I opened Robert Spencer’s The Critical Qur’an with some trepidation. Would I, a layman unschooled in Islamic studies, be able to penetrate the thicket of verses whose sense I often cannot make out unaided, in order to understand what the Qur’an has meant through time, and especially what it means to Believers today, a meaning that – as Western non-Muslims by now should know — we ignore at our peril? Fortunately, and unsurprisingly, Spencer proves to be an assured and knowledgeable guide, as he takes the reader through all 114 Qur’anic suras (chapters), explaining the significance of each title and then the meaning of every verse that requires a footnote of comment or explanation. His patient lucidity soon puts readers’ fears of being overwhelmed by detail to rest. He is able, as a non-Muslim, to accept the existence of different manuscripts of the Qur’an, as well as variant readings of Qur’anic passages, and the contradictions within the Qur’an, both those Muslims are willing to recognize and deal with through the doctrine of naskh, or the abrogation of an earlier verse by a later one, and those contradictions that Muslims choose to ignore.
For the most important Qur’anic verses, Spencer provides beautiful mini-essays, brimming with information of all kinds, but especially with the commentaries he takes from the tafsirs of more than a dozen Qur’anic exegetes, from the 8th to the 21st century. See, for example, his essay — disguised as a footnote — on 9:29. Among the dozens of respected Qur’anic commentators whose work he brings to our attention, Spencer has chosen to rely most on the influential commentaries of Ibn Kathir (1301-1372) and the two Jalals, Jalal ad-Din al-Mahalli (1389-1459) and Jalal ad-Din al-Suyuti ( (1445-1505). He relies, too, on the 20th century tafsir of the Pakistani Islamic scholar Syed Abul Ala Maududi (1903-1979), and the Tafsir Anwarul Bayan of the Indian scholar Mufti Muhammad Ashiq Ilahi Madani.
About Ibn Kathir, I cannot refrain from quoting Spencer: “The contemporary Islamic scholar Ahmad von Denffer notes that Ibn Kathir’s work is ‘one of the better-known books on tafsir,’ and that it places ‘emphasis on soundness of reports.’ Says von Denffer, ‘This book although of the greatest importance to Muslims has been widely ignored by the orientalists.’ Until now.” In this 548-page book, only here, with that final telling “Until now,” does Spencer allow himself, in a slyly muffled fashion that will be missed by many, a well-deserved pat on his own back.
Until now there has not been a Qur’an available that is written in smooth, pellucid, contemporary English. The English Qur’an that has been most widely disseminated – Spencer’s version should drive it from the marketplace — has been the version first published in 1930 by Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, a convert to Islam who chose to render the seventh-century Arabic in a stilted, pseudo-biblical English.
Until now there has not been a Qur’an that recognizes the existence of variant versions and explains their histories – especially for the Warsh text, still used in northwest and western Africa, and the version accepted everywhere else, the Uthmanic text, named after Uthman, the third caliph, who supposedly distributed it in 653 A.D., though no trace of it remains – that Muslims believe has been unaltered ever since it was (supposedly) completed in 632 A.D. The Uthmanic Qur’an, published in Cairo in 1924, has been the dominant text ever since.
Until now there has not been a Qur’an whose translator-editor-commentator has brought to bear such a knowledge of other Qur’anic translations, in deciding on what meaning of a particular knotty passage or word to accept or reject. For example, 4:34 says that if a husband suspects his wife of disobedience he may “beat” her or, some translations read, “beat her (lightly).” Some even read “scourge”? Which is it? Spencer offers the versions found in a dozen different translations, and concludes that there is no justification for adding the gentling adverb, as apologists such as Abdullah Yusuf Ali have done so often.
After listing a dozen translations of the “salient word, waidriboohunna”[“beat”] Spencer continues with his enlightening note on the matter:
In her 2007 translation, The Sublime Quran, the Islamic scholar Laleh Bakhtiar translates waidriboohunna as “go away from them.” In light of the essential unanimity among all other translators, both Muslim and non-Muslim, this seems difficult to sustain, as it would require believing that all of these authorities got the passage wrong until Bakhtiar. But the acute embarrassment that this passage causes contemporary Muslims is widespread. In his 1980 translation, Asad adduces numerous traditions in which Muhammad “forbade the beating of any woman,” concluding that wife-beating is “barely permissible, and should preferably be avoided.”
