A Brief Illustrated Guide to Understanding Islam
||I. A. Ibrahim
||Islam, Science, Propaganda
||May 1998 (2nd ed.)
This 74-page publication is widely used by Muslims in their efforts to cast Islam in a favorable light, and to gain converts. It is well produced on glossy paper in a soft-cover booklet form, and attractively laid out, with many illustrations. It is available free of charge, can be read on its own dedicated website, and can also be freely downloaded as a pdf file. The campaign to spread Islam is evidently well funded. The real issue, though, is its message. Does it present mainstream Islam accurately?
Chapter 1, “Some Evidence for the Truth of Islam”, deals first, and at some length, with the so-called scientific miracles of the Qur’an. Muslims believe that the Qur’an is literally the words of Allah, and they now claim that among the revelations Prophet Muhammad received, there was scientific knowledge far in advance of his time. It makes a great deal out of the Qur’an’s occasional references to natural phenomena, when in reality these are either everyday observations, known from ancient times, or are scientifically incorrect. Let us take one example: it asserts (p. 13) that mountains stabilize the land, when in fact major faults are associated with mountain ranges pushed up at the junctions of tectonic plates. There is actually strong evidence in the Qur’an that Allah thought the Earth was flat. The rules for fasting during Ramadan reinforce this by ignoring the effect of latitude on day length. This is as expected if we assume the 7th century author of the Qur’an never traveled beyond Arabia. Other faulty claims of scientific miracles include “The Qur’an on Human Embryonic Development”, “The Qur’an on the Cerebrum”, and “The Qur’an on Seas and Rivers”.
As for the claimed support of western experts: it is certainly true that a few scientists have been exploited by Islamists, and that many of them have been quoted out of context, or even blatantly misquoted. There are many documented examples of this happening. e.g. Dr. Alfred Kröner, Dr. Allison (Pete) Palmer, Dr. William Hay and Dr. Tom Armstrong who have all given video interviews to The Rationalizer and who have all denounced the “scientific miracles in the Qur’an” claims (William Hay refers to them as “all readily absurd”).
The Illustrated Guide fails to mention at least one ‘scientific’ argument employed by Muslims. This is the claim that the Qur’an miraculously predicts the existence of pain receptors in the skin (Dr. Zakir Naik has made this claim which can be viewed on Islamic sites such as SunnahOnline.com). It arises from verse 4:56, in which Allah tells non-Muslims that in the afterlife he will roast their skins off them, but then keep replacing them, so that they can be burned off repeatedly – ad infinitum. Nor are we reminded that the sun sets in a muddy pool (Qur’an 18:86). One is left wondering why these revelations were omitted, because they are every bit as unconvincing as the others.
The rest of Chapter 1 is devoted to six further topics, including Biblical prophecies, miracles performed by Muhammad and the growth of Islam. Not one of these rises above the intellectual level of the claim of scientific miracles. For example, there is an attempt to show that the book of Deuteronomy, in the Old Testament, predicted the coming of Muhammad (rather than Jesus Christ, as some Christians believe). It begins by ignoring the context of the verse in question (Deuteronomy 18:18) – earlier in Deuteronomy 18 it has been made clear that the prophecy concerns a descendant of one of the tribes of Israel. The subsequent arguments are so vague and convoluted that it is hardly necessary to refute them. For example, on page 34 a quotation from the Bible is given (John 1:19-21): John the Baptist was asked whether he was the prophet referred to in Deuteronomy, and replied that he was not. The Illustrated Guide continues: “We conclude from this that Jesus Christ is not the prophet mentioned in Dt. 18:18.” In the Qur’an, references to the Bible are frequently inaccurate – for example, Mary, the mother of Jesus, is confused with the much earlier Miriam, sister of Aaron and Moses. She is even included as one of the members of the Christian Trinity.
