Critics of the Qur’an are often accused by its adherents of taking the book “out of context”. In actual fact, when we delve into the history of Islam, we find that there is no singular context for the Qur’an to be taken out of. This is reflected by the efforts of Muslim scholars in the ninth-century to retroactively assign meaning to the text, opaque and incoherent as it is. To quote Ibn Warraq in this regard:
The composition of Arabic grammars, the exegesis of the Koran, the elaboration of the theories of abrogation and the occasions of revelations (asbdb al-nuzut), the fabrication of hadith and the details of the life of the Prophet – all of these revealed the Muslims’ ignorance of the meaning of the Koran.
Indeed, if the early Muslims possessed a definitive understanding of the Qur’an, they would not have felt compelled to create one. In this article, we will draw upon the expertise of various Islamologists to briefly explore the artificial nature of Qur’anic exegesis – and thus, how taking the Qur’an out of context is an inherently meritless charge. As the German scholar Gerd R. Puin has so bluntly put it:
My idea is that the Qur’an is a kind of cocktail of texts that were not all understood even at the time of Muhammad. Many of them may even be a hundred years older than Islam itself. The Qur’an claims for itself that it is ‘mubeen’, or clear. But if you look at it, you will notice that every fifth sentence or so simply does not make sense… The fact is that a fifth of the Qur’anic text is just incomprehensible. If the Qur’an is not comprehensible, if it can’t even be understood in Arabic, then it’s not translatable into any language. That is why Muslims are afraid. Since the Qur’an claims repeatedly to be clear but is not – there is an obvious and serious contradiction. Something else must be going on.
This is especially important when it comes to the issue of terrorism. Contrary to the propaganda of ‘moderates’ and their political appeasers, Islamic terror is not about taking particular Qur’anic verses out of some imaginary fixed context: rather, it is a logical inference from the incessant demonisation of non-Muslims and non-believers which so defines the text. There are dozens of verses in the Qur’an which vilify “those who reject faith”1 and at least two dozen which communicate God’s orders to kill the unbelievers. The cumulative effect of these verses is an annihilatory mindset which no amount of sanitary interpretations can undo, and which no ex-Muslim has any difficulty understanding.
This general contempt for non-Muslims was deeply felt by Muhammad’s successors, whose penchant for ‘kuffar’ blood puts the lie to the apologist narrative, i.e. that the Qur’an only mandates a specific war against the idolaters of Mecca. The Islamic Conquests were predicated on the concept of dhimmitude: the belief in the inferiority of non-Muslims is what has spurred their subjugation. As for Muhammad himself, once he had consolidated his rule over Arabia, he wrote to the rulers of Persia and Rome telling them to accept Islam or be destroyed. Prior to this, he was busy wiping out the Jewish and Christian tribes who dared to reject his prophecy. This point is taken up superbly by Hamed Abdul-Samad:
As ex-Muslims, we completely reject the invocation of ‘context’ to distance the Qur’an from terrorism or violence. We say in full confidence that it is precisely because ISIS militants understand Islam that they are determined to become martyrs: for as the Qur’an plainly says, those who barter the present life for the Hereafter will be given a magnificent reward (4:74). Their genocide of Yazidis, Christians, the Druze, and others is entirely consistent with the dehumanisation of non-Muslims and non-believers in the faith. They are perhaps the most faithful Muslims going: for in spreading the deen by the sword, they are continuing the hallowed mission of the Prophet Muhammad and his successors.
The Myth of a Set Context
In September 1996, the Ibn Khaldun Society was launched in London as an independent forum for moderate Muslims. At the inaugural conference, the participants reached, among others, the following conclusions:
Muslims must become independent of tradition. Just as our forebears found their own way, Muslims today must find theirs. In the process, they need to re-evaluate the Islamic tradition… The only reliable and relevant source of faith is the Qur’an. Muslims need new scientific research into the Qur’an, and a re-examination of the Qur’anic message and its meaning in the 21st century.2
All moderate Muslims would undoubtedly endorse these laudable goals, but one wonders how many of them realise how much their putative understanding of the Qur’an rests entirely on Islamic traditions. For all Muslims, much of the Qur’an remains incomprehensible without the commentaries; that is the very reason why there are so many of them. As Fred Leemhuis has put it:
The more of the Qur’an that became obscure in the course of time, the more of it became provided with an explanation.3
Indeed, Qur’anic exegesis has tended to be tafsir bi’l-ma’thur (interpretation following tradition), rather than tafsir bi’l-ra’y (interpretation by personal opinion). Tabari’s great work, Jami’ al-bayan fi ta’wil al-Qur’an, is full of exegetical hadith, where the Prophet gives his explanation of various obscure verses. Similarly, Ibn Kathir advises that if we are unable to elucidate some passage of the Qur’an using another, then we must examine the prophetic sunnah – and if that fails, then we must resort to the sayings of Muhammad’s companions (sahabah).4
However, if we accept the negative conclusions of Goldziher, Schacht, Wansborough, Crone and Cook about the authenticity of the hadith in general, then we must be equally sceptical of those concerning exegesis of the Qur’an. It is Muslim tradition that has unfortunately saddled us with the fiction that such and such verse in the Qur’an was revealed at such and such time during Muhammad’s ministry. As early as 1861, the Reverend J.M. Rodwell wrote the following in his preface to the translation of the Qur’an:
It may be considered quite certain that it was not customary to reduce to writing any traditions concerning Muhammad himself for at least the greater part of a century. They rested entirely on the memory of those who have handed them down, and must necessarily have been coloured by their prejudices and convictions, to say nothing of the tendency to the formation of myths and to actual fabrication, which early shews itself, especially in interpretations of the Koran, to subserve the purposes of the contending factions of the Umayyads and Abbasids…
Traditions can never be considered as at all reliable, unless they are traceable to some common origin, have descended to us by independent witnesses, and correspond with the statements of the Koran itself – always of course deducting such texts as (which is not infrequently the case) have themselves given rise to the tradition. It soon becomes obvious to the reader of Muslim traditions and commentators that both miracles and historical events have been invented for the sake of expounding a dark and perplexing text; and that even the earlier traditions are largely tinged with the mythical element.5
The above passage is a remarkable anticipation of the works not only of Ignaz Goldziher, but also Henri Lammens. The former showed by 1890 the entirely spurious and tendentious nature of the hadith; the latter how it is the Qur’an that has generated all the details of the life of the Prophet, and not vice-versa:
On the fabric of the Koranic text, the hadith has embroidered its legend, being satisfied with inventing names of additional actors presented or with spinning out the original theme… One begins with the Koran while pretending to conclude with it.
