The simple and incomplete answer is that yes, insofar as any book that describes battles or warfare from time to time is violent, the Qur’an is violent. However, the Qur’an forbids aggression and permits only defensive battle. It describes battle in the context of defending Islam in its infancy; it makes clear that pluralism is God’s design for humanity and directs us to compete in good works and come to know one another.
Remember that the Qur’an was revealed to Muhammad (peace be upon him) over a period of 23 years in the early 7th Century. At the time of revelation, there were very few individuals living as monotheists in the Arabian peninsula. Muhammad and his message represented an enormous threat to the established political and economic infrastructure, which was all tied up with the dominant paganism of the region. This made Muhammad a target, in much the same way Jesus was. In the course of revelation, Muhammad was not only receiving general instruction for his followers on the nature of God, the universe and life, but also instruction from God in how best to survive and protect the new and vulnerable group of monotheists around him. Most, if not all, of the verses I’m about to discuss are set in this context, the explicit context of Muhammad’s community defending themselves against attack, harassment and assassination attempts.
There are several Qur’anic verses that are often repeated without context and incorrectly for the purpose of stirring up fear and xenophobia. I’m going to do my best to address many of these and contextualize them here. (For purposes of time and readability, I am addressing similar verses with similar contexts only once. Also, parts of quotations from the Qur’an that appear in brackets are where the translator had to add meaning that would have been obvious either by idiom or by grammar in the original Arabic.) Then, I’m going to provide a very brief introduction to the Qur’an as I know it, including the verses that govern how Muslims see and interact with those of other faith traditions. After that, I’m going to explain to you why I shouldn’t have had to justify any Qur’anic verses by showing you several horrific verses from the Old and New Testaments that could easily read as justifying the worst kinds of violence. And finally, I will wish you all a very happy Christmas and a blessed New Year because none of those verses have ever made me think any less of any of you.
THE VERSES YOU WANT ME TO TALK ABOUT
2:191 is often misrepresented as saying “and fight the infidels wherever you find them.”
A correct translation (translation by M. Asad throughout) is: “And fight in God’s cause against those who wage war against you, but do not commit aggression –for verily God does not love aggressors. And slay them wherever you come upon them, and drive them away from wherever they drove you away –for oppression is even worse than killing. And fight not against them near the inviolable House of Worship.”
So, in plain language: God is talking specifically about people who were trying to kill Muhammed and early Muslims. We know this because of the reference to not fighting near the Kaba, the House of Worship built by Abraham and Ishmael and rebuilt by Muhammad located in Mecca. So, in that particular context, God is saying, you guys can fight those who are waging war against you, but don’t you start any fights because that will really make God angry. And you can fight back wherever they attack you or push them back from the territory they would take from you. You can’t allow yourselves to be chased out or silenced because you have a job to do: bring and protect this revelation. Just don’t fight near the Kaba. 9:123 is a similar example.
22:19 is often misquoted as directing Muslims to “punish unbelievers with garments of fire and boiling water.”
A correct translation of this is: “But …as for those who are bent on denying the truth [in distinction from those who err out of ignorance] –garments of fire shall be cut for them in the life to come, burning despair will be poured over their heads.”
Two important notes here. 1)This describes hell, people. This is supposedly what God will do, not an instruction on what people should do. No one likes hellish imagery, but this is not about exhorting Muslims to violence. If anything, this is trying to compel people to listen to a message that is largely about being and doing good (more on that later) by talking about hell and then, in the verses immediately following, heaven. 2)Several very well-respected Muslim scholars and contemporary translators of the Qur’an (Asad, Ali, Esack are a few for those playing along) make very clear that what is commonly translated as “unbeliever” or “infidel” is actually, and very clearly NOT a reference to people who don’t believe what Muslims believe. Instead, the term being used in Arabic is a reference to those who actively hide the truth, people who aggressively and intentionally obscure what is good and Godly, particularly revelation, in favor of making chaos. And those are the people that the Qur’an says are going to hell. Incidentally, Muslims are explicitly not supposed to go around saying who is saved and who is going to hell. Muhammad is commanded at 46:9 to “Say ‘I am not the first of God’s apostles, and [like all of them], I do not know what will be done with me or with you. I only follow what is revealed to me, for I am nothing but a plain warner.’” He’s being told by God to let us know that even the prophets aren’t guaranteed heaven, much less can they guarantee salvation to anyone else. So, who are we to judge?
9:30 and the following verses are often misquoted as the Qur’an describing Jews and Christians as “perverse.”
A correct translation says this: “And the Jews say “Ezra is God’s son,” while the Christians say, “The Christ is God’s son,” such are the sayings which they utter with their mouths, following in spirit assertions made in earlier times by people who denied the truth! [They deserve the imprecation] “May God destroy them!” How perverted are their minds!”
