How Much Does The Quran
Rely on Fear?
And What’s Love Got to Do with It?
To help nail down the answer to the first question in
the title, I searched the USC-MSA
Quran database to see how many verses contain one or more of the
boiling, punish, agony, pain, burn, perdition,
doom, torment, suffer, woe, awful, terrible,
horrible, scourge, warn, fear, retribution.
I found 1,027 unique verses each containing at least
one of the above-italicized words. In total the Quran comprises 6,220
verses (give or take ten or twenty, depending on which of the various
counting methods you use). I estimate that of the 1,027 verses I culled,
550 to 650 refer more or less directly and threateningly to divine
punishment and hell. Another 150 to 250 do not specifically mention divine
punishment, but advise fear of Allah, or warn of Allah. And the remaining
200 or so have little or nothing to do with divine punishment. (These
estimates are extrapolations based on study of about one-eighth (129) of
the 1,027 verses. The verses
in the study sample were randomly selected from the 1,027.)
If the estimate of 600 verses with more or less direct references to
hell/divine punishment is correct, that would mean the ratio of such
verses to all other verses in the Quran is about one in ten. When we
consider that this ratio goes to one in eight if we add the estimated 200
verses that do not mention punishment but warn of Allah or advise fear of
Allah, and when we recall that the roughly 600 "hell threat"
verses are not islands unto themselves, but involve preceding and
following verses, it becomes apparent what a substantial portion of the
Quran is concerned with threats of dire punishment and hell.
From the USC-MSA Compendium of Muslim Texts website, here is an example of
one of the more explicit (and sadistic) threats in the Quran:
Verses 19, 20, 21, and 22:
These twain (the believers and the disbelievers)
are two opponents who contend concerning their Lord. But as for those who
disbelieve, garments of fire will be cut out for them; boiling fluid will
be poured down on their heads,
Whereby that which is in their bellies, and their skins too, will be
And for them are hooked rods of iron.
Whenever, in their anguish, they would go forth from thence they are
driven back therein and (it is said unto them): Taste the doom of burning.
The Quran's threats of hell usually do not go into
this much detail. Instead we read again and again brief phrases referring
to a "grievous” or “enduring” punishment after death, or to
burning in "hell-fire," or to a “painful doom” and, so on.
What kind of doctrine is it that once in every ten verses (on average)
refers to severe divine punishment or to hell? Are we to be good mainly
because we are terrified of what someone will do to us if we are not good?
Isn't it oddly crude of ‘God’ to rely so strongly on this 'carrot and
stick' (with a lot of stick) approach? Are we nothing more than lower
level animals to be controlled with the threat of pain and the promise of
pleasure? (As to the latter, the Quran speaks of beautiful couches,
delicious food and drink, and gorgeous virgins for the Muslim male after
death, if he was a believer while alive.) But what about the nobler
possibilities within us? Our deepest desire, though we often lose touch
with it, is to love and learn. Is
it really God who would seek to drive us with whips on the one hand
and physical pleasures on the other, as if we were but contemptible beasts
entirely in thrall to external inducements?
That leadership style seems more diabolical than divine.
But perhaps such a style matches the chief theme of
“Islam,” a word frequently translated into English as
“submission,” and meaning avowedly slavish obedience to “God” –
or to whatever it was that Muhammed started channeling in that cave on
Mt.Hira, north of Mecca.
Another search through the USC-MSA database, this
time for the word ‘obey,’ showed that at least 25 times some variation
of the phrase “Obey Allah and His messenger [Muhammed]” appears in the
Quran. And additional
verses portray Noah, Jesus and several others as if they all thought in
the militaristic manner of Mohammed: the
Quran reports that each of them summed things up by saying, “Fear Allah
and obey me.”
“Well,” someone might ask, “is obedience
necessarily a bad thing in religion?”
Not if uncompelled by violence, legal discrimination,
government authoritarianism or brain-washing.
“No problem then!” reply Muslim apologists.
