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Quranic Verses Misinterpreted as Teaching Violence

The interpretation of the verses of the Quran is normally made with reference to the historical, grammatical and theme aspects of the verses.

Some of the Quranic verses were revealed addressing issues current to that time of history, while others were revealed addressing a general principle or a matter applicable to every time and place. All verses serve as guidance for Muslims.

The substance addressed to a specific location with specific people may or may not apply to subjects outside the scope of the verses. Unless the addressees are elucidated, the Quranic verses would not be interpreted correctly.

Misinterpretation of the verses of the Quran occurs when the historical, grammatical and theme contextual aspects are not taken into consideration.

Unfortunately, some people wrongly accuse Islam of teaching violence based on an improper understanding of a few verses of the Quran that were actually addressed to a specific group of people, with a specific historical background.

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We will explore these verses in the light of their historical framework and of the subject matter in order to bring about their correct meaning and purpose.

Verse 2:191

The first to be addressed is verse 2:191. This verse is misunderstood to command Muslims to kill disbelievers, Christians and Jews.

In order for us to study this verse within its historical and subject matter context, we need to consider verse 190 as well. Verses 190-191 say:

And fight in the cause of God those who have (initially) waged war against you, but do not transgress limits (by causing more damage to your enemy than the damage they initially caused you, thereby expanding the circle of war). Indeed, Allah loves not transgressors.
And slay them wherever you overtake them and expel them from where they have expelled you… (Quran 2: 190-91)

Considering the history surrounding these verses, they were revealed after the peace treaty of Hudaybiyah signed between the Idolaters of Quraysh and the Muslims. They signed it in the year six after emigration, and prior to the performing of one of the treaty’s conditions. This condition states that the Muslims visit Makkah and perform the Lesser Pilgrimage in the following year.

At the time to perform the Lesser Pilgrimage in the following year, some Muslims were concerned that Quraysh may not fulfill its promise in allowing the Muslims to enter Makkah and conversely attack them while performing their rituals.

This legitimate concern was indeed answered by God in the above verses. In case Quraysh broke the Hudaybiyah peace agreement by attacking the Muslims during the pilgrimage, only then Muslims were commanded to defend themselves. And they were given the details of how to act in the battlefield.

Muslims were told to kill the Idolaters wherever they may come upon them. And to drive them away from wherever they initially drove them away. Muslims also were commanded to preserve the old sanctity of the Shrine of Ka’bah by not fighting in it:

But fight them not at the Sacred Mosque, unless they [first] fight you there.

Note in verse 190 the subject of the verb “fight” is the clause {those who have [initially] waged war against you}. This descriptive clause is making direct reference to Quraysh and could not be mistaken by any other than the Idolaters of Quraysh.

Similarly, the first part of verse 191, the subject of the verbs “slay,” “overtake,” and “expel” is Quraysh, who earlier had expelled the Muslims from Makkah.

The second part of verse 191, however, a new descriptive word, kafireen, is given to the subject to-be-killed for fighting in the Sacred Mosque. The word kafireen (disbelievers) can take two possible meanings:

a. Quraysh who is the reference in the previous verse and who is also the guardian of the Holy Shrine, and,

b. Specific people of Quraysh who disbelieved in the age-old sanctity of the Ka’bah and incurred violence within it. If Quraysh or those who disbelieved in the age-old sanctity of the Ka’bah fight you, only then do not be reluctant to kill them.