Quran and violence 5: Two views from the same book

January 24, 2015

Rohit Dhankar

(Continued from part 4. This post is rather long for a blog. But I want to conclude it now.)

In this concluding part I will begin with looking at two articles, one of them written by a very well-known and rightly respected scholar of Islam Maulana Wahiduddin Khan and the other by some Dr. Jawwad Ahmed Khan from Jeddah who runs a blog called “Fundamentalist: How can the Ummah survive when its Prophet is cursed!”. [https://funadamentalist.wordpress.com/2010/11/23/blasphemy-reason-behind-aggressive-persuasion-and-islamic-perspective/]

The choice is deliberate to underline the tension between the liberal Muslims scholars and the fundamentalists.

Maulana Wahiduddin Khan’s article

The Maulana wrote the article under consideration in The Times of India on 2nd October 2012, titled “Blasphemy in Islam: The Quran does not prescribe punishment for abusing the Prophet”. He argues in this article that “[I]n Islam, blasphemy is a subject of intellectual discussion rather than a subject of physical punishment. This concept is very clear in the Quran.”

The Maulana quotes several verses from the Quran to prove his point. He admonishes Muslims for setting up “media-watch” offices and the attitude to “hunt for anyone involved in acts of defamation of the Prophet, and then plan for their killing, whatever the cost.” He further argues that this attitude goes against the freedom granted by the God (to test people) and the modern secularism; and Muslims should desist from this.

Dr. Jawwad Ahmed Khan

Dr. Khan argues for the exact opposite in his blog article “Blasphemy: Reason behind aggressive persuasion and Islamic perspective”. Why this blog article of an individual is interesting is that he also quotes verses after verses and in addition strengthens his argument on the authority of Islamic scholars.

Dr. Khan quotes four great Imams of Islam one by one, and on the further authority of Muhammad bin Sahnun comes to the conclusion that “There is consensus (ijma) amongst ulama that anyone who insults the Prophet (Peace be upon him) and finds his defects then such a person is “KAFIR” and there is promise of Allah’s torment upon such a person and in sight of Ummah the ruling regarding him is to “KILL HIM” rather whosoever doubts in Kufr of such a person then he/she commits kufr himself. The research in this matter is that anyone who abuses the Prophet (Peace be upon him) is Kafir and he is to be killed unanimously, this is “MADHAB OF ALL 4 IMAMS” Ishaq bin Rahwiyah and others have mentioned this Ijma. If the abuser happens to be a Dhimmi (non Muslim living in Muslim land) then according to Imam Malik (rah) and people of Madina he is to be killed as well.”

“The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) sometimes chose to forgive those who had insulted him, and sometimes he ordered that they should be executed, if that served a greater purpose. But now his forgiveness is impossible because he is dead, so the execution of the one who insults him remains the right of Allaah, His Messenger and the believers, and the one who deserves to be executed cannot be let off, so the punishment must be carried out”.
How is it possible to come to opposing conclusions while taking the same text as authority?

These opposite conclusions are puzzling to say the least. One can dismiss Dr. Khan’s interpretation as an unknown fundamentalist. But seems it will not do. As great Islamic scholars like the famous Ayatollah Khomeini came to the same conclusion in the case of Satanic Verses of Rushdie. And also Dr. Khan quotes great Islamic scholars.

One answer (among perhaps many others) can be found if one looks at the verses quoted by Maulana Khan and Dr. Khan respectively. Maulana Khan quotes verses 36:30, 40:24, 15:6, 16:101, 7:66 and 6:108. Interestingly all these verses are from the Makkan period after the revelations started. Muhammad at this time was behaving as a preacher and trying to convert the Makkan people. As far as blasphemy is concerned he routinely called their gods as false gods in these verses, who are just fabricated and have no authority. Obviously the believers were less in numbers and relatively weak in all kinds of power. The mission was to convert more from the Makkan population.

However, even at this time what Maulana Khan claims regarding blasphemy (that it was an issue of intellectual discussion) does not seem to be established. Most of these verses tell the believers stories about the prophets in the past who were reviled as liars, fabricators, etc. and several among them claim that these people who insulted the prophets were destroyed by the Allah. Maulana’a own translation of verse 36:30 makes this point clear if read with verses 36:29 and 36:31; that is, immediately before and after the quoted verse. The translation is “29 it was but one great blast and they fell down lifeless. 30 Alas for human beings! They ridicule every messenger that comes to them. 31 Do they not see how many generations We have destroyed before them? Never shall they return to them.” This hardly constitutes an intellection argument.

The points I am making are: 1. All the verses Maulana quotes are from the Makkan period of preaching. 2. They do not ask the believers to take any action against the blasphemers but issue threats directly from the Allah.

