Before I became an atheist, I had to defend many of its verses of the Qur’an against the protests of my own mind. Defending the Qur’an was like defending a parent for me — it was simply necessary, you didn’t think whether your argument was actually true or not, you just did it. You never even entertained the idea that scripture was wrong, you simply assumed it was right and then went from there.
For example, I was always dismayed at the frequent mentions of Hell, of the graphic depictions of violent torture, of all the imagination that went into them. But even more, I was disappointed at people who were condemned to this mindless violence. Disbelievers, idolaters, people committing small crimes. In my Muslim mind Hell was a special place reserved for the most loathsome of people, like Saddam Hussein (the quintessential symbol of evil among Iranians). I thought it would be impossible that people like Albert Einstein or Nelson Mandela would go to Hell simply because they were not Muslims.
Even the more radical Islamists wouldn’t say all non-Muslims would go to Hell. When I asked my theology teacher — one of the most extreme theocrats — if Einstein was going to go to Hell, he said Heaven had many levels; people like Einstein would go to the lower levels. I thought it was obvious that Hell was for bad people, not for people who disagreed with us.
I should have noticed something was fishy though. Why should piety be the criterion of how high your level would be in Heaven anyway? Why would someone who had revolutionized modern science and had benefited billions of people as a result be less worthy than an aging cleric, spending his days in useless contemplation and prayer, collecting money and passing down an ancient wisdom to his pupils, unaltered, like a river storing sediment over sediment. It was against my rationality, and even the peculiar faith that I used to have.
But the Qur’an was very clear: non-believers go to Hell. They go to Hell for the simple crime of non-belief. I tried to whitewash it. Yes, definitely this refers to the non-believers at the time of Muhammad, and they were certified dicks, not to all non-believers. This was an argument I had learned from my favorite reformist clerics.
But for my Muslim self the greatest trial for was surah al-Nisa. That is the section of the Qur’an which can basically be called a misogynist manifesto. It is in these verses that the omniscient creator of the universe casually suggests to beat your wife when she disobeys you, and sets down all the sexist laws of inheritance and divorce. I whitewashed them too. I told myself that Islam has clearly improved the situation of women in comparison to pre-Islamic society, like banning the live burial of daughters and giving them rights, so these laws are clearly meant only for the society of the Prophet’s time, and we need to look at the spirit of Islam, to improve the condition of women and give them equal rights based on the standards of our own time.
Point being, I was a rational person, but I was coming up with these justifications because I had to. It doesn’t matter how rational your approach or methodology or character is if you start your reasoning from wrong assumptions. Faith had not distorted my thinking, it had simply put some ideas into the “these are assumptions that cannot be questioned” and had forced me to come up with acrobatic rationalizations.
But when I decided to read the Qur’an with a skeptical mind, as someone who has come to judge and not as someone who has come to justify, it was quite obvious that the verses of the Qur’an were disgusting and harmful, that Hell was an abusive and totalitarian idea, and that the Qur’an is truly misogynistic and morally vile. And I stopped following the book, becoming an atheist.
Honestly, I feel like lots of debates about “different interpretations” of the religion that pretend that all different interpretations are equally valid miss out on this basic points — it’s not like the religious mind goes to the scripture seeking truth or a valid interpretation, it goes there seeking justifications to an already decided conclusion.
Note: I have taken parts of this article from a novel that I’m writing, which some day I’ll publish — hopefully.