Islam Under Scrutiny by Ex-Muslims

How to Debate with the Muslims


Do you know Aramaic or Hebrew?

Muslims in general have a tendency to disarm any criticisms of Islam and in particular the Koran by asking if the critic has read the Koran in the original Arabic, as though all the difficulties of their Sacred Text will somehow disappear once the reader has mastered the holy language and has direct experience, aural and visual, of the very words of God, to which no translation can do justice.

However, the majority of Muslims are not Arabs or Arabic speaking peoples. The non-Arabic speaking nations of Indonesia with a population of 197 million, Pakistan with 133 million, Iran with 62 million, Turkey with 62 million, India with a Muslim population of about 95 million, out- number by far the total number of native Arabic speakers in about thirty countries in the world estimated as 150 million. Many educated Muslims whose native tongue is not Arabic do learn it in order to read the Koran, but then again the vast majority do not understand Arabic, even though many do learn parts of the Koran by heart without understanding a word.

In other words, the majority of Muslims have to read the Koran in translation in order to understand it. Contrary to what one might think, there have been translations of the Koran into, for instance, Persian since the tenth or eleventh century, and there are translations into Turkish and Urdu. The Koran has now been translated into over a hundred languages, many of them by Muslims themselves, despite some sort of disapproval from the religious authorities.[1]

Even for contemporary Arabic –speaking peoples, reading the Koran is far from being a straightforward matter. The Koran is putatively (in fact it is very difficult to decide exactly what the language of the Koran is) written in what we call Classical Arabic (CA), but modern Arab populations, leaving aside the problem of illiteracy in Arab countries [2], do not speak, read, or write, let alone think in Classical Arabic (CA). We are confronted with the phenomenon of diglossia [3], that is to say, a situation where two varieties of the same language live side by side. The two variations are high and low. High Arabic is sometimes called Modern Literary Arabic or Modern Standard Arabic, and is learned through formal education in school like Latin or Sanskrit, and would be used in sermon, university lecture, news broadcast and for mass media purposes. Low Arabic or Colloquial Arabic is a dialect which native speakers acquire as a mother tongue, and is used at home conversing with family and friends, and is also used in radio or television soap opera. But as Kaye points out, "the differences between many colloquials and the classical language are so great that a fallah (= farmer or peasant) who had never been to school could hardly understand more than a few scattered words and expressions in it without great difficulty. One could assemble dozens of so-called Arabs (fallahin or peasants) in a room, who have never been exposed to the classical language, so that not one could properly understand the other." [4]

Though some scholars do allow for some change and decay, they paint a totally misleading picture of the actual linguistic situation in modern Arabic speaking societies. These scholars imply that anyone able to read a modern Arabic newspaper should have no difficulties with the Koran or any classical Arabic text. They seem totally insensitive "to the evolution of the language, to changes in the usage and meaning of terms over the very long period and in the very broad area in which Classical Arabic has been used." [5] Anyone who has lived in the Middle East in recent years will know that the language of the press is at best semi-literary [6], and certainly simplified as far as structure and vocabulary are concerned. We can discern what would be called grammatical errors from a Classical Arabic point of view in daily newspapers or on television news. This semi-literary language is highly artificial, and certainly no one thinks in it. For an average middle class Arab it would take considerable effort to construct even the simplest sentence, let alone talk, in Classical Arabic. The linguist Pierre Larcher has written of the "considerable gap between Medieval Classical Arabic and Modern Classical Arabic [or what I have been calling Modern Literary Arabic], certain texts written in the former are today the object of explanatory texts in the latter." He then adds in a footnote that he has in his library, based on this model, an edition of the Risala of Shafi`i (died 204/820) which appeared in a collection with the significant title "Getting closer to the Patrimony." [7]

As Kaye puts it, "In support of the hypothesis that modern standard Arabic is ill-defined is the so-called ‘mixed’ language or ‘Inter-Arabic’ being used in the speeches of, say, President Bourguiba of Tunisia, noting that very few native speakers of Arabic from any Arab country can really ever master the intricacies of Classical Arabic grammar in such a way as to extemporaneously give a formal speech in it." [8]

Pierre Larcher [9] has pointed out that wherever you have a linguistic situation where two varieties of the same language coexist, you are also likely to get all sorts of linguistic mixtures, leading some linguists to talk of triglossia. Gustav Meiseles [10] even talks of quadriglossia: between Literary Arabic and Vernacular Arabic, he distinguishes a Sub-Standard Arabic and an Educated Spoken Arabic. Still others speak of pluri- or multi- or polyglossia, viewed as a continuum. [11]

The style of the Koran is difficult, totally unlike the prose of today, and the Koran would be largely incomprehensible without glossaries, indeed entire commentaries. In conclusion, even the most educated of Arabs will need some sort of a translation if he or she wished to make sense of that most gnomic, elusive and allusive of holy scriptures, the Koran.

You are asked aggressively, "do you know Arabic?" Then you are told triumphantly, "You have to read the Koran in the original Arabic to understand it fully." Non-Muslims, 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 they 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.

So let me summarise: You do not need to know Arabic to criticise Islam or the Koran. Paul Kurtz does not know Arabic but he did a great job on Islam in his book The Transcendental Temptation. [12] 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 [13] which is totally 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.

Endnotes below.

1. See Appendix, Bibliography of Translations, in Arabic Literature to the End of the Umayyad Period, edd. Beeston, Johnstone et al, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1983, p.502-520.

