by Ayaan Hirsi Ali



How Unquestioning Reverence for the Prophet and His Book Obstructs Reform

A key problem for Islam today can be summarized in three simplifying sentences: 

Christians worship a man made divine. 

Jews worship God through study of a book. 

And Muslims worship both God and a book.

Christians believe in the divinity of Jesus while also stating that the Christian Bible was written by men. Jews believe in the sanctity of the Torah, which they kiss and treat with reverence during their services; but they traditionally ascribe its authorship to Moses, a prophet who, like other Hebrew prophets, is presented as human and fallible. 

However, Muslims believe in both the superhuman perfection of Muhammad and the literal truth and sanctity of the Qur'an as the direct revelation of God. Indeed, while even Orthodox Jewish rabbis argue that it is impossible to defile the Torah, Muslims believe the opposite—so much so that the charge of disrespecting Muhammad or the Qur'an is enough to incite violent protests, riots, and, frequently, death.

For example, erroneous charges in 2005 that U.S. guards had flushed a Quran down the toilet in the Guantanamo Bay detention center resulted in violent riots in many Muslim nations. Seventeen people died in Afghanistan in the ensuing rage and frenzy. 

More recently, in November 2014, a Christian man and his wife living in Lahore, Pakistan, were beaten and burned alive in a brick kiln after they were accused of burning pages of the Quran. (The couple protested their innocence.) 

Likewise, a series of twelve satirical cartoons depicting the Prophet, which were published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005, triggered a paroxysm of outrage across the Muslim world that resulted in more than two hundred reported deaths as well as attacks on Western embassies.

These episodes reflect a key distinction between the West and the Muslim world. While an irreverent approach to religious figures and beliefs is tolerated and even encouraged in Western societies, Muslims regard any "insult" to the Prophet or the Qur'an as deserving the ultimate penalty. And this is not an extreme position. As I mentioned earlier, as a teenager I myself unthinkingly agreed that Salman Rushdie deserved to die for writing a novel that very few people in the Muslim world, myself included, had read.

To understand the roots of the problem, and why I believe that it is not in fact insoluble, we need to reexamine Islam's two most sacred elements: its Prophet, and its holy book. 

Muslims need to understand Muhammad as a real man, in the context of his times, and the Qur'an as a historically constructed text, not as a divine instruction manual for life today.

Who Was Muhammad?

He is the greatest lawgiver of all time. The revelations he received, along with the facts of his life, form the foundation of a legal code that governs hundreds of millions of people. 

Yet scholars cannot agree on which year or on which date he was born. The most commonly accepted time is 570 years after the birth of Jesus Christ. His father died before he arrived in the world; by the age of six he had become an orphan. An uncle raised him. He met his first wife when she hired him to act as her commercial agent on a trading mission to Syria. A servant informed her that two angels had watched over the young agent as he slept, and that he had rested under a tree that was known to offer shade only "to prophets."

The young agent was twenty-five, his employer was forty. It was his first marriage and her third, and she initiated the wedding proposal. It would be another fifteen years before the words that would eventually become the Quran were first revealed to him. His wife, Khadija, was his first convert.

Over the next twenty-two years, the man known as Muhammad would establish the world's last great religion, create an intertwined religious, political, and legal order, and plant the seeds of an empire that would stretch from the Asian steppes to northern Africa and up through the Iberian peninsula. 

Today, more than a billion people profess their faith by saying the Shahada—"There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His messenger." In nearly fourteen hundred years, that message has remained unchanged.

What made this message revolutionary was not simply the belief in one God, as opposed to the worship of many. This was hardly original, and indeed Muhammad presented his religion as the extension and fulfillment of the monotheistic revelations of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. 

What made Islam revolutionary was its vast scope, extending well beyond theology. Islam, as Muhammad devised it, is not simply a religion or a system of worship. It is, as the social anthropologist Ernest Gellner has put it, "the blueprint of a social order."1 In its very name, "Islam" means submission. You subsume yourself to an entire system of beliefs. The rules as set down are precise and exacting.


Islam became so multifaceted and all-encompassing in part because Muhammad and Islam were a prophet and a faith for their place and time. Muhammad is usually understood in his familiar roles as warrior and prophet. But it is in some ways more revealing and interesting to view him in another role— that of a tribal leader. Muhammad's achievement in this capacity was to create a new religiously based community out of the loosely organized elements of tribal Arab society. In short, he was as much the founder of a "supertribe" as a religious and military figure.

There is general agreement that Muhammad existed, though little is known for certain of his life. But while we cannot verify the facts of his biography, what can be surmised is that he was a product of the kin-based social order that then prevailed throughout the Middle East.

Before Islam, there was kinship. Families, clans, and tribes are the basis of organization in all pre-state societies. The basic social unit is the lineage, a group of families united by their descent from a common ancestor. Each family is part of a lineage; many lineages make up a clan; many clans make up a tribe. All in turn are thought to be descended from a single (mythological or sem-idivine) founder.

