“Out Of Context,” Or, How To Argue With A Muslim
by Ibn Warraq
From New English Review, September 2007.
It is quite common to hear two arguments from Muslims and apologists of Islam, the language argument, and that old standby of crooked, lying politicians, “you have quoted out of context.”
Let us look at the language argument first. You are asked aggressively, ‘do you know Arabic?’ Then you are told triumphantly, ‘You have to read it in the original Arabic to understand it fully’. Christians, even Western freethinkers and atheists are usually reduced to sullen silence with these Muslim tactics; they indeed become rather coy and self-defensive when it comes to criticism of Islam; they feebly complain “who am I to criticise Islam? I do not know any Arabic.” And yet freethinkers are quite happy to criticise Christianity. How many Western freethinkers and atheists know Hebrew? How many even know what the language of Esra chapter 4 verses 6-8 is? Or in what language the New Testament was written?
Of course, Muslims are also free in their criticism of the Bible and Christianity without knowing a word of Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek.
You do not need to know Arabic to criticise Islam or the Koran. Dr. Paul Kurtz, founder of the Center for Inquiry, and Prometheus Books, does not know Arabic but he did a great job on Islam in his book The Transcendental Temptation . You only need a critical sense, critical thought and skepticism. Second, there are translations of the Koran by Muslims themselves, so Muslims cannot claim that there has been deliberate tampering of the text by infidel translators. Third, the majority of Muslims are not Arabs, and are not Arabic speakers. So a majority of Muslims also have to rely on translations. Finally, the language of the Koran is some form of Classical Arabic  which is substantially different from the spoken Arabic of today, so even Muslim Arabs have to rely on translations to understand their holy text. Arabic is a Semitic language related to Hebrew and Aramaic, and is no easier but also no more difficult to translate than any other language. Of course, there are all sorts of difficulties with the language of the Koran, but these difficulties have been recognized by Muslim scholars themselves. The Koran is indeed a rather opaque text but it is opaque to everyone. Even Muslim scholars do not understand a fifth of it.
Let us now turn to “you have quoted out of context”. This could mean two things: first, the historical context to which the various verses refer, or second, the textual context, the actual place in a particular chapter that the verse quoted comes from. The historical context argument is not available, in fact, to Muslims, since the Koran is the eternal word of God and true and valid for always. Thus for Muslims themselves there is no historical context. Of course, non-Muslims can legitimately and do avail themselves of the historical or cultural context to argue, for instance, that Islamic culture as a whole is anti-woman. Muslims did contradict themselves when they introduced the notion of abrogation, when a historically earlier verse was cancelled by a later one. This idea of abrogation was concocted to deal with the many contradictions in the Koran. What is more, it certainly backfires for those liberal Muslims who wish to give a moderate interpretation to the Koran since all the verses advocating tolerance (there are some but not many) have been abrogated by the later verses of the sword.
Out of Context Argument Used Against Muslims Themselves:
Now for the textual context. First, of course, this argument could be turned against Muslims themselves. When they produce a verse preaching tolerance, we could also say that they have quoted out of context, or more pertinently, first, that such a verse has been cancelled by a more belligerent and intolerant one, and second, that in the overall context of the Koran and the whole theological construct that we call Islam ( i.e. in the widest possible context), the tolerant verses are anomalous, or have no meaning, since Muslim theologians ignored them completely in developing Islamic Law, or that, finally, the verses do not say what they seem to say.
For instance, after September 11, 2001, many Muslims and apologists of Islam glibly came out with the following Koranic quote to show that Islam and the Koran disapproved of violence and killing: Sura V.32 : “Whoever killed a human being shall be looked upon as though he had killed all mankind”.
Unfortunately, these wonderful sounding words are being quoted out of context. Here is the entire quote: V.32 :
“That was why We laid it down for the Israelites that whoever killed a human being , except as a punishment for murder or other villainy in the land , shall be looked upon as though he had killed all mankind; and that whoever saved a human life shall be regarded as though he had saved all mankind.
