Here we reflect on the Qur’an, which is part of an ongoing personal effort of reading through sacred religious texts and providing reflections on them. For another reflection, please visit my entry on the Tao Te Ching. For this article, I have used the phrase “the Good and the Ugly” in the title because I want to locate myself somewhere in the middle of two extremes. I do not wish to place myself alongside those who only see bad in the Qur’an or with those who see the Qur’an as perfect in all possible ways.
To begin, we will briefly acknowledge some of the basics of the Qur’an so that we know what we are speaking about. Muslims believe that the Qur’an’s 114 suras (“chapters”, which are mostly arranged from the longest to the shortest) came directly from God and thus constitute the highest authority by which to regulate one’s life . The Qur’an’s main message is that there is one God, in Arabic Allah (“the God”), and Muslims believe the book to be the literal words of God spoken directly through the angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad, who then repeated the same words to his listeners, who in turn memorized or transcribed them.
The Qur’an makes many claims concerning its nature. We won’t go into great detail, but we find it calling itself “the Good”, “the Mighty”, “the Inspiration”, “the Wonderful”, “the Exalted”, “the Excellent”, and so on. The Qur’an provides believers guidance (2:2), is the absolute truth (69:51), wise (36:2), and is noble and righteous (80:16). It also claims there is no other book that is its equal, which has led many Muslims to believe that its contents are so beautiful and unparalleled that it can’t be equaled in human communication (17:88).
The Qur’an doesn’t, however, have much concern with historical narrative although there are occasions where historical incidents are referred to in fragments. It tells many stories (some of which will be somewhat familiar to Jews and Christians, since the Qur’an borrows and appropriate various biblical stories), gives various laws, warnings, and it tends to hop from topic to another with little continuity. To help shed some light on the historical context of the Qur’an’s verses, Muslims make use of commentaries and the hadith (traditions of the words and deeds of Muhammad). We will also, in this article, be making use of a handful of hadith were they can illuminate the meaning of various Qur’anic verses.
We begin here with what we will consider to be “the good” teachings and messages of the Qur’an. These are verses that typically espouse the likes of tolerance, care for the vulnerable, charity, equality, the mercy of Allah, and some moral imperatives like not committing adultery.
Several verses affirm that Allah loves his human creatures, especially those who do good (2:195; 3:134). Muslims are to respond to evil with good (13:22) with what is best (23:96). The same teaching is found in Q28:54 and Q41:31. Q41:34 teaches that good and evil are not equal: “The good deed and the evil deed are not alike” and that one ought to respond to evil with what is best. Muslims are elsewhere exhorted to do good and be kind to parents, relatives, orphans, the poor, near and distant neighbours, close friends, needy travelers, and bonds people in your possession (4:36). These are moral teachings that we would consider virtuous. We would encourage as many people to embrace such teachings as possible and to put them into practice when dealing with others.
Allah is sometimes portrayed as being merciful to human beings. We find that Allah promises mercy for those “who ward off (evil) and pay the poor due, and those who believe Our revelations” (7:156). Allah will show mercy to those who accept Muhammad and “who believe in him, and honor him and help him, and follow the light which is sent down with him” (7:157). Allah intends to provide ease for his followers rather than creating for them hardship (2:185).
Allah is said to support equality between the sexes. In Q3:195, we read that “I suffer not the work of any worker, male or female, to be lost. Ye proceed one from another.” Both men and women will receive equal reward for their deeds. In Q16:97, “Whosoever doeth right, whether male or female, and is a believer, him verily We shall quicken with good life, and We shall pay them a recompense in proportion to the best of what they used to do.”
The Qur’an affirms some level of tolerance: “Say: O disbelievers! I worship not that which ye worship; Nor worship ye that which I worship. And I shall not worship that which ye worship. Nor will ye worship that which I worship. Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion” (109:1-6).
This passage, on its surface, appears to affirm religious tolerance by saying to a disagreeing party that “You have your way, and I have my Way.” There is more, however, that we need to say about this. It has been argued, for instance, that the passage is part of the Meccan revelations given by Allah to Muhammad when Muhammad’s following was still small and in tension with the pagans of Mecca. At such a time, Muhammad had little choice but to teach some level of religious tolerance lest he and his followers be defeated. This changed later after Muhammad moved to Medina and accrued a far larger and more passionate following who could strike back at the Meccans. Others have argued that this verse has been abrogated (superseded) by the later verses of fighting. Tafsir al-Jalalayn says that this verse “was [revealed] before he was commanded to wage war [against the idolaters]”.
