Certain verses of Qur'an are repeatedly quoted by the critics and enemies of Islam to show how Islam is intolerant of its opponents and wants them to be eliminated. Also since the days of crusade the West has projected image of Islam as 'sword in one hand, and Qur'an, in the other'. This image has stuck in the minds of thousands of non-Muslims throughout the world. It got fresh lease of life after 9/11 and spurt of news reports and articles in media and TV news channels on terrorism and Islam. It is, therefore, necessary to have a critical look at these verses.
Before we deal with these verses we wish to make two comments which are very necessary. Firstly, the critics and opponents of Islam deliberately ignoring hundreds of other verses which are on tolerance, forgiveness, humane treatment of enemies and so on. Besides that in the Prophet's (PBUH) life too there are several events which could be model for anyone to imitate. However, critics and opponents of Islam are deliberately quite selective in picking up certain verses out of context and quote them to show intolerance of Islam towards its enemies. In some cases it is deliberate, in others, perhaps out of ignorance. But more likely it is deliberate.
Secondly, the Muslim theologians and jurists also must share the blame. They still continue to imitate the medieval jurists (fuqaha') in giving doctrinal status to war and violence. It was understandable in medieval times when wars were considered quite legitimate and were resorted to by all sides Christians and all others. Even then as we will see further, Islam had permitted violence with certain reservations and conditions. Thus violence or war never had doctrinal status in Islam. It was permitted only for defence, never for aggression. The Qur'anic position is clearly stated in 2:190. This verse has doctrinal status.
According to this verse two conditions are required to be fulfilled for war: firstly it should be in the way of Allah, not for any personal ambition, revenge or territorial grab. Two, it should be strictly in defense, not by way of aggression as Allah does not love aggression and aggressors. I do not think any other religion or ideological system before Islam had laid down any such conditions restricting wars. Sword was considered decisive especially while dealing with opponents.
Islam, the critics should note, did not appear in vacuum; no religion does. Each religion carries birthmark of its concrete historical and social conditions. Islam appeared in Arabia of 6th and 7th centuries and ferocious tribal wars were order of the day in those days. The main pre-occupation and challenge before the Prophet of Islam was how to restore peace in the society wherein violence was a norm, not an exception.
Prophet's hands were forced by the circumstances. He also had limited choices. When he and his followers were severely persecuted and faced with violence, they had to resort to violence as no other alternatives were available. Thus in one of the verses Qur'an says, "And what reason have you not to fight in the way of Allah, and` of the weak among the men and the women and the children, who say: Our Lord, take us out of this town, whose people are oppressors, and grant us from Thee a friend, and grant us from Thee a helper."
The words of these verses show how helpless Muslims had become in view of oppression by enemies of Islam. Islam was, let us remember, a religion which not only confine itself to moral exhortations but also, in view of the given circumstances, a social revolution. There were powerful vested interests who had accumulated great deal of wealth and their greed drove them to accumulate more and more totally neglecting the poor and other weaker sections of society. Accumulate, accumulate and accumulate as Marx says in Das Capital) was their religion.
The Prophet (PBUH), a great lover of justice from pre-Islamic days (he had formed hilf al-fudul - to help the victims of injustices much before he was appointed a prophet) was deeply concerned with social justice as most of the Meccan surahs clearly point out. And when some one challenged these vested interests and that too, from their own class, they spare no efforts to wipe out that person, especially, if they fail to co-opt or buy off that person, or silence him in any other peaceful manner.
Islamic historians tell us that the rich merchants of Meccans offered the Prophet (PBUH) enough for him and his coming generations to live on but the Prophet replied if you put sun on my one hand and moon on the other, even then I am not going to give up what I am preaching. Thus the Meccan merchants, failed to co-opt or buy off him and then they declared an all out war against him and his movement.
Even then he advised his followers to remain peaceful and bear hardships and persecution but not to yield. His followers did and put up with severe persecution. Muhammad (PBUH), who was against idol worship as the very basis of his religion was tawheed (oneness of God) he declared that non-believers can continue to worship as they worship and for them is their faith and for me mine (chapter 109).
But real opposition was not, as far as the rich merchants were concerned, to way of worship as attack on their greed and accumulation of wealth in the face of great misery and poverty of people at lower rungs. They did not stand any check on accumulation of their wealth and they did not want to undertake any measures for poverty alleviation. The only method they knew was to co-opt or wipe out the opponents of their greed.
The verse 4:75 quoted above shows desperation of the situation. Persecution went beyond all limits of human tolerance and no other alternative was available. There was no democracy that one could sit on dharna or organize demonstration to get the grievances redressed. And we know even in democracy how police fires on demonstrators and kills several people or baton charges them brutally and severely injures demonstrators.