In contrast, Sheikh Syed Mahmud Allusi in his nineteenth-century commentary Ruhul Ma’ani gives four reasons that a man may beat his wife: “If she refuses to beautify herself for him,” “if she refuses sex when he asks for it, if she refuses to pray or perform ritual ablutions, and “if she goes out of the house without a valid excuse.”
Also, Muhammad’s example is normative for Muslims, since he is an “excellent example” (33:21), and a hadith has Aisha report that Muhammad struck her. Once he went out at night after he thought she was asleep, and she followed him surreptitiously. Muhammad saw her, and, as Aisha recounts: “He struck me on the chest which caused me pain, and then said: Did you think that Allah and His Apostle would deal unjustly with you?” In another hadith, a woman comes to Aisha and “showed her a green spot on her skin, caused by beating from her husband;” Aisha is made to say: “I have not seen any woman suffering as much as the believing woman.”
Think of all that has gone into this note to 4:34: Spencer compares thirteen different translations of this single word waidriboohunna, from “beat” and “scourge” to “beat (lightly)” and in the latest, and least plausible, translation, by Laleh Bakhtiar in 2007, “go away from them.” Spencer also mentions the translator Muhammad Asad, who presents several accounts of Muhammad forbidding the beating of any woman, in an attempt to convince readers that even though, in his own version, Asad translates waidriboohunna as “then beat them,” the verse should not be taken literally, in light of Muhammad’s own behavior.
Spencer does not stop there. He provides a refutation of both Asad and Bakhtiar, convincing us to acknowledge the real meaning – “beat” – of waidriboohunna. He quotes the four reasons justifying the beating of one’s wife, as provided by Sheikh Syed Mahmud Allusi in a nineteenth-century tafsir. He further brings to bear two “reliable” hadith, one in which Aisha reports that Muhammad struck her on the chest for her disobedience, and another where Aisha recognizes as a bruise the “green spot” on another woman, “caused by beating from her husband.” By the time we are finished with this footnote, we have been able to compare the translations from thirteen different English versions, including some that are accurate, and others that are deliberately apologetic misreadings of 4:34, and to take into account as well two stories in the hadith, where women testified to having been beaten by their husbands. One of them is Aisha, the very young wife whom Muhammad hit in the chest. And then we arrive, after all that, at Spencer’s by now irrefutable conclusion: 4:34 means that “a husband may beat his wife if he even suspects her of disobedience.”
Until now there has not been a Qur’an in English that has brought to bear in its capacious glosses so much learned commentary by Muslim exegetes, elucidating obscurities, comparing existing variants of passages, judging the worth of different translations of the same passages, showing exactly how the arguments in favor of this meaning or that were weighed and either accepted, or found wanting, both in past tafsirs, and by Spencer himself. And finally, Spencer not only gives us the meaning of passages wherever possible, but he is also ready to admit, where necessary, that a particular passage’s meaning cannot be teased out and remains obscure, something that Muslims are chary of admitting.
Until now there has not been a Qur’an that connected this word, or that passage, however seemingly slight, to very great consequences for the behavior of Believers and the distress of Unbelievers. Consider, for example, this passage from Qur’an 9:111: “Indeed, Allah has bought from the believers their lives and their wealth, because the garden will be theirs, they will fight in the way of Allah and will kill and be killed.” Spencer explains that “this verse has become in the modern age the rationale for suicide bombing. Ibn Kathir explains: ‘Allah states that He has compensated His believing servants for their lives and wealth — if they give them up in His cause – with Paradise.’ Ibn Juzayy adds significantly that this verse’s ‘judgment is general to every believer doing jihad in the way of Allah until the Day of Rising.’” Without Spencer’s guidance, would the ordinary reader have made the connection between 9:111 and 9/11?
Until now there has not been a Qur’an that reveals, rather than attempts to hide, the contradictions between passages, some as simple as this: “Allah here creates the universe in eight days, but at 7:54, 10:3, 11:7, 25:59, 32:4, and 50:38, he does it in six days.”
