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The foregoing discussion provides ample evidence that the normative relationship between Muslims and Non-Muslims is that of peace, justice, mercy and mutual respect. Some may ask, however, how building and maintenance of peace can be reconciled with the concept of “holy war”?

The Qur’anic Arabic term Jihad has been commonly mistranslated as “Holy War”. The Qur’an was revealed in Arabic, not in English. The Arabic equivalent of the English expression “Holy War” is “ Harb Muqaddasah”, an expression that is not found anywhere in the Qur’an or in the authentic sayings of the Prophet of Islam[P]. Even when the Qur’an speaks about defensive war, it never glorifies it or calls it “Holy”; rather, it is described as something, which is inherently hated [2:216-217]. However, as a last resort, it may be better than doing nothing in the face of aggression or oppression.

Furthermore, the term “Holy War” means, lexically, a fight on behalf of one religion against the other [s]. There is no verse in the Qur’an that condones fighting any peaceful non-Muslim on the sole ground that he/she is a non-Muslim. The Qur’an prohibits compulsion in religion [2:256] and even allows one form of interfaith marriage. For example, a Muslim male may marry a Jewish or Christian woman [5:5].

It may be argued, from a religious perspective that the expression “Holy War” is a contradiction in terms, as there is nothing “Holy” about war and its results; bloodshed, destruction and human suffering. It may be a lesser evil in some instances, but it may not be holy in itself. It may be useful to discuss the meaning of “Jihad” in both its literal and religious meanings.

Jihad is an Arabic term derived from the root “J-H-D” which means, literally, to strive or exert effort. It is the same root from which the legal term “Ijtihad” is derived since Ijtihad refers to the exertion of intellectual effort by scholars so as to come up with an informed religious opinion on a new issue or problem. The term Jihad and similar terms derived from the same root are used in the Qur’an and Hadeeth. Firstly, it is used in the context of prayers, doing righteous deeds and self-purification; inward Jihad or struggle against evil inclinations within oneself [Qur’an, 22:77-78; 29:4-7]. Secondly, it is used in the context of social Jihad, or striving for truth, justice and goodness in one’s relationship with other humans. Examples of this usage include the payment of charity to the needy [49:15] and striving to persuade those who reject God’s message by referring to the arguments presented in the Qur’an [25:52]. Thirdly, it is used in the context of the battlefield, which is often called, more specifically, qital, which means fighting. That later form; the combative Jihad, is allowed in the Qur’an for legitimate self-defense in the face of unprovoked aggression or in resisting severe oppression on religious or other grounds. In fact, the first verses in the Qur’an that allowed self- defense were not revealed until the early Muslim community had endured more than thirteen years of suffering and aggression at the hands of the idolatrous Arabs. The wording of these verses is revealing: “Permission [to fight] is given to those against whom war is being wrongfully waged, and verily, God has indeed the power to aid them. Those who have been driven from their homelands in defiance of right for no other reason than their saying, ‘Our Lord is Allah’.” 22: 39-40.

The key verses in the Qur’an concerning the justification of resorting to combative Jihad are the following: “And fight in God’s cause against those who wage war against you, but do not commit aggression, for, verily, Allah does not love the aggressors. And slay them wherever you may 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 Sacred Mosque until they fight against you first, but if they fight against you, slay them: such is the recompense of the rejecters of truth. But if they desist [from aggression], behold, Allah is Most Forgiving, Most Merciful. And fight against them until there is no more oppression and religion belongs to God [i.e. until people can worship Allah without fear of persecution], but if they desist, then all hostility shall cease, except against those who commit injustice” 2:190-194. It is obvious from these key verses that the only two justifications of the combative-type of Jihad is to stop aggression and severe oppression. The condition for ceasing hostilities is not acceptance of Islam, but halt to aggression and oppression.

Like the above verses, there are a few verses in the Qur’an which sanction fighting. These verses, however, when understood in their textual and historical context deal with war situations and should not be generalized. The description of the aggressors or oppressors as rejecters of faith or idolatrous people does not mean that they are to be fought against on account of being non-Muslims. Historically, these aggressors, happened to be non-Muslims. In fact, the Qur’an allows fighting against fellow Muslims if they are aggressors and other means of restoring peace and justice have failed [49:8-9]. The issue in allowing fighting in the presence of aggression, not difference of religion.

