“You shall destroy all the peoples … showing them no pity.” (7: 16)
“… All the people present there shall serve you as forced labour.” (20:12)
“… You shall put all its males to the sword. You may, however, take as your booty the women, the children, the livestock, and everything in the town — all its spoil — and enjoy the use of the spoil of your enemy which the LORD your God gives you.” (20:14-15)
“… You shall not let a soul remain alive.” (20:17)
All these quotations are from the part of the Old Testament called the Torah (Deuteronomy), a scripture that is holy to both Jews and Christians.
But very few people would sanely suggest that the Torah sanctions violence. The reason of course is that these verses and others much like them are subject to various interpretation and contextual assumptions.
So why there is a wide perception that the Qur’an sanctions violence?
This is an important question which must be addressed all the more urgently in light of a recently released Al-Jazeerah TV documentary in which the al-Qaeda leadership claims apparent Quranic justification for the events of September 11, 2001. Al-Jazeerah makes reference to a 120-page document written by Ramzi Binalshibah, who was recently arrested in Pakistan, justifying the 9/11 attacks under Islamic law.
Like the Torah, the Qur’an contains a number of verse references which address states of war. And also like the Torah and the wider Old Testament canon, those Quranic verses have been taken out of context and subjected to tragic misinterpretation and misrepresentation.
They have been intentionally misused by some Muslims and non-Muslims alike to advance wholly political agendas, with total disregard for accompanying teachings that overwhelmingly condemn self-aggrandizing militarism and offensive war-mongering.
The Qur’an repeatedly emphasizes that defensive war — fighting to protect oneself against invading enemies — is the only kind of combat sanctioned (2:190 – 191). In numerous other examples, it teaches that the use of force should be a last resort (2:192, 4:90); that normal relations between peoples, nations and states, whether Muslim or not, should be peaceful (49:13); that necessary wars must be limited in time and space (2:190); that maximum effort must be applied at all times to advance the cause of peace (10:25); that whatever means are undertaken to work for peace during a conflict (such as mediation and arbitration) must be attempted over and over again until resolution is achieved (8:61); that freedom of religion must be granted to every one (2:256), and so on.
As with any Holy Book, every verse of the Qur’an must be read and interpreted within its own context and against the background of the Qur’an as a whole.
For example, those Quranic verses which condone Muslims fighting non-Muslims (9:5, 29 and 36), are not directed against the non-Muslims for being outside the faith, but because those non-Muslims were aggressors and/or transgressors. But if taken alone, and interpreted in isolation, such verses could lead one to believe that the Qur’an advocates war-like relations between Muslims and non-Muslims until the latter surrender or convert. So widespread are such de-contextualized assumptions that one Qur’an verse (9:5) was mislabelled “the Sword Verse.”
When viewed against more than 100 other parallel Quranic verses, such extreme interpretations of these verses invalidate their own logic. For example, one of the most fundamental Quranic teachings is, “There shall be no coercion in matters of faith” (2:256), which lays down categorically that any attempt at the forcible conversion of unbelievers is prohibited and condemned. This precludes any legitimate possibility of true Muslims demanding or expecting that a defeated enemy should embrace Islam as the price for immunity or mercy.
Thus, the dangerously extremist interpretation that a state of war is normal between Muslims and non-Muslims is an exaggerated exception, expressed by a very small minority of scholars, among them the Egyptian Sayied Qutb, in his book of Quranic interpretation entitled, “Fe-zelal-al-Qur’an”. In actual fact, his views were at odds with the prevailing opinions of his peers, including Abdo, Rida, Al-Gazali, Draaz, Khallaf, Shaltout, Al-Khoudry, and many other respected scriptural authorities.
Great damage to Quranic understanding was done, however, by the western Orientalist, Bernard Lewis, who consulted only Qutb’s interpretations in his book, The Political Language of Islam, where he wrote that, “According to the jurists, the natural and permanent relationship between the world of Islam and the world of the unbelievers was one of open or latent war, and there could, therefore, be no peace and no treaty. Truces and temporary agreements were, however, possible, and for these the jurists found precedent even in the Qur’an.”
Both the Qutb and Lewis interpretations are dangerous in their narrow focus and selectivity, not only for Muslims today, but for world peace at any time.
Ibn Taymia responded categorically (and similarly to the majority of scholars — including Imam Malik, Ahmed, and Abo Hanifa) that, “It is because they are transgressors, not because they are non-Muslims.” He also added that only a small minority of interpreters, such as Imam Al Shafee, insisted on viewing war as acceptable for the sole reason that one’s opponents are non-Muslims. Ibn Taymia agreed with the interpretation of the majority because he believed it was right in the light of the whole Qur’an.
