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Is Islam bad?

Islam is too diverse to be called good or bad per se. For example, some Muslims believe that people who leave Islam should be killed. Others believe that Islam grants freedom of religion. At the same time, most Muslims believe that there is only one correct interpretation of the faith. This variety of stances is discussed in →Differences.

There are a number of reasons for this variety in beliefs. These include differences in the translation of the Quran, influences of scholars and Imams, and the acceptance or rejection of certain scriptures. These factors are discussed in →Reasons.

The variety in opinions in Islam extends to moral values. Muslims hold different opinions on women’s rights, respect towards unbelievers, child marriage, and apostasy. Several sections will discuss each moral tenet, its estimated number of adherents, and the sources that people bring forward in its support or opposition (→Values).

Muslims bring forward a number of arguments why Islam is the only true religion. These revolve around the exceptional beauty of the Quran, the virtues of the Prophet Muhammad, and the success of early Muslim societies. Unbelievers, on the other hand, hold that the Prophet Muhammad simply made up the verses of the Quran to suit his own interests. These viewpoints are discussed in →Proofs.

There are a number of factors that contribute to the strength of Muslim belief. These include social factors such as peer pressure and education, as well as psychological factors such as a sense of obligation towards Allah. Some of these factors contribute to Islamist extremism (→Terrorism). These factors are discussed in →Social.

The West has mostly been split into the extreme right (which indiscriminately opposes all Muslims) and the benevolent-ignorant mainstream (which is unaware of the difference of values, or refuses to discuss it). We treat these topics in →Islam and the West.


Variety in Islam


Islam is a religion that was founded on the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century CE by a man called the Prophet Muhammad. He said that he had revelations from God, and these revelations were written down in a book — the Quran. Islam is an Abrahamic Religion, i.e., it worships a single god. Today, Islam is the second-largest religion on Earth, with an estimated 1.6 billion adherents. They are called Muslims. For a more detailed introduction to Islam, the reader is referred to Wikipedia (Wikipedia / Islam).

For our purposes, Islam will be understood foremost as a set of belief statements. These belief statements include

  1. There is exactly one god, called Allah or God.
  2. The Prophet Muhammad is the prophet of God, i.e., God spoke to Muhammad.
  3. What God said to the Prophet Muhammad is written down in the Quran. The Quran is thus the word of God.
  4. God is the same god as the god of Judaism and Christianity (Quran / 29:46). However, different from Christianity, Islam does not accept the divinity of Jesus, or the trinity of God.

These are just the basic tenets of Islam. Denominations of Islam or individual believers extend this set of beliefs by other beliefs, derived from the Quran or other sources. This gives rise to a number of different belief systems, which we detail next.

Islamic belief systems

Islam is a religion (→Definition), i.e., in essence a set of belief statements. Denominations of Islam and individual believers extend the basic tenets of Islam by other beliefs.

As an example, take the case of apostates, i.e., of people who want to leave Islam. Many Muslims in the West believe that everyone has the right to leave Islam, because Islam guarantees the freedom of religion. However, large proportions of Muslims in the Islamic countries believe that Islam requires the death penalty for apostasy (→Apostasy). Consequently, 5 Muslim countries punish apostasy by death. In this case, different Muslims believe that Islam says different things.

Other differences in Islamic beliefs are:

One Interpretation

There are different interpretations of Islam (→Belief). While most interpretations share the basic tenets of the religion (such as the uniqueness of God and the prophethood of Muhammad), the interpretations can vary as to whether apostasy is allowed, music is permitted, or the Jinns exist (→Belief).

Despite these differences, many Muslims are of the opinion that there is only one interpretation of Islam. In 32 of the 39 countries surveyed by the Pew Research Center, half or more Muslims say there is only one correct way to understand the teachings of Islam (Pew Research Center: The World’s Muslims: Unity and Diversity, 2012). Consequently, many Muslims consider that adherents of other interpretations of Islam are not really Muslims. For example, substantial minorities of Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa believe that Shias (adherents of a particular denomination of Islam) are not Muslims (Pew Research Center: The World’s Muslims: Unity and Diversity, 2012). In Egypt and Morocco, more than 50% of respondents think that Shias are not Muslims. For the same reason, the Ahmadis (another particular group of Muslims) are persecuted as heretics in much of the Muslim world (Wikipedia / Persecution of Ahmadis). In Pakistan, the constitution declares Ahmadis non-Muslims. The law bars them from using Islamic texts for praying (Wikipedia / Ordonance XX). In the same spirit, the Quranists (another sub-group of Muslims) are considered heretics by many Muslims, and threatened with death in many countries (Wikipedia / Quranism / Following). The practice of declaring someone else a non-Muslim is called “Takfir” (Wikipedia / Takfir).

This claim to the true interpretation can also be found in the West. For example, liberal Muslims tend to assert that what Islamic authorities say on matters such as child marriage or women’s rights (→Sharia) would be “the wrong Islam”. The Islamic authorities can retort that their interpretation is supported by centuries of theological studies, while the liberal Muslim has most likely no university education in theology. In the same vein, liberal Muslims assert that the Islamic State (→IS) has “nothing to do with Islam”. The Islamic State can retort that the liberal Muslims are not really Muslims, because they disapprove of child marriage — even though the Quran seems to allow it (→Child). Therefore, the liberal Muslims are not “true Muslims” in the eyes of the Islamic State — and hence unqualified to speak about Islam. In this way, everybody accuses the other one of not following the “true Islam”.

In its most extreme form, this enmity goes beyond simple depreciation. It is the denial of the right of existence of the other view point. Compare this to the antagonism between Republicans and Democrates in the US. Republicans despise Democrates, and they believe that Democratic view points are wrong. However, they do not argue that Democrates per se would have to be abolished. Republicans accept Democrates as a wrong, but legitimate position. The antagonism between the different forms of Islam goes further: It denies the right of existence of the other view points. It is as if Republicans asserted that only they can stand for election.

Side remark: This inability to accept that there are different forms of Islam has an important consequence: It makes it harder to discuss extremist interpretations of the faith (→Terrorism). The possibility that there exists a consistent interpretation of Islam that calls for violence is usually excluded upfront (→Free). Therefore, the arguments of Muslim extremists cannot be analyzed impartially. When they cannot be analyzed impartially, they flourish.

The true Islam

There exist different Islamic belief systems, which vary in their values and tenets (→Belief). Many Muslims believe that their belief system is the only correct one (→Mine). The other interpretations are considered deviations, misinterpretations, cultural influences (→Cult), or illicit appropriations of the term “Islam”.

Typically, several arguments from the scripture can be brought forward as to why one particular belief system is “the true Islam”, and why the others must be wrong. In most cases, however, equally convincing arguments can be brought forward for the opposite position. The opposite position could even have several scholars or centuries of theological debate in its favor. Thus, it would be naive to assume that the opposite position could not come up with equally convincing proofs from the scripture. One just has to hear these arguments. Then again, few people are willing to hear the arguments of the opposite position. On the contrary, many public discussions about “the true Islam” feature only a single Muslim opinion — instead of several. This does not do justice to the diversity of Islam. It conveys a simplistic and factually wrong image of the religion if one position is presented as the only one.

This report is written from an unbeliever’s point of view. Hence, it cannot decide which belief system is “the true Islam”. This is a theological question in which unbelievers have no say. As long as Muslims themselves have different opinions on this, unbelievers cannot take sides.

Therefore, we will not talk about “the true Islam”. Rather, we will analyze individual moral beliefs. For example, we will analyze the belief that “Apostates should be killed” (→Values). We will analyze how many Muslims believe in this statement, and why. We will also analyze how many Muslims do not believe in this statements, and why. This analysis is independent of the question of what “the true Islam” is. We can study what Muslims believe without deciding whether it is “correct” what they believe. In this sense, we take a descriptive perspective, not a prescriptive one: We describe what Muslims de facto believe.

Side remark: Unfortunately, discussions about Islamic values often get caught up in the question of what the true Islam is or is not. This, however, is just a red herring (→Red). It distracts from the substance of the discussion: What Muslims de facto believe.

Islam as a religion of love

By its critics, Islam is portrayed as a religion of war (→Discrimination). They point to the life of the Prophet Muhammad (→Exceptional), who conquered large parts of lands. They can equally well point to the numerous verses of violence in the Quran (→Burn, →Blasphemy, →Brutality, →Apostasy, →Conquest, →Sex, →Statistics).

Supporters of Islam argue that the religion is a religion of peace. They point out that, while not giving equal rights to slaves and women, Islam at least improved their position compared to how it was before. They can also point to numerous verses of tolerance in the Quran (→Women, →Blasphemy, →Apostasy, →Conquest, →Statistics).

Neither view is correct. “Islam” is not a single value system. Rather, it is a belief system that postulates the uniqueness of God, the prophethood of Muhammad, and the divinity of the Quran (→Definition). This in itself is neither war nor peace. Beyond these basic tenets, opinions on what “Islam” is vary widely (→Belief). Some Muslims believe that Islam requires them to kill apostates, others do not (→Apostasy). There is no way we can understand Islam as a single moral system.

The reason why it is common to talk about Islam as a monolithic framework is that most Muslims are of the opinion that their view is the only correct interpretation of the faith, and that all other views are not Islam (→Mine). This encourages both critics and supportes of Islam to talk about Islam as if it were a single view point. Yet, it is not.

Islamic State, Boko Haram, and others

The Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or Daesh, is a Muslim extremist militant group (Wikipedia / Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). It aims to conquer territory in Iraq and Syria, and establish an Islamic Caliphate. In 2015, it controlled a territory with 10 million people. Boko Haram is a Nigerian Muslim extremist group, which claims alliance to the Islamic State. It has killed more than 20,000 people (Wikipedia / Boko Haram). There are other such terrorist groups, and some of them have carried out suicide attacks outside their region of origin.

These groups share the basic tenets of Islam (→Definition). Their adherents are thus technically Muslims. At the same time, these groups are probably best understood as a sect: A minority that split away from the mainstream religion. Like other sects, they are known to use psychological and social pressure to attract and keep their adherents. Hamed Abdel-Samad has analyzed these phenomena in his book “Islamic Fascism”. He argues that Islamist groups work very similarly to fascism:

The ideological basis of these groups is a historical interpretation of the Quran, according to which the Muslim world must be in continuous war against the non-Muslim world (→Conquest). This interpretation was predominant in the Maghreb until the 19th century. For centuries, the Maghrebian states would raid European ships, take Christian slaves, and demand ransom. When enquired “concerning the ground of the pretensions to make war upon nations who had done them no injury”, Tripoli’s ambassador replied: “It was written in their Quran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every mussulman who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise.” [Wikipedia/First Barbary War]. This is, roughly, the same interpretation of Islam that is used today by Muslim terrorist groups.

We will touch upon Islamist groups mainly in the discussion of Quran-only interpretations of Islam (→Quranism). We also shed light on factors that may have played a role in making these groups so successful (→Terrorism), among others the role model of the Prophet Muhammad (→Exceptional).

Side remark: Many of the values brought forward by the Islamic State are actually shared by some proportion of Muslims in this world. In Egypt and Saudi Arabia, e.g., the punishment of apostasy and blasphemy, the disdain for unbelievers, or the concept of child marriage are quite prevalent (→Values). This suggests that much of the opposition in these countries against the Islamic State does not stem so much from a disagreement on values, but rather from a challenge of authority (→Mine).

Reasons for the Variety in Islam

Quran Translations

The original Quran was written in classical Arabic, an older variant of today’s Arabic. There have been several translations of the Quran into modern languages. However, it is disputed which of them is correct, or whether the Quran can be translated accurately at all. As a testimony to this ongoing discussion, Wikipedia lists 58 English translations of the Quran (Wikipedia / English translations of the Quran), of which 28 were made after the year 2000. Some translations are certified by some authorities, but different authorities certify different translations. For example, “The Glorious Quran” by Syed Vickar Ahamed is approved by Al-Azhar, Islamic Research Academy, Cairo, Egypt [ibid]. The “Interpretation of the Meanings of the Noble Quran” by Darussalam is the officially promoted translation of the Saudi Government [ibid]. Muslims will insist that there are certified translations, but they will have different opinions on which certified translations are the “right” ones.

To give an impression of the variety in the translations, we look here at the Verse 33:59 (Medina) of the Quran, which talks about the clothing requirements for women. It has led to the following English translations:

Another example is Verse 79:30. It was originally translated as “After that (Allah) spread the Earth out like a carpet”. When it was more generally accepted that the Earth is not flat like a carpet, the verse was translated as “After that (Allah) shaped the world as an ostrich egg” (Wikipedia / Scientific foreknowledge). Another case are the verses that promise “full-breasted virgins” to male Muslims in Heaven (Quran / 78:33, 37:48, 55:56 (Medina), 37:48, 56:22-23, 52:20). These have also been reduced to “youthful virgins” (see Translation by Dr. Ghali). They have also been replaced completely, by “white raisins” (The Guardian / 2002-01-12 / Virgins? what virgins?, Wikipedia / Houri). Another verse is 5:38 (Medina), which prescribes the “cutting” of the hand for thieves. This has been translated to mean “lightly injure” instead of “cut off” the hand, based on the fact that the sum of the chapter number and the verse number (5+38=43) is equal to the sum of the chapter number and the verse number in another place in the Quran (Quran / 12:31), where the same word is used in this other sense (Quran-Islam.org / The punishment for theft in the Quran). Another example is Verse 8:39 (Medina), which calls Muslims to “fight [...] until there is no mora fitnah and until all religion is for Allah”. Here, the word “fitnah” has been translated as trial, probation, affliction, distress or hardship; and in modern Arab also as charm, charmingness, attractiveness; enchantment, captivation, fascination enticement, temptation; infatuation, intrigue; sedition, riot, discord, dissension, and civil strife (Wikipedia / Fitna). Another example is Verse 2:228, which reads “And due to the wives is similar to what is expected of them, according to what is reasonable. But the men have a degree over them in responsibility and authority.” in English. In French, it reads “And women have rights similar to those that men have over them” [CFCM convention, p. 4], according to the French Council of the Muslim Faith.

We thus note that there are different translations of the Quran. This entails that the 80% of Muslims who do not speak Arabic may have different readings of the Quran (→Belief).


The Muslim countries have the lowest literacy rates in the world. In countries of the OIC (Organization of Islamic Countries), 29% of people cannot read — compared to 18% in the rest of the developing world and 2% in the developed world. The discrepancy between male and female literacy rates is largest in the Muslim countries. 36% of women in the Islamic world are unable to read (OIC research center: Education and Scientific Development in the OIC member countries, 2012). In Muslim countries such as Morocco, Egypt, or Pakistan, the literacy rate is below 75%. In Pakistan, it is 55%. 40% of children are out of primary school in 17 OIC member states (UNICEF: Investing in the children of the Islamic world, 2003). In India, Muslims are the group with the highest illiteracy rate, at 33% — as opposed to the national average of 26% (Times of India / 2012-12-30 / Muslims have lowest literacy rate). Literacy in Muslim other backward classes (a term used by the Government of India to classify castes which are socially and educationally disadvantaged) has a negative growth of 2% (ibid). In the Arab world, there are less than 53 newspapers per 1000 citizens, compared to 285 papers per 1000 people in developed countries [United Nations: Arab Human Development Report, 2003]. In addition, the education system emphasizes obedience rather than independent thinking (→Education).

This high level of illiteracy in Muslim countries implies that a large proportion of people have no access to the Quran or other religious sources. Hence, they are more likely to follow what religious leaders tell them (→Imams). These leaders are thus free to spread their own interpretations of Islam, which contributes to the diversity of beliefs (→Belief).


One verse of the Quran may correct another, preceding verse of the Quran. This is a practice known as abrogation or Naskh (Wikipedia / Naskh). The Quran details this practice in the following verses:
  1. “None of Our revelations do We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, but We substitute something better or similar: Knowest thou not that Allah Hath power over all things?” [Quran / 2:106 (Medina)]
  2. “When We substitute one revelation for another, — and Allah knows best what He reveals — they say, “Thou art but a forger”: but most of them understand not.” [Quran / 16:101]
  3. “Allah doth blot out or confirm what He pleaseth: with Him is the Mother of the Book.” [Quran / 13:39 (Medina)]

Examples of verses that seem to abrogate each other are

  1. Verse 9:29 tells us to “fight those who do not believe in Allah [...] until they give the jizyah [a tax for unbelievers] willingly while they are humbled”. Verse 2:109 tells us to “forgive and overlook” unbelievers.
  2. Verse 2:62 tells us that “Those who believe and those who are Jews and Christians, and Sabians, whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day and do righteous good deeds shall have their reward with their Lord, on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.” (similar: Quran / 2:62, 5:69, 2:111-112). Verse 5:17 tells us that those who believe in the divinity of Christ are disbelievers, and 4:18 subsequently condemns them to Hell (see discussion in →Burn).
  3. Verse 16:67 praises wine as a “healthful nutriment”. Verse 2:219 and Verse 4:43 accept wine but discourage it, until Verse 5:90 finally prohibits drinking it.

By the 10th century CE, Islamic scholars had enumerated over 235 instances of contradictions and consequent abrogation, which later doubled to a list of over 550. [Wikipedia / Naskh]. Concrete cases are discussed in →Apostasy, →Conquest, →Blasphemy, and →Burn.

In general, the earlier verses of the Quran were revealed in Mecca, while the movement of the Prophet Muhammad was still small. The later verses were revealed in Medina, where the Prophet was more powerful. We will mark these verses with “(Medina)”. However, the chapters of the Quran are not sorted in chronological order. They are sorted roughly by their length (Revelation Order). Thus, it is not easy to determine which verse overrides which other verse. A verse does not explicitly say which other verse it overrides. Therefore, it is disputed among scholars whether abrogation was intended at all.

Here, we just note that the idea of abrogation has given rise to different interpretations of the Quran (→Belief).

Dependence on Context

Some verses of the Quran are considered to be applicable only to the particular historical context in which they were revealed. As an example, we look here at Verse 9:123 (Medina):
O ye who believe! Fight those of the disbelievers who are near to you, and let them find harshness in you, and know that Allah is with those who keep their duty
Some Muslims hold that this verse is only valid in the particular context of the war that the Prophet Muhammad fought against neighboring tribes. Others hold that this verse is a universal call to arms against non-Muslims (→Conquest).

Another example is Verse 2:256 (Medina):

There is no compulsion in religion. [...]
This verse seems to allow non-Muslims to keep their respective religion or non-religion. Here as well, some Muslims hold that this verse held only in the particular context where the Prophet Muhammad had already subdued the non-Muslims and installed an unbeliever-tax for them. Others hold that this verse is a universal acknowledgement for the freedom of religion (→Apostasy).

Another example is Verse 61:9:

It is He Who has sent His Messenger with the guidance and the religion of truth, that He may make it prevail over all [other] religions.
Some people assume that this means that Muslims should fight until the world has been made Muslim (→Conquest). Others assume that this verse applies only on the Arabian Peninsula (Open Letter to the Islamic State / 8 / c).

Sometimes, proponents of different theses accuse each other of quoting Quranic verses out of context. For example, critics of Islam bring forward verses that call for unbelievers to be killed (→Kill). Apologists of Islam reject these verses as quoted out of context. They quote Verse 5:32 instead:

Because of that, We decreed upon the Children of Israel that whoever kills a soul unless for a soul or for corruption [done] in the land - it is as if he had slain mankind entirely. And whoever saves one - it is as if he had saved mankind entirely.
This verse explicitly shuns violence. However, critics retort that one should look at the context of that verse, too. Its follow-up verse, 5:33, says:
Indeed, the penalty for those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and strive upon earth [to cause] corruption is none but that they be killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides or that they be exiled from the land.
As the example shows, everyone can use the quoting out of context to suit their respective argument.

These different readings of the Quran contribute to the diversity in Muslim beliefs (→Belief).


The Hadiths are collections of quotes of the Prophet Muhammad (Wikipedia/Hadith). These quotes were originally transmitted orally, by a chain of narrators. They were then written down roughly 200 years after Muhammad’s death (Ibn Warraq: Why I am not a Muslim, p. 67). In these 200 years, some Hadiths may have been forged, and then simply attributed to Muhammad. Therefore, not all Muslims hold these sources to be equally authoritative. Different choices of Hadiths have given rise to different Islamic denominations.

The denominations are as follows [Wikipedia/Hadith]:

Based on these different sources, the denominations have built up slightly different belief systems (→Belief).

Islamic Schools

Within each denomination of Islam, there are schools of thought (“Madhhab”). An Islamic school of thought is an extension of the belief system of the denomination by more beliefs. There are currently 8 widely acknowledged schools of thought, which date back to the 150 years after the Prophet Muhammad had his revelations.

The schools of Islam
The schools are (Wikipedia/Madhhab)

The belief systems of the schools are very concrete. For example, the tenets of Hanafi, the school with the largest number of followers, include the following statements (Wikipedia / Hanafi; these views have since been removed from the Wikipedia page, the reference points to the original version of the page):

Other schools may share some of these tenets or have different tenets. The Maliki school, for example, agrees with the death penalty for leaving Islam, for insulting Islam, and for adultery. It also agrees in matters of slavery (Wikipedia/Maliki). However, it does not, for example, allow repentance for insulting Islam, as the Hanafi school does.

Such divergences contribute to the diversity in Islamic belief systems (→Belief).


Islam has relied on oral transmission of the Quranic verses, and on oral transmission of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (→Schools). Some transmissions were regarded as trustworthy, others less. Furthermore, multiple sayings reported from the Prophet had to be reconciled. This corpus of data had to be applied to concrete legal questions at hand. For this purpose, Islam has developed a tradition of interpretation (Wikipedia/Tafsir), in which relevant verses and sayings are identified, pondered for trustworthiness and intended meaning, and discussed for their applicability in the concrete case.

An early interpretation of Sura 108 of the Quran [@Wikimedia]
To give an example for how such a reasoning can go, we cite here from a treatise about the question of whether music is permitted in Islam [Islam QA / 5000: Ruling on music, singing and dancing]. This ruling is not necessarily agreed upon by all Muslims; it serves just to illustrate a common way of reasoning. The basic structure is a verse from the Quran (“Allah says...”) with its interpretation in brackets, followed by sayings that support this interpretation (“XYZ said...”).
Allaah says in Soorat Luqmaan (interpretation of the meaning): “And of mankind is he who purchases idle talks (i.e. music, singing) to mislead (men) from the path of Allaah…” [Quran / 31:6]

The scholar of the ummah, Ibn ‘Abbaas (may Allaah be pleased with him) said: this means singing. Mujaahid (may Allaah have mercy on him) said: this means playing the drum (tabl). (Tafseer al-Tabari, 21/40).

Al-Sa’di (may Allaah have mercy on him) said: this includes all manner of haraam speech, all idle talk and falsehood, and all nonsense that encourages kufr and disobedience; the words of those who say things to refute the truth and argue in support of falsehood to defeat the truth; and backbiting, slander, lies, insults and curses; the singing and musical instruments of the Shaytaan; and musical instruments which are of no spiritual or worldly benefit. (Tafseer al-Sa’di, 6/150)

Ibn al-Qayyim (may Allaah have mercy on him) said: The interpretation of the Sahaabah and Taabi’in, that ‘idle talk’ refers to singing, is sufficient. This was reported with saheeh isnaads from Ibn ‘Abbaas and Ibn Mas’ood. Abu’l-Sahbaa’ said: I asked Ibn Mas’ood about the aayah (interpretation of the meaning), ‘“And of mankind is he who purchases idle talks’ [Luqmaan 31:6]. He said: By Allaah, besides Whom there is no other god, this means singing – and he repeated it three times. It was also reported with a saheeh isnaad from Ibn ‘Umar (may Allaah be pleased with them both) that this means singing.

Allaah says (interpretation of the meaning): “[Allaah said to Iblees:] And befool them gradually those whom you can among them with your voice (i.e. songs, music, and any other call for Allaah’s disobedience)…” [Quran / 17:64]

It was narrated that Mujaahid (may Allaah have mercy on him) said: “And befool them gradually those whom you can among them with your voice” – his voice [the voice of Iblees/Shaytaan] is singing and falsehood. Ibn al-Qayyim (may Allaah have mercy on him) said: This idaafah [possessive or genitive construction, i.e., your voice] serves to make the meaning specific, as with the phrases [translated as] “your cavalry” and “your infantry” [later in the same aayah]. Everyone who speaks in any way that is not obedient to Allaah, everyone who blows into a flute or other woodwind instrument, or who plays any haraam kind of drum, this is the voice of the Shaytaan.

(The treatise goes for 20 more citations, followed by a discussion of exceptions for military music, or young prepubescent girls.)

Other such interpretations can be found online. Such interpretations cannot be experimentally verified. Hence, they have led to different beliefs (→Belief). As the Quran states about itself, even though it makes “things clear” (Quran / 44:2), “no one knows its hidden meanings except Allah” (Quran / 3:7).

For every text adducted to support a certain thesis, half a dozen others can be produced to show the contrary.
Ibn Warraq in “Why I am not a Muslim”, adapted

Scholars and Imams

Islam relies on the testimony of the Prophet Muhammad (→Definition). Thus, one of the central building blocks of Islam is the trust that Muhammad spoke the truth (→Sincere). Muhammad’s revelations are written down in the Quran. Since the Quran is not easily accessible to non-Arab speakers (→Translations), and since it requires knowledge of the context of the verses (→Context), many Muslims have to rely on translations and interpretations of the verses by others. An additional source of knowledge are the Hadiths (→Hadiths). These have been transmitted orally, and their authority is based on the chain of narrators. Thus, in all three instances, we find that the intermediary (either Muhammad, or the translator, or the narrator) plays a fundamental role in the understanding of Islam. Hence, the trustworthiness of the intermediary is of utmost importance. This is even more true since Islamic beliefs (such as the existence of God, or the requirement for 5 daily prayers) cannot be proven by scientific experiments. Therefore, Muslim arguments about the “true Islam” (→Truth) often turn exclusively around the trustworthiness of certain historical or contemporary figures or institutions.

