By Dr. M. Nazir Khan
Religion has always been a convenient scapegoat for violence. Genocidal maniacs and extremists throughout history have frequently invoked religion to grant cosmic significance to their earthly conflicts. The political conflicts, brutal dictatorships, and warfare involving Muslim countries in recent decades have led to the emergence of modern extremist groups attempting to justify violence in the name of Islam. Chaos, instability and prolonged warfare create a political vacuum where power-hungry groups vie for control. Such groups will raise whatever banner draws support for their cause, whether it be the banner of ethnic identity, cultural identity, nationalism, or a particular ideological or religious identity.
One should immediately be skeptical of the political instrumentalization of religion by such groups, and of the attempt to shift blame to a religion that has been around for 1400 years and is practiced by almost two billion adherents around the world. Nevertheless, certain verses of the Qur'an have been tossed around by radicals and by islamophobes alike, alleging that there is some Qur'anic support for violent activity. The slightest familiarity with the verses in question would demonstrate that nothing could be further from the truth.
It is fairly easy to misquote a text. All one must do is cherry-pick partial sentences and delete the surrounding context. What makes the five most misquoted Qur’anic verses so interesting is that the supposed violent nature of such verses immediately dissolves with a quick glance at the textual and historical context. All one needs to do is simply complete the sentence, or read the preceding or following verse, and it becomes evident that the verse in no way preaches violence. In addition, this perspective is further substantiated when one looks at the other passages in the Qur'an and statements of the Prophet Muhammad, which are unequivocal in their condemnation of violence and affirmation of peace. Furthermore, 1400 years of scholarly analysis of the Qur'an dispels the misinterpretations of contemporary radicals and anti-Muslim bigots
Misquotation 1 – Verse 2:191
The phrase “kill them where you find them” is by far the most frequent phrase that is misquoted by ardent Islamophobes and radical extremists. But this battlefield exhortation comes right after the verse which states “fight against those who fight you” and it comes right before the part which states “but if they cease fighting, then let there be no hostility except against oppressors“!
What is the historical context of verses 2:190-3 and who does it refer to? Ibn Abbas, the famous companion of the Prophet and Qur'anic exegete, says that this passage was revealed in reference to the Quraysh. The Quraysh had persecuted the Muslims and tortured them for thirteen years in Mecca. They had driven Muslims out of their homes, seized their properties and wealth, and fought battles against them after the Muslims sought refuge in Madinah. The Muslims were apprehensive about another attack occurring during their sacred pilgrimage when fighting was prohibited. This is why these verses were revealed to reassure them that they would be able to defend against a Qurayshi attack during pilgrimage. Such fighting never ended up occurring between them and Quraysh, for a peace agreement was upheld and the pilgrimage was permitted.
The phrase “do not commit aggression” was explained by Ibn Abbas to mean, “Do not attack women, children, elderly, or anyone who is not fighting against you“, and thus harming any non-combatants is deemed a transgression against God Almighty. The erudite Qur'anic exegete Ibn Ashur (d.1393H) states, “If they desist from fighting you, then do not fight them for verily God is Most Forgiving and Most Merciful, and so it is only befitting that the believers show mercy”. In this regard, this verse is very similar to 4:89 which prescribes fighting the enemy but is immediately followed by the statement in 4:89, “So if they remove themselves from you and do not fight you but rather offer you peace, then God has made no way for you to fight them.“
Returning to 2:190-3, the word fitnah in this passage means religious persecution (as used in 85:10) and punishing someone for their faith, and coercing them to disbelieve or commit idolatry. The great Qur'anic scholar imam al-Kisaa'i (d.189) explains that fitnah here means “torture ('adhaab) because the Quraysh used to torture those who accepted Islam”. Ibn Jarir al-Tabari (d.310H) explains that the phrase “fitnah is worse than killing” means that “to persecute a believer for his faith until he recants it and becomes an idolater is worse and more painful to him than being slain while holding onto his faith”
Therefore, the passage clearly prohibits fighting against those who are not fighting. The particular misquoted phrase describes fighting in defence against perpetrators of anti-religious persecution and torture.defence against perpetrators of anti-religious persecution and torture.
