We begin our exploration with the Qur'an, even though it would be more logical to begin with the sirat, or early biographies of Muhammad, since these biographies supply the historical context of the Qur'an. We begin with the Qur'an because it is Islam's most basic text and most frequently cited source. However, Muslims rightly caution us against quoting verses from the Qur'an out of context. Therefore we will not simply quote isolated verses but will comment on the context as we go along. Later sections on Muhammad's life and teachings will supply further background.
It is difficult for any non-Muslim to approach the Qur'an. It is written in a strange and mysterious language, and its organization is bewildering. The suras (or suwar, plural of sura, chapter) are ordered neither by chronology nor by topic, but by length, the longest ones first. The text also frequently alludes to events in the life of Muhammad that are not narrated; one must really know Muhammad's biography before one studies the Qur'an. A non-Muslim also approaches the Qur'an "from the outside," not having learned to regard it as a sacred text.
And so non-Muslims and Muslims will see this text very differently. Muslims derive inspiration from it and treat it with reverence. Non-Muslims also should treat it with respect, but may have criticisms coming from their experience of how Muslims have used the Qur'an and the role this text has played in history.
Thus the dilemma of this presentation. How does one talk about the role of the Qur'an in promoting religious intolerance without encouraging even more religious intolerance? The tension of this question should be kept in mind throughout our discussion.
The Qur'an is a complex document, with many layers of meaning: historical, biographical, pedagogical, aesthetic, and spiritual. We cannot really explore all these layers here. Our task is to consider the message of the Qur'an regarding other religions, its meaning both in the context of its own time and how it is used in our time.
When recited by an expert, the Qur'an is hauntingly beautiful. Indeed, the authenticity of the Qur'an has traditionally been demonstrated by challenging any poet to produce more beautiful Arabic verse. Not one has ever succeeded.
As a Middle Eastern Jew, I grew up hearing sounds much like the sounds of the Qur'an, as it is heard now and has been for centuries. The chants I heard in the synagogue, especially during the High Holy Days, sound much like the chanting of the Qur'an. And so hearing the Qur'an reminds me of my own roots. I find it deeply moving.
Muslims are right to insist there is no substitute for the Qur'an in its original Arabic. No translation can really convey a sense of its poetry. For example, even the sensitive translation of Michael Sells (1) does not do justice to the rhyming, rhythmic lines of the following sura. To capture any sense of the beauty and music of these words, they must be heard in Arabic:
When the sky is torn
When the stars are scattered
When the seas are poured forth
When the tombs are burst open
Then a soul will know what it has given
And what it has held back
Oh, O human being
What has deceived you about your generous Lord
Who created you and shaped you and made you right
In whatever form he willed for you... (82: 1-8)
The Qur'an as written and chanted is a work of great beauty. Ironically, this only makes more incongruous and dreadful the message of intolerance that runs throughout the text. We will need to look at this in some detail. The problem of intolerance in the Qur'an goes beyond just a few isolated verses. Intolerance is one of its most basic themes.
Before continuing, one central premise of our discussion must be stated. It should be possible to criticize Islam without encouraging ill will towards Muslims. Islam is a religion and a set of ideas. Muslims are people. One must never lose that distinction - no matter how many terrorist atrocities are committed in Islam's name. It is legitimate to examine the possible role of the Qur'an and other Islamic sources in encouraging intolerance, but one must never lose sight of the individuality of the people involved. In the previous section we mentioned that "militant" Islam is as Islamic as any other form of Islam. It is also true that it is not the only Islam.
So may the following observations be received as the result of a concerned non-Muslim's journey into Islam. They represent the questions and doubts raised in my mind after looking at Islamic sources and Islamic history. I would love to be in contact with moderate Muslims who feel I may be overstating my case, and indeed, would love to establish a true dialogue. I have tried to base everything that follows not on personal opinion but on original sources, on the historical record, and on straightforward logic. Any response to this presentation will have to take all of those into account.