There are no two ways about this. The Qur’an says that there is only one God, and no partner should be made with that God. But the same notes above apply—not only are these things not given to humans to judge in the Qur’an, but it is only those who originally made partners with God, not those who inherited this theology, to which the Qur’an refers here. (You’ll see why this is so very clear in the section on What the Qur’an Says About People Who Aren’t Muslim.) Remember that at the time of this revelation, the decisions of the Council of Nicea that Jesus was divine was only about 300 years old. This was a fresh and still hotly debated set of issues.
5:33 is a verse that is often misconstrued as prescribing torture.
A correct translation (after verses referencing the story of Cain and Abel and ‘apostles’ in the plural, and therefore setting the context as a description of all those who make war with God or any of his apostles) says: “It is but just recompense for those who make war on God and his apostle and endeavor to spread corruption on earth, that they are being slain in great numbers, or crucified in great numbers, or have, as a result of their perverseness, their hands and feet cut off in great numbers….”
This is a matter-of-fact description of what has happened to those who have made war on God’s prophets and a statement by God that this is just. It is not particular to Muhammad or Islam, it is a description of war as a reality of the prophetic tradition.
There are several verses that describe heaven that have been misinterpreted, and occasionally mistranslated in ways that suggest heaven provides Muslims (presumably only males) who make it to heaven with several virgins. Some folks have even conjectured in ways that make my skin crawl, that young boys will be provided for (again, men’s) sexual pleasure. Heaven is not and never has been described this way in the actual Qur’an. Contemporary (read: not sexist, lewd male) legitimate interpreters translate these verses, and most Muslims understand these verses, to promise a heaven in which we and our perfectly-matched spouses are eternally young, surrounded by beautiful children. Are these descriptions allegorical? I don’t know. But they are not pornographic, and they aren’t sexist either.
Finally, there are several verses (8:12, 8:65, 9:5, 47:4 to name a few) that set out the Qur’anic components of a just war. These verses deal with instructing Muhammad and his followers on how to engage in war to defend their vulnerable faith community. I won’t reiterate them all here, but they say that the early Muslim community can defend themselves on a battlefield. They also, for example, prohibit the harming of noncombatants 4:90, limit the situations in which prisoners of war may be held captive 8:67, require their safety be assured and that they be released after the war is over 47:4, and require that anyone seeking protection be granted it regardless of their faith or lack thereof. 9:6. Incidentally, the only martyrdom the Qur’an addresses is in the Qur’anic just war context. I’m not an expert on the history of just war, but it is my understanding that the principles laid out in the Qur’an which forbid aggression and strictly limit the behavior of Muslims during defensive warfare were groundbreaking and novel for their time.
A FEW IMPORTANT THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT ME AND THE QUR’AN
1) I am not a Qur’anic scholar and I don’t know Arabic. As an engaged Muslim, I have read the entirety of the Qur’an several times in translation over the last 20 years, and have consulted multiple translations, and those with an understanding of the original Arabic, for clarification.
2) I am in no way trying to convert anyone to anything. As I have said before, I believe that people make their covenants with God, formally and informally, in all kinds of ways. And I also know that there are a great many people who do not believe in God. It is just not my place to judge, so I don’t.
3) I cannot and will not discuss the entirety of the Qur’an in detail here. Far greater people have spent lifetimes on that task.
4) Consider this a short introduction from an American Muslim on the topic of whether the Qur’an is compatible with pluralism and why.
I invite you to pick up a copy of the Qur’an in translation. Which translation you choose matters a great deal. For a simple, contemporary translation, I would recommend starting with the one by Ahmed Ali. He invokes the poetic nature of the original Arabic without getting too esoteric or weighted down in footnotes. If you like footnotes, look for the Muhammad Asad translation.
The Qur’an has been memorized in its entirety by many people (and still is), a feat which is possible because of its rhythmic, poetic quality. The vast majority of the world’s Muslims are not Arab (only 15-20% are) and do not speak Arabic. However, even non-Arab Muslims do not consider translations to be substitutes for the actual Qur’an, the essence of which is within the original Arabic verse. This is why translations of the Qur’an generally appear alongside the original Arabic text. Muslims generally find it strange to engage in serious debate on or study of the Bible in English; we see the translation as necessarily flawed and we think it odd that no one ever seems to reference an original Aramaic or Greek text, or discuss the political process by which the New Testament, at least, was codified. The Qur’an is widely understood to be the same book as it was in the time of the Prophet. This understanding has been confirmed by academic investigation of Qur’an fragments from within less than two decades of the Prophet’s death.
Most, if not all, Muslims see the Qur’an as divine revelation. I also see it as a beautiful and lyrical introduction to God, the universe and life, as well as a reference text on my religious obligations. The Qur’an introduces the reader to God in part by referring to God with various names based on God’s qualities. The two of these used most frequently are Ar-Rahman and Ar-Raheem, commonly translated as The Most Merciful and The Most Compassionate. The two are derived from the root word rahm, meaning womb. These characteristics, in their original Arabic convey the sense that God’s love for us is both intense and immediate, as well as eternal.