The Prophet even then chose another alternative i.e. to migrate to other place which was more hospitable like Ethiopia first and then to Medina. However, the vested interests in Mecca knew that Muhammad (PBUH), with his powerful appeal to the weaker sections of society, would be a great danger for them and their trade caravans could come under attack. Thus they decided not to leave him in peace in Madina. His migration was not a good riddance for them. It was a different challenge, perhaps more difficult challenge now than before.
The Prophet (PBUH), on the other hand, in pursuance of justice and peace, entered into a covenant with Jews and pagans of Mecca and gave them equal rights and freedom to pursue their respective faiths. Not only this he called all those who were signatory to this covenant as one people (umma wahidah) with an obligation to defend Madina, if attacked by outsiders, especially Meccans. This umma wahidah comes very close to modern day concept of a nation bound by obligations of a constitution. This covenant was the constitution of Madina.
But what was feared did happen. Madina was attacked by powerful merchants of Mecca and the Prophet was forced to go for defense. However, it must be noted that there was no regular army and it was voluntary to participate in the battle. In the absence of any state structure neither Meccans nor Medinese had any regular army. Both ways participation was voluntary. But there was one vital difference.
The Meccan merchants were not only united but also had all the resources material as well as human. Also, they were defending their wealth and 'right' to accumulate without any social intervention. The Muslims in Madina, on the other hand, had severe problems. The Jewish tribes, though signatory to the covenant of Madina, were not only unwilling to fight but also willing to collaborate with the merchants of Mecca. They were resentful of intrusion of Mohammad (PBUH) and his followers in Madina. They had lost their privileged position as leaders due to intrusion of Muslims into that city.
Second great difficult situation for Muslims was lack of resources both material as well as human. Thus we find several verses in the Qur'an imploring Muslims to donate generously and that Allah will reward them seven folds if they did. Yet another difficulty was that Muslims in Madina had either migrated from Mecca and left everything behind or belonged to poorer sections of society and had very little to donate. The Ansars of Madina (those who had embraced Islam from Madina) too were not well off and had little to spare. These were formidable challenges for Muslims.
But, as pointed out before, Muslims had little choice but to fight and in the battle of Badr they were hopelessly outnumbered also. There were only 313 Muslims as against thousand Meccans without proper weapons and line of supply. Still it was their faith and strong commitment (they had little to loose but their slavery, poverty and injustices) which ensured victory to them. They fought with great determination and strong resolve.
But this is not to glorify war and violence. It was forced on Muslims and they bravely faced it. Had Meccans not attacked them they would not have gone to Mecca to fight against them as it was clearly against the Qur'anic injunction. Even today when we talk of democracy nations fight not only when attacked but even in anticipation of any such attack, or even forging false grounds. America attacked Afghanistan and Iraq, not because it was attacked by these two weaklings but by falsely forging documents that Iraq possessed 'weapons of mass destruction.'
Thus Qur'an neither glorifies violence nor makes it essential for a believer to resort to it as a religious duty. At best permits it as a necessary evil in case of defending oneself against aggression. It should not be and cannot be elevated to the status of doctrine. I do not want to discuss here the question of jihad as much has already been written on it and suffice it may to say that jihad in all 41 verses of Qur'an that this word has been used, it no where means war.
THE WHAT ABOUT THESE VERSES?
But then critics quote some verses from the Qur'an to prove that it believes in violence against kafirs and requires believers to kill them wherever found. One of these verses is, "They long that you should disbelieve so that you might be on the same level; so take not from among them friends until they flee (their homes) in Allah's way. Then if they turn back (to hostility), sieze them and kill them wherever you find them, and take no friend nor helper from among them. (4:89)
To many the words "sieze them and kill them wherever you find them" may appear very disturbing and they may argue that these words clearly establish that kafirs should be killed wherever they are found and also this established the fact that Muslims went out with sword in one hand and Qur'an, in the other. However, this interpretation of the verse ignores the fact that it does not describe normal situation but situation of active hostility. The following verse also makes it clear.
The verse which follows the above verse says, "Except those who join a people between whom and you there is an alliance, or who come to you, their hearts shrinking from fighting you or fighting their own people. And if Allah had pleased, he would have given them power over you, so that they would have fought you. So if they withdraw from you and fight you not and offer you peace, then Allah allows you no way against them." (4:90).
This verse needs hardly any explanation that it clearly indicates war situation and situation of active hostility. It is also said in this verse that if they join those unbelievers with whom you have an alliance or they sue for peace then do not fight them. These verses do not apply to times of peace. Even in modern times the nations at war treat each other as enemies and armies kill soldiers of enemy nation wherever found. There is nothing odd about it.
According to the second verse even waverers are not to be fought or killed. if they refrained from fighting. Any civilized nation would approve of this and even applaud it. Unfortunately those hostile to Islam refuse to see even such obvious rules and attack Qur'an and accuse it of teaching intolerance against all non-believers.