At the same time, Islam has no universally accepted trustworthy figures — apart from the Prophet Muhammad himself. Each branch of Islam consideres different Hadiths trustworthy (→Hadiths). As for contemporary figures, there no hierarchy of power that would be acknowledge by all adherents. Islam has no means of formally appointing a preacher that would be universally accepted. It also has no formal requirement for teaching Islam that would be acknowledged by all adherents. This entails that different people have taken to teach Islam, to preach in mosques, or to issue legal rulings (Fatwas). Anybody can spread his version of Islam in the streets. Anybody can make a statement and call it a Fatwa. Different Muslims consider different such authorities legitimate.

Examples for such authorities are: the Al-Azhar University in Cairo/Egypt (Wikipedia / Al-Azhar University), the Website IslamQA (Wikipedia / IslamQA.info), or the council of Senior Scholars of Saudi Arabia (Wikipedia / Council of Senior Scholars). Each of these authorities considers the others non-authoritative (IslamQA, e.g., is blocked in Saudi Arabia). Some Muslims consider them all non-authoritative, and rely yet on other scholars, or on their personal readings.

We thus see that, on the one hand, Islam relies on trustworthy intermediaries for the understanding of the faith. On the other hand, Islam has no universally accepted system to designate these trustworthy intermediaries. Therefore, different people follow different intermediaries, thus contributing to the diversity of beliefs (→Belief).

Each understands the faith differently
but each understands it best.
Thomas Paine in “The Age of Reason”


Muslims who favor making Sharis the official law of their country (click to enlarge)
[Pew Research Center: The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society, 2013]
The Al-Azhar University certifies the “Reliance of the Traveller” as “conforming to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni Community”
[Reliance of the Traveller at the Islamic Bulletin]
A Sharia is a legal code that was derived from the Quran and the Hadiths. Technically speaking, a Sharia is a value system, i.e., a set of statements that define good and bad behavior, together with appropriate punishments. The derivation of the Sharia differs between the denominations of Islam (→Hadiths), and between the schools of thought (→Schools). Thus, there are different Sharias. One of them is the “Reliance of the Traveller” by the 14th century author Shihabuddin Abu al-’Abbas Ahmad ibn an-Naqib al-Misri (Wikipedia / Reliance of the Traveller). It has been translated to English by Nuh Ha Mim Keller (Reliance of the Traveller, full English text), and contains for example the following instructions:
  1. Concerning women
    1. A woman has to bring 4 male witnesses in order to prove a rape (o13.1). If the woman cannot bring the witnesses, she is can be charged herself first for false accusation (o13.1) against the rapist, and then for having sex outside of marriage (o12.0).
    2. Women have to cover every part of their body except hands and face (f5.3), and it is generally recommended that they also cover their face (m2.3). They are not allowed to speak to men without necessity (r32.6).
    3. Men may not look at women in general (m2.3), except for dealings in court or trade (m2.12)
    4. Female genital mutilation is required, as well as male (e4.3)
    5. If the victim of a murder is a woman, her family can only claim half of the indemnity (o4.9)
    6. Judges have to be male (o22.1 (a)).
  2. Concerning Jihad
    1. Volent Jihad is prescribed (o9.1, 2, 3) in order to spread Islam or subdue Christians and Jews (o9.8). The califate has to fight all other people (o9.9).
    2. Children and women captured in war become slaves (o9.13), and the wives marriages are automatically annulled.
    3. All spoils of battle are divided among the combatants (o10.1).
    4. Non-Muslims in conquered areas have to wear special signs on their clothing, may not build new churches, may not walk in the middle of the street, and are not greeted like Muslims (o11.5)
  3. Concerning marriage
    1. Child marriage is OK in general (n9.9)
    2. Fathers can marry their daughters to someone without her permission (m3.13 (2)) irrespective of age (m4.4)
    3. The husband “possesses the full right to enjoy his wive’s person” (m5.4), meaning to do anything that does not physically harm her.
    4. Husbands have the right to force sex on their wives (m5.1, e13.5).
    5. Wives have the right to sex every 4 days (m5.2, m10.5).
    6. Women may not travel (m10.3), and she has to stay at home if her husband wants her to (m10.4).
    7. Marriage is a deal between the guardian of the future wife and the future husband (m3.2). The women cannot marry herself (m3.4, m3.7), even though she may ask her guardian to marry her to someone she chose (m3.9).
    8. An Arab woman may not marry a non-Arab man (m4.2 (1)), because “Allah has chosen the Arabs above others”.
    9. If the wife is rebellious (refuses sex, leaves the house without permission, stays with a non-family man), the husband should first warn her with words, and then beat her (m10.11), although not hit the face, wound her, break bones, or cause blood to flow.
    10. Thus husband has to pay all expenses for his wife (m11), if she obeys him (m11.9).
    11. The husband can divorce his wife (n1.1 (a)), but the wife can only divorce her husband with his agreement (n1.3).
    12. The husband can take his wife with him on travels (m5.4). If he has several wives, he has to draw lots to choose the wife who will come with him.
    13. Marriage to a non-monotheist or apostate is prohibited (m7.4)
    14. Husband and wife have to treat each other well, which includes fulfilling the sexual duties (m10.1).
  4. Criminal law
    1. A Muslim who neglects prayer is to be killed (f1.4)
    2. Retaliation is obligatory (o.1.1), but can be replace by an indemnity (o3.8). The indemnity for killing a male Muslim is 100 Camels (o4.2), although any other payment can be made instead (o4.8). The indemnity for a female victim is half the indemnity for a male victim (o4.9), and one third for non-Muslims.
    3. Parents may kill their children (o1.2 (4))
    4. Non-Muslims can be killed (o1.2 (2)), and apostates in particular can be killed (o4.17, o8.4), and have to be (o8.1). Apostasy is basically anything that criticizes the Quran (o8.7 (1)-(20)), including from non-Muslims (o11.10 (5)).
    5. Adultery is punished by stoning to death or scourged with 100 stripes (o12.2). Accusing someone wrongly of adultery carries 80 lashes (o13.3).
    6. Theft is punished by amputation of the hand (o14.1).
    7. Drinking alcohol is punished by 40 lashes (o16.3).
    8. Obedience to the Calif is obligatory (o25.5)
    9. Singing and dancing and music are prohibited (r40)
    10. Enslaving a person carries no penalty (k32.0).

This Sharia, and this particular translation have been certified by the Imam of the Mosque of Darwish Pasha Damascus/Syria, the Mufti of the Jordanian Armed Forces, the International Institute of Islamic Thought, and the Al-Azhar University in Cairo/Egypt as “conforming to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni Community” (see certificate on the right, from Reliance of the Traveller at Islamic Bulletin). Therefore, we will call this Sharia simply “the Sharia”. However, not all Muslims agree with these authorities (→Imams), and not all Muslims agree with the concept of Sharia in the first place.

This divergence contributes to different belief systems among adherents of Islam (→Belief).

Remark:This divergence notwithstanding, Sharia is a significant source of legislation in various Muslim countries. Some countries apply all or a majority of the sharia code, and these include Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Brunei, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Yemen and Mauritania. In these countries, sharia prescribed punishments such as beheading, flogging and stoning continue to be practiced judicially or extra-judicially. The introduction of sharia is a longstanding goal for Islamist movements globally, including in Western countries, but attempts to impose sharia have been accompanied by controversy, violence, and warfare. [Wikipedia/Sharia] Overwhelming percentages of Muslims in many countries want Islamic law (sharia) to be the official law of the land, according to a worldwide survey by the Pew Research Center [Pew Research Center:The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society, 2013]. It is not clear whether these people know what Sharia means, but this does not change the fact that they desire it to be the law of the country.

Political Influence

Historically, Islam was not just a religion, but also a political system. The Prophet Muhammad “was not just a religious prophet, but also a temporal ruler and warrior. For many Muslims, Islam is not just a personal faith, but also a blueprint for organizing a perfect society. The Western notion of separating religion from politics is regarded as nonsensical” [The Economist / 2016-05-14 / The Arab World]. In this spirit, overwhelming majorities of Muslims want the Sharia to be the official law in their country (→ Sharia).

When different political fractions want to claim the authority of a religion, they have to use slightly different tenets in order to differentiate themselves from the other fractions. As a result, there are today 5 main strands of Muslim politics (The Economist / 2016-05-14 / The Arab World / Which Islam?):

These differences fuel the diversity of Muslim beliefs (→Belief).

Cultural Influence

Some traditions are considered Islamic in Muslim societies even though they have no basis in the Quran:
Male circumcision is almost ubiquitous in the Muslim world, and considered obligatory by most Muslims (Wikipedia / Khitan). However, it is not mentioned in the Quran.
Halal Meat
Many Muslims eat only Halal meat, i.e., meat from animals that have been slaughtered according to Muslim rites (Wikipedia/Dhabihah). In France, 70% of Muslims eat only Halal meet, and 40% (wrongly) believe that it would be one of the 5 pillars of Islam (Institut Montaigne: Un islam français est possible, 2016, p.28). However, the Quran prescribes this rite nowhere. It just prohibits “carrion, and blood, and flesh of swine, and that which has been slaughtered while proclaiming the name of any other than God, and one killed by strangling, and one killed with blunt weapons, and one which died by falling, and that which was gored by the horns of some animal, and one eaten by a wild beast, except those whom you slaughter; and that which is slaughtered at the altar and that which is distributed by the throwing of arrows (for an omen)” [Quran / 5:3 (Medina)]. Meat of animals slaughtered in a modern slaughterhouse by electrocution without naming any god is not prohibited in the Quran.
Muslims pray generally 5 times per day. Yet, the Quran established only 3 prayers, which corresponded to the Jewish shakharith, minkah, and arbith prayers. Hence, Quranists pray only 3 times a day (Wikipedia / Quranist Salat). A possible reason for the 5 prayers may be the influence of Zoroastrianism. When the early Muslims came to Persia, they found that the Zoroastrians prayed 5 times a day. Not wishing to be outdone in religious devotion, Muslims simply adopted their customs (Ibn Warraq: Why I am not a Muslim, p. 45). This is then justified based on narrations and customs (IslamQA / 1092: Are the five daily prayers mentioned in the Quran?).

The influence of such traditions contributes to the diversity of Muslim beliefs (→Belief).

Western Influence

Throughout the times, Muslims were influenced by Western thinking. For example, Arabs used to trade slaves from the 8th century on until the 19th century, and no contradiction to Islam was found (Wikipedia / Arab slave trade, →IS). However, Britain abolished slavery in 1833, France in 1848, and the US in 1865 (Wikipedia / Abolition of slavery timeline). Hence, Muslim nations followed: Morocco abolished slavery in 1922, Qatar in 1952, and Saudi Arabia in 1962 (ibid). In 2007, Mauritania made slavery a crime (ibid), and slavery was reduced to 4% of Mauritania’s population (Wikipedia / Slavery in contemporary Africa). Today, slavery is seen by most Muslims as contrary to Islamic law (→Slavery). Thus, the Islamic value system has changed in response to Western developments.

Another example is the UN declaration of the Human Rights in 1948. It has met criticism from Muslim countries, because it grants freedom of religion, freedom of marriage, and equal rights to men and women. Hence, the Muslim countries drafted the “Declaration of Islamic Human Rights” in 1993 (Cairo Declaration). It does not grant equal rights to men and women (only equal “dignity”). In 2008, the League of Arab States adopted a slight variant of the UN declaration (Arab Charter on Human Rights), which does grant equal rights to men and women (→Women). Again, the Islamic value system has changed in response to Western values. Today, many Muslims affirm that Islamic law is compatible with the original Human Rights, and even a precursor to them (Web search)

Other influences can be observed: Muslims living in the West do not necessarily consider music unlawful, while this is a prevalent opinion in the Muslim world (→Schools). They are also less likely to believe that apostates should be killed (Civitas: Institute for the Study of Civil Society London: Sharia Law or ‘One Law For All?’), while this opinion is prevalent in many Muslim countries (→Apostasy). Some adherents also develop their own reading of the religion. They may come to believe, e.g., that Islam gives equal rights to women before the law (→Women), or that it prohibits child marriage (→Child). They can then become very convinced that the religion says what they believe, to a degree that they effectively raise their own world view to the level of divine law.

This varying degree of Western influence can explain part of the diversity of Muslim beliefs (→Belief).

Proofs for Islam

An Unbeliever’s view on Islam

The Prophet Muhammad said that he received revelations from God. These were written down in the Quran, the holy book of Islam (→Definition).

From an unbeliever’s point of view, Muhammad never received these revelations from God. He might just have made up the verses to suit his own interests (→Sincere). Or the verses were made up by his followers after his death. In the unbelieving eye, the Quran is just a collection of sayings and stories — much like Grimms Fairy Tales is a collection of sayings and stories.

The present section juxtaposes this idea with a Muslim view of the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad.

Why should Muhammad, a 7th century prophet, decide whom we may love, whom we may marry, and what we should do, eat, and wear in the 21st century?
Hamed Abdel-Samed

The Quran is the word of God!     

Muslims believe that the Quran is the word of God. Christians doubt this, because the Quran says that Jesus is not the son of God. In Christian eyes, Jesus was resurrected from death, and this proves that he is the son of God. Muslims retort that Jesus was not really resurrected. God only made it seem as if Jesus were resurrected (Quran / 4:157-158 (Medina)). Thus, God fooled Christians into believing that he had a son. What can you say against that?

Christians retort that, since the Quran denies the divinity of Jesus, its message cannot come from God. Rather, it was falsified on the way down by the devil. God gave his message to the Prophet Muhammad, but the devil intervened and corrupted the message, so that it seemed to the Muslims that the message was divine while it was not. So the devil fooled the Muslims. What can you say against that? (Wikipedia / Medieval Christian Views on Muhammad)

Thus, everybody just tells the other party that they have been fooled by God. Interestingly, no party can prove the other party wrong. To an unbeliever, this only shows that the claim “The Quran is the word of God” cannot be falsified. There is nothing that could happen that a Muslim would accept as a proof that the Quran is not the word of God. This means that the claim is unfalsifiable (Wikipedia / Falsifiability). It is thus meaningless.

Each of these churches accuses the other of disbelief; and for my own part, I disbelieve them all.
Thomas Paine in “The Age of Reason”

Side remarks: Muslims say that the Quran is divine, because nobody can produce a chapter “like it” (Quran / 2:23 (Medina), 17:88, 11:13, 10:38, 52:34). This is a challenge known as Ijaz (Wikipedia / Ijaz). However, the conditions of this challenge are not clear. A Muslim can simply always argue that whatever we bring forward is not really like the Quran. This is known as the No True Scotsman Fallacy (Wikipedia / No True Scotsman Fallacy).

Besides, it is unclear whether the Quran really speaks in the name of God. Several verses are actually written from the perspective of the Prophet Muhammad. For example, Verse 9:30 says “May Allah destroy them”. Other verses say that “I should seek [Allah] as judge” [Quran / 6:114] and that “I have been commanded to worship the Lord of this city” [Quran / 27:91]. These are not spoken form the perspective of God. To solve this, the English translation has added the prefix “Say, oh Muhammad” in the beginning of these verses, but it is not there in the Arab original (Ibn Warraq: Why I am not a Muslim).

Muhammad heard God!

The Prophet Muhammad said that he had revelations from God. However, the only evidence we have for this is that he told us so.

Different people have claimed that God spoke to them. Examples are Joseph Smith from the Mormons (Wikipedia / Joseph Smith), and the Báb for the Bahais (Wikipedia / Báb). Muslims say that these are impostors, because Muhammad said he was the last prophet. But what if Muhammad was an impostor?

Statistically, around 1 in every 10 people believe that God talks to them (CNN / 2012-12-29 / My Take: If you hear God speak audibly, you (usually) aren’t crazy). Many testimonies can be found online (do a Web search, then click “Videos”). In one case, God told a woman to vote for George Bush — which she did (New York Times / 2013-05-02 / Is that God talking?).

Such cases are typically dismissed as harmless self-talk. These people just subvocalize their own thoughts. However, in some cases, this self-talk becomes so dominant that it is considered a mental illness. For example, in 2004, a woman in Texas heard God’s voice. He told her to kill her children, just like Abraham was asked to kill his son. She obeyed and killed her 2 sons (CNN / 2004-03-30 / Attorney: Woman thought God told her to kill sons). This woman was jailed as insane.

In all of these cases, we typically assume that people hear their own thoughts. Mental issues such as epilepsy, hallucinations, or schizophrenia can amplify such experiences. Temporal lobe epilepsy, in particular, is associated with hyper-religiosity (Wikipedia / Temporal lobe epilepsy / Link with religiosity), and with the desire to express oneself with many words (Wikipedia / Hypergraphia). Some of these factors could easily have applied to the Prophet Muhammad as well (Wikipedia / Criticism of Muhammad / medical condition). After all, he was the only witness of his revelations.

It is a contradiction, in terms and ideas, to call anything a revelation that has come to us at second-hand, either verbally or in writing. I did not see the angel myself, and therefore, I have a right not to believe in it.
Thomas Paine in “The Age of Reason”

Side remark: Muslim tradition holds that Muhammad went into a cave to meditate. He was then called by an angel to “read”, i.e., to recite the verses of the Quran that the angel would dictate. This is a known pattern: Saint Augustine and Saint Anthony were two Christian saints. Both were reportedly meditating, and both were then called by an angel to “read” (Wikipedia / Augustine of Hippo, Anthony the Great). Muhammad could have heard these stories from the guardian of his first wife, Waraqa, who was a Christian monk. He could then have felt inspired to claim the same.

Muhammad was exceptional!

Muslims argue that the Prophet Muhammad was such an exceptional person that he must have spoken the truth about his revelations from God.

However, we know very few confirmed facts about Muhammad (Wikipedia / Prophet Muhammad). Some people doubt whether he existed at all (Wikipedia / Karl-Heinz_Ohlig, Did Muhammad Exist?: An Inquiry Into Islam’s Obscure Origins). This is because everything we know about Muhammad comes exclusively from religious sources: the Quran and the Hadith (→Definition). We cannot take the Quran as a proof for Muhammad’s excellence, and then Muhammad’s excellence as a proof for the truth of the Quran. Such reasoning would be circular and invalid. So we are left with the Hadith. These, however, are of disputed authenticity. In fact, there is no single collection of Hadiths on which all branches of Islam agree (→Hadiths). The earliest biography of Muhammad dates to 150 years after his death. Thus, we simply do not know whether Muhammad was the exceptional person he is believed to be.

If we admit the Quran as the source, we learn more things about Muhammad. We learn that he was an excellent model to follow (Quran / 48:29 (Medina)), a good example (Quran / 33:21 (Medina)), and of outstanding moral character (Quran / 68:05). However, in the view of a non-believer, Muhammad just claimed these things about himself. The rest that we learn about Muhammad from the Quran is hardly inspiring trust. The prophet was illiterate (Quran / 7:157, 158). Contemporaries said of him that he was a sorcerer (Quran / 5:110 (Medina)). They accused him of forgery when he decided to replace one commandment of the Quran by another one (Quran / 16:101). According to them, Muhammad was a liar (Quran / 26:186), and he did not actually produce the Quranic verses by himself (Quran / 25:4). He just repeats old (biblical) stories (Quran / 25:5). When the Meccans did not want to listen to him, Muhammad told them that the jinns (spirits) did listen to him and found his verses “amazing” (Quran / 72:1 and following). The Meccans replied that Muhammad was just obsessed by magic (Quran / 25:8, 26:185) or mad (Quran / 81:22) — quite possibly an ancient way to say that he had hallucinations. Notwithstanding this, he fought many wars (Wikipedia / List of expeditions of Muhammad), often brutally so (Quran / 7:4, 8:57 (Medina), 8:67-68 (Medina)), and called upon his followers to torture his enemies (Quran / 8:12 (Medina), 5:33 (Medina)). Women were used as sex slaves (Quran / 23:5-6, 70:29-30, 4:24 (Medina)) (→Sex).

If we add in the Hadiths (which are of disputed authenticity), the picture becomes more dire: he married a girl at age 6, and had sex with her at age 9 (Wikipedia/Aisha), while she was still playing with dolls (Muslim 8:3311, more sources: The Religion of Peace / Muhammad’s sex life); ordered to kill apostates or did it himself (Bukhari 4:52:260, Bukhari 9:83:37, Bukhari 9:84:57, Bukhari 9:89:271, Bukhari 9:84:58, Bukhari 9:84:64-65, al-Muwatta of Imam Malik 36.18.15, Sahih Muslim, 16:4152, Religion of Peace / Apostacy); ordered to torture a man (Wikipedia / Kenana ibn al-Rabi); owned and sold slaves (Wikipedia / Muhammad’s view on slavery, sources at WikiIslam / Slavery); expelled a Jewish tribe, because an angel told him that one of them wanted to assassinate him (Wikipedia / Invasion of Banu Nadir); killed another Jewish tribe of 400 people who already surrendered, because an angel told him so (Wikipedia / Banu Qurayza); thereby expelled or exterminated all Jewish tribes in Medina; commanded his followers to exterminate the Jews wherever they may be hiding (Sahih Muslim 54:2992); said to beat children (Abu Dawud 2:494); ordered the killing of children (Sahih Muslim 38:4390); raped (Sahih Bukhari 1:8:367); tortured (Ishaq:595, Sahih Bukhari 1:11:626); made himself wealthy from the booty of war (Sahih Bukhari 3:37:495); allowed himself to break oaths (Sahih Bukhari 7:67:427, Sahih Bukhari 9:89:260, Sahih Muslim 15:4052, Sahih Muslim 15:4053, Sahih Muslim 15:4054, Sahih Muslim 15:4062); bribed people with war booty to become Muslim (Sahih Bukhari 4:55:558, Sahih Muslim 5:2303, Sahih Muslim 5:2313, Ishaq:594); assassinated 29 people individually (sources at WikiIslam / Muhammad the Mass Murderer); tortured his enemies in the most brutal ways (a handful of incidents, several sources: Sahih Bukhari 4:52:261, Sahih Bukhari 1:4:234, Sahih Bukhari 5:59:505, Sahih Bukhari 7:71:623, Sahih Bukhari 8:82:794, Sahih Bukhari 8:82:796, Sahih Bukhari 8:82:797, Sahih Bukhari 9:83:37, Sahih Bukhari 2:24:577, Sahih Bukhari 8:82:795, Sahih Bukhari 1:11:626, Sahih Muslim 16:4131, Sahih Muslim 16:4130, Sahih Muslim 16:4132, Sahih Muslim 16:4134, Abu Dawud 38:4356 , Abu Dawud 38:4357 , Ishaq:312, Ishaq:316, Ishaq:595, Ishaq:387, Ishaq:515, WikiIslam / Muhammad and Torture); plundered (Sahih Bukhari 4:53:351); killed the men and captured the women (Sahih Bukhari 5:59:512, Sahih Bukhari 4:52:280, Sahih Bukhari 5:58:148, Sahih Bukhari 5:59:362, Sahih Bukhari 8:74:278, Sahih Muslim 19:4364, Sahih Muslim 19:4368, Sahih Muslim 19:4370, WikiIslam / Muhammad and Warmongering; see the fate of Banu Qurayza and the Nadir); and beat his wife (Sahih Muslim 4:2127), or approves of others doing it (Abu Dawud 11:2139-2142 , Ibn Ishaq: p 496, Farewell Speech, WikiIslam / Muhammad / Primary Sources). These stories inspire Muslim extremists still today (→Terrorism, →IS).

However, these sources are disputed. Therefore, many Muslims do not believe in them. Then again, if we remove these sources, we know very little about the prophet. In any case, we know much less about him than would be needed to claim that he was an exceptionally truthful person.

What is sure is only that if Muhammad existed, he lived 1400 years ago. In an unbeliever’s eyes, what one single man in the desert said 1400 years ago is simply not enough to start believing it — in particular since no other evidence has shown up since.

The only evidence that Muhammad brought for God
were the voices in his own head.
Matthew Pope on Quora, adapted

Muhammad was grand!

The Prophet Muhammad was a judge, a civil leader, and a military commander. He was a grand person, in the sense that he had many followers. Muslims see this as a proof that he could not have been insane. Therefore, they believe that Muhammad must have spoken the truth about his revelations from God.

However, it is dangerous to conclude from the power of a person to their truthfulness. If someone leads many people, this does not mean he speaks the truth. Adolf Hitler also led millions of followers to war. He was charismatic and rational. He was also convinced that he was the tool of divine will (Wikipedia / DE / Vorsehung). Does that mean that he spoke the truth? Surely not.

In general, the theory that we should follow leaders whom many others follow is dangerous. If only a few people follow the leader at first, the theory will convince other people to follow him, which will then convince even more people to follow him, and so on. Finally, this creates a bubble of people who follow the leader for no other reason than that he had some adherents in the beginning. This may indeed have happened to the Prophet Muhammad. Intellectually, Muhammad only persuaded a few thousand people — the rest have simply followed and copied one another. Until today, a large number of Muslims blindly follow the religion of their fathers as something given. [Ibn Warraq: Why I am not a Muslim, p. 22].

Side remarks: In the case of Muhammad, the story may also not be based on intellectual arguments at all: Early Arab tribes may have followed Muhammad not because they found his message true, but because he led them to war and allowed them, by divine sanction, to keep the war booties, women, slaves, and country (Ibn Warraq: Why I am not a Muslim, p. 122).

Muhammad was sincere!

Muslims can argue that the Prophet Muhammad was a sincere person. He had no other interest than speaking the truth. This convinces them to believe what he said.

