Louis Palme / Sep 17, 2007

Most people are optimists. They believe that, generally, the world is moving toward a better state of affairs and that people can ultimately solve the major problems they confront – including epidemic disease and even global climate change.  They believe that there is such a thing as “good” and that it will ultimately prevail over anything that is “evil.”   And, above all, they believe in change as a positive occurrence.


That is why people are optimistic about Islam.   The religion must have some good elements because there are many truly good Muslims.  While it is acknowledged that there are a number of problematic issues with Islam – touching on basic human rights, tolerance, and separation of religion from politics -- the optimists of the world are confident that these can ultimately be overcome.  After all, these are simply issues that need more attention by people who will seek the “good” and make changes for the better.


Such was the sentiment of Daniel Pipes in a recent article about calls to ban Islam or the Koran: “My take? I understand the security-based urge to exclude the Koran, Islam, and Muslims, but these efforts are too broad, sweeping up inspirational passages with objectionable ones, reformers with extremists, friends with foes. Also, they ignore the possibility of positive change.” [1]

Likewise, in the Muslim world, there are optimists like Irshad Manji who are yearning for a new Islam.  She has actually launched “Operation Ijtihad” to open once again the door to independent thought, initially through economic empowerment of women.  “When people are indoctrinated to believe that any aspect of the founding moment is sacred, then the faith is destined to become static, brittle, inhumane.”[2]  She goes on to say:


Before democracy can have legs in Arab Muslim countries, these countries need to be exposed to a competition of ideas.  As I’ve been arguing, alternate interpretations of Islam can hold their own against the desert, even on the all-important symbolic level. That’s if we can get alternate interpretations disseminated, debated, aired, re-aired – popularized.[3]


In the light of this optimism, how can someone cogently argue that Islamic Reform is little more than a hookah pipe dream?  The answer boils down to three issues: the nature of religious reform, the impediments to reform in Islam, and the inability of contemporary reformists to overcome those impediments.


Religious Reform


Whenever one thinks of religious reform, the Protestant Reformation touched off by Martin Luther comes to mind.  What drove the young priest to nail his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenburg Castle Church in 1517 were the extra-Biblical excesses of the church of the day – including the selling of indulgences (get-out-of-purgatory-free passes) to sinful but well-heeled believers.  Luther devoted himself to getting back to the truth of the Bible and making it available to all people, initially via a translation of the Bible into German.  Today, the disagreements between Protestantism and Catholicism are not so much over that sacred text as they are about some extra-Biblical “traditions” that are still practiced by the Catholic Church, such as the veneration of Mary and the celibacy of priests.


When the Protestant Reformation is taken as a model, Islamic Reform would involve a re-emphasis on the sacred text of the Koran along with stripping away any practices or traditions which are not associated with the Koran.  In fact, there are today several “Koran Only” movements which would have Muslims abandon the Hadith (the recorded sayings and acts of Muhammad) and Shari’a (the system of laws guiding Muslim activities).  These movements include the United Submitters International, the Ahle Qur’an Group, and the Bazm-e-Tolu-e-Islam (Resurgence of Islam) Group.   Their critics argue, however,  that the Koran is unintelligible without the contextual information found in the hadith.  Also, some of the basic practices of Islam including the statement of faith, the pillars of Islam, and the five daily prayers offered by Sunnis and Shiites aren’t fully defined in the Koran.