Since our topic is jihad, let us begin by looking at the meaning of the word jihad itself. It is usually translated "holy war," and is often applied that way, but that is not its literal meaning. Literally, jihad means "striving." But what kind of striving is it? The following verses from the Qur'an use different forms of this word (2):
O Prophet! Strive hard against the unbelievers and the Hypocrites, and be firm against them. Their abode is Hell, - an evil refuge indeed. (9:73, 66:9)
Therefore listen not to the Unbelievers, but strive against them with the utmost strenuousness. (25:52)
And who does more wrong than he who invents a lie against Allah or rejects the Truth when it reaches him? Is there not a home in Hell for those who reject Faith? And those who strive in Our (cause), - We will certainly guide them to our Paths: For verily Allah is with those who do right. (29:68-69)
In each case this "striving" (jihad), a Muslim's duty, occurs in the context of opposing, or striving against, the unbeliever. The striving of jihad is primarily the striving to spread Islam and Islamic rule.
What forms is this striving to take? Muhammad himself was a warrior, and there is no doubt that at least one significant form of this striving is physical combat. Some apologists for Islam make a distinction between a "greater" and a "lesser" jihad, the former consisting of a nonviolent spiritual struggle for virtue, while only the latter refers to making war. As we shall see, in actual practice this distinction has hardly any relevance, and in any case it is unlikely that Muhammad himself ever made such a distinction. In one hadith Muhammad speaks of the greater vs. the lesser jihad, but most authorities consider it spurious and a forgery (3). And even if it were only a "lesser" jihad, military jihad would still be jihad and thus a duty and a virtue.
Jihad very frequently refers to combat. That is undeniable. The Qur'an makes copious references to fighting in the cause of faith. The question, however, is whether this fighting is sanctioned only for the purpose of self-defense.
The Qur'an itself seems to be of two minds on this matter. Some critics of Islam carelessly quote the following verse to illustrate Islam's aggressiveness:
And slay them wherever ye catch them.... (2:191)
However, the full quotation is:
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. But if they cease, Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful. (2:190-192)
From the context it would sound, at least in this passage, that the Qur'an prescribes fighting only in self-defense. However, this is not its only word on the subject. Some verses seem to prescribe fighting without qualification, except that the enemy be a nonbeliever:
Fighting is prescribed for you, and ye dislike it. But it is possible that ye dislike a thing which is good for you, and that ye love a thing which is bad for you. But Allah knoweth, and ye know not. (2:216)
Say to the Unbelievers, if (now) they desist (from Unbelief), their past would be forgiven them; but if they persist, the punishment of those before them is already (a matter of warning for them). And fight them on until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah altogether and everywhere; but if they cease, verily Allah doth see all that they do. (8:38-39)
O Prophet! rouse the Believers to the fight. If there are twenty amongst you, patient and persevering, they will vanquish two hundred: if a hundred, they will vanquish a thousand of the Unbelievers: for these are a people without understanding. For the present, Allah hath lightened your (task), for He knoweth that there is a weak spot in you: But (even so), if there are a hundred of you, patient and persevering, they will vanquish two hundred, and if a thousand, they will vanquish two thousand, with the leave of Allah: for Allah is with those who patiently persevere. It is not fitting for a prophet that he should have prisoners of war until he hath thoroughly subdued the land [Pickthal: "until he hath made slaughter in the land"]. Ye look for the temporal goods of this world; but Allah looketh to the Hereafter: And Allah is Exalted in might, Wise. (8:65-67)
But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity, then open the way for them: for Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful. (9:5 [often called the "sword verse"])
Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya [poll tax] with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued. (9:29)
O ye who believe! fight the unbelievers who gird you about [Pickthal and others: "who are near to you"], and let them find firmness in you: and know that Allah is with those who fear Him. (9:123)
Therefore, when ye meet the Unbelievers (in fight), smite at their necks; At length, when ye have thoroughly subdued them, bind a bond firmly (on them): thereafter (is the time for) either generosity or ransom: Until the war lays down its burdens. Thus (are ye commanded): but if it had been Allah's Will, He could certainly have exacted retribution from them (Himself); but (He lets you fight) in order to test you, some with others. But those who are slain in the Way of Allah, - He will never let their deeds be lost. (47:4)
We will have occasion to return to some of these verses later, since they have played a significant role in Muslim history and have been used by Muslims to justify "holy war," even when not in the cause of self-defense.