We first note that we know very few externally confirmed things about Muhammad (→Exceptional). But even if we give him the benefit of the doubt, and assume he was sincere, this does not mean that he was right. Many people sincerely believe that God talks to them (→Heard). For example, a person who suffers from heat and dehydration in the desert, and who has a hallucination, can truly believe that he hears a voice. You do not have to doubt his sincerity. You can just doubt his soundness. This is what we commonly do with people who report such events.

Apart from that, we can also build the theory that the Prophet Muhammad was not sincere. Maybe he really had spiritual experiences in the beginning. But when he figured out that people would follow whatever he declared to be God’s will, he used this for his own purposes:

  1. He said he received a revelation that told him that ordinary men can have 4 wives, but he and only he can have an unlimited number of wives (Quran / 33:50 (Medina)). Indeed, Muhammad married 12 wives, many of them war booties (Wikipedia / Muhammad’s wives).
  2. When people became jealous of Muhammad’s many wives, he declared that God told him that people should only talk to his wives from behind a curtain (Quran / 33:53 (Medina)). He also declared that it is God’s will that his wives should not leave the house (Quran / 33:32-33 (Medina)).
  3. When he desired the wife of his adopted son, which disturbed local customs at the time, he declared that he received authorization from God to marry her (Quran / 33:37 (Medina)) (Wikipedia / Zaynab). For this purpose, the adopted son had to be declared different from biological sons (Quran / 33:4-5).
  4. When his wives grumbled that Muhammad slept with them in the wrong order, he received a verse saying that he can put them off whenever he likes (Quran / 33:51 (Medina)).
  5. When he was found sleeping with a slave girl when he was supposed to be with his wives, he received a verse saying that it’s OK to deviate from his oath of faithfulness (Quran / 66:1-5 (Medina)). The Quran then goes on to threaten his wives with divorce (Quran / 66:5 (Medina)).
  6. Since people would often bore Muhammad, but he did not dare to send them away, he relocated this task to God: “When the shared meal is over, leave the prophet alone, because he gets bored of you, but is too shy to say it” [Quran / 33:53 (Medina)].
  7. Muhammad said that God declared that no one could marry his wives after his death (Quran / 33:53 (Medina)).
  8. In an effort to win over the Meccans, Muhammad declared that God told him that the Meccans’ goddesses are also OK to worship (after Quran / 53:19-20). This worked, and the Meccans joined his cause. When he later noticed that this inconsistency caused trouble to his followers, he said that the verses were dictated to him by the devil, and he retracted them (Quran / 22:52 (Medina)). This episode is known as the Satanic Verses (Wikipedia / Satanic Verses).
  9. He says God declared that everybody has to obey him (Quran / 5:92 (Medina), 64:12 (Medina), 53:13, 48:17 (Medina), 4:69 (Medina)), and that whoever wages war against him should be crucified (Quran / 5:33 (Medina)).
  10. God purportedly told him that the spoils of war belong to him (Quran / 8:1 (Medina), 59:6 (Medina)), and there would be a tax of 20% on war booty, to be used for charity and for himself (Quran / 8:41 (Medina)).
  11. He said God told him he’s an excellent model to follow (Quran / 48:29 (Medina)), a good example (Quran / 33:21 (Medina)), a mercy to the world (Quran / 21:107), and of outstanding moral character (Quran / 68:05). Maybe this is because God forgave him all his past and future sins (Quran / 48:1-2 (Medina)). For this reason, people shall greet him with particular reverence (Quran / 33:56).
  12. Yet, when people reproached him that he would act in his own interests, God told him that he does not (Quran / 53:2-3).
Maybe Aisha, Muhammad’s first wife, explains it best in this passage traditionally ascribed to her:
Narrated Aisha: I used to look down upon those ladies who had given themselves to Allah’s Apostle and I used to say, “Can a lady give herself to a man?” But when Allah revealed: “You, O Muhammad, can postpone the turn of whom you will of your wives, and you may receive any of them whom you will; and there is no blame on you if you invite one whose turn you have set aside temporarily.”, I said to the Prophet: “I feel that your Lord hastens in fulfilling your wishes and desires.”
Aisha, Muhammad’s wife, according to the Hadith Sahih Bukhari 6:60:311

Muhammad was illiterate!

Muslims argue that the Prophet Muhammad was illiterate (Quran / 7:157, 158), and that he could never have produced the verses of the Quran by himself. Therefore, he must have had divine help.

That is not necessarily so. Just because we do not know how the verses came about, we cannot just conclude they must come from God. We can only conclude that we do not know. That alone does not prove God. To prove God, we need evidence for God. This evidence, however, has so far not been found. Lack of knowledge is not evidence.

Another possibility is that the followers of Muhammad created the verses. They just collected all sayings after the death of Muhammad, and massaged them into verses. That is quite possible: Muhammad died in the year 632 CE. The Quran did not exist at that time; the verses were just memorized. However, in a battle of 633 CE, many of those who had memorized the verses died. Therefore, people decided to collect the verses, and to write them into a book. According to the Hadith, the scribe Zayd “started locating the Quranic material and collecting it from parchments, scapula, leafstalks of date palms and from the memories of men” [Sahih al-Bukhari 6:60:201, Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 6, p. 478, Wikipedia / Zayd ibn Thabit]. The Hadiths tell us that some verses were lost, such as one that was eaten by a sheep (Ibn Majah 3:9:1944, Sahih Muslim 17:4194, see also Sahih Bukhari 6:61:558). The oldest Quran manuscript, the Sana’a manuscript, differs slightly from modern versions of the Quran (Wikipedia / Sana’a manuscript). Although most of these variants do not change the sense, they show nevertheless that the text underwent human editing. Finally, the collection of verses was finished under the third caliph, Uthman ibn Affan, about 20 years after the death of the Muhammad (Wikipedia / History of the Quran, Sana’a manuscript). During these 20 years (one generation and three califs reigning), there was enough time to make the verses beautiful. They may even have been altered. In the view of a 9th century Christian critic, in the Quran, “histories are all jumbled together and intermingled; an evidence that many different hands have been at work therein, adding or cutting out whatever they liked or disliked” [Al-Kindi].

This explanation is not provably true. It is just a plausible alternative to the theory that the verses come necessarily from God.

Book title: The Quran
Author: unknown
how the Quran is listed in a local library

Side remark: The scribe Abdullah ibn Sarh reportedly tested Muhammad by suggesting a variation of the verse that Muhammad received. When the prophet had no objection, the scribe concluded that the verses cannot come from God, and left Islam.

Muhammad was a warner!

In Muslim eyes, the Prophet Muhammad was a warner: He was sent from God to warn us that if we do not follow the word of God, we will burn in Hell. This can be compared to a fireman, who rushes into a house that will be attacked by a wild-fire, and tells the inhabitants to leave. Then why do unbelievers not follow the fireman?

The unbelievers do not follow the fireman, because there is no evidence of the wild-fire. If someone storms into your house and tells you about the wild-fire, would you go with him? Most likely you would go outside with him to see the fire. You would maybe quickly check the news or turn on the radio. If there is no evidence whatsoever of the wild-fire, you would just kick the man out. He is most likely a scammer or a lunatic.

If, in addition, the man tells you to worship the arsonist who caused the wild fire, you would probably call the police.

The Quran is divine!

Muslims argue that the Quran is so beautiful and perfect that it cannot be of human origin. Therefore, it must be divine.

We first note that if we are surprised by the beauty of the Quran, we may not directly conclude that it comes from God. People were also surprised about the beauty of the sun. They said to each other “The Sun is so beautiful and powerful that it cannot come from humans. Hence it must be divine.” — and they were wrong. We may only note that we do not know how the beauty of the Quran came about. This, however, is not evidence for God. Evidence for God is a validated theory that predicts his existence — and there is no such theory.

Apart from this, the beauty of the Quran is highly subjective. Quran has never reached popularity outside the Muslim realm. It is not read by people all over the world such as the works by Miguel de Cervantes, Charles Dickens, JRR Tolkien, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, or Agatha Christie. One of the reasons may be that the Quran is quite repetitive on the superiority of Allah, the threat of hell to non-believers, and the joys of being a Muslim. To show this, we cite here the beginning of a chapter of the Quran chosen at random (Surah 42):

  1. HM.
  2. ‘A-S-Q.
  3. Likewise Allah, the Omnipotent, the All-Wise sends Revelation unto you [O Muhammad] as [He sent Revelation to] those before you.
  4. To Him belongs all that is in the heavens and all that is in the earth, and He is the Most High, the Most Great.
  5. Nearly the heavens [through the Greatness of Revelation] might be rent asunder from above them and the angels glorify the praises of their Lord [with gratitude], and ask for forgiveness for those on the earth. Truly, Allah is the Oft-Forgiving, the Most Merciful.
  6. And as for those who take as guardians others besides Him, Allah is Protector over them and you [O Muhammad] are not a guardian over them [to make them believe].
  7. And thus We have revealed unto you [O Muhammad], a Qur’an in Arabic that you may warn the Mother of the Town [Mecca] and all around it and warn [them] of the Day of Assembling [Resurrection] of which there is no doubt, when a party will be in Paradise and a party in the blazing Fire.
  8. And if Allah had willed, He could have made them one nation, but [He provides them with free choice and] admits whom He wills to His Mercy. And the wrong doers will have neither a protector nor a helper [on that Day].
  9. Or have they taken [for worship] guardians besides Him? But Allah, He Alone is the [True] Protector, and it is He Who gives life to the dead and He is Able to do all things.
  10. And in whatsoever you differ, the decision thereof is with Allah. Such is Allah, my Lord in Whom I put my trust and to Him I turn in repentance.
  11. The Creator of the heavens and the earth. He has made for you spouses from yourselves, and for the cattle [also] mates. By this means He creates you [in the wombs]. There is nothing like Him and He is the All-Hearer, the All-Seer.
  12. To Him belongs the keys of the heavens and the earth. He enlarges provision for whom He wills, and straitens [it for whom He wills]. Verily, He is the All-Knower of everything [and His enlarging and straitening the provisions are based on His Omniscience and Wisdom].
In total, the Quran contains 6,236 of these verses. 16% talk about how great Allah is (see statistics below). There is barely new content beyond Biblical stories. This makes the Quran boring for most non-Muslim readers (Web search). Furthermore, the Quran assumes familiarity with Christian narratives, and refers to them without summarizing them. This makes it difficult to follow the reasoning. Finally, the Quran exhibits lack of continuity, absence of any chronological or thematic order and repetitiousness [Wikipedia / Quran]. Its chapters are not in chronological order. Events are referred to, but not narrated; disagreements are debated without being explained; people and places are mentioned, but rarely named. Supporters are simply referred to as believers; opponents are condemned as unbelievers, polytheists, wrongdoers, hypocrites and the like, with only the barest information on who they were or what they said or did in concrete terms. [Patricia Crone: What do we actually know about Muhammad?, 2008] Parts of the book are disconnected poetic passages, written in the style of a stream of consciousness (Hamed Abdel-Samad). From the literary point of view, the Quran has little merit. Declamation, repetition, puerility, a lack of logic and coherence strike the unprepared reader at every turn [Salomon Reinch: Histoire générale de réligions, 1909]. All of this makes the Quran difficult to follow, and frustrating to read to most non-Muslim people.

Side remark: A pseudo-random sample of 106 verses from the Quran (every first verse on every 4th page) shows the following distribution of topics:

Reference to Biblical stories20%
Greatness of Allah or the Quran / Allah listens16%
Unbelievers are bad / fight them15%
Arguments with unbelievers8%

Side remark: Allah praises himself every 6th verse of the Quran, yet does not like “any arrogant boaster” [Quran / 31:18]. How much human suffering could have been avoided, if he had sacrificed just one of his self-praising verses to replace it with a verse that condemns female genital mutilation (→FGM).

Scientific miracles

Some Muslims assert that the Quran contains scientific knowledge that was so ahead of its time that it could only be dictated by God (Wikipedia / Quran and Miracles). Common points include the prediction of embryo development, radar technology, ozone layers, quasars, radio receivers, the diameter of the earth, and the Big Bang theory (Web search).

If the Quran really predicted these things, then we may ask why these things were not invented in the Muslim world (→Frustration). Muslims have been studying and even memorizing the Quran for 1400 years. In some countries, such as Jordan and Tunisia, more than half of Muslims read the Quran every day (Pew Research Center: The World’s Muslims: Unity and Diversity / Chapter 2, 2012). And yet, they did not discover radar technology, ozone layers, or the Big Bang theory in it. Only when these things were found in the Western world did Muslims find it in the Quran.

This is what we call a post-diction: After the fact, people find that the fact had been foretold all along (Wikipedia/Postdiction). This is a common pattern in many religions (Wikipedia / Scientific foreknowledge in sacred texts). It is not, however, science. Science is about pre-diction, i.e., making the statement before the fact. Muslims may say that the foreknowledge was there, but that people could just not read it properly. This, however, is just as good as if it were not there.

If someone insists that the Quran contains scientific foreknowledge, ask them what will be the next scientific breakthrough. Then invest in that technology. In all likelihood, though, your interlocutor will not be able to tell you the next scientific breakthrough. This is because the Quran does not make scientific predictions. It only summarizes what its human authors knew at the time.

If the Arabs had high scientific achievements to their credit, why did they leave the Europeans exclusively to benefit from them?
David Pryce-Jones

The Golden Age

The Economist quips that the Arab world remembers too much history, and America too few of it (The Economist / 2016-05-14 / The Arab World). Concerning the Arabs, this quip aims partly at the Islamic Golden Age. This was a period where the Muslim world experienced a scientific, economic, and cultural flourishing [Wikipedia / Islamic Golden Age]. Open any modern introductory book on Islam, and the chances are you will find that it begins by singing the praises of a people who conquered, in an incredibly short time, half of the civilized world. The volume will recount in positively glowing terms a time when Muslims ruled over a vast population of diverse peoples and cultures. [Ibn Warraq in “Why I am not a Muslim”, p. 198] Many Muslims argue that the success of the Golden Age proves the superiority of Islam. When pointed to the miserably situation of Muslim countries today (→Frustration), they argue that the Golden Age was the time when people truly followed the word of God — unlike now. This proves, in their eyes, that following Islam leads to cultural and material flourishing. This, in turn, is seen as a proof of the divine origin of Islam.

We first note that the Golden Age was not as golden as it is portrayed. Non-Muslims lived in Islamic lands as “Dhimmi”: They had to pay special taxes for their “protection” (Wikipedia / Dhimmi). This is no different from a Mafia system, where the victims have to pay a Danegeld in order to be “protected” from the very agents that collect the money. Muslims paid a charity tax, too, but the Danegeld was “a fee for protection provided by the Muslim ruler to non-Muslims, for the exemption from military service for non-Muslims, for the permission to practice a non-Muslim faith with some communal autonomy in a Muslim state, and as material proof of the non-Muslims' submission to the Muslim state and its laws” (Wikipedia/Jizya). Furthermore, the Dhimmi had less political rights than Muslims. Display of religious symbols was forbidden (reminding us of the Burka debate in France, →Veil); church bells were not allowed to ring; proselytism was prohibited; and Dhimmi men could not marry Muslim women (→Interfaith). Non-Muslims were not allowed to enter the holy cities of Mecca or Medina (a restriction that is upheld until today).The Sharia stipulates that Non-Muslims in conquered areas have to wear special signs on their clothing, may not build new churches, may not walk in the middle of the street, and are not greeted like Muslims (→Sharia). While this model was in some aspects better than the treatment that non-Christians received in Europe, it can by no means be a model for today. If Western societies imposed anything like this onto their Muslim citizens today, there would be an outcry. Yet, this is the world that many Muslims idealize (just with themselves in the dominant position).

Thus, in absolute terms, the Golden Age is nothing to strive for. In relative terms, however, the Golden Age did have advantages over medieval Europe: science flourished, the Greek philosophy was kept alive, and the times were relatively peaceful. However, if a civilization is successful, this does not necessarily mean that its force is divine. For example, in 1400 CE, Europe woke up under the Renaissance. It set out to conquer the majority of the rest of the world. It colonized for hundreds of years the very same Muslim countries that were once the forefront of the Islamic Golden Age. Europe led the industrial revolution. Later, the culture collectively known as “The West” led the scientific revolution, the social revolution, and the Internet revolution. Today, the West has more military, economic, cultural, and scientific impact on this world than any other culture ever had. This dominance lasts already much longer than the Islamic Age. Does this make the West divine? Hardly so.

If we investigate the reasons for both cultural dominances, we find that they share several factors: scientific exploration flourished both during the Islamic Golden Age and in the European Renaissance; freedom of speech and free thinking were encouraged in both the Golden Age and the modern West; translation and reading was prevalent in both cultures. Today, however, these factors are underdeveloped in the Muslim world. We thus observe that Islam with these factors has lead to prosperity, while Islam without these factors has lead to misery. Thus, we conclude that the main factor for the flourishing in the Golden Age could not have been Islam. Quite possibly, it rather had to do with science, free speech, and free thinking.

The Golden Age happened in Cairo, Cordoba, or Constantinople.
But it did not happen in Mecca or Medina.
The center of Islam has never been the center of tolerance.
Ever since the birth of Islam, no unbeliever has been allowed into Mecca.
Hamed Abdel-Samad, paraphrased

Islam is so well organized!

Unbelievers say that Prophet Muhammad was an impostor, who did not really have revelations from God. Muslims may counter that a lie could hardly have given rise to such a powerful and grand religion as Islam. The argument goes roughly as follows:
This particular man continued to talk about what he’d experienced, and started to convince people. In fact, he generated a religion that converted thousands of people in his life, many of them very solid and practical people. Can a crazy person do that? Perhaps, if he’s sufficiently charismatic. But most people who joined Islam did so without meeting the Prophet Muhammad. They were convinced. Can the ravings of a madman convince thousands of people, drive many of them to leave their homes and gather to this mission, and hold to it, even if it meant their own lives? Maybe, but that’s a pretty impressive insanity.

Then, when Muhammad died, Islam continued to survive and hold together and eventually convert millions. Can a crazy person build an organization that will last and prosper beyond his own death? We can assume that a lot of the building was done by Muhammad’s more sane followers, but you’d think that these intelligent, practically-minded and forward thinking people would have realized they were following a madman at some point. It strains credulity that all of this could have been done by a raving lunatic.

So, let’s assume that he wasn’t actually a gibbering loon, but was an intelligent, charismatic and pious man who just deluded himself into believing that God was talking to him. But that doesn’t work either. If he’d claimed to have had one heavenly visitation in his youth, we could mark that down as a one-off hallucination, but that’s not the case. He reported repeated heavenly visitations throughout his life. He reported continuing to receive doctrine and instruction from heavenly messengers. This wasn’t just wishful thinking, he was either hallucinating, or lying, or was actually visited by beings from outside of what we think of as the natural world.

I think the ultimate blow to this theory is the existence of the Quran. Muhammad produced a volume that can be held, read, examined and evaluated. Please, read a randomly selected page of this book and tell me if you think this sounds like the ravings of a madman, or the extemporaneous tales of a wild storyteller. The Quran is an exceedingly sober document that never breaks down into impenetrable gnomic statements, never loses the thread of it’s often complex narrative, never runs into contradictions. It purports to give an account of ancient prophets and their peoples and civilizations over the course of a thousand years, and it’s internally consistent (we can have a debate about the historical accuracy, but within the volume itself, everything makes sense). No one who’s ever written a book could possibly believe that such a feat could be accomplished at random, off the top of one’s head.

So, dismissing that entirely implausible claim, we’re left with only two options: liar or prophet. According to Muhammad himself, the Quranic verses are genuine. The alternative to that is that he made them up himself, or with the help of associates who’ve never been identified, it would have to be conceived, written, rewritten and edited entirely in secret.

There are many instances in history of people trying to forge or pass off their own writings as revelations. None that I have ever heard of is even remotely comparable to the length, complexity and beauty of the Quran. This is a volume that millions of people, many of them educated and intelligent, have studied their entire lives and continue to both be convinced by, and gather inspiration and instruction from. Nothing even vaguely similar has ever been acheived by any charlatan. So, from an objective perspective, we should either celebrate the Quran as the most elaborate and brilliant hoax in history, or accept it as scripture. There just aren’t any other reasonable alternatives.

Many Muslims would argue like this. However, this argument is also used by other religions. For example, Mormons argue that their prophet, John Smith, must have had real divine revelations, because he founded such an organized religion (Mormonism). In fact, the above text comes from a Mormon. We have just replaced all references to John Smith by “the Prophet Muhammad”, all references to the Church of Mormons by “Islam”, and all references to the Book of Mormons by “the Quran”; and we have removed some words that were specific to Joseph Smith [Geoffrey Widdison: Was Joseph Smith mentally ill?]

This shows that Mormons use exactly the same argument as Muslims to prove the truth of their religion. However, whenever the same argument can be used to prove two contradictory stances, the argument is wrong.

It is easy to see why: Once the religion has enough adherents, it starts organizing itself. Adherents build up the cultural, ideological, and legal infrastructure. Those religions that did not do that simply did not survive. Hence, all religions that we see today are organized. This, however, does not make them true.

You insult the prophet!

According to the Quran, the Prophet Muhammad is the perfect role model to follow (Quran / 48:29 (Medina), 33:21 (Medina), 68:05), and a mercy to the world (Quran / 21:107). When one doubts that the Prophet Muhammad was the perfect human, one is often accused of insulting the prophet.

However, the Prophet Muhammad is dead. He cannot be insulted.

Others argue that by doubting the veracity of Islam, or by criticizing its tenets, we insult Muslims. However, it must be allowed to criticize a world view without having its adherents take offense.

Thus, the warning not to insult Muslims is just a method to avoid criticism to Islam and its prophet (→Blasphemy).

Side remark: If we want to take insults seriously, we should also forbid the Quran. It insults unbelievers in the worst possible forms (→Hatred, →Apostasy). We can argue that these insults all depend on the context. Then, please, apply the same logic to the criticism of Islam.

Islamic Values

A Moral Evaluation of Islam

The following sections will conduct a moral evaluation of Islam. This is a challenging endeavor, because there is not only one Islamic belief system, but several (→Belief). Therefore, we will not analyze Islam itself. Rather, we will analyze specific moral beliefs such as “Apostates should be killed”. With each such belief, we will quantify what proportion of Muslims hold it, and list the sources that proponents and opponents of that belief bring forward.

Some of the beliefs are shared by virtually all Muslims. Others are shared by only a minority. Therefore, the following analysis is divided into 3 parts:

  1. Mainstream moral beliefs that are virtually uncontested among Muslims (the present section)
  2. Prevalent moral beliefs that are contested by liberal-minded Muslims, but dominant in the Muslim world (→Prevalent)
  3. Moral beliefs that follow if the Quran is taken literally (→Only)

These beliefs will be evaluated with respect to the Human Rights. The debate about Islamist terrorism is postponed to a later section (→Terrorism).

Women’s rights

Discrimination against women
[OECD: Gender Inequality in Social Institutions]
Discrimination against women in property law
Question: “Should women have less rights than men?”

Sources cited in favor: The Quran tells us that a man can have 4 wives, while a woman can only have 1 husband (Quran / 4:3 (Medina)); that a woman should be obedient to her husband (Quran / 4:34 (Medina), 2:228); that a man inherits twice the share of a woman (Quran / 4:11 (Medina)); that a man can marry a non-Muslim woman, while a woman has no such right (Quran / 5:5 (Medina)); that the word of a man counts twice as much in court as that of a woman (Quran / 2:282 (Medina)); and that the women of the Prophet Muhammad, the role model (→Insult), were not allowed to leave the house (Quran / 33:33). The Islamic schools of thought generally agree (→Schools). The Prophet Muhammad reminds us in his Farewell Sermon to “treat women well, for they are like domestic animals with you and do not possess anything for themselves” (Wikipedia / Farewell Sermon). (The translation “domestic animals” is disputed. Other translators use “captives” or “prisoners” instead.) Thilo Sarrazin argues that the Quran knows women only as objects of men: as wives, as minor daughters, and as slaves (→Sex Slavery). Women who do not fall into any of these categories do not exist.

These rulings are echoed in the Sharia (→Sharia), which says that women have to cover every part of their body except hands and face (Sharia / f5.3), while it is generally recommended that they also cover their face (ibid / m2.3). Women are not allowed to speak to men without necessity (ibid / r32.6). If the victim of a murder is a woman, her family can only claim half of the indemnity (ibid / o4.9). Husbands have full rights over their wives (ibid / m5.4, m10.11). Women may not travel (ibid / m10.3), and she has to stay at home if her husband wants her to (ibid / m10.4). The husband can divorce his wife (n1.1 (a)), but the wife can only divorce her husband with his agreement (n1.3). In the view of the Al-Azhar University in Cairo/Egypt, this Sharia “conforms to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni Community” (→Sharia).

Sources cited in opposition: The Quran says that men are only allowed to have several wives if they can treat them equally (Quran / 4:129 (Medina)). Since this is impossible, many Muslims argue that having 4 wives would really be the exception. Concerning inheritance, Muslims point out that a man was expected to take care of his wife (Quran / 4:34 (Medina), Farewell Sermon), and that thus the woman did not need to inherit as much as the man. The Quran also emphasizes mutual respect between men and women (Quran / 2:229 (Medina), 2:231 (Medina), 2:233 (Medina), 2:187 (Medina)). Furthermore, the Quran tells us that men were created from a single soul (Quran / 4:1). This has been extrapolated to mean that women shall be allowed to leave their homes, and that they are allowed to go to school (Open Letter to the Islamic State / 14). However, these verses have not been extrapolated to mean that men and women shall have equal rights.