Even more problematic, with regard to human rights, religious tolerance, and the separation of religion from politics, is the fact that the Koran itself provides the sacred mandates for these issues.  Without belaboring this point with an exhaustive list of texts, here are a few examples:[4]


Inequality of women: God charges you, concerning your children: to the male the like of the portion of two females. (Surah 4: 11) And call in to witness two witnesses, men; or if the two be not men, then one man and two women, such witnesses as you approve of, that if one of the two women errs the other will remind her. (Surah 2:282) 

Physical abuse of women: And those [women] you fear may be rebellious admonish; banish them to their couches, and beat them. (Surah 4:34)

Protection of children: O Prophet, when you divorce women, divorce them when they have reached their period . . . As for your women who have despaired of further menstruating, if you are in doubt, their period shall be three months, and those who have not menstruated as yet.  (Emphasis added.) (Surah 65:1 – 4)

Inequality of non-Muslims: Fight those who believe not in God and the Last Day and do not forbid what God and His Messenger have forbidden – such men as practice not the religion of truth, being of those who have been given the Book  -- until they pay the tribute [jizya] out of hand and have been humbled.  (Surah 9:29)

Cruel and abusive punishment: And the thief, male and female: cut off the hands of both, as a recompense for what they have earned, and a punishment exemplary from God. (Surah 5:38)

Beheading captives: When you meet the unbelievers, smite their necks, then, when you have made wide slaughter among them, tie fast the bonds. (Surah 47:3)

Taking of hostages and booty: It is not for any Prophet to have prisoners until he make wide slaughter in the land  . . . Eat of what you have taken as booty, such as is lawful and good.  (Surah 8:70)

Freedom of thought, including religion: [Hypocrites] wish that you should disbelieve as they disbelieve, and then you would be equal; therefore take not to yourselves friends of them, until they emigrate in the way of God; then, if they turn their backs, take them, and slay them wherever you find them. (Surah 4: 89)

Intolerance of other religions: O believers, fight the unbelievers who are near to you, and let them find in you a harshness; and know that God is with the godfearing.  (Surah 9:125)

Separation of religion and politics: That which you serve, apart from Him, is nothing but names yourselves have named, you and your fathers; God has sent down no authority touching them. Judgment belongs only to God. (Surah 12:40)


Consequently, any reform movement based simply on going back to the sacred text of the Koran only could lead to a religion which is no less inimical to 21st Century values regarding human rights, multi-culturalism, and the separation of church and state than the Islam currently practiced is such countries as Saudi Arabia and Iran.


Islamic Impediments to Reform

The Prophet of Islam told the believers that every word of the Koran is from God and a transcript is kept by God and is inscribed on an imperishable tablet.[5]   Clearly, any attempt to alter or edit this sacred book would be the height of blasphemy.  Beginning in Muhammad’s time, however, non believers have suggested that the Koran was compiled by Muhammad himself, that it is full of errors and contradictions, and that it is theologically shallow.[6]  When the Koran is subjected to the same types of historical, linguistic, and textual analyses that the Bible and the Torah undergo on a daily basis, Muslims go ballistic.  They accuse scholars of being Orientalists, irreverent, Islamophobic, and blasphemous.


A few years ago, Dr. S. Parves Manzoor authored a diatribe against Western studies of the Islam and the Koran titled “Method Against Truth.”[7]   He accused scholars of “an unholy conspiracy to dislodge the Muslim Scripture from its firmly entrenched position as the epitome of historic authenticity and moral unassailability.”  While he totally rejected what he called Orientalism, he acknowledged  that “sooner or later, authentic Muslim effort will have to approach the Koran from methodological assumptions and parameters that are radically at odds with the ones consecrated by our tradition.   . . . The only proper method for the study of the Koran is the one that allows its truth to speak for itself. “ 


What are those methodological assumptions and parameters that are so onerous?  First among them, according to Dr. Manzoor’s article, is any attempt to put the Koran into chronological order. He writes:

If the Koran itself may be understood as a chronological sequence of events, then whatever truth that it proclaims cannot be but temporal, and hence fallible. To introduce the category of “secular” time in the “sacred” event of revelation is, thus, to “con-fuse” temporality with eternity. . . Given its ideological commitment, it may not be unfair to assume that the ultimate objective of the Orientalist chronological exercise is not to pronounce any judgment on the “truth” of the Koran, but to spread confusion concerning its temporality and hence confound the unperceptive believer.


