The Happy, Harmless Quran

What’s all the fuss about? If only we threw off our secular ignorance, religious ignorance and fearful ignorance, then we could interpret the Quran wisely and rationally; then we could reach this conclusion: “The religion of the Quran is a religion of peace.”

So says Garry Wills on p. 140 in his book What the Quran Meant: And Why It Matters.


But we can skip over his first three chapters on the three kinds of ignorance mentioned above. It seems no challenge can be rational, by definition, since peace and good will dominate the Quran, and it is actually misunderstood by the ignorant. The rest of his book is intended to correct the hysterics.

Instead, let’s analyze chapter 7 on peace, chapter 8 on jihad, chapter 9 on shariah, and chapters 11-13 on women’s issues.

Chapter 7

Apparently the Quran extols an almost global family of believing Jews, Christians, and Muslims, living in harmony and tolerance. Great for Western utopians, as leftists tend to be.

However, he neglects to mention Muhammad’s atrocities against the Jews, when he ordered 900 men and pubescent boys to be slaughtered and the women and girls to be enslaved, after he conquered them outside Medina, which the Quran approves of (33:26-27). Was the atrocity a one-off? Islamic history says Jews and Christians suffered death and persecution and second-class treatment, as Muslims waged aggressive and unprovoked jihad for centuries. (See chapter 8, next).

The Quran calls Jews “apes and pigs” (7:166, 2:65, and 5:60). One could place those verses in their historical context to soften the extreme rhetoric, but for centuries now they have opened the door to deep prejudice.

As for apostasy, he casually brushes aside its punishment by equating biblical Christianity with quranic Islam, not mentioning the fact that the first generations of Christians never executed anyone for leaving the faith (nor does the New Testament order this), while Muhammad and his earliest caliphs certainly did, on the authority of the Quran and his example.

Chapter 8

As for jihad, it is clear that he does not understand the chronology of the Medinan chapters, for he repeats this tiresome stock misinterpretation: “The Quran never advocates war as a means of religious conversion, since ‘there is no compulsion in religion’ (2:256)” (p. 132). However, that verse was written when Muhammad first arrived in Medina and was weak. But as soon as he grew in military might, he compelled all sorts of people to convert or die (polytheists), or convert or die or pay a second-class citizen tax (Christians and Jews) in 9:29. (A prejudicial tax based on religion does not even squeak by as tolerant, one more contradiction of his utopian chapter 7.)

Further, he omits an adequate discussion of qital, which exclusively means war, slaughter, and killing. In light of that, his long analysis of 2:191-94 (an early Medinan passage) overlooks one key clause about fighting for the Kabah shrine back in Mecca: “Fight [qital] until… worship is devoted to God.” Clearly Muhammad says here that he would never let the Meccans rest until he made it a place devoted (only) to Allah. And in fact that is what he did from 623 until 630, when he finally conquered Mecca with 10,000 jihadists and kicked out or killed the unclean polytheists (9:28).

The most egregious oversight in his book, as noted, is the missing analysis of Quran 9:29, which is an open-ended call to qital inside and outside of Arabia. Ever since Islam’s prophet marched north with 20,000 jihadists to Tabuk in late 630 to fight the Byzantines, who never showed up, Muslims have been waging the same aggressive jihad/qital for over 460 years before the pope called the first crusade. Wills should know this; instead he seems to assume that Muslims peacefully acquired the lands they now hold, and the crusaders unjustly picked on them. Yet 9:29, reflecting the Tabuk jihad, set the institutional genetic code from then until now.

Chapter 9

This chapter on shariah is better because he discusses the harsh punishments in the Quran, but the Old Testament is worse, he is quick to point out to justify the Quran, an ineffective, distracting ploy.

Further, he is wrong to believe that only the Islamic State imposed them. Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria, for example, have done so and still do. Various websites like Amnesty International and Jihad Watch (which Wills sniffs at) keep track of them.

And no, it is not wise to allow any part of shariah into our legal system. Numerous harmless religious laws, like washing or praying five times a day, are irrelevant to the law, except to protect these practices. But the Quran’s punishments and domestic and commercial laws, for example, are out of date and must not be allowed in the West (or anywhere else).

Chapters 11-13

His three chapters on women’s issues are actually very solid in most places, like divorce and the few verses that respect womankind. Maybe the Muslim feminists whom he lists can indeed make something of those positive verses. However, the problem is not the abstract positive verses, but the concrete oppressive ones.

His discussion on wife beating, for example, is thorough, except his odd comment about a husband using a tooth stick to strike his wife. “I think a modern Muslim who threatened his wife with a toothbrush might become guilty of killing her -- with laughter” (p. 189). In the seventh century tooth sticks could be long and inflict injury. And why be so cavalier about a husband raising his hand against his wife, at all?

Many traditions indeed report through Aisha herself that she was betrothed to Muhammad at six and the “wedding” was consummated at nine, immediately afterwards. So Wills is wrong to plead ignorance about her age at consummation (p. 186, note 3). Unsurprisingly, he does not bring up 65:4, which assumes prepubescent girls are fair game.

To wrap up, since Wills takes many shots at the Bible, as Western scholars delight to do (though none or hardly any shots at the Quran), here is a thought experiment: If everyone on the planet were to follow the teachings of the four Gospels and epistles to their fullest, the world would be much better off, such as no more wars, no legal mutilations, love for womankind and humanity generally, and a lot of grace.

Following the Quran to its fullest would produce these results, to name a few: too many bruises and not enough equal legal rights for womankind; no religious freedom to critique Islam and Muhammad; no grace (a missing doctrine in the legalistic Quran); legal floggings and mutilations; jihad/qital might not cease (Muslims still wage war on Muslims).

Rather, Wills reassures us that the troublesome verses in the Quran are simply misunderstood and just fine as they are or maybe after minor interpretational adjustments.

But we are not the ones who are ignorant of what it really says. The fault lies not in our “confusion,” but in the Quran itself, whose extreme verses are clear enough.

Ironically, too often he is the one who seems ignorant of unfavorable evidence in the Quran, so his short book comes across mostly as a condescending and shallow exercise in special pleading and unfounded puffing.

No need to buy his book.

James Arlandson’s website is Live as Free People, where he has posted Thirty shariah laws, Ten shariah laws that oppress women.

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