This issue becomes more curious when one notes the verses quoted by Dr. Khan. The verses quoted by Dr. Khan in support of killing the blasphemers are: 49:2, 24:63, 5:33, 9:65-66, 33:57 and 33:61. All these verses are from the Madina period.

In between the acrimony between the believers and polytheists intensified, Muhammad lost hope of converting them, and had to migrate to Madina. In Madina the believers came in power, formed a state, started plans for making the state an undisputed power in Arabia and making the Allah’s proclamation of He being the only God and Muhammad being the last prophet universal. Thus the religious movement turned into a political ideology and the prophet turned into a ruler. This was not use of religion for political gains; it was simply the metamorphosis of the religion itself into an empire building political ideology. There remained no religion outside the ideology and the ideology was based on the faith. They were the two sides of the same coin. And the coin was to have purchase for unmitigated power.

In this new situation blasphemy against the God and the prophet Muhammad could not be tolerated. However, one finds blasphemous verses against earlier prophets here and there, which may be quoted as examples of tolerance; but they are not about Muhammad, the seal of prophet-hood.

I looked at about a dozen articles on both sides of the divide; those who argue for a more tolerant attitude to blasphemy and those who argue killing blasphemers without fail. Largely the pattern of quoting verses from earlier Makkan period by the first and quoting verses from the Madina period by the second holds.

It seems the believers are trying to settle the issue on the authority of the Quran. The liberals among them are choosing the earlier revelations and the fundamentalists are choosing the later ones. [This requires more study, should be considered only an initial tentative hypothesis.]



The argument that Quran does not sanction violence against non-believers and those who are seen as enemies of Islam is not sustainable. The violence emanates from the Quran’s God himself. He is a violent God. Those who disobey him are killed and destroyed in this world and burnt in the hell fire hereafter. But then as far as hereafter is concerned many of the Gods love to burn people in the hell fire and cut them to pieces again and again, be they Hindu or Christian. It seems the very idea of God (in most of its forms, though not all) requires a very strong doze of fear and threats. So Allah is by no means unique in being the fountainhead of at the least imaginary violence in the hell. The issue seems to be how single-mindedly one believes in this ghastly imagination.

Since the argument that Quran does not sanction violence can be so easily refuted it cannot help deter fundamentalists. In addition repeated attempts to prove that they should not commit violence because their religion and religious book does not sanction it, actually ends up reinforcing the authority of their religion, as the only source of guidance. This precludes other humanitarian ideas from consideration, and renders them irrelevant. A more truthful, just, and perhaps even effective way could be to call a spade a spade. Admit that Quran is a violent book, that it often calls on believers to kill non-believer, it teaches them to hate idolaters, polytheists, and to wage a jihad to eradicate them, at the least in some parts of it. And explaining these parts away does not seem to be possible.

But it (The Quran) is also full of contradictions, repetitions and impossible stories. (I am sure, all religious texts, be they Hindu or Christian, have contradictions, impossible stories, adverse judgment and often even violence against their own unbelievers.) Therefore, it cannot be a book sent by the God, unless the God Himself is taken to be a creature whom today’s humans see as violent and even evil. It is a creation of ordinary human being(s) pretending or being under delusion to be messenger of the God. If people want to believe in it and prophet-hood of Muhammad, they are of course free to do so, no one has the right to stop them and ask them not to believe. But if they want others to live according to this book and obey Muhammad as prophet then they are taking their religious zeal too far beyond its legitimate scope. Other people have other religions and non-religions, and even the hated irreligion; and they have freedom to make their own choices.

There being sanction of violence in Quran, however, does not necessarily make the whole religion violent, nor does it mean that all believers are necessarily violent. To construct a non-violent interpretation of a religion based on Quran, however, has to be a strenuous theological task. There are practicing Muslims who are engaged in this task, but they will always be under pressure as their interpretation is striving against the natural reading and original impulse of the Quran.

The book Quran and Muhammad no more belong exclusively to the Muslims alone. Both, the book and Muhammad, have a profound effect on today’s world. Islam has become a political ideology like democracy, communism, Hindutva, and so on. Muhammad has become an ideologue like Gandhi, Marx, Plato, and so on. They impact peoples’ lives, I mean non-believers’ lives as well. And people in a democracy have full right to comment, criticise and lampoon all that impacts their lives. One cannot demand that ‘your life will be effected by my ideological beliefs but you cannot open your mouth against them’. That is plain oppression.

If someone reads Quran and finds it a violent book full of repetitions and contradiction and overwhelmingly plagiarised from the Bible, then that person has full right to express that thought.