No single verse in the Qur’an, when placed in its proper textual and historical context, permits fighting others on the basis of their faith, ethnicity or nationality. To do so contradicts several established values and principles discussed in the previous section. Combative Jihad is not only restricted in terms of what may or may not justify it; it is also strictly regulated. Prophet Muhammad [P] taught how to behave in the battlefield. As a “hated act,” war should not be resorted to if other peaceful and just means may stop aggression or oppression. Intentions must be pure and no selfish personal or nationalistic agenda should be the driving force. There must be a declaration of war by a legitimate authority after due consultation. No non-combatants should be hurt. All must refrain from looting and unnecessary destruction. Prisoners of war and the injured must be treated humanely.

It should be noted that in the long history of Muslim people, there were times when such conditions and rules were adhered to and other times where there were violations to differing degrees. There have also been some misinterpretations of the concept by some scholars, possibly influenced at least in part, by the circumstances of the time in which they lived. The fact remains, however, that Islamic teachings should not be driven either by what some Muslims did in the past, or are doing today, or by misinterpretations from the past or present.

How do you explain verses in the Qur’an that encourage killing non-Muslims wherever they are found [9:5] and others that allow fighting against Jews, Christians and other neighboring non-Muslims [9:29, 123]?


1.To begin with, the verse [9:5] has nothing to do with the people of the book [Jews and Christians], who are distinguished from other non-Muslims. The Qur’anic text [98:1] makes a clear distinction between the people of the book “Ahl al-Kitaab” and the idolatrous people “Al- Mushrikeen”, the term used in 9:5. Furthermore,all these and similar verses have been sometimes misconstrued and taken out of their textual and historical context. They have been taken out of their textual context by ignoring the verses before and after the quoted ones, and also by ignoring other verses in the Qur’an, which relate to the same issues and thus shed light on their true meanings. They have also been taken out of the historical context that could explain why they were revealed and how they should be applied. All of these verses, without exception, if studied carefully, address aggression and oppression committed against Muslims at the time of the Prophet [P], whether by idolatrous Arabs, some of the Jewish tribes in Madinah, or by some Christians. Most, however, apply to the Makkans and other idolatrous Arabs aggressors. Some of the antagonists tortured, and in certain cases killed, Muslims because of their faith, for example the killing of Sumayyah and her husband Yasir. Some killed the memorizers of the Qur’an who were simply on their way to preach its message of Allah’s oneness in a peaceful manner. Some of them killed the messengers sent by the Prophet [P], which is equivalent in today’s international law to killing the ambassador of another country, an act of war. Some of them gathered armies, like the Christians in Tabuk, in order to attack Muslims. Some of them wrote letters to their local governors to go and kill the Prophet Muhammad [P] unless he recanted his claim of prophethood, as was the case with the Emperor of Persia. Some betrayed peace treaties and killed unsuspecting peaceful people, without provocation, contrary to the agreement, such as the breaking of the treaty of Hudaybiahby the Makkans. The issue here is not religion, but rather injustice, oppression and aggression.

1.There are many verses in the Qur’an stating that one who coexists peacefully with Muslims is entitled to justice, compassion and respect, irrespective of their religion [60:8-9] as long as they are peaceful with Muslims.

1.If it were true that the Qur’an instructs that any non-Muslim should be killed because of his/her religion, then what would explain the fact that religious minorities through 1400 years of Muslim history not only survived, but also thrived and found freedom to practice their faiths under Muslim rule? Clearly, Muslims as a people were not perfect, yet there were times when they had enough power to eliminate almost all non-Muslims under their rule. The historical record shows that they did not abuse this power. The restraint they showed seems to be influenced in the first place by the Qur’anic injunctions against coercion in religion.

1.The Qur’an allows a Muslim man to get married to a Christian or Jewish woman. If it were true that the Qur’an demands killing non-Muslims, how could it permit a Muslim man to marry such women? Marriage is the closest human relationship and is described in the Qur’an as a relationship characterized by peace, love and compassion [See: Qur’an 30:21], not murder because of theological differences.