Misquotation 2 – Verse 9:5
The next phrase that is frequently misquoted is quite similar – “slay those pagans wherever you find them”, but again the slightest familiarity with the historical and contextual context would immediately dispel this misquotation. The verse immediately before speaks of upholding peaceful agreements with those who are at peace and never supported enemy warriors against the Muslims – so who is verse 9:5 in reference to? Qur'anic exegetes al-Baydawi (d.685H) and al-Alusi (d.1270H) explain that it refers to those pagan arabs who violated their peace treaties by waging war against the Muslims (nakitheen) , and thus Abu Bakr al-Jassas (d.370H) notes that these verses are particular to the Arab polytheists and do not apply to anyone else. These comments are substantiated by what the Qur'an itself says. Verse 13 of the same chapter states, “Will you not fight against those who violated their peace treaties, plotted the expulsion of the messenger, and initiated the fighting against you?” and verse 36 states, “and fight the pagans collectively who wage war against you collectively.” The textual context is abundantly clear that verse 9:5 is not a random instruction out of the blue but relates to the pagan tribes of Arabia, who were in a state of war with the Muslims. Therefore, to interpret the passage in any other way is to contradict the very text of the Qur'an.
Moreover, what is fascinating is that the very next verse (9:6) states that if any enemy warrior suddenly demands protection, one is religiously obligated to provide that individual with protection, explain the message of Islam to him, and if he refuses to accept, escort him to a place of security. This instruction to protect and escort enemy combatants to a safe haven makes it blatantly obvious that this passage in no way, shape or form, can be construed as violent.
Misquotation 3 – Verse 8:60
Another favourite text to misquote is the passage that states, “Prepare against them all you can of power and steeds of war..” but again, the very next verse reads, “If they incline towards peace, then incline towards peace as well” – hardly a violent passage!
Moreover, one must again ask who is being referred to in this citation? The historical context clearly places these verses again in reference to the ongoing war between the Muslims and the enemy forces of the Quraysh of Mecca and their tribal allies. This chapter was revealed in reference to the Battle of Badr which took place between the Muslims who sought refuge in Madinah and the Quraysh who had persecuted them and driven them out of their homes in Mecca. The same chapter describes the pervasive warfare in Arabia and lack of security suffered by the early oppressed Muslim community. “And remember when you were few and oppressed in the land, fearing that people might abduct you, but He sheltered you, supported you with His victory, and provided you with good things – that you might be grateful.” (8:26)
Note also that sometimes Islamophobic bigots cite verse 8:12 from this same chapter “strike above their necks”, somehow completely missing the fact that the verse describes what God said to the angels during the battle of Badr. The first half of the verse reads, “When your Lord inspired the angels, 'Verily, I am with you, so strengthen the believers…'”. To take a description of God's inspiration to angels during a historical battle against the Quraysh oppressors and somehow distort that into a generic command for Muslims to attack non-muslims is profoundly dishonest, to say the least.
Misquotation 4 – Verse 47:4
This is perhaps the most outrageous of all misquotations. A phrase in the middle of a passage about battle is ripped out of its context and presented ludicrously as, “When you meet disbelievers, smite their necks.” To even the most casual reader who bothers to glance at the passage, the verse is talking about a meeting in mutual battle between warriors (Ar. “fi'l-muharabah” as al-Baydawi explains) that comes to an end “when the war lays down its burdens” as the verse itself states. This verse is specifically discussing mutual battle with those disbelievers engaged in warfare as noted by Ibn Jareer al-Tabari. This is clear from the opening line of the chapter which states, “Those who disbelieve and prevent people from the path of God“, which as Ibn Abbas has stated, is in reference to the pagans of Quraysh, who oppressed the believers by denying them the freedom to practice their faith and then went to war with them to exterminate their community.
