No, You’re Not Taking Those Verses ‘Out of Context’

By Ali A. Rizvi | 10 March 2015
Richard Dawkins Foundation

I recently posted the following statement to my Facebook timeline:

“The worst of beasts, in our view, are the followers of Allah—those who believe in Islam. They’re the ones you make treaties with, but they break those treaties every time because they have no fear of the law.”

The statement, of course, is blatantly bigoted hate speech against Muslims. But it is not something I have written. It is a passage from the Quran, verses 8:55-56, with references to disbelievers replaced by “followers of Allah” and “those who believe in Islam.” You can read the original verse here.

Several commenters jumped on it, accusing me of taking these verses “out of context.”

“It’s a warfare verse,” said one. “It’s like taking a sentences out of a military book. If you are at war, then I think its fair that you can say it. But it is only applied in self-defense. You have to have a just reason for it.”

Okay, I told him. Let’s change the context then. Suppose the U.S. is at war with ISIS or Al Qaeda, and the president says:

“The worst of beasts, in our view, are the followers of Allah—those who believe in Islam. They’re the ones you make treaties with, but they break those treaties every time because they have no fear of the law.”

Does that read any better?

“It does if the fight is on the land of the one being attacked,” he replied. “The aggressor can be identified easily by where the war takes place. What if the attacked people are fighting in self-defense?”

Fine. Let’s suppose ISIS or Al Qaeda has attacked New York City, and the president says, in response:

“The worst of beasts, in our view, are the followers of Allah—those who believe in Islam. They’re the ones you make treaties with, but they break those treaties every time because they have no fear of the law.”


The commenter persisted. “But the verse wasn’t for the general public. It was for the soldiers fighting in the war. It is only talking about people who break treaties.” And so on.

I won’t repeat the passage again. The point was obvious: however you paint the modified quote, it still reads as hate speech against all Muslims. There is no “context” that justifies labeling an entire people “the worst of beasts.”

And herein lies the problem: if there were a book that talked about Muslims the way the Quran talks about disbelievers, heads would roll. Literally.

The primary argument we hear against critics and satirists of religion like the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists—who satirized all religions, not just Islam—is that their speech “offends billions of people.”

But what about the religions they’re targeting? The Abrahamic holy books—respected and revered by billions worldwide—prescribe the killing of disbelievers (Quran 8:12-13, 47:4; Leviticus 24:16); order their adherents to fight and enslave those with differing beliefs, a la ISIS (Quran 9:29-30, Deuteronomy 20:10-18); endorse wife-beating (Quran 4:34) and the stoning to death of non-virginal brides (Deuteronomy 22:20-21); order women to quietly submit to the authority of men (1 Timothy 2:11-12); and mandate the public lashing of fornicators (Quran 24:2) and the killing of homosexuals (Leviticus 20:13).

Who should really be offended here? If hate speech were really the issue, these books would be the first to go.

When confronted with these facts, apologists will often respond by saying these texts should not be read “literally”—a concern that is certainly well-founded considering their contents. They know how terrible these books would sound if they weren’t liberally “interpreted” (read: distorted, sanitized), or read the way one would read any other book. When the literal word of a deity requires repeated, long-winded explanations from his human followers simply to prevent it being interpreted to mean what it actually says, it doesn’t make a great case for divine authorship. If anything can mean anything, the whole thing becomes meaningless.

The reality is, religious moderates take their scripture “out of context” more than they’d like to think. Islamic apologists, for instance, like to quote the verse 2:256, which says there is “no compulsion in religion.” They won’t tell you (and many don’t know themselves) that the very next verse, 2:257, says that those who do choose to disbelieve will be “companions of the Fire; they will abide eternally therein.” You’ll also hear them quote verse 5:32, which says, “Whoever kills a soul…it is as if he had slain all mankind. And whoever saves one—it is as if he had saved mankind entirely.” But again, if you read on to the very next verse, 5:33, you’ll see that Allah wants anyone opposing him or his messenger to “be killed or crucified…their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides,” for “causing corruption.”

What is more offensive? Those words? Or those who choose to reject and criticize them?

It is true that a religion should not be defined by the actions of its adherents. However, it can be defined by the contents of its canonical texts—like the Quran, which is the one thing common to all Islamic sects and denominations, fundamentalist or moderate. The fact that most Muslims are non-violent doesn’t automatically erase all of the violent verses from the Quran, in the same way that that Jews eating pork or having premarital sex doesn’t mean either act is suddenly allowed by the Jewish faith. In the words of Alishba Zarmeen: most humans are more moral than the scriptures they hold sacred.

Fear of causing offense is not a sound reason to stop calling out hate speech, whether it comes from Tea Party Republicans, the KKK manifesto, or the Quran and Bible. And the misinterpretation/metaphor/out-of-context excuse is just that—an excuse. It doesn’t make these texts read any better.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Ali A. Rizvi is a Pakistani-Canadian writer, physician, and musician who resides in Toronto. He is currently writing his first book, The Atheist Muslim.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali on “Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now”

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  1. One mistake the unnamed commenters make here is that they use this all is fair in war fallacy. The western world has gone to war with strict rules of behavior. Sometimes nations don't comply but it makes people war criminals. The radical side of Islam refuses to follow the rules and yet we still deal with them mostly within our rules. Just because you are at war with a people does not mean you can say or do anything to win.

  2. just looking at the cover of a book and judging it, is not wisdom. plus ISIS is founded by UK, USA and Zionists (admitted by Blair), so you shouldn't just translate and misinterpret the Quran, my advise to you is go and read some explanations of Quran and then say something against the Quran or Islam if you find anything irritating.

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