If one reads the Quran, which is freely available in the market and can be downloaded for free from the internet, one can hardly miss that it contains many chapters and verse that are of direct benefit to Muhammad. They contain curses on his enemies, chapters 104 and 111, for example. Some give Muhammad special sanctions (33:50) and others threaten his wives into submission (66:1-5). A non-believer who notices all this is sure to suspect the genuineness of all three: the Allah, the Quran and Muhammad; in spite of elaborate explanation which all depend on first accepting the faith. The believers cannot ask these people not to think these thoughts, or not to speak them out if they have occurred to them. This would mean controlling other peoples’ minds and making others live according to the believers’ faith. No one has the right to expect that, no one has the right to impose one’s faith on others.

One should also understand that speaking out as a critique of, say; democracy, Hindutva, Islam, or communism; dos not mean forcing their respective believers into discarding these ideologies. This simply is expression of ideas in a free world. Therefore, the believers’ argument that free speech is being forced upon them is wrong. No one asks them to adopt free speech if they do not like to do so. None asks them to read books they do not like. But some of them would like to force other to abandon free speech even if others don’t like abandoning it.

In addition to these simple issues of coherence and credulity, the Quran raises many social and political questions. The issue of status of women (common to all religions), of non-believers in Islamic thinking, the issue of critical examination of doctrines and so on. These are genuine and important issues in a free society. The believers cannot expect everyone to accept their view points on these issues. Such issues cry for debate and democracies survive on open debates. Therefore, the believers have to learn to listen to hard questions and to engage in debate without losing their cool.

Obviously the same goes for the Hindu zealots in India, the argument is generalizable to all religious fundamentalism. As I said above, the topic in this article is Quran, that does not mean that Hindu zealots don’t have to learn to live with nude Saraswatis, critique of their religious books, those who don’t share their reverence for cows and medicinal benefits of cow’s urine.

As a matter fact, most of Muslims one meets can think on these issues with as much calm and criticality as anyone else can. It is a minority that gets up in arms on such issues, but that minority has to be restrained by the thinking majority in the community of believers. And in democracies, for the reasons above mentioned, right to expose a religion cannot be restricted to its believers alone. A fearless and un-tempered critique of all religious texts is everyone’s fundamental right. Those who demand respectful comment (in case of disagreement) on religious texts are asking people to be submissive in the face of belligerent threats. However, as a moral choice of someone to be respectful to faiths seems to be commendable to me. But that attitude cannot be made into obligation; it has to remain a personal morally preferred position. And when this respectful stance becomes so prevalent that some of the faithful (belonging to any faith) start demanding it as their right; it is a duty of a democratic citizens to speak against it clearly and resolutely.


Quran and violence 3: Jihad, idolaters and infidels

January 13, 2015

Rohit Dhankar

(Continued from part 2)

What I have posted so far, including this post, is open to some serious charges of deliberate misinterpretation and/or bias. Some of them could be: (i) Particularly fundamentalist translations are used. (ii) The verses are cherry-picked, and those which show Quran in better light are ignored. (iii) Quotations are given almost without any analysis. And, (iv) that the verses supposed to be revealed in particular context are presented as universal principles. I will deal with these charges in the next post (tomorrow), because some material (by the way of examples) is needed before one can make any case on these issues.

Jihad, idolaters and infidels

Verse 2:190 states “And fight in the Way of Allah those who fight you, but transgress not the limits. Truly, Allah likes not the transgressors.” [NQ] This is a much debated verse. Some emphasise “fight in the way of Allah”, indicating fight for religious purposes. Others remind “those who fight you, but transgress not”; therefore, it is a verse sanctioning fighting a defensive war.

The explanation offered by Noble Quran [NQ], however, clearly sides with the first interpretation. NQ’s explanation is worth quoting in full. First, it states that “[T]his Verse is the first one that was revealed in connection with jihad, but it was supplemented by another (9:36)”. We will have a look at 9:36 presently. But before that the meaning and importance of Jihad should be understood as per NQ: “Al-Jihad (holy fighting) in Allah’s Cause (with full force of numbers and weaponry) is given the utmost importance in Islam and is one of its pillars (on which it stands). By Jihad Islam is established, Allah’s Word is made superior, (His Word being La ilaha illallah which means none has the right to be worshipped but Allah), and His Religion (Islam) is propagated. By abandoning Jihad (may Allah protect us from that) Islam is destroyed and the Muslims fall into an inferior position: their honour is lost, their lands are stolen, their rule and authority vanish. Jihad is an obligatory duty in Islam on every Muslim, and he who tries to escape from this duty, or does not in his innermost heart wish to fulfil this duty, dies with one of the qualities of a hypocrite.


