There has to be an honest and faithful understanding of the Qur’an.
One of the fundamental assumptions driving the current demonization of Islam and Muslims in the West is the idea that acts of wanton violence undertaken by isolated Muslim individuals, or the brutal excesses of some Muslim states or political groups, are inseparable from the religion itself. This argument posits that excesses or abuses committed in the name of Islam logically flow from the normative teachings of the religion. Hence, they argue, since every practicing Muslim is committed to those teachings every practicing Muslim is a latent barbarian.
A related argument is that peace with Muslims is impossible because jihad, which is incorrectly emphasised as ‘armed struggle,’ is the only basis for relations between Muslims and other communities. A person making this argument is likely to add that Muslims have been ordered to, “Slay the idolaters wherever you find them.” He might then conclude by asking, “How could a religion with such teachings ever encourage amicable relations and basic human decency in dealing with other communities?”
Unfortunately, many of the parties arguing that the Qur’an urges unrestrained, unrelenting violence ignore those verses that undermine their arguments. By so doing, they are distorting both the Qur’anic message and the logic of Muslim history.
The message of the Qur’an is distorted in that, while there are verses that seemingly call for harsh measures against certain parties, those verses cannot be divorced from their wider context. For example, both prophetic hadith and exegetical writings emphasise that the command to “slay the idolaters wherever you find them” refers to a small group of antagonistic idolaters in the Arabian Peninsula during the Prophet’s lifetime. To extrapolate from this verse the idea that Muslims are waiting to go on a collective, religiously sanctioned killing spree is insanity.
Muslim history is distorted because the arguments that present all Muslims as inherently violent dismiss the reality of the tolerant, culturally diverse societies that have characterised much of Muslim history. Places as far-flung as Cordova, Baghdad, Cairo, Sarajevo, Istanbul and others became symbols of tolerance and diversity. Christians, Jews and other minority populations have not only survived, but in many instances thrived under Muslim rule.
Furthermore, for every verse in the Qur’an that apparently encourages a harsh stance towards members of other faith communities – in contextualised circumstances – there are many others urging restraint, tolerance and respect. To illustrate this point, we will examine three verses from the Qur’an. One emphasises the importance of good relations with individual members of other communities. The second emphasises the primacy of pursuing peace, even in the midst of war. The third verse shows that there is no systematic imperative for Muslims to feel enmity towards Jews and Christians, contrary to what some people allege.
Before examining these verses, we acknowledge that contemporary political reality, including the acceptance of the system of nation-states and international law by all Muslim nations, calls for a reformulation of classical Muslim political theory. However, one of the sad aspects of contemporary political discourse is that many people who are antagonistic towards Islam argue from pre-modern Muslim legal references. Hence, it is incumbent upon us to respond from those sources.
The first verse states, “God does not forbid you, concerning those who have not fought you because of your religion or driven you from your homes that you treat them kindly and justly. God loves those who are just.” (60:8) Imam Qurtubi mentions, while explaining this verse, that most of the exegetes consider it to be still operative and reject the idea, posited by some, that it is abrogated.
The many scholars who consider the verse still operative cite as the basis for their position the story of Asma, the daughter of Abu Bakr, when she was visited by her mother, who remained committed to idolatry. She hesitated to accept the gift her mother brought her and refused to allow her into her home. Upon learning of the situation, the Prophet encouraged her to accept her mother’s gift, to host her and to treat her with the utmost kindness. The Prophet was emphasising that basic human decency trumps any considerations related to cast or creed.
Imam Tabari, the Dean of Sunni exegetes, is much more emphatic than Qurtubi in his rejection of the idea that this verse is abrogated. He states, after mentioning the various interpretations of the verse in question, “The most accurate opinion concerning this issue is that of one who says, the people addressed by the verse, “God does not forbid you, concerning those who have not fought you because of your religion…” are members of all ways of life and all religions, that you are kind to them, join relations with them and treat them justly. This is because God, Mighty and Majestic, makes a general statement that includes anyone who fits this description. He does not designate some people to the exclusion of others. The claim that the verse is abrogated is meaningless.”
The importance of this verse is that it is the foundation of one of the pivotal principles of Islam: the decent and equitable treatment of individual members of other faith communities. This is a principle cherished by Muslims and it has defined the ability of Muslims to live in peace and harmony with others throughout the long history of Islam. As Muslims, it is our collective responsibility to make sure this principle remains alive, not only in our community, but in the world at large.
The second verse is, “If they [your enemies] incline towards peace then you should likewise incline and place your trust in God. Surely, He hears and knows all.” (8:61) This verse is particularly important because it undermines the arguments of those who claim there is no Islamic basis for peaceful relations between Muslims and other communities at a strategic level.
Again, the vast majority of exegetes consider this latter verse to be operative. Imam Qurtubi, after mentioning the arguments of those who say that this verse is abrogated, engages in a lengthy discussion of his opinion that it is not. Amongst the reasons he gives as the basis for accepting or initiating a treaty of peace with other communities is that it secures benefit for the Muslims. He also mentions an opinion from Imam Malik that the period of any treaty of peace can be indefinite.
Even in its pre-modern formulation, Islamic law emphasises that it is imperative to seek peace, even in the midst of a conflict. This imperative is so great that even if a Commander believes that his adversaries are only offering a ceasefire to regroup or resupply, he must accept that offer.
The third verse is used by some to argue that Islam aims to humiliate Jews and Christians. This verse states, “Fight against the People of the Book [Jews and Christians] who do not believe in God or the Last Day, those who forbid not what God and His Messenger have forbidden and those who do not accept the Religion of Truth until they pay the tribute out of hand with all due humility.” (9:29)
Muslims and others who seek to use this verse to substantiate such a reading are not engaging in a full analysis of the verse, especially the term that is sometimes translated as “utterly subdued,” which I have translated as “with all due humility”. Imam at-Tabari mentions that some of the scholars are of the opinion that this term means he [the Jew or Christian] pays it [the tribute] standing while the recipient is seated. It should be noted that the tribute mentioned here is only levied on able-bodied adult males in lieu of military service. Such ‘humiliation’ does not govern how that person is treated in the public square.
For example, the scholars agree that anything that would be deemed offensive to a Muslim is forbidden to be visited upon a Jew or Christian. Anything that would demean, belittle, or oppress members of other communities is strictly forbidden. This prohibition emanates from the prophetic tradition, “As for one who oppresses a non-Muslim [in a Muslim land], belittles or burdens him above his capability or takes anything from him against his will, I will be his disputant on the Day of Resurrection.” It is even forbidden to address him with derogatory terms such terms as “nonbeliever.”
Like all other scriptures, it is easy to take a Qur’anic verse out of context and distort its meaning to fit an ideologically defined agenda. However, such an approach not only results in semantic violence towards the text, its can become the basis of physical violence against innocent adherents of a particular religion.
The time has come for members of all faith communities to begin a push towards a higher ground that leads to a common ground. The hard work of fostering understanding will require honest and enlightened scholarship and leadership, coupled with a deep quest for truth, peace and justice. If we stop short of that, we are only cheating ourselves and jeopardising our collective security.