Taking all these references together, it is clear that unbelief alone can serve as reason for the faithful to attack. Other verses in Sura 47, as well as 48:17, provide the basis for the belief that those who die in jihad go immediately to paradise.
Sura 8 was received after the Battle of Badr, which was supposed to be a raid by Muhammad on a Meccan caravan but escalated into a full-scale clash between Muhammad and the pagan Meccans. This battle is legendary in the history of Islam and often taken as a prototype for holy war against nonbelievers in general. Although it was received somewhat later, Sura 9 is traditionally considered an extension of sura 8; it is the only sura not separated from its predecessor by the bismillah formula ("In the name of Allah, the merciful, the compassionate"). Together these suras describe Islam's attitude toward confronting nonbelievers.
Perhaps the most infamous of these verses is the "sword verse," "slay them wherever ye find them" (9:5). Some commentators point out that this verse applied only to nonbelievers who broke treaties with the Muslims, since verse 4 states that treaties with nonbelievers who have not broken them must be honored. However, once "the end of their term" (v. 4) has been reached, the Muslims are free to attack.
Muhammad's intention was always to convert the Arabian peninsula to Islam, whether by forceful or peaceful means. He made treaties to strengthen his position and to prepare for future action, not to achieve a state of permanent coexistence. He made the famous Treaty of Hudaybiyya at a time when he was militarily weak, then broke it on a pretext after he became stronger. (The story is complicated, but it started when a Meccan tribe allied with Muhammad killed a member of another tribe, which retaliated, allowing Muhammad to exploit the situation.)
The verses following the "sword verse" clarity its meaning as well as Muhammad's attitude toward nonbelievers:
In a Believer they respect not the ties either of kinship or of covenant! It is they who have transgressed all bounds. But (even so), if they repent, establish regular prayers, and practise regular charity, - they are your brethren in Faith. (9:10-11)
These "regular prayers" are the salat, the prayers Muslims recite five times a day, and can only be prayers to Allah. These pagans, whom Muslims are to treat kindly, have become "brethren in faith" - they have ceased to be pagans. Verse 9:5 uses the same language: if the pagans "repent," establish regular prayers (salat) and adopt the practices of Islam, they are no longer to be treated as enemies. The ultimate goal is the conversion of pagans to Islam, through whatever means, peaceful or aggressive.
The other verses from suras 8 and 9 do not even mention treaties as a mitigating factor. The effect of treaties is at best temporary. The only thing that truly saves an unbeliever is to "desist from unbelief" (8:38). This is what both the textual and historical context of these verses really have to tell us.
There will be more to say about context later. It is an important issue, and one often misunderstood.
It is necessary to keep in mind when these suras encouraging violence were written. All of the suras quoted above except for 25 and 29, which come from Mecca, are later and come from the period in Medina. Because of his preaching against the polytheism and commercialism of the pagan leaders of Mecca, Muhammad faced much opposition there. He accepted an invitation from the tribes of the city of Yathrib, who needed someone capable and impartial to arbitrate the tribal disputes that were ruining the city's economy. And so in 622 Muhammad went to Yathrib (later called Medina) and eventually became its ruler. This event is significant in Muslim history and is called the hijra (Latinized form: hegira), meaning "emigration," "separation," or "breaking of relations," and it marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar. In Medina Muhammad became a true military leader, and the Medinan suras reflect this. They tend to be much more belligerent.