In actuality, most translators of the Koran -- including Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall and  Muhammad Asad -- provide approximate dating of each surah.  The most elementary step taken by anyone trying to understand a set of information (whether it is a jigsaw puzzle or evidence in a crime) is to put the information into some sort of logical order.  That the Koran is compiled according to the length of the surahs is a logical order but not a particularly useful one with regard to understanding the “truth” of the message contained within.  If the Koran were truly a timeless and eternal holy text, then any sequence of the surahs and their coincidence with historical events in the life of Muhammad would be random and uninteresting.  Actually, the opposite is true.  This insight leads to two troubling possibilities: 1) that verses in the Koran were created by Muhammad in response to real, instant situations he was facing; 2) that an analysis of contradicting statements would generally lead to discarding the former in favor of the latter.


There is today an English rendering of the Koran in chronological order published by the Center for the Study of Political Islam.  Not only are the verses in order and cross-referenced with historical events, but an Abridged Version eliminates the numerous redundant texts, thereby reducing the volume by 50%.[8]  The point of this particular rendering of the Koran is to demonstrate that Islam is a Political ideology, and the Koran along with the hadith and the histories of the life of Mohammed provide coherent chronology of Mohammed’s rise to political power.


Another concern of Dr. Manzoor has to do with studies tracing the origins of the Koran.  Clearly, there is a great deal of Biblical “name dropping” in the Koran, but usually minus the moral messages of the original text.[9]  To the scholars’ conclusion that much of the Koran was borrowed, Dr. Manzoor responds, “Inasmuch as the Koran and the scriptures exhibit overlapping themes and motifs, even of linguistic expressions, it is due to the identity of the Transcendent Source of this knowledge and not attributable to any vagaries of its human recipients.”  Of course, this explanation would not account for the numerous errors by the Transcendent Source, most notably, confusing Mary with Miriam (who lived 1500 years apart) or Gideon with Saul (who lived 170 years apart).[10]


A final general “no go” area regarding the Koran has to do with the meaning of obscure words in the Koran.  After all, the source of the Koran says, “We have revealed the Koran in clear verses.”[11]  Unfortunately, when it was originally compiled after Muhammad’s death, there were no vowel markings in the Arabic script.  Many consonant combinations could be read differently, as “f_t” could be either fit or fat.  Some of the words may have been derived from foreign sources, and so their meanings would be different depending on the original language.  A good example of this is the dispute over whether the promise of paradise was 72 virgins or 72 raisins.  To contest the “traditional” interpretations, however, is fraught with danger.


Attempts and Failures to Reform


There have been many attempts to reform Islam going back to Ibn Rushd (“Averroes”) in the 12th Century.  Often the reformists were banished or killed, their writings destroyed, and their followers dwindled away.  In more recent times there have been two reform movements which showed promise -- Mahmoud Mohamed Taha who wrote The Second Message of Islam and an American Islamic Reform movement led by Edip Yuksel who recently published Quran – A Reformist Translation.


The Second Message of Islam is described as a “humane and liberating understanding of Islam as an alternative to the cruel and oppressive interpretation underlying recent events in Iran, Pakistan, and Sudan, and equally negative traditionalist view prevailing in Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Muslim world.”[12]  What Taha observed is that prevailing Islamic practices, particularly Shari’a law, reflect the harsher mandates of the Medina Surahs in the Koran. (All but the last citation in the sampling of Koranic texts earlier in this essay were from the Medina period.) The portion of the Koran “handed down” in Mecca was much more tolerant, humanitarian, and spiritual.[13]  He concluded that the latter was the true message of Islam, but the people had rejected it.  Consequently, Muhammad had to first restore discipline and authority over the people until they reached the level of submission necessary to receive the true message, which was “the Second Message of Islam” and was contained in the Mecca surahs.  This ideal Islam was so superior to anything that existed, Taha concluded, that it has never been achieved by any nation to the present time.


