Islamophobia is widely rampant in the West. Individuals and groups with malicious intents are deliberately distorting the image of Islam and Muslims. Its dangerous implications were realized by the former U.N. Secretary General, Kofi Annan, and to confront it, he arranged a seminar in December 2004. A more recent example is the “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week” led by the neo-conservative David Horowitz across college campuses in the United States. Because it concerns more than a billion world Muslims, it is crucial to remedy these misrepresentations.
Much of the criticism is primarily directed at the Qur’an, the holy scripture of Islam, alleging that it teaches terrorism to the Muslims. Therefore, this article will quote the relevant verses under objection, and discuss them in their correct textual and contextual references.
Indeed, the objections are made in complete disregard of Islam and Muslim history initiated by the Qur’an. It is as if Islam came into being yesterday, and these protagonists are awakening the world to its real enemy. Thus obviously there is a political agenda behind this propaganda war. That the superpower America in collaboration with the West should hasten subjugating Muslim populations of the entire world. In essence, it is directed at victimizing the victims of the current war on terrorism.
The fact is that one could play havoc with any document by narrowly picking its parts to suit one’s designs. But to be honest, one must look at what follows and what precedes those specific quotations. As well as examine the totality of message.
We know that the Qur’an was revealed over a period of 23 years, according to the needs and circumstances of a particular situation. Thus there is also a historical and contextual reference to the verses revealed. So, one must know these situations. In fact, there is a whole body of knowledge on asbab nazool – the situational context of Qur’anic revelations.
Anyone who wants to understand the Qur’an, must get rid of any preconceived notions, and read it passage by passage. Such that if it is not clear at one place becomes clear at another place, as one progresses in its study. Thus it is commonly said that the Qur’an is its own best tafsir (exegesis), providing its own best commentary.
With that said, let us now examine their major objections. A part of the verse 191 from the second chapter Al–Baqarah is quoted: “And slay them wherever you overtake them.” And an allegation is made that it commands Muslims to kill disbelievers.
It is obvious that this verse is a continuation of the verse 190 that precedes it; and then the verse 191 must be read to its conclusion. We thus read: “And fight in the cause of God those who have waged war against you, but do not transgress limits. Indeed, God loves not transgressors (190). And slay them wherever you overtake them and expel them from where they have expelled you, for tumult and oppression are worse than killing; but fight them not at the Sacred Mosque, unless they first fight you. But if they were to fight you, then do not be reluctant to fight them. Such is the reward of the Kafireen” (191).
As to the historical background, these verses were revealed after the peace treaty of Hudaybiyah was signed between the idolatrous Quraysh of Mecca and the nascent Muslim community of Medina, six years after Hijra (the time line when Muslims persecuted in Mecca migrated to Medina). A clause of the agreed upon treaty stipulated that Muslims shall be allowed to perform Hajj in the following year.
Some feared that the Quraysh may not fulfill their obligation to allow Muslims enter Mecca, or attack them while performing the Hajj rituals. It was under these circumstances that the verses were revealed.
Thus, if Quraysh did not abide by their treaty obligations and attacked, then Muslims were commanded to defend themselves. And they were given instructions on how to go about it. Muslims were also commanded to preserve the sanctity of the Sacred Mosque of Kaba (built by Abraham) by not fighting in it, unless they were fought therein.
Please note that in the above verses the subject of the verbs for fight, slay, overtake, and expel is a direct reference to Quraysh, who waged war against Muslims, and had earlier expelled them from Mecca.
Again, the descriptive word “kafireen” at the end of verse 191 could be applied to the idolatrous Quraysh in general, or the specific group of Quraysh who violated the sanctity of Kaba and incurred violence within its confines: That only those Quraysh who violated the sanctity of Kaba and incurred violence in it, Muslims should not be reluctant to fight them.
It must be emphatically stated that the word Kafir (derived from Kuffur), and its plural kafiroon and kafireen are specifically used for those who are enemies of Islam and Muslims. It is wrong to extend its meaning to any other group, be they Jews, Christians, or people of other faiths or no faith.