Is Islam imperialistic? Are there verses in the Qur’an stating that Islam is the religion of truth, and therefore it must prevail over all other religions? [9:33, 48:28 and 61:9]


1.True Islam practiced according to its original sources, the Qur’an and sunnah,is not imperialistic at all. Some Muslim rulers throughout history may have deviated from its teachings in some degree or the other. Their actions, however, is not to be equated with normative Islam. Some jurists even gave opinions that seemed to have justified these actions. Such interpretations may have been influenced by the kind of world in which they lived which is vastly different from ours today. None of these scholars claimed infallibility or finality of their interpretations. Yet, whether such interpretations were valid for their times and specific circumstances or whether they were contrary to the overall text and spirit of Islam, the fact remains that interpretation of the primary sources of Islam is an endeavor which is not frozen in time. Historically, those who espoused such arguments may have erred in understanding some parts of the Qur’an. They may have failed to understand how those parts fit into the total picture of the teachings of the Qur’an teachings on the relationship between Muslims and others.

2.History bears testimony that Islam spread much faster during the periods of peace not war. Even in periods when Muslims did not “prevail”, economically, socially, militarily or politically, Islam continued to spread. The same phenomenon can be seen in our time which is a time of great suffering and persecution of Muslims in many parts of the world. Even some of those who attacked Islam and Muslims and committed horrible massacres of Muslims, such as the Mongols and the Crusaders, ultimately accepted Islam themselves. It is rather interesting to see the conqueror accepting the faith of the conquered rather than the reverse. Clear historical and geographical facts show that Islam has spread more by peaceful means than by force. A look at the map of the Muslim world today shows that the bulk of Muslims live in countries where there was no fighting, not even defensive fighting. An example is, Indonesia, with nearly 200 million Muslims. Thomas Arnold, a former Christian missionary in India, in his famous book Preaching of Islam,indicated that while there have been certain periods where Muslim rulers have diverted from this tolerance, it was the fault of the rulers, but it may not be attributed to Islamic teachings. He concludes that the two primary reasons for the spread of Islam all over the world were the merchants and the Sufis [mystics], two groups of people who went out, worked with humanity and gently invited others to the path of Allah. 24
3.If it were true that Islam allows use of force to convert people, then how did religious minorities thrive in regions under Muslim rule. It is also worth asking why did the Qur’an and sunnah explicitly dictate regulations and rights for the protection of non-Muslim minorities living under the rule of Islam, if other religions are to be eliminated so that Islam may “prevail”. The Prophet [P] even said that if a Muslims hurts a dhimmi or covenanted person, i.e. a non-Muslim living under the rule of Islam, or commits any injustice to him, then on the Day of Judgment the Prophet [P] will be the advocate on behalf of the non-Muslim against the Muslim. What is the sense of these prescriptions and advice, if those people had to accept Islam or be killed? Why does the Qur’an repeatedly speak about peaceful dialogue with non-Muslims [e.g. 29:46] if they have to be killed in the first place? If indeed Islam insists on the use of force for conversion, then why did people, when no longer under Muslim rule, not revert back to their previous faiths?

4.It is true that three verses in the Qur’an [9:33, 48:28 and 61:9] state that Allah sent forth His messenger [Muhammad] with the message of guidance and the religion of truth, so that it may “prevail” over all religions. What does prevail mean in this context? Must we limit our understanding of the word prevail to the narrow context of military or political power? There have been many tyrannical empires throughout history that prevailed, economically, politically or militarily, at one time or another. Their dominance was impermanent. This is a very superficial and temporary type of prevailing. Real prevailing is the prevailing of the truth and belief in the One True God and all that that implies. In fact, a better translation of the original Qur’anic Arabic term “li-yuzhirahu” is “ to proclaim it”, rather than “to make it prevail”. This was the translation adopted by Abullah Yusuf Ali.


Doesn’t the Qur’an state that Muslims should never take Jews and Christians for friends?