With respect to the phrase, “until the war lays down its burdens“, imam Qatadah (d.117H) explained it saying, “until the enemy warriors lay down their burdens” – a phrase that was echoed by many scholars throughout history, including Ibn Qutaybah al-Daynuri (d.276H). Note also that this verse provides Muslims with only two options for prisoners of war – unconditional release, or acceptance of ransom. The verse mentions no other option, and indeed scholars have pointed out that this is the general rule, for the Prophet Muhammad only punished those war criminals guilty of treachery or gross violations, but otherwise he almost universally would pardon people even his most ardent opponents, as he did with the war chief Thumamah ibn Uthal, Abu Sufyan ibn Harb, Habbar ibn al-Aswad, Ikrimah ibn Abi Jahl, Umayr ibn Wahb, Safwan ibn Umayyah, Suhayl ibn Aamir, and the list goes on.
Misquotation 5 – Verse 9:29
One of the most interesting citations is 9:29, along with the claim that it instructs Muslims to fight people of the Book “until they pay the jizya and feel subdued”. But this verse as well has a historical context that is neglected. The very early exegete, Mujahid ibn Jabr al-Makhzumi (d.104H) explained that this fighting was revealed in reference to the Prophet Muhammad's campaign against the Byzantine empire. The Prophet Muhammad sent al-Harith ibn Umayr al-Azdi as an emissary to the Byzantine vassal state of the Ghassanids, but the chieftain Shurahbeel committing the shocking crime of tying up the emissary, torturing him, and murdering him. When an army was dispatched to confront the Ghassanids for their crime, the Vicarius Theodorus summoned a large force of Roman soldiers to engage in war against the Muslims in the Battle of Mu'tah.
Thus, this verse was revealed in regards to fighting within an existing war against an enemy political entity, namely the Byzantine empire, which lead to preparations for the expedition of Tabuk. The hostility of the group in question is mentioned in the this very Qur'anic passage itself, which goes on to state (9:32) that this instruction refers to those “who attempt to extinguish the light of Islam with their mouths“, which al-Dahhak (d.105H) stated meant “they wish to destroy Muhammad and his companions.”
As history went on, imperial conflicts continued between the Byzantine empire and the subsequent Muslim empire of the Umayyads. Many writing within the historical setting of imperial conflict assumed that this verse characterized a generic state of perpetual warfare with opponent political entities. However, as noted in Tafsir al-Maraghi, all of the Qur'anic conditions of warfare mentioned earlier still apply to this verse. Thus, the verse means, “fight those mentioned when the conditions which necessitate fighting are present, namely, aggression against you or your country, oppression and persecution against you on account of your faith, or threatening your safety and security, as was committed against you by the Byzantines, which was what lead to Tabuk.”
The Qur'an is a message to humanity that repeats 114 times, “In the Name of God the Most Compassionate the Most Merciful.” The Qur'an instructs Muslims to show goodness to those who do evil (41:34), to speak words of peace to those who are hostile (25:63), to call to the way of God with wisdom and beautiful preaching (16:125), to treat peaceful non-muslims with the utmost kindness and justice (60:8), to be the best of people towards other people (3:110), and to respect freedom of religion (2:256, 10:99). There is simply no plausible way to understand the Qur'an in a manner bereft of mercy, compassion or peace. Any sincere and reasonable person looking at these passages must necessarily recognize that the Qur'an stands for mercy, not for destruction and violence.
Attempts to portray the Qur'anic text as preaching violence do not stand up to academic scrutiny, and in fact, can be dispelled by simply reading the entire sentence and the immediate context. Dishonesty abounds in the selective chopping of sentences by both Islamophobes and radicals alike. Knowledge of the historical context of these verses clearly demonstrates that all of these passages without exception relate to fighting against those engaged in warfare. A careful examination of the scholarly analysis of these passages provides abundant statements clarifying the meaning of these verses.
At this point, it should be obvious that one of the best ways to combat misuse of scripture is by propagating the voluminous evidences which necessitate an understanding of scripture that is peaceful, merciful, and tolerant, and empowering those who advance this understanding. To insist on characterizing the religion as inherently violent is to play right into the hands of extremists on both sides who wish to incite hatred and perpetuate war.