Contrary to what the critics say, in reality these verses show Islam’s quest for peace. Thus even when Muslims are commanded to fight in self-defense, they are instructed to practice morality during war. Essentially the verses tell: “Do not start a fight. But fight in the cause of God those who initiate the fight, but do not transgress the limits imposed, thereby extending the circle of war.” Most Islamic scholars interpret these verses as limiting the enemy losses to their own: Killing any more is transgression.
The take home lesson for Muslims is not to start hostilities, and to use techniques to stop war, if already started. Because causing more damage, is inviting more violence.
Still another Qur’anic verse commands Muslims to seek an end to hostilities, if the enemy desires truce. It tells: “But if the enemy is inclined to peace, then be inclined to it.” (Al Anfal 8:61)
Let us now look at the ninth chapter of Qur’an called Al Bara’ah, meaning the Declaration of Disassociation, which is specifically targeted by these critics. (Another name for this chapter is Al Tawbah or acceptance of repentance).
The subject of several beginning verses of this chapter is dissolution of treaty obligations, excepting a few, with the idolatrous Quraysh. The Hudaybiyah Treaty obligations were broken when the Quraysh attacked a tribe in confederacy with the Muslims. At this treaty violation, the Prophet Muhammad led an army of ten thousand, but took measures to peacefully enter Mecca without any bloodshed. He declared a general amnesty, and with this most Meccans accepted Islam.
However, there were some Meccans and others around it that still practiced idol-worship. Some would bring their idols to the Sacred Mosque, and some would even go naked during the worship.
After this conquest, the Prophet did not attend Hajj for two years, to give ample time to other Meccans to evaluate their position, and for peace to prevail.
It was at this time -after two years and during the second Hajj season- that this Qur’anic chapter was revealed. From then on Mecca was to return to its original monotheism initiated by Abraham as the sacred center of orientation for all Muslims. However, this was done in several stages.
1. The pilgrims led by Abu Bakr, and reinforced by Ali, the Prophet’s cousin, announced that God and His Prophet dissociated themselves from the idolaters, who violated the peace agreements. And that there would be no more agreements with them in future.
2. The idolatrous Quraysh who broke the treaty were given a four month grace period. However, peace was maintained with the tribes of Nadheer and Kenanah, who did not violate the treaty terms until its end.
3. There will be no more idol worship in Mecca and the Sacred Mosque.
4. A four-month respite was given to those who chose idol-worship to either leave Mecca or embrace Islam.
5. A warning of actual war against idolaters who insisted on staying, and carrying out their idolatrous ways.
With the above explanation in mind, let us now read these verses: “This is a declaration of disassociation from God and His messenger to those you made a treaty with from among the Mushrikeen. So travel safely and freely (O Mushrikeen), throughout the land during four months, but know that you cannot frustrate God (by your falsehood), and that God will cover with shame the Kafireen. And an announcement from God and His messenger to the people on the day of the greater Hajj that God is disassociated from the Mushrikeen, and so is His messenger. So if you repent, that is best for you; But if you turn away, then know that you cannot frustrate God. And proclaim a grievous punishment to those who make Kuffur. But the treaties are not dissolved with those Mushrikeen who have not failed you, nor aided anyone against you. So complete for them until the end of term; for God loves the righteous. And when the sacred months have passed, then fight and kill the Mushrikeen wherever you find them, and capture them and besiege them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem of war. But if they repent, establish prayer, and give regular charity, then open the way for them; for God is often forgiving, most merciful.” (Al Tawbah 9: 1-5)
From what has been said above, it is clear that Islam gives permission to fight only when it is unavoidable. It then employs a psychology of threat of war to prevent actual war (just as it employs the threat of severe punishment for preventing societal vices and corruption). It is apparent that this technique worked very well in this case: It averted a war, and all Meccan inhabitants stayed without leaving their homes.