But while they are united by the fiction of common de-scent, these kin groups are decentralized and fractious, frequently driven by feuds that can go on for generations. Strong leadership is needed to unite them if they are not to degenerate (as they did in the West) into mere shared names with next to no bonds of mutual allegiance. This was the case in Muhammad's time. It was still the case fourteen hundred years later when T. E. Lawrence united the Bedouin tribes against the Turks in World War I. It was also true of my own native Somali environment.

In this world of shifting interests and allegiances, tribal leaders arise through personal qualities of strength, cunning, and innate magnetism. The tribal leader plays many roles: he is lawgiver and judge, businessman, war chief, and head of the tribe's religious cult. He is also a source of patronage and distributes the bounty of commerce and war. Honor and personal loyalty (often reinforced by strategic marriages) are the primary bonds that support the tribal leader and hold the system together. Based on what we know of him from Islamic sources, Muhammad fulfilled all these roles. He transcended tribal disorder by claiming the leadership position for himself alone and demanding complete submission.

We are told that Muhammad was born a member of the Banu Hashim clan of the Quraysh, a powerful mercantile tribe that controlled the Arabian trade routes through Mecca. The Quraysh were a typical corporate kin group: subdivided into many clans, the tribe was itself a subdivision of the larger Banu Kinanah tribe. All these clans and tribes were loosely united by their supposed descent from the mythical wanderer Ishmael. This gave them a remote connection to the Jewish descendants of Abraham. It is therefore not an accident that the new Islamic "supertribe" incorporated Abraham and Jesus into its lineage.

The Quraysh rose to prominence when a tribal leader named Qusai ibn Kilab obtained control of the Kaaba, an ancient pagan shrine that attracted numerous pilgrims. This was a lucrative franchise and Qusai ibn Kilab placed family members in control of it, distributing responsibilities (and profits) among the clans of his tribe. Their rivalries continued, however, apparently growing more intense during Muhammad's lifetime.

Muhammad was a religious revolutionary who introduced Abrahamic monotheism into a polytheistic culture. Arabs at that time believed in a supreme deity but also in various lesser gods or tribal deities. Mecca was the center of this polytheistic system. Muhammad's revelation attracted many followers but also drew opposition from powerful clan leaders, whose authority (and income) relied on control of the pilgrimage trade.

In Mecca, Muhammad preached what in today's terms was a religion: prayer to one God, charitable contributions, and the like. The rejection of his message by the polytheists is etched into Islam as a period of persecution of Muslims. 

To this day, followers of Muhammad's example who encounter the slightest resistance to their preaching speak of persecution.

In 622, these rivals drove Muhammad and his small Muslim community out of Mecca. Muhammad fled to Medina, where he built up his power base through alliances with larger tribes such as the Bakr and Khuza'a. Strategic marriages strengthened his ties with these clans; he himself married the daughters of Abu Bakr and Umar, while Uthman and Ali (Muhammad's cousin) married his daughters. 

Thus he had family ties with the first four caliphs who succeeded him after his death. 

During this time Muhammad also promulgated a comprehensive system of moral and political rules, known as the Constitution of Medina, which served to unite the tribes in a community of faith and practice. It was at this point that many tribal practices became an integral part of what evolved to become sharia.

Eight years later, having assembled a large army (known as the Prophet's Companions), Muhammad marched on the Quraysh, who are said to have surrendered without a fight. He then returned to Mecca, married the daughter of the head of the Quraysh, and proceeded to incorporate the other tribes of the Arabian Peninsula into the new Islamic community.

After Muhammad died in 632, a series of lightning conquests by his successors extended Muslim control over an enormous territory—one of the largest empires the world had ever seen. 

These conquests were extremely brutal and the conquered populations were given a stark choice: convert, die, or (if they were Jews or Christians) accept second-class status as taxpaying dhimmi. Most chose conversion and were incorporated wholesale into the growing Muslim supertribe or ummah. Yet in many ways the social psychology of Islam remained that of a persecuted tribe, with a powerful "insider/ outsider" mentality.

During Muhammad's lifetime, tribal and nationalistic differences within the Islamic community were strongly discouraged. After his death, however, clan rivalries reemerged to shape dynastic struggles in the Caliphate. The Quraysh claimed control and supplied the first three ruling dynasties: the Uma-yyad, Abbasid, and Fatimid. The Sunni/Shia split was originally a war of succession between two rival lineages—unlike the schisms of Christianity, as we have already noted, it was initially not theological in nature. The passions aroused by this ancient tribal blood feud still divide the Muslim world today.


Medina welcomed Muhammad in part because the local tribal leaders believed their feuding residents might be able to unite around his teachings. Islam would defuse the discord within the city and become a rallying cry against enemies outside. Thus, from the start, Muhammad entered Medina charged not just with spreading his religious message, but also with creating a political order.

The other monotheistic religions were different. The Torah was recorded long after the kingdom of Israel had fallen into ruins. 

(NOT TRUE - Keith Hunt)

Christian doctrine evolved over centuries, always in the context of a preexisting Roman Empire, one of the strongest polities of the entire premodern period. 


In Islam, by contrast, the Qu'an was revealed in tandem with its rise and early conquests. In fact, Muhammad's empire began to take shape before all of the verses were compiled in one book. Thus, for Islam, faith and power were from the outset intertwined—indeed inseparable.


