Q: I was recently engaged in a religious discussion with a Christian colleague of mine at work and he asked me to explain to him a verse in the holy Quran which he seemed to have a problem with. The verse is Surah 4, Verses 89-90, wherein Allah commands Muslims to kill disbeleivers on two different occassions. I told him that I am no expert in the meaning of the Quran but that I will consult with my respected Scholars and get back to him regarding these verses. Can Mufti Saheb please explain to me and give me a detailed tafseer of these verses so that I can respond to my non-Muslim colleague in the correct manner? Please can you also give me other verses in the Quran wherein Allah commands good treatment towards non-believers?
A: EXPLANATION ON VERSES 89 AND 90 OF SURAH 4 (AN-NISAA)
We begin with a literal translation of these verses:
4: 89: And they wish that you should disbelieve like they have, then you will be equal; so take them not as your friends until they migrate in the Path of Allah. And if they turn away, then seize them and kill them wherever you find them, and take not from among them a friend or helper.
4: 90: Excluding those who join a people with whom you have a peace treaty or those who approach you whilst their hearts are restrained from fighting you or fighting their people. And if Allah willed He could have imposed them over you then indeed they would fight against you. So if they withdraw from you and fight you not but instead send you peace (offers) then Allah has not given you any right to fight them.
From this literal translation and a thoughtful reading of the above verses it is clear that the command to kill is constrained and conditioned with certain special circumstances. Normally the verses of the Holy Quran need to be understood within a certain context. If read out of context, the meaning is distorted. Christians and other antagonists of Islam are guilty of such misreading and distortion of Quranic meanings because they ignore the context of the verses, either through sheer negligence or deliberate suppression. By context we mean the collective meaning derived from a group of verses. Instead of taking one verse and citing it out of context, the correct procedure is to look at the verses before and after in order to acquire a proper meaning of what The Quran is saying. Secondly, to understand certain intricate verses, the reader needs to resort to official and authentic commentaries of The Quran.
Our non-Muslim friends should also realize that the Holy Quran contains the basic and general principles of government, worship, dealings, and so forth. But details are provided by the Hadith of The Holy Prophet Muhammad. The reason for this diversification is to ensure that the Muslim nation do not only stick to the Holy Quran for guidance but also incorporate the Hadith or Traditions of Muhammad. Thus, the Prophet Muhammad becomes a major figurehead in Islam and a personality that must be revered.
The word of Muhammad sallallahu alaihi wa sallam (i.e. His Traditions) has been kept apart and separate from the Word of God (i.e The Quran) to highlight the vast difference between the Pure Word of God and the word of man, unlike the Bible which contains a mixture of God’s Word and Man’s Word. Eventually it becomes difficult to tell the difference. The Islamic system has ensured Muslims don’t fall into the same trap.
In the above verses there are several pointers that clearly display the context and application of the meaning conveyed therein. The following explanation will elucidate this:
1. These verses were revealed in Madinah, after the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon) had laid foundation of the new Islamic state. It was within the context of this fledgling Islamic state that the above verses were revealed. The first principle that emerges, therefore, is that these verses are directed to the Islamic state and not individual Muslims. Any intelligent person will understand that the power given to a State or Administration is far more forceful, encompassing, and comprehensive than that enjoyed by an individual. However, even in these rules, the Islamic State is not given a carte blanch to kill disbelievers at whim and wish, as will be explained further.
2. The phrase until they migrate in the Path of Allah gives us another indication of the application of this verse. The verse cannot be referring to non-Muslims because migrating in the Path of Allah is not an act of disbelievers or non-Muslims. Nowhere in The Holy Quran are disbelievers required to migrate or leave their hometowns for the sake of Islam. It is, therefore, evident that until they migrate in the Path of Allah is a reference to people who profess to be Muslims. These are the hypocrites, people who outwardly proclaimed to be Muslims but inwardly were not so. They were the impostors and spies among the Muslim community who were out to create mischief and strife. These traitors were also guilty of instigating other communities and nations to attack Muslims, as mentioned in several books of history. The verse before this one, that is, verse number, 88 clearly states: “And what is wrong with you, that you are split (in opinion) with regards to the Hypocrites…….? The context of this section of the chapter tells us clearly that verse 89 refers to Hypocrites and not to disbelievers such as the Jews, Christians, or Pagan Arabs.
