Thursday, August 9, 2012

Should the Qur'an be read "in context"?

If you are a liberal it must be hard being a Muslim. How, for example, do you square your desire for humane and  just treatment of criminals with the shariah requirement of chopping the hands off thieves, or the whipping of adulterers, or the crucifiction of those whose spread sedition. How do you look your gay friends in the eye, knowing that your god has decreed that the punishment meted out to the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, is a valid response to those who indulge their natural sexual desires?
One way of dealing with this apparent insurmountable clash of ideologies is to read the Qur'an "contextually".
I have been having an interesting debate with a Muslim convert over at New Muslim(ah) Walking Around - a thoughtful Islamic blog by an American female convert to Islam. This blogger, and I'm sure she is not alone, believes the message contained in the Qur'an can be "re-interpreted" and that it "isn't static".
This is, of course, what Christian liberals have been doing for hundreds of years.
"Oh, we don't take the Old Testament literally anymore! No-one is suggesting that we should stone people to death for working on the Sabbath or that you should kill your children if they cheek you...for goodness sake!"
So the Christians (and Jews) pick and choose which rules to follow and which to quietly ignore and brush under the carpet. Indeed, so successful has the Church been in re-interpreting the Bible, that the vast majority of Christians now have no idea that their holy book contains such blood-curdling exhortations to infanticide and murder.

The trouble with the Qur'an is that no Muslim can (or would want to?) deny one iota of its content and this is for two important reasons:
i. it is a fundamental tenet of Islam that the Qur'an is the uncreated word of God. That is to say that every word, every letter has come direct from God (via the Angel Gabriel and Muhammad of course).
ii. not a word or letter has been changed in the 1,400 odd years since the Prophet received the revelation.
Thus, for most Muslims, to say (as Christians do) that no-one believes such-and-such a part of the revelation nowadays is tantamount to apostasy (and we all know what dire retribution God has ordained for Muslims who apostise...)

Hence my difficulty with the Muslim blogger mentioned earlier. I have a sneaking admiration for anyone who has the balls to stand up in the 21st century and tell me they believe that evolution is a lie, that it's right and proper to give a hundred lashes to adulterers and that Heaven is an endless, drunken orgy. At least they stand by their peculiar convictions. I think I have less time for the apparent liberal Muslim who tries to accommodate a plainly medieval belief system by cherry-picking the Meccan verses (those "revealed" when Muhammad was in Mecca and conscious of the need not to upset putative followers) whilst ignoring the Medinan verses (those from the time when Muhammad had moved to Medina and had established a power base and was less interested in sounding understanding of non-believers)

Why follow a religion if you feel the need to reinterpret what your god has told you is the law? Why not try a dangerous but thrilling thought experiment ... and imagine, for a moment, if you feel such laws and views are plainly anachronistic and inhumane that perhaps then so is your god...and if your god is such then perhaps, just perhaps, he doesn't exist.

Now go and marvel at what science has achieved in the last few days and take a look at the pictures being beamed back from Mars (and wait for the first Muslim miracle seeker to claim he can see the word Allah written in the Martian dust...)


  1. The Huda punishments you make reference to here have been widely (by obviously liberal religious authorities), been deemed to be "maximum punishments" for which there are no acceptable circumstances to be applied today; rendering them effectively suspended. There is no need to change the actual wording of the Quran, this is a red herring in your argument that completely skirts the fact of what "reading in context" actually means.

  2. Maz, Thank you for your comment. So liberal Muslims would never deem it acceptable to chop off the hands of a thief? But surely this DOES require considerable change to the words of the Qur'an which are very clear on the matter. And even if these are "maximum punishments for which there are no acceptable circumstances" then surely you are admitting that the Qur'anic rules are irrelevant to us today.
    I'm glad that there are those in the Islamic community who regard the cruel and unusual punishments mandated in the Qur'an as outdated and "effectively suspended". If they are regarded as such today, did not previous victims of these punishments also deserve to be treated humanely? Just because a human being happens to be born in a different era should we regard their right to decent treatment as somehow worth less?
    If it is wrong now to crucify someone for spreading sedition, surely it was wrong then? Remember, we are not talking about rules made by fallible humans but rules made by the perfect creator, supposedly for all time.
    Are you suggesting that humans know better than God? As an atheist I delight in such a notion (since God does not exist) but as a Muslim you must surely disagree.

  3. When you talk about reading in context, I'm assuming you mean that the context which must be considered is the society within which one is interpreting these verses. Amputation of a limb in response to theft would today be obviously considered a wholly disproportionate and fundamentally *unjust* punishment, because as a society we have other means of reliably dispensing justice (a civil court system governed by tort law, a reliable prison system etc.)