Other Muslim sources reveal the context of Q109:1-6 to be that of the Meccans reaching out to Muhammad with offerings. They hoped to get Muhammad’s movement to cease growing. Twentieth-century Islamic scholar Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi says that the Meccans were seeking a compromise with him, which was for the Meccans to worship Muhammad’s God for a year and for Muhammad to worship their gods for a year. In response to this offer, Muhammad received sura 109, which denounced any possibility of this happening. So, on this reading, rather than Q109:1-6 expressing religious tolerance, the passage actually shows a revulsion at Pagan unbelief. However, despite these readings, it can be argued that Q109:1-6 does, on a surface level, seem to grant unbelievers some level of freedom to practice their religion.
In other passages in the Qur’an, Allah is said to be patient. He instructs Muhammad to preach the message with fairness and in a good way: “Call unto the way of thy Lord with wisdom and fair exhortation, and reason with them in the better way.” They must also be patient: “But if ye endure patiently, verily it is better for the patient. Endure thou patiently (O Muhammad). Thine endurance is only by (the help of) Allah. Grieve not for them, and be not in distress because of that which they devise” (16:125-127). In Q2:153, Muslims are to be patient because Allah is patient.
In Q42:40 we find a teaching urging forgiveness for wrongdoings: “The guerdon of an ill deed is an ill the like thereof. But whosoever pardoneth and amendeth, his wage is the affair of Allah.”
One must respect his or her parents: “Thy Lord hath decreed, that ye worship none save Him, and (that ye show) kindness to parents. If one of them or both of them to attain old age with thee, say not “Fie” unto them nor repulse them, but speak unto them a gracious word” (17:23). Further, one is to give to others, such as relatives, the poor, needy, and travelers, what you owe them (17:26). Do not commit adultery (17:32), take the wealth of orphans (17:34), and be arrogant (17:37). Also, one is to conduct business in an honest manner (17:35).
The Qur’an has a sensitivity for orphans and those who are vulnerable. We are told not to oppress the orphan or drive away the beggar (93:9-11). One is also told to feed the orphan, prisoner, and the poor: “And feed with food the needy wretch, the orphan and the prisoner, for love of Him. (Saying): We feed you, for the sake of Allah only. We wish for no reward nor thanks from you” (76:8-9). Muhammad instructs his followers to provide donations for parents, relatives, orphans, the poor, and needy travelers (2:215).
To summarize, what we find in the good parts of the Qur’an are various moral virtues such as honouring, respecting, and caring for one’s parents, orphans, and the vulnerable. There is a clear social dimension to Muhammad’s teaching, such as to “live frugally, care for the poor, and be generous with sharing wealth for the good of the whole community” . Further, Muslims are to be patient just as Allah is said to be patient. One must do good because Allah loves the doers of good. Allah affirms equality between the sexes in that both receive equal reward for their deeds. Allah is merciful to human beings and to those who shun evil and accept Muhammad.
We now turn to the ugly side of the Qur’an. This side includes many verses and passages. Some instruct Muslims to commit violence on unbelievers and others speak about unbelievers, women, slave-women, Jews, and Christians in ways that are less than appealing. Some verses teach Muslims to be superior to everyone else and that those who do not accept Muhammad or believe in Allah will be doomed to eternal torture in which the Qur’an seems to take much enjoyment.
There are ominous verses commanding Muslims to wage war on unbelievers. Most pertinent is Q9:29 which instructs Muslims to,
“Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.”
In other words, Muslims are to wage war against unbelievers, namely those who do not believe in Allah or the Last Day. This includes war against the People of the Book (Christians and Jews). The jizya is a form of tax that those in submission under Islamic rule must pay to their Muslim rulers. This tax signifies the submission and obedience of whoever is forced to pay it. The respected Qur’anic scholar and exegete Ibn Kathir claims the context of this verse to be Allah commanding “His Messenger to fight the People of the Scriptures, Jews and Christians, on the ninth year of Hijrah, and he prepared his army to fight the Romans and called the people to Jihad announcing his intent and destination” [p. 55]. What followed was Muhammad’s final military expedition in 631 CE against the Byzantines. We also read that Muslims are to fight “the disbelievers and the hypocrites, and be firm with them” (9:73).