Since the Meccan suras are generally shorter, they are placed later in the Qur'an, because the Qur'an is organized neither chronologically nor topically but in order of the length of the suras, from longest to shortest. This tends to confuse non-Muslims who try to understand the Qur'an as a whole. But it means that the more hostile Medinan suras are given prominence in two senses. First, they appear before the others. And second, according to Islamic doctrine there is a principle called naskh, "abrogation" or "substitution," through which those suras that come chronologically later (the Medinan suras) can replace the earlier (Meccan) ones whenever the two are in conflict. This principle has a basis in the Qur'an itself:
None of our revelations do we abrogate or cause to be forgotten, but we substitute something better or similar: Knowest thou not that Allah Hath power over all things? (2:106)
When We substitute one revelation for another, - and Allah knows best what He reveals (in stages), - they say, "Thou art but a forger": but most of them understand not. (16:101)
In other words, according to this interpretation, Allah may choose to modify or replace a former revelation with a later one. This principle gives special status to the later suras, which reflect Muhammad's hostility towards his enemies and especially towards Jews and Christians, since by that time it became clear they rejected his message and his status as a prophet. In his tafsir (commentary) the renowned 14th-century Islamic scholar Ibn Kathir quotes an earlier authority who maintains that the "sword verse" (9:5) "abrogated every agreement of peace between the Prophet and any idolater, every treaty, and every term." His contemporary Ibn Juzayy supported this view, maintaining that this verse is significant in "abrogating every peace treaty in the Qur'an" (4). Clearly this undermines the view of those who try to defend this verse by maintaining it does not apply to treaties.
(It should be noted that the principle of abrogation is not universally accepted. Some authorities appeal to suras 4:82 and 6:34 in claiming that the Qur'an is perfect, universally valid, and contains no contradictions.)
Muslims often accuse Islam's critics of quoting verses from the Qur'an out of context, thus unfairly portraying Islam as a violent religion. As we have seen, it can be dangerous to quote verses of the Qur'an in isolation, without examining the surrounding text.
Concerning the historical context, the Qur'an was revealed to Muhammad gradually, different suras unfolding in response to different historical situations. Some of these pronouncements, especially those from the Medinan period, came to Muhammad during or after battle; as we have noted, sura 8 was revealed after the famous battle of Badr. However, these verses are presented in the Qur'an apart from this history. The Qur'an itself takes the experience of Muhammad out of its original setting and makes it absolute and universal truth. (This distinguishes the Qur'an from the Bible, which evolved over many years and in which the historical context is plainly evident. Nevertheless, Islam's apologists often draw faulty comparisons between these two scriptures.) What Muhammad said and did during the specific situations he encountered is considered a model for the conduct of Muslims in every age, and for that reason alone the meaning of the Qur'an's verses cannot be restricted to the times and places in which they were received. The Qur'an is understood to be the timeless word of God, given at one time for every time and for every place.
While the Qur'an may have originated in the experience of Muhammad, it does not read like history, as the Bible does, but like a series of general pronouncements intended for individual and communal instruction and guidance. This is certainly how Muslims have applied the Qur'an over the centuries. There has been much discussion and dispute among Islamic scholars as to which verses (usually later, Medinan ones) abrogate others (usually earlier, Meccan ones), but the message itself is considered timeless and not limited to specific social conditions or historical situations.
Many verses in the Qur'an and teachings in the Hadith speak very disparagingly of Christians and especially of Jews. For the most part, when Muslims hear these verses so beautifully chanted or these teachings expounded in Friday sermons, they are not encouraged to believe that these words apply only to the Jewish tribes in Medina during the lifetime of Muhammad. On the contrary, such verses and teachings are often applied to Jews living today. No less than an Imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca explicitly applies Qur'an 5:60 to today's Jews and calls them "apes and pigs" (5). This projection of Muhammad's context onto our own is far from unique. Islam as it has evolved is a religion that decontextualizes history. Muslims frequently ignore the historical context when applying their own scriptures, and so they have no cause for complaint when others do likewise. And as we shall see below, restoring the textual context to some verses often makes the Qur'an seem even more harsh and intolerant.
The section on Shari'a will provide further examples of how Muslims themselves - and not just so-called "extremists" but established authorities - have always quoted verses from the Qur'an apart from their historical context and have applied them to contemporary issues. The many verses quoted in this section have been used throughout history by Muslims to justify their conquests. They have been used by Islamic scholars and jurists precisely the way Islam's apologists admonish non-Muslims not to use them. They have been used to justify violent jihad.