“In Quran Chapter
2, Verse 256, Allah said: ‘There is no compulsion in
Well, yes, but in later verses Allah cast deep doubt
on the “no compulsion” revelation.
For example, in the following three verses, Allah commanded that lethal
compulsion is to be used:
9, Verse 5:
Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the
idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them (captive), and besiege
them, and prepare for them each ambush. But if they repent and establish
worship and pay the poor-due, then leave their way free. Lo! Allah is
9, Verse 29:
Fight those who do not believe in Allah, nor in
the latter day, nor do they prohibit what Allah and His Messenger have
prohibited, nor follow the religion of truth, out of those who have been
given the Book [Jews and Christians], until they pay the tax in
acknowledgment of superiority and they are in a state of subjection.
9, Verse 123:
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 (unto Him).
These Chapter 9 verses came much later than Chapter
2, Muslim (and Western) scholars generally agree.
There is also the following verse, which is interpreted by most
Muslim clerics and scholars as indicating that Islam must seek gradually
to suppress other religions and dominate the world:
8, Verse 39:
version: And fight them on until there is no
more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah
altogether and everywhere; but if they cease, verily Allah doth see
all that they do.
version: And fight them until persecution is
no more, and religion is all for Allah. But if they cease, then lo!
Allah is Seer of what they do.
version: And fight with them until there is
no more persecution and religion should be only for Allah; but if
they desist, then surely Allah sees what they do.
Of course Muslim scholars have various ways of
reconciling the contradiction between compulsion and non-compulsion in the
Quran. Often they say that the
later verses of the sword cancel and defeat the earlier tolerant verses
(such as the “no compulsion in religion” verse).
Voila, contradiction resolved.
This idea that a later verse may ‘abrogate’ an earlier one has
divine authority for many Muslim scholars because it is expressed in the
Quran itself (Chapter
2, Verse 106, and Chapter
16, Verse 101). But
sometimes the Muslim scholar, cleric or student isn’t willing to
jettison any verses. After
all, abrogated or not, all the verses are thought by Muslims to be the
verbatim words of God, not just spiritually inspired reports like the
scriptures of Jews and Christians. So
some Muslims try to resolve the contradiction by saying, for example, that
there is no compulsion to become a Muslim, but once one does join
Islam, then compulsion stops one leaving.
Stops one dead, it would seem.
All the main schools of Islamic jurisprudence agree that apostasy
merits capital punishment. But
that supposed ‘reconciliation’ of compulsion and non-compulsion
(‘you can check in any time you like, but you can never leave’)
collapses on contact with a number of Quran verses, such as those from
Chapter 9 cited above that advocate lethal compulsion against non-Muslims,
and Chapter 8, Verse 39 above, which commands Islam to impose itself
In any event the proof is in the pudding as far as
compulsion is concerned: human rights organizations like Freedom
House report that the group of Muslim-majority countries, though they have
made some progress over the last decade, still constitute the most
backward domain in the world in terms of civil liberties and political
are the exceptions that prove the current illiberal rule in the Islamic
In the three different English translations of the
Quran in the USC-MSA database, there are 76 verses in which at least two
of the three translations use the word ‘love’.
Unfortunately, if one seeks an Islamic ‘Reformation,’ one will
not find much help in these 76 ‘love’ verses.
They do not constitute much of a challenge to the compulsion and
violence in Islam. Lonely
among more than 6,100 surrounding verses, the 76 that mention love are not
really focused on love itself at all.
In reading them, it becomes clear their focus is a dual one, not on
love but (1) on the types of behavior Allah ‘loves’ and
‘does not love,’ and (2) on Allah as the one who
‘loves’ and ‘does not love’ certain types of behavior.
In other words these verses are largely about how to avoid
displeasing ‘Allah.’ They are not particularly warm and they
evince little or no awareness of the touchstone spiritual experience of
loving profoundly and being profoundly loved.
In an additional 17 verses one of the three translations uses the word
‘love,’ while the other two use expressions such as ‘like,’
‘befriend,’ ‘find pleasing.’