Quran and violence 2: What the Allah says

January 12, 2015

Rohit Dhankar

(Continued from part 1)

As a reminder, this article is about presence or absence of violence in the Quran, and not at all about the individual Muslims or Muslim society in general. As there are a majority of Hindus and Christians who live their lives guided by their context and times in spite of what is written in Gita (or Manusmriti) and Bible, surely there are majority of Muslims who are products of their times and context in spite of what is written in the Quran. And hopefully their context and times make them all (Muslims, Hindus, Christians, etc.) more like each other in spite of their religious books. Therefore, this article makes no claim about how Muslims as individuals and members of a community think and act. Actually I think that Muslims are exactly like anyone else in a given society. The article is only about what is written in a book, Quran. But I do claims that some extremists get their inspiration from Quran and try to justify their actions on the basis of what is written there in. With this disclaimer, let’s go back to the Book then.

The threats of violence by Allah

The modern day Quran opens[1] “[I]n the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful.” [TuQ] Almost every chapter of the Quran opens with praise of Allah in terms of being compassionate, merciful, all powerful, all knowing, and so on. However, Allah is merciful and compassionate only to those who believe in him. To those who fail to believe he is a dreadful tormentor who visits on them destruction and annihilation in this world, and endless torture in the hereafter. For those who disbelieve the Allah has “a torment Mighty” [TuQ 2:7] in store. In this regard footnote numbered 49 explains: “A just retribution, after, the last judgment, to the finally impenitent. [Arabic word used in Quran] generally signifies any corporal punishment; and, by an extension of the original signification, any implication of pain that disgraces or puts to shame; originally, beating; afterwards used to signify any painful punishment, torture, or torment.”

Verses 2:23 and 2:24 challenge and threaten: “And if you are in doubt [of the Quran being a book given by Allah] concerning what We have sent down upon Our bondman [Muhammad] then bring a chapter like it and call upon your witnesses, besides Allah, if you are truthful. But if you do not, and you cannot, then dread the Fire whose fuel is men and stones, prepared for the disbelievers.” [TuQ]

The meaning of fire, stones and disbelievers is explained clearly in footnotes 103 and 104 of TuQ (footnote 102 also provides the authority of Bible). “These stones, which the polytheists worshipped and of which they carved idols and images, would be placed in the Hell alongside their worshippers to increase their mental agony and torture. Polytheism has almost invariably manifested itself in stone-worshipping, and ‘sacred stones’ are perhaps the commonest type of idols. … The Hell-fire is thus intended, primarily and mainly, for the infidels, the outright rejectors of faith, and not for mere sinners.”

These two are representative examples. One can multiply them hundredfold easily. But these few are enough for the point I want to make. The main enticements for accepting the faith that Allah offers are war-booty and protection in this life; and a life of endless enjoyment hereafter. Since this article is about violence in Quran I am citing no examples for this enticement. What is relevant here are the threats that Allah issues for non-believers, and Quran is replete with them, it is difficult to finish a page without encountering some or other threat. They mainly consist of visiting scourge in this life and burning in the hell in the next. All these threats are excessively violent. Therefore, Allah is merciful and compassionate for those who believe in the message revealed to Muhammad and obey him [obedience to Muhammad is obedience to Allah, and disobedience to Muhammad is disobedience to Allah]. ON the other hand he is very violent to those who do not believe in what Muhammad says and do not obey him.

This is a very important point. Being infidel is such a great sin that subjecting infidels to excessive violence hereafter does not detract from one being ‘merciful’ and ‘compassionate’. You can torture them and still remain infinitely merciful and compassionate, and even just! This may easily imply, and I suspect does imply to extremists, that the men who shoot cartoonists and innocent people can claim to be merciful and compassionate in spite of their violence as it is seen as justified. The violence of the fundamentalist (not all) among the believers springs directly from a violent God that they fear, love, submit to and worship with unwavering faith and single minded devotion. The Allah has no kind word to spare for the non-believers.