Narrated ‘Abdullah bin Masud: I asked Allah’s Messenger, “O Allah’s Messenger! What is the best deed?” He replied, “To offer the (prayers) at their early fixed stated times.” I asked, “What is next in goodness?” He replied, “To be good and dutiful to your parents.” I further asked, “What is next in goodness?” He “To participate in Jihad in Allah’s Cause.” I did not ask Allah’s Messenger anymore and if I had asked him more, he would have told me more. (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Vol.4, Hadith No.41).” [Emphasis added]

This explanation does not leave any doubt that: (i) jihad is not some internal purification as far as this verse is concerned, it has to be fought with ‘full numbers and weaponry’, this is a duty, so no deviating interpretation is allowed. (ii) It is not a defensive war, but one to make Allah’s word and Islam supreme, which means nothing else can be worshipped. (iii) Jihad is at the least third best deed for a Muslim, after offering regular prayers and looking after one’s parents.

But there are other interpretations. We should have a look at the least at one of them. TuQ explains in footnote 266 that the call to fight is given to Muslims (O Muslims!). Then goes on to explain in footnote 267 that “in the way of Allah” refers to “in the cause of His true Religion; in the cause of truth, justice, equity and humanity. To combat the dark forces of polytheism, superstition, perfidy, irreligion, and religious persecution, and not for the greed of booty or for self-aggrandisement, nor yet to extend the ‘sphere of influence’ of this country or that. Is the extermination of moral evil, in any sense, an unworthy object of war?” [Emphases added]

This is an interesting explanation. It first lists “the cause of truth, justice, equity and humanity” which are very much acceptable as good cause to struggle for, even if not for war. But then gives another list “the dark forces of polytheism, superstition, perfidy, irreligion, and religious persecution”. Polytheism clearly indicates the agenda; and it is implied that superstition, perfidy and irreligion can be stemmed by monotheism only. Now, if a war could be waged to eradicate polytheism then the definitions of justice, equity and humanity cannot remain as they are supposed to be in the modern world. Nor can ‘religious persecution’ be understood as ‘lack of freedom to practice one’s own religion’, as the war itself is against a religious idea, namely polytheism. The whole passage looks like either an eyewash or an alternative discourse which defines justice etc. in its own manner, which is unknown to unbelievers and infidels. And, it does not take the position that the jihad is not general against all polytheists, in all lands and all times. The verse may have come in the local context of fighting a religious war with Makkans, later in this article we have to look at the attempts to draw universal eternal principle from contextual commands.

The next verse is clearly in connection with the fight between the believers and people of Makka. 2:191 And kill them wherever you find them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out. And Al-Fitnah is worse than killing. And fight not with them at Al-Masjid-al-haram (the sanctuary at Makkah), unless they (first) fight you there. But if they attack you, then kill them. Such is the recompense of the disbelievers.”

Al-Fitnah is translated in various ways. NQ explains it as “polytheism, to disbelieve after one has believed in Allah, or a trial or a calamity or an affliction” at one place; the meaning in the next verse makes it more general “disbelief and worshipping of others along with Allah”. TuQ explains “(of irreligion and impiety). The word covers, on the part of the Makkans, a number of other such crimes over and above the grossest forms of idolatry, as treachery, perfidy, wanton persecution of the Muslims, and aggression in fighting.” The centre of the meaning clearly is “polytheism”. Worshiping other beings with Allah is the real issue, rest of the ‘crimes’ are just additional reasons. And as soon as this meaning is given, the call to fight becomes universal against “al-fitnah”.

Therefore, it is necessary to “fight them until there is no more Fitnah (disbelief and worshipping of others along with Allah) and (all and every kind of) worship is for Allah (Alone). But if they cease, let there be no transgression except against Az-Zalimun (the polytheists, and wrong-doers).” [NQ, 2:193] This verse makes it clear that even if ‘they’—whomsoever they may be—cease fighting, the war against polytheists must go on.

The verse 9:36, mentioned above demands “…so wrong not yourselves therein, and fight against the Mushrikun (polytheists, pagans, idolaters, disbelievers in the Oneness of Allah) collectively as they fight against you collectively. But know that Allah is with those who are AI-Muttaqun (the pious).” The verse 9:38 admonishes those who “when … asked to march forth in the Cause of Allah (i.e. Jihad) you cling heavily to the earth? Are you pleased with the life of this world rather than the Hereafter? But little is the enjoyment of the life of this world as compared to the Hereafter.” And warns them (9:39) if you march not forth, He will punish you with a painful torment and will replace you by another people; and you cannot harm Him at all, and Allah is Able to do all things.” A believer who does not march willingly in jihad will get “painful torment”. And will be replaced with another people.

Hadith supports this idea. Narrated Anas bin Malik: The Prophet said, “Nobody who dies and finds good from Allah (in the Hereafter) would wish to come back to this world, even if he were given the whole world and whatever is in it except the martyr who, on seeing the superiority of martyrdom would like to come back to the world and get killed again (in Allah’s Cause).” (Sahih AI·BukhM, Vol.4, Hadith No.53-A).” [NQ]

One can make a much bigger list of verses of this nature, but perhaps it is not needed. If this does not sanction violence against polytheists and unbelieves one does not know what would?


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.