Muhammad himself differed in a crucial way from Abraham and Jesus. He was not only a prophet but also a conqueror. He is said to have personally led numerous military campaigns and raiding expeditions. Sahih Muslim, one of the six major authoritative hadith collections, claims he undertook no fewer than nineteen military expeditions, personally fighting in eight of them.2 

Nor did he hesitate to mete out violent reprisals or to enjoy the spoils of war. In the aftermath of the 627 Battle of the Trench, for example, "Muhammad felt free to deal harshly with the Banu Qurayza, executing their men and selling their women and children into slavery."3 

In this way the Prophet became a conquering chieftain. Thus the Qur'an declares, "O Prophet! We have made lawful to thee thy wives to whom thou hast paid their dowers; and those whom thy right hand possesses [slaves] out of the prisoners of war whom Allah has assigned to thee" (33:50).4 

(It is, of course, passages such as these that groups like Islamic State or Boko Haram use to justify their actions.)


From a Muslim Reformer's perspective, one of the main problems with Islam is that the tribal military and patriarchal values of its origins were enshrined as spiritual values, to be emulated in perpetuity. The Quran emphasizes that all Muslims form one community of believers, the ummah (2:143). Although this community superseded prior tribal allegiances, the new religion retained many traditional tribal customs and enshrined them as religious values. 

These values pertain especially to honor, male guardianship of women, harshness in war, and the death penalty for leaving Islam. As Philip Salzman explains, "Seventh-century Arab tribal culture influenced Islam and its adherents' attitudes toward non-Muslims. Today, the embodiment of Arab culture and tribalism within Islam impacts everything from family relations, to governance, to conflict."5

Prior to the rise of Islam, Arab tribes had fought one another, through raiding expeditions and perpetual feuds. Salzman notes that Islam imposed a measure of unity while retaining the traditional tribal habit of the feud "by opposing the Muslim to the infidel, and the dar al-Islam, the land of Islam and peace, to the dar al-harb, the land of the infidels and conflict."6 

What had been tribal raiding now "became sanctified as an act of religious duty": holy war, or jihad.7 

What mattered to Muslims was conquering as much territory as possible and bringing it under Islamic sovereignty, ruled through Islamic holy law.8


Muhammad also left behind—true to tribal form— detailed instructions on the division of the bounty gained by Muslim troops through conquest. In Qur'an 8:1 such spoils of war are legitimized. The hadith are full of detailed instructions on what are really norms of tribal conquest. In the authoritative collection Sahih Bukhari alone, there are more than four hundred stories describing military expeditions led by the Prophet Muhammad, and more than eighty stories containing instructions on the appropriate division of booty.9 These various residues of tribalism matter because even if Islam is reformed, they are likely to persist. A separation of religion from politics—a distinction between Mecca and Medina—would not do away with the problems created by these inherited tribal norms.

The Honor/Shame Dynamic

Among the most crucial features of the tribal system institutionalized by Islam is the concept of honor. 

This requires careful explanation for Western readers, whose understanding of terms like "family" and "honor" is fundamentally different. The family structure to keep in mind is an extended kinship group (or clan) whose numbers are increased through practices such as polygamy and child marriage. By having boys marry when they are as young as fifteen or sixteen, the space between generations shrinks, and the number of descendants grows. This kind of family is much like an old talal tree, with a deep main root, a solid stem, and myriad branches. Leaves bud, grow, and fall off; branches may be cut and new ones take their place; but the tree stands. Each of its components is dispensable, but the tree itself is not. That is the most important "family value" instilled into children. The individual barely registers in this scheme.

Each person within the kinship group has value to the tribe as a whole, but certain members are more valuable than others: young men who can go into battle to defend their kin are more useful than young girls or old women. Marriageable girls are more highly valued than older women because they are necessary to produce sons, and can also be traded. Each family's worst nightmare is to be uprooted and destroyed. Given all the possibilities for destruction, the longer a kinship group survives, the stronger it is. Families draw a sense of pride from their history of resilience, passed on through oft-repeated stories and poems about the bloodline.

That pride was what made my grandmother teach me my line of descent back so many generations and hundreds of years. She made it clear to me that it was the duty of young people not only to bask in the inherited glory of their bloodline, but also to maintain it above all else, even if that might cost them their property or their lives. I was also taught to regard anyone outside the bloodline with extreme wariness.

Before Islam was founded, the various extended families of Arabia collaborated and also competed through a network of complex commercial and marital alliances, sometimes allying in battle, sometimes fighting against one another. In this world, conflicts within the clan had to be defused as quickly as possible to preserve the image of strength; infighting would lead to the perception of weakness and make the clan vulnerable to attack. 

Honor was all-important. Anyone who insulted or humiliated the bloodline must be punished. If one man killed another, for example, the victim's father, brother, uncle, cousin, or son must take revenge, to uphold the clan's honor. And this revenge might be inflicted not just on the killer, but also on his entire family.

Anthropologists since Ruth Benedict's study of Japan in World War II have made a distinction between shame cultures and guilt cultures. In the former, social order is maintained by the inculcation of a sense of honor and shame before the group. If our behavior brings discredit on our tribe, it may punish or even expel us. 

