Disbelievers: Suwar 1-18

In my conclusion of The Night Journey, Part 2, I had voiced some uneasiness with the Quran’s portrayal of non-Muslims. My proposal was that I would re-read all of the Quran’s material covered thus far and inventory what it said about non-Muslims. This became a document that took me six weeks to compile, in part due to other life circumstances and in part because it was a mental labor to appraise so many ayat. It took me a couple weeks more to figure out what I was trying to say and show with this document. Before I begin I want to be clear that I am not making any case against Islam or Muslims. I do believe that the core of Islam’s religious philosophy is constructive: justice at least, mercy at best. The scope of my distress with the Quran is much smaller and more personal. It’s just about the Quran and me.

There are things within the Quran that I disagree with. That’s fine. I came to the Quran wanting to understand it, not argue with it. What has bothered me is that the Quran ascribes motives to my disagreements –dark motives. It does this in how it portrays disbelievers: their motivations, their actions, their base character and potential. I wanted to compile these portrayals in order to substantiate my uneasiness and defend that I am not taking a mere few ayat out of proportion. The Quran takes issue with those who challenge it, and it answers them by discrediting their character. I am one such person.

My Project Document

The project that I proposed at the end of The Night Journey, Part 2 was to re-read the first eighteen suwar and document what depictions of non-Muslims I found in them. I deliberately have chosen not to inventory any of the scriptures that regarded the fate or punishments of non-Muslims. These do play into how disbelievers are perceived (i.e. implications of their deservedness), but I’m more concerned with how the Quran describes their character and motivations rather than their punishments. I did include passages that describe how God determines the hearts or choices of the disbelievers because this does have implications relevant to the topic. If someone doesn’t accept the Quran, it sometimes cites God’s prerogative to seal people into damnation. Such a person is thus portrayed as miraculously unreasonable, and this is a starting point from which the Quran dismisses any need to explain or engage the disagreement. Making disbelief a miraculous matter also affirms that accepting the Quran is the only valid and possible conclusion a human can have if they are intellectually honest.

The document does not quote ayat, but only my summary of them or my rationale for recording them. Whether or not I thought the portrayals of the non-Muslims were true or straw men did not factor into whether I recorded them. If you only represent a population by their criminals, even if those specific representations are true, you are potentially misrepresenting that entire population as equally criminal. Sometimes I included summaries of larger sections because they explain the context of individual ayat nested within the section, but not because that whole section concerned disbelievers. I wrote down mostly direct portrayals of non-Muslims, but included some examples of things that had indirect comment or implications. I also included all critical portrayals of Muslims, in order to show that the Quran presents that all humans are flawed, not just non-Muslims. Being Muslim does not mean being perfect, and I don’t want to give the illusion that the Quran only presents non-Muslims as flawed human beings.

I wanted to literally highlight the times that the Quran said something positive about non-Muslims, even when these things were interpretive leaps or slight implications. Many of these portrayals would be interpreted as pre-Muhammad Muslims among the disbelievers. The presence of pre-Muhammad Muslims in a population does indicate that there is something redeemable in that population, so I did feel it was right to include them. As such, I highlighted in yellow:

  • concessions that the criticisms do not apply to all members of the accused population.
  • portrayals of non-malicious motivation or character traits.
  • potential for repentance and conversion (rather than irredeemability).
  • portrayals of members of the accused population doing good things.

The document resulting from these parameters is attached in this link: TwoPennyPosts_Quran 1-18_Concerning Non-Muslims

My Summary

Non-Muslims are more frequently referred to as those who kafaruu, “covered/turned over,” than those who laa yu’minuu, “don’t believe.” The majority of non-Muslims mentioned by the Quran are those who have come into contact with divine revelation, not those who have no access to it, and so defamation of their character maybe shouldn’t be understood as applying to all non-Muslims. On the other hand, this is undercut by passages that set up Islamic belief as the original state of mankind (such as in 7:172), or intuitive to the human heart (like in the Quran’s repetitive sinkingshipscenario), or that the natural environment inherently teaches Islam (almost all of Surat ar-Ra’d). This means that all who are not Muslim can still be read as living in deliberate rejection of belief and the things that would guide them to it. The Quran portrays itself as an additional mercy that makes explicit the guidance already implicit in the world, which implies that even those who have not encountered the Quran are full disbelievers.

Still, the Quran is mostly concerned with those who have directly encountered it and do not take it at its word. It concludes that they are in some combination jealous, petulant, greedy, unreasonable, malicious, manipulative, conspiratory, toxic, deliberate, libelous, and conceited. Their motives are so intrinsic that sometimes they keep going even when they know their choices will mean their self-destruction. At best they are considered merely ignorant and not fully aware of what they’re doing, although this still requires them suppressing their deeper intuitions. But even at their best, the non-Muslims of the Quran do not merely live and let live, they are out to destroy the Quran and Islam –they are intolerant, they are anti-Islam. They attack from within as hypocrites who conspire, leech, and spread sedition. They attack it from without using slander, satire, or outright violence.

