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 after death.
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 come.
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? (88.17)
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, Merciful.
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 situated?
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 sure! (38.4-5)
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 you:
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 (5.73).
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 (9.68).
O Prophet! strive hard against the unbelievers and the hypocrites and be unyielding to them; and their abode is hell, and evil is the destination (9.73).
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 (14.16-18).
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 (16.104).
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 chastisement (30.16).
[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 chastisement (31.6-7).
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 (35.7).
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 (45.7-11).
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 (48.5-6).
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 Great (56.92-6).
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 (64.10).
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 (88.1-7).
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.
Republished from Butterflies and Wheels