In a guilt culture, by contrast, a person is taught to discipline himself by means of his own conscience—sometimes backed up by the threat of punishment in the life to come. Most Western societies went through a thousand-year transformation from shame to guilt, a process that coincided with the gradual breakup of tribal family structures. Europeans underwent a long process of detribalization, beginning with subjection to Roman law, conversion to Christianity, the imposition of monarchical rule over baronial power, and the gradual rise of nation-states with their concept of individual citizenship and equality before the law. 

The Arab world in which Islam first triumphed did not undergo a similar transition. As Antony Black writes in The History of Islamic Political Thought, "Muhammad created a new monotheism fitted to the contemporary needs of tribal society."10 

The effect was to perpetuate tribal norms by freezing them in place as holy writ. Arabs could see themselves as "the chosen people" with "a mission to convert or conquer the world." According to Muhammad, each of the great monotheistic religions was an ummah—a community or nation defined by its adherence to the teachings of its prophet. 

Jews were defined as an ummah through their adherence to the book of Moses. Christians were an ummah united by adherence to the teachings of the prophet Jesus. 

The Islamic ummah, however, was meant to supersede these other groups. Within the ummah, all Muslims were brothers and sisters. Yet this notion did not displace the older ties of the bloodline. As it is set down in the Quran: "Blood relations among each other have closer personal ties in the Decree of Allah than (the Brotherhood of) Believers" (33:6). Despite the rise of a pan-Islamic religious identity in which all individuals notionally submitted to Allah, Islam therefore retained elements of the shame culture.

From its origins as a new faith community, Islam had the overwhelming need to remain unified or risk reverting back to tribal fragmentation. The first schism over the question of succession nearly led to the collapse of the religion. Within Islam, fitna—strife or disagreement—was therefore seen as fundamentally destructive. Dissent was a form of betrayal; heresy as well. 

These individualistic impulses had to be suppressed to preserve the unity of the larger community. Those who wonder at the ferocity of Islamic punishments for dissent fail to grasp the threat that skepticism and critical thinking were believed to pose.

In a clan setting, shameful behavior constitutes a betrayal of the bloodline. In the wider Islamic setting, heresy constitutes a comparable threat, as does outright unbelief—apostasy—both of which are punishable by death. Those who betray the faith must be weeded out to maintain the integrity of the ummah.

This belief in the danger of dissent has had powerful consequences, but perhaps the greatest has been to suppress innovation, individualism, and critical thinking within the Muslim world. 

Muhammad himself, as both the messenger of God and the founder of the Islamic "supertribe," is revered as an irreproachable source of wisdom and a model of behavior for all time. To question his authority in any way is considered an unacceptable affront to the honor of Islam itself.

It is not fashionable today in academic circles to discuss the legacy of Arab clan structures in the development of Islam. It is considered ethnocentric, if not downright orientalist, even to bring it up. But today the Middle East and the wider world are increasingly at the mercy of a combination of the worst traits of a patriarchal tribal society and unreformed Islam. And because of the taboos over what can and cannot be said—taboos backed up by the threat of violent reprisals—we are unable to have an open discussion of these issues.

The Sacrosanctity of the Qur'an

If Muhammad is unique among the prophets, the Qur'an is unprecedented among religious texts. Muslims today are taught that the Qur'an is a complete and final revelation that cannot be changed: it is literally God's last word.

The Qur'an and its related texts are the fundamental source of the Islamic veneration of the afterlife, as well as the call to jihad. They make explicit the concept of commanding right and forbidding wrong and the specific dictates of sharia. In turn, these concepts would not have such enduring power were they not so entwined with the belief in the timeless, all-powerful, and immutable words of Allah and the deeds of Muhammad. 

Until Islam can do what Judaism and Christianity have done—-question, critique, interpret, and ultimately modernize its holy scripture—it cannot free Muslims from a host of anachronistic and at times deadly beliefs and practices.


My first memories of the Qur'an are of my mother and grandmother kissing its cover, of the admonition never to touch it without having first washed my hands, and of sitting on the hot Somali ground as a small child of four or five while the book seemed to tower above us on a high shelf. As I memorized its verses, I was taught simply to obey it. The Qur'an, I learned, was the book sent down "explaining all things" (16:89). It had been revealed to Muhammad by Allah through the Angel Gabriel, beginning when Muhammad lived in Mecca and continuing when he moved to Medina. Gabriel spoke the words one by one to Muhammad, who in turn recited them before scribes. Islamic orthodoxy—not radical Islam, but mainstream Islamic doctrine—thus insists that the Qur'an is God's own word. Questioning any part of the Qur'an therefore becomes an act of heresy.


