"You Can Justify Anything if You Quote it Out of Context"


This is another installment in our series, Answers to Objections. Some day in the near future (if it hasn't happened already), you'll be telling someone what's in the Quran, and they'll respond with something like this: "Well, the Bible has a lot of violent passages too, and people can pretty much read these holy books however they want to read them."

In other words, it's not what is written in those books; the problem is that some people are looking to justify violence and they will pick and choose passages to help their justifications.

The person you're talking with will probably think her or his comment will end your line of reasoning, because for someone who doesn't know much about Islam or the Quran, the comment seems like a legitimate objection.

This is a perfect opportunity to explain a little about the differences between other religious doctrines and Islamic doctrines. Not only is the content different, the way it was written is different too. So here's one possible way to answer:

"The Quran is different in several important ways from any other religious book. Do you know how it was written?"

The person probably don't even know that much, and I think it's important to establish — in this subtle and unoffensive way — just how much your listener doesn't know about Islam. It helps to create a frame of mind conducive to listening to new information.

So when the person says, "No, I don't know how it was written," you can continue:

"The entire Quran was written by one man, Mohammad, over the course of his lifetime. It took him 23 years to write it. Actually he didn't write it, he recited it because he was illiterate. It isn't full of metaphors or obscure stories. It isn't a collection of things written over many years by many different authors like some other religious books. It is mostly graphic descriptions of hell and Paradise, and direct instructions on how a Muslim should behave, dictated to Mohammad directly from Allah (through an angel).

"In other words, you can't really justify anything with it. You may be able to do that with some other religious books, but the Quran says very clearly and directly what a Muslim must do to avoid hell and make it to Paradise. By the way, do you already know about the principle of abrogation?"

The person you're talking to will probably shake his or her head. So you can explain it:

"Well, since the different chapters, or suras, came as revelations periodically over Mohammad's lifetime, and since his circumstances changed so much, the nature of the revelations changed too. So there are conflicting passages in the Quran.

This will catch your listener's interest.

"Some passages encourage Muslims to be tolerant toward other religions, and some passages encourage Muslims to be intolerant and even violent to unbelievers.

"But, oddly enough, the Quran itself has some passages explaining what to do with its own contradictions. The passages say when two passages in the Quran conflict with each other, the one that came later is better than the one that came earlier. This is the principle of abrogation. Unfortunately, all the intolerant and violent passages came later, and they supercede the earlier peaceful and tolerant passages."

And at this point, I would probably try to persuade the person to read the Quran themselves. (Read more about that approach here: Push Them to Read the Quran.)

Another version of this objection is something like, "The Bible is violent too." Read more about how to respond to that here: What About the Violent Passages in the Bible?

So that's how I would answer this objection. How about you? What would you say? Or how could my answer be improved? What would you add to the response? Leave your answers in the comments, or email them to me and I will post them for you: citizenwarriorgeneral@gmail.com (I'll post them anonymously unless you tell me otherwise).

Let's help each other get really good at awakening others to this fascinating and important body of knowledge.


Anonymous 1:06 AM  

I was talking with people believing in Islam about abrogation. They said they've never heard of it. When I checked Wikipedia it said that the practice is not universally accepted amongst Islamic scholars. So perhaps Islam has changed in some parts of the world and does not use abrogation anymore? Or it was never used that widely?

Which passage in the Quran asks for abrogation?

Citizen Warrior 1:48 AM  

The key abrogation passage in the Quran is 2:106, which says: "Whatever of Our revelations We repeal or cause to be forgotten, We will replace with something superior or comparable. Do you not know that Allah has power over all things? Do you not know that Allah reigns sovereign over the heavens and earth and besides Him you have no protector or helper? Would you question your messenger as Moses was questioned in his time? Those who exchange their faith for disbelief have gone astray from the right path."