Sanction of violence

When one talks of the violence and killing of non-believers two versed are often flung at them as a supposed to be irrefutable argument that Quran sanctions religious freedom and forbids killing. We must first deal with these verses, then take up a few more examples.

Regarding the religious freedom the often cited words are “your religion to you and mine to me”. Let’s look at the Sura 109 (chapter 109) where these words are found. This is a very short chapter with very short six verses. This is how TuQ translates it: “Say thou: Infidels, I worship not what you worship! Nor are you the worshippers of what I worship, and I shall not be a worshipper of what you have worshiped. Nor will you be the worshipper of what I worship! Your requital shall be yours, and my requital shall be mine.”

To understand the full import of the sura we should also examine the footnotes. TuQ explains the context of the sura in footnote 571, this is how it goes: Some of the leading pagans of Makka had proposed to the Prophet a compromise between Islam and the ancient faith such as they conceived it, whereby he would concede to their gods an honourable place. This chapter indignantly repudiates all such suggestions. And, It (this surah) breathes a spirit of uncompromising hostility to idolatry. [Emphases added]

So this is an indignant repudiation of a compromise proposal and expresses “a spirit of uncompromising hostility”, while the last verse is often touted as allowing freedom of religion and tolerance. This is a command from the Allah to Muhammad to say this to the infidels. And the contempt for infidelity is included in the very address to the delegation. The often quoted last verse is “Your requital shall be yours, and my requital shall be mine”. Requital means “a justly deserved penalty”. If one remembers that the penalty for infidels is burning in the hell for eternity, then it is more like a warning (threat from Allah) than acceptance of peaceful coexistence.

This, however, is the harshest translation of the verse. I looked at about 6-7 other translations. This is the only one that uses the word ‘requital’; other use words like ‘way’ and ‘religion’. However, the context makes a few things clear. 1. There has been a dispute over believers criticising the gods of ‘infidels’. 2. The infidels come forward with a compromise proposal. 3. Muhammad addresses them (on Allah’s command) “O Infidels”. 4. Repudiates their proposal. 5. Accepts a mutually uneasy truce (till when?) in which a thinly veiled threat of Allah’s retribution is also included. Does not sound like breathing a spirit of tolerance at all?

 A small but significant point to be noted in this regard is also that this chapter is supposed to be revealed in Makka. The verses supposed to be revealed in Makka are noticeably softer to polytheists and idolater in comparison to those supposed to be revealed in Madinah. We will return to this point later on in the article.

The second often quoted verse is “killing a single human being is like killing the whole humanity”. This also needs an examination. The verse is 5:32 or 5:33 depending on translation. This is how the TuQ translates it: “Because of that We prescribed to the Children of Israel who so kills a person, except for a person, or for corruption in the land, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind, and whoso brings life to one it shall be as if he had brought life to all mankind. And assuredly there came to them Our messengers with evidences, yet even after that many of them are acting in the land extravagantly.”

The reference “because of that” is to killing of Abel by Cain. Moses is commanded by Allah to relate the story of two sons of Adam to Israelites. The verse 5:32 comes at the end of the story. In most of the defensive quotations the conditional phrase “except for a person, or for corruption in the land” is omitted. The verse in its original form is not a blanket injunction on killing; as one can kill a murderer and those who spread corruption in the land. Some other translations use the phrase “spread mischief in the land”. The Arabic term seems to be “fasadin” which is translated sometimes as “spread corruption” and sometimes as “spread mischief”. In many verses ‘dilatory’, ‘polytheism’ and ‘talking against Islam’ are termed as “mischief”. One needs to note that a believer can still kill for ‘mischief’, and talking against the Islam and Muhammad is defined as ‘mischief’.