The Allah of my childhood was a fiery deity. "On the Day that the enemies of Allah will be gathered together to the Fire," it is written in chapter 41 of the Qur'an, "their hearing, their sight, and their skins will bear witness against them, as to (all) their deeds." Of Abu Lahab, Muhammad's uncle who persistently opposed Islam, it is said in chapter 111: "Burnt soon will he be in a Fire of Blazing Flame! His wife shall carry the (crackling) wood—As fuel!—A twisted rope of palm-leaf fiber round her (own) neck!" Fire is a recurring theme of the Qur'an, and the heat of the desert and the scalding sun, like the crackle of fires at night outside their tents, made these punishments exceedingly vivid to most Arabs, as well as to me. When my mother spoke of "hellfire," she would point to the flaming brazier in our kitchen and tell me: "You think this fire is hot? Now think about hell, where the fire is far, far hotter and it will devour you." The thought gave my sister nightmares. Small wonder I strove to submit to Allah's will.

Later, I learned what it was that made Allah different from the Christian God and Hebrew Yahweh. 


Allah is not a benevolent father figure, to be depicted in flowing robes with a white beard. In fact, Islam requires that neither God nor Muhammad be depicted in any physical form. Unlike the mosaics of medieval chapels or the frescoes of churches in the Renaissance, every Muslim house of worship from the Grand Mosque down has no human images, only geometric adornments featuring nothing more figurative than enormous flowering plants.

This abstract Allah also reigns supreme as the sole divinity; in Islam there is no Jesus-like son or Holy Ghost. Association of any other god or entity with Allah is considered shirk and is one of the gravest sins in Islam—punishable by death according to some scholars. 

The Qur'an pointedly says, "no son has [Allah] begotten, nor has He a partner in His dominion" (25:2). 

In Islam, Jesus is recognized as being in the tradition of major Old Testament prophets like Noah and Abraham, but Muhammad is revealed as the last and greatest prophet and the Qur'an is the last word spoken by God. According to Islamic teachings, each prophet up to and including Muhammad opened a window onto the unseen, but after Muhammad's death that window was declared shut until Judgment Day and the end of time. Muhammad was thus the bearer of the last word of God's revelation.11


In a similar way, Allah's imperatives for the faithful are not exhortations, such as love thy neighbor, or a covenant, as between God and the Jews, or even a wider moral code, like the Ten Commandments, which address everything from adultery to murder. Rather, first and foremost, Islam commands its followers to perform five religious duties, all of which remind the believers through word and deed that they must above all else submit to the faith and its rules:

1. Have faith in the one God, Allah, and Muhammad, His Prophet;

2. Pray five times a day;

3. Fast during the day for the entire ninth month of Ramadan;

4. Provide charity;

5. Make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime, if possible.


In its scripture, Islam is also fundamentally different. It places more emphasis on divine omnipotence and less on human free will. "God leads astray whom He will and guides whom He will," it is written. There is even a suggestion in the Qur'an that just as Allah has created what is good, He has also created evil. Chapter 25 says He "created all things, and ordered them in due proportions." This suggests that each person's fate and future have already been established.12

Of course, such concepts can also be found in some versions of Christianity. John Calvin was especially insistent on the idea of "double predestination," that God had already chosen who was damned and who saved. The difference is that throughout the history of Christianity there has been intense debate about the relationship between divine omnipotence and human agency. Early debates in Islamic history were eventually won by champions of a heavy determinism, both pertaining to the destiny of one's soul as well as to one's actions in this life.13 Thereafter, debate on these issues was effectively shut down by zealots who argued that asking such questions was akin to shirk, if not to heresy.


Perhaps the biggest problem with the Qur'an's unique status is the fact that the most violent Medina Muslims can find in holy writ justifications for everything they do. 


Consider the words of Tawfik Hamid, who was once a member of the same radical organization as the Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, but is now one of a new generation of Islamic reformers: "The literal understanding of Qur'an 9:29," he has said, "can easily be used to justify what it [Islamic State] is doing. 'Fight those who do not believe in Allah or in the Last Day and who do not consider unlawful what Allah and His Messenger have made unlawful and who do not adopt the religion of truth from those who were given the Scripture [Jews and Christians]—[fight] until they give the jizyah [payment of a tribute tax to Islamic authorities] willingly while they are humiliated.'"14

Hamid notes that the four main schools of Islamic jurisprudence agree that this verse means 

"that Muslims must fight non-Muslims and offer them the following choices: Convert to Islam, pay a humiliating tax called jizyah or be killed." Indeed, he adds, "A basic search of almost ALL approved interpretations for the Qur'an supports the same violent conclusion. The 25 leading approved Qur'an Interpretations (commentaries)—that are usually used by Muslims to understand the Qur'an—unambiguously support the violent understanding of the verse."15

Hamid's conclusion: while there are certainly many in Islam who are "moderate Muslims," the central truth is that until "leading Islamic scholars provide a peaceful theology that clearly contradicts the violent views of the IS," there will be only a limited space for such moderation.16

As the violence committed in the name of Islam is so often justified by the Qur'an, Muslims must be challenged to engage in critical reflection about their most sacred text. This process necessarily begins by acknowledging both its human composition and its numerous internal inconsistencies.

The Qur'an as Text

Muslims have generally shown little interest in subjecting the Qur'an to the same scientific, archaeological, and textual scrutiny the Bible has received.17 Yet respect for religious beliefs does not require us to suspend our own critical judgment where the Qur'an is concerned, any more than it does in the case of the Old or New Testaments.