Chapter 2 is titled “Some Benefits of Islam”, and is very brief – just four pages. The cited benefits are: The Door to Eternal Paradise, Salvation from Hellfire, Real Happiness and Inner Peace, and Forgiveness for All Previous Sins. It is clear that in their efforts to convert disbelievers, Muslims concentrate on the most uneducated, unhappy and vulnerable people, such as prison inmates. In fact, one of Islam’s main sources for converts are prisons. 80% of prisoners in the United States who “find faith” in prison, choose Islam as their religion. This phenomenal rate of conversion to Islam is not found outside of prisons where it is losing as many adherents via conversion as it gains.
Chapter 3 is headed “General Information on Islam”, and begins with some core Islamic doctrines: belief in Allah, angels, Allah’s revealed books (i.e. only the Qur’an, since most Muslims erroneously claim that previous scriptures have been corrupted), the Day of Judgement (or Resurrection), and divine predestination. The last is interesting: Allah has already recorded all that has happened and all that ever will happen, and everything (down to the tiniest detail) that happens or does not happen is in accordance with Allah’s will. The Qur’an even tells us that Allah had the option of ‘giving every soul its guidance’ but would prefer to ‘fill Hell with jinns and men’ (Qur’an 32:13). On the other hand, we are told that people have free will and are responsible for their actions.
The Illustrated Guide goes on to give some remarkably selective and benign sayings of Muhammad, and a couple of pages on the Day of Judgement – including the consequences of not being a Muslim when you die. Further sections are concerned with how to become a Muslim, the Qur’an, the Prophet Muhammad, Islam’s role in the development of science, what Muslims believe about Jesus, what Islam says about terrorism, human rights, the status of women, et cetera. The section on terrorism begins by claiming “Islam, a religion of mercy, does not permit terrorism,” and proceeds with an irrelevant passage from the Qur’an. It mentions neither a hadith in which the Prophet himself said that he had triumphed through terror (Bukhari 4.52.220), nor Allah’s promise in the Qur’an to terrorize unbelievers (Qur’an 3:151). Similarly (on p. 61), support for human rights and justice in the Qur’an was clearly hard to find. What is easy to find is hatred and justifications for violence. For example, the Qur’an’s version of the Golden Rule: Muhammad is the messenger of Allah; and those with him are forceful against the disbelievers, merciful among themselves (Qur’an 48:29). This would explain why where Islam dominates, non-Muslims rarely can expect what most others would consider justice.
Readers will easily notice a pattern in the Illustrated Guide. Typically, a quotation from the Qur’an or Hadiths (sometimes focusing on a single word) is used as the basis for a lengthy or extravagant argument, with references to supposedly authoritative sources. But when one looks at the quotation in context, the argument is easily seen to be faulty and the references turn out to be polemic works of propaganda, or other books of dubious value to mainstream Islam. Throughout the Qur’an, seemingly pleasant sentiments can be found, which (when seen in their proper context) actually convey confusion or menace. An example of this is the often-quoted “Let there be no compulsion” verse (Qur’an 2:256). The very next verse condemns all unbelievers to everlasting hellfire. Or the misquoted “If anyone slew a person” verse (Qur’an 5:32). When the omitted clause which allows killing is reinserted into the verse and we read it in context with the next two verses, what first appeared to be a peaceful message, is in actual fact a chilling warning to non-believers.
A book such as the Illustrated Guide therefore has to be compared with the true content of its sources: the Qur’an and Hadiths. This is not difficult, because there are many different English versions of the Qur’an freely available online (e.g. this Islamic site provides 34 compared English translations, and this Islamic site provides the English literal translation). Then there are the Hadiths which are easily obtained in English (e.g. from the Compendium of Muslim Texts, and this Islamic site which includes a few narrations that have oddly been misplaced/removed from the Compendium). There are also the tafsir (e.g. here, here, here and here), sira literature (e.g. here and here), fiqh (e.g. here and here) and various fatwa websites run by contemporary Islamic scholars (e.g. here and here).