Obviously in the above verses the word Mushrikeen, those who associate others with God, is used specifically for the idolatrous Quraysh who are the subject matter in these verses, and to whom the subject of disassociation and dissolution of treaty obligations were addressed. Therefore, these verses cannot be interpreted to apply to any other people.
Let us look at another verse under objection from this chapter. It is the verse 29 regarding paying of Jizyah by the People of the Book, an honorable term used for Jews and Christians.
This verse states: “Fight those who believe not in God nor in the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which has been forbidden by God and His messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of truth from among the People of Book, until they pay the Jizyah with willing submission and acknowledge their subjection to the state.” (Al Tawbah 9: 29)
Jizyah, meaning compensation, is a tax that was levied on non-Muslims who were willing to live under Islamic protection. This verse could be understood when one takes into consideration that this tax was levied on Jews and Christians in lieu their serving in the defense of Islamic state. It was a symbolic tax with no fixed amount and with various exemptions, such as the poor, women, children, monks and hermits. And levied only on able-bodied males of military age who were then exempted from military service.
In most cases this tax was much lower than Zakah (or Zakat), a poor-due charity tax, which Muslims are obliged to pay, and is enforceable by the state. But Zakah is not imposed on the non-Muslims, although they could be paid out of it. Looked into without bias, such a tax would be welcome by a non-Muslim minority nowadays – when as it often happens, the minorities bear the greater burden of fighting for the majority.
Despite this levy, however, Islam accords equal citizenship rights to its non-Muslims subjects just as to the Muslims, in every other way.
Furthermore, in the context of the present day state (as it has evolved) where all citizens are equally obligated to defend their country, no Islamic scholar (or anyone else) in the Muslim-majority countries advocates levying any differential taxes on non-Muslims versus Muslims.
In fact, rather than teaching violence and intolerance, Islam inculcates special regard for the People of the Book – the Jews and Christians. The Qur’an insists over and over again that Islam did not cancel out the teachings of previous messengers of God such as Abraham, Moses and Jesus, but that it is a continuation of that same divine message.
In addition to respecting faith of the Jews and Christians, Muslims are to share with them their foods, develop relations with them by given permission to marry their women while facilitating their specific religious obligations. As well as obligated to protect churches, and synagogues.
And this is the divine message that Muhammad delivered, exemplified in his conduct, and asked Muslims to practice.
Then, there are more than 1,400 years of Muslim history as a testimony of tolerance and respect for other people. Muslims were a dominant world power for a thousand years, a golden era of history. The cordial relationships with the West are exemplified in over 700 years of domination in Andalusia (present day Spain) at a time when Europe was immersed in dark-age medieval practices. Muslims lived amicably with Jews and Christians, and through their contact led to generate the European renaissance. Muslim rule in India lasted even longer for over 900 years, and gave the local population the highest positions in governing. It was due to their tolerance that for all these years Muslims stayed as a minority in these countries (although expelled along with the Jews from Spain). The country with the largest Muslim population today is Indonesia, yet not a single soldier invaded any of these vast territories.
Indeed, even today, the everlasting appeal of Islam is in evidence when, attracted by its elegant message along with interplay of faith with reason, thousands worldwide, in preference to any other faith, accept it as their way of life. Just as an example, the reader is asked to visit IslamiCity.com, a California-based website – which along with providing essential information about Islam also provides a moving reel on one side of its title page giving the names of persons who phone to pronounce their Shahada (simple yet profound Islamic enunciation). Some two people phone in every 50 hours. This is happening, despite the widespread bad publicity, and only at one popular Islamic website. Amazing! Isn’t it?
Muslims must get involved in presenting the true picture of Islam: Because unless we do it, others with a very sinister agenda will do it for us. These others are already engaged full scale in their vicious efforts, trying by all means to sideline Muslims in America, and advocating a perpetual war against Islam and Muslims world-wide. That is a future aspired for no sane person anywhere. And for peace to prevail for the sake of entire humanity, we urge the people of conscience everywhere to work in exposing reality of the current situation, while searching for the truth.
Siraj Islam Mufti, Ph.D., a freelance journalist is involved in interfaith affairs.