The idea that the Quran is God’s literal and most perfect word

Fathima Imra Nazeer makes the point that I keep making: holy books say what they say, and there’s no magic that renders what they say universally harmless.

Well-meaning Muslims claim that these Islamists have simply ‘misinterpreted’ the Quran. But have they?

As I wrote in a previous post, ISIS’s interpretation of the Quran is a very plausible one and this explains why ISIS has no trouble using the Quran as a recruiting tool.

Even according to Yusuf Ali, the very much mainstream and respected interpreter of the Quran, fighting for the cause of ‘truth’ is a duty for Muslims under a ‘rightly guided Imam.’ The definition of ‘truth’ and ‘rightly guided Imam,’ unfortunately, is not that clear cut.

For those of us who have been indoctrinated with the idea that the Quran is God’s literal and most perfect word to man, the Quranic commands for true believers to wage war against ‘oppressors’ and ‘hypocrites’ can cause a tugging at the heartstrings.

And that’s not surprising given the indoctrination. That’s why the idea that any book or other piece of writing or “revelation” or reported command is God’s literal and most perfect word to human beings has to be done away with.

We can continue to be in denial and claim that ISIS’s ideology has nothing to do with Islam, hoping to dissuade the jihadis and silence the anti-Muslim bigots. Thing is, with the Quran at so many people’s fingertips these days, neither the jihadis nor the anti-Muslim bigots are believing this anymore and we are simply hurting our own credibility.

If we want to really solve the problem and maybe even regain some credibility, we need leaders who are willing to put forth the idea that we have to change the way we regard the Quran. Treating the Quran as God’s perfect and literal word to man is creating too much havoc.

Only when the notions of Quranic infallibility and inerrancy are challenged, will it be possible for believing Muslims to openly admit that according to literalist interpretations at least, violent and hateful passages exist in the Quran: passages that call for fighting those who don’t believe in Allah, that support ISIS’s ideology and help them recruit young Muslims like Aqsa Mahmood.

Exactly. That’s why holy books are dangerous. That’s why the idea that there is such a thing as a holy book or instruction is so dangerous.

After all, only when a critical mass of Muslims propagate the idea that the Quran may not be God’s literal and perfect word to man and denounce the violent and hateful verses in the Quran that support ISIS’s ideology, will we successfully counter ISIS’s propaganda and stop the flow of wannabe jihadis crossing that Turkish border.

I would love to see that happen.



  1. aziraphale says

    I’m halfway through a book, Misquoting Muhammad by Jonathan A. C. Brown. It makes a good case that there are and have been different traditions of Qur’an interpretation. One, I think, regards that verse as belonging to a wartime context, rather than a command for all time. Another tradition says that spreading the faith by force is not a duty for all Muslims, but should be done (if at all) only by a Muslim state. After all, Muslim states have coexisted with non-Muslims for long periods in the past.

    Of course atheists must hope that all religions will disappear or become irrelevant. But in the meantime we should be prepared to work with moderate Muslims, which we cannot do successfully if we require them to dump the Qur’an.

  2. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    the Quran is God’s literal … word to man

    The quran contains metaphors and similes. Metaphors and similes are not absolute truths. Therefore the quran cannot be literal truth.

  3. Barb's Wire says

    I’m not hopeful. In my experience, Islam is fairly inseparable from the belief in the Quran as the “most perfect word of god.” Without that, it just isn’t Islam anymore… just as without belief in the literal life, words and reserection of Jesus, Christianity loses its meaning.

    The most violent parts of the Quran revolve around the sacred life and words of their prophet – considered without sin. That is why you hear some people say that there really is no such thing as a moderate/liberal Islamic faith interpretation. I am less hopeful that people are going to reject any of the prophet’s supposed recorded life in the same way liberal Christians ignore whole swaths of the bible as simply story telling and not to be taken literaly…. since those instances of ignoring aspects of the bible by Christians do not directly involve the words and actions of Jesus himself. Those words/deeds are seen as literal. Thank goodness Jesus was represented as a (mostly) peaceful guy.

  4. brucegorton says


    If they cannot countenance the idea that the Quran may be wrong, that people can in fact disagree with it, then they are not moderates.

    They are at best a different flavour of extremist, and will really never be prepared to work with us. It will always be them using us to further their own flavour of fundamentalist aims at best.

    Once that’s done, they’ll turn on us just as badly as the group we were ‘allied’ against.

    And that isn’t really going to make things better. Sure in the short term we may succeed in dealing with whatever terrorist group has formed in the present, but then you’re going to find new groups forming.

    And we atheists will always be the villains, because we can’t really disagree, we will just quietly say “Well, we don’t want to offend our allies”.

    Dropping the infallible status of the Quran is not a debatable point for any real alliance. The ability to question and even dismiss the basis for Islamic belief is the core of what we are fighting for.

    Even if you say what you’re fighting for is human rights – part of that is the right to disagree. Without that right you don’t get all the other rights because suddenly there is a way to declare those rights null and void.

    Because this is the word of God, and is thus infallible.

