All verses of violence were issued during times of war, according to the apologists. They accuse critics of engaging in “cherry-picking” (pulling verses out of context to support a position, and ignoring others that may mitigate it) to discredit Islam.
This leaves the impression that the Quran is full of verses of peace, tolerance and universal brotherhood, with only a small handful that say otherwise. The “exceptions” are embedded in context with obvious constraints which bind it to a particular place and time (as is usually the case with violent passages from the Old Testament).
It isn’t the verses of violence that are rare; it’s the ones of peace and tolerance. The latter were also narrated at an earlier time in Muhammad’s life and superseded by what came later. Neither is the “historical context” of these verses of violence all that obvious from the surrounding text in many cases.
The last chapters of the Quran to be narrated by Muhammad are the more violent. Worse, the historical context is that Muslims had total power at the time and were not being persecuted or attacked. In fact, the verses order believers to “be harsh” to both the unbelievers and Muslims who are peaceful or non-practicing (verse 9:73) and to fight Christians and Jews into a state of submission (verse 9:29). All this is based on nothing other than their status as non-Muslims.
These are not the teachings of a religion of peace. Thus, the apologists are forced to play games, such as inventing historical context, pulling “textual context” from an entirely different part of the Quran, or pretending that the true meaning can’t be translated to non-Arabic speakers (or to non-Muslims, when native Arabic speakers agree with the translation, as they usually do).
A perfect book from a perfect god should be easy to understand. In the Quran, constructs and topics are jumbled into a random mess with little consistency or coherent stream of thought. This is underscored by the fact that few Qurans are printed without extensive commentary which often exceeds the size of the original “revelation.”
Although Muslim apologists often mitigate verses of violence with non-intuitive references to passages in other parts of the Quran, not all believers are as determined to force the word of Allah into a separate moral framework. It is unclear why a perfect book from a perfect god would so often leave sensitive topics like killing and child rape open to human interpretation.
Back to historical context. It’s true that references to the external Hadith and early biographies of Muhammad’s life determine when a Quranic verse was narrated and what it may have meant to the Muslims at the time. This allows apologists to opportunistically dismiss the passages they don’t like by insisting that they are really just a part of history and not intended to be present-day imperatives.
But “historical context” cuts both ways. If any verse is a product of history, then they all are. Indeed, there is not a verse in the Quran that was not given at a particular time to address a particular situation in Muhammad’s life, whether he wanted to conquer the tribe next door and needed a “revelation” from Allah spurring his people to war, or if he needed the same type of “revelation” to satisfy a lust for more women (free of complaint from his other wives).
Here is the irony of the “cherry-picking” argument: Those who use “historical context” against their detractors nearly always engage in cherry-picking of their own by choosing which verses they apply “historical context” to and which they prefer to hold above such tactics of mitigation.
Context may be the most popular and disingenuous game that Muslims like to play. Simply put, the apologists appeal to context only when they want it to be there. They ignore context when it proves inconvenient. An example of the latter would be the many times in which verse 2:256 is isolated and offered as proof of religious tolerance (in contradiction to Muhammad’s later imposition of the jizya and the sword).
Islamic purists do not engage in such games. Not only do they know that the verses of Jihad are more numerous and authoritative (abrogating earlier verses), they hold the entire Quran to be the eternal and literal word of Allah… and this is what often makes them so dangerous.