Since Muhammad was involved in many battles, the Qur'an has much to do with fighting. But far more numerous than verses encouraging Muslims to fight are verses expressing religious intolerance and God's hatred and rejection of the nonbeliever. While the later suras tend to be more violent, religious intolerance is sprinkled throughout the Qur'an. This theme sounds like a recurrent drumbeat throughout the text, and there is no point in trying to list all the verses that express it. They overwhelm even those few verses (and we shall examine the most well known) that appear to promote tolerance.
Here are just a few of the intolerant ones - this list is not even close to exhaustive. (Note: the word that Yusuf 'Ali consistently translates as "those who reject faith" [kafaru] is translated by most others as "those who disbelieve.")
Those who reject Our signs, We shall gradually visit with punishment, in ways they perceive not. (7:182)
Say, "The truth is from your Lord": Let him who will believe, and let him who will, reject (it): for the wrong-doers We have prepared a Fire whose (smoke and flames), like the walls and roof of a tent, will hem them in: if they implore relief they will be granted water like melted brass, that will scald their faces, how dreadful the drink! How uncomfortable a couch to recline on! (18:29)
But those who reject (Allah) [Pickthal and others: "disbelieve"] - for them will be the Fire of Hell: No term shall be determined for them, so they should die, nor shall its Penalty be lightened for them. Thus do We reward every ungrateful one! (35:36)
Seest thou not those that dispute concerning the Signs of Allah? How are they turned away (from Reality)? - Those who reject the Book and the (revelations) with which We sent our messengers: but soon shall they know, - When the yokes (shall be) round their necks, and the chains; they shall be dragged along - In the boiling fetid fluid: then in the Fire shall they be burned. (40:69-72)
But We will certainly give the Unbelievers a taste of a severe Penalty, and We will requite them for the worst of their deeds. Such is the requital of the enemies of Allah,- the Fire: therein will be for them the Eternal Home: a (fit) requital, for that they were wont to reject Our Signs. (41:27-28)
For those who reject [Pickthal: "disbelieve"] their Lord (and Cherisher) is the Penalty of Hell: and evil is (such) destination. (67:6)
Then leave Me alone with such as reject this Message: by degrees shall We punish them from directions they perceive not. (68:44)
Verily, We have warned you of a Penalty near, the Day when man will see (the deeds) which his hands have sent forth, and the Unbeliever will say, "Woe unto me! Would that I were (mere) dust!" (78:040)
What then is the matter with them, that they believe not? And when the Qur'an is read to them, they fall not prostrate, but on the contrary the Unbelievers reject (it). But Allah has full knowledge of what they secrete (in their breasts). So announce to them a Penalty Grievous, except to those who believe and work righteous deeds: for them is a Reward that will never fail. (84:20-25)
But if any turn away and reject Allah, [Pickthal: "But whoso is averse and disbelieveth"] - Allah will punish him with a mighty Punishment. (88: 23-24)
Those who reject (Truth), among the People of the Book and among the Polytheists, will be in Hell-Fire, to dwell therein (for aye). They are the worst of creatures. (98:6)
But those who reject Faith and belie Our Signs, they shall be companions of the Fire; they shall abide therein. (2:39)
Miserable is the price for which they have sold their souls, in that they deny (the revelation) which Allah has sent down, in insolent envy that Allah of His Grace should send it to any of His servants He pleases: Thus have they drawn on themselves Wrath upon Wrath. And humiliating is the punishment of those who reject Faith. (2:90)
(Yea), and such as reject Faith, - for a while will I grant them their pleasure, but will soon drive them to the torment of Fire, - an evil destination (indeed)! (2:126)