WHAT DOES THE QUR’AN SAY ABOUT PEOPLE WHO AREN’T MUSLIM?
Those who spend some time with the Qur’an will find that the voice therein is neither the punitive and threatening voice of the Torah nor the ethereal, unworldly voice of the New Testament. It is somewhere in between, moving back and forth from providing specific direction on how to make a community and organize one’s life, to reflecting on the beauty and the bounty of God’s creation. In the Qur’an, God is openly critical of the Jewish people, and Christians, as well as the followers of Muhammad. God sees us as tribes with a common lineage and tells Muslims to say “we follow the religion of Abraham” (see, for example, 16:120). God asserts that Abraham was a plain monotheist, one that was unaffected by the politics of any tribe thereafter. The following verses specifically indicate that salvation is not specifically for Muslims and that God’s plan for humanity is pluralism, though not uniformity:
2:62 and again at 5:69 “Verily, those who have attained to faith [in this Divine writ], as well as those who follow the Jewish faith, and the Christians, and the Sabians—all who believe in God and the Last Day and doing righteous deeds—shall have their reward with their Sustainer; and no fear need they have and neither shall they grieve.”
2:136 “Say, we believe in God, and that which has been bestowed from on high upon us, and that which has been bestowed upon Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and their descendants, and that which has been vouchsafed by their Sustainer unto Moses and Jesus and all the [other] prophets: we make no distinction between any of them. And unto Him do we surrender ourselves.”
3:3 “He has bestowed upon thee from on high this divine writ, setting forth the truth which confirms whatever there still remains [of earlier] revelations; for it is He who has bestowed from on high the Torah and the Gospel aforetime, as a guidance to mankind, and it is He who has bestowed [upon man] the standard by which to discern the true from the false.”
This pluralism does not mean that the Qur’an envisions a melting pot for humanity. And God explains why not, by saying:
49:13 “O men! Behold, We have created you out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another. Verily the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him. Behold, God is all knowing, all aware.”
5:48 “And if God had so willed, He could have surely made you into one single community; but He willed it otherwise in order to test you by means of what He has vouchsafed unto you. Vie then, with one another in doing good works! Unto God you must all return, and then He will make you truly understand all that on which you were wont to differ.”
These are such a very small starting place, but they are a window into the heart of the Qur’an. And they guide Muslims’ relationships in the world.
THINKING ABOUT VIOLENCE IN SCRIPTURE
Let me start by offering some direct quotes from the Old and New Testaments (New Revised Standard Version). I ask you to read them first as they are here, with their citations to the Old and New Testaments. And then I ask you to read them again as if someone presented them to you as verses from the Qur’an. Feel how your desire to understand and explain turns quickly into fear and judgment. I offer these because I hope they will make clear to you the problems that arise when we take verses out of context, and how easily the verses in the Old and New Testaments could be taken out of context to justify horrific things. (And they are, today and throughout history.)
“One who blasphemes the name of the LORD shall be put to death; the whole congregation shall stone the blasphemer.” Leviticus 24:16
“When the daughter of a priest profanes herself through prostitution, she profanes her father; she shall be burned to death.” Leviticus 21:9
“As for anyone who presumes to disobey the priest appointed to minister there to the LORD your God, or the judge, that person shall die. So you shall purge the evil from Israel.” Deuteronomy 17:12
“Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that has known man by sleeping with him. But all the young girls who have not known a man by sleeping with him, keep alive for yourselves.” Numbers 31:17-18
“To the others he said in my hearing, “Pass through the city after him, and kill: your eye shall not spare and you shall show no pity. Cut down old men, young men and young women, little children and women.’” Ezekiel 9:5
“Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother-in-law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.” Matthew 10:34-35
“Blessed is the slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives….But if that wicked slave says unto himself, “My master is delayed,” and he begins to beat his fellow slaves, and eats and drinks with drunkards…[The master] will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Matthew 24.45-24.51
“..they will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken away as captives among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled on by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” Luke 21:24
Again, I do not mean, by presenting these verses here, to suggest that Christians and Jews, or their Scriptures are inherently violent. I think I’ve made my, and the Qur’an’s, position on pluralism and the legitimacy of these texts clear—or as clear as I can at six and a half pages. I offer these verses as evidence that many of the texts we believe to be most holy were revealed in times and in places with values and norms quite different from our own, with particular historical contexts. And yet we all, the majority of us with clear intentions and good hearts, interpret our Scriptures by recognizing this and focusing on what inspires goodness and peace.
On that note, I wish those of you who celebrate a very merry Christmas and a New Year full of grace.
Love and peace to you,
To read the entire series: sofiaalikhan[dot]com