Today, those who assert that the Qur’an advocates war against non-Muslims are also notoriously selective. Take for example the use of 4:74, which states that those who fight in the cause of God will be rewarded. And the quote often conveniently stops there. But the following verse (4:75) explains that Muslims are only allowed to fight those oppressors who directly attack them, especially those who oppressing the most vulnerable among them; old men, women, and children.
For the last 1400 years, Muslims and their religious scholars have dealt — and are still dealing — with the important question of how much of the Qur’an is binding on Muslims at all times and how much of its teachings apply only to the age of the Prophet Muhammad and the particular circumstances in which he and his followers lived. This is a continually difficult question, but one on which impressive scholarly work has been done; more yet is needed.
But the fairest approach, and the most consistent with Quranic teaching, is to understand that the Qur’an shows respect toward, acceptance of, and enlightened tolerance to people of different faiths, all the while inviting them to engage in dialogue in the search for truth.
Muslims learn from the Qur’an that God’s objective in creating the human race with different communities, religions, ethnicity, etc. was that they should relate to each other peacefully amid this diversity (49:13).
They also learn that war is hateful (2:216); that it is a blessing to transform fear into a sense of safety (24:55); that Paradise, not this earthly life alone, is the perfect and absolute Land of Peace (6:127); and that the cause of peace is encouraged throughout the Qur’an, through working for the elimination of poverty, social injustice, oppression, greed, over-consumption and similar excesses.
Even more importantly, the Qur’an states that it is God’s will for peoples on this earth to remain different (11:118), including that they will follow different religions and God tells the Prophet Muhammad that most people will not believe, “even if you are eager that they should.” (12:103)
At the time of the Prophet and for more than ten years in Makkah, Muslims were persecuted by their neighbours, yet he instructed them through God’s words to restrain themselves (4:77) and endure hard times with patience and fortitude. (2:109)
After the Muslims were forced out of their homes in Mecca, those who remained behind were subjected to even more abuse. At that time, God gave them permission to fight back in self-defense and to safeguard their freedom of religion and worship. But it was made clear that fighting back was granted because Muslims were victims of aggression.
The Qur’an also stresses that permission to fight back for reasons of self-defense and religious freedom is legitimate even if one’s place of worship is other than a mosque “.. monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques, in which the name of God is much mentioned” (22:39-41).
Another key verse clearly defines who is to be fought: “Fight in the way of God those who fight against you, but do not transgress. God does not love the transgressor.” (2:190)
And note that “those who fight against you” means actual soldiers — uninvolved civilians are protected. The Prophet and his successors, whenever they sent out an army, gave soldiers clear instructions not to attack civilians — women, children, the elderly, religious people engaged in worship — nor to destroy the enemy’s property, crops or animals. And according to strict ethical proportions and discernment, only combatants are to be fought, and no more harm should be caused to them than they have caused. (2:194)
Thus wars and weapons of mass destruction that destroy civilians and their homes are categorically ruled out by the Qur’an.
The prohibition against war is repeatedly reinforced by corollary teachings, such as, “Do not transgress; God does not love the transgressor,” in which the term “transgress” has been interpreted by Quranic exegetical scholars as meaning, “the initiation of fighting, fighting those with whom a treaty has been concluded, ambushing the enemy without first inviting them to make peace, destroying crops, or killing those who should be protected.” (from Baydawi’s commentary on 2:190).
As one can conclude from the examples given previously, the Qur’an’s teaching directives and orders for right conduct are always couched in restraining language, with much repetition of commandments such as, “do not transgress” followed by warnings of God’s imminent displeasure with those who ignore Him, or promises of approval toward those who obey, such as, “He loves those who are conscious of Him.” From the outset, such instructions are given to people who are expected to live daily with the intention of acting “in the way of God.”
Linguistically we notice that the verses in this passage always restrict actions in a legalistic way, which appeals strongly to a Muslim’s conscience and sense of duty. In one passage of only six verses (2:190-5), for example, there are four prohibitions (“do not” phrases), and six restrictions that include two each of the phrases “until,” “if,” and “who attack you.” The same brief passage also contains a series of cautionary advisements using the phrases “in the way of God,” “be conscious of Him,” “with those who do good deeds,” and “God is forgiving, the All-Merciful.”
Overall, it can be seen that when taken in a thoughtfully interpreted context, the Qur’an regularly gives reasons and justifications for any action it demands, not only in treating the problematic issues of war, but with numerous other themes of life and right-living.
However, the definitive interpretation of the Qur’an, or any other holy writings, still remains a complex human challenge — one that is historically vulnerable to extremism, sometimes with fatal results. Thus it is all the more vital that people of faith should speak out against extremism from within, using the word of God in the context and wholeness with which it was revealed.
Prof. Mohamed Elmasry is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Waterloo and national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.