    Whatever you may think of Sharia (and I certainly think it is inappopriate and indeed contrary to its inherent tenets that it should be imposed on a multi-confessional society in order to override secular law), the fact is that it was a major improvement in justice over the tribal laws and codes which governed the world at the time of its imposition. You argue that those previously governed at that time were victims, when in fact for the overwhelming majority of people these laws were a massive improvement in their rights. In fact, there are still many places in the world where the law of the state is subordinate to tribal custom that Sharia would today be a major improvement; for instance many parts of rural Pakistan where fundamentally un-Islamic rules govern, exemplified by the ruling which sentenced Mukhtar Mai to gang rape as recompense for a grievance.

    There is a difference between letter vs. intent of law, when you look at the intent of Sharia in its imposition it was about the furtherance of justice; the letter is always subsumed to this broader purpose. That Islamic jurisprudence even exists is a testament to the necessity of re-reading within context. Does someones hand need to be cut to provide justice for theft today in a society which has more advanced and precise means of adminstering justice? I'd argue not and I think you'd agree; and you're still following the exhortation to progressive justice which one (without their mind already made up) can perceive in the Sharia.

  4. Maz,
    I cannot see an exhortation to progressive justice in the rules and punishments detailed in the Qur'an.
    Like so many Muslims, my friend included, you resort to comparators to justify the Sharia - saying, for example, that Islamic punishments represented an improvement for the rights of many in tribal societies. That's as may be (although I doubt those who were crucified for sedition or stoned for sodomy or executed for daring to leave the fold of Islam would have agreed) but it is beside the point. The fact is that Islam (like Christianity and Judaism) takes for itself the role of final and absolute arbiter. There is no suggestion, not one ayat, that the rules and regulations that have so shocked modern sensibilities are temporary or to be read in the context of desert tribes. In fact, Allah goes out of his way to tell us that this is the FINAL revelation for ALL mankind.
    Can you give any reference that suggests we are to adapt the rules to suit our circumstances?
    By the way - I haven't made my mind up, as you suggest. What advantage would there be for me to have done so, given the appalling torture awaiting me if I'm wrong and the delightful (?) treats in store if I change my mind? Is it not more likely that Muslims are the ones who have closed their minds because they have nothing to lose by doing so?
    This is the killer punch of religion, isn't it? God threatens an eternity of unspeakable torture if you fail to believe that a merciful omnipotent creator would be capable of such things.
    Or what if you're worshiping the wrong God and you have to justify believing in the one that delights in promising he will burn 5 billion souls for ever and ever...
    "And your reason, my son? Did you REALLY think that I'd threaten such a thing?" "Well,..I er...thought they obviously deserved it... and I fancied getting into the giant orgy in the sky."

  5. Well it is not a matter of debate that these were an improvement - if I neglected to include it in my initial response these types of, to our eyes, draconian, punishments were conducted during pre-Islamic times and still occur in large scale in societies which are still in an effective state of jahilliya. What is of concern is the benefit that it brought to the overwhelming mass of people; people complain about overly conservative univesral Islamic dress codes today whereas during pre-Islamic Arabia women did not even have the right to wear *any* clothing lest they be of a specified class or status. Not to mention the racial justice given in Muhammad (pbuh)'s final sermon, a level of progressivism and tolerance unheard of during its time -- not an immediate cure all to the moral dysfunctions of that society as such a thing is impossible but a exhortation to future progressive behaviour.

    You have picked upon something (punishments) which is not a central aspect of Islam. None of the 5 pillars includes anything about punishing disbelievers or others types of "transgressors". Far more numerous are calls to enjoin good and forbid evil, and a far stronger case can be made that this is the message of the Quran than can be made that it was a handbook for punishing perceived social outsiders. The Quran does say that those who are Jews, Christians, Sabians (others), who live righteous lives will have nothing to fear and may be equals in Jannah with their Muslim peers. On top of this are very explicit exhortations to use reason when interpreting the Quran:

    Say (O Prophet): "This is my way: Resting upon conscious insight accessible to reason, I am calling you all unto God - I and they who follow me. " (12:108)

    Behold, God enjoins justice, and the doing of good and generosity towards (one's) fellow-men, and He forbids all that is shameful and all that runs counter to reason, as well as envy; (and) He exhorts you (repeatedly) so that you might bear (all this) in mind. (16:90)

    And I could go on. A disbeliever is not one who does not believe a literal interpretation of the Quran nor one who follows another religious doctrine which promotes justice and goodwill; rather one who defies the fundamental Quranic tenet of justice towards mankind. These (IMHO) are the ones who would be the recepients of harsh divine justice where they have robbed others of justice on earth.