Those who reject Faith, and die rejecting, - on them is Allah's curse, and the curse of angels, and of all mankind. They will abide therein: Their penalty will not be lightened, nor will respite be their (lot). (2:161-162)
Allah is the Protector of those who have faith: from the depths of darkness He will lead them forth into light. Of those who reject faith the patrons are the evil ones: from light they will lead them forth into the depths of darkness. They will be companions of the fire, to dwell therein (For ever). (2:257)
Those who reject Faith, - neither their possessions nor their (numerous) progeny will avail them aught against Allah: They are themselves but fuel for the Fire. (3:10)
Say to those who reject Faith: "Soon will ye be vanquished and gathered together to Hell, - an evil bed indeed (to lie on)! (3:12)
As to those who reject faith, I will punish them with terrible agony in this world and in the Hereafter, nor will they have anyone to help. (3:56)
If anyone desires a religion other than Islam (submission to Allah), never will it be accepted of him; and in the Hereafter He will be in the ranks of those who have lost (All spiritual good). (3:85)
As to those who reject Faith, and die rejecting [Pickthal: "those who disbelieve, and die in disbelief"], - never would be accepted from any such as much gold as the earth contains, though they should offer it for ransom. For such is (in store) a penalty grievous, and they will find no helpers. (3:91)
Those who reject Faith, - neither their possessions nor their (numerous) progeny will avail them aught against Allah: They will be companions of the Fire, -dwelling therein (for ever). (3:116)
Fear the Fire, which is prepared for those who reject Faith [Pickthal: "disbelievers"]. (3:131)
Those who reject our Signs, We shall soon cast into the Fire: as often as their skins are roasted through, We shall change them for fresh skins, that they may taste the penalty: for Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise. (4:56)
Those who reject faith and deny our signs [Pickthal: "And they who disbelieve and deny Our revelations"] will be companions of Hell-fire. (5:10)
As to those who reject Faith, - if they had everything on earth, and twice repeated, to give as ransom for the penalty of the Day of Judgment, it would never be accepted of them, theirs would be a grievous penalty. (5:36)
But those who reject Faith and belie our Signs, - they shall be companions of Hell-fire. (5:86)
And an announcement from Allah and His Messenger, to the people (assembled) on the day of the Great Pilgrimage, - that Allah and His Messenger dissolve (treaty) obligations with the Pagans. If then, ye repent, it were best for you; but if ye turn away, know ye that ye cannot frustrate Allah. And proclaim a grievous penalty to those who reject Faith [Pickthal and others: "disbelieve"]. (9:3)
And for those who reject Faith and deny our Signs, there will be a humiliating Punishment. (22:57)
And if any believe not in Allah and His Messenger, We have prepared, for those who reject Allah, a Blazing Fire! (48:13)
And those who believe in Allah and His messengers - they are the Sincere (lovers of Truth), and the witnesses (who testify), in the eyes of their Lord: They shall have their Reward and their Light. But those who reject Allah and deny Our Signs, - they are the Companions of Hell-Fire. (57:19)
But those who reject Faith and treat Our Signs as falsehoods, they will be Companions of the Fire, to dwell therein for aye: and evil is that Goal. (64:10)
Allah's uncompromising rejection of the nonbeliever is spread throughout the Qur'an, which without all these references to it would become unrecognizable.
The verses in the Qur'an expressing hatred and rejection of the nonbeliever far outnumber those suggesting anything else. Moreover, even those few supposedly tolerant verses seem to mean something different when examined closely. It sometimes seems like giving with one hand and taking back with the other. Let us consider the examples cited most frequently.