There are unfortunate verses about Christians and Jews. For example, the Qur’an teaches that “Never will the Jews or Christians be pleased with you, until you follow their faith” (2:120), which seems to affirm that Christians and Jews are incapable of ever being pleased with a Muslim. In fact, Allah commands Muslims to “Take neither Jews nor Christians as guardians—they are guardians of each other” (5:51). Guardians here means friends or allies. The same verse goes on to say whoever takes Jews and Christians as friends or allies “will be counted as one of them.” Muslims are commanded to be “firm with the disbelievers and compassionate with one another” (48:29). Muslims are superior: they are “the best community ever raised for humanity” (3:110). In contrast, Christians, Jews, and polytheists “are the worst of all beings” (98:6).
Jews are ill-treated elsewhere. Although the Jews, alongside Christians, are referred to as the “People of the Book,” the Qur’an blames the Jews for having killed the prophets and messengers of God (2:61; 2:87; 2:91; 3:21; 3:112; 3:181; 3:183; 4:155; 5:70). There are also odd passages in which Allah is said to turn Jews into apes and pigs (5:59-60; 7:166). These references to apes and pigs have led to some unpleasant results in the Islamic world. Saudi Arabian textbooks, for example, referred to Jews as “apes” and Christians as “swine”, which they only changed in 2006 . Such teachings are not isolated to just one case as there are many others . These references in the Qur’an have not done much to help the reputation of Jews among many Muslims.
The Qur’an teaches one to disrespect and distance oneself from unbelievers. It instructs Muslims to “not take your parents and siblings as trusted allies if they choose disbelief over belief. And whoever of you does so, they are the true wrongdoers” (9:23). Affirming such a belief no doubt breaks apart families and causes great division within them.
Unbelievers are condemned to hell because they do not acknowledge the manifest signs of Allah (6:21). Such people will “have a shameful punishment” (3:178) and Allah is portrayed as an active torturer of the damned. He will punish unbelievers with “a heavy chastisement” (3:56) and has prepared for them a “flaming fire” (33:64) where there is “scorching wind and scalding water” (56:42) that boils and bursts with rage (67:7-8). The damned will wear garments of pitch and their faces covered by the fire (14:50). Garments “of fire will be cut out for them; boiling fluid will be poured down on their heads” (22:19-20). The faces and backs of the damned will be struck (8:50), their faces will be blackened by the heat of the fire (23:104), and they will be “dragged into the Fire upon their faces” (54:48). But Allah has no intention of ceasing afflicting the damned. He will change the skins of the damned so they can be tortured all over again: “As often as their skins are consumed We shall exchange them for fresh skins that they may taste the torment. Lo! Allah is ever Mighty, Wise” (4:56). The condemned have chains around their necks (13:5, 34:33 36:8), are fettered by iron hooks (22:21), and are guarded by merciless angels appointed by Allah (66:6). The food that the damned will eat will come “from the discharge of wounds” (69:36) and there will be bitter fruit of the Zaqqum tree (37:62-67). Because the damned will be hungry, they will eat from this tree growing at the bottom of hell (37:62-66; 44:43-46).
What is objectionable is that Qur’an revels in the fact that unbelievers will go to hell where they will be tortured. Allah is also portrayed as the torturer. What is further objectionable is that Allah willfully leads people to hell. Allah is willing to lead people astray (7:186) and is said to “sendeth wrongdoers astray” (14:27). Allah is willing to place upon “their hearts veils” so that they do not understand Muhammad’s message (6:25-26). Allah also sets barriers around unbelievers so “that they see not” (36:9). Allah is quite willing to lead his human creatures to hell where he will torture them for eternity.