  6. By the way I'm not trying to antagonize you, nor am I prideful or unaware of the gross failures which the religious establishment have contributed to in Muslim societies over the past several centuries.

    1. Not antagonized at all, Maz.
      Interesting that you specify a non-believer as not one who follows another RELIGIOUS doctrine which promotes justice and goodwill.
      So those of us who see, despite thinking long and hard about it, no reason to believe in a supernatural creator, but who still lead good lives, work for charity organisations or nurse or teach etc. and live by the Golden Rule WILL be treated as non-believers and thus suffer an eternity of excruciating agony?
      I don't dispute that there are many inspiring surahs in the Qur'an. But surely that is no reason to devote one's life to worshiping their author? There must be more to convince us of the divine origin of a supposed holy text. One of those criteria is surely whether it is perfect in its message. The fact that the Qur'an contains so many prescriptions for cruel and unusual punishments is therefore entirely relevant to the discussion. The punishments may not be one of the pillars of Islam but the very fact of their presence in a supposedly divinely inspired text renders it, in the eyes of so many modern readers, anachronistic and therefore of human origin.
      Whether or not the rules were an improvement on what went before I leave to other readers of rational islam to take up.

  7. No I did not mean that those who live good lives absent religion are among non-believers; when I said "those who don't believe a literal interpretation of the Quran" and specified that they are distinct from those who follow other religious traditions I was (by process of elimination) specifying those who are non-religious yet "just".

    I think there are many means to the same ends; which is justice and goodwill towards your fellow humans. I believe that Islam is a legitimate path, as are other spiritual and purely humanist traditions. I like Islam and choose to continue as a Muslim because I get a feeling of legitimate spiritual fulfilment out of my practice that may seem irrational and is certainly intangible yet I've come to the conclusion is real. I consider everyone regardless or religion or irreligion who is a good person to be equivalent to being a "fellow Muslim" - if I'm a minority in this feeling it is because for many reasons Muslim societies have fallen behind the rest of the world and have failed Islam; I personally do not believe that it is Islam that has inherently failed them.

  8. and on that wonderfully generous note I think we should end the discussion.
    I hope others who follow religions of any and all colours can be as tolerant.

  9. Very much enjoyed it, all the best.

  10. What I've been puzzled by time and time again, is why context must never be considered when the "nice" verses are mentioned (repeat offenders: 2:256, 5:32 etc), but always when the more troublesome ones come up (e.g. pick something random from surah 9)

    So, the next time someone says "but Muhammad says in sura 109 that 'Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion'" tell them that that cannot be generalized - it only applies to that particular historical context of the quarrels he had with the Meccans. You can't extrapolate and generalize. Sorry.

    The "Constitution of Mecca"? Sorry, that explicitly names the tribes which it covers and affects - you can't extrapolate.

    If 9:5, 9:29 etc must be "read in context", then the rest must be read in context also.

  11. Also, there are various verses the Quran that I've wondered about in relation to reform or moderate interpretations or re-interpretation.

    The Quran (i.e. Muhammad) spends a whole lot of time pointing out how some jews and christians corrupted their scriptures to their own benefit, and warns about anyone doing the same to the uncreated, eternal Quran. (i.e. hellfire)

    42:10 tells when people disagree, they must turn to Allah for the truth. How are you to reform anything of the scripture then? 4:59 also goes the same direction.. 33:36 agrees. 5:44 also warns what happens if you do not follow what Allah has determined to be the correct actions (it's the kind of thing unbelievers do).

    2:285 can in some ways be interpreted as all verses being just as valid as the next one, so how are you to reform by placing more value on certain verses? This can be seen in context of 2:216 that tells you that sometimes fighting is prescribed for you, even if it is bad. Sometimes the violent verses are valid, even if your own interpretation may differ.

    33:21, the well-known "example to follow" verse: you cannot be selective about which verses, hadiths or whatever to follow. Muhammad was the perfect example in all cases.

    5:101-102 could be interpreted as "asking too many questions (e.g. critical thinking leading to reform) = dangerous to the faith".

    12:2 says it's clear language, so it shouldn't be that hard to misunderstand anyhow, so why are you picking and chosing?

    Of course, some of these verses get different meaning when you read tafsirs, but that require that you trust them and their interpretation. The only way of knowing for sure would be through revelation, in which case you'd be a new prophet, and that's surely a problem.