Prevalence: Almost all Muslims are of the opinion that the woman cannot marry a non-Muslim, while a man can. Beyond that, the majority of Muslims in the world subscribe to some other form of discrimination against women. 87% of Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa believe that a woman must obey her husband, as do 70% of Muslims in Central Asia, and 93% of Muslims in Southeast Asia (Pew Research Center: The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society, 2013). 75% of Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa believe that a woman should not have an equal of inheritance (ibid). Both views are shared by Muslims who believe that the Quran should be the only source of law (→Quranism). More than 40% of Muslims in Africa think that polygamy is moral (ibid). Less than 50% of Muslims in Africa believe that the woman should decide whether to wear the veil (ibid). In France, the number is 10% (Institut Montaigne: Un islam français est possible, 2016, p. 31). Saudi schoolbooks teach that the “Blood money for a woman [is] Half of the blood money for a man” [Washington News / 2006-05-21 / This is a Saudi textbook]. Muslim legal scholars promote a notion of qiwamah (guardianship) that gives men authority over women. In conservative countries, such as Saudi Arabia, this is official policy. But the attitude persists even in relatively liberal parts of the Arab world, such as Morocco, where 77% of men believe it is their duty to exercise guardianship over female relatives, and most of the women surveyed say they support the idea of male guardianship [The Economist / 2017-05-04 / The sorry state of Arab men]. In Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, and Palestine, strong majorities of men believe it is their role to monitor and control the movements of the women and girls in their households; only half of men believe a married woman should have the same right to work as a man; and younger men’s views on gender equality do not differ substantially from those of older men; 60%-90% of men expect to control their wives’ personal freedoms, from what they wear and where they go to when the couple has sex; in Egypt, just 10% of wives work full time [UN Women: Understanding Masculinities]. Thilo Sarrazin hypothesizes that this desire to dominate women may be reinforced by the fact that Muslim men can dominate in few places elsewhere — struck by unemployment, economic underperformance of their country, and generally the failure to live up to their own expectations.

Incompatibility: Inequality before the law is contrary to the Human Rights (Human Rights / 1, 2).

Effect: Women suffer legal, social, cultural, and physical discrimination in almost all Muslim countries more than in the Western world (OECD: Gender Inequality in Social Institutions, Wikipedia / Global Gender Gap Report, Wikipedia / Women in Islam, WomanStats). This holds in particular in the Arab world. According to a United Nations report, the “Arab society does not acknowledge the true extent of women’s participation in social and economic activities and in the production of the components of human well being, and it does not reward them adequately for such participation.” [United Nations: Arab Human Development Report, 2005]. On the contrary, “many Arab women are still bound by patriarchal patterns of kinship, legalised discrimination, social subordination and ingrained male dominance. Because women find themselves in a lowly position in relation to decision-making within the family, their situation continuously exposes them to forms of family and institutionalised violence. Arab women, like many of their peers in other regions, sustain both direct and indirect violence. In the first category, they suffer forms of physical assault, from beating to rape and murder. In the second, they are victims of cultural and social practices that cause material harm to women, such as female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage.” [United Nations: Arab Human Development Report, 2009]. “The Arab region witnessed a greater increase in women’s share in economic activity than all other regions of the world: the increase for Arab women was 19 per cent compared to 3 per cent for the world as a whole. Despite this, Arab women’s economic participation remains the lowest in the world. [...] Laws hindering women, including those designed for their “protection,” such as personal status and labour legislation, also restrict women’s freedom by requiring a father’s or a husband’s permission to work, travel or borrow from financial institutions.[...] Proverbs dealing with women are repeated in most Arab social classes and generally provide clear examples of the perception of women as inferior. [...] Many laws in the Arab countries discriminate against women. [...] For example, in some Arab penal codes, in the crime of adultery, men are held guilty only if the act takes place in the marital home. Women are guilty regardless of where the act takes place” [United Nations: Arab Human Development Report, 2005]. The Arab states have signed the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, but requested reservations to the article that requires equal rights for men and women, based on religious concerns (ibid). This is to be seen in a wider context of the position of women in the Muslim world (→Deprivation).

Discussion: People argue that men and women should be allowed to take different roles in their relationship. Indeed, in a liberal value system such as the Human Rights, husband and wife can assume whatever roles they wish. However, they have to have equal rights before the law.

It is often argued that early Islam gave women more rights than they had at the time. While this may be true, the values that were progressive at the time are no longer progressive today. No major contemporary interpretation of Islam gives women equal rights (→Red).

The Point: Not all Muslims believe that Islam gives less rights to women. However, we will not take sides as to which is the “true interpretation” of the religion (→Truth). We just note that a substantial proportion of Muslims believes that Islam does not give women the same rights as men. As a consequence, women are discriminated against in several Muslim-majority countries.

Prohibition of Interfaith Marriage

Question: “Should free interfaith marriage be prohibited?”

Sources cited in favor: The Quran tells us that a man can marry a non-Muslim woman, but only if she is monotheistic (Quran / 2:221 (Medina)), while a woman has no such right (Quran / 60:10 (Medina)). The intention was most likely to make sure that the offspring is Muslim. This boils down to the following rule: Women may not marry non-Muslims, and men may marry only Muslim, Christian, or Jewish women.

Sources cited in opposition: none.

Prevalence: The mainstream opinion of Muslims is that women may not marry non-Muslims, and that men may only marry Muslim, Jewish, or Christian women (Wikipedia / Interfaith marriage in Islam). Muslims in Britain tend to be split on the issue (Civitas: Institute for the Study of Civil Society London: Sharia Law or ‘One Law For All?’, p. 13).

Incompatibility: The Human Rights give the right to marry without limitation due to race, nationality or religion (Human Rights / 16)

Discussion: We can argue that Muslims are free to marry whoever they wish — they just cease to be Muslims if they breach the Islamic constraints. However, this does not solve the problem that the belief itself is incompatible with the Human Rights. One can always choose to abandon a belief, but that does not make the belief itself less objectionable. If you have to leave the system in order to have the freedom that the Human Rights give you, then the system is not compatible with the Human Rights.

We may say that everybody should be free to choose their partner, and that, hence, Muslims are free to define their choice of partners. To see that this does not work, let us take an analogy. Let us assume that we made a law saying that

White US citizens shall not marry black people.
That would be considered racist, offensive, segregating, and degrading to black people. It is the same if “White US citizens” is replaced by “Muslims”, and “black people” is replaced by “Hindus”.

Effect: If Muslims marry only among themselves, this has two effects: First, minority groups in Muslim majority countries cannot mix with the majority. Second, Muslim minorities in Christian countries cannot be absorbed into the mainstream culture. The result in both cases is a segregation of the minority. There is no true integration of the minority into the mainstream culture, but the formation of a cell that is to last for generations to come. We can argue that the best measurement of integration of a foreign community is if members from that community are ready to intermarry with the host community. Vice versa, the best measurement for the acceptance of a foreign community by the host community is when the host community permits such marriages.

The Point: Interfaith marriage is currently shunned in the mainstream Muslim opinion. We do not conclude that, therefore, this stance would be the “true interpretation” of the religion (→Truth). We just note that this interpretation is prevalent, and that it contributes to the segregation of humanity into different camps.

Unbelievers deserve being burnt alive

Question: “Do unbelievers deserve being burnt alive?”

Sources cited in favor: According to the Quran, unbelievers will be tortured in the hereafter by Allah with boiling fluid (Quran / 22:19-21 (Medina)), burned alive over and over again (Quran / 4:56 (Medina), 56:92-94), and made to suffer in various ways (Quran / 3:4 (Medina), 4:160-161 (Medina), 5:10 (Medina), 5:36 (Medina), 6:49, 6:70, 6:113, 98:6 (Medina)), while the believers can laugh at them (Quran / 83:34). No religion will ever be accepted other than Islam (Quran / 3:85 (Medina)). In particular, no repentance will be accepted from those who die in denial of Islam (Quran / 4:18 (Medina)), and the sin of having other gods is unforgivable (Quran / 4:116-117 (Medina), 4:48, 5:72, 9:113), as is switching back and forth in belief (Quran / 4:137 (Medina)). Since Allah is right and just (16% of the verses of the Quran, →Statistics), this means that an unbeliever deserves torture.

This threat includes the Christians (Quran / 98:5-6, 4:18 (Medina) in combination with 5:17 (Medina), 5:72 (Medina), 5:73 (Medina)). They have invented a lie about Allah (Quran / 10:68-69). Since inventing a lie about Allah is the worst of sins (Quran / 7:37, 29:68), Christians are condemned to Hell (Quran / 10:68-70).

Sources cited in opposition: Some Muslims argue that only God can decide who burns in Hell. However, the mainstream opinion in Islam is that God has already made his decision (see verses above). Others say that God may yet forgive the unbelievers. However, the Quran is quite clear that unbelievers cannot find mercy (Quran / 4:18 (Medina), 4:48 (Medina), 4:116-117 (Medina), 4:137 (Medina), 5:72, 9:113). A minority opinion holds that the word “believer” in the Quran does not actually refer to the Muslims (for whom the Quran has a different word), but to the adherents of any religion (Muhammad Shahrur: The Book and The Quran — A Contemporary Reading, 1990). This reading makes only atheists go to hell. Yet another viewpoint is defended by Hasan Bin Farhan Al-Maliki. He argues that the purpose of worship is righteousness (Quran / 51:56 in combination with 2:21 (Medina)), and that, hence, righteousness is sufficient to arrive in Heaven (Hasan Bin Farhan Al-Maliki).

Prevalence: A common opinion goes that non-believers, who could have followed Islam but chose to not do it, will burn in hell. This is, e.g., taught in Saudi Arabian schoolbooks (Washington Post / 2016-05-21 / This is a Saudi textbook) as well as in the schoolbooks of Saudi-controlled schools in the UK (BBC / 2010-11-22 / Saudi school lessons in UK concern government).

Discussion: The mainstream Muslim belief systems have not undergone the kind of reformation that Christianity has gone through (→Naiv). Thus, the prevalent Muslim opinion is that what is written in the Quran is literally the word of God. Unbelievers will really burn physically in Hell. Since Muslims believe that all that Allah does is rightful, they believe that the unbelievers deserve being burnt alive. As long as they keep it to themselves, there is little offence taken. As soon as they say it, or teach it to their children, it becomes offensive.

Incompatibility: Stating that an innocent person deserves being burnt alive is an attack on the dignity (Human Rights / 1) and honor (ibid / 12) of that person. Any unbeliever has a right to take offense if someone tells their children that all unbelievers have to burn in hell.

The Point: Not all Muslims agree on this interpretation of Islam. However, we will not take sides as to whether this is the “true interpretation” of the religion or not (→Truth). We just note that a substantial proportion of Muslims believe that God will burn the unbelievers alive, and that the unbelievers deserve it. Burning someone alive, or threatening someone to be burnt alive, is one of the most atrocious crimes that man can commit. Already approving of it, or implying that it is a rightful thing to do (no matter whether it is actually executed or not), is heinous.

What I have against Muslims?
That they worship a god who wants to burn me alive.
anonymous on Quora

Side remark: When the Islamic State (→IS) burned alive a Western prisoner, this caused an outcry. It is not easy to see why. According to the Quran, the victim deserves being burnt alive. So what is wrong with executing it? Muslims can say that only Allah may burn people alive. However, they have to admit that the unbelievers deserve it. They cannot say that burning is inhumane, because then they would say that their own god would be inhumane. Which they deny.

Unfortunately, for legal reasons, we cannot show a picture here of how it really looks when a person is burnt alive. We cannot even link to Dabiq, the magazine of the Islamic State that shows the pictures. Therefore, we encourage the reader to go to Wikipedia / Dabiq, to click on Issue 7, and to scroll to the pictures of the burning. This should eliminate any doubt that anybody who justifies such a procedure, or who glorifies a god who plans such a procedure, may just not know what he is saying.


Homosexuality can be punished by prison or death in most Muslim countries (orange and red)
[BBC / 2014-02-10 / Where is it illegal to be gay?]
Question: “Should homosexuality be punished?”

Sources cited in favor: The Quran refers to the “people of Lut” and talks about them “coming to males in lust besides females”, for which the punishment is turning them out of town (Quran / 7:80-84). It argues “Do you approach the males of humanity, leaving the wives Allah has created for you? But you are a people who transgress!” (Quran / 165-166). The Quran also prescribes: “The woman and the man guilty of illegal sexual intercourse, flog each of them with a hundred stripes.” (Quran / 24:2). This is usually understood to mean sex outside marriage. Since homosexuals cannot marry in Islam, the punishment automatically applies to homosexuals.
The Hadith are a bit more explicit, and say “If you find anyone doing as Lot’s people did, kill the one who does it, and the one to whom it is done” (Sunan Abu Dawood, 38:4447). The Sharia defines sodomy as what Lut’s people did, i.e., homosexuality (Sharia / 17.0). It requires stoning homosexuals to death (Sharia / o12.2). In the view of the Al-Azhar University in Cairo/Egypt, this Sharia “conforms to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni Community” (→Sharia).

Sources cited against: none.

Prevalence: Overwhelming majorities in the predominantly Muslim countries surveyed say homosexuality should be rejected, including 97% in Jordan, 95% in Egypt, 94% in Tunisia, 93% in Palestine, 93% in Indonesia, 87% in Pakistan, 86% in Malaysia, 80% in Lebanon and 78% in Turkey [Pew ResearchCenter / The Global Divide on Homosexuality, 2013] . In 37 out of 57 Muslim-majority nations, same-sex intercourse is forbidden by law (Wikipedia / LGBT in Islam). In Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Mauritania, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and Sudan, homosexuality is punished by death (Washington Post / 2014-02-24 / Here are the 10 countries where homosexuality may be punished by death). The schoolbooks of Saudi-controlled schools in the UK are a bit more nuanced. They admit that there is “a difference of opinion about whether [the death penalty] should be carried out by stoning, burning with fire or throwing the person over a cliff.” (BBC / 2010-11-22 / Saudi school lessons in UK concern government). In the German state of Lower Saxony, 27% of Muslim pupils favor a punishment of homosexuals (Pfeiffer, Baier, Klim: Development of Violence in Germany, Table 10)

Incompatibility: The Human Rights do not discuss sexual orientation (Human Rights). We just note that rights and freedoms may only be curtailed “for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society”. Western opinion is generally that homosexuality does not pose a problem for rights and freedoms of others, morality, public order or the general welfare.

The Point: The vast majority of Muslims agree that homosexuality cannot be accepted. However, we will not take sides as to whether this is the “true interpretation” of the religion or not (→Truth). We just note that these Muslims stigmatize 5% of humanity as unacceptable, even though these people do no harm to others.

Prevalent Attitudes

Spousal Rape

In dark: countries where marital rape is legal
[Carwill James @ Wikicommons]
Question: “May a husband force his wife to sex?”

Sources cited in favor: The Quran says: “Your wives are as a tilth unto you; so approach your tilth when or how ye will” (Quran / 2:223 (Medina)). Hence, the man has the right to sex with his wife. In other words: if we take the Quran as our sole guidance (→Quranism), and if we see a man raping his wife, then there is no verse that we could use to punish the man. Raping the wife is just not a crime in the Quran.

The Sharia agrees, saying that husbands have full rights over their wives (Sharia / m5.4, m10.11), including the right to force sex on them (ibid / m5.1, e13.5). In the view of the Al-Azhar University in Cairo/Egypt, this Sharia “conforms to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni Community” (→Sharia).

Sources cited in opposition: The Quran urges men and women to live in mutual respect (Quran / 2:229 (Medina), 2:231 (Medina), 2:233 (Medina), 2:187 (Medina)). Muslims who believe that the husband has the right to sex argue that the mutual respect in the couple actually obliges the partners to follow their respective duties — among which the obligation to submit sexually to the husband (IslamQA: Wives refusing sex, Sharia / m10.1).

Prevalence: In most Muslim countries, spousal rape is not a crime (Wikipedia / Marital rape).

Incompatibility: The Human Rights request security of person (Human Rights / 3) and condemn cruel treatment (ibid /5).

The Point: Not all Muslims agree on this interpretation of Islam. However, we will not take sides as to whether this is the “true interpretation” of the religion or not (→Truth). We just note that a substantial proportion of Muslim countries do not consider spousal rape a crime, based on their prevalent interpretation of Islam.


Countries where blasphemy is illegal
[Pew Research Center: Which countries still outlaw apostasy and blasphemy?, 2014]
Question: “Should criticizing Islam be punished by death?”
To clarify: We are talking here not about insulting people, but about criticizing the moral teachings of Islam, or doubting the divinity of the Quran.

Sources cited in favor: The Quran tells us that those who “those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and strive to make mischief in the land” have to be crucified (Quran / 5:33-34 (Medina)). This is read as including people who criticize Islam. Furthermore, “Those who annoy Allah and His Messenger — Allah has cursed them in this World and in the Hereafter. Truly, if the Hypocrites, and those in whose hearts is a disease, and those who stir up sedition in the City, desist not [...], whenever they are found, they shall be seized and slain (without mercy)” (Quran / 33:57-61 (Medina)). The Quran also tells us that we are not allowed to question what Allah or the Prophet Muhammad have decided (Quran / 33:36 (Medina), 5:101 (Medina)).

The Hadiths tell us that the Prophet Muhammad killed several people who criticized him (Asma bint Marwan, Abu Afak; see WikiIslam / Muhammad the Mass Murderer), including a comedian (Wikipedia / Nadr Ibn Al-Harith) and a poet (Wikipedia / Ka’b ibn al-Ashraf).

The Sharia (→Sharia) explains that apostasy is basically anything that criticizes the Quran (Sharia / o8.7 (1)-(20)), including from non-Muslims (ibid / o11.10 (5)), and that apostasy is to be punished by death (ibid / o8.1). In the view of the Al-Azhar University in Cairo/Egypt, this Sharia “conforms to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni Community” (→Sharia).

The Hanafi school (→Schools) views blasphemy as synonymous with apostasy, and therefore, accepts the repentance of apostates. Those who refuse to repent, their punishment is death if the blasphemer is a Muslim man, and if the blasphemer is a woman, she must be imprisoned with coercion (beating) till she repents and returns to Islam. If a non-Muslim commits blasphemy, his punishment must be a tazir (discretionary, can be death, arrest, caning, etc.). The Maliki school views blasphemy as an offense distinct from, and more severe than apostasy. Death is mandatory in cases of blasphemy for Muslim men, and repentance is not accepted. For women, death is not the punishment suggested, but she is arrested and punished till she repents and returns to Islam or dies in custody. A non-Muslim who commits blasphemy against Islam must be punished; however, the blasphemer can escape punishment by converting and becoming a devout Muslim. The Hanbali school views blasphemy as an offense distinct from, and more severe than apostasy. Death is mandatory in cases of blasphemy, for both Muslim men and women, and repentance is not accepted. The Shafii school recognizes blasphemy as a separate offense from apostasy, but accepts the repentance of blasphemers. If the blasphemer does not repent, the punishment is death. The Jafari school views blasphemy against Islam, the Prophet, or any of the Imams, to be punishable with death, if the blasphemer is a Muslim. In case the blasphemer is a non-Muslim, he is given a chance to convert to Islam, or else killed. [Wikipedia / Blasphemy, see there for sources]

Sources cited in opposition: The Quran tells us to be patient with the unbelievers (Quran / 3:186 (Medina)), and to forgive them (Quran / 2:109 (Medina)).

Prevalence: Blasphemy is prohibited in the majority of Muslim countries (see map). People have been punished for blasphemy for finding fault with the Prophet Muhammad, for naming a teddy bear “Muhammad”, for expressing a secular point of view, for whistling during prayers, for practicing Yoga, for listening to music, or for touching the Quran as a non-Muslim (Wikipedia / Islam and blasphemy). Already the depiction of Muhammad is considered unlawful by many Muslims (Wikipedia / Depictions of Muhammad). Criticism of Islam is heavily censored in Muslim societies (Wikipedia / Censorship in Islamic societies). In Pakistan, the punishment for blasphemy is death. However “it is increasingly common that vigilantes take the law into their own hands before courts get involved. At least 65 people have been murdered by mobs for allegedly insulting Islam since 1990” (The Economist / 2017-04-22 / Places of Darkness). The five countries to practice the grossest violations of international standards in terms of punishment for blasphemy are all Muslim majority lands [The Economist / 2017-08-13 / Ranking countries by their blasphemy laws]. The Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) has lobbied for a worldwide prohibition of insulting the Prophet Muhammad (Huffington Post / 2012-09-30 / At United Nations, Organization Of Islamic Cooperation Calls For Ban On Insulting Prophet Muhammad).

Depictions of Muhammad or criticism of Islam regularly draw large protests in Muslim lands, which usually kill more people than were harmed by the original depiction (Wikipedia / Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons / comparable incidents). In 2015, Muslim extremists killed the editors of Charlie Hebdo, a French magazine that featured caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. The perpetrators were isolated extremists. However, they have their supporters: In the sequel, protests against Charlie Hebdo’s depiction of Muhammad on the cover of its “survivors’ issue” have caused the deaths of at least ten people and the burning of 45 churches in Niger. Hotels and bars have been razed to the ground. Protests also took place in Pakistan, Algeria and other countries; 800,000 attended a rally in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, a Russian republic with a Muslim majority. [The Economist / 2015-01-24] These people may have been stirred up by extremists. This does not change the fact that they stood up in support for the punishment of blasphemy.

In Germany, 73% of citizens of Turkish origin say that books that insult religion should be prohibited (Uni Münster: Integration und Religion, 2016). It is not clear whether they are aware that any such rule would also prohibit their own holy book (→Hatred).

Incompatibility: The Human Rights guarantee freedom of speech (Human Rights / 19). It has been hotly debated when freedom of speech starts to be a defamation of religion or its adherents (Wikipedia / Defamation of religion and the UN).

Discussion: It must be allowed to criticize religion just like it must be allowed to criticize any other life stance. If we disallow criticism of other systems, then we allow the abolition of our own system. Islamic beliefs, in particular, must be criticized wherever they justify human suffering (→Apostasy, →FGM, →Rape, →Spousal). Such criticism finds its limits in personal attacks on living people that are (1) pejorative and (2) not provably true.

Effect: The violence that can ensue if one criticizes Islam has frightened people. In Nigeria “Journalists don’t even think of speaking about controversial religious issues,” says Lai Oshisanya, a lawyer. “You’d probably be killed before it got to prosecution.” In Pakistan, newspapers avoid giving the detail of blasphemy cases, for fear of repeating the crime: one described Mr Jamshed’s alleged offence as “uttering shameful words against holy personalities”. [The Economist / 2015-01-24].

Since criticism of Islam is prohibited to Muslims, Muslims themselves cannot easily change their view (→Free). Since some Muslims make so much noise when Islam is criticized, Westerners sometimes censor themselves (→Censor). By this means, criticism to Islam is inhibited in both Muslim and Western lands.

The Point: Not all Muslims agree on this interpretation of Islam. However, we will not take sides as to whether this is the “true interpretation” of the religion or not (→Truth). We just note that a substantial proportion of Muslims consider criticism of Islam a crime, based on their interpretation of the faith.

If the people of this religion are asked about the proof for the soundness of their religion, they flare up, get angry and spill the blood of whomever confronts them with this question. They forbid rational speculation, and strive to kill their adversaries. This is why truth became thorough silenced and concealed.
Zakariya Razi (Rhazes), Persian chemist, philosopher and physician, 865 – 925 AD.

Side remark: The map shows that blasphemy is also illegal in non-Muslim countries. In Germany, e.g., defaming a religion in a manner suitable to disturb the public peace is an offense. Such laws are equally criticized under the Human Rights (Wikipedia / Blasphemy law). One wrong does not make another wrong right.


Sharia-adherents who favor corporal punishment for theft
[Pew Research Center: The World’s Muslims / Chapter 1, 2013]
Question: “Should criminals and adulterers be tortured?”

Sources cited in favor: The Quran prescribes the amputation of hand and feet for anybody who makes “mischief in the land” (Quran / 5:33 (Medina)), or who steals (Quran / 5:38 (Medina)), and flogging for adulterers (Quran / 24:2 (Medina)). Such punishments are mirrored in the Sharia (→Sharia), with stoning for adultery (Sharia / o12.2), amputation for theft (ibid / o14.1), and 40 lashes for drinking alcohol (ibid / o16.3). In the view of the Al-Azhar University in Cairo/Egypt, this Sharia “conforms to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni Community” (→Sharia). Thus, if we take the Quran as the only source of law (→Quranism), we have to support the torture of criminals. In addition, the punishment may extend to the kinship of the perpetrator. The Quran tells us that “the law of equality is prescribed in cases of murder: the free for the free, the slave for the slave, the woman for the woman” — which basically means that if someone was murdered, an innocent person has to be killed in return (Quran 2:178).

Sources cited in opposition: Some people argue that Verse 5:38 (Medina) has to be translated so as to mean “lightly injure” instead of “cut off” the hand (→Translations). A minority opinion holds that the word “hudud” in the Quran does not actually mean “punishment”, but “limit” (Muhammad Shahrur: The Book and The Quran — A Contemporary Reading, 1990). In this reading, what has been thought of as prescribed punishments are just upper limits for the allowed punishments.

Prevalence: Corporal punishment for thieves is supported by 28%-88% of Sharia-adherents in 20 Muslim countries (Pew Research Center: The World’s Muslims / Chapter 1, 2013), which means 32% of Muslims in Indonesia, 74% of Muslims in Pakistan, 80% of Muslims in Afghanistan, 41% of Muslims in Bangladesh, 51% of Muslims in Egypt, 50% of Muslims in Iraq, and 21% of Muslims in Tunisia, and 14% of Muslims in Lebanon. Stoning for adultery is supported by 34% of Muslims in Indonesia, 75% of Muslims in Pakistan, 84% of Muslims in Afghanistan, 45% of Muslims in Bangladesh, 60% of Muslims in Egypt, 53% of Muslims in Iraq, 13% of Muslims in Lebanon, and 25% of Muslims in Tunisia. Stoning and amputation were introduced as punishments in Brunei in 2019 in accordance with the Sharia there (The Economist, 2019-04-06). Until 2016, the Moroccan school system taught children that lying will lead to an amputation of the hand (Le Monde / 2016-07-15 / La fausse réforme de l’éducation islamique). Schoolbooks in Saudi-controlled schools in the UK contain “detailed diagrams about how hands and feet of thieves are amputated” (BBC / 2010-11-22 / Saudi school lessons in UK concern government). Such leaflets are also distributed at some French mosques, and such opinions are defended by some French pupils (Figaro / 2017-08-27 / Fanatisme religieux: le coup de gueule d’un principal de collège). In general, researchers talk of “violence-legitimating norms of masculinity”, which is particularly developed among Muslim immigrants in Germany (Pfeiffer, Baier, Kliem: Zur Entwicklung der Gewalt in Deutschland).