2. In Egypt, the rate of illiteracy is placed as high as 49.8 %, see Information Please Almanac, Boston, 1997, p.180

3. Charles Ferguson, Diglossia, Word, Vol.15, No.2 pp325-340, Aug.1959; William Marçais, La diglossie arabe, L’Enseignement public –Revue Pédagogique, tome 104, no 12, 1930, pp.401-409; Alan S. Kaye,Arabic, in The Major Languages of South Asia, The Middle East and Africa, ed. Bernard Comrie, London, Routledge, 1990, p.181

4. Ibid., p.173.

5. B.Lewis, Islam and the West, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1993, p.65

6. It is in fact becoming more and more westernized, i.e. de-semitized under the influence of the international news agencies.

7. P.Larcher,Les Incertitudes de la Poesie Arabe Archaique, in La Revue des Deux Rives, No.1, 1999,p.129

8. Kaye, op. cit. p.183.

9. P.Larcher, La Linguistique Arabe d’Hier a Demain : Tendances Nouvelles de la Recherche, Arabica, tome XLV, 1998, pp.409-29.

10. Gustav Meiseles, Educated Spoken Arabic and the Arabic Language Continuum, Archivum Linguisticum, vol. XI, Number 2, 1980, pp.118-142;quoted in P.Larcher,see note 10 above.

11. A.S.Kaye, Formal vs. Informal in Arabic : Diglossia, Triglossia, Tetraglossia, etc., Polyglossia –Multiglossia Viewed as a Continuum, ZAL, 27, 1994, pp.47-66.

12. P.Kurtz, The Transcendental Temptation, Prometheus Books, Amherst,1986

13. 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.


Out of context

Let us now turn to another argument or defensive tactic used by Muslims: the “you have quoted out of context” defense. What do they mean by “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 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 (1) that such a verse has been cancelled by a more belligerent and intolerant one, (2) 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 (3) 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:

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 quoted. 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:

This translation comes from a Muslim. Have I somehow distorted the meaning of these lines? Let us have a wider textual context:

If anything, the wider textual context makes things worse for those apologists of Islam who wish to minimize the misogyny of the Koran. The oppression of women has divine sanction, women must obey God and their men, who have divine authorization 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. There are at least forty passages in the Koran that are misogynistic in character.

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: “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 non-Muslim scholar Dawood in his Penguin translation renders this passage as: “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 that 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 dhimmis, 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 evildoers (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:

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: 29 –35:

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.


Go to the Original Sources

When you do debate with a Muslim make sure you are armed with all your references from the original Arabic sources. The major sources are all available in English, and are the Koran, the Sira or the Life of Muhammad by Ibn Ishaq, and the Hadith, the sayings and deeds of the Prophet and his companions. You must make the effort to familiarize yourself with these. Start with the Koran. It is not a very long text, about four hundred pages in the Penguin translation. Acquire at least four different translations, at least one of which should be by a Muslim. Yusuf Ali and, despite his name, Marmaduke Pickthall were Muslims, and their translations are easily available in paperbacks. At least one should be by someone whose mother tongue was Arabic, such as N.J.Dawood, an Iraqi scholar whose translation is quite readable. If you read French, I strongly advise you to acquire and read Regis Blachere’s translation - it has copious footnotes which reveal the opaqueness of the Holy text, and the grammatical errors of the original Arabic.

If you have read the Koran, you are already better informed of its contents than the majority of Muslims. Indeed, many Muslims have been genuinely surprised when I have apprised them of the verses preaching war, intolerance, hatred of Jews and Christians, misogyny, cruel punishments, etc. When you do read the Koran, read it with a highlighter in hand, and mark or underline the passages which preach intolerance, or which reveal injustice, cruelty and violence, absurdities, insults to women, contradictions, anti-Semitism, homophobic attitudes, superstitions, and, to be scrupulously fair, passages which teach morally acceptable principles. Someone has already undertaken just such a task at Skeptics Annotated Koran. Our diligent skeptic found 511 passages of injustice, 384 of intolerance, 320 of cruelty and violence, 46 insults to women and just 60 passages of morally acceptable principles.

Here are some anti-Jewish sentiments from the Koran:

Then pass onto the oldest source on the life of the Prophet, the Sira by Ibn Ishaq as quoted by Ibn Hisham. It is also available in an English translation. Again read it, with the same skeptical attitude and a highlighter in hand. It makes for very depressing reading. The biography is full of violence, cruelty, intolerance and anti-Semitism. Here are some of the passages from the Sira revealing Muhammad’s hatred of the Jews :

Finally, pass onto the Hadith or Traditions, which are also, fortunately, available in English. The collection by Bukhari, who died in 870 C.E., is the best place to start. The Hadith or the Books of Tradition are a collection of sayings and doings attributed to the Prophet and traced back to him through a series of putatively trustworthy witnesses. Apart from what Muhammad did and enjoined these traditions include what was done in his presence that he did not forbid, and even the authoritative sayings and doings of the companions of the Prophet. These traditions serve as the theoretical basis of the Sharia or Islamic Law, and hence of Islam itself. Here you will find all that you suspected about Islam but were not sure where to look for. Jihad, anti-Semitism, misogyny, and the usual litany of violence and cruelty. Bukhari’s collection is highly regarded by the Muslims.

Thus furnished with precise references to and quotes from the Koran, the Sira and the Hadith, you are well-equipped to criticise Islam, and ready to debate any Muslim.


Ibn Warraq is the author of Why I Am Not a Muslim and the editor of The Origins of the Koran, The Quest for the Historical Muhammad, and What the Koran Really Says.


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