Many who read the Qur’an are surprised by its hostility towards non-Muslims, and also by the amount of text that it devotes to detailing their endless punishment in the afterlife. We get a taste of this on p. 51 of the Illustrated Guide, where we are told that non-Muslims are condemned to eternal torment. But we are not told that the Qur’an has hundreds of verses expressing hatred for them, describing them as “the worst of beasts” (Qur’an 8:22, 8:55, 98:6), or that it describes the many punishments that await them in hell. For example, that they will be wearing garments of liquid pitch and fire, and be bound in yokes and chains (Qur’an 14:49-50, 22:19-22, 73:12-13, 25:11-14), they will spend eternity in a blazing fire with exchangeable skins so that they can be roasted over and over again (Qur’an 33:64-65, 4:56), their faces will be covered in fire and their lips will be burned off (Qur’an 14:49-50, 23:103), boiling water will be poured over their heads and used to scald the skin and internal organs (Qur’an 56:41-42, 22:19-22), they will be dragged by the face through boiling water and fire (Qur’an 54:48, 40:71-72), beat with maces of iron (Qur’an 22:19-22), and be fed painful, noxious, choking foods which will leave them hungry and boil their insides (Qur’an 73:12-13, 88:6-7, 44:43-46, 37:62-67). Nor are we told that Allah is described as a deceiver (Qur’an 3:54, 7:96-100, 8:30, 10:21, 13:42), that he leads some people astray, hiding the truth from them and then condemning them to hellfire (Qur’an 2:6-7, 3:56, 3:85, 3:91). Despite all this, Allah is somehow also merciful.
So the Illustrated Guide is rather selective in what it chooses to reveal to its readers. It conceals most of what has earned Islam its criticism, allowing only a few indications to slip through. For example, it paints a positive picture of the status of Muslim women, though the Qur’an makes it clear that women are inferior to men, both in a legal and domestic context (Qur’an 2:228, 4:34). They must obey men, who can beat their wives if they fear disobedience (Qur’an 4:34). Women are to inherit half as much as their brothers (Qur’an 4:11), and one male witness is worth two females (Qur’an 2:282). A Muslim man may marry up to four women (Qur’an 4:3) – and if they do not satisfy him, he can keep non-Muslim women (even married ones) as sex slaves (Qur’an 4:24, 23:5-6, 70:29-30). The Qur’an approves of slavery: it refers to slaves as those “whom your right hands possess”, and to women with whom you – a man – may have sex as those who are “lawful to you”. Their consent is not needed (Qur’an 2:223). It is well known that under Islamic law, divorce is very easy for a Muslim man, but not so well known that the Qur’an’s rules concerning divorce refer to wives who have yet to reach puberty (Qur’an 65:4). In other words, the Qur’an condones pedophilia. Why would it do this? One of Muhammad’s wives was Aisha, whom he married when he was in his fifties and she was six years old – and he began sexual relations with her when she was only nine. In addition, Muhammad was awarded special sexual privileges by Allah (Qur’an 33:50). There is little reassurance to be found if we pursue this topic in the Hadiths, where women are likened to domestic animals, described as deficient in religion and intelligence, and said to be the majority of the occupants of Hell.
The Illustrated Guide says very little about Islamic law, and never mentions the word ‘Shari’ah’. For a book that claims to be a “guide” to understanding Islam, this omission may seem surprising. At its essence, the Shari’ah is simply the teachings of the Qur’an and Muhammad’s Sunnah put into practice. Therefore, following the Shari’ah in some form or another is an integral part of being a Muslim. However, if we view this book as an inaccurate propaganda tool aimed at those who have little understanding of the religion, the omission of any references to Shari’ah make sense, given some of the negative features of Shari’ah that are constant regardless of which mainstream interpretation you may be referring to. For example, cutting off the hands of thieves (Qur’an 5:38), and stoning adulterers to death (Sahih Bukhari 3:34:421). And under Shari’ah, there is no option to apostatize. All four schools of Islamic jurisprudence are in agreement that the penalty for leaving Islam is generally death (the liberal Hanafi tradition prefers women not to be executed, but instead imprisoned and beaten until they repent).