Read this thorough article on Bill Warner's site, written mostly by David Bukay PhD, from the School of Political Science at the University of Haifa:

Abrogation and the Koran

The passage from Wikipedia that says, "not universally accepted amongst Islamic scholars" doesn't mean much. If some small percentage of reformers don't like the principle, but almost all Islamic scholars in the Muslim world use that principle as a matter of course, then the Wikipedia statement is technically true but misleading.

Citizen Warrior 2:27 AM  

Another possible angle is to talk about the "out of context" part of the objection. People can fairly easily quote things from the Bible or Torah "out of context" because the passage really refers to a particular historical event.

But the Quran is considered the direct word from Allah. It is considered perfect and the last word for ALL TIME. Mohammad's example is also the perfect example for all time, and he followed the Quran's dictates very strictly.

The violent, intolerant passages are not quoted out of context. The peaceful, tolerant passages have been abrogated, but that's a different issue, and this is a good opportunity during your conversation to explain abrogation.

Citizen Warrior 11:44 AM  

A reader wrote in with this comment:

"The violent passages in the Bible are a record of history and not an invitation to use violence. Christians live by the New Testament and follow the teachings of Jesus Christ and follow the ten commandments. It's that simple."

Citizen Warrior 2:09 PM  

Here's another answer from a reader:

"Only Islam, among all the major religions, is the directly spoken word of god, unchangeable, eternal for all time. Any attempt to interpret, ignore, or minimize any word in the Koran, is apostasy. All Muslims are eternally mandated to torture an apostate to death. ALL MUSLIMS. EVERYWHERE.

"The Koran resides in Allah's seventh heaven, eternal, unchangeable, and obligatory. Every word. The Bible, the Pentateuch, and all other major religious books are accepted as the words of men, except in the rare cases where god directly speaks, which is then made clear in the text.

"No Muslim can say any part of the Koran, the Sira(Mohammad's biography), or the Haddith(Mohammad's actions and sayings), are applicable only to the seventh century A.D., or irrelevant. When the Koran mandates making a '...great slaughter in the land,' every Muslim must obey it everywhere, at all times. This is Allah's mandate.

"Mohammad is the perfect human. All Muslims must emulate his words and actions, even to extent of using an odd number of tissues to wipe themselves after a bowel movement, or never eating or drinking standing up. Muslims are allowed to rape captured women, enslave them, and trade them. FOR ALL TIME.

"Just because most Muslims are not busy slaughtering us does nor mean this verse is repealed. They are simply being apostates. Luckily for us.

"Read the Koran, and remember that every word is eternally mandated by Allah. EVERY WORD. EVEN THE UNPLEASANT ONES. Ask any Muslim if they allowed to ignore any part of the Koran, or say it only applied to Mohammad's time. After much hemming and hawing and evasiveness, they must say, NO, every word is an eternal mandate, 'from Allah's mouth to our ear.'"

Citizen Warrior 2:15 PM  

Bill Yoder wrote in with the following:

My comments are not critical but I hope they will add something as I have been thinking about this subject for some time.

At the time of the crusades, we would be hard pressed to see a difference between the Christians and Muslims as both were violent people. Both tried to portray some spirituality and promoted morality, but their actions far outweighed what they said and promoted "might makes right".

But it is almost a thousand years since the last crusade and Christianity has changed dramatically. Martin Luther was a priest in the church and his thesis was based on scripture. Thus it has been since. Men of God led by the Holy Spirit examined the Word of God and the Church and civilization grew steadily. I personally recall listening to relatives arguing about "legalism" and "liberalism" and we have all benefitted from the discussions. In short: the Bible contains all the information necessary for correction and instruction in rightousness.

But Islam is still fixated on the crusades and refuses to recognize any changes in Christians. If the Quran contains anything enabling "moderate" Islam it is encumbent on the Muslims to search it out and urge their brethren to accept it.

