Beware of the Qur’an’s parantheses

Beware of the Qur’an’s parantheses

I am on this beautiful Malaysian island, which is a popular tourist destination, for something a little less touristy: A talk on whether liberty is an Islamic value. Hosted by the Penang Institute, a think-tank with progressive views, the event gave me the chance to address a diverse audience of academics and laymen from all the colors of Malaysia: Muslim Malays, Chinese, Hindus, Christians and more.

The opening speech given by a successful local politician was nice to hear, because it also emphasized that individual freedom is a value that should be upheld by Muslims. It included the following translation of a key verse in the Qur’an:

“There shall be no compulsion in (acceptance of) religion.” (2:256)

However, the moment I heard this particular translation, which is apparently common in Malaysia and beyond, I nodded with surprise. Because the verse only plainly proclaims, “no compulsion in religion,” whereas the part in parentheses is clearly an add-on.

But why? What is the difference between “no compulsion in religion” and “no compulsion in acceptance of religion”?

There is a huge difference, because while the original verse implies that there should be no coercion within Islam, the edited-via-parentheses version limits this only to the acceptance of Islam. The implication is that once you are a Muslim, you can be coerced at will.

This “editing” was apparently necessary to limit the Qur’an’s proclamation of liberty according to the authoritarian injunctions of the post-Qur’anic jurisprudence, i.e., the shariah. The latter’s key examples would be the execution of apostates from Islam, and religious policing on fellow Muslims. As I explained in my book, “Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty,” none of these dictates have any basis in the Qur’an. This fact, however, makes some Muslims not question those authoritarian injunctions but rather “edit” the meaning of the Qur’an accordingly by adding regulatory parentheses.

There are many other cases of such “editing” of the translation of Islam’s Scripture according to post-Qur’anic, and often bigoted, views. Look at this translation in “The Noble Qur’an,” for example (available online at, of the last verses of the opening chapter, Fatiha:

“Guide us to the Straight Way; the Way of those on whom You have bestowed Your Grace, not (the way) of those who earned Your Anger (such as the Jews), nor of those who went astray (such as the Christians).”

This is a Muslim prayer to God to be not among those “who earned Your Anger, nor of those who went astray.” It simply has no reference to Jews or Christians. But the translator apparently wanted to make sure that Muslims dislike these fellow monotheists and hence used the editing-via-parentheses technique.

By such examples, I am not arguing that the Qur’an should not be interpreted, footnoted or even parenthesized. The uninitiated reader indeed needs such help to understand the context of the divine text. However, putting extra meanings into verses is not tolerable. It is even more intolerable when done at the expense of the liberty and the pluralism that the Qur’an upholds, and for the sake of the authoritarianism and the bigotry that certain Muslims possess.