    Are there any other verses that go along the same trend as the ones I've mentioned?

    1. Good points well made, Sp00x.
      The whole business of re-interpreting is hugely problematic.
      Despite the interesting debate above with Maz, I am yet to be convinced that the Qur'an is a tolerant and loving doctrine that happens to be interspersed, out of historico-societal necessity, with the occasional medieval torture-porn (which nonetheless represented a giant leap forward for its host societies).

  12. The Qur'an mentions lewdness 15 times in 14 verses. Verse 4:15 "lewdness" between men is interpreted by Yusef Ali to mean "unnatural acts between men," and "lewdness" of women is seen by him as the same for women, and I think that depends. Is sex between two loving, committed, consensual people ever lewd? No. Thus, homosexuality is not inherently lewd. Lewd, if you look up the definition, means offensive and crude. Perhaps if the two women and two men of 4:15 were doing it publicly and thus ignored the fact it is right to get the consent of others before exposing yourself to them in such a manner, but I think it means something else.
    Is curious, experimental sexual behavior of a playful and nonharmful nature ever lewd (offensive?). No (again, at least not privately). Molestation, and hazing in a sexual manner, are either of them "lewd"? Yes. They are offensive and harmful sexual acts, because they disregard consent and the ethic of doing no harm.
    The Qur'an says to put the offending women in houses until they die or until "Allah hath ordained something else." For men it says they should be "punished" unless they truly repent. At first glance this seems harsh and sexist for its double-standards of punishment.
    However, the vagueness of the word "punishment" for men means that men could be punished the same as women, and Allah "ordaining something else" for women could mean "until the women have been rehabilitated/truly repent"
    Putting the offending women in houses until they die could just be another way of saying "separate them, house them (away from each other), keep them apart until they die." A molester and their victim need to be kept apart to prevent any further harm from being done. Allah "ordaining something else" in the future could easily mean until the women have been clearly reformed and reconciled themselves to Allah on a personal level.
    The same with men repenting- that could be a sign of rehabilitation.

    So what Maz said makes sense to me, and I am glad I am not the only Allah lover who feels this way. The Qur’an says that all these harsh punishments can be abrogated if the offender repents (5:39). Today we have ways to help them repent, such as social work and psychology. And like the punishment for adultery and unmarried sex, where children being born to unmarried folks could financially ruin (not to mention ruin their name) a family, including the unborn child, “the majority holds that petty thieves are exempt from this punishment” (p. 259 Y. Ali translation’s commentary). It would have been a need for deterrence of stealing means of wealth from a family in a world of scarcity, the same reason why having a child when a family in a scarce environment is not ready for it is ruinous to their lives.

  13. My problem with adherents like Maz and Shep above is that they engage in such amazing mental gymnastics to make their religion and morality reconcile.

    Look at the passage above:

    . At first glance this seems harsh and sexist for its double-standards of punishment.
    However, the vagueness of the word "punishment" for men means that men could be punished the same as women, and Allah "ordaining something else" for women could mean "until the women have been rehabilitated/truly repent"

    What tasty apologia that was, wouldn't it just be a lot simpler and less mentally dissonant to just admit the obvious: "Hey, this is an anachronistic code designed to control and civilize near east desert tribes from centuries ago and has nothing to do with today's world, let's move on."

  14. I am trying to gain a better understanding of the Islam beliefs, as I am a Christian who is going to marry a Muslim. I myself have presented this fact in more than one way to this point. He has a great knowledge of Christianity and as well feels that we do not follow our own faith for similar reasons. I also am under the understanding that Muslims mud follow the laws of the land and therefore being in America these are not an option of punishment. People have evolved due to God's will no matter which of our religion's you follow because all things are of God so His hand would be the one that made these laws in a way. I don't agree with certain aspects of what I know thus far about Islam, but others are the same. I have come to find that Islam follows the old way so to speak of the teaching of the bible, more so focusing on the terror and hellfire to come for messing up as opposed to the compassionate, fair and amazing God that we both worship. In this day and age with all the horrible things we hear about daily, no matter which religion you are, I believe focus should be put more toward the good, because that is how the entire Islam religion has become such a horrible thing these days. If we are surrounded by killing and corruption then we won't run to what we at scared of, hence people are scared of Muslims in America, but go to safety and comfort. God gives good and bad, putting more focus on the great almighty God that I myself know, and others of both religions, would help people in their religious quest for knowledge which all people seek whether they choose to follow or not. Can focus be put toward the better so that perhaps more people will hear God's word no matter which place it comes from?