Following is Sura 109 in full:
Say: O ye that reject Faith! I worship not that which ye worship, nor will ye worship that which I worship. And I will not worship that which ye have been wont to worship, nor will ye worship that which I worship. To you be your Way, and to me mine. (109:1-6)
This is one of the earliest Meccan suras. It is nevertheless often quoted as proof of Islamic religious tolerance. However, Syed Abu-Ala' Maududi, an early twentieth century Islamic scholar and exegete well known in the Muslim world, points out (as do many others) that this sura refers to a dispute between Muhammad and the pagan leaders of Mecca. According to tradition these pagan leaders sought to strike a peace agreement, by which Muhammad would accept their gods and they would accept Allah in return. Thus the intention of this sura is not to proclaim tolerance but to reject any commonality between Islam and paganism. As Maududi states,If the Surah is read with this background in mind, one finds that it was not revealed to preach religious tolerance as some people of today seem to think, but it was revealed in order to exonerate the Muslims from the disbelievers religion, their rites of worship, and their gods, and to express their total disgust and unconcern with them and to tell them that Islam and kufr (unbelief) had nothing in common and there was no possibility of their being combined and mixed into one entity. Although it was addressed in the beginning to the disbelieving Quraish in response to their proposals of compromise, yet it is not confined to them only, but having made it a part of the Quran, Allah gave the Muslims the eternal teaching that they should exonerate themselves by word and deed from the creed of kufr wherever and in whatever form it be, and should declare without any reservation that they cannot make any compromise with the disbelievers in the matter of Faith. (6)
Other verses that seem to preach tolerance carry a hidden threat:
So leave them alone until they encounter that Day of theirs, wherein they shall (perforce) swoon (with terror). (52:45)
And have patience with what they say, and leave them with noble (dignity). And leave Me (alone to deal with) those in possession of the good things of life, who (yet) deny the Truth; and bear with them for a little while. (73:10-11)
In other words: Don't worry about the nonbelievers, Allah will deal with them in the afterlife. And as we have seen, the Qur'an is full of threats about the terrible fate awaiting nonbelievers there.
One very well-known verse used to prove tolerance in the Qur'an must be mentioned:
Let there be no compulsion in religion. (2:256)
If we see how these words were applied in history, it becomes apparent that "no compulsion" is not the same as tolerance. "No compulsion" simply means no forced conversion. Muslim conquerors did not always force their subjects to convert upon pain of death (although at times they did, and as we shall see in the next section, the Hadith tradition contains many exhortations to spread the faith by force, regardless of what this verse from the Qur'an may have intended).
The goal of jihad was to bring as much of the world as possible under Muslim rule. Conversion to Islam was one option open to the conquered, but not the only one. Most often their choice was one of three: conversion, subjugation, or death. This is in line with both 9:5 and 9:29 quoted above: Muslims are commanded to fight nonbelievers, but not necessarily to convert them. If the nonbelievers do embrace Islam, they will be treated with leniency, but if they refuse, then the best they can hope for is life as humiliated, second-class citizens, who by law must "feel themselves subdued" (9:29).
It is true that at certain times some non-Muslim groups living under Muslim domination, notably Jews and Christians, were given the status of "protected minorities" and allowed within strict limits to practice their religions. Nevertheless, they were still treated as conquered people with an inferior status. There may not always have been "compulsion in religion" in the sense that these Jews and Christians were not forced to convert, but there certainly was compulsion in civil and human rights.
Since we are addressing the objections of those who insist that verses of the Qur'an always be quoted in context, let us now supply the context of this verse (which those who use this verse to claim tolerance never do themselves):
Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks. And Allah heareth and knoweth all things. Allah is the Protector of those who have faith: from the depths of darkness He will lead them forth into light. Of those who reject faith [nonbelievers] the patrons are the evil ones: from light they will lead them forth into the depths of darkness. They will be companions of the fire, to dwell therein (For ever). (2:256-257)
In other words: There is no need to force people to change the error of their ways. Allah will take care of it. Allah will protect the faithful, but the nonbelievers, who are evil, will spend an eternity in hell.
Those who wish to use 2:256 to demonstrate the tolerance of the Qur'an would be well advised to think twice.
Another verse very often quoted to prove tolerance in the Qur'an is this one:
Those who believe (in the Qur'an), those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Sabians and the Christians, - any who believe in Allah and the Last Day, and work righteousness, - on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve. (5:69)
However, once again those who quote this verse never quote it in context. They habitually fail to mention the verses that occur immediately after:
We took the covenant of the Children of Israel and sent them messengers, every time, there came to them a messenger with what they themselves desired not - some (of these) they called impostors, and some they (go so far as to) slay. They thought there would be no trial (or punishment); so they became blind and deaf; yet Allah (in mercy) turned to them; yet again many of them became blind and deaf. But Allah sees well all that they do. (5:70-71)
They do blaspheme who say: "Allah is Christ the son of Mary." But said Christ: "O Children of Israel! worship Allah, my Lord and your Lord." Whoever joins other gods with Allah, Allah will forbid him the garden, and the Fire will be his abode. There will for the wrong-doers be no one to help. They do blaspheme who say: Allah is one of three in a Trinity: for there is no god except One Allah. If they desist not from their word (of blasphemy), verily a grievous penalty will befall the blasphemers among them. Why turn they not to Allah, and seek His forgiveness? For Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful. (5:72-74)
But those who reject Faith and belie our Signs, - they shall be companions of Hell-fire. (5:86)
"On them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve"? How does this square with the dire threats and punishments that immediately follow? There is only one way. When 5:69 says "Those who believe," clearly it means those who believe in Islam, as Yusuf 'Ali corroborates by inserting the words "in the Qur'an." Verse 5:69 therefore applies only to converts to Islam. The rest will meet the terrible retribution that Allah has in store for all nonbelievers.