On p. 55 there is mention of “the rapid and peaceful spread of Islam”. Islam did spread very quickly at first, but the claim of “peaceful spread” is historically incorrect. Muhammad himself conquered Arabia, this fact is not disputed by anyone. Muhammad’s followers were not always willing to fight, and so Allah had to tell the faithful that fighting non-Muslims is good (Qur’an 2:216). And death while fighting non-Muslims is even better, because you will go straight to Paradise, where virgins are waiting for you (Qur’an 2:25, 47:15, 56:1-40, 44:51-56). By the end of his life, Muhammad was in a strong position, and very aggressive. One of the Qur’an’s last chapters (chronologically) is Sura 9, in which Allah commands Muslims to “Fight those who do not believe in Allah, nor in the latter day, nor do they prohibit what Allah and His Messenger have prohibited, nor follow the religion of truth” (Qur’an 9:29). Muhammad’s death, in 632, was followed by a violent struggle for succession: thus began the Sunni–Shi’ite divide, which still remains the source of much violence.
Despite this internal conflict, Muslim armies quickly set out to impose the new faith, sweeping across vast areas of the Middle East, North Africa, Armenia, Georgia, Persia and India. Muslim invaders held parts of Spain from 711 to 1492 (for a time, virtually all of it), but were driven from France after a defeat near Tours in 732. In the 14th century, the Turkish Ottoman Empire began to bring a large part of Europe – the Balkans, Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary – under Muslim rule. Its armies besieged Vienna in 1529 and 1683. The Barbary pirates (from Ottoman lands in North Africa) carried out wide-ranging and much feared slave raids in Europe, until they were suppressed early in the 19th century. Today we see the same thing continuing all over the world (India, Nigeria, Philippines, Russia, Thailand, to name a few), where terrorist groups like the Rajah Sulaiman Movement and Boko Haram readily admit their goals are to establish Islamic states and implement Shari’ah.
Today, forced conversions to Islam are also reported all over the world, even in the United Kingdom. This problem of gaining willing converts existed from the beginning. For its first 13 years while Muhammad was simply a preacher of religion in Mecca, Islam grew at the rate of 10 new Muslims per year. But when he turned to jihad and politics in Medina, Islam grew at an average rate of 10,000 per year. One of Muhammad’s main difficulties during his time as a preacher was that Christians and Jews usually spurned his message – which explains why Allah turned against them (Qur’an 2:87-96, 5:60, 2:63-66, 9:29-30, 9:123). A surprising feature of the Qur’an is that its order is not chronological, but (roughly) that of decreasing length of chapters – an arbitrary decision by those who first assembled it. When it is put into its revelational order, we see that Allah’s attitude toward unbelievers was relatively tolerant at first, when Muhammad’s position was weak (in Mecca), but became harsher as his power and confidence increased (after he moved to Medina). Of course, the Illustrated Guide does not mention any of this.
The Qur’an was revealed over a span of 23 years and contains a multitude of inconsistencies and contradictions. This explains the need for the Qur’an’s principle of Abrogation (Qur’an 2:106, 16:101): where there are contradictions, earlier instructions from Allah are to be replaced by later ones. When the Qur’an is put into chronological order, and the principle of Abrogation is applied, to resolve the contradictions, it becomes apparent that the militant interpretation of Islam is the only interpretation supported fully by the text. All others require us to make careful selections from the Qur’an, ignoring its many aggressive passages – something it expressly forbids.
Finally, one of the biggest misrepresentations of Islam in the Illustrated Guide is its portrayal of Muhammad as a peaceful man who patiently endured persecution. Islam’s own sources paint a very different picture of him. Violence under Muhammad was a frequent occurrence, and the list of killings ordered or supported by him number at least 43. He and his men murdered (and even tortured for monetary gain) hundreds of people (mostly Jews), and in their victories over neighboring tribes they took many women and girls as slaves or extra wives. All this is made very clear in the Hadith and sira literature, and the Qur’an gives numerous hints in its references to fighting and slaves. As well as the very aggressive Sura 9, we find that Sura 8 is titled al-Anfal – Spoils of War.