The Qur’an makes many unappealing statements about women. Some of these appear to ascribe to them an inferior status to men. For example, in the context of divorce regulations, Q2:228 says that “they (women) have rights similar to those (of men) over them in kindness, and men are a degree above them.” Further, “Women”, the Qur’an teaches, “are a tilth for you (to cultivate) so go to your tilth as ye will” (2:223). Tilth here refers to sex and this reading is affirmed by Sahih al-Bukhari (5.44.2979) and Sahih Muslim (3363). Sahih Muslim, for example, in speaking about anal sex and how this will lead to a child being born squint, informs men/husbands that “Your wives are your tilth; go then unto your tilth as you may desire” (3363). This is an uncomfortable teaching for women because it gives power over them to men and allows husbands, through divine instruction, to “tilth”, or have intercourse with, their wives however they like. One might suggest that the better marriage is one in which husband and wife are equal when it comes to sex, rather than one dominating the other.
The Qur’an teaches that the testimony of a woman is worth half of a man’s: “And call to witness, from among your men, two witnesses. And if two men be not (at hand) then a man and two women, of such as ye approve as witnesses, so that if the one erreth (through forgetfulness) the other will remember” (2:282). This is because of the deficiency of a woman’s testimony when it comes to financial matters; according to Tafsir Ibn Kathir, “Allah requires that two women take the place of one man as witness, because of the woman’s shortcomings, as the Prophet described.” This reading is also affirmed in the trusted hadith traditions. For example, in Sahih al-Bukhari, Muhammad tells a group of women that most of the condemned in hell are women and that this is because they “curse frequently and are ungrateful to your husbands” (1.6.301). Muhammad then says to the group that “I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religion than you. A cautious sensible man could be led astray by some of you.” Muhammad finally refers to the revelation of Q2:282: “He said, “Is not the evidence of two women equal to the witness of one man?” They replied in the affirmative. He said, “This is the deficiency in her intelligence.”
Moreover, in matters of inheritance a woman’s value is less. The Qur’an teaches that a son’s inheritance should be twice that of a daughter: “Allah chargeth you concerning (the provision for) your children: to the male the equivalent of the portion of two females, and if there be women more than two, then theirs is two-thirds of the inheritance, and if there be one (only) then the half” (4:11).
Further, it is probably true that many wives and women do not hold favourable views of polygamy and of men having sex with slave girls. But the Qur’an condones this. A husband can have up to three or four wives and a man, who cannot please or do justice to so many wives, can have sex with a slave girl instead: “And if ye fear that ye will not deal fairly by the orphans, marry of the women, who seem good to you, two or three or four; and if ye fear that ye cannot do justice (to so many) then one (only) or (the captives) that your right hands possess” (4:3).
In heaven or Paradise, women, known as Houris (52:20), will be present for the pleasure of men. The Houris have large and beautiful eyes (37:48; 44:54), and they are virgins because they have been “untouched beforehand by man or jinn” (55:56). Allah has created these women as virgins (56:36). These women will be companions (37:33) and they will have large breasts (Tafsir Ibn Kathir). According to Sahih al-Bukhari, Muhammad teaches that these women will be beautiful and that everyone will have two of them (4.54.476). Heaven, according to these teachings, seems a fantasy land of sorts for men in which women have the purpose of fulfilling their lustful desires.
In a discomforting passage for many Muslims, the Qur’an allows husbands to beat their disobedient wives after first warning them and then sending them to sleep in separate beds. The full verse reads:
“Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath men the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women). So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded. As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them. Then if they obey you, seek not a way against them. Lo! Allah is ever High Exalted, Great” (4:34).
This has indeed been of great discomfort as suggested by several translations that have attempted to downplay the violence of this passage. In Mustafa Khattab, the Clear Quran, this passage does not include such words as scourge or admonish, but to rather “discipline them gently.” Yusuf Ali’s translation says to “beat them (lightly)”. However, the major and most trusted translations of the Qur’an, such as provided by Pickthall, as quoted above, do not seek to water down the verse. Other Qur’anic translations say to “beat them” (Shakir; Muhammad Sarwar; Arberry) or “strike them” (Sahih International). Pickthall says to “scourge” them.