Finally, there is another very famous verse, also from sura 5, supposedly showing respect in the Qur'an for all human life:
We ordained for the Children of Israel that 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. (5:32)
But here is the passage with the surrounding text:
On that account: We ordained for the Children of Israel that 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. Then although there came to them Our messengers with clear signs, yet, even after that, many of them continued to commit excesses in the land. The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter. (5:32-33)
Once again, a seemingly benign passage is followed by the threat of extreme punishment. Ibn Warraq comments: "The supposedly noble sentiments are in fact a warning to Jews. 'Behave, or else' is the message. Far from abjuring violence, these verses aggressively point out that anyone opposing the Prophet will be killed, crucified, mutilated, and banished!" (7) Also note that this passage carries an escape clause: except "for spreading mischief in the land." Life is sacred, but not the lives of those who "spread mischief." Who decides what is "mischief"? "Mischief" can mean just about anything, including preaching or publicly practicing a religion other than Islam.
Yes, it is important to keep context in mind when quoting the Qur'an, but that applies equally to Islam's apologists as to its critics. Moreover, contemporary preachers, not just Al Qaeda extremists but those officially sanctioned by the Palestinian Authority or Saudi Government, routinely lift parts of the Qur'an and Hadith from their historical context and apply them to present situations, often in ways expressing intolerance and hostility toward non-Muslims. This is how the Qur'an has been and often still is used in official circles. It is therefore disingenuous for Muslims to complain that non-Muslims ignore the historical context when criticizing the Qur'an. What really matters most is the role the Qur'an has played and continues to play in Muslim history.
Those who insist on supplying the full context of every verse will often not be pleased with the results: when the few "tolerant" verses in the Qur'an are closely examined, they turn out to be something very much other than what they seem. And even these verses are vastly outnumbered by those expressing intolerance and condemnation openly and without pretense.
In conclusion, the Qur'an does not preach religious tolerance. It is shot through with statements condemning any faith other than Islam, and condemning those who adhere to such faiths. Occasionally there are even exhortations to Muslims to fight nonbelievers, sometimes in self-defense, and other times to spread the faith. The continual affirmation of Allah's rejection of other faiths and the people who practice them has encouraged religious intolerance throughout the centuries. This is only natural, if one takes the Qur'an as sacred scripture: to emulate God, one must love what God loves and hate what God hates, and if God hates people who believe differently, then it is good for the believers to hate them too.
We must take this lesson from the Qur'an as a warning not to do likewise. We must not condemn those who find beauty in Islam. There is a distinction between the Qur'an as a set of ideas, Islam as a rich tradition with many variations, and the people who practice this tradition. While Islam claims to correct the errors in Jewish and Christian scripture, there are flaws in Islam's own foundation. These flaws have damaged the whole, with far-reaching consequences. It is therefore most important that while criticizing ideas we never lose sight of the individual, who is not the same as those ideas. A good heart can overcome any belief system, and people of good will must continue to try to reach out to each other, regardless of belief.
We can fight darkness effectively only with light, and not with more darkness. Hate only encourages more hate. Instead of hating, we can expose dark ideas and bring them to the light. That is the proper struggle. We must respect people. Nevertheless, we ignore at our peril the role this particular belief system has played throughout centuries of history, and its use even today to justify the conquests in God's name that are known as jihad.
Peace with Realism