Settling the ‘Infidels’ Question in Islam

By Maher Y. Abu-Munshar

Despite the substantial number of scholarly works and news stories to the contrary, many people still have the unfortunate misconception that Muslims cannot tolerate, coexist or cooperate with followers of other religions. This is partly because Muslim extremists themselves often (mis)use Qur’anic verses to justify acts of violence against non-Muslims.

Simply put, these interpretations are wrong. In fact, many verses in the Qur’an call for friendship, fair treatment and cooperation with non-Muslims but are ignored by those wishing to create division in order to fan the flames, so to speak.

Examples of the misused Qur’anic verses include, for example: “Let not the Believers take for allies or helpers Unbelievers rather than Believers” (3:28) and “O ye who believe! Take not the Jews and the Christians for your allies. They are but allies to each other. And he amongst you that turns to them [for alliance] is of them” (5:51).

These verses should be seen as providing the necessary support for the survival and cohesion of an early vulnerable community of Muslims – the Prophet Muhammad and his followers who arrived as refugees in Medina – in a potentially hostile environment.

In other words, the Qur’an was advising a particular community of Muslims in 7th century Arabia to be wary of entering blindly into political alliances. And indeed they were betrayed at that time by some of their Jewish allies. In fact, these verses were revealed in particular because some Muslims, for personal gain, were keen to establish or keep alliances with non-Muslims at the expense of their co-religionists and the newly formed state. These verses therefore were instructing these early Muslims to be self-reliant and to not depend upon others’ protection in order to establish a strong, lasting community.

Like the verses cited above, others are also quoted out of context, easily misleading the uninformed reader. One such verse, “And slay them wherever ye find them…” (2:191), is quoted extensively by many extremist Muslims and non-Muslims alike to showcase Islam’s supposed hatred of non-Muslims.

However, this verse too is taken out of context, because the ones just before and after it maintain that Muslims should never be aggressors and should only protect themselves against persecution. The context then becomes clear: this verse was revealed for a specific incident relating to the pagan Arabs who continuously breached the peace and reneged on truces at that particular time. In other words, this instruction is only applicable to this specific incident.

The Egyptian Muslim jurist Yusuf al-Qaradawi points out that these verses are not unconditional and certainly cannot be applied to every single Jew, Christian or non-Muslim. Taking them out of a specific context that relates to some event in earlier Muslim history, they contradict other instructions in the Qur’an that call for kindness to those who wish Muslims no harm.

Both Muslims and non-Muslims must learn to differentiate verses in the Qur’an that are specific to a particular context from those that are universal by also reading those verses that frame the contentious ones.

It is also important to remember that a prevailing message of respect for freedom of religion abounds in the Qur’an: “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256); “Lo! Those who believe (in that which is revealed unto thee, Muhammad), and those who are Jews, and Christians, and Sabaeans–whoever believeth in Allah and the Last Day and doeth right–surely their reward is with their Lord, and there shall no fear come upon them neither shall they grieve” (2:62); among others.

But the ideal relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims is best captured by two Qur’anic verses in particular (60:8-9). These verses – which advise Muslims to treat those of other faiths justly – employ a word which comes from the root word birr, which refers to a deep-rooted type of kindness and justice. The Qur’an counsels that birr be the basis of the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims – the same instruction it gives for dealing with one’s parents.

Today, when violent extremists quote these verses out of context to justify terrorism, it is essential to look at the Qur’an closely. All Muslims need to combine recitation of the holy text with full understanding of its injunctions. As the majority of Muslims do not speak Arabic, the language of the Qur’an, it is essential that they refer to trusted sources of interpretation and translation and not follow an unsupported, misguided reading of this text. This will surely pave the way toward eliminating misunderstanding and the misuse of the Qur’an for violent ends and instead promote the universal vision of Qur’an: genuine tolerance and peaceful coexistence between all of humanity.

Dr. Maher Y. Abu-Munshar is Visiting Senior Lecturer to the Department of Islamic History and Civilization at the University of Malaya, Malaysia and the author of Islamic Jerusalem and its Christians: A History of Tolerance and Tensions.

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