    Any alliance which requires us to not criticise the beliefs of our allies is not worth it. It is also not going to result in improved rights for women, gay people, or racial minorities, because the things which negatively impact those groups are beliefs.

    And if there is a way to shield such beliefs from criticism, you can damn well bet bigots will use it. This isn’t Islam specifically, you can see the same thing in all sorts of religions. The fact is we cannot spare the “liberals” – because those who would require us to aren’t liberal.

    We do not require agreement from our allies, but rather the ability to disagree – and without that then there is no alliance. There is at best servitude.

  5. Folie Deuce says

    To do this, one has to resurrect the Mu’tazili school, which flourished in certain parts of the Muslim world in the 8th to 10th centuries but was killed off by Al Ghazeli and had has been more or less dead for about 800 years. This is the link between the Middle East and Hellenistic philosophy and the source of reason and critical thought (now defunct) in Islam. The good news is that there is a tradition within Islam one can turn to as a tool for reform. The bad news is that the Mu’tazili school calls into question much of what Muslims have been taught about the Koran for longer than anyone cares to remember. Mere mention of it brings accusations of heresy.

    An uphill battle indeed.

  6. sonofrojblake says

    Excellent, it sounds like there are at least some “believing Muslims” who are trying to drag their co-religionists kicking and screaming into the 18th century…

  7. Eric MacDonald says

    The traditional way of saying that the Qur’an is God’s literal and most perfect word is to say that it is the “uncreated word of God.” It is in fact God’s “Logos,” and has been with God for eternity. It is uncreated. That this cannot possibly be true, since so much of the Qur’an is an almost incoherent pastiche of Jewish, Christian and Zoroastrian sources, seems neither here nor there so far as the Ulema is concerned. The fact that scholars have repeatedly said, over the last 75 years or so, that the state of scholarship of the Qur’an is about at the stage that biblical scholarship was at at the time of Spinoza, is an indication of the degree of resistance to treating the Qur’an as a human creation.

    The early tradition squelched by Al Gahzali, who is credited with purifying the religion, even though he effectively brought freedom of thought in Islam to an end. It is, I am afraid, impossible for contemporary Islam to escape the logical bind it is in. If it accepts the Qur’an as a subject of critical thought, it must at the same time abandon any claim to its plenary inspiration. If it does not accept the Qur’an as a subject of critical thought, the Qur’an will continue to carry on its destructive work amongst Muslims (as well as the rest of us).

    However, resurrecting old schools is hardly a solution. It has to be done with modern critical methods, separating different historical strands in the Qur’an, comparing different readings, and wholly doing away with traditional canons of interpretation, all of which were established during Islam’s most imperialistic period.

    At the centre of the earlier suras of the Qur’an there is a religion of (relative) peace, mercy and forgiveness. This part of the Qur’an is currently held to be abrogated by later suras “revealed” during Muhammad’s most violent period, when he became a warlord, and closely involved in warfare, murder, pedophilia, robbery, and the collection of protection money (what Maher meant when he spoke of Islam as like the Mafia). Like many other religious leaders (Jim Jones, David Koresh, Joseph Smith) he arrogated to himself large numbers of women for his own use. This is the Muhammad corrupted by power. While I think it unlikely, reverting to the earlier suras of the Qur’an might be able to save Islam before it self-destructs, or leads to its own destruction.

  8. Brian Jordan says

    Even if you could persuade Muslims that the Koran is not an immutable divine work, you still have the problem of the hadiths, from which much of Islam is now derived. These stories have even poorer provenance than the Koran, being recognised by Muslim scholars as the product of winnowing a vast crop of fabrications. Unfortunately, this seems to count as nothing and they remain as untainted with suspicion as is the Koran itself.

  9. Folie Deuce says

    8 Brian writes: “Even if you could persuade Muslims that the Koran is not an immutable divine work, you still have the problem of the hadiths, from which much of Islam is now derived.”

    Excellent point and one that popular critics overlook too often. Too much of the debate focuses on the Koran, which contains a lot of bad stuff but is ultimately a revised version of the Bible (and often ambiguous enough for apologists to obfuscate). Most of the truly horrific stuff is found in the Hadith and the Hadith (along with the Sira and the Tafsirs) have arguably had greater practical influence on the development of Islam than the Koran. The Hadith cannot be reformed. The only solution is to discard them. There are Koran only Muslims but they are a small minority.

  10. Folie Deuce says

    7 Eric’s post above is excellent. One minor disagreement. “However, resurrecting old schools is hardly a solution. It has to be done with modern critical methods, separating different historical strands in the Qur’an, comparing different readings, and wholly doing away with traditional canons of interpretation, all of which were established during Islam’s most imperialistic period.”

    Yes, but the problem is that these critical methods strike the typical Muslim as being borrowed from Christianity and secular liberals. If you can show them that before Al Gazeli carried the day, there was a tradition of critical analysis within the faith you may of a chance at success. The traditional cannons of interpretation were canonized only after Al Gazeli convinced scholars that the doors of investigation were closed. Reopen those doors and re-examine the cannons.

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