Very little is definitely known about the Qur'an's early composition and little work on it was done until quite recently. 

Western scholars who have studied the Qur'an dispassionately have argued against the traditional Islamic narrative.18 One of the scholars who took a more critical approach toward early Islamic history was John Wansbrough, who challenged the traditional narrative in two books published in the 1970s, arguing that Islam was originally a Judeo-Christian sect.19

Fred Donner, a professor of Near Eastern studies at the University of Chicago, has argued that the Qur'an was originally an orally recited text, and its history in the years following Muhammad's death is "not clear." The survival of various ancient manuscripts indicates that the recitation of the early Qur'anic text "was far from uniform." An early collection of the verses may have been prepared under Caliph Abu Bakr and kept by Caliph Umar, but "it is not clear . . . whether this written collection was complete or not, nor whether it had any official status."20 An official text is said to have been prepared under Caliph Uthman (644-656), who ordered that competing versions of the Qur'an be destroyed.21 But in the city of Kufa one of Muhammad's companions, Abdallah Ma-sud, refused Uthman's order. Islamic tradition itself also contains evidence that the Qur'an we know today differs from the original text. The pious Caliph Umar warned Muslims against saying they know the whole Qur'an, because "much of it has disappeared."22

Western researchers have advanced several theories about the  Qur'an's composition.  

Gunter Luling believes that it reflects a combination of Christian texts that have been given a new Islamic meaning, and "original Islamic passages which had been added to the Christian ones." For Luling, the Quran is a composite work shaped by human hands and human editors. Gerd Puin's study of ancient manuscripts found in Yemen led him to conclude that the Qur'an is a "cocktail of texts," some of which may have predated Muhammad by a century.23 Christoph Luxenberg (a pseudonymous scholar) theorizes on the basis of linguistic analysis that there exists a gap of one and a half centuries between the Qur'an's first publication and the final editing process through which it received its traditional form.24 Fred Donner suggests another possibility: it may be a composite of different religious texts from various communities in Arabia. Certainly, there are significant variations in spelling in different versions of the Quran.25

What might have motivated people to compile a document like the Quran? Malise Ruthven offers the "revisionist theory":

that the religious institutions [of Islam] emerged at least two centuries after Muhammad's time, to consolidate ideologically, as it were, the Arab conquest. [This theory] would mean that the Arabs, anxious to avoid becoming absorbed by the more advanced religions and cultures of the peoples they conquered, cast about for a religion that would help them to maintain their identity. In so doing they looked back to the figure of the Arabian Prophet, and attributed to him the reaffirmation of an ancient Mosaic code of law for the Arabs.26

Ruthven notes that the revisionist theory, if true, would help explain why the qiblas of certain early mosques in Iraq face Jerusalem rather than Mecca.27 Other evidence indirectly supports this theory of later authorship. Tarek Fatah, founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress, has argued that a story about Muhammad—in which a Jewish tribe surrendered to the Islamic army in the city of Medina and the Prophet personally beheaded between six hundred and eight hundred prisoners of war—may in fact be a creation of later Muslim rulers, two hundred years after the incident was said to have occurred (627 CE). (This story is not in the Qur'an, but it shows how easily the life of the Prophet could be embroidered long after the fact.)

It is, to say the least, difficult in the face of all this evidence to deny that there was a human influence involved in composing what is now known as the Qur'an. 

Yet Islamic thinkers such as the late Pakistani Abul A'la Mawdudi have declared without hesitation that the Qur'an "exists exactly as it had been revealed to the Prophet; not a word—nay, not a dot of it—has been changed."28 And that remains mainstream Muslim doctrine.

All scriptures contain contradictions and the Qur'an is no exception. 


But Islam is the only religion that has promulgated a doctrine to reconcile the Qur'an's contradictions in order to maintain the belief that it is the direct revelation of God. As Raymond Ibrahim observes:

No careful reader will remain unaware of the many contradictory verses in the Qur'an, most specifically the way in which peaceful and tolerant verses lie almost side by side with violent and intolerant ones. The ulema were initially baffled as to which verses to codify into the Shari'a worldview—the one that states there is no coercion in religion (2:256), or the ones that command believers to fight all non-Muslims till they either convert, or at least submit, to Islam (8:39, 9:5, 9:29).29

To explain these contradictions, Islamic scholars developed a doctrine known as "abrogation" (an-Nasikh wa'l Man-sukh), whereby Allah issues new revelations that supersede old ones.

Take, for example, the specific injunctions regarding war and peace. These successive revelations follow a distinctive arc in the course of the book: they begin in the early "Mecca" sections with admonitions of passivity in the face of aggression; then they give permission to fight back against aggressors; then they exhort Muslims to fight aggressors; finally, Muslims are commanded to fight all non-Muslims, whether they are the aggressors or not. What explains this pattern of gradually increasing aggressiveness? Most likely, it is the growing power and strength of the early Islamic community. Yet orthodox Muslim scholars insist that these changes have nothing to do with contingent circumstances.