Incompatibility: Torture is incompatible with the Human Rights (Human Rights / 5).

The Point: Not all Muslims agree on this interpretation of Islam. However, we will not take sides as to whether this is the “true interpretation” of the religion or not (→Truth). We just note that a substantial proportion of Muslims believe that Islam requires corporal punishment for criminals.

The problem is not if you say false things about the Quran.
These can be countered.
The problem is if you say true things about the Quran.

Side remark: The problem here, from a Western point of view, seems to be that the Quran was forked off the Old Testament, not the new one. Thus, while Jesus made it into the Quran as a prophet, his message of not throwing the first stone never entered the Muslims’ holy book.

Domestic violence

Domestic Violence
[WHO: Violence against women]
Question: “May women be beaten by their husbands?”

Sources cited in favor: The Quran tells us that a woman should be obedient to her husband, and that if she is not, the man can beat her as a last resort (Quran / 4:34 (Medina)). That is, if we take the Quran as the only source of law (→Quranism), and if we see a husband beating his wife, we have to keep quiet. This is because the Quran allows the beating. If we stay quiet, we actually support the act.

According to the Hadiths, the Prophet Muhammad beat his wife (Sahih Muslim 4:2127), or approves others doing it (Abu Dawud 11:2139-2142, Ibn Ishaq: p 496). In his Farewell Sermon, he tells Muslims again “to shut them in separate rooms and to beat them, but not severely”, if they commit an open indecency (Farewell Speech). The Sharia (→Sharia) explains that if the wife is rebellious (refuses sex, leaves the house without permission, stays with a non-family man), the husband should first warn her with words, and then beat her (Sharia / m10.11), although not hit the face, wound her, break bones, or cause blood to flow. In the view of the Al-Azhar University in Cairo/Egypt, this Sharia “conforms to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni Community” (→Sharia).

Sources cited in opposition: Opponents of domestic violence point out that beating the wife is only the last resort, and that, according to various translations, the wife can only be beaten “lightly”. The Quran also talks of mutual respect between men and women (Quran / 2:229 (Medina), 2:231 (Medina), 2:233 (Medina), 2:187 (Medina)). However, people can argue that this mutual respect requires that the woman be obedient to her husband.

Prevalence: Domestic violence is in general higher in the developing world than in the West (see map). In particular, it is 50% higher in Muslim lands than in the Western world. 50% of men in Egypt, 30% of men in Morocco, 20% of men in Lebanon, and 30% of men in Palestine believe that there are times when a woman deserves to be beaten [The Economist / 2017-05-04 / The sorry state of Arab men]. The agreement among women is 30%, 20%, 5%, and 25%, respectively. Accordingly, 10% to 45% of men who have ever been married admitted to having beaten their wives [ibid and UN Women: Understanding Masculinities] in these 4 countries.

Incompatibility: Severe beating would be prohibited as cruel treatment in the Human Rights (Human Rights / 5). In any case, the fact that only the husband can beat the wife is incompatible with gender equality (ibid / 2, 7).

Discussion: Muslims can argue that the Quran tells men live in mutual respect with their wives, and to beat women only “lightly”. This does not appease critics, who can argue as follows: Imagine that we made the following law:

White people and black people shall live in mutual respect. If a black person does not obey the commands of white people, then the white people can beat the black person — but only lightly and only as last resort!
Would that count as mutual respect? Certainly not! (→Empty)

The Point: Not all Muslims agree on this interpretation of Islam. However, we will not take sides as to whether this is the “true interpretation” of the religion or not (→Truth). We just note that a substantial proportion of Muslims believe that Islam allows them to beat their wives, and that this is actually common practice.

Side remark: The discussion received some flashlight in 2015, when Imams in Paris were urging their followers not to beat women. When female protesters interrupted the sermon bare-breasted to protest for the rights of women, people from the crowd shouted “Kill the whores”, stormed the scene, and beat up the women (Le Monde / 2015-09-13 / Des Femen s’invitent au controverse salon de la femme musulmane).


Coun­tries with death penal­ties for atheism, according to IHEU: Freedom of Thought, 2012
[Washington Post / 2012-12-10 / The seven countries where the state can execute you for being atheist]
Legal opinion by the Fatwa committee at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, stating that Islamic law requires killing apostates
[Orientalist @ Wikicommons]
Question: “Should a person who abandons Islam be killed?”

Sources cited in favor: The Quran tell us to kill the unbelievers wherever we find them (Quran / 2:191-193 (Medina)), to strike off their heads (Quran / 8:12 (Medina)), and to fight until all religion is for the god of Islam (Quran / 8:39 (Medina)). It also tells us that those who abandon Islam are in sin (Quran / 9:66 (Medina), 32:22). In general, “inventing a lie about Allah” is the worst possible crime (Quran / 10:17, 11:18-19, 18:15). Disbelief is a crime (Quran / 45:31). Rebellion is worse than killing (Quran / 2:191 (Medina)), and killing requires the death penalty (Quran / 5:45 (Medina)).
The Hadiths tell us that the Prophet Muhammad instructed his followers to kill those who abandoned Islam, or did it himself (Bukhari 4:52:260, Bukhari 9:83:37, Bukhari 9:84:57, Bukhari 9:89:271, Bukhari 9:84:58, Bukhari 9:84:64-65, Malik 36.18.15, Sahih Muslim, 16:4152, Religion of Peace / Apostacy). All four Sunni schools (→Schools) support the death penalty for apostates (The Economist / 2012-11-24/ No God, not even Allah). The Sharia (→Sharia) requires the death penalty for apostates (Sharia / o8.1, o4.17, o8.4), and affirms that there is no penalty for killing an apostate (ibid / o8.4). The Al-Azhar University in Cairo, which is seen by many Sunni Muslims as a religious authority, endorses this Sharia, and consequently condemns apostates to death (see verdict on the right).

Sources cited in opposition: The Quran tells us that there is no compulsion in religion (Quran / Quran 2:256 (Medina)), that Muslims should leave people believe or not believe as they like (Quran / 18:29, 109:1-6, 15:2-3), and that God did not make everybody a believer on purpose (Quran / 10:99). Historically, these verses have not been interpreted so as to give freedom of religion. Rather, the interpretations were as follows (Patricia Crone: Islam and religious freedom):

  1. the verse had been abrogated (→Abrogation) by the later verses that ask to kill the unbelievers (Quran / 9:5 (Medina)).
  2. the verse was tied to a unique historical situation (→Context).
  3. the verse was about “protected people”: Jews, Christians and other non-Muslims who had passed under Muslim rule and been allowed to retain their own religion in return for the payment of a special tax (Wikipedia/Dhimmi).
  4. when God says that there is no compulsion in the religion, he means that he does not practise compulsion. But we, as humans, can still force the unbelievers into the Muslim community in order to make it possible for them to see the truth.
  5. the verse did indeed prohibit forced conversion, but not of foreigners, but of Muslims.
  6. compulsion is prohibited. However, since Islam is the natural religion, a person is never “compelled” into it. He is merely freed to see the truth.

Prevalence: Many Islamic countries punish apostasy by death: Mauritania, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Maldives (IHEU: Freedom of Thought, 2012). These are colored in red on the map on the right. Countries such as Egypt or Indonesia imprison people who publicly profess their own atheism (ibid). Other countries, colored yellow on the map, restrict rights for atheists, for example by limiting marriage rights or public service (ibid).

Large proportions of Muslims worldwide support the death penalty for apostasy. These are 63% of Muslims in Egypt, 58% in Palestine, 58% in Jordan, 38% in Iraq, 78% in Afghanistan, 63% in Pakistan, 53% in Malaysia, 36% in Bangladesh, and 22% in Tajikistan, followed by more liberal opinions in Tunisia (16%), Lebanon (13%), Thailand (20%), Indonesia (18%), and Southeast Europe and Central Asia (4%-20%) (Pew Research Center: The world’s Muslims / Chapter 1, 2013, Wikipedia / Apostasy in Islam).

In Britain, the majority of Muslims do not share this opinion (Civitas: Institute for the Study of Civil Society London: Sharia Law or ‘One Law For All?’, p. 14). 15% of people of Muslim origin in France have de facto quit their religion (Institut Montaigne: Un islam français est possible, 2016). At the same time, the French Council of the Muslim Faith in France refused to sign a charter that would give religious freedom to Muslims (Wikipedia / FR / Conseil français du culte musulman, Libération / 2000-06-26 / Quelle liberté de conscience?, Charlie Hebdo / 2016-01-13). In Germany, 27% of citizens of Turkish-origin have a negative attitude towards atheists, and 24% refuse to answer (Uni Münster: Integration und Religion, 2016). Moderate Muslims may see apostasy not necessarily as a crime punishable by death, but as a slippery slope towards alcohol consumption, pre-marital sexual relationships, dishonesty, and moral hazard in general — hence their demonisation of it.

Incompatibility: The Human Rights demand the freedom to change and to leave one’s religion (Human Rights / 18).

Discussion: In early Islam, there was no separation between “church” and state. When Muhammad conquered Medina, and he became the religious as well as the worldly leader of the city. There was no state, in which the religion was founded (as the Roman State in Christianity). Rather the religion gave rise to the state. This unity persists in many modern Islamic belief systems (→Belief). For example, the Sharia (→Sharia) defines the rituals of prayer as well as the duties of the citizen and the caliph. Still today, “the Western notion of separating religion from politics is regarded as nonsensical” [The Economist / 2016-05-14 / The Arab World; →Political]. When there is no separation between religion and state, then leaving the religion means turning against the state. Turning against the state is high treason, and deserves the death penalty. In this spirit, many Islamic belief systems call for the death penalty for apostates — it is just the logical consequence of the unity between state and religion.

Effect: In general, apostates suffer widespread social discrimination in the Islamic world, up to beatings or beheadings (→Peer).

The Point: Not all Muslims agree on this interpretation of Islam. However, we will not take sides as to whether this is the “true interpretation” of the religion or not (→Truth). We just note that a substantial proportion of Muslims believe that Islam says that apostates should be put to death. This is actually implemented in a number of countries.


Question: “Should Islam be spread by violence, until the entire world is Muslim?”

Sources cited in favor: The Quran tells us to fight until there is no more disbelief, and until all religion is for Allah (Quran / 8:39 (Medina), 61:9 (Medina), 9:33 (Medina), 48:28-29 (Medina), 2:193 (Medina)), to fight until all non-Muslims have been subdued and pay special taxes (Quran / 9:29 (Medina)), to fight in the name of Allah (Quran / 2:244 (Medina)), to not make peace when one can win the war (Quran / 47:35), to be ruthless against the non-believers (Quran / 48:29 (Medina), 66:9 (Medina)), that fighting is prescribed for Muslims (Quran / 2:216 (Medina), 4:76 (Medina), 4:95 (Medina), 8:59-60 (Medina), 8:65 (Medina), 9:14 (Medina), 9:88 (Medina), 9:111 (Medina), 9:123 (Medina), 25:52, 61:4 (Medina)), and that those who fight for Allah will be rewarded in the hereafter (Quran / 4:74 (Medina), 9:20 (Medina)). Sura 48, in particular, was part of the Moroccan school curriculum until 2016. It was then replaced by Sura 59, which talks of the expulsion of Jewish tribes instead (Le Monde / 2016-07-15 / La fausse réforme de l’éducation islamique). The Sharia (→Sharia) calls for violent Jihad (Sharia / o9.1, 2, 3), so that (1) people become Muslims, (2) Christians and Jews pay special taxes (ibid / o9.8), and (3) all other people are exterminated (ibid / o9.9). In the view of the Al-Azhar University in Cairo/Egypt, this Sharia “conforms to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni Community” (→Sharia).

Sources cited in opposition: Quranic verses forbid murder (Quran / 6:151, 5:53 (Medina)), except for just cause (Quran / 25:68-69), and guarantee freedom of religion (Quran / 2:256 (Medina), see discussion in →Apostasy). The Quran calls for peace (Quran / 8:61 (Medina), 2:193 (Medina), 2:224 (Medina)), and tells Muslims not to start hostilities (Quran / 2:190 (Medina)), because Allah made different peoples so that they shall get to know each other (Quran / 49:13). Jews and Christians would have nothing to fear (Quran / 5:69 (Medina)). However, the proponents of violence argue that these verses apply only once the non-Muslims have been subdued and pay taxes.

The open letter of Islamic scholars to the Islamic State condemns the war against infidels (Open Letter to the Islamic State / 8), based on Verse 2:190 cited above. The letter also gives a more peaceful interpretation to 13 other Quranic verses that call for war. To condemn the killing of Yazidis (Open Letter to the Islamic State / 11), the letter resorts to declaring the Yazidis “People of the Scripture”. This then saves them from the killing.

A minority opinion holds that the Quran uses different words for Muhammad, depending on whether it instructs “Muhammad the contemporary person” or “Muhammad the messenger for mankind” (Muhammad Shahrur: The Book and The Quran — A Contemporary Reading, 1990). This reading restricts the conquest to Muhammad's time.

Prevalence: Historically, Islam spread by conquest (Wikipedia / Muslim conquests), or, as The Economist puts it “by the word and by the sword” (The Economist / 2016-05-14 / The Arab World). The world was divided into “Dar al-Islam” (the house of Islam, where the non-Muslims are subdued and pay special taxes), and “Dar al-Harb” (the house of war) (Wikipedia / Divisions of the world in Islam). There was no middle ground of “peaceful but not Muslim”.

Today, the vast majority of Muslims does not want to spread Islam by violence.

Still, Saudi schoolbooks teach a dualistic vision of the world, dividing the world into true believers of Islam (the “monotheists”) and unbelievers (the “polytheists” and “infidels”). They instruct students that their religious obligation includes waging jihad against the infidel to “spread the faith”. [Washington Post / 2016-05-21 / This is a Saudi textbook]. 30% of Muslim pupils in the state of Lower Saxony in Germany can imagine fighting for their religion and risking their life for it, and 18% see it as the religious duty to fight infidels and spread Islam all over the world (Pfeiffer, Baier, Klim: Development of Violence in Germany, Table 10). The Islamic State (→IS), too, wants to spread Islam by violence. It argues that the Quran encourages warfare when Muslims are attacked. Since the international community does attack the Muslims of the Islamic State, they see it as their right to fight back.

Incompatibility: The Human Rights forbid killing (Human Rights / 3), forced religious conversion (ibid / 18), and taxes that depend on religion (ibid / 2, 7).

The Point: Not all Muslims agree on this interpretation of Islam. However, we will not take sides as to whether this is the “true interpretation” of the religion or not (→Truth). We just note that the Quran contains a substantial portion of verses that call for violence against unbelievers (→Statistics).

Discussion: In general, a medium that contains violence is problematic, in particular if the violence is proclaimed as something rightful. In some countries, the distribution of such material is illegal as “glorification of violence” (Wikipedia / DE / Gewaltdarstellung). If violence is presented to children on TV, they may become less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others, more fearful of the world around them, and more likely to behave in aggressive or harmful ways toward others (American Psychological Association: Television and Video Violence). This is because as children begin to accept the persistent images of violence as standard form of behavior, they become desensitized and may view violence as an acceptable way to solve problems [Ira A. Lipman: “How to be Safe”]. If violence is presented as the way God solves problems, the effect may be similar.

When you recite to a child still in his early years the verse “They will be killed or crucified, or have their hands and feet on alternative sides cut off,” regardless of this verse’s interpretation, and regardless of the reasons it was conveyed, or its time, you have made the first step towards creating a terrorist.
Wafa Sultan

Disrespecting unbelievers

Persecution of Christians
[Open Doors USA: Christian Persecution]
Question: “Should unbelievers be disrespected?”

Sources cited in favor: Non-Muslims, according to the Quran, are “guilty” of disbelief (Quran / 45:31, 83:29, 6:157), the worst crime. Allah is their enemy (Quran / 2:98 (Medina)), and they may not be taken as friends (Quran / 3:28 (Medina), 4:89 (Medina), 5:51 (Medina), 5:57 (Medina), 5:80 (Medina), 6:106), or husbands (Quran / 60:10 (Medina)). They are against Allah (Quran / 25:55); on the side of the Satan and are fighting for him (Quran / 4:76-77 (Medina)); “evil” (Quran / 16:27, 2:91 (Medina), 2:99 (Medina)); the “wrong-doers” (Quran / 2:254 (Medina), 5:45 (Medina)); the “enemy” and “perverted” (Quran / 63:4 (Medina)); “wicked” (Quran / 80:42, 9:125 (Medina)); hypocrites (Quran / 4:61 (Medina)); “unclean” (Quran / 9:28 (Medina)), deaf and dumb (Quran / 6:39). The disbelievers are the “worst of created beings” (Quran / 98:6 (Medina)); “miscreants” (Quran / 2:99 (Medina), 24:55 (Medina)); “the worst beasts in Allah’s sight”(Quran / 8:55 (Medina)); and associated with “apes” and/or “pigs” (Quran / 2:64-66 (Medina), 5:58-60 (Medina), 7:166) (Archi Medes: Does the Koran Forbid the Killing of Non-Muslims?). Jews and Christians are “perverse” (Quran / 56:92-94), and “cursed” (Quran / 4:52 (Medina), see also discussion in The Religion of Peace: Is the Quran Hate Propaganda?). This is in addition to the tortures that Allah stipulates for the unbelievers (→Burn).

The Quran also speaks of God’s love (see below). However, Thilo Sarrazin argues that God’s love in the Quran only ever applies to Muslims. Unbelievers are condemned to hell, and are accepted as human beings only if they are subdued, converted to Islam, or killed. The disdain for unbelievers shows not just in some hand-picked verses. It is a statistical evidence: 15% of the verses of the Quran are about how bad the unbelievers are (→Statistics). An additional 14% are about how those who do not follow Allah’s commands (disobedient Muslims and non-Muslims alike) will burn in Hell. Another 8% tell Muslims how to argue with unbelievers. Thus, a third of the Quran is concerned with arguing against, ridiculing, or threatening those who do not follow Allah’s commands.

The Sharia (→Sharia) agrees: Non-Muslims in conquered areas have to wear special signs on their clothing, may not build new churches, may not walk in the middle of the street, and are not greeted like Muslims (Sharia / o11.5). In the view of the Al-Azhar University in Cairo/Egypt, this Sharia “conforms to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni Community” (→Sharia). Traditional Muslim law gave non-Muslims less rights than Muslims (Wikipedia/Qisas). As The Economist remarks, Jews were required to wear distinctive clothing in the Islamic World since the 8th century — a practice later adopted by medieval Catholic Europe and more recently by the Nazis [The Economist / 2018-12-22 / Establishing Identity].

Sources cited in opposition: The Quran calls for peace (Quran / 8:61 (Medina), 2:193 (Medina), 2:224 (Medina)), and tells Muslims not to start hostilities (Quran / 2:190 (Medina)). Jews and Christians would have nothing to fear (Quran / 5:69 (Medina)), because they, too, enter Heaven (Quran / 2:62 (Medina), 5:69 (Medina), 2:111-112 (Medina)). They should be overlooked and forgiven (Quran / 2:109 (Medina), 109:1-6). In fact, according to the Quran, Arabs are the worst in disbelief and hypocrisy (Quran / 9:97 (Medina)). The verses of violence would have to be seen in the context that the Jews an Christians broke their oaths and started wars (Quran / 5:64 (Medina), 5:82 (Medina), 60:8-9 (Medina)). The Quran also urges us not to generalize Christians and Muslims (Quran / 3:113-114 (Medina), see discussion at Ro Waseem: 6 Convincing Reasons Debunking the Myth of Islam Promoting Hatred of Jews and Christians). On the other hand, the verses that call for love and peace are isolated (→Statistics), while the verses of violence and the threat of hell are evenly spread and ubiquitous — which defies the argument of context. A minority opinion holds that the word “believer” in the Quran does not actually refer to the Muslims (for whom the Quran has a different word), but to the adherents of any religion (Muhammad Shahrur: The Book and The Quran — A Contemporary Reading, 1990). This reading reduces any type of discrimination to atheists. The Australian Imam Tawhidi goes so far to say that “if the term “Kafir” [= unbeliever] is used outside its strictly lingual context, it is considered hate speech” (Imam Tawhidi).

Prevalence: Historically, non-Muslims in Islamic lands formed separate communities with less rights (Wikipedia/Dhimmi). Within the classical tradition, the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims is assumed to be one of segregation and enmity. According to the leader of the larges Muslim organization of Indonesia, still today, too many Muslims view civilization, and the peaceful co-existence of people of different faiths, as something they must combat (Time / 2017-09-08 / In Interview, Top Indonesian Muslim Scholar Says Stop Pretending That Orthodox Islam and Violence Aren't Linked). Indeed, unbelievers are seen with disdain in many Muslim societies. Morocco decided only in 2016 to remove from school books all content that incites discrimination of religious minorities (Huffington Post / 2016-02-08 / Education islamique: Le Maroc veut réviser les programmes scolaires). The Saudi authorities admitted that the kingdom's religious studies curriculum “encourages violence toward others, and misguides the pupils into believing that in order to safeguard their own religion, they must violently repress and even physically eliminate the “other”.” [Washington News / 2016-05-21 / This is a Saudi textbook]. The texts have since been cleaned up, and now only say things like “It is forbidden for a Muslim to be a loyal friend to someone who does not believe in God and His Prophet” or “The apes are Jews, the people of the Sabbath; while the swine are the Christians, the infidels of the communion of Jesus”. They go on to teach about “the Jews, whom God has cursed”, saying “It is part of God's wisdom that the struggle between the Muslim and the Jews should continue until the hour [of judgment]” [ibid].

In Western countries, researchers spot a “group-based conformity, and a dissociation [of Muslims] from the areligious mainstream culture” (Bertelsmann Stiftung: Religionsmonitor 2017, Muslime in Europa). This dissociation finds its visual expression in the wearing of the veil, whose only purpose in a Western society is to emphasize the adherence to Islam (→Veil). As Sarrazin argues, the dissociation from the mainstream culture is much more palatable for the Muslim communities than for the hundreds of thousands of orthodox Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, or Yesidis who also live in Western Europe.

In many Muslim countries, atheists are actively persecuted (→Apostasy). But also Christians face discrimination (see map): In Iran, almost all Christian activity is illegal, especially when it occurs in Persian languages — from evangelism to Bible training, to publishing Scripture and Christian books or preaching in Farsi [Open Doors USA: Christian Persecution / Iran]. In Pakistan, Christians face violence from mobs and an Islamizing culture that results in them being isolated from the rest of the population [ibid / Pakistan]. In Tunisia, the constitution continues to protect Islam to the detriment of other religions [ibid / Tunisia]. In Qatar, non-Muslim religious groups are restricted to private houses or designated places [ibid / Qatar]. In Algeria, the law prohibits public assembly for purposes of practicing a faith other than Islam [ibid / Algeria]. In Saudi Arabia, the public practice of any form of religion other than Islam is illegal [UK Government: Travel advice for Saudi Arabia]. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, “among all regions, the Middle East-North Africa has the highest government and social restrictions on religion” [Pew Research Center: Global restrictions on religion, 2009]. The Christian population in the Middle East has declined from 14% in 1910 to 4% in 2015, also, but not only, because of lower birth rates (The Economist / 2016-01-02 / Christians in the Middle East). Thilo Sarrazin hypothesizes that the hatred against the unbelievers is fuelled by the general economic problems in Muslim countries, which reinforce the wish to be superior to someone.

Incompatibility: Suggesting that one group of people is unworthy, guilty, and inferior is an attack on the dignity of these people (Human Rights / 1, 11 (2), 12). Denying them their right to religious practice is equally prohibited (ibid / 18).

The Point: Not all Muslims agree on this interpretation of Islam. However, we will not take sides as to whether this is the “true interpretation” of the religion or not (→Truth). We just note that a substantial proportion of Muslim countries discriminate against Christians, based on the prevalent interpretation of Islam in these countries.

Female genital mutilation

Female Genital Mutilation rates according to UNICEF
[Johnuniq @ Wikicommons]
Question: “Should Female Genital Mutilation be allowed?”

Sources cited in favor: The Quran does not forbid genital mutilation in general, because male circumcision is the norm in the Muslim world (Wikipedia / Khitan). It does not forbid female genital mutilation (FGM) in particular either. The Quran contains roughly 1000 verses that praise God (→Statistics), and some that outlaw killing, theft, fornication, and eating pork, but none that prohibits female genital mutilation.

The Hadith mention female genital circumcision favorably (Sunan Abu Dawood 41:5251,  Sahih Muslim 3:684, Al-Muwatta 2 19.75,  Sahih al-Bukhari 7:72:779). The Sharia (→Sharia) recommends it (Sharia / e4.3). In the view of the Al-Azhar University in Cairo/Egypt, this Sharia “conforms to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni Community” (→Sharia). See a Muslim discussion of these sources in Islam-QA / Circumcision of girls and some doctors’ criticism thereof.

The Shafii school of Islamic jurisprudence considers female circumcision to be obligatory. The Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence considers female circumcision to be honorable and strongly encouraged, to obligatory. The Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence considers female circumcision to be optional and preferred. The Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence considers female circumcision to be preferred. [Wikipedia / Religious views on FGM]

Sources cited in opposition: The Quran tells us that injury is prohibited (Quran / 42:40). However this is usually not extended to forbid genital mutilation, because male circumcision is widespread in Muslim lands (Wikipedia / Khitan). Verse 4:119 (Medina) speaks of the “fair nature created by Allah”. This is extrapolated to mean that the human body is perfect as it is, and should not be mutilated. Then again, this is not applied to male circumcision.