The term "abrogation" is new to me but very helpful to my understanding. It is interesting that I learn this about the same time I read about Islam's scientific contributions. An article was reprinted in the "Levitt Letter" written by Frank J. Tipler, professor of Mathematical Physics at Tulane University. He says "the reason Muslims never developed fundamental physics is because the leading Muslim theologians declared the idea of fixed physical laws to be heretical. The Koran (verse 6:64) states 'the Jews have said, "God's hand is fettered," Fettered are their hands, and they are cursed for what they have said. Nay, but His hands are outspread; He expands how He will'". How can anyone have peace if the very laws of physics could change at any monent.

How reassuring it is to know that:
"While the Earth remains
Seedtime and harvest
And cold and heat
And summer and winter
And day and night
Shall not cease."
and if I jump off a 10 story building, I will surely die.

Anonymous 7:50 AM  

I wrote a long comment about this a few days ago -- I thought it was on this post, at least, but it hasn't appeared, so I think the internet ate it.

People who reply to frightening Qur'an verses by saying "Yeah? But what about [insert disturbing verse from the Pentateuch here]? How come you aren't worried about anyone carrying that out?" assume that Jews and Christians are picking and choosing, and that therefore Muslims can too. Or they assume that the Qur'an must have some "context" that makes the frightening verse OK, even though they have no idea what that context would be.

In the case of Christians, they aren't carrying out frightening laws from the Pentateuch because the New Testament declares that Christians don't need to follow Old Testament law. End of story. Whereas for Jews, the crucial context is the way the Pentateuch has always been interpreted in Jewish tradition. As many have pointed out, many of the violent verses referred to specific battles with specific tribes that no longer exist, within the Land of Israel. There are no open-ended commandments to subjugate people all over the world, for all time.

But now take scary verses that do sound open-ended, like the ones that command that a disobedient child be stoned to death. The rabbis of the Talmud (the authoritative text in which the ancient rabbis worked out how all the Pentateuch verses would be applied in real life) were horrified by that too. They came up with clever legal arguments to prove that God could not possibly have meant that verse to be taken literally and that it could never be carried out in real life. They concluded that the only reason those verses were in the Bible was to provide a few more verses for people to study (since in Judaism, studying the Word of God is a form of worship). All Orthodox Jews fully accept the Talmud as the authoritative interpretation of Jewish law. This is why Child Protective Services doesn't have to watch out for an epidemic of child-stoning in Hasidic neighborhoods in New York; it's never going to happen. The rabbis came up with legalistic restrictions on every scary-sounding, violent verse. Incidentally, the rabbis also ruled that Jewish law applies only to Jews (this is obvious from the Old Testament anyway), and that Jews must obey local, secular laws and respect local governmental authority (this is a principle called "the paths of peace"). Thus Jewish law becomes a matter of religious devotion rather than a political agenda that Jews seek to impose on the rest of us.

This is what it means to have a religious context in which scary-sounding verses are nothing to worry about. Any Jew who wanted to act on those verses would have to rebel against two thousand years of Jewish tradition and against rabbinic authority that *all* Orthodox Jews accept as fully binding. And it didn't take me that long to explain the context, either -- just one paragraph. I could do the same for any frightening verse in the Pentateuch -- if I didn't know the details off the top of my head, I know where I could go to find them.

Anonymous 7:51 AM  

(continuing my comment)

So what is the "context" that explains why frightening verses in the Qur'an are nothing to worry about? Islamic apologists always say that we're taking verses out of context, but somehow they never provide that elusive, all-important context. My purpose here was to show that it isn't that hard to explain the context to people outside of a tradition -- if you actually *have* a context to explain. The innocent non-Muslim apologists who say "You could justify anything if you take it out of context" assume that there must *be* a context that would make it all OK. Yet somehow, the imams and Muslim apologists never quite get around to telling us what that context is. They imply that it's too complex to explain, but as I've shown here, it isn't that hard to explain Jewish legal thought -- which can also get complex -- in terms of a few important principles that anyone can understand. I think the reason why Islamic apologists aren't clarifying the "context" is pretty obvious.


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