1. Origins and teachings
Islam, some 700 years younger than the other two main Abrahamic religions, Christianity and Judaism, is literally translated as, ‘voluntary submission to God’ where one’s purpose of existence is to worship him. However, where it differs from many other religions is its all-encompassing nature. There is no aspect of your life that Islam, through the Quran, is not concerned with guiding, and many would argue, controlling. The Quran teaches how to pray and worship, how to deal with parents and family members, how to be moral, why not to cheat, steal and kill. However, and most importantly, you must worship one God only.
The word Quran not only describes the revered text but is translated from Arabic as ‘the recitation’. Muslims believe that the Quran was revealed to Muhammad by God through the angel Gabriel over a period of some 23 years (610CE to 632CE). Only after Muhammad’s death, did his followers put together his various teachings and recantations into a coherent body of material – the Quran.
The Quran is a physical text and Muhammad certainly existed as a leader and ‘prophet’. God’s dialogue with the angel Gabriel, and through him, Muhammad, is more tenuous with respect to reality, it’s existence supported only through public heresay based on, inevitably private, revelation. This claim regarding the divine origin of the Quran and its relevance to mankind is really quite extraordinary. It is therefore perfectly reasonable to require extraordinarily strong evidence of its truth. But this has not been given.
Without other convincing arguments to the contrary, the Quran and its teachings can only take the default position of being originated solely by Man.
2. The assertion
After the Quran was revealed, it became the Book for all of mankind until the Hour begins. Whoever does not believe in it is a kafir who will be punished with torment on the Day of Resurrection. It describes Allah as saying: "But those who reject Our Ayat (proofs, evidences, verses, lessons, signs and revelations), the torment will touch them for their disbelief and for their belying the Message of Muhammad" [al-An'aam 6:49].
Put another way, ‘these should be your beliefs and if you reject them, you will be punished with torment (sent to Hell)’.
This does not sit easily with the claim that the Quran instructs Muslims to show tolerance and respect to other religions (6:108), or indeed non-theists’ opinions.
3. The barriers to criticism
The Quran is described as dealing with Divine nature, God’s intervention in history, and spiritual lessons learned from mastering the text. It is furthermore considered the literal word of God and taken so seriously, that in order to be considered qualified to offer a credible opinion on it, one must be well versed in each of the following.
• Mastery of classical Arabic (the Arabic of the Quraysh at the time of the Prophet).
• Mastery of the entire book.
• A thorough knowledge of Hadith literature.
• A deep knowledge of the life of the Prophet and of the first community. No interpretation is valid that ignores the original context.
• A commanding knowledge of the exegetical notes and writings of the earlier scholars and of the traditions of earlier Muslim communities.
The above five prerequisites for the right to critical discourse intend for the Quran to be shielded from criticism to all except fervent Islamic scholars. Further, and inherent in their definition, the prerequisites cement the Quran’s relevance firmly to the past and to civilisations that are long gone.