Prevalence: Female genital mutilation is prevalent in many Muslim countries, with rates of 91% in Egypt, 88% in Sudan, 89% in Mali, 98% in Somalia, 74% in Ethiopia, and 96% in Guinea (see map, from UNICEF: Female Genital Mutilation). As the United Nations summarizes for the Arab world: “Although some states have banned the practice of FGM, it continues to be widespread in many countries because traditional beliefs favour it. Influential figures aligned with conservative political or social forces also speak out in its defence” [United Nations: Arab Human Development Report, 2009].

Incompatibility: Female genital mutilation is cruel treatment, which is prohibited (Human Rights / 5). Whoever approves of the procedure, no matter whether Muslim or not, and no matter whether out of religious motives or not, and no matter whether this is the true interpretation of Islam or not (→Truth), infringes Human Rights.

Effects: Female genital mutilation brings extraordinary pain, lifelong health problems, and a permanent loss of sensitivity. FGM has severe physical and psychological consequences for the women who fall victim to it (UNICEF: Changing A Harmful Social Convention: Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting, 2008, Wikipedia / FGM). In 82% of the cases, FGM is carried out by non-medical experts (WHO: Female genital mutilation, 2014).

The Point: Not all Muslims agree on this interpretation of Islam. However, we will not take sides as to whether this is the “true interpretation” of the religion or not (→Truth). We just note that a substantial proportion of Muslims believe that Islam allows or recommends FGM. In this belief, they are supported by the Al-Azhar University in Cairo/Egypt, as well as by all 4 Sunni schools. As a consequence, the practice is widespread in a number of Muslim countries.

Child marriage

Prevalence of child marriage
Question: “Can girls be married off as children?”

Sources cited in favor: The Quran does not forbid marrying children. On the contrary, it explains how to divorce prepubescent girls — which means that it is allowed to marry them (Quran / 65:1-4 (Medina)). The Prophet Muhammad is cited as inspiration, because he is the perfect role model to follow (Quran / 48:29 (Medina)), and he married Aisha when she was 6 years old (Wikipedia/Aisha). In other words: if we take the Quran as our sole guidance (→Quranism), and if we see a father marrying his daughter off to another man, then we have no verse to cite in order to punish the father. On the contrary, the future husband just follows the role model of the Prophet.

Accordingly, the Sharia (→Sharia) also allows child marriage (Sharia / m3.13 (2), m4.4). In the view of the Al-Azhar University in Cairo/Egypt, this Sharia “conforms to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni Community” (→Sharia).

Sources cited in opposition: Verse 4:21 (Medina) is read so as to require consent from both partners, which would exclude child marriage (Islam’s women: Introduction to Marriage). Verse 2:232 (Medina) says that people cannot be prevented from marrying if they want to. Both verses are usually not interpreted so as to prohibit child marriage, because otherwise the Prophet Muhammad could not have married Aisha at age 9 (Wikipedia/Aisha).

Prevalence: Child marriage is at 24% in the Middle East and North Africa (UNICEF: Ending child marriage, 2012). It is legal in Saudi Arabia, Chad, Iran, and Yemen (The Atlantic / 2015-03 / Can a 15-Year-Old Girl Be Legally Married?). It is prevalent in subsaharan Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan (WomanStats). In Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population, Muslim groups oppose a minimum age of 18 years for marriage (Jakarta Post / 2014-12-03 / Minimum age for marriage debated at Constitutional Court). However, not all Muslim countries practice child marriage, and not all countries that practice child marriage are Muslim (see map).

Discussion: In some regions, families “sell” their daughters into marriage. Then it is convenient to do so at a young age, because then (1) the family does not have to feed the daughter and (2) the family does not have to guard the virginity of the daughter for too long. (Nawal M. Nour: Health Consequences of Child Marriage in Africa)

Incompatibility: The Human Rights require “free and full consent of the intending spouses” for marriage (Human Rights / 16 (2)), which a child cannot give.

Effect: Child marriage is a harmful practice. A UNICEF report explains that medical complications from pregnancy are the leading cause of death among girls ages 15 to 19 worldwide. Compared with women ages 20 to 24, girls ages 10 to 14 are five times more likely to die from childbirth, and girls 15 to 19 are up to twice as likely, worldwide. [The Girl Effect Data]. Another UNICEF report explains that early marriage is also associated with adverse health effects for her children, such as low birthweight. Furthermore, it has an adverse effect on the education and employment opportunities of girls. [UNICEF: Domestic Violence Against Women and Girls, 2000] Last but not least, sexual intercourse between an aged man and a premature girl is often accompanied by violence, and may lead to traumatic experiences for the girls.

The Point: Not all Muslims agree on this interpretation of Islam. However, we will not take sides as to whether this is the “true interpretation” of the religion or not (→Truth). We just note that a substantial proportion of Muslims believe that Islam allows child marriage. As a consequence, the practice is widespread in a number of Muslim-majority countries.

Quran Only

Quran Only

Some Muslims believe that the Quran should be the only source of law (Wikipedia/Quranism). This belief is motivated by the Quran itself, which states that it is perfect and complete (Quran / 5:44, 6:38, 7:52, 10:37, 12:111, 6:114, 6:115). In addition, the Quran tells us that no one has power to legislate except Allah (Quran / 12:40). It asks in particular
Shall I seek other than God as a source of law, when He has revealed to you this book fully detailed? [...] You shall not harbor any doubt. The word of your Lord is complete, in truth and justice. Nothing shall abrogate His words. [Quran / 6:114-115]

In this spirit, most Muslims believe that the Quran should be the ultimate source of law. However, for some crimes, the Quran does not contain a punishment. These are

  1. spousal rape (→Spousal)
  2. child marriage (→Child)
  3. brutality in punishments (→Brutality)
  4. domestic violence (→Domestic)
... plus the ones that we will discuss now:
  1. slavery (→Slavery)
  2. sex slavery (→Sex)
  3. killing non-Muslims (→Kill)
  4. rape (→Rape)

While the first group of behaviors is considered acceptable by a large proportion of Muslims (see statistics in the respective articles), the second group of behaviors is considered unacceptable by the majority of Muslims. The problem is that these Muslims have no proof in the Quran to support their stance. Hence, they have no legal leverage against Muslim extremists who consider slavery, murder, and rape OK. In particular, they have no argument from the Quran against the Islamic State (→IS), which practices all of these.

Most Muslims are peaceful not because of the Quran, but in spite of the Quran.

Side remark: To solve the problem of unpunished crimes in the Quran, some Muslims add in the Hadith (→Hadiths). The Hadith, however, can also be used to punish apostasy (→Apostasy), and say many things about the Prophet Muhammad that are no longer considered rightful today (→Exceptional).


Question: “Should it be allowed to take a person as a slave?”

Sources cited in favor: The Quran assigns slaves an inferior status (Quran / 24:32 (Medina), 16:71, 2:178 (Medina), 16:75), and contains no punishment for taking slaves. In other words: If the Islamic State (→IS) invades Iraq, and takes slaves, then there is no verse in the Quran that we could use to punish them. The Sharia (→Sharia) agrees. It explains that children and women captured in war become slaves (o9.13), and the wives marriages are automatically annulled (Sharia / o9.13). In the view of the Al-Azhar University in Cairo/Egypt, this Sharia “conforms to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni Community” (→Sharia).

Sources cited in opposition: The Quran urges kindness towards slaves (Quran / 4:36 (Medina), 9:60 (Medina), 24:58 (Medina)), and rewards the freeing of a slave (Quran / 90:13, 4:92 (Medina), 5:92 (Medina), 58:3 (Medina)). This is extrapolated so as to mean that slavery shall be abolished (Open Letter to the Islamic State / 12). However, while the Quran rewards freeing a slave, it does not prohibit making new slaves.

Prevalence: Historically, slavery was widespread in the Muslim world. Arabs used to trade slaves from the 8th century on until the 19th century, and no contradiction to Islam was found (Wikipedia / Arab slave trade, →IS). Had Islam forbidden slavery, it would probably not have been so successful. On the contrary, it was considered the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave the nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet (Wikipedia / Barbary War). According to Islamic scholars, slavery was abolished only in the 20th century — by human conventions (Open Letter to the Islamic State / 12).

Today, slavery is shunned by the overwhelming majority of Muslims. However, it continues to be prevalent in Mauritania (Wikipedia / Slavery in contemporary Africa). It is also upheld by extremist Muslims, such as the Islamic State (Wikipedia / Islamic State, →IS). As of 2015, the Islamic State keeps thousands of people as slaves. In other regions, the concept of slavery finds its modern analogon in Human trafficking. In the Arab world, “Human trafficking is a multi-billion dollar transnational industry that is spreading across the Arab countries. [...] For men, the trade entails forced labour under dehumanizing conditions and without respect for labour rights. For women, it usually means domestic service often indistinguishable from slavery, or sexual exploitation; and, for children, it leads to employment as beggars, itinerant vendors or camel jockeys, or to sexual abuse.” [United Nations: Arab Human Development Report, 2009].

Discussion: Muslims may point out that the slavery of Islam is actually rather a servitude, in which a servant works for a master. Thus, slavery as allowed in the Quran is not really slavery. De facto, however, the servant cannot leave the master on his own will (the translation is “people whom your right hand possesses”, Wikipedia / Ma malakat aymanukum). Any setting where a person cannot leave on his own free will is slavery.

Many Muslims believe that Islam has come to abolish slavery. This belief is based on the fact that Muslim law eased the conditions for slaves (Wikipedia / Islamic views on slavery). Such an argument is often tedious, and revolves around what the Prophet Muhammad did or did not do. The central Humanist reproach, though, is that the Quran does not provide a punishment for slaveholders. If we want to end slavery, we have to punish those who own slaves. Yet, the Quran does not stipulate such punishment. Thus, it effectively allows slavery (→Empty).

Incompatibility: Slavery is incompatible with the Human Rights (Human Rights / 4).

The Point: The Quran stipulates no punishment for taking slaves. Thus, people who believe that the Quran shall be the only source of law (→Quranism) have no legal leverage against the Islamic State taking slaves. They just cannot do anything. If they do not do anything, they actually support slavery. The open letter of Islamic scholars to the Islamic State reminds the extremists that all countries have signed anti-slavery conventions (Open Letter to the Islamic State / 12). But the Islamic State did not. Thus, there is no divine law that prevents them from taking slaves.

Sex Slavery

Question: “May slaves be used for sex?”

Sources cited in favor: The Quran allows sex with slaves (Quran / 23:5-6, 70:29-30, 4:24 (Medina)).

Sources cited in opposition: The Quran says that slave girls should not be forced into prostitution (Quran / 24:33 (Medina)). However, if the girl is still “compelled”, “then surely after their compulsion Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.” (ibid).

Prevalence: Today, only extremist Muslims support slavery (→Slavery). Those who do will most likely agree that the slaves can be used for sex, based on the above verses. The Islamic State (→IS), for example, exploits thousands of women as sex slaves at the time of this writing (Wikipedia / Islamic State). Indeed, this may be one of the factors that drives young men to work for the organization (→Deprivation).

Discussion: Muslim apologists argue that the Quran does not speak of raping the slaves, but that it just permits sex with them. This, however, is merely a misty-eyed glorification of a brutal reality. Why on Earth would a slave girl consent to sleeping with her abuser? And if that relationship were love, then why would the master not immediately free the slave? More importantly: What happens if the slave girl refuses to sleep with the master? She is completely at the mercy of his capriciousness. Nowhere does the Quran say that sex is only permitted with her consent. Thus, the verses effectively allow sex slavery.

Incompatibility: Slavery is incompatible with the Human Rights (Human Rights / 4), and rape is incompatible with the prohibition of cruel treatment (Human Rights / 5).

The Point: The Quran explicitly allows people to use their slaves for sex. Therefore, people who promote the Quran as the divine framework of law (→Quranism) have no legal leverage against extremists such as the Islamic State who rape slaves. Accordingly, the open letter of Islamic scholars to the Islamic State does not condemn the sexual violence by the Islamic State (Open Letter to the Islamic State / 14).

Killing non-Muslims

Question: “Should it be allowed to kill non-Muslims?”

Sources cited in favor: The Quran prescribes the death penalty for those who kill a Muslim (Quran / 4:92-93 (Medina)), but not for those who kill a non-Muslim. In other words: If we catch someone who killed an unbeliever, we bring him to court, and we want to judge him according to the Quran, then there is no punishment that the Quran prescribes. You will find this by (1) reading the Quran or by (2) asking people to find a verse that punishes killig a non-Muslim. There is no such verse. The Sharia concurs (→Sharia) and exempts killers of unbelievers from penalty (Sharia / o1.2 (2)). In the view of the Al-Azhar University in Cairo/Egypt, this Sharia “conforms to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni Community” (→Sharia).

Sources cited in opposition: The Quran says that it prescribed “a life for a life” for the Jews (Quran / 5:44-45 (Medina); Open Letter to the Islamic State / 6). However, this verse may just be a description of what God said at some specific time to a specific people — without endorsing it for today, or for other peoples. For example, the Quran also says that God promised the land of Israel to the Jews (Quran / 5:21, 17:104). Still, Muslims do not interpret this as an instruction to leave Israel to the Jews.

Another verse says that if one kills a person, it is as if one killed a whole people (Quran / 5:32 (Medina)). However, this verse does not prescribe a penalty. (On the contrary, the following verse prescribes killing all those who “wage war” against Allah or the Prophet (Quran / 5:33), which is sometimes read so as to include apostates.)

Prevalence: Some extremist Muslims engage in terrorist activities against unbelievers (→Conquest). The Islamic State, most notably, has been known for killing campaigns against non-Muslims (→IS). Saudi schoolbooks are a bit more moderate. They stipulate at least some blood money for killing an infidel, even if it is only “half of the blood money for a male Muslim” [Washington News / 2006-05-21 / This is a Saudi textbook].

Incompatibility: The Human Rights require equal rights for everybody, irrespective of religion (Human Rights / 2).

The Point: Proponents of Quranic law can argue that the Quran allows the killing only in case of war with the unbelievers. However, the Islamic State is at war with the unbelievers...


Prevalence of rape
Cultural barriers to reporting rape. In red: Reporting a rape may result in physical punishment, exile from family, or death, even if innocent.
Question: “Should rape be allowed?”

Sources cited in favor: The Quran does not proscribe a punishment for rape. (It cannot, because otherwise the rape of slaves would fall under it, which the Quran allows, →Sex.) In other words: If we catch a rapist, we bring him to court, and we want to judge him according to the Quran, then there is no punishment that the Quran prescribes. You will find this by (1) reading the Quran or by (2) asking people to find a verse that punishes rape. There is no such verse. The Quran contains no ruling that would explicitly mention rape as a crime.

Sources cited in opposition: The following verses of the Quran are cited as punishments of rape:

  1. Verse 24:2 (Medina) prescribes flogging as punishment for adultery. This, however, applies to both the man and the woman. No exemption for rape is made in the surrounding verses.
  2. Verse 24:2 (Medina) on adultery is sometimes cited as prescribing punishment only for the aggressor. Then, unfortunately, verses 4:15 (Medina) and 24:4 (Medina) require 4 male witnesses to prove this type of crime. This means that it is nearly impossible for a woman to prove rape.
  3. Verse 5:33 (Medina) prescribes crucifixion or other penalties for “waging war against Allah and His Messenger” or for “bringing mischief through the land”. Some people see rape as “mischief through the land” (Wikipedia / Islamic sexual jurisprudence). However, what exactly constitutes “mischief” and “war against the messenger” is not specified. We cannot just take it to mean whatever we want it to mean. If we take it too broad, it may include blasphemy (→Blasphemy).
  4. Verse 5:38 (Medina) prescribes cutting off the hand for theft. Some people see rape as a “theft” of the women’s body. Again, there is no verse that explicitly labels rape as theft. We could equally well label male circumcision as theft of the foreskin. This, however, is usually not done, because circumcision in ubiquitous in Muslim lands.
  5. Verse 42:40 prescribes a retaliation in kind for an injury. It is not clear how this verse applies to rape.
  6. Verses 5:5 (Medina), 24:30 (Medina), 23:5, 70:29 tell believers to maintain their chastity. However, no penalty for rape is mentioned.
  7. Verse 4:19 (Medina) tells men to live in kindness with their women. Again, a punishment is not mentioned.
There are many interpretations that punish rape under these verses, and there are also many that don’t (Web search). This is because there is no verse that explicitly punishes rape in the Quran. As Ali A. Rizvi opinions, “the whole concept of sex without consent isn’t even acknowledged as an entity” in the Quran (Ali A. Rizvi: What the Quran says about rape). Accordingly, the open letter of Islamic scholars to the Islamic State does not condemn the sexual violence by the Islamic State (Open Letter to the Islamic State / 14).

Even if we take Verse 24:2 (which prohibits adultery) as a punishment for rape, we still need 4 male witnesses for it. Thus, if a man were to break into a woman’s dormitory, and rape half a dozen women, he would risk nothing since there would be no male witness [Ibn Warraq: Why I am not a Muslim, p. 310]. In practice, these laws protect rapists, for a woman who has been charged often finds herself charged with adultery or fornication. To prove rape, 4 Muslim adult males of good repute must be present to testify that sexual penetration has taken place. The effect [...] is that it is impossible for a woman to bring a successful charge of rape against a man; instead she herself, the victim, finds herself charged with illicit sexual intercourse [by her own admission], while the rapist goes free. [ibid, p. 323]. This means that a man never has to fear to be persecuted for a rape.

Prevalence: In most Muslim countries, women face severe penalties if they report a rape, including physical punishment, exile from family, or death, even if innocent (see map). Until 2005, rape could be punished in Pakistan only if there were 4 male adult witnesses of the crime. Otherwise, the victim incriminated herself (Hudood Ordinance). In the Arab countries, “laws on rape are either equivocal or actively biased against women, and family and society join to deny occurrences, preserve the image of virginity and downplay the crime [...]. Thus, one of the most violent, intrusive and traumatic threats to women’s personal safety continues while society averts its eyes.” [United Nations: Arab Human Development Report, 2009]. “The mere discussion of violence against women arouses strong resistance in some Arab countries” [United Nations: Arab Human Development Report, 2005]. To avoid admitting a rape case in the family, women who are raped are sometimes made to marry their rapist in Morocco and Algeria (The Economist / 2016-01-02 / No sex please, we’re Middle Eastern). This contributes to a larger problem with women’s rights in the Muslim world (→Deprivation).

Incompatibility: The Human Rights request security of person (Human Rights / 3) and condemn cruel treatment (ibid /5).

Discussion: Official figures on the prevalence of rape are not a good measure to go by, because women may face social stigmata when reporting the crime. In the Arab countries, for example, due to pressure from family and society, “rape is considered to be a more common form of violence against women than incidents reported to the police, or covered by the press, may suggest.” [United Nations: Arab Human Development Report, 2009]. One of the few studies that compare the prevalence of rape globally on the same scale is pictured on the right. It says that rape is comparatively prevalent in Pakistan, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan — a thesis confirmed by other sources (Wikipedia / Rape statistics).

The Point: Not all Muslims agree on this interpretation of Islam. However, we will not take sides as to whether this is the “true interpretation” of the religion or not (→Truth). We just note that one interpretation of Islam requires women to bring 4 male witnesses to report a rape, and that this interpretation is popular. As a consequence, many Muslim societies discriminate heavily against rape victims.

Don’t tell women what to wear.
Tell men not to rape.

Social and Psychological Factors


We will now discuss social and psychological factors that may contribute to the attachment of Muslims to their religion. Since social and psychological factors are hard to measure, this discussion is rather speculative.
No one is suffering under the doctrine of Islam more than Muslims are.
Sam Harris

Peer pressure

We have seen before that peer pressure can be one of the factors that keeps people in a religion. In many Muslim societies, this peer pressure is very strong. First, in some countries, leaving the religion is punishable by death (→Apostasy). This is a very strong deterrent. In other countries, the death penalty for apostasy was abolished, but life is made hard for the apostate: the unbeliever can be denied access to basic services, jailed, or beaten (→Apostasy). In any case, the unbeliever will be prohibited to marry a Muslim (→Interfaith). These are obvious reasons for doubters to keep quiet.

Even if there is no legal punishment, it is a prevalent opinion among the people in the Muslim world that apostasy has to be punished by death (→Apostasy). All four schools of Sunni Islamic law teach that male apostates should be put to death [The Economist / 2012-11-24/ No God, not even Allah]. For this reasons, unbelievers suffer various forms of discrimination. Even before the court can jail you, you risk being attacked, injured, or killed in some countries such as Indonesia (ibid), either by a mob or by your own family. No majority-Muslim country gives atheists legal protection or recognition [ibid].

Even if you are not being physically hurt, you risk being cut out of society. Ex-Muslims may be ejected from their families, and may never see their parents again. The testimonies of ex-Muslims tell us how difficult their life is (Web search). It is not only extreme Muslim families that believe it is their religious duty to threaten, and even kill, members who renounce the religion [Telegraph / 2007-12-09 / Muslim apostates threatened over Christianity]. Quite possibly, part of the reason for the pressure from the family is the belief that a misendeamor by the children will block the entrance to paradise for the parents ( Super Talk 99.7 WTN Podcasts: Yasmine Mohammed Discusses her Journey from Islam to Atheism). Even in non-Muslim lands ex-believers are scared of being open [The Economist / 2012-11-24/ No God, not even Allah]. The biggest risk ex-Muslims face is not the baying mob, but the loneliness and isolation of ostracism from loved ones. It is stigma and rejection that causes so many ex-Muslims to conceal their apostasy. [The Guardian / 2015-05-17 / Losing their religion]. An investigation for the BBC has found evidence of young people suffering threats, intimidation, being ostracised by their communities and, in some cases, encountering serious physical abuse when they told their families they were no longer Muslims [BBC / 2015-09-28 / The ex-Muslim Britons who are persecuted for being atheists]. Thousands of ex-Muslims in Britain are living in fear of violent revenge for abandoning the Islamic faith while others are afraid to admit they no longer believe, a support group for ex-Muslims has said [Independent / 2016-10-04 / Islamic communities contain 'tsunamis of atheism' that are being suppressed]. As an example of the pressure that can be exerted, take the case of pre-marital sex: The social pressure is so great that some women have even taken their own lives [BBC / 2010-04-24 / The virginity industry]. Even if parents do not want to reject their children, they may be forced to: Should the village or community learn that they tolerate their apostate child, they may face harassment themselves.

All of these factors are strong incentives for a doubter to keep their mouth shut. Interestingly, it does not really matter for the survival of a religion if people really believe or not. As long as people teach the faith, the rites, and the values to the next generation, the religion continues — even if there were doubters in the chain.

Freedom of thought

Critics of Islam can admit shortcomings in their own system. For example, atheists can say that atheism without a moral system is unethical. Human Right defenders can say that they regret that the Human Rights did not mention gay rights. Christians can say that there are parts of the Bible that no longer apply today (→Naiv).

A Muslim, in contrast, cannot admit a problem in the Quran. In a discussion with a critic, he cannot say “Yes, you are right on this point, the Quran has a weakness here”. The Quran is either the word of God or it is not. It cannot be partially the word of God, and leave some spots to be corrected. Thus, if a Muslim calls into question a verse in the Quran, he basically says that the Quran is not entirely the perfect word of God. This, in turn, calls into question a basic tenet of Islam (→Definition). In other words, by admitting that the Quran contains a fault, the Muslim ceases to be a Muslim. Thus, by definition, a Muslim cannot criticize the Quran. Since the Quran describes the Prophet Muhammad as the perfect human (Quran / 48:29 (Medina), 33:21 (Medina), 68:05), this entails that a Muslim cannot find fault with Muhammad.

This may seem a purely theoretical problem. Yet, it is not. Calling into question Islam carries penalties (→Blasphemy). First, Allah promised Hell to all those who abandon their faith (→Burn). Thus, if the Muslim is not ready to give up belief in Allah altogether, then doubting the Quran is the worst possible state: it leaves him inside the religious system, but promises him eternal tortures. But the punishment is not just in the afterlife. Should his friends or family learn that he doubted the Quran, peer pressure, exclusion, and rejection may follow — even in Western lands (→Peer). Moroccan school children learn that “whoever pronounces a word contrary to the beliefs of Islam is excluded from the Muslim community” (Le Monde / 2016-07-15 / La fausse réforme de l’éducation islamique).

In the same vein, a Muslim cannot say: “Hey, this is interesting: on one side, we have a problem with Islamic terrorism (→Terrorism). On the other side, we have a holy book that advocates brutal punishments (→Brutality) and that contains calls for war (→Conquest). Maybe there is a link between the two?” Any such thought would count as doubt, and would bring that person on the edge of heresy.

And thus, a Muslim is not really free to critically consider his religion. It is not that he is not able to do that (many Christians are not able to criticize their own religion either). It is that he is not allowed to. A Muslim can find fault with anything, but not with his religion. The complete inability to conceive the thought that something might be wrong with Islam contributes to the persistence of the system. It may also contribute to the stubbornness we see in extremists (→Terrorism).

Muslims cannot criticize the Quran.
Hence, others have to do it.

