There is a long history of missionaries and Orientalists distorting the message of the Quran by design or by accident (more design than accident). As a result, over the years they have misled themselves and countless others. That said, the misrepresentation of the Quran at the hands of the Muslims, motivated no doubt by the best of intentions, has had much more devastating effects than any outside propaganda. Yet another instance of good intentions alone not being good enough!
Misrepresentation from within is much more damaging than any misrepresentation that has its origin outside the system. That is so because it originates with those who claim to love the Quran, most of whom sincerely believe they are doing a service to the cause of Islam. Their children, grandchildren, students, siblings, and friends seldom subject their views to the kind of objective scrutiny they should. This is not to say that the average Muslim is very particular about verifying external propaganda; but when the information (or misinformation, to be more precise) comes from loved ones, the verification is even more lax than usual. Recipients of such impressions today become their sources tomorrow; and the unfortunate cycle continues unabated, generation after generation.
Most Muslims do not bother to consult the Quran to check whether what they have just heard about its contents is true. What makes this astounding is the fact that it would be a rare Muslim house where multiple copies of the Quran (with translations) cannot be found. This failure to check on things causes them to accept ideas that cannot be found anywhere in the Quran. In fact, it is often the case that the Quran could be saying one thing and they would be insisting on something diametrically opposite. A couple of examples would suffice to make the point. The Quran explicitly says that the Prophet (peace be upon him) was never affected by magic. In fact, this is one of the recurring themes of the Quran as a response to the allegations of his opponents who attributed the Quran to the hallucinations of somebody bewitched (May God preserve us!). Yet, many Muslims insist that it is an established fact that the Prophet was bewitched for a while. They would cite elaborate stories about certain Quranic verses that were revealed for the very purpose of eliminating the evil effects of that magic spell – stories that have no foundation in the Quran, of course. Then, the Quran exhorts all men to use their brains and ponder on its verses. Yet, many Muslims insist that it cannot be understood, and that any effort to try and understand it independently of this or that school’s interpretation would cause a man to go astray!
Failing the check on received information frequently manifests itself in another, apparently distinct, form. On the opposite extreme of the spectrum to those who cannot be bothered to look up the Quran, there are those who enthusiastically employ proof-texting to find support for their conclusions in the Quran. But instead of reading what the Quran has to say, they read into it what they were told in infancy at their mother’s knee. The spirit of leaving one’s prejudices and preconceived notions at the door and learning from the Quran what it has to offer as opposed to what one wants it to say is totally alien to them. To make Quranic verses say what he wants them to say, this type of person is apt to quote verses (that have nothing whatsoever to do with his conclusions) after tearing them completely loose from their contexts. If the exercise necessitates performing convoluted feats of logic, and playing havoc with grammar, vocabulary, diction, and rhetoric, so be it. Often the point of the verse is exactly opposite to the conclusion drawn. For instance, a Quranic verse explicitly says that the Prophet (peace be upon him) demands no recompense for conveying God’s message. But the Muslim of this type would cite this very verse and conclude that the Prophet urged his audience to be nice to his family in return for his efforts!
The spirit of leaving one’s prejudices and preconceived notions at the door and learning from the Quran what it has to offer as opposed to what one wants it to say is totally alien to them.