Bruce Bawer is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
The fate of the Western world has been bound up with Islam ever since that religion was founded – but its impact has been especially dire during the last few decades of mass immigration and large-scale terrorism. It’s obviously important, then, for people in the West to know as much as possible about Islamic values and beliefs. But where to find the facts, and how to know that they really are the facts? The Islamic Studies departments of universities, which are staffed almost entirely with devout believers and other apologists, won’t give you the real dope. Neither will most online resources or the overwhelming majority of the books on the subject issued by the large corporate publishers. One might assume that the solution lies in reading the Qur’an – but the English-language editions aimed primarily at non-Muslim readers are notoriously unreliable: the most problematic passages are routinely translated in such a way as to minimize the problems, and the editors, in their introductions, footnotes, and other apparatus, systematically put the most benign interpretations on everything.
Which is why the brilliant, prolific Robert Spencer’s newest book, The Critical Qu’ran: Explained from Key Islamic Commentaries and Contemporary Historical Research, is so immensely valuable. As Spencer himself writes in his introduction: “The Critical Qur’an is designed to equip the English-speaking reader with a knowledge of the Qur’an and how it is interpreted in Islam, and to see how mainstream Islamic commentators understand the text, particularly its passages that are most problematic for non-Muslim readers: the exhortations to jihad warfare, the Sharia provisions that call for the denial of various rights to women, and the like. In numerous other editions of the Qur’an, these are obscured with apologetic intent. Here, they are explained in full.”
Indeed they are – and hurrah for that. About time! Spencer, the single most nearly indispensable student of Islam in our time, provides an introduction to each of the Qur’an’s 114 suras (chapters), explaining its title, clarifying its theological significance, expounding upon its role in Islamic tradition, and discussing any textual issues. He also states whether it is one of the earlier suras, purportedly revealed to Muhammed when he lived in Mecca (the limited number of suras that sound relatively benign date to this period), or one of the later (and not at all benign) suras, which were supposedly revealed during Muhammed’s later years in Medina, and which are viewed by Muslim believers as “abrogating,” or superseding, the gentler Meccan ones.
In addition, Spencer provides a dizzying array of footnotes, some of them veritable essays on key topics in Islam. In them he points out any Biblical borrowings, influences, or parallels (“This passage is loosely based on Genesis 2:19”) and any contradictions between the footnoted verse and other passages of the Qur’an: “The identification of Iblis as an angel here contradicts 18:50, which states that Iblis is a jinn”; “Allah here creates the universe in eight days, but at 7:54, 10:3, 11:7, 25:59, 32:4, and 50:38, he does it in six days.” (For any believing Muslim, it is impossible to acknowledge that the Qur’an contains any internal contradictions at all.) Spencer draws reader attention to Qur’anic statements of objective physical reality – for instance, about the sky and stars (“the sky would fall upon the earth were it not for the fact that Allah holds it up”) and the male and female reproductive systems – that are wildly at odds with actual cosmological and biological fact, and that are thus, for Muslims, causes for concern as well as sources of embarrassment, given the unassailable claim, to which all Muslims are obliged to subscribe, that the Qur’an was dictated to Muhammed directly by Allah and is thus entirely without error.
Spencer’s annotations also draw the reader’s attention to passages that have played a significant role in shaping Muslim views on various topics. The sentences beginning at verse 4:34, for instance, have influenced Islamic attitudes toward women in a major way. The passage itself reads in part as follows: “Men are in charge of women, because Allah has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend of their property. So good women are obedient, guarding in secret what Allah has guarded. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, give them a warning and banish them to separate beds, and beat them.” Spencer’s gloss, also in part: “Wife-beating exists in all cultures, but only in Islam does it enjoy divine sanction.”
And here’s Spencer on verse 4:24: “Allah forbids Muslims to marry women who are already married, except slave girls….According to Islamic law, once a woman is captured and enslaved, her marriage is immediately annulled. This verse is the basis for the practice of seizing infidel women and making them sex slaves, practiced in the modern age by the Islamic State (ISIS), Boko Haram, and other jihad groups.” At 65:4, in the sura entitled “Divorce,” Spencer makes sure that readers don’t miss a passing reference to wives “who do not yet menstruate” – which, as he puts it, “assumes that the believers will be marrying, and divorcing, prepubescent girls.” An assumption that, alas, is still valid in the twenty-first century.
Many of Spencer’s footnotes comment on passages that reflect telling contrasts between Islam and Christianity. For example, he underscores that “there is nothing akin to Jesus’s ‘turn the other cheek’ (Matthew 5:39) in the Qur’an.” And he observes that “Islam considers Muhammad as just a human being, yet he cannot be depicted and insults to him must be avenged, while Christianity considers Christ divine and yet has no problem with visual depictions of him, and bears insults of him with patience, or at the very least without responding violently.”
Furthermore, Spencer highlights the fact that “there has been no development in Islam of the historical and textual criticism that has transformed the ways Jews and Christians understand their scriptures today. This is in large part because there is no doubt about the Qur’an and no questioning of it; to study it in a historical-critical way would be impious in itself.” Then there’s this: “In a notable departure from the Christian concept of martyrdom, Allah allows Muslims to deny their faith when forced to do so” – a highly useful and oft-employed dodge known as taqiyya, which the Qur’an slickly distinguishes from lying, even though there’s no real distinction at all.