The Quran regularly uses the caveat that not all non-Muslims are this way, but most. This caveat is less cemented in the Quran’s material because it has not yet substantiated these claims with adequate examples of benign or inert non-Muslims. While flaws have been ascribed universally, virtues have only been credited to true Muslims. There are those few Jews, Christians, and Sabeans who are described as virtuous, but they are also simultaneously being interpreted as pre-Muhammad Muslims or converts and thus do not help us find positive representatives of non-Muslims. The closest exceptions provided in the Quran are the Egyptian men in Joseph’s story. Al-‘Azeez has good intentions towards Joseph, even though he fails and throws Joseph in prison wrongfully. The cupbearer treats Joseph honorably despite having been susceptible to Satan’s influence and initially forgetting Joseph. The Egyptian king is the only solidly benign one as he treats Joseph well, giving him honor and responsibility. Now, Joseph is different from most of the Quran’s protagonists in that he does not try to reform or start a community. He preaches in the prison, and we aren’t sure whether the cupbearer accepted his teachings or not, but otherwise he does not talk religion with any of the other Egyptians. How his religion interacts with his subservience to the pagan Egyptian court would be interesting (and helpful for our modern times!) but is not explored. How the Egyptians react to his Islamic living is not portrayed except through the diabolically lustful Egyptian women.

Joseph’s Egyptian men stand as the only explicitly depicted benign/inert non-Muslims, though they barely or never interact with Joseph’s religion and thus never are commented upon as those who kafaruu. In Muhammad’s time, the Quran perhaps relied on the living examples in peoples’ lives to fill in the gaps. As I have mentioned before, Muhammad’s highly influential and virtuous uncle, Abu Talib ibn ‘Abd al-Muttalib, protected Muhammad and his ministry in Mecca despite never converting to Islam. There are some traditions that try to explain how Abu Talib died with the statement of conversion on his lips, but many scholars are cynical of those accounts (particularly since they are often used to strengthen the legitimacy of Ali as Muhammad’s true successor, for Abu Talib was Ali’s father). Yet Abu Talib or non-Muslims like him have not appeared thus far in the Quran’s text.

How This All Applies to Me

It might seem overkill to inventory all the criticisms of every non-Muslim thus far. After all, what do I have in common with a Meccan polytheist or Medinian Jew? While I am historically disconnected from the specific people these criticisms were originally targeting, I do share the one essential feature that brings them under the Quran’s criticism: I do not agree with the Quran.

The Quran is not a racist book. Much to Islam’s benefit, the Quran has yet to specify any ethnicity or bloodline that takes precedence or special favor. It does not criticize the Jews because they were ethnically Jewish (indeed, they might be a proselyte Jewish community for all we know), but because they were resistant to Muhammad’s message. The polytheists aren’t portrayed as an ethnic group either, but always by their religious choices and behaviors. Thus the Quran doesn’t pick upon these peoples because of who they are, but because they have disagreed with and rejected taking the Quran at its own word. To be clear, the Quran –or rather, Muhammad– only has his own word to assert. In order to consider the evidences the Quran presents as proof of its ideas, one has to already accept the ideas of the Quran and what it says about those proofs. It takes a leap of faith to opt into this circular logic, one that many have found worthwhile, but it’s the same leap of faith that has to be taken for any other worldview. It does not stand apart as more objectively logical.

The pagans and Jews of the Quran’s times are not portrayed sympathetically in the Quran, but we can read into their portrayal understandable reasons for their objections to Muhammad’s Islam. The polytheists see it as supposition, a theology with less precedence than the experiences and heritage of their ancestors for generations past, taught by a man who asserts yet cannot back up his claims, reliant on the threat of damnation to motivate conversion. The Jews see it as at odds with their own scriptures, asserting upon them an authoritarian figure who misappropriates, reinterprets, and reworks their laws and culture as an outsider with his own interests. We can surmise these disagreements from how the Quran talks to them, and we can recognize that there is intellectual validity in these perspectives. The Quran never acknowledges the validity of their disagreements, however, instead asserting that there is plenty of proof and that if they weren’t so blind, arrogant, jealous, and unreasonable then they would come to the same assumptions about that proof as the Quran does.

Which brings things back to me, as I also do not agree with the Quran in some matters and do not accept that it is divine in origin. To pick a specific disagreement: I find Muhammad a questionable leader. Not having seen much of the chronologically early suwar yet, I do not know what his ministry’s inception looked like. What I have seen in our current material is a prophet who claims to be of the likes of Noah and Shu’ayb. Several of the prophets have proclaimed that they are not demanding money through their ministry, particularly Noah (10:72). Yet Muhammad got very rich through his ministry once it trended towards raiding and warfare, and he demanded jizya from those who he conquered (9:29). Though jizya was technically collected by the Islamic State, Muhammad was the Islamic State, and that he had centralized control over the money and loot is the same thing as owning that money directly. Shu’ayb preached that he was not exempting himself from any of the teachings he was presenting to the Midianites (11:88). Muhammad taught that men should not have more than four wives (4:3), but I know that he also claimed that a special exemption that allowed him to marry as many as he saw fit. His wife ‘Aisha is recorded to have even smarted off at him once that “It seems to me that your Lord hastens to satisfy your desire,” (Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim). I see in these two points inconsistencies that discredit Muhammad’s character, making the Quran suspect as a document that drives into its adherents how absolutely and unquestioningly they must submit to Muhammad’s commands as if to God’s.

