration. Nowhere above does J.Bradford call atheists stupid.He plainly sets out the case for learned interpretation of verses. Sometimes I think Man was born too clever and is busily throwing away all his devotion to need for sake of being seen as ‘the smart one’ & a smart one with little modesty at that.I cannot truly speak for the Third World,but I’m convinced that poverty exists there because too much is taken,way beyond need, by many in the so called ‘west’. Of course there are voices that call for restraint here & the Qu’ran never ceases to remind us to spend of what Allah provides us with. Long live sharing, long live modesty, therefore long live contextualised interpretation & understanding of Qu’ranic verses. May the young men asleep in ‘The Cave’ awake to a tolerant dawn, for never should a raindrop be wasted- it has the important job of germinating a seed. Brian Cokayne/ Stockport/ England

  • Two points to consider:
    There is no such a thing as an atheist muslim: what gahd do they not give their free will too?
    Also islam is not a pacifist religion per se and allumdilla for that !

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