A viral meme has paired old misrepresentations of the Quran with a picture of Rep. Ilhan Omar.
A handful of distorted quotes from the Quran have been circulating on blogs and anti-Islamic websites for years, but their exposure recently surged when they were paired with a picture of Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota in a meme.
It says that the Quran is Omar’s “daily Bible,” but the interpretations of the verses it quotes don’t come from any translation of the Quran we could find. Rather, they appear to have come from a 2005 post on a website called Islam Watch, which explains on its “About Us” page that it was started by six former Muslims. The site says they “felt it incumbent upon us to make the non-Muslim world aware of the reality of Islam, and undertake timely precautionary measures against this religion of terror, hatred and mayhem.”
The interpretations of nine verses from the Quran that the meme includes were made by one of the founders of the site, who describes himself as a freelance writer, not a religious scholar. In total, he had offered 36 reinterpretations of verses from the Quran. Several of them have been repeated in online publications since then, illustrating how misinformation persists for years and spreads online.
The writer, Abul Kasem, did not respond to an email seeking comment.
One of the problems with the meme is that the interpretations it gives lack historical and textual context. Joseph Lowry, an associate professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Pennsylvania, explained to us some of the history that helped to form the Quran and how the meaning of the verses can be distorted out of context. Muhammad, the founder of Islam, was persecuted, at least in part, for his religious message and had to flee his home in Mecca for the nearby town of Medina. There, he and his followers remained in conflict with the Meccans, and those struggles are referenced in the Quran.
Two chapters — called surahs in the Quran — out of a total of 114 discuss most directly this political and military conflict with the Meccans. They are surahs eight and nine, and two-thirds of the verses in the meme come from them.
We went through the nine interpretations that are included in the meme with Lowry and compared them with an online resource from the University of Leeds that draws from some common English translations of the Quran.
Here’s how the meme’s language compares with those sources for each surah and verse it claims to quote:
- The meme said: “Muslims must not take the infidels as friends.”
- Lowry pointed out that it’s only half of the verse, and the Arabic word translated as “friend” is better translated as “tribal allies.”
- The Sahih International translation featured on the University of Leeds website said: “Let not believers take disbelievers as allies rather than believers. And whoever [of you] does that has nothing with Allah, except when taking precaution against them in prudence. And Allah warns you of Himself, and to Allah is the [final] destination.”
- The meme said: “Any religion other than Islam is not acceptable.”
- Lowry said this passage poses a difficult translation problem since the Arabic word for Islam means something like “to submit.” This passage could refer to all monotheistic religions, as opposed to pagan religions. “It’s not clear that this doesn’t include Jews and Christians,” he said.
- The Yusuf Ali translation featured on the University of Leeds website said: “If anyone desires a religion other than Islam (submission to Allah), never will it be accepted of him; and in the Hereafter He will be in the ranks of those who have lost (All spiritual good).”
- The meme said: “Maim and crucify the infidels if they criticize Islam.”
- Lowry said that interpretation is “totally inaccurate.” The verse is understood to address robbery and mayhem and, importantly, the punishment for it applies to Muslims, as well. Also, it does not include the word “infidel” or the word “criticize.”
- The Sahih International translation on the University of Leeds website said: “Indeed, the penalty for those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and strive upon earth [to cause] corruption is none but that they be killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides or that they be exiled from the land. That is for them a disgrace in this world; and for them in the Hereafter is a great punishment.”
- The meme said: “Terrorize and behead those who believe in scriptures other than the Qur’an.”
- Lowry noted that this passage refers to a specific historical battle — the Battle of Badr, in which Muhammad made his first significant victory. In this verse, God is urging the angels, not Muhammad’s followers directly, to help his followers during the fight, he said.
- The Sahih International translation said: “[Remember] when your Lord inspired to the angels, ‘I am with you, so strengthen those who have believed. I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieved, so strike [them] upon the necks and strike from them every fingertip.'”
- The meme said: “Muslims must muster all weapons to terrorize the infidels.”
- Lowry pointed out that this verse calls for military service and aid to Muhammad’s followers. Generally, verses like this one are limited to the specific historical tension in Medina and Mecca at the time, he said.
- The Muhammad Sarwar translation featured on the University of Leeds website said: “Mobilize your (defensive) force as much as you can to frighten the enemies of God and your own enemies. This also will frighten those who are behind them whom you do not know but God knows well. Whatever you spend for the cause of God, He will give you sufficient recompense with due justice.”
- The meme said: “The unbelievers are stupid; urge the Muslims to fight them.”
- Lowry said that there are, clearly, verses that urge Muslims to fight their enemies. But, in this one, he said, “it doesn’t say the unbelievers are stupid.”
- The Arberry translation featured on the University of Leeds website said: “O Prophet, urge on the believers to fight. If there be twenty of you, patient men, they will overcome two hundred; if there be a hundred of you, they will overcome a thousand unbelievers, for they are a people who understand not.”
- The meme said: “When opportunity arises kill the infidels wherever you catch them.”
- Lowry identified this verse as part of a treaty between Mecca and Medina. In its historical context, this verse refers to the Meccan pagans with whom Muhammad’s followers were fighting.
- The Sahih International translation said: “And when the sacred months have passed, then kill the polytheists wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they should repent, establish prayer, and give zakah, let them [go] on their way. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.”
- The meme said: “The Jews and the Christians are perverts; fight them.”
- Lowry said this verse did not call Jews and Christians “perverts.” He said, “It certainly doesn’t say that.” Also, the verse doesn’t have an imperative verb urging Muhammad’s followers to fight. Rather, it has an optative verb, one that expresses a wish; in this case, wishing that God would fight.
- The Sahih International translation said: “The Jews say, ‘Ezra is the son of Allah’; and the Christians say, ‘The Messiah is the son of Allah.’ That is their statement from their mouths; they imitate the saying of those who disbelieved [before them]. May Allah destroy them; how are they deluded?”
- The meme said: “Make war on the infidels living in your neighborhood.”
- Lowry said that this verse is probably best understood as referring to the military situation around Medina.
- The Shakir translation featured on the University of Leeds website said: “O you who believe! fight those of the unbelievers who are near to you and let them find in you hardness; and know that Allah is with those who guard (against evil).”
As with many historic texts, the Quran can be challenging to translate, and reasonable minds can differ about how best to do it. But Lowry concluded that some of the interpretations given in the meme are mistranslated, and all of them are taken out of context. “It’s designed to be inflammatory when presented and translated like this,” he said.
Editor’s note: FactCheck.org is one of several organizations working with Facebook to debunk misinformation shared on the social media network.
Kasem, Abul. “Whither the Islamic Infidels?” Islam-Watch.org. 23 Jun 2005.
Muhammad — Prophet of Islam. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Accessed 14 Mar 2019.
Sahih International. “The Quran: Arabic Text with Corresponding English Meanings.” Abul Qasim Publishing House. Corpus.quran.com. 1997.
Ali, Yusuf. “The Holy Quran: Translation and Commentary.” Reprinted by Islamic Vision. Corpus.quran.com. 2001.
Sarwar, Muhammad. “The Holy Quran: Arabic Text and English Translation.” Elmhurst. Corpus.quran.com. 1981.
Arberry, Arthur John. “The Koran Interpreted: A Translation.” Reprinted by Touchstone. Corpus.quran.com. 1996.
Shakir, M.H. “The Holy Quran Translated.” Tahrike Tarsile Quran. Corpus.quran.com. 1999.
Hossein Nasr, Seyyed. The Study Quran. HarperCollins Publishers. 2017.