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.