Muslims do not admit that the Qur’an is full of contradictions. Other than the “abrogated” verses, they simply ignore them. Spencer, not being a Muslim, is under no such mental compulsion. He notes such contradictions and discusses their likely origin and significance.
Until now there has not been a Qur’an in English that discusses for so many passages, whether a particular one is likely to date from the earlier, Meccan period of Muhammad’s life, when the verses were more accommodating to non-Muslims, or to the later, Medinan period, when the verses become distinctly harsher. Nor has any previous English Qur’an given such attention to the contradictions between the Meccan and Medinan suras that are resolved through the interpretive doctrine of “naskh,” or “abrogation,” which holds that in case of contradictions, the later suras prevail over – abrogate – the earlier ones.
Spencer gives as much attention to the peaceful verses as he does to those that denounce the Infidels and call for Jihad. This is important to note, because his Muslim critics – should any of them dare to discuss his Critical Qur’an — will insist that as an “Islamophobe” he gave his attention entirely to the “handful” of verses that are most unflattering to Islam. Not true. It is true, however, that it is the discussion of non-Muslims in the Qur’an that most interests this reader and, I suspect, most Infidels.
As to the Jews, Spencer notes the verses that describe Jews as “apes” (2:65, 7:166) or as both “apes and pigs” (5:60), which he says are the terms used for the Jews – not just the Israelis — by Jihadis today. He says that the Jews’ refusal to accept Islam is “why most Muslims don’t accept the idea that the Jews have any right to the land of Israel.”
The Qur’an is based on a strict division of humanity between Believers and Unbelievers, and it is the duty of Muslims to spread Islam, by persuasion if possible, by conquest if necessary, throughout the world, until Islam everywhere dominates, and Muslims rule, everywhere.
Unbelievers – all non-Muslims — are “the worst of animals”: “Indeed, the worst of animals in Allah’s sight are the ungrateful who will not believe.” (8:55). While Believers are the “best of peoples” (3:110), the Unbelievers are “the most vile of created beings.” (98:6). “Indeed, Allah’s condemnation is more terrible than your condemnation of one another, when you were called to the faith but refused.” This is helpfully glossed by Spencer, who says that “Allah hates the unbelievers more than they hate themselves.” At 56:79, the Qur’an is a book “which no one touches except the purified,” and Spencer connects this command to our present dealings with imprisoned terrorists: “Non-Muslims, because they are unclean (see 9:28) are not to touch the Qur’an. This was why the American guards at the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, where many jihad terrorists were held, would only touch the Qur’an while wearing gloves.” Thus, in explicating verses, Spencer also makes clear how they explain the behavior of both non-Muslims and Muslims today.
The Qur’an keeps contrasting the “vile” nature of the Unbelievers, with their likeness to animals, and their nearly subhuman behavior, to the Believers, “the best of people” who “fight for the sake of Allah.” The Unbelievers do not only refuse to believe in Islam, but they even try to persuade Believers to turn away from Allah, and become apostates. Much of the Qur’an is taken up with the need to fight, to kill, to smite at the necks of, to strike terror in the hearts of, the Infidels. When you fight the Infidels they must convert or be killed. Only the People of the Book are given a third choice: to accept the status of dhimmi, which means to submit to a host of disabilities, including the payment of the jizyah, a crippling tax that can best be understand as a form of protection money extorted by Muslims who will, upon its payment, promise to “protect” those who pay it from attacks by Muslims themselves.
The Qur’an is full of contrasts between the Believers, who are promised Paradise – the surest way to Paradise is through killing Unbelievers when conducting Jihad – and the Unbelievers, who are guaranteed hell, the fire of Gehenna. A Believer who reads, or hears, the Qur’an, week after week, month after month, year upon year, will naturally come to hate and despise the Infidels, and some Muslims, as we know to our sorrow, will be moved to act on the Qur’anic commands, repeated so often in the sacred text, to strike terror in the hearts of the Unbelievers and to kill them. We can only be grateful that there are many Muslims who still manage to ignore those blood-curdling passages. But there is no way to guarantee how many Muslims (the “sons of Allah,” as Oriana Fallaci called them) will continue to do so. Western countries cannot take a chance with the safety and wellbeing of their citizens by continuing to admit into their midst tens of millions of people for whom the Qur’an is the uncreated and immutable Word of God.