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Grace Eberly

Rethinking Religion: Consider context when reading the Quran or the Bible

When confined to a hand-picked selection of the Quran's verses, one convincingly could argue that Islam promotes those offenses. But what about the Bible?

Last week, Barack Obama made his first presidential visit to a U.S. mosque. Some conservatives have dismissed the visit as politically divisive. Others on the Left say it has come too-little-too-late. Speculate as you wish about Pres. Obama’s political motivations, but his visit effectively prompts us to reflect upon the general state of “American-Islamic relations” — a term that is often used by the media but can be misleading, because, of course, the qualifiers "American" and "Islamic" are not mutually exclusive.

In popular culture, visual representations of Islam mostly are limited to images of veiled women and bearded men with weapons. Don’t believe me? Do a Google Images search. But the history of America’s engagement with Islam — and indeed the whole history of Islam itself — is far more nuanced. According to some estimates, approximately 10 to 15 percent of African slaves practiced Islam. At least two of George Washington’s female slaves were named “Fatimer” (Fatimah, a name shared by the Prophet Muhammad’s youngest daughter). Thomas Jefferson owned an English translation of the Quran and in 1805 hosted an iftar dinner at the White House in honor of a Tunisian ambassador.

Somewhere, somehow, the situation became a whole lot more contentious and the metaphoric dinner parties stopped. Generally, the post-9/11 American public has unfavorable perceptions of Muslims and of Islam. One reader of my column had the following to say about Islam’s supposed endorsement of slavery, polygyny, violence, mistreatment of women and the like: “Any religion or ideology that promotes these acts should rightly be criticized by any upstanding person.” Though my reader did not identify his own religion or ideologies, I can say with the utmost confidence that, in my own experience, the loudest cries against Islam’s atrocities are coming from white evangelical Protestants.  

My reader is right. When confined to a hand-picked selection of the Quran's verses, one convincingly could argue that Islam promotes those offenses. But what about the Bible?

Let me direct you to Leviticus 25:44-46 (NRSV): “As for the male and female slaves who you may have, it is from the nations around you that you may acquire male and female slaves. You may also acquire them from among the aliens residing with you, and from their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property.”

Awkward. But that’s just a decree. There aren’t any stories about people actually owning slaves, right? Wrong: “Now Sarai (Sarah), Abram’s (Abraham’s) wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar, and Sarai said to Abram, ‘You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.’ And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife. He went in to Hagar and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress” (Genesis 16:1-4).

What about violence and religious intolerance? Check out Deuteronomy 13:6-10: “If anyone secretly entices you — even if it is your brother, your father’s son or your mother’s son, or your own son or daughter, or the wife you embrace, or your most intimate friend — saying, 'Let us go worship other gods,' whom neither you nor your ancestors have known, any of the gods of the people that are around you, whether near you or far away from you, from one end of the earth to the other, you must not yield to or heed any such persons. Show them no pity or compassion and do not shield them. But you shall surely kill them; your own hand shall be first against them to execute them, and afterwards the hand of all the people. Stone them to death for trying to turn you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

But that’s just the Old Testament. The New Testament is different. 

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Try again: “Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church” (1 Corinthians 14:34-35). 

But wasn’t that a different time? Aren’t I taking all of those verses out of context and ignoring long and rich histories of theological interpretation? By focusing exclusively on ancient texts aren’t I discounting the innovation and agency of the religion’s many diverse adherents?

Yes, yes and yes — which is exactly my point.

Grace Eberly is a senior studying world religions and biology. Do you think verses from the Quran are often taken out of context? Email her at

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