Does the Quran Really Sanction Violence Against 'Unbelievers'?

The exhortations to fight "idolaters" and "unbelievers" are specific in nature and are not general injunctions for the murder of all those who refuse to accept Islam as their way of life.
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Recently some prominent talk-show hosts, Sean Hannity among them, have been referring to certain verses in the Quran that appear to call for Muslims to kill non-Muslims. These verses have too often been quoted with what appears to be a willful disregard for the context in which they occur, thus inflaming the emotions of listeners, perpetuating grave misunderstandings, and contributing to the potential for violence on all sides.

Though we may not be able to influence those who are hell-bent on hatred, an explanation is owed to all reasonable people who are interested in the truth of the matter and are not looking to create enemies. The vast majority of Muslims deserve to be seen as allies in a common quest for social justice and human dignity -- assuming, of course, that we as Americans have the same goals in mind.

A careful and unbiased study of these and other verses, in their proper context, will reveal that the exhortations to fight "idolaters" and "unbelievers" are specific in nature and are not general injunctions for the murder of all those who refuse to accept Islam as their way of life.

Among the most often cited verses is this one: "Kill the idolaters wherever you find them, and capture them, and blockade them, and watch for them at every lookout..." (Quran 9:5).

According to Islamic belief, the Quran was "revealed" to Muhammad in a process of dialog with the Divine, and some parts of the Quran refer to specific situations, while other parts offer universal spiritual principles. To understand this passage, we must take into account the historical circumstances at the time of its revelation.

The "idolaters" (Arabic: mushrikeen) were those Meccan "pagans" who had declared war against Muhammad and his community. The Meccan oligarchs fought against the Prophet's message from the very beginning. When they realized that the flow of converts to Islam was increasing, they resorted to violent oppression and torture of the Prophet and his followers. The Prophet himself survived several assassination attempts, and it became so dangerous for the Muslims in Mecca that Muhammad sent some of his companions who lacked tribal protection to take asylum in the Christian kingdom of Abyssinia. After 13 years of violence, he himself was compelled to take refuge in the city of Medina, and even then the Meccans did not relent in their hostilities. Eventually, various hostile Arab tribes joined in the fight against the Muslims, culminating in the Battle of the Trench, when 10,000 soldiers from many Arab tribes gathered to wipe out the Muslim community once and for all. As we know, the Muslims survived these challenges and eventually went on to establish a vast civilization.

At the time Verse 9:5 was revealed, Muhammad and his followers had begun to establish themselves securely. They had returned triumphantly to Mecca without violence, most Meccans themselves had become Muslims, and many of the surrounding pagan Arab tribes had also accepted Islam and sent delegations to the Prophet pledging their allegiance to him. Those that did not establish peace with the Muslims were the bitterest of enemies, and it was against these remaining hostile forces that the verse commands the Prophet to fight.

The verses that come immediately before 9:5 state, "Those with whom you have treaties are immune from attack." It further states, "Fulfill your treaties with them to the end of their term, for God loves the conscientious." Now, in its proper context, verse 9:5 can be properly understood.

This was a guidance to the Prophet at that specific time to fight those idolaters who, as 9:4 mentions, violated their treaty obligations and helped others fight against the Muslims. It is not a general command to attack all non-Muslims, and it has never signified this to the overwhelming majority of Muslims throughout history. Had it been so, then every year, after the "sacred months are past," (The "sacred months" are four months out of the year during which fighting is not allowed) history would have witnessed Muslims attacking every non-Muslim in sight. This yearly slaughter never occurred. Though the present verse is only one example, none of the Quranic verses that mention fighting justify aggression nor propose attacking anyone because of their religious beliefs. Nor were forced conversions recognized as valid under Islamic law.

The fundamental Quranic principle is that fighting is allowed only in self-defense, and it is only against those who actively fight against you. Indeed, Islam is a religion that seeks to maximize peace and reconciliation. Yet, Islam is not a pacifist religion; it does accept the premise that, from time to time and as a last resort, arms must be taken up in a just war.

If the enemy inclines toward peace, however, Muslims must follow suit: "But if they stop, God is most forgiving, most merciful" (2:192). Also read: "Now if they incline toward peace, then incline to it, and place your trust in God, for God is the all-hearing, the all-knowing" (8:61).

How then do we explain the early spread of Islam through military conquest? In the two decades following the death of Muhammad, Muslim armies challenged and largely overcame the world's two greatest powers, the Persian and Byzantine empires. Were these conquests truly justifiable according to the Quranic principles outlined above? It is a complex question and not one to be readily answered within the limits of a blog post such as this.

It deserves to be understood, however, that the Muslims fought imperial armies, not civilians, and were forbidden to harm non-combatants or destroy property. Islam guaranteed religious freedom for Christians, Jews, and other minority sects, even while they obliged these "protected" minorities to pay a small tax in exchange for being absolved from military service.

Now 14 centuries have passed, and it needs to be recognized that the Quran does not have an inherent, built-in agenda for aggression or domination. The vast majority of Muslims are content to live and let live. In fact, that is part of their religion. Relations with other religious communities are based on acceptance and encouragement to follow the best of your own religion:

To each community among you has been prescribed a Law and a way of life. If God had so willed He would have made you a single people, but His plan is to test you in what He has given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is to God; it is He that will show you the truth of the matters in which you differ. (5:48)

And Muslims believe that the God of Islam is not other than the God of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus and that the diversity of religions is according to Divine plan: "Truly those who keep the faith, and the Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabaeans -- whoever believes in God and the Last Day and performs virtuous deeds -- surely their reward is with their Lord, and no fear shall come upon them, neither shall they grieve." (2:62)

Perhaps these verses help to explain why in the city of Jerusalem, which has been ruled by Muslims for most of the last 13 centuries, the sacred sites of Jews and Christians have been protected, and those communities themselves have for the most part been able to live in peace together with Muslims. The assertion that Islam or the Quran inherently call for a "war on unbelievers" is sheer fallacy and fantasy. Peace be with you.

Parts of this post first appeared in The BeliefNet Guide to Islam by Kabir Helminski & Hesham Hessaboula. For a more thorough discussion, read "Is Islam a 'Religion of the Sword'?"

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