“Our apostles brought them veritable proofs: yet it was not long before many of them committed great evils in the land.
“Those that make war against God and His apostle and spread disorder shall be put to death or crucified or have their hands and feet cut off on alternate sides, or be banished from the country.”
The supposedly noble sentiments are in fact a warning to Jews. Behave or else is the message. Far from abjuring violence, these verses aggressively point out that anyone opposing the Prophet will be killed, crucified, mutilated and banished!
Behind the textual context argument is thus the legitimate suspicion that by quoting only a short passage from the Koran I have somehow distorted its real meaning. I have, so the accusation goes, lifted the offending quote from the chapter in which it was embedded, and hence, somehow altered its true sense. What does “context” mean here? Do I have to quote the sentence before the offending passage, and the sentence after? Perhaps two sentences before and after? The whole chapter? Ultimately, of course, the entire Koran is the context.
The context, far from helping Muslims get out of difficulties only makes the barbaric principle apparent in the offending quote more obvious, as we have seen from Sura V.32 just cited. Let us take some other examples. Does the Koran say that men have the right to physically beat their wives or not? I say yes and quote the following verses to prove my point:
Sura IV.34 : “As for those [women] from whom you fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge [or beat] them.”
This translation comes from a Muslim. Have I somehow distorted the meaning of these lines? Let us have a wider textual context:
Sura IV.34 : “Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them and send them to beds apart and beat them. Then if they obey you, take no further action against them. God is high, supreme.”
If anything, the wider textual context makes things worse for those apologists of Islam who wish to minimize the mysogyny of the Koran. The oppression of women has divine sanction; women must obey God and their men, who have divine authorisation to scourge them. One Muslim translator, Yusuf Ali, clearly disturbed by this verse adds the word “lightly” in brackets after “beat” even though there is no “lightly” in the original Arabic. An objective reading of the entire Koran (that is the total context) makes grim reading as far as the position of women is concerned.
Finally, of course, many of the verses that we shall quote later advocating killing of unbelievers were taken by Muslims themselves to develop the theory of Jihad. Muslim scholars themselves referred to Sura VIII.67, VIII.39, and Sura II.216 to justify Holy War. Again the context makes it clear that it is the battle field that is being referred to, and not some absurd moral struggle; these early Muslims were warriors after booty, land and women not some existential heroes from the pages of Albert Camus or Jean-Paul Sartre.
Let us take another example: Sura IX.
Here I have tried to use where possible translations by Muslims or Arabophone scholars, to avoid the accusation of using infidel translations. However, many Muslim translators have a tendency to soften down the harshness of the original Arabic, particularly in translating the Arabic word jahada, e.g. Sura IX verse 73. Maulana Muhammad Ali, of the Ahmadiyyah sect, translates this passage as:
Sura IX.73 : “O Prophet, strive hard against the disbelievers and the hypocrites and be firm against them. And their abode is hell, and evil is the destination.”
In a footnote of an apologetic nature, Muhammad Ali rules out the meaning “fighting” for jahada.
However the Iraqi scholar Dawood in his Penguin translation renders this passage as:
Sura IX.73 “ Prophet, make war on the unbelievers and the hypocrites and deal rigorously with them. Hell shall be their home: an evil fate.”
How do we settle the meaning of this verse? The whole context of Sura IX. indeed makes it clear that “make war” in the literal and not some metaphorical sense is meant.
Let us take another verse from this Sura:
Sura IX.5 “Then, when the sacred months have passed away, kill the idolaters wherever you find them…” These words are usually cited to show what fate awaits idolaters.
Well, what of the context? The words immediately after these just quoted say, “and seize them, besiege them and lie in ambush everywhere for them.” Ah, you might say, you have deliberately left out the words that come after those. Let us quote them then, “If they repent and take to prayer and render the alms levy, allow them to go their way. God is forgiving and merciful”. Surely these are words of tolerance, you plead. Hardly, they are saying, only if they become Muslims then they will be left in peace. In fact the whole sura which has 129 verses (approximately 14 pages in the Penguin translation by Dawood), in other words the whole context, is totally intolerant, and is indeed, the source of many totalitarian Islamic laws and principles, such as the concepts of Jihad and dhimmitude, the latter proclaiming the inferior status of Christians and Jews in an Islamic state. All our quotes from the Arabic sources in Part One also, of course, provide the historical context of raids, massacres, booty, and assassinations, which make it crystal clear that real bloody fighting is being advocated.
First the idolaters, how can you trust them? Most of them are evil doers (IX. 8); fight them (IX. 12, 14); they must not visit mosques (IX. 18); they are unclean (IX. 28); you may fight the idolaters even during the sacred months (IX. 36). “It is not for the Prophet, and those who believe, to pray for the forgiveness of idolaters even though they may be near of kin after it has become clear they are people of hell-fire” ( IX. 113). So much for forgiveness! Even your parents are to be shunned if they do not embrace Islam: IX.23 “O you who believe! Choose not your fathers nor your brethren for friends if they take pleasure in disbelief rather than faith. Whoso of you takes them for friends, such are wrong-doers.” In other words if you are friendly with your parents who are not Muslims you are being immoral.
The theory of Jihad is derived from verses 5 and 6 already quoted but also from the following verses:
IX. 38-39: Believers, why is it that when it is said to you: ‘March in the cause of God’, you linger slothfully in the land? Are you content with this life in preference to the life to come? Few indeed are the blessings of this life, compared to those of the life to come.
If you do not fight, He will punish you sternly, and replace you by other men.
- 41: Whether unarmed or well-equipped, march on and fight for the cause of God, with your wealth and with your persons.
- 73: Prophet, make war on the unbelievers and the hypocrites and deal harshly with them.
The word that I have translated as fight is jahid. Some translators translate it as go forth or strive. Dawood translates it as fight, as does Penrice in his Dictionary and Glossary of the Koran, where it is defined as: To strive, contend with, fight –especially against the enemies of Islam. While Hans Wehr in his celebrated Arabic dictionary translates it as “endeavour, strive; to fight; to wage holy war against the infidels”.
As for the intolerance against Jews and Christians, and their inferior status as dhimmis we have IX verses 29 –35:
“Fight against such of those to whom the Scriptures were given as believe neither in God nor the Last Day, who do not forbid what God and His apostle have forbidden, and do not embrace the true faith, until they pay tribute out of hand and are utterly subdued.
“ The Jews say Ezra is the son of God, while the Christians say the Messiah is the son of God. Such are their assertions, by which they imitate the infidels of old. God confound them! How perverse they are!
“They make of their clerics and their monks, and of the Messiah, the son of Mary, Lords besides God; though they were ordered to serve one God only. There is no god but Him. Exalted be He above those whom they deify besides Him!….
“It is He who has sent forth His apostle with guidance and the true Faith to make it triumphant over all religions, however much the idolaters may dislike it
“O you who believe! Lo! many of the Jewish rabbis and the Christian monks devour the wealth of mankind wantonly and debar men from the way of Allah; They who hoard up gold and silver and spend it not in the way of Allah, unto them give tidings of painful doom …”
The moral of all the above is clear: Islam is the only true religion, Jews and Christians are devious, and money-grubbing, who are not to be trusted, and even have to pay a tax in the most humiliating way. I do not think I need quote any more from Sura IX, although it goes on in this vein verse after verse.
 P.Kurtz , The Transcendental Temptation , Prometheus Books , Amherst ,1986
 There seems to be some controversy as to what the language of the Koran really is , see my introduction to What the Koran Really Says ., Prometheus Books , Amherst , 2002.
 Hans Wehr , A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic , Lebanon , Reprinted , 1980 , p.142