A final verse speaking of women worth mentioning is Q24:31. It is the conviction of this author that most women would like to be autonomous with what they wear on their bodies. But such women are unlikely to find the Qur’an’s teaching on the matter appealing. Q24:31 instructs believing women to cover up their bodies:
“And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and to display of their adornment only that which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their bosoms, and not to reveal their adornment save to their own husbands or fathers or husbands’ fathers, or their sons or their husbands’ sons, or their brothers or their brothers’ sons or sisters’ sons, or their women, or their slaves, or male attendants who lack vigor, or children who know naught of women’s nakedness. And let them not stamp their feet so as to reveal what they hide of their adornment. And turn unto Allah together, O believers, in order that ye may succeed.”
This author finds this teaching to be oppressive to women. Women are told to cover up whenever they go out in public because men are deemed too weak to resist the lure of the female body. Such a reading is supported by Tafsir Ibn Kathir who writes that “Women are also prohibited from wearing scent and perfume when they are going outside the home, lest men should smell their perfume” [p. 452]. This not only presents a low view of men, but is also unfair to men who have good relations with women and appropriate self-discipline when it comes to seeing women in public. For a woman, moreover, to lower her gaze is a sign of submission which is objectionable if one affirms equality between the sexes, as we ought to.
Allah’s love is also not unconditional. Although he does love his creatures (3:159), there are conditions attached to this love: Allah loves those who trust him (3:31), who turn unto him (2:222), do good (2:195), are steadfast (3:146), and are just dealers (60:8). Equally, these conditions mean that if you don’t do good, trust Allah, be steadfast, and be just, Allah will not love you. Allah also does not love everyone. He is not only an enemy to the disbelievers (2:98) but also does not love unbelievers (3:32), the impious and guilty (2:276), corrupters (5:64), aggressors (2:190), wrong-doers (3:140), the proud and boastful (4:36; 16:23), the treacherous and sinful (4:107), and the exultant (28:76). This is a conception of deity that many, like this author, find problematic. Allah is not an unconditionally loving God like we find in some other religions where God does love unbelievers, evil people, aggressors, the boastful, proud, etc. Loving such people does not mean God needs to condone those actions; rather, it just means that God loves them even if they do bad things because his love is unconditional. Allah is no such deity.
Having moved now through the “ugly” parts of the Qur’an, what can we say in summary? To summarize, we find verses of violence (9:29) which are not limited to a specific time and place but call for the ongoing subjugation of and war with unbelievers. We find nasty claims about Jews and Christians. Jews are particularly untrustworthy and Muslims are not to take them or Christians as friends (5:51). Muslims are superior and Christians, Jews, and polytheists are the worst of all beings (98:6). There are passages (5:59-60; 7:166) that refer to Allah transforming Jews into apes and pigs. And although this author finds these passages odd and does not quite know what to make of them, they nonetheless strike one as offensive, even if one isn’t a Jew. Unbelievers are to be kept away from because they are “wrongdoers”, even if they are your parents, siblings, and close friends (9:23). Hell is particularly unpleasant. It is a place of torture in which Allah is the active torturer who takes pleasure in the torture itself. One can only empathize with those unfortunate people who Allah willfully leads astray and thus to hell where they will be tortured. Another ugly side of the Qur’an is its view of women. Women are inferior in intellect to men (2:282), inferior in value to men (4:11), and husbands can have multiple wives (4:3), and have sex with them however and whenever they like (2:223). Husbands can beat their wives if they are disobedient (4:34) and virgin women will be specially made for men in Paradise. Women must also wear oppressive clothing because their looks might seduce men (24:31). Finally, Allah’s love is conditional and there are various groups of people he does not love.
All references to Ibn Kathir are taken from IslamKotob. 2000. Tafsir Ibn Kathir all 10 volumes. Dar-us-Salam Publications.
- Stowasser, Barbara. 1995. “The Qur’an and Its Meaning.” The Arab Studies Journal 3(1):4-8.
- DK. 2020. The Islam Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained. DK. p. 26.
- Telegraphy. 2006. Christians still ‘swine’ and Jews ‘apes’ in Saudi schools. Available.
- Solnick, Aluma. 2002. Muslim Clerics – Jews Are the Descendants of Apes, Pigs, And Other Animals. Available; Frean, Alexandra. 2008. Teacher accuses Islamic school of racism. Available; Goldberg, Jeffrey. 2013. Egyptian President Calls Jews ‘Sons of Apes and Pigs’; World Yawns. Available; Memri. 2009. Egyptian Cleric Muhammad Hussein Ya’qoub. Available.