Red herrings

We have argued that (1) there exist different interpretations of Islam (→Belief), that (2) adherents tend to believe that their interpretation is the only one (→Mine), and that, independently of which interpretation is right, (3) there exist popular interpretations that are contrary to the Human Rights (→Values). Making this point is not always easy, because one quickly gets distracted by other topics. These can be:
The True Islam
A discussion about Islam almost inevitably gravitates towards the question about what Islam “really” is (→Truth), and what of current beliefs is cultural rather than religious (→Cult). This is an interesting theological question. However, it cannot be decided by an unbeliever — in particular if there are dozens of interpretations of Islam, and only one of them is represented in the discussion. Such discussions just prevent the interlocutors from realizing the elephant in the room: That there exist harmful interpretations of the faith, and that these harmful interpretations have a large number of adherents (→Values). This is true no matter what Islam is or is not. The fact that harmful interpretations of Islam exist is a point that Western Muslims and unbelievers could easily agree on. They could even address this problem together, if they stopped getting caught up in theological questions (→Truth).
Early Islam
When discussing women’s rights in Islam, the discussion quickly turns towards the idea that early Islam gave women more rights than they had at the time. However, for the discussion of women’s rights, it does not matter what early Islam did or did not do. What matters is that contemporary interpretations do not give equal rights to women, no matter how we turn it (→Women).
Another point of distraction is Israel. The country occupies and builds settlements in neighboring Palestine, and this is widely regarded as illegal (Wikipedia / Israeli settlement). This is a topic on which most Muslims agree, and in fact many unbelievers agree, too. However, even if a discussion of the Israeli-Palestine conflict is necessary, it should not be used to stifle a discussion about Islam. Unfortunately, this often happens. As an example, in a Le Monde article about Islamic terrorism, the majority of comments complained about Israel rather than condemning the Islamic State (Le Monde / 2014-11-13 / Le pape François demande au monde musulman de condamner le terrorisme / Commentaires).
The Others
Whenever the discussion turns towards problems in the Muslim world, people are quick to blame external forces: The Islamic State is strong because America removed the government of Iraq; people get killed in manifestations because they are stirred up by a comment by the Pope (Wikipedia / Regensburg lecture); the less developed countries in the world suffer mainly because they are being exploited by the richer world. It is true that these theses require careful consideration, and that Westerners are often not particularly good at it. At the same time, not all ills of the Muslim world can be blamed on the West. Women’s rights (→Women, →Spousal, →FGM, →Domestic, →Child) and intolerance (→Interfaith, →Apostasy, →Education, →Hatred), for example, cannot.

All of these topics deserve discussion. However, all too often, they hijack a discussion about Islamic beliefs. This is a phenomenon called “Red Herring” (Wikipedia / Red herring). This phenomenon has two effects: First, it prevents a discussion of Islamic beliefs between Muslims and non-Muslims. Second, it can prevent Muslims themselves from critically analyzing their own belief or other Muslim beliefs, because the thinking quickly diverges to the other topics.

Many Muslims need only two enemy images to explain all problems in the Islamic world: Israel and America.
Dieter Nuhr

Allah’s Love

Much like in the New Testament of the Bible, God is presented as every-loving in the Quran (Quran / 85:14). Yet, this love finds an abrupt end if a person decides not to follow Allah’s commands. If someone questions what Allah has said, or no longer believes in him, Allah has reserved the most abhorrent tortures for him in the afterlife (→Burn). Every 7th verse of the Quran threatens the adherent with hell (→Statistics). This threat explicitly excludes the possibility for mercy (→Burn).

Talking about love on the one hand, but threatening with violence on the other hand may seem paradoxical. And yet, this combination applies not just to the relationship with Allah. It also applies to the relationship between husband and wife. According to the Quran, the spouses are to respect and help each other (Quran / 2:229 (Medina), 2:231 (Medina), 2:233 (Medina), 2:187 (Medina)). However, if the wife does not obey the husband, she can be rejected and, as last resort, beaten (Quran / 4:34) (→Domestic).

The same is true for the relationship between parents and children. According to the Quran, children are the adornment of life (Quran / 18:46). At the same time, children have to be dutiful and submissive to their parents (Quran / 17:23-24). If they are not, they may be beaten. UNICEF finds that “in all of the countries with available data in both sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and North Africa, more than 7 in 10 children aged 2 to 14 years are disciplined in a violent manner” [UNICEF: Hidden in plain sight - A statistical analysis of violence against children, UN Women: Understanding Masculinities]. The report finds that “Countries or areas with the highest levels of severe physical punishment are generally concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and North Africa”. The situation is worse for those children who decide to leave Islam, or to marry a non-Muslim. In the best case, the child is expelled from the family (→Peer). In the worst case, she is killed (→Apostasy).

In all of these cases, the assertion of love is accompanied by a threat of physical violence in case of disobedience. Love and obedience go hand in hand. If people experience the combination of love and threat also from their parents and from their husbands, they may find it normal that also Allah loves them this way (→Empty). Thus, they are more ready to accept the threat of violence from Allah. This may contribute to the persistence of Islam.

Side remark: The rates of corporal punishment for children in Western countries are generally lower, with around 5/10 for “mild slaps in the face”, and less than 1/10 for “severe beating” (ibid). This is still too much, given that corporal punishment of children is banned in many European countries (Wikipedia / Corporal punishment in the home).

Relationship with Allah

An abusive relationship is a relation where one partner emotionally, verbally, or physically abuses the other. In most cases, a husband abuses his wife, but it can also be a boyfriend who abuses his girlfriend, a wife who abuses her husband, a father who abuses his children, or a boss who abuses his employees. The central property of such a relationship is that the abused person feels a strong attachment and obligation towards the partner — despite the abuse. The abused person is unable to see that she is suffering an injustice. She insists that the abusive partner loves her. She assumes that her suffering is her own fault.

Common indicators for such an abusive relationship are (from the first page of results of a Web search):

As it stands, all of these criteria also apply to Allah’s relationship with the believer. To see that, go through the list again: Allah controls (Quran / 50:17-18); he is jealous of worshipping other gods; he never takes the blame; and he threatens his followers in case of disobedience. At the same time, believers reject the idea that they are being kept in psychological bondage. They believe that Allah loves them and that they have to be thankful to him — just like the victim of an abusive relationship insists that the partner loves her and that she has to be thankful to him. Therefore, they do not feel hatred towards Allah, but guilt — exactly like the victim of an abusive relationship. At least in these aspects, the relationship between a believer and his god resembles the relationship between a spouse and her abusive partner. Thus, the psychological factors that bond the spouse to the partner may also bond the believer to his god.

Side remark: A Muslim may object that his relationship with Allah is not that of a wife to her husband, but that of a child to her father. Or he may argue that the relationship with the divine is different from the relationship with humans. Then again, this just confirms the hypothesis: The victim tries to justify the abuse. This discussion may seem unfair, because it gives the believer no way to counter the argument. And yet, the believer could easily counter the argument. He could just show that God does not constantly threaten him. This, however, cannot be shown, because God does constantly threaten him (→Burn). Therefore, the relationship with God is objectively abusive.

Empty words

Muslim theology has developed a culture in which some words have been emptied of their meaning. Examples are:
“Respect for women”
Some people talk about the “respect for women” and “the rights of women” in Islam. At the same time, women have to be obedient to their husbands and can be beaten if they are not (→Women). What does “respect” mean if you can be beaten?
“Liberation of Women”
Some women call the burkini or the veil a “liberation” because it allows them to freely participate in public life (France 2 / 2016-08-17 / Infos). This is absurd, because the veil liberates women from a restriction that Islam imposed in the first place (→Veil, →Women).
“Allah’s love”
The Quran talks of Allah’s love (→Love). And yet, if a believer does not follow his commandments, he is thrown into eternal hellfire (→Burn). What does “love” mean, if it does not know mercy?
“Parental love”
Parents say that they love their children. And yet, if the child decides to change religion, many families are ready to eject their child from their lives (→Peer). What does “love” mean if it ends as soon as you change religion?
“The beauty of the Quran”
Many people harp about the supposed beauty of the Quran. Yet, what is literary beauty if it fades into endless repetition, support of brutality, lack of continuity, absence of chronological order, and incoherence when translated to English? (→Divine)
“Islam strived to abolish slavery”
Some people are convinced that Islam set out to abolish slavery (→Slavery). Yet, what does it mean to abolish slavery if one allows sex with slaves, tells slaves to obey their masters, and does not punish taking slaves?

This is a deceptive use of words, which suggests a more positive attitude than there is. It is quite possible that Muslims themselves fall into this trap: they may really think that their belief system is compatible with Western notions of love, respect, beauty, and equality — while it is not. This mechanism may contribute to the popularity of the faith.


One factor that makes people more open to religion in general is a lack of education. In the Muslim world in particular, illiteracy stands high (→Illiteracy). In the Arab world, the education system emphasizes obedience instead of criticism. The Arab Human Development Report of 2003 by the United Nations explains:
Studies indicate that the most widespread style of child rearing in Arab families is the authoritarian mode accompanied by the overprotective. This reduces children’s independence, self-confidence and social efficiency, and fosters passive attitudes and hesitant decision-making skills. Most of all, it affects how the child thinks by suppressing questioning, exploration and initiative. In most Arab countries, the media operate in an environment that sharply restricts freedom of the press and freedom of expression and opinion. Journalists face illegal harassment, intimidation and even physical threats, censorship is rife and newspapers and television channels are sometimes arbitrarily closed down. Most media institutions are state-owned, particularly radio and television number of books published in the Arab world, which does not exceed 1.1% of world production, although Arabs constitute 5% of the world population. The production of literary and artistic books in Arab countries is lower than the general level. In 1996 it did not exceed 1,945 books, representing only 0.8% of world production, i.e., less than the production of a country such as Turkey, with a population one quarter of that of Arab countries. An abundance of religious books and a relative paucity of books in other fields characterize the Arab book market. Religious books account for 17% of the total number of books published in Arab countries, compared to 5% of the total number of books produced in other parts of the world. Arab countries’ experiments with the transfer and adoption of technology have neither achieved the desired technological advancement nor yielded attractive returns on investments. They have fanned the embers of animosity towards both opposing political forces in Arab countries and “the others”, accusing them of being enemies of Islam itself. This has heightened the tempo of conflict and friction with society, the state and “the others”. [United Nations: Arab Human Development Report, 2003]
This report describes the school system in the year 2003. The pupils of that time are the citizens if today. The education that they received did not encourage critical thinking. Thus, these people are less well positioned to question their religion. This induced gullibility may contribute to the strength of Islam.

The rather reduced expression of culture shows not just in the domain of books: A popular interpretation that Islam prohibits the depiction of people. This has deprived Muslim art of the most important subject of the fine arts: the human. Hence, Islamic art has “typically, although not entirely, [...] focused on the depiction of patterns” (Wikipedia / Islamic Art). The Arab culture has not developed noteworthy sculptures, portraits, or paintings — let alone depictions of society or caricatures. Nor has it, until the 20th century, developed theatre plays, let alone comedies or romances. It could not, because the key ingredient of theatre plays, comedies and romances was not available: the participation of women in public social life, and the free intermingling of sexes. Without theatre, the fine arts, and a culture of literature, critical thinking and free expression of thought had difficulties to florish.

As Thilo Sarrazin argues, the Muslim world has been eager to take over the technological advancements of the West. It has, however, not considered to take over also the intellectual culture that has allowed these advancements to come about: the desire and the right to critically question what exists; the free exchange of ideas; and the right to be different.

Perhaps the worst legacy of the Prophet Muhammad was his insistence that the Quran was the literal word of God, and true once and for all, thereby closing the possibility of new intellectual ideas and freedom of thought that are the only way the Islamic world is going to progress into the 21st century.
Ibn Warraq in “Why I am not a Muslim”, p. 350

Side remark: In Morocco, the school system was deliberately designed to make “every Moroccan child” a good Muslim (Le Monde / 2016-07-15 / La fausse réforme de l’éducation islamique). In other countries, notably Pakistan, children have to memorize the 6000 verses of the Quran in the original Arabic language, without understanding them (New York Times / 2006-08-16 / Memorizing the Way to Heaven, Verse by Verse). This practice does not particularly encourage critical thinking either.


The state of Muslim countries

Muslim countries generally belong to the developing nations. They fare lower than Western countries on most socio-economic measures. With the exception of the oil-exporting nations, the GDP per capita is generally lower in the Muslim world than in the Western world (Wikipedia / GDP per capita). Some Muslim countries, such as Brunei, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuweit, and Saudi Arabia, have a comparatively high Human Development Index (Wikipedia / HDI). The others, however, are not among the top 50 countries. Pakistan, Egypt, Iraq, and Morocco fare particularly bad. Literacy stands comparatively low in general in Arab countries (→Illiteracy). In The Economist’s Quality of Life Index, which combines life expectancy, political freedom, climate, and governance, no Muslim country features in the green zone (Wikipedia / Where to be born index). In terms of corruption, the Muslim countries share the plight of the other developing countries, and fare among the most corrupt countries in the world. According to The Economist, Muslim countries are also among the least democratic countries (Wikipedia / Democracy Index). Press freedom is generally low in Muslim lands (→Blasphemy). Life expectancy is low as well, with the exception of Saudia Arabia and Libya (Wikipedia / Life expectancy).

The situation in the Arab world is particularly disheartening. “In the Arab region, human insecurity [...] inhibits human development. It is revealed in the impacts of military occupation and armed conflict in Iraq, Sudan, Somalia and Occupied Palestinian Territory. It is found in countries that enjoy relative stability where the authoritarian state, buttressed by flawed constitutions and unjust laws, often denies citizens their rights. Human insecurity is heightened by swift climatic changes, which threaten the livelihoods, income and access to food and water of millions of Arabs in future. It is reflected in the economic vulnerability of one-fifth of the people in some Arab states, and more than half in others, whose lives are impoverished and cut short by hunger and want. Human insecurity is palpable and present in the alienation of the region’s rising cohort of unemployed youth and in the predicaments of its subordinated women, and dispossessed refugees” [United Nations: Arab Human Development Report, 2009]. “Many Arab countries’ constitutions adopt ideological or doctrinal formulas that empty stipulations of general rights and freedoms of any content and which allow individual rights to be violated in the name of the official ideology or faith” [ibid]. The position of women is particularly worrying (→Women). As for the economy, “The types of services found in most Arab countries fall at the low end of the value adding chain, contribute little to local knowledge development and lock countries into inferior positions in global markets. [...] Overall, the Arab countries were less industrialized in 2007 than in 1970. [...] The overall average unemployment rate for the Arab countries was about 14.4 per cent of the labour force compared to 6.3 per cent for the world at large” [ibid]. The Arab world is “one of two world regions — the other being sub-Saharan Africa — where the number of undernourished has risen since the beginning of the 1990s. [...] The health status of Arabs, in general, is lower than that enjoyed by citizens of industrialized countries” [ibid] In the Middle East and North Africa region, 35%-52% of women met a screening standard for depressive symptoms, as well as 26%-38% per cent of men — mainly due to war, occupation, displacement, and unemployment [UN Women: Understanding Masculinities].

Thus, by and large, Muslim countries are less developed than Western countries. They share this fate with the other developing countries. The reasons for this status are manifold, and include bad governance, foreign intervention, military conflict, climate change, changing demographics, and many other factors.

Muslim belief of supremacy

What makes the position of Muslim countries particular is that the Quran tells them that Islam is the only true faith (Quran / 3:19, 3:85). Unbelievers, in contrast, are dumb and deaf (→Hatred). Muslims are “the best of peoples” (Quran / 3:110). And yet, Muslim countries fall behind unbeliever countries on nearly all socio-economic measures. Islam may be a useful ideology to unite desert tribes, but it does not provide the concepts to organize a modern state of law, educate the masses in literacy, science, and technology, fight unemployment, or build up a functioning and diversified economy. On the contrary, the belief of supremacy over the unbelievers may even prevent Muslim countries from adopting new thoughts, developments, and ideologies that could advance their state.

The Quran also tells us that Allah is with those who do good (Quran / 6:128), and that he guides those whom he will (Quran / 22:16) — in particular Muslims (Quran / 26:78-81, 29:68). He is of loving kindness (Quran / 85:14). And yet, we find, in comparison, few Muslim scientists, politicians, human rights activists, (non-religious) book writers, or military leaders who seem to be guided by Allah.

The Quran tells us that Muslims shall not take the unbelievers as friends and protectors in preference over believers (Quran / 3:28, 5:51). And yet, in the Syrian civil war, the vast majority of Muslim refugees do not aim towards the rich Muslim Gulf States or towards Mecca (BBC / 2015-09-02, Migrant crisis: Why Syrians do not flee to Gulf states, other sources). Rather, they are pushed into the neighboring countries of the war zone. Most then aim for Europe, where the unbelievers live (Wikipedia / European migrant crisis).

The Quran tells believers to “fight until all religion is for Allah” (→Conquest). Allah can give them victory (Quran / 48:24). However, most Muslims live in some of the most backward countries on Earth, and are far from conquering the world.

The comparison to Israel is particularly frustrating. The Quran tells us that Jews are “perverse” (Quran / 56:92-94), and “cursed” (Quran / 4:52 (Medina)). And yet, with the help of America, the cursed have established the only country in the Middle East that fares high on all development measures, including education, economic stability, life standard, and health. The country has defied the entire Arab world in several wars. Ever since, Israel occupies neighboring Palestine. Among the Nobel Prizes, 22% were awarded to Jews, although Jews comprise less than 0.2% of the world’s population (Wikipedia / Jewish Nobel Laureates). In the meantime, the Muslim nations around it are torn in war and chaos, much to Israel’s advantage. As Israel’s prime minister, Menachem Begin, quipped about the outbreak of the Iraq-Iran war: “We wish both sides the greatest success.” (The Economist / 2016-05-14 / The Arab World).


Based on the above Quranic verses, some Muslims believe that their religion, and, by extension, they themselves, are superior to the unbelievers. Unfortunately, the unbelievers visibly have a better life in basically all aspects. If a person believes that he is superior to the others, but the others continue to perform better, this leads to a state of cognitive dissonance: It is hard to understand why the people who are guided by Allah, and who are equipped with the only true religion, are dominated in almost all aspects by the unbelievers.

This combination of underperformance with chauvinism builds up emotional pressure. Some people channel this frustration into self-victimization. 20% of Muslim pupils in the German state of Lower Saxony believe that Muslims are oppressed all over the world (Pfeiffer, Baier, Klim: Development of Violence in Germany, Table 10) — although it is usually rather Muslims who suppress the other minorities (→Hatred). For other people, this pressure leads to agressiveness. This could be one of the factors behind the occasional violent protests against the West (→Blasphemy), or terrorist acts (→Terrorism).

Side remark: The Quran also contains advice on health and life. And yet, even if these commandments are followed, they have no discernable effect. The Quran tells us to avoid pork (Quran / 5:3 (Medina)) and alcohol. These commandments are by and large followed in the Muslim world (Alcohol consumption per capita world map, based on WHO data). And yet, the life expectancy in the Muslim countries is generally lower than in the Western world (Wikipedia / Life expectancy). The Quran tells us to have sex only with our wives and slaves (→Sex). And yet, sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS are prevalent both in the West and in the Muslim world (Wikipedia / Epidemology of AIDS). The Quran tells us to veil our women so that they may be respected (Quran / 33:59). As a consequence, the veil is socially or legally obligatory in many Muslim countries — in particular in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, and Iran (WomanStats / Required Codes of Dress for Women in the Islamic World). And yet, the rape rate in these countries actually higher than in the Western countries (→Rape). In other words: It just does not work.

Terrorism Debate

Muslim extremists have conducted a number of terrorism attacks in Western countries and Muslim countries alike. The most prevalent of these, each more with 50 dead or injured, were the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York in 2001, the 2002 Bali bombings, the Madrid train bombings in 2004, the Beslan school hostage crisis in Russia in 2004, the 2005 London bombings , the 2005 Tentena market bombings in Indonesia, the 2005 Amman bombings in Yemen, the bombings in Mumbai in 2005 and 2006, the 2008 Ahmedabad bombings in India, the bombings in the Moscow Metro in 2010, the 2010 Lahore bombings in Pakistan, the Christmas Day bombings in Nigeria in 2011, the Makhachkala attack in Russia in 2011, the Boston Marathon bombing in 2012, the Westgate shopping mall attack in Kenya in 2013, the Borno Massacre and the Kano bombing in Nigeria in 2014, the attacks in Paris in 2015, the 2016 Brussels bombings, the 2016 Lahore suicide bombing in Pakistan, the July 2016 Baghdad bombings, the Bastille day attack in Nice/France in 2016, the 2017 Sehwan suicide bombing in Pakistan, the Palm Sunday church bombings in Egypt in 2017, the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017 in the UK, the 2017 Barcelona attacks in Spain, the 2017 Sinai mosque attack in Egypt, and the 2019 Sri Lanka Easter bombings (Wikipedia / List of Islamist terrorist attacks) — in addition to the atrocities committed by the Islamic State, the Taliban, and Boko Haram (→IS). The question is often asked to what degree this terrorism is linked to Islam.

Support for Suicide Bombs

Sizable minorities of Muslims support suicide bombs to defend Islam (Pew Research Center: The world’s Muslims, 2013): 15% in Turkey, 18% in Malaysia, 13% in Pakistan, 26% in Bangladesh, 39% in Afghanistan, 7% in Iraq, 12% in Tunisia, 29% in Egypt, and 40% in Palestine. In the Western world, sizable proportions of Muslims sympathize with terrorist attacks, according to various polls (Wikipedia / Islamic terrorism, Wikipedia / Muslim attitudes towards terrorism, BBC Radio 4, The Federation of Student Islamic Societies: Attitudes and perceptions of British Muslim students following the London attacks on July 7th 2005). Suicide bombing can be justified in some cases according to 17% of Muslims in Germany, 22% of Muslims in the US, 30% of Muslims in Britain, and 36% of Muslims in France (Pew Research Center: Little support for terrorism among Muslim Americans, 2009). 13% of Muslims in 11 Muslim-majority countries sympathize with Al-Qaeda (Pew Research Center: Muslim Publics Share Concerns about Extremist Groups, 2013), and 21% of Turks believe that the Islamic State represents Islam (Reuters: Ten percent of Turks do not see Islamic State as terrorist body - survey).

The question is now why this is the case. We have argued that Islam is too diverse to be associated with a political attitude (→ROFL). Thus, saying that “Islam encourages terrorism” is wrong. We can, however, ask which factors contribute to the phenomenon of Islamic terrorism. There are social factors (such as disadvantaged minorities), political factors (such as foreign interventions in the Middle East), as well as reasons rooted in the religious beliefs of people — whether these beliefs are “right” or “wrong”. We will now look at these religious factors.

Discussing Muslim Extremism

Discussing religiously motivated factors for terrorism is very difficult, for several reasons:
  1. The question quickly degenerates into the question of “What is Islam”. On this question, Muslims have different opinions (→Belief, →Truth, →ROFL, →Evaluation). At the same time, most Muslims believe that their version of Islam is the only one (→Mine). Hence, before the discussion about terrorism can even start, one is caught up in an endless dispute about what is or what is not Islam. However, it does not even matter “what Islam is”: Whether the harmful religious beliefs are part of Islam or not, they still have to be opposed either way. Thus, the question of what Islam is is orthogonal to the fight against terrorism. It is a red herring that distracts from the problem (→Red).
  2. The first reaction to a discussion about Islamic terrorism is often the defense of Islam itself (“Not in my name”). While it is laudable to distance oneself from terrorism, it is not sufficient. To dry out terrorism, we also have to understand the religious beliefs that motivate it, and to counteract them. Unfortunately, people sometimes concentrate more on defending Islam than on investigating the religious beliefs that fuel extremism. Thereby, they effectively shield extremism from analysis.
  3. The Quran prevents Muslims themselves from criticizing the Quran or the Prophet Muhammad (→Free). Thus, a discussion with a Muslim cannot lead to finding a problem with the Quran. While Muslim leaders will be quick to denounce a terrorist act, they will never consider the Quran as a factor in it.
  4. The West is developing an attitude of political correctness that prevents it from openly discussing Islam (→Censor). This is helped by the belief that Islam would be as flexible as Christianity is today — which current mainstream interpretations of Islam are not (→Naiv).
  5. A discussion often tends towards the question whether Islam is really “worse” than Christianity. This is a difficult question, mainly because neither religion is homogenous (→ROFL). The question also does not matter for the original question: Religiously motivated terrorism has to be counteracted, no matter in which religion it appears. A Christian suicide bomber is as bad as a Muslim one, just that there are currently more of the latter than of the former.
  6. In all debates about Muslim terrorism, we never listen to what the Islamists have to say. If we want to understand what makes their ideology so attractive, we have to understand how they use Islam to lure people into their system. We have to let them speak and argue with them. However, we never give them the word — first for fear of giving them a platform, and second for fear of discovering that there could be something wrong with Islam itself (→Mine).
  7. The most vocal critics of Islam often associate all Muslims with terrorism. This does them injustice. It also degenerates the debate.
Thus, the main problem in discussing religious factors of terrorism is that critics of Islam tend to argue that Islam as a whole is the problem, while defenders of Islam tend to argue that Islam as a whole is a religion of peace (→ROFL). The truth is neither: There are several religious beliefs, upheld by particular populations of Muslims, that contribute to the radicalization of the extremists. If we do not pinpoint and discuss these beliefs, we miss the point of religious terrorism.