1.This is an incorrect translation in the first place. The Qur’an does not tell Muslims not to take Jews and Christians as friends. The word used in the Qur’an is awliyaa’, which means overlords or protectors not mere friends. If we look at the verses that deal with this injunction, we will notice that they always refer to negative situations. For example, in 5:57-58, the context refers to those who mock you when at Muslims when they call for prayers. Would any sane person of any religion take as their defender one who mocks them in this way?. It is not appropriate to view these verses in isolation, since there are many verses that teach how peaceful relationships should be developed with non-Muslims.
2.Coming back to the question of marriage, which is more intimate, the marital relationship or friendship? According to the Qur’an [5:5], a Muslim man can marry a Jewish or Christian woman. As a wife, her Muslim husband has obligations to her. As revealed in Surah 30, verse 22, he should dwell with her treat in peace and treat her with love and compassion. Does it make sense that a Muslim would be permitted to marry a non-Muslim, but not befriend her?

Why does the Qur’an speak approvingly of the persecution of Jews in Madinah? Doesn’t that betray an element of anti-Semitism or anti-Jewishness and why does the Qur’an describe Jews and idolatrous people as the most inimical to the believers [5:85]? Isn’t that confirmed by the Prophet’s “massacre and persecution” of the Jews of Madinah?


1.How could the Prophet Muhammad [P] be anti-Jewish when the Qur’an mentions the name of Moses [P] and other Israelite prophets in terms of great praise? The Qur’an describes the original Torah that was revealed to Moses [P] as giving light and guidance, and the Qur’an demands respect for the rights of all peacefully co-existing people, including Jews. Criticism in the Qur’an is not about Judaism or Christianity. The criticism in the Qur’an is aimed at distortion and wrong actions committed by Christians, Jews, as well as some Muslims; it does not criticize the pristine message revealed by Allah to Moses [P] and Jesus [P]. Just as the Biblical text include criticism of believers, whether followers of Moses [P] or Jesus [P], the Qur’an also cites wrong actions of Muslims and other groups. Furthermore, criticism is not meant for the sake of criticism, but rather to warn Muslims in particular against repeating the same mistakes in the future.

1.What is clear, historically, about Prophet Muhammad’s dealings with the Jewish tribes in and around Madinah, is that as soon as he migrated to Madinah, he established the constitution of Madinah or ‘Sahifa’. As Dr. Hamidullah described it, it was the first multicultural, multi-religious constitution in the world. It gave everyone equal rights, including the Jews. It conferred legal autonomy and the right to practice one’s own religion freely, and it required a commitment to defend the city of Madinah against external aggression. None can accuse the Prophet [P] of breaking this agreement. Even non-Muslim scholars, such as Montgomery Watts, never mention that the Prophet [P] betrayed his agreements. In fact, other parties committed acts that were contrary to the agreement on more than one occasion. Whatever penalty was applied, however, it was only applied to the specific group of people who committed the offense, not to all. If it was applied to all, one might suspect group bias, such as anti-Semitism, but it was only to the offending tribe. Furthermore, the punishment was always proportionate to the offense that was committed. Uncovering a Muslim woman was different from conspiring to kill the Prophet [P], and such actions were handled in different ways. The ultimate betrayal occurred during the Battle of the Trench, when a group of Jews from Madinah contacted the enemy, unilaterally renounced the constitution of Madinah, and helped the enemy during war against the Prophet [P] and Madinah. In modern times, this is referred to as high treason at the time of war. Referring to this incident, many say the Prophet [P] massacred the tribe of Banu Quraizah , but this is a distortion of the historical facts. In fact, it was not a sentence by the Prophet [P]. The people of Banu Quraiza chose their own arbitrator and former ally [Sa`d] who determined their punishment according to the law of the Torah, which specifies killing of men for treason. The Prophet [P] simply agreed with his sentence, but it was not the sentence of the Prophet [P] in the first place. A scholarly article by W.N. Arafat questions the exaggerated estimate of the number of fighting men who were punished which is found even in some biographies about the Prophet’s life, like Ibn Ishaq. His argument is compelling and well researched25

1.The main question is whether 5:85 speaks of all Jews and at all times or to those who were hostile to Muslims and betrayed them contrary to their treaty. Given both the textual and historical contexts, it refers only to those who initiated enmity, if not outright aggression against Muslims or those who adopt this attitude, not to a whole religious group.

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