Mahmoud Taha was arrested for apostasy in Omdurman, Sudan, in December, 1984.  In a trial that lasted barely two hours, he was condemned to be hanged.  After the perfunctory appeals process, he was hanged, and his body was carried off by helicopter to be disposed in an undisclosed location in the desert.  A small group of loyal followers continue to preach his ideology, but it has gained little traction in the Muslim community.  No one, for example, has compiled a Koran containing only the Mecca surahs.


As a reformed Islam, however, the Second Message of Islam would promote greater tolerance of non-Muslims, more respect for human rights and equality, and peaceful coexistence within a diverse community. But the movement failed to excise the offensive Medina verses from the Koran, and it didn’t manage to establish a community (much less, a country) that modeled the true message they espoused.  Granted, the Sudan could hardly be called a place of religious or even racial tolerance.


This year a team led by Edip Yuksel published Quran – A Reformist Translation in the United States.[14]  It is described as a progressive translation, resonating powerfully with contemporary notions of gender equality, progressivism, and intellectual independence.  Say the authors:

By presenting a peaceful and unifying message of the Quran, we hope to increase understanding and reduce tensions between the “Muslim World” and people of other religions, especially those whom the Quran calls the People of the Book (Jews and Christians). . . We explicitly reject the right of the clergy to determine the likely meaning of disputed passages. . . [W]e did not refer to books of Hadith and Sunnah, since they are commonly idolized and associated partners with the Quran. Their perceived value is wrongly based on the sanctified names of the narrators and the authority of the collectors, rather than their substance.  . . When we assert that God alone is the authority in defining the system of Islam, we mean that no signature and no authority beside God will be considered as justification for the truth-value of a proposition regarding Islam.  . . Each of us is responsible for our own understanding.[15]


Therefore, we promote Islamic reformation in Muslim societies by inviting them to dedicate their religion to God alone by upholding the Quran alone as the only source of their religion.[16] 


One of the noteworthy features of this version of the Koran is the extensive use of footnotes cross-referencing the text with the Bible.  There are also several Appendices dealing with extra-Koranic sources, definitions of general religious concepts, and topics related to Edip Yuksel’s own pet Koranic mystery – the cryptic reference to “nineteen” in Surah 74:30.


While the Reformist Translation contains a wealth of insights into the Koran, Arabic, and the not-so-subtle agendas of the original compliers and commentators of the Koran, it remains an English translation.  Other than advocating that Muslims adopt a Koran-only religion, the original Arabic Koran remains intact.  As we will see below, some of the softening of the Koran by this reformist translation boils down to selecting milder, and sometimes far-fetched, alternate wording for the text.  In other cases, a directive statement is put in the passive voice, changing a command to a mere statement of prophetic fact.[17] This approach cannot change the original Arabic, and it is questionable if the methodology could be applied equally to French, German, or Indonesian translations of the Koran.


At the beginning of this essay was a list of passages from the Koran which would be problematic from the point of view of human rights, religious tolerance, and separation of religion from politics.  As was previously noted, all but the last citation were from Surahs written during the militant Medina period of the Koran’s revelation.  The way the Reformist Translation dealt with many of these verses was to find less offensive renderings of the Arabic into English –

Inequality of women -- Surah 4:11  (No change)

                                     Surah 2:282 (No change)

Physical abuse of women -- Surah 4:34  “beat” becomes “separate” 

 Protection of children –- Surah 65:1-4  (Reference to those who have not menstruated as yet is dropped from the reformist rendering.)

Inequality of non-Muslims –- Surah 9:29  (A long footnote explains that the tribute (jizya) was actually reparations paid by two defeated Bedouin clans in the Battle of Hunayn, 629 A.D., and the verse was therefore a command specific to that incident.  Not only does this explanation contradict the account in the History of al Tabari (Volume IX, paras. 1654 – 1676) and overlook the fact that the text was specifically about the People of the Book, but it also ignores the 1,400 year tradition of dhimmis paying jizya for protection while living as non-Muslims in Muslim countries.) 