Religious Factors in Muslim Extremism

Several religious factors may contribute to the radicalization of Islamic terrorists:
  1. The Quran (and a popular interpretation of Islam) hold that unbelievers will be burnt in Hell by God, and that they deserve it just for being unbelievers (→Burn). If Muslim children in the West are taught from an early age on that that their Christian fellows are worth of hell, they learn to look at them with different eyes. Such an education (where it takes place) can contribute to the radicalization of religious extremists.
  2. Blasphemy, i.e., criticizing Islam, is an offensive act for many Muslims (→Blasphemy). Thus, if Western media question or criticize Islam, these Muslims will feel offended. This may create an environment where violence against Western media is tacitly seen as justified.
  3. Islam has a history of conquest. Consequently, the Quran contains numerous verses of war and violence (→Conquest). The Prophet Muhammad himself conquered the Arab peninsula for Islam, and he is, according to the Quran, the perfect role model to follow (→Insult). Extremists may take inspiration from this. In their view, they just replicate what the Prophet did (→Exceptional). If children learn at school how Muhammad fought against non-Muslims to convert them to Islam (as they did in Morocco until 2016), then it is not surprising if they do this as adults (Le Monde / 2016-07-15 / La fausse réforme de l’éducation islamique).
  4. The Quran contains around 15% of hate speech against unbelievers (→Statistics). Consequently, many Muslim societies discriminate against non-Muslims (→Hatred). This may set the ground for the extremists.
  5. As Ahmad Mansour argues, Islam generally supports a dichotomic view of the world, in which things are divided into good and bad, or haram and halal. There is no gray area. From this basis, it is easier to extrapolate to a view in which “the bad” has to be extinguished.
  6. Despite the variety in Islamic belief systems (→Belief), most Muslims believe that there is only one correct interpretation of Islam (→Mine). Questioning the Quran is not allowed (→Free). This mindset of allowing only one correct interpretation and of categorically ruling out criticism may contribute to the closed-mindedness and determination of terrorists.
  7. The Quran promises martyrs a life in paradise with virgins at their disposal (→Translations). If a person is no longer afraid to die (but on the contrary eager to die), then this person is ready to sacrifice his life if he sees a greater good. This holds in particular if the religion prohibits sex in this world, and promises it for the other (→Deprivation).
  8. Some imams (→Imams) preach hatred against non-Muslims. For example, Mehdi Kabir (the Imam of Villetaneuse/France), explains us that “those who eat pigs are among the most dirty people” (Youtube). Danish Imam Abu Bilal Ismail preaches the annihilation of Jews and the killing of apostates (Youtube). It is unclear what proportion of Imams preach this way, and what proportion of adherents believe them, but such sermons can inspire extremists.
  9. The common attitude in the West and in the Muslim world is that Muslim extremism has nothing to do with “the true Islam”. Others believe that Islam is the core reason for extremism (→ROFL). Therefore, most discussions of religious terrorism focus on discrediting Islam or on defending it — rather than on understanding why terrorists believe what they believe. This dispute effectively shields religious extremism from analysis.
  10. In the Arab world in particular, a lack of education (→Education), and a certain frustration with the economical situation (→Frustration) may play a role.
  11. In the Western world in particular, a social factor may play a role: The mainstream interpretation of Islam prohibits Muslims from marrying freely with non-Muslims (→Interfaith). This means that Muslim families in the West cannot merge into the dominant population, but remain a separated community.
As Yahya Cholil Staquf, the leader of the biggest Muslim organization in Indonesia, summarizes: “Western politicians should stop pretending that extremism and terrorism have nothing to do with Islam. There is a clear relationship between fundamentalism, terrorism, and the basic assumptions of Islamic orthodoxy.” (Time / 2017-09-08 / In Interview, Top Indonesian Muslim Scholar Says Stop Pretending That Orthodox Islam and Violence Aren't Linked).

If we do not discuss these factors openly, we actually support the radicalization of extremists.

Jihad, as practiced by the Prophet, is the problem.
The quranic partitioning of the world in “believers” and “unbelievers” is the problem.
The untouchability of the Quran and the Prophet is the problem.
The education that cannot disentangle from the Quran and the Prophet is the problem.
The jihad as a goal in itself is the problem.
Hamed Abdel-Samad

The Veil

Many Muslims believe that Muslim women should cover their hair by a veil. The basis for this belief stems from the Quran. The relevant verse has given rise to different readings, which range from covering the entire body to just covering the torso (→Translations). In Germany, 31% of citizens of Turkish origin believe that the veil should be worn, and 33% of women wear it (Uni Münster: Integration und Religion, 2016). In France, 65% of Muslims have a favorable opinion of the veil, and 35% of Muslim women wear it (Institut Montaigne: Un islam français est possible, 2016, p. 31). 20% of Muslims favor the full-body niqab (ibid, p. 20 & 21), a percentage that increases to 40% among the young people (Institut Montaigne: Un islam français est possible, annexe, p. 3).

The veil has attracted much animosity in the West, up to a prohibition of the full-body burqa in France (Wikipedia / French ban on face covering) and the ban on the veil in public schools (Wikipedia / Laïcité). This, in turn, has attracted criticism from Muslim organizations, who argue that the law should not prescribe people what to wear. Such an argument is hard to counter in a society that wants to be liberal.

However, much of the animosity towards the veil seems to stem not from a disapproval of the actual clothing, but from a disapproval of the values it represents. The Quran tells women to cover themselves so “that they should be known as respectable women so as not to be annoyed” (Quran / 33:59). If a woman has to wear a veil in order to be respectable and in order not to be annoyed, it follows that women who do not wear a veil are not respectable, and can be annoyed (→Deprivation). Indeed, 35% of French women who wear the veil do so “for security reasons” (Institut Montaigne: Un islam français est possible, 2016, p.31). The idea that it would be in any way more acceptable to annoy a woman without a veil is in fundamental contradiction to Western values.

Furthermore, a woman who wears a veil is with high probability Muslim. A person who is Muslim has a high probability of not believing in equal rights for men and women (→Women), of shunning interfaith marriage (→Interfaith), and of taking a dim view of non-Muslims (→Burn). These values attract animosity, because they are incompatible with Western values (→Call). The veil, then, is just a symbol for these values. Thus, the opposition to the veil addresses more the symptoms than the cause.

We may argue that the veil is just a piece of clothing. Yet, to see that the veil is more than a piece of clothing, turn the argument around: If it’s just a piece of clothing, then why not take it off? However, if a girl takes off the veil, she may face pressure from her community and family (→Peer) — thus proving that the veil is more than a type of cloth. It is a symbol of certain values. It serves not just to hide the body, but also to demonstrate adherence to the faith — especially in non-Muslim lands. With the invalidation of the original motivation for the veil (the protection from male aggression), the main purpose of the veil in Western lands is to visually segregate Muslim women from the mainstream society.

The discussion of the veil often attracts the argument from the Muslim side that the Western society would degrade women by pressuring them to be beautiful and to run around nearly naked. Such an argument is nonsense. No women is beaten by their parents if she decides not to run around naked. There is no law that would require women to run around naked or to be beautiful. A women can even become chancellor without doing either. If we want to talk about discrimination of women, then the prohibition of free marriage for women (→Women), the requirement that the woman be obedient to her husband, and the permission to beat the woman (→Domestic) are far more important reasons for concern.

All of this shows that the discussion about the veil is not about the actual piece of clothing, but about the values that it represents.

Sex Deprivation

The prevalent interpretations of Islam forbid sex before or outside marriage. The problem is that the age of marriage is nowadays later than it was in the early days of Islam. Men are often expected to study and earn money before they can marry. Without a good salary, [a man] cannot buy a flat; without his own home he cannot marry; and without marriage, he cannot have sex [The Economist / 2016-08-06 / Arab youth: Look forward in anger]. Even touching or just kissing before marriage is a taboo in many Muslim societies. In Germany, 23% of citizens of Turkish origin say that one should not shake hand with the other gender (Uni Münster: Integration und Religion, 2016). That number is 12% in France. 30% of French Muslims do not kiss cheeks with the opposite gender, as is otherwise customary in France (Institut Montaigne: Un islam français est possible, 2016, p. 35). 4% refuse to work with women altogether (ibid, p. 94).

This leads to cohorts of men who have not had any physical contact with women until their late twenties. This deprivation is deeply felt, as is testified by the Internet searches in Muslim countries. Among the top 20 countries where the query “sex” is proportionally most prevalent, 10 are Muslim-majority nations (Google Trends: Sex: Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Cambodia, Vietnam, Tunisia, Lebanon, Bolivia, Tanzania, Indonesia, Kenya, Syria, Nigeria, Malaysia, Algeria, Egypt, Qatar). More generally, Muslim states held 6 of the top 8 positions for searchers intending to seek access to sex-related sites [Muslims and the World / Do Muslims watch pornography], according to a study by PornMD, a porn website. The complete top 10 were Pakistan, Egypt, Vietnam, Iran, Morocco, India, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Phillipines, and Poland. Searches related to gay sex, likewise, are most prevalent in Muslim countries (International Business Times / 2013-03-28 / Web Porn Searches Mock Anti-Gay Laws in Muslim World and Africa, →Homo).

This tension may then contribute to the sexual harassment of women. In Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, and Palestine, between 31% and 64% of men admitted that they had harassed women in the street (The Economist/ 2017-05-04 / The sorry state of Arab men). Such harassment happened en masse on New Year’s Eve 2015 in Cologne/Germany, where hundreds of victims were aggressed, groped, and in some cases raped by men of Arab or North African appearance (Wikipedia / New Year’s Eve sexual assaults in Germany), but it has been a phenomenon in other countries for much longer. The mass sexual assault of women in public has been documented in Egypt since 2005 [Wikipedia / Mass sexual assault in Egypt], with dozens of incidents where women have been surrounded by the masses, groped, stripped, and raped. The men’s motives include pleasure, a desire to dominate women, and a “perceived sense of sexual deprivation” because marriage may be financially prohibitive [ibid]. The Islamic State benefits from this deprivation, too, luring young Muslims with the promise of sex slaves (→Sex). In the same vein, the prospect of 72 virgins can drive young men into suicide attacks (→Terrorism). For them, the path to orgasm runs through death, not love [Kamel Daoud: The Sexual Misery of the Arab World].

This tension thrives in the general context of a culture that blames sexual aggression on the victim rather than on the aggressor (→Veil, →Rape). In Egypt, 72% of aggressors said that “The girl’s dress was not decent and revealed her body contours” was a reason for harassing the woman (UN Women: Study on Ways and Methods to Eliminate Sexual Harassment in Egypt). This is true even if the women wears traditional clothing, as was the case in 75% of the cases registered (ibid). Victims, likewise, fear for their own reputation (34%) rather than that of the aggressor. 3/4 of harassers aggress women daily (ibid). Bystanders usually (40%) do not help when they notice sexual aggression (ibid). As a case to the point, during the summer in Algeria, brigades of Salafists and local youths worked up by the speeches of radical imams and Islamist TV preachers go out to monitor female bodies, especially those of women bathers at the beach [Kamel Daoud: The Sexual Misery of the Arab World]. In Egypt and Palestine, over half of men and women say that if a woman is raped, she should marry her rapist. In Egypt, Palestine, and Morocco, more women than men say that women who dress provocatively deserve to be harassed [The Economist / 2017-05-04/ The sorry state of Arab men]. In general, women “are respected only when defined by a property relationship, as the wife of X or the daughter of Y” [ibid]. Even after marriage, the violence against women does not end (→Domestic, →Spousal, →Women, →FGM).

All of this leads to what observers have called a “sexual misery” and a “sick relationship with women” in the Muslim world [ibid].

Islam and the West

Call for critical analysis

Islam as a whole

Most people (adherents of Islam and non-adherents alike) consider that the following beliefs are part of Islam: These beliefs are incompatible with the Human Rights, and with Western values in general. They cause harm to those who are disadvantaged by these beliefs. A Western society thus has to oppose such beliefs. This opposition should not target an individual person. Rather, it should target the ideology of Islam.

Less prevalent beliefs

There is also a set of beliefs that are prevalent in Muslim societies, but that are not universally accepted as being part of Islam. These are: These beliefs are, likewise, incompatible with the Human Rights, and harmful to those who are affected by them. They thus deserve criticism. At the same time, these beliefs are not universally considered part of Islam. Any attempt to criticise these beliefs as part of Islam will be met with a discussion about what the true Islam is or is not (→True). Therefore, such criticism should carefully avoid criticising “Islam” in general. Even more so, such criticism should avoid generalizing to “all Muslims”. This is because not all Muslims share these beliefs. A generalization would unjustly stigmatize all adherents (→Discrimination).

Rather, the following argument can be made for this set of beliefs: There is a certain belief X, and this belief is (1) incompatible with the Human Rights, and (2) held by a large number of people. Therefore, it deserves criticism. This is true no matter whether there are people who do not adhere to X, or whether someone thinks that X is not really the true Islam. That does not matter. What matters is that X is harmful and prevalent. Everyone (Muslim or not) who does not share this belief X must have an interest in criticising it.

Western Naïveté

Some of the values of Islam are incompatible with Western values (→Call). Many Christians believe that this is merely a matter of interpretation of the Quran: Yes, the Quran contains verses of violence, but so does the Bible. Yes, the Quran contains archaic punishments, but so does the Bible. Yes, the Quran calls for war, but so does the Bible. If Christians today follow Humanistic ideals even if some verses in the Bible tell us to do otherwise, the reasoning goes, then surely Muslims can do the same?

And yet, there is a fundamental difference between the way that Christians view the Bible and the way that Muslims view the Quran. In the case of Christianity, the Renaissance, the Age of Reason, and education have pushed people away from a literal interpretation of the Bible. For example, most Christians in Europe no longer literally believe the stories of the miracles of the Bible. The miracles are seen as metaphors. Hell is not really eternal physical fire — it is an abstract estrangement from God. Likewise, large parts of the Old Testament are considered obsolete, because they have been superseded by the New Testament. Furthermore, the Bible is not written by God. Rather, it is written by humans who were inspired by God. All of this entails that Christians have developed a certain distance to the text of the Bible.

In the case of Islam, no such departure has taken place. Muslims have not moved away from the literal interpretation of the Quran: all Muslims (not just a group called “fundamentalists”) believe that the Quran is literally the word of God [Ibn Warraq: Why I am not a Muslim, p. 11; The Economist / 2016-05-14 / The Arab World]. Literally. God talked, and what he said was written down. There is no superseding of books, no metaphors, and no human intervention. There is just what God told us. And if God told you something, you’d better believe what he told you. Thus, while the content of the Bible and the Quran may be comparable, the relationship of the adherents to their holy book is not (Zineb El Rhazoui). Thus, we don’t have to debate which is worse (the Bible or the Quran); what matters is how literally their adherents take them (Stephen Pinker).

And therefore, the Muslim mainstream opinion is that yes, people literally burn in fire in Hell (→Burn). Really. And yes, women have to be obedient to their husbands (→Women). This is what God told us, and this is how it is. There is no mumbo jumbo of adaptation of ancient values for modern times. The values in the Quran are not ancient. They are eternal. They are valid 1000 years ago as they are now and as they will be in 1000 years from now. And there is no shame in saying it. After all, this is the word of God.

If Europeans are confronted with such beliefs, they often react with surprise. In France, people were shocked to find that in a Muslim-majority school the majority of children supported the attack on the Islam-critical magazine Charlie Hebdo (Wikipedia / Charlie Hebdo shooting). But yes, a substantial proportion of Muslims values religion more than free speech (→Blashpemy). In Germany, people could hardly believe that the Muslims who were interviewed for a TV show really believed that the women shall be obedient to men (ZDF / Islam - Effects on Germany ). But yes, this is indeed the Muslim mainstream opinion (→Women). Likewise in Germany, people are outraged when an Imam explains that the woman has to submit sexually to her husband (Welt / 2015-02-21 / Berliner Imam verteidigt Sex-Zwang für Ehefrauen). But yes, this is what God said (→Spousal). In Denmark, people find it “shocking” and “unbelievable” when an imam preaches killing apostates, flogging adulterers, or executing murderers of Muslims (The Local DK / 2016-02-29 / Imam at Danish mosque: Stone women to death). Yet, these are not the view points of a few extremists, but mainstream opinions among Muslims (→Apostasy, →Brutality, →Kill). Really.

The West just has a hard time understanding that the majority of Muslims really adhere to the literal values of the Quran.

In the year 2006, a person can have sufficient intellectual and material resources to build a nuclear bomb and still believe that he will get seventy-two virgins in Paradise. Western secularists, liberals, and moderates have been very slow to understand this. The cause of their confusion is simple: they don’t know what is like to really believe in God.
Sam Harris in “Letter to a Christian Nation”

Discrimination against Muslims

Criticism of Islam, while necessary (→Call), is often mingled with discrimination against Muslims. Here, discrimination means treating people worse than they should be treated, just because they belong to a particular group. This discrimination takes several forms. In many Western countries, Muslims face prejudices — in particular the stereotype that they would all sympathise with terrorists. This is not true, of course (→ Terrorism). There are also more violent forms of discrimination:

Discrimination by Government Actors

In the US, discrimination of Muslims takes the form of surveillance programs and watchlist programs that disproportionally target American Muslim communities (ACLU / Anti-Muslim discrimination). Such programs stigmatize Muslim communities as inherently suspect for no good reason, and with no gain in security. The ACLU also complains against travel bans against Muslim countries (Wikipedia / Trump Travel Ban). These bans included Iran and Sudan. These countries have laws that punish apostates with death (→Apostasy). If a Western country started executing people who want to become Muslim, then the Muslim countries would rightfully impose a travel ban on that Western country — and so should all other countries. The same is true, vice versa, for Iran and Sudan. It is, however, not true for the other countries on the list.

In China, the Muslim minority of Uighurs in the Xinjiang province is blamed for several attacks. The government has responded with extremely restrictive measures (The Economist / 2017-05-04 / The extraordinary ways in which China humiliates Muslims). In particular, up to 1m Muslims are thought to be interned in “re-education camps”. The remaining population is tightly surveilled: in one concerned region, all vehicles have been ordered to install satellite tracking-devices. Many residents have been told to hand their passports. New rules ban “abnormal” beards (including the one associated with conservative Islam). Children named Muhammad can be denied free schooling and health care. Residents have been asked to inform the authorities of any religious activities, including weddings and circumcisions.

In Myanmar, the Muslim minority of Rohingya is suffering from large-scale persecution and atrocities, including mass killing of Rohingya civilians, gang rapes, and other sexual violence (Wikipedia / Rohingya genocide). It is estimated that the Burmese military and local Buddhists killed at least 10,000 Rohingya people. Over 700,000 Rohingya people fled to neighboring Bangladesh. The UN has called for the Burmese generals to be tried for genocide (Reuters / 2018-08-24 / U.N. calls for Myanmar generals to be tried for genocide).

Attacks on Muslims

There have also been attacks by non-Muslims on Muslims in various countries. The most deadly incidents were several attacks against Muslims in Tibet between 2003 and 2012; the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre in Palestine in 1994; the 2006 Malegaon bombings and the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots in India; the Christchurch mosque shootings in 2019 in New Zealand; the 2011 Norway attacks; anti-Muslim riots in Sri Lanka in 2014. Each of these left at least 50 people dead or injured. In the US alone, dozens of anti-Muslim attacks (each with 0-2 people injured or killed) have been reported between 2001 and 2019 (Wikipedia / List of Islamophobic incidents).

Discrimination and the Human Rights

Killings, rapes, burnings, expulsions, or any form of violence against peaceful people are a violation of the Human Rights. These prohibit cruel treatment and forced exile (Human Rights / 5, 9), and enshrine the dignity, equality, security, recognition before the law, freedom of movement, nationality, property, freedom of religion of every individual (Human Rights / 1, 2, 3, 6, 13, 15, 17, 18). The persecution that Muslims suffer in Myanmar and in China, as well as the attacks on Muslims in various countries, run counter to the spirit of Humanism. But also the less violent forms of discrimination run counter to the Human Rights: Any different treatment of people by the government because of their faith is incompatible with the Human Rights (Human Rights / 1, 2 ).

Even purely intellectual criticism has its ethical limits. While a criticism of Islam is necessary from a Western standpoint (→Call), this can in no case justify indiscriminate accusations against all Muslims. For example, the idea that all Muslims would conspire with terrorism is not just false, but also an attack on the dignity of these people (Human Rights / 1, 11 (2), 12). Likewise, random generalizations and accusations do not just hinder the cause, but are also wrong — both morally and factually.


The Western world holds the freedom of speech in high esteem. At least in theory, People are free to criticize any government, ideology, or religion. Hence, it is quite common in Europe to criticize Scientology or to joke about Christianity. And yet, criticism of Islam is different. The mainstream shies away from critically discussing Islam (→Call), for several reasons:
Criticising Islam sounds racist
In fact, Islam has nothing to do with race: People from any ethnicity can be Muslim, and vice versa there is no ethnicity that would be entirely Muslim. Islam is not a race, but an ideology. It is not an immutable trait that people are born with (and that it makes no sense to criticise), but a way of thinking and acting. Ways of thinking and acting have to be open to criticism, because they affect other people.
Criticising Islam seems to support discrimination
Discrimination means treating people worse than they should be treated, just because they belong to a particular group. This is different from subjecting a religion to critical analysis. The criticism targets beliefs, not people (→Discrimination), and we have to allow ourselves to criticise other people’s beliefs. As Sarah Heider put it: “Religions are just ideas and don’t have rights.”
Criticising Islam offends Muslim people
It is only natural that someone takes offense when their beliefs are challenged. And yet, we cannot take that offense as a reason to silence critical analysis. If offense were a reason to stop critical analysis, we would never have established equal rights for men and women, abandoned slavery, or separated church and state.
Criticising Islam alienates moderate Muslims
This should not be the case if the criticism targets the less prevalent beliefs (→Less). Moderate Muslims have an interest in clearing the name of their religion from these beliefs. For this to work, the criticism has to be carefully targeted to a particular belief — and not against “all Muslims”.
Criticising Islam causes riots
When Islam is criticized in public, or if just the Prophet Muhammad is drawn, a minority of Muslims reacts with anger, violence, and death threats (→Blasphemy). Depictions of Muhammad or criticism of Islam regularly draw large protests in Muslim lands, which usually kill more people than were harmed by the original depiction (Wikipedia / Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons / comparable incidents). While this is deplorable, we cannot allow ourselves to be held hostage by such violence. The values that deserve criticism are themselves the reason for this violence (→Blasphemy).
Criticising Islam draws applause from the extreme right
In fact, the extreme right exists also because the mainstream shies away from discussing the values of Islam. As long as the mainstream is unable to acknowledge problems with Islam, the only harbor for people who are afraid of Islam is the extreme right. If the mainstream were more open about problematic tendencies in Islam, it could prevent people from drifting into the xenophobic far right.
Criticising Islam is islamophobic
Yes. In fact, one cannot support the Human Rights on the one hand, and be OK with the mainstream Islamic values on the other (→Call). Interestingly, Islamophobia means technically “fear of Islam”. In this sense, the best proof that one has no fear of Islam is when one is not afraid to criticize it.
Criticising Islam is dangerous
Indeed, criticising Islam is dangerous. The people in the West who openly criticized Islam have to live under police protection: Sabatina James, Ayaan Hirsi, Hamed Abdel-Samad, Zineb El Rhazoui, Theo Van Gogh, Salman Rushdie, and others. And yet, we should not allow us be blackmailed by extremist people. As Gérard Biard puts it: Everybody who had to do with the Mafia knows that, as soon as the money that was requested is paid, the price rises.
Not all Muslims adhere to the conservative mainstream of Islam
While that is true, it does not change the fact that most do. We cannot restrain criticism of an ideology just because there is a group of people who adhere to an unproblematic variant of it.
Muslims suffer from discrimination
Muslims are indeed often discriminated against in Western societies (→Discrimination). This is a problem in its own right. However, tackling one problem should not prevent us from addressing also another one. In fact, the problem of discrimination is at least universally acknowledged by the mainstream Western societies and their governments. There are educational programs and awareness campaigns against the discrimination of minorities. The problem that the values of Islam are incompatible with Western values, in contrast, is not even acknowledged to exist.
The harmful beliefs may not be the true Islam
As discussed before (→Truth), it is impossible to determine what “the true Islam” is, because this is a theological question. But what we can say is that a large number of people adhere to harmful beliefs in the name of Islam. This is a problem no matter whether these beliefs are the true Islam or not.

In this spirit, Islam deserves critical analysis in the same way that any ideology deserves critical analysis.

Though the role of theistic morality in the problems besetting the Islamic world is inescapable, many Western intellectuals (who would be appalled if the repression, misogyny, homophobia, and political violence that are common in the Islamic world were found in their own societies, even diluted hundredfold) have become strange apologists when these practices are carried out in the name of Islam. (Stephen Pinker) It is surprising that in particular left-leaning groups and individuals wish to protect Islam against criticism. There is a left wing whose adherents reflexively denounce any and all talk about the connections between traditional Islam, fundamentalism and violence as de facto proof of Islamophobia. This is not the viewpoint of the extreme right, but of Yahya Cholil Staquf, the leader of the largest Muslim organization in Indonesia (Time / 2017-09-08 / Interview with Top Indonesian Muslim Scholar).

The wish to protect Islam against criticism is mainly driven by the desire to avoid deepening the discrimination that Muslims often experience in Western countries (→Discrimination). While this is laudable, it ignores the fact that the mainstream interpretation of Islam (→Call) violates many of the principles that are dear to the Left: equal rights for men and women, freedom of religion, respect for other religions, and acceptance of homosexuality. The Left has openly criticised conservative interpretations of Christianity in this spirit, and even religion in general. There is no reason to stop short of Islam in particular. This is even more true given that large numbers of people are currently suffering in the name of Islam from the injustices that the Left opposes:

There is no Muslim-majority country in which women have truly equal rights, and in which non-Muslims have the same rights as Muslims (including the right to proselytize). Now that is something worth opposing.
If you refuse to acknowledge the existence of a problem, you can’t begin to solve it.
Yahya Cholil Staquf

Fear of Confrontation

While it is necessary, from a Western point of view, to criticise harmful beliefs of Islam (→Call), people often shy away from it (→Censor). This has led to a series of silent surrenders:

It is hypocritical to glorify free speech on the one hand, and to comply to Muslim sensitivities on the other (Gaston Institute: How Much of our Culture Are We Surrendering to Islam?, 2016-06-21). Yet, it is worse than just being hypocritical; it is also dangerous. If we refrain from broaching harmful ideologies, these ideologies risk becoming more prevalent.

Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.
Hypathia of Alexandria


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