This is a question that often comes up in critiques of Islam, especially in light of recent political events. It is incumbent on Muslims to respond to and clear misconceptions stemming from Islam’s perceived stance on violence and interfaith relations.
The Importance of Context
The word ‘context’ has two dictionary meanings:
• The parts of a written or spoken statement that precede or follow a specific word or passage, usually influencing its meaning or effect.
• The set of circumstances or facts that surround a particular event, situation, etc.
Any discussion on Qur’anic verses that refer to violence would be meaningless, without a study of the surrounding context. Before we study the verses in question, therefore, let us examine this issue in a wider perspective:
The Sanctity of Life
The Glorious Qur’an says:
“…take not life, which God hath made sacred, except by way of justice and law: thus doth He command you, that ye may learn wisdom.”
Islam considers all life forms as sacred. However, the sanctity of human life is accorded a special place. The first and the foremost basic right of a human being is the right to live. The Glorious Qur’an says:
“…if any one slew a person – unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.”
Such is the value of a single human life, that the Qur’an equates the taking of even one human life unjustly, with killing all of humanity.
The Verses of War
The words that often causes consternation among those unfamiliar with Islam, is:
“…and slay them wherever ye catch them…”
The truth is that this is only part of the verse 191 of Chapter 2 of the Qur’an. Let us read the verses 190 to 191 in order to get a complete picture:
“Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loveth not transgressors. And slay them wherever ye catch them, and turn them out from where they have Turned you out; for tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter; but fight them not at the Sacred Mosque, unless they (first) fight you there; but if they fight you, slay them. Such is the reward of those who suppress faith.”
It is a well-known fact of Islamic history, that fighting against aggressors was prohibited during the first thirteen years of the Prophet’s mission. After Muslims migrated to Madina , the verses above were revealed to enable the community to fight in self-defense. The verses that follow clearly indicate Islam’s prohibition on aggression and inclination towards peace:
“But if they cease, Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful. And fight them on until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah; but if they cease, let there be no hostility except to those who practise oppression.”
The verses above specifically refer to fighting against oppression and in defense of religious freedom as the Glorious Qur’an says:
“Let there be no compulsion in religion”
Fair-dealing towards all
When read in context, the above verses do not even remotely suggest an exhortation for Muslims to be vicious or hateful towards people of other faiths. Far from this, the Qur’an actually requires that Muslims conduct themselves with fairness and dignity in all matters, and especially in regard to interfaith relations, as indicated by the following verse:
“Allah forbids you not, with regard to those who fight you not for (your) Faith nor drive you out of your homes, from dealing kindly and justly with them: for Allah loveth those who are just.