This doesn’t make me hate Islam. I came to the Quran seeking to understand it, not correct it to my own point of view. What disturbs me is that the Quran handles any disagreement by defaming my motivations for doing so. When it is explaining away the character and intentions of its rejectors, it is setting up a group of them who are unrelatable and anathematized. By rejecting the Quran I am entering into the same group of them whose objections are being defamed and anathematized. That the Quran side-steps defending Muhammad’s actions by asserting his character through both direct description and through proxy descriptions of other prophets… well that’s fine I guess. Its job is to set up ideology, and that it should put the burden of defense upon its followers is fine. But it goes farther, telling its adherents that they do not need to defend this ideology. All objections to Muhammad or the Quran are really just a pretext for rebellion against God, it says, and such disbelief is motivated by arrogance, jealousy, greed, and willfulness –so much so that debate is without purpose (and even dangerous). By making such sweepingly negative portrayals of those who do not trust Muhammad unquestioningly, it writes me off as well. If I am unconvinced by a debate, it becomes further proof that God has sealed me in disbelief, that I am miraculously unreasonable.

Easy Prophecy

The Quran thus far is feisty, ready to fight, and confrontational. This makes sense when you consider that the Quran was the supply of rhetoric that Muhammad used to recruit adherents from non-Muslim populations and later to rally people for warfare under his totalitarian government. I do not think that Muhammad intended evil. Indeed, while we might be concerned with some of his means, his ends do seem to favor setting up a particular concept of a moral and united society. I can see in him perhaps the visionary who needed to be in complete control in order to make his vision happen, and this involved removing argument and intellectual competition from his community. An easy way to silence contrary ideas is to attack the intentions and character of those who hold them. This method works pretty well, and it’s easy to explain why:


“When you look for the bad in mankind, expecting to find it, you surely will.

–Disney’s Abraham Lincoln in “Pollyanna

All humans are flawed, and if you want to see bad in someone there’s always something there to find. The accuser can then claim those flaws as proof of its own truthfulness.

I am a flawed person. That I’m writing this blog betrays some iota of vanity and self-importance, that I should consider my opinion worthy of public display. I fight off sarcasm at times as I observe quirks and conflicts in the Quran’s text. I’ve had to amend informational errors in my past posts a few times for the sake of future readers (sorry early readers). If the Quran wants to disqualify my objections to it as derived from my vanity, petulance, or ignorance, there is in me some fodder for it to work with. I think that my worldview provides perspective and is important to spreading empathy and constructive direction in humanity, so naturally I want to see other people share my worldview. I see things in the Quran that look flawed, imperfect, or unconstructive and acknowledge them in a public place. If the Quran wants to say I’m out to convert its adherents and show people imperfection in its text, there’s fodder for that too. While I confess that I am a flawed human, I deny that those flaws are the source of my disagreement with the Quran. If the Quran tells people to look for the bad in me, presupposing that it is there as evidenced by my disagreement with the Quran, then they will surely find something that matches the Quran’s description. Just the presence of human universal flaws becomes evidence for the Quran’s case. It’s an easy prophecy, one that seemingly disqualifies your targets while also making you look credible.

While I confess that I am a flawed human, I deny that those flaws are the source of my disagreement with the Quran. Rather I take issue with some of the ideas and methods of the Quran. This includes the dehumanization of its non-adherents.

Snapshot of Now, then Moving On

So here, in the first half of the Quran, my impression of this book is that it poses a similar ploy as the tailors in The Emperor’s New Clothes. Its rhetoric draws lines in the sand that people must cross in order to prove that they are reasonable, generous, selfless, humble, and honorable. One of those lines is suppressing all doubts as to Muhammad’s fallibility. One of those lines is accepting the Quran is perfectly delivered and clear. Those are two lines that I cannot cross with personal integrity. The full implications of those confessions would require me to accept some things that I find untrue of God and humankind. I do not hate Islam, I love my Muslims friends, and I think I understand why people would want to be Muslim. My uneasiness with the Quran in no small part is that it will require my friends to reject me for my disbelief, and furthermore that it will teach them to read the same mal-intent in me as it reads into its in-text disbelievers.

This is the first half of the Quran in terms of textual mass. Ahead we still have 96 suwar to go. Each surah has its own context and there are lots of moments in Muhammad’s ministry that we have yet to see. There is a lot of potential ahead for new themes and ideas– and new portrayals of disbelievers. This is a snapshot of what I’ve seen and what I’m worrying after only first half of the Quran. So let’s keep going! And maybe by the end of the book I shall feel and think differently.

We Are Here

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