Islam and Its Text

James Snell

Literalism can have serious problems. Difficulties set in after time has elapsed; vernaculars change, as do legal definitions, customs, and attitudes. The eighteenth century is sufficiently far away for issues to arise as to the meaning of the Second Amendment to the Constitution (which, as a European, I find distinctly mystifying). This document has no claim to divine authority, to being the irrefutable and undeniable word of a deity, and yet is still prone to differing interpretations in the wake of new attitudes and concerns.

Much as the Founding Fathers could not conceive of automatic weaponry, tracts of theological invective dictated by seventh-century serfs cannot be relied upon to predict and complement the tangle of international laws regarding, say, the rights of women and homosexuals. Nor can this flawed origin be expected to settle all problems in a few volumes (be they derived from a higher power or not). The problem with Islam specifically is its refusal to accept the inevitable and drop its claim of immortal infallibility for its holy books.

Other faiths, moved by a tide of progressive pluralism and scientific development, were forced to concede long ago that their holy texts did not hold all the answers. They moved their scriptures from the bracket of unquestioned paper tyrants to a reclassification as documents steeped in metaphor and allusion. They gave up the status of divine conduit and became more human—shaped by their origins and seen largely as products of mere mammals instead of imagining that the biblical prophets acted as dictating secretaries of the Almighty.

They are still seen as holy scripture and inherently good in themselves, but this facade is being chipped away and certainty no longer reigns unchallenged. We are told that context is important when studying religious texts: Leviticus is able to get away with not only calling for the murder of homosexuals (20:13: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them.”), but only verses later, it commands that a similar fate should befall wizards (20:27: “A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones: their blood shall be upon them.”). The latter is used as a perverse justification for the existence of the former: “See how primitive they were; surely they cannot be expected to uphold modern values!” Despite this being pathetic justification in the face of years of persecution borne by brave people who merely did not agree or had different sexual predilections, it is also a cop-out. Surely God’s messengers would have known not to put all queers to the sword?

These quotations are now seen as barbaric and superstitious nonsense, as they should be. But why does Islam still persist in teaching the infallibility of its texts of choice? It is not like they don’t also contain similarly irrational bursts of incitement to kill and maim; see, for example, Qur’an 9:123: “O you who believe! Fight those of the unbelievers who are near to you and let them find in you hardness; and know that Allah is with those who guard (against evil)” or 25:52: “Therefore listen not to the Unbelievers, but strive against them with the utmost strenuousness, with the (Qur’an).” Couched in the euphemistic language of “strive against,” it is hard to pin down an absolute meaning, though it seems highly unlikely that mere healthy competition was intended.

Only a few decades ago, it was still commonplace for religions to promote their supremacy against those who revered a different prophet or read a different book. Now they have dissolved into a cabal for mutual defense. Hence we see humbled leaders of many churches lining up to make claims about the strength of interdenominational and even interfaith bonds. With the continued toning-down of rhetoric, there is swelling acceptance that all faiths are different paths to the same divinely ordained end. While wishy-washy and ironic, coming as it does from the same pulpits that had rung with the call to slaughter others who would even translate their holy book, let alone use another one entirely, it is also odd: today’s ecumenical liberals shout their respect for Islam but seem unaware that it would happily see them all dead—and even encourages the pious to see that one through.

Islam teaches to kill apostates (Qur’an 4:89): “They but wish that ye should reject Faith, as they do, and thus be on the same footing (as they): But take not friends from their ranks until they flee in the way of Allah (From what is forbidden). But if they turn renegades, seize them and slay them wherever ye find them; and (in any case) take no friends or helpers from their ranks.” This is made even more poisonous by the doctrine that all people who are born, upon their birth, are automatically Muslims. The grave connotation is there. Technically, as it is written in the Qur’an and the hadiths, all of us who are alive and not Muslim should be punished by the death penalty. This is chilling and reflects the dictatorial nature of monotheism at its most raw.

With Muhammad being the last and final prophet, Islam features no centralized leadership to be consulted and to give official viewpoints. No leader commands the authority of, say, the papacy. This leaves the door open to populist, often self-appointed mullahs and other spiritual leaders to interpret the Qur’an and the hadiths. Two implications flow directly from this. The first is the brutal sectarianism between Islam’s two major offshoots: Sunni and Shi’a groups stand at each other’s throats battling over who, if anyone, should have been the Prophet’s successor.

The second is even more damaging. With only the archaic sayings of Muhammad extant and no later leader wielding like authority, modernizing the religion in any serious way has never been possible. Given that Islam’s earliest scripture proclaims its own immortality and eternal correctness, there seems little chance that future leaders will have the power, much less the textual backing, to retrieve the faith from the dark-age rut it has occupied since the deaths of Averres and other medieval Islamic scholars.

We are left with two possibilities:

  1. Allah is a cruel and vicious entity, creating people who know not of the Islamic religion and yet are guilty of a crime they cannot define and deserve death.
  2. As I posited earlier, the whole edifice of the faith is man-made, cobbled together after the death of the founder, with the hadiths simply continuing the ramshackle, barbaric narrative of punishment presented in the Qur’an.

Islam, if it wants to move away from the unthinking brutality of its recent past, would do well to revise its estimation of its scripture. In its current form it is arbitrary, brutal, sadistic, and a constant reminder of the folly of mankind’s narcissistic cosmological pretensions.


James Snell

James Snell is a British journalist and columnist for The Transnational Review who has written for The American Spectator, New Humanist, and Free Inquiry magazine. He is a Huffington Post UK blogger.

Literalism can have serious problems. Difficulties set in after time has elapsed; vernaculars change, as do legal definitions, customs, and attitudes. The eighteenth century is sufficiently far away for issues to arise as to the meaning of the Second Amendment to the Constitution (which, as a European, I find distinctly mystifying). This document has no …

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