It is also important to note that we should read one particular verse in conjunction with all other verses on the subject if we want to understand actual intention of the Qur'an. Qur'an nowhere teaches to go war with those simply because they refuse to believe. Qur'an allows freedom of religion or freedom of conscience (2:256) and also emphasizes justice to the extent that justice must be done even if it goes in favor of the enemy. The verse reads as follows: "O you who believe, be upright for Allah, bearers of witness with justice; and let not hatred of a people incite you not to act equitably. Be just; that is nearer to observance of duty." (5:8).
Another verse is 4:35 which also exhorts believers to be just even if it goes against themselves or parents or near ones. Thus how Qur'an can incite Muslims to kill any unbeliever simply because he/she is unbeliever. Also, there are other verses which clearly contradict such position. In this connection the verse 8 of chapter 60 is also very important.
This verse tells Muslims that "Allah forbids you not respecting those who fight you not for religion, nor drive you forth from your homes, that you show them kindness and deal with them justly. Surely Allah loves the doers of justice." (60:8) Does any further explanation needed? Those unbelievers who do not fight Muslims and do not drive them away from their homes Muslims should behave with kindness and justice towards them.
Here again I would like to submit that we must distinguish between Islam as a religion, a belief system and Islam as a social movement which was challenging powerful vested interests in Mecca and allies of powerful merchants of Mecca. Islam as a religion is spiritual and moral movement which exhorts Muslims to follow moral and spiritual teachings but as social movement pitted against powerful vested interests and enemies it allows them to meet the situation as in times of hostilities and wars.
The verse 60:8 is a moral and spiritual teaching but what we find in verses like 4:89 and 4:90 is war like situation and one cannot teach in such situation in a violence infested region like Arabia to surrender to the enemy at ones own peril. It would have been unacceptable. In Bible too one finds such contradicting verses. While as a moral teaching it talks of love and presenting another cheek if slapped on one cheek but also that one should sell ones coat to buy a sword.
Qur'an while requiring believers to fight if fought against also exhorts them to be just and kind and not to abuse others gods lest they should abuse Allah (6:109). The moral and spiritual teachings are eternal and teachings and exhortations about war or situation of hostilities contextual and will apply only in a particular context. To quote those verses as if they are eternally applicable is not correct. Or deliberate distortion of the Qur'anic teachings.
The concept of dhimmi (one whose responsibility to protect is on Muslims) is both moral as well as political. It is binding on Muslims to protect the dhimmis as if they would protect Muslims and to ensure complete freedom of faith and protections to their places of worship. The Qur'an itself guarantees protection to all places of worship whichever religion they belong to see verse 22:40 and it also says Allah has created a law and a way for every nation (5:48) and every one is free to follow ones own law and the way. There is no compulsion to follow anyone only.
Also, each one has ones own direction to pray and one should not quarrel over it but excel each other in good deeds (2:148). The Prophet himself was a role model in this respect. When a delegation of Christians of Najran visited the Prophet (PBUH) he made them stay in his mosque and allowed them to pray therein. They used to pray in one side of the mosque and the Prophet and Muslims on the other side. What better example of respect for others faith?
When Tartars arrested Muslims, Jews and Christians and were willing to free only Muslims, Imam Ibn Taymiyyah, a great scholar of Islam told the leader of the Tartars that we will not accept freedom without Jews and Christians also being freed as it is our responsibility to protect them (ahl al-dhimma). What an example of fulfilling ones responsibility towards the dhimmis.
This is not to say that excesses have not happened in the history of Muslims. Muslims have killed Muslims most brutally as when Abbasids overthrew Umayyads they even dug out the graves of Abbasids and dishonored the dead. Similarly the Kharijites (Khawarij), the extremists among Muslims considered permissible to kill all other Muslims who are not khawarij. Hajjaj bin Yusuf killed thousands of his opponents in Iraq and threw more than hundred thousand people into prison including women.
It will be knave to deny such excess in the history but responsibility for this cannot be inflicted on Islam but on those Muslims who perpetrated these crimes against humanity. It is indeed quite wrong to hold, as many scholars do, to foist its responsibility on Islam. Islam should be judged by its teachings, not by what happened in its history. Human actor is not motivated by religious teachings in his/her behavior but by his/her own vested interests and aspirations for power. It is like blaming a country's constitution for torturing of prisoners by some police officers.
Some Muslim scholars and theologians try to overlook, even ignore these facts of Muslim history. It is as wrong as holding Islam responsible for what happened in Muslim history. We should be fair and just in judging Muslims as judging non-Muslims. It is Qur'anic teaching as we have already referred to. This is also requirement of unbiased scholarship and principles of higher criticism.