Cruel and abusive punishment – Surah 5:38 “cut off the hands” becomes “mark, cut, or cut off their hands/means”

Beheading captives – Surah 47:3 “So, if you encounter those who have rejected, then strike the control center until you overcome them. Then bind them securely.” (Emphasis added.)

Taking of hostages and booty – Surah 8:70 “wide slaughter in the land” becomes “battle”; “booty” becomes “what you have gained”

Freedom of thought, including religion – Surah 4:89 (No change)

Intolerance of other religions – Surah 9:125 “unbelievers” becomes “ingrates”; “harshness” becomes “strength”

Separation of religion and politics – Surah 12:40 (No change)


From this brief sampling of problematic verses, it can be seen that the Reformist Translation has attempted to alleviate some of them, at least by finding less offensive English renderings of the original Arabic.  (The continuing practice publicly beheading criminals, severing the hands of thieves, and beating wives with impunity in Saudi Arabia indicates that there is no confusion there about the real meaning of the Arabic texts.)  So in this sense, the Reformist Translation is no more than a cosmetic change, and it can’t be considered substantive reform. Perhaps the best one can hope for as an outcome of this huge undertaking by Mr. Yuksel and his colleagues is that it will promote more conversations and dialogues about disregarding the hadith and other extra-Koranic texts used by Muslims.  To gain momentum, however, this reformist movement will have to overcome over a millennium of these texts being an integral part of Islam.  Further, the movement will have to deal with the well-funded opposition of countries like Saudi Arabia who have a vested interest in maintaining all the practices and rituals of Islam which are sustained by the hadith and the Shari’a.  Nevertheless, this new reformist translation of the Koran may be the catalyst which will break the logjam that has kept Islam mired in the 7th Century.  Even that would be a change for the better.



[1] http://www.danielpipes.org/article/4868


[2]  The Trouble With Islam, p. 155


[3] ibid., p. 171


[4] Quotations from the Koran are taken from A.J. Arberrry, The Koran Interpreted, 1955, which is claimed to come closest to conveying the impression made on Muslims by the original Arabic.


[5] See Surahs 43:1 and 85:22


[6] See Surahs 15:91, 16:101,  21:5, 25:4-5, 34:43, 46:7-8, and 74:24-25


[7] http://www.islamonline.net/english/Contemporary/2003/08/article03a.shtml.  This article was selected because it is relatively concise, yet it contains arguments similar to those reflected in larger works, such as Edward Said’s Orientalism


[8] A Simple Koran, Center for the Study of Political Islam, 2006, via www.cspipublishing.com


[9] For example, the Koran says that Jonah was sent with a message (Surah 37:142), but nowhere in the Koran is the reader told what the message was.  The message is only found in the Bible, in Jonah 1:2, that the city of Nineveh was to be destroyed because of its wickedness. 


[10] Compare Surah 3:35-40 with the information in the Bible, Numbers 26:59, regarding Miriam, and Surah 2:249 with the Biblical accounts in Judges, Chapter 7, and I Samuel, Chapter 10, regarding Saul and Gideon.


[11] Surah 22:16


[12] The Second Message of Islam, 1987, page 1


[13] Compare Surah 25:62-76, “handed down” in Mecca, with Surah 9, one of the last Surahs, “handed down” in Medina.


[14] This book has met with organized opposition and may not be available in bookstores.  It can be obtained through the publisher at www.brainbowpress.com or via www.islamicreform.org.


[15] Pages 11-12

[16] Page 406

[17] For example, the troubling command in Surah 5:33 “This is the recompense of those who fight against God and His Messenger, and hasten about the earth, to do corruption there: They shall be slaughtered, or crucified, or their hands and feet shall alternately be struck off, or they shall be banished from the land” is changed to “The recompense for those who fight God and His messenger and seek to corrupt the land is that they will be killed or crucified  . . . .” (Emphasis added.)

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