Thoughts on the Quran

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The Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, Morocco

One thing that surprised me during the course of my travels in the Muslim world, especially, in the Middle East, is the pushback against the term “moderate Islam.” I suppose it shouldn’t have come as too much of a shock; after all, Islam literally means the total submission to God, and you can’t be moderately and totally devoted to something at the same time.

There is something uniquely powerful about the Quran. The power does not lay so much in the message as the form of its communication. It is not a story about the life of Muhammad or a collection of histories as is the New Testament, but, according to Muslims, the very word of God spoken directly to you. It is a rule book on how to live one’s life, and the personal nature of the Quran lends the book undeniable gravitas.

The fact that the Quran exists in the first person and is not a retelling like the various Gospels of the Bible is, undoubtedly, one of its greatest strengths. But it is also what makes the Quran an inflexible document. If the Quran truly is the word of God, and God is infallible than whatever is stated in the Quran is by its very definition the truth. This differs greatly from the Western Christian tradition, where the canon was determined by the Council of Rome. Because mortals (regardless of their alleged divine inspiration) composed and assembled the Bible, an opening has been left for criticism. With the Quran, there is little room for discrepancy.

Mansouri Great Mosque in Tripoli, Lebanon

This has led to some interesting problems. Take Surah 2:282, “If the debtor be weak of mind or body, or incapable of dictating, let his guardian dictate justly. And call upon two (Muslim) men among you as witnesses. If two men are not there, then let there be one man and two women, from among those of whom you approve as witnesses, that if either of the two women errs (through forgetfulness), the other may remind her.”

In the 8th century, commercial matters were almost universally the realm of men, and this verse would make sense. A woman would likely lack the literacy and practical knowledge required to act as a notary. At the time of Muhammad, a female notary would have been a progressive notion, but today this surah strikes most of the Western world as ridiculous. Even liberal-minded Islamic scholars are forced to defend the surah at face value, arguing that it only applies to limited circumstances and is not a commentary on a woman’s status but rather a confirmation of her unique role in society, hardly a comfort to today’s generation of feminists.

Another problem that is often raised by critics of Islam is its violent imagery, “We (God) have prepared for the wrongdoers a fire whose walls will surround them. And if they call for relief, they will be relieved with water like murky oil, which scalds [their] faces. Wretched is the drink, and evil is the resting place” (18:29). While the Bible is filled with similar passages, the Quran seems, particularly, preoccupied with punishment in the afterlife.

Burana Tower (minaret) in northern Kyrgyzstan

Yet, there is nothing in the Quran that compels Muslims to violence. Indeed, the Quran is quite explicit that force can only be used in self-defense, even against non-believers, “Fight in God’s cause against those who fight you, but do not overstep the limits: God does not love those who overstep the limits”( 2:190).

Furthermore, the Quran clearly indicates that it is not up to Muslims to pass judgment on non-believers. In fact, the very same surah detailing the horrible punishments awaiting sinners also states “The truth is from your Lord, so whoever wills – let him believe; and whoever wills – let him disbelieve.” (18:29). Judgment is reserved for God and God alone.

Islam is nothing if not demanding. The Quran does not allow one to pick and choose which passages to follow. You must either accept it all or, ultimately, reject it.  Which may be why, according to an excellent (if slightly outdated) 2008 poll, 21 percent of Lebanese who identified themselves as belonging to the Sunni community and 25 percent who belonged to the Shia community never attend mosque, compared with only 7 percent who identified as Christians.

But despite its rigidness, the Quran does contain a message of tolerance, and it is this tolerance that most Muslims practice precisely because Islam demands its. In the end, it is not religion that fans the flames of hate but society and the cultures that define it.

Did I get something wrong? Let me know in the comment section! I would love to hear from practitioners of Islam, specifically, those residing in the West. Is it a struggle to rectify the Quran with modern society?

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