NQ in connection with verse 5:32 gives a Hadith on authority of Sahih Al-Bukhari which lists the biggest sins. “Narrated Anas bin Malik: The Prophet said, “The biggest of Al-Kaba’ir (the great sins) are: (1) To join others as partners in worship with Allah, (2) to murder a human being, (3) to be undutiful to one’s parents (4) and to make a false statement” or said, “to give a false witness.” (Sahih AI-BukhfJri, Vol.9, Hadith No.10). The first among the biggest sins is polytheism. Quran calls idolatry, we will see presently, as a big sin as well. And giving false witness can easily include a statement like “Quran is not a book from Allah”.

Now if one looks at the verse 5:32 with its conditional phrase “in retaliation for murder, or (and) to spread mischief in the land” [NQ] and interprets ‘mischief’ as ‘polytheism’ and/or ‘idolatry’, one can kill without violating the Allah’s command. Therefore, this verse actually is misquoted, and is no injunction against killing polytheists and idolaters, particularly those who question the divine origin of Quran and prophet-hood of Muhammad.

The very next verse (5:33) commands “[T]he recompense of those who wage war against Allah and His messenger, and go about in the land making mischief is only that they shall be slain or crucified or their hands and their feet be cut off on the opposite sides or be banished from the land. Such shall be their humiliation in this world, and in the Hereafter theirs shall be a torment mighty”. [TuQ] A wide choice indeed!

So far we have been examining if the Quran gives freedom of religion and whether it condemns killing. The above quoted verse brings us to sanction of violence. Killing and various kinds of violence is clearly recommended against those who “wage war against Allah and His messenger, and go about in the land making mischief.” Mischief, as we have seen above, includes polytheism. Therefore, it recommends violence against polytheists. We will try to understand what waging war against Allah and His messenger means and how the Quran wants idolaters to be treated. (To be continued tomorrow.)


[1] In chronological order these verses were not revealed the first, they come at number five.

Quran and violence 1: Statement of problem

January 11, 2015

Rohit Dhankar

(This post is first part of a long four part article.)

There are repeated violent protests and attacks in the name of Quran and Muhammad. The Charlie Hebdo killing is just the most recent, neither the first not the last. Each time there are such attacks they are condemned by notable people from within Islam as well as outside. They are also supported by what is often called a small lunatic fringe; no one know the smallness or bigness of the fringe for sure, lunacy, however, seems to be obvious. Those who condemn the attacks often make an additional point: Quran does not sanction violence, it preaches peace. The people who condemn the attacks from within Islam mostly base their argument on this premise. And therein lies the problem.

The sincerity, wisdom, goodwill, progressivism and humanity of the people who condemn the violent attacks is beyond question. Let’s call this set of people ‘pacifists’. The pacifists, then, genuinely want these attacks to stop. However, their claims and psychology are totally wrong. Their argument is based on two assumptions: (i) The attackers believe in Quran and want to force the world to accepts its precepts. And (ii) They misunderstand Quran as recommending violence to silence dissent. This two assumption statement, obviously, does not capture the whole socio-political set of beliefs which prompts such attacks. But only articulates the religious basis of the argument. Let’s take the first assumption, that attackers believe in Quran, either to be correct as it is, or that the perpetrators of violence in the name of Quran are caught in a hypocritical mindset where professing belief in Quran and acting it out has become a socio-political necessity for them. In such a case the force of the pacifists’ argument depends on the acceptance of the truth of their second assumption; that Quran does not sanction violence to silence dissent. This assumption, however, is demonstrably false. And if the perpetrator of violence in the name of Quran see this falsehood, which is easy to see, then the pacifist argument cuts no ice with them. Neither does this with the silent majority among the believers in Quran. Therefore, the violent feel justified in their mindset and also maintain their support—whatever its size—within the community of believers.

The pacifists’ desire and valiant efforts to exorcise Quran of violence through reinterpretation is self-defeating; as in basing their argument on the Quran they reinforce its authority, they are trying to undermine religious bigotry through reinforcing the authority of religion. In this context it becomes important to examine whether Quran sanctions violence to silence dissent or not.