3. Verse 89 states: And if they turn away, then seize them… This instruction means that if these hypocrites, after embracing the Islamic faith, renounce the Religion and renegade against the Muslim community then they must be seized, that is, arrested, and then killed. But the killing is not a summary form of execution. The commentaries state that they will be arrested, tried, and if found guilty, executed. They will be executed because they committed the unpardonable sin of treason, which in any Government or Country is a major crime punishable with death. This law applies to the Islamic state, and is not a licence to any Muslim to just go and kill non-Muslims. It might be argued that these details are not mentioned in the Quran so Muslims who read the Quran will be mislead into believing any person can just go and kill any non-Muslim who renounces his religion. Well, it must be well understood that these details are taught to the Muslim communities through different forums such as the madresas, question and answer platforms, public lectures, booklets, writings, and newsletters on a regular basis. Muslims are therefore well aware of the rules that apply; hence you will not find Muslims resorting to such methods in spite of several incidents of so-called Muslims turning away from Islam.
4. The words wherever you find them, must be taken in conjunction with both the phrases before it, i.e. seize them and kill them. That means the perpetrators of treason should be hunted down and seized wherever they hide, and the punishment of death be meted out. This is an injunction for efficient government and law enforcement. Any Government will need to have the ability and expertise to hunt down major criminals within its structures. An Administration that is unable to achieve this becomes the laughing stock of all and sundry.
5. Verse 90 is another clear sign of the justice and fairness meted out by Islam, and refutes the notion non-Muslims have falsely inferred from the previous verse, that Muslims are commanded to kill disbelievers wherever they are found. In this verse the Muslim government is given the following guidelines:
a) Honouring its treaties, pacts, and pledges with other nations.
b) Honouring even the friends of those with whom it has a pact or treaty.
c) Even the renegades and traitors have to be spared and honoured if they befriend a nation that has a pact with Muslims.
d) Not to fight or kill those who come to them with peaceful motives and offers of friendship.
e) It is forbidden for Muslims to fight people who make an offer for truce.
f) Fighting is only resorted to when there is an act of violence or aggression from the other party.
The above elements form part of the Divine Justice that is so profound in Islam. On this basis, the criticism levelled at Islam by its antagonists is totally unfair, unwarranted, and stems from ignorance about the true meanings of the Holy Quran.
6. In verse 91 that follows the above, another clear ruling is mentioned: “And if they withdraw not from (fighting) you, nor offer you peace or restrain themselves (from aggression), then seize them and kill them wherever you find them. This command confirms the fact alluded to above, that even the hypocrites and renegades will be granted peace on condition that they refrain from aggression and violence. Again, this is the mandate granted to a State, whose duty it is to maintain law and order and protect the rights of people.
VERSES OF THE HOLY QUR’AAN COMMANDING GOOD TREATMENT OF DISBELIEVERS
1. And have patience against what they (your enemies) say, and withdraw from them in a beautiful manner. (Surah 73, verse 10)
2. … So overlook (their wrong-doings) with gracious forgiveness. (Surah 15,verse 85)
3. And do not debate with the People of the Book except in the best of manners; (Surah 29, verse 46)
4. Invite unto your Lord with wisdom and beautiful advice, and engage them in debate in a style that is best. (Surah 16, verse 125)
5. And be kind (to others) like Allah has been kind to you, and seek not mischief in the land; (Surah 28, verse 77)
6. And turn not your face from people in arrogance, nor walk on earth in insolence. Verily Allah does not love every arrogant boaster. (Surah 31, verse 18)
7. And Allah does not forbid you from being kind and just to those (disbelievers) who do not fight you with regards to Religion, nor evict you from your homes. Verily Allah loves those who are just. (Surah 60, verse 8)
8. And if they (The Pagans) desist (from fighting you) then there should be no transgression (against them), except against a people who are oppressors. (Surah 2, verse 193)
9. And if they (the enemy) incline towards peace then you too, incline towards the same. (Surah 8, verse 61)
10. And if any of the Disbelievers seeks refuge from you, then grant him refuge so that he can hear the Word of Allah, then escort him to a place where he is secure.
These are a few verses of many that explain cordial relations to both peace loving disbelievers as well as those who show enmity.
The Messenger of Allah, Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: “A true believer is one from whose hands and tongue mankind is safe.” Narrated by Bukhari and Muslim)
Mufti Siraj Desai