Muslim tradition has often been able to do this because of the vague way in which events are referred to in the Qur’an, leaving open the possibility of any interpretation that Muslim exegetes care to embroider. Michael Schub argues that the traditional interpretation of verse 9:40 is suspect, and is more likely derived from the Old Testament – specifically, 1 Sam. 23:16. To quote the man:
Faithful Muslims will forever believe that Qur’an IX.40: “If ye help him not, still Allah helped him when those who disbelieve drove him forth, the second of two; when they two were in the cave, when he said unto his comrade: ‘Grieve not. Lo! Allah is with us.’ Then Allah caused His peace of reassurance to descend upon him and supported him with hosts ye cannot see, and made the word of those who disbelieved the nethermost, while Allah’s word it was that became uppermost. Allah is mighty, wise” refers to the Prophet Muhammad and Abu Bakr, although not one word of the Qur’anic text supports this.6
A. Rippin has also argued that certain passages in the Qur’an that are traditionally interpreted as referring to Muhammad are not necessarily historical. Citing Surah ad-Dhuha, Rippin states that
There is nothing absolutely compelling about interpreting it in light of the life or the lifetime of Muhammad. The ‘thee’ [in verse 3: “The Lord has neither forsaken thee nor hates thee”] of this passage does not have to be Muhammad. It certainly could be, but it does not have to be… All the elements in the verses are motifs of religious literature (and indeed, themes of the Qur’an) and they need not be taken to reflect historical reality as such, but rather, could well be understood as the foundational material of monotheist religious preaching.7
One of Rippin’s conclusions is that
The close correlation between the sirah and the Qur’an can be taken to be more indicative of exegetical and narrative development within the Islamic community rather than evidence for thinking that one source witnesses the veracity of another. To me, it does seem that in no sense can the Qur’an be assumed to be a primary document in constructing the life of Muhammad. The text is far too opaque when it comes to history; its shifting referents leave the text in a conceptual middle for historical purposes.8
As the Qur’an is not quite as “mubeen” (clear) as it claims to be, Muslim scholars have looked to the hadith literature to understand it. However, the hadith poses its own set of major problems, not least when it comes to determining authenticity. The result has thus been countless volumes of Qur’anic exegesis varying in their conclusions. This is what makes it absurd to charge critics of the Qur’an with taking the book out of context: for if there is no universal context, then by definition, nothing can be taken out of it.
1. In Islam, Muhammad is the final and most important messenger of Abrahamic monotheism. Thus, in their rejection of him, Jews and Christians are included among “those who reject faith”, worthy of subjugation. This is made explicitly clear by verse 9.29, which we quoted at the outset.
2. TransState Islam, Special Double Issue (spring 1997): 23.
3. F. Leemhuis, ‘Origins and Early Development of the Tafsir Tradition’, in Approaches to the History of the Interpretation of the Qur’an, edited by A. Rippin (Oxford, 1988), page 14.
4. J.D. McAuliffe, ‘Qur’anic Hermeneutics: The Views of al-Tabari and Ibn Kathir’, in Approaches to the History of the Interpretation of the Qur’an, edited by A. Rippin (Oxford, 1988), pages 46-62.
5. Reverend J.M. Rodwell, The Koran Translated (1861; reprint by E.P Dutton, 1921), page 7.
6. M. Schub, ‘Dave and the Knave in the Cave of the Brave’, ZAL 38 (2000): pages 88-90.
7. A. Rippin, ‘Muhammad in the Qur’an: Reading Scripture in the 21st Century’, in The Biography of Muhammad: The Issue of the Sources, edited by H. Motzki (2000), pages 299-300.
8. Ibid., page 307.