The approach

To approach this question properly in modern times and in an impartial manner one has to first take a position of suspended belief, neither of belief, nor non-belief, nor of doubt. Just an attitude of attempt to understand. Second one has to rely on one’s own lights; taking a theological position of either a believing scholar or a critical scholar would demand submission of one’s own reason to their percepts. One has to search for indications in the Quran itself, if there are any, to understand it, if there are any recommendations regarding how it should be interpreted.

Quran itself gives guidance as to how it should be understood in Sura 3. The verse number differs in different translations, I am using “Tafsir-ul-Quran” [TuQ, for short] and “The Noble Quran”[1] [NQ, for short] in both of which it happens to be verse 3:7. Since nonbelievers writing on Quran are often declared to be quoting out of context, therefore, I am giving the context as well as the verse in the full. The verse 3:7, then, is translated in TuQ as: He it is Who has sent down to thee the Book in which some verses are firmly constructed[2]—they are the essence of the Book; and others consimilar[3]—But those in whose hearts is a deviation follow only what is consimilar therein, seeking dissension and seeking to misinterpret the same whereas none knows their interpretation save Ailah. And the firmly grounded in knowledge say, “we believe in it, it is all from our lord”; and none receives admonition save men of understanding.[4]

The meaning of the verse is quite clear. 1. There are some verses in the Quran which are entirely clear and do not need any interpretation. 2. There are some others which are somewhat ambiguous, and need interpretation. 3. The ones which are entirely clear are the real backbone of the book are central to its meaning. 4. The verses which are not so clear need to be interpreted in the light and in consistency with the ones which are clear. 5. Those who want to deviate and do not have faith firm enough emphasize the verses which are not so clear and bring in their desired interpretation in them. 6. Those who want to bring in their own interpretation are to be admonished. 7. As no one knows the true meaning of these verses save Allah.

If the matter is still unclear NQ tells which ones are to be taken literally and not to be metaphorically interpreted, “those are the Verses of Al-Ahkâm (commandments, etc.), Al-Farâ’id (obligatory duties) and Al-Hudud (legal laws for the punishment of thieves, adulterers, etc.)” We should remember that the commandments and obligatory duties are defined in ‘unambiguous’ terms.

The TuQ emphasises in regard to these verses that “here it signifies the fundamental part of the Book, its essence, comprising its principal tenets and central doctrines in consonance with which other passages, less dear and less definite, are to be interpreted”. [Footnote 232]. The TuQ also helpfully explains the meaning of “men of understanding” at the end of the verse as “those who exercise their commonsense. Reason also commends this course of interpreting the equivocal in the light of the unequivocal.”

This makes the matter entirely clear. The verses that are to do with duties, obligations, legal rights are to be taken as they are, without trying to deviate by application of your common sense. The Allah has defined them very clearly. This is the approach then we will take in this attempt to understand violence in Quran.
(to be continued tomorrow)


[1] TAFSIR -UL- QURAN, (1991) Translation and Commentary of the Holy Qur’an By MAULANA ABDUL MAJID DARYABADI, Published by DARUL – ISHAAT URDU BAZAR, KARACHI. And THE NOBLE, Translation of the meanings in the English Language by Dr. Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din AI-Hilali, Formerly Professor of Islamic Faith and Teachings Islamic University, AI-Madinah AI-Munawwarah, and Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan, Formerly Director, University Hospital, Islamic University, AI-Madinah AI-Munawwarah. KING FAHD COMPLEX FOR THE PRINTING OF THE HOLY QUR’AN, Madinah.

[2] NQ “entirely clear”

[3] NQ “not entirely clear”

[4] There is variation in translation of the highlighter part. Some translate it as ‘only those with wisdom understand/head’. Others as ‘only those with understanding mind’. NQ and TuQ roughly as only those who use their understanding are to be admonished. I am taking the later meaning, as this fits with the earlier translation better.