Thus Ibn Salama (d. 1020) argued that chapter 9, verse 5, known as ayat as-sayf, or the sword verses, abrogated some 124 of the more peaceful Meccan verses.30 

The same applies to the verses concerning forcible conversion. As Ibrahim explains, "whereas Allah supposedly told the prophet that 'there is no compulsion in religion' (2:256), once the messenger grew strong enough, Allah issued new revelations calling for all-out war/jihad till Islam became supreme (8:39, 9:5, 9:29, etc.)."31

Mainstream Islamic jurisprudence continues to hold that the sword verses (9:5 and also 9:29) have "abrogated, canceled, and replaced" those verses that call for "tolerance, compassion, and peace."32 

This same doctrine is also applied to apparent flaws or contradictions in Muhammad's personal behavior. 

Suggesting, for example, that Muhammad chose to break a treaty with the Quraysh, rather than being provoked by their dishonorable behavior, has led to threats and violence against Western scholars and journalists. The goal in each instance is to place the Qur'an beyond criticism and reproach. After all, how can one argue with God's word?


Of course, the Qur'an is not the only Islamic text. Accompanying it is the Hadith, the record of Muhammad's sayings, the customs he followed, his teachings, and the personal examples that he left for all Muslims to follow, as well as assorted commentaries on his life. These texts were supposedly written or dictated by those who knew him, including his original companions and his wives. We have every reason to want to know more about the provenance and human composition of these texts, too. But the main questions that have been raised relate to the Qur'an. These include:

What did the Qur'an retain (or copy) from previous Jewish and Christian holy texts?

What was Muhammad's contribution to the text now known as the Qur'an?

Which other individuals (or groups) composed the Qur'an?

What was added to the Qura'nic draft after the death of Muhammad?

What was edited out or rephrased from the original Qur'an?

The answers to some of these questions may never be fully known, but we have a duty to ask them—and to protect the lives and liberty of those grappling with them, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Leading the effort to bring modern methods to the study of the Qur'an is Professor Angelika Neuwirth of the Free University in Berlin. The research program she leads, Corpus Coranicum, is housed at the Brandenburg Academy of Science and Humanities and will likely take decades to complete.33 But analyzing the Qur'an is not like studying the holy texts of Judaism or Christianity. When two German researchers traveled to Yemen to take pictures of old Qur'anic manuscripts, the authorities confiscated the pictures. Although diplomats eventually secured the release of most of the pictures, the episode sparked predictable reactions. One letter to the Yemen Times read: "Please ensure that these scholars are not given further access to the documents. Allah, help us against our enemies."34


The language of the Qur'an is Arabic, and to many Muslims that remains the divine language. To this day there are tremendous disputes about whether it is acceptable to translate it into other languages. That is partly because, unlike the Bible, the Qur'an is supposed to be learned by heart. As the Islamic scholar Michael Cook puts it, "The Muslim worshiper does not read the Qur'an, but rather recites it." All 77,000 words, roughly 6,200 verses, of the Qur'an must be internalized, giving it what Cook calls "a degree of scriptural saturation of daily life which is hard for most inhabitants of the Western world to imagine."35 In early-nineteenth-century Cairo, for example, parties and gatherings held by the city's middle and upper classes often featured a recital of the Qur'an, usually by three or four trained reciters, spanning as many as nine hours. Guests might come and go, but the recitation of the verses was continuous.

This highlights another important difference with other monotheistic scriptures. 

Although the Qur'an makes reference to some stories found in both the Torah and the Bible, it is distinctly not a storytelling text; no sustained meta-narrative binds it together. The Qur'an is not designed to be read as literature. Nor can scenes from it be depicted as scenes from the Bible were in works of art like Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel or Leonardo's Last Supper. It does not have multiple narrators, like the Bible, but rather relies on one voice throughout, which the reciter is essentially channeling.

It is hard to convey to a non-Muslim how the recitation of the Qur'an embeds the text socially. In the middle of the twentieth century, for example, ordinary Egyptians riding public trams would move their lips, silently mouthing scripture as they traveled from stop to stop.36 I can well remember how when someone in my family lay sick or dying— like my aunt when she contracted breast cancer—the Qur'an was chanted by the bedside, in the belief that its words alone would cure the patient. Analogies with Christian prayer are misleading because the reciter of the Qur'an is voicing God's words, not appealing to God for intercession.

Does the Qur'an Inspire Violence?

If the Qur'an were used only to heal the sick, there would be less need for a Muslim Reformation. Unfortunately, as we have seen, it is also very commonly cited today to justify acts of violence, including all-out war against the infidel.

David Cook, a professor of religious studies at Rice University who has carefully studied jihad, notes that in the Qur'an, "the root (the verbal derivatives) of the word jihad appears quite frequently with regard to fighting (e.g., 2:218, 3:143, 8:72, 74-75, 9:16, 20, 41, 86, 61:11) or fighters (mu-jahidin, 4:95, 47:31)."37 Most verses in the Qur'an, Cook emphasizes, "are unambiguous as to the nature of the jihad prescribed—the vast majority of them referring to 'those who believe, emigrate, and fight in the path of Allah.' "38 In the historical evolution of Islam, "the armed struggle—aggressive conquest—came first, and then additional meanings became attached to the term [jihad]."39

To be sure, there are stories of violence and brutality in the Torah and Bible. When King David's daughter, Tamar, is raped by her half-brother, David imposes no punishment and Tamar is discarded and shamed. But Talmudic and biblical scholars today do not sanction sibling rape. Instead, they are most likely to express grief for Tamar and revulsion at the crime, and to show how this one act led to the unraveling of David's family. Contrast this with the use by modern Islamic scholars of Muhammad's decision to marry a six-year-old girl, consummating their marriage when she turned nine, to justify child marriage in Iraq and Yemen today.

The literal reading of the Qur'an is a central part of what animates the bloody battles of jihad playing out across Syria and Iraq. Many of today's Sunni and Shiite fighters believe they are participating in battles foretold in seventh-century prophecies—the accounts in the hadith that refer to the confrontation of two massive armies in Syria. "If you think all these mujahideen came from across the world to fight Assad, you're mistaken," a Sunni Muslim jihadist who uses the name Abu Omar explained to a Reuters reporter in 2014. "They are all here as promised by the Prophet. This is the war he promised—it is the Grand Battle."40 "We have here mujahideen from Russia, America, the Philippines, China, Germany, Belgium, Sudan, India, and Yemen and other places," a journalist was told by Sami, a Sunni rebel fighter in northern Syria. "They are here because this is what the Prophet said and promised, the Grand Battle is happening."41 In much the same way, the leader of Boko Haram cites the Qur'an as his excuse to sell 276 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls into slavery.

Reason and the Qur'an

If Muhammad and the Qur'an are providing justifications for so much wrongdoing in the world, then it must be of more than scholarly interest to apply the tools of reason to both Prophet and text. The problem is that Islamic scholars arguing in favor of human reason have long been on the losing end of doctrinal conflicts. When rationalists squared off against lit— literalists during the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries, they lost. The rationalists wanted to include in Islamic doctrine only principles based on reason. The traditionalists countered that the human intellect is "defective, fickle, and malleable."42

Changing central aspects of Islamic doctrine became even more difficult in the tenth century. At that time, jurists of the various schools of law decided that all the essential questions had been settled and that permitting any new interpretations would not be productive. This famous episode is referred to as the closing of "the gates of ijtihad" The gates of reinterpretation were not suddenly slammed shut: it was a gradual process. But once shut, they proved impossible to reopen. The late Christina Phelps Harris of Stanford University summarized the impact as creating "a framework of inexorable legal rigidity."43

In this process a key role was played by the imam Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ghazali, who died in AD 1111. Al-Ghazali detested the ancient Greek philosophers. He regarded human reason as a cancer upon Islam. His most famous work is Incoherence of the Philosophers, which attacks and refutes the claims of the ancients. Against their pretensions, al-Ghazali posits an all-knowing God. Allah knows the smallest particle in heaven and on earth. And because Allah knows everything and is responsible for everything, he already knows and has fully formed every part of the world and every action, from whether an arrow reaches its target to whether a hand is waved. Thus, al-Ghazali writes, "Blind obedience to God is the best evidence of our Islam." Those, such as the Andalusian scholar Ibn Rushd, who disagreed with al-Ghazali found themselves exiled, or worse.

Nine hundred years have passed, and yet al-Ghazali is still considered by many in Islam to be second only to Muhammad. 

He provided the standard answer to almost any question posed in Arabic: "Inshallah," meaning "If Allah wills it" or "God willing." The latest flowering of al-Ghazali's concepts can be found today in the teachings of groups such as Boko Haram (whose very name means "Non-Muslim teaching is forbidden"), Islamic State, and Southeast Asia's Jemaah Is-lamiyah. They adhere to the principle of "al-fikr kufr," that the very act of thinking (and along with thinking, education, reason, and knowledge) makes one an infidel (kufr). Or as Taliban religious police have written on their propaganda placards: "Throw reason to the dogs—it stinks of corruption."44

There is in fact no good reason al-Ghazali and his ilk should have the last word in defining Islam. Muslims around the world cannot go on claiming that "true" Islam has somehow been "hijacked" by a group of extremists. Instead they must acknowledge that inducements to violence lie at the root of their own most sacred texts, and take responsibility for actively redefining their faith.

The crucial first step in this process of modification will be to acknowledge the humanity of the Prophet himself and the role of human beings in creating Islam's sacred texts. 

When Muslims tell us that the Qur'an is the immutable and unchanging word of God, that it is entirely consistent and infallible, and that none of its injunctions and commandments can be treated as in any way optional for true believers, we need to retort that, by the lights of scholarship and science, this is simply not the case. 

In truth, Islamic doctrine is adaptable; certain parts of the Qur'an were abrogated over time. 

So there is no reason to insist that the militant verses of the Medina period should always be given priority. If Muslims wish their religion to be a religion of peace, all they have to do is "abrogate" those Medinan verses. Mahmoud Muhammad Taha, who was executed in 1985 for "apostasy" in Sudan, proposed to do just that.45

The next step in dismantling the ideological foundation of Islamist violence will be to persuade Muslims raised on an alluring vision of the afterlife to embrace life in this world, rather than actively seeking death as a path to the next.







Keith Hunt