For anyone familiar with the Bible, the experience of reading this unexpurgated, candidly footnoted Qur’an can’t help but provide powerful insight into the stark contrast between Christianity and Islam. Anyone searching in the Qur’an for gospel-like passages about love, kindness, and forgiveness (or parables about virtuous non-believers, such as the good Samaritan) is wasting his time. In fact, the Qur’anic passages about non-believers – which have had a profound impact on Muslim attitudes toward non-Muslims – could hardly be less congenial. Indeed, to examine just a few of the passages that Spencer flags for having influenced those attitudes is to acquire a vivid sense of just how students of the Qur’an have been taught to view the infidel. A few samples of Spencer’s commentaries on those passages:
- In a footnote to verse 2:8, Spencer notes that the Jews’ rejection of Islam is the reason “why most Muslims don’t accept the idea that the Jews have any right to the land of Israel.”
- Commenting on verse 2:18, Spencer notes that “[t]he charge that those who do not believe in Islam are ‘deaf, dumb, and blind’ (cf. 2:171) is an indication of the Islamic assumption that those who reject Islam are not operating in good faith, but are suffering from a moral defect.”
- The passage beginning at verse 2:63, Spencer notes, is one of the scriptural foundations “for the common tendency among Islamic jihadis today to refer to Jews as apes…or as both apes and pigs.”
- At verse 4:76 (“Those who believe fight for the sake of Allah, and those who disbelieve fight for the cause of taghut [idols]”), Spencer notes: “there is no moral gray area in jihad warfare; the believers fight for Allah, while the unbelievers fight for Satan. Osama bin Laden began his October 6, 2002, letter to the American people with two Qur’an quotations, this verse and 22:39.81.”
- The “equation of unbelievers with animals” in verse 8:55, notes Spencer, “is another indication that unbelievers are worthy of no respect or consideration.”
- Verse 8:60, notes Spencer, “is the Qur’an’s third mention of the imperative to strike terror in the unbelievers.”
- Verse 9:111, he notes, “has become in the modern age the rationale for suicide bombing.”
- Verse 9:29, Spencer notes, “is the one place where Muslims are explicitly directed to make war against and subjugate Jews and Christians, the ‘People of the Book’…”
- By way of illuminating a rather murky statement at 39:9, Spencer sums up the Qur’anic view of Muslims and infidels: “The unbelievers are not equal to the believers, for the believers are the ‘best of people’ (3:110) while the unbelievers are ‘the most vile of created beings.”’ (98:6). There is no compatibility of this with the idea of the equality of dignity of all people as created by the same God.”
- Spencer underscores the thrust of verse 40:10 by noting that “Allah hates the unbelievers even more than they hate themselves.”
- Commenting on verse 56:79, Spencer notes that “[n]on-Muslims, because they are unclean (see 9:28), are not to touch the Qur’an. This was why American guards at the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, where many jihad terrorists were held, would only touch the Qur’an while wearing gloves.”
- And finally, there’s Spencer’s annotation of verse 98:6-7. The Qur’anic text reads: “Indeed, the unbelievers among the people of the book and the idolaters will remain in the fire of Gehenna. They are the most vile of created beings. Indeed, those who believe and do good works are the best of created beings.” Spencer’s comment: “This verse is one of the most striking examples of the Qur’an’s dehumanization of unbelievers.”
One of the most striking examples, but far from the only one.
Indeed, the Qur’an is packed with passages that point up – incessantly, repeatedly, obsessively – the utter contrast between Muslims and non-Muslims , with the former always being described as virtuous and the latter as evil, repulsive, indeed just short of subhuman, invariably deserving of abuse and murder, and without question marked for eternal punishment. It’s impossible for a Jew, Christian, or secular Western reader to peruse this book and not recognize that people who were raised on the Qur’an and who’ve heard it preached from in mosques every weeks of their lives can’t very easily be reconciled to the idea of viewing non-Muslims as fellow humans, to say nothing of friends.
Indeed, to read this book is to be struck time and again by its feverish preoccupation with the infidel, with the evil of apostasy, with the mischievous attempts by miscellaneous miscreants to turn believers away from Allah, with the coldblooded way in which believers should relate to infidels, with the obligation of believers to make war on infidels, with the nature of the punishments that should be meted out to infidels, and with the nature of the eternal suffering that awaits infidels in the hereafter.
Simply put, it’s a book rich in hatred and drenched in death, again and again calling for the faithful to murder, exhorting non-believers to kill themselves, and reminding the reader that believers await an afterlife in paradise and non-believers an afterlife in hell. To read this holy book is to understand the malice toward the infidel that countless Muslims have demonstrated, in one way or another, in our time.
Given this malice, why have so many Muslims relocated to the West? At least part of the answer can be found in verse 4:100, in which, as Spencer explains, “the Qur’an states the cardinal importance of ‘emigration for the cause of Allah,’ that is, moving to a new land with the intention of bringing Islam to it” – and, one might add, bringing it to Islam. Food for thought for Europeans and North Americans whose countries have become increasingly Islamized in recent decades, and whose inhabitants, to an alarming extent, are still in the dark about the motives of their new fellow countrymen.
Have I made it clear what a remarkable accomplishment The Critical Qu’ran is? Breathtaking in its ambition and achievement, it’s a monumental contribution to the effort to educate Western readers about the bellicose ideology that masquerades as a Religion of Peace. Line by footnoted line, it brings a desperately needed level of clarity and candor to a field of study that’s awash in deceit, deception, and duplicity. The only question now is how many readers will avail themselves of the wisdom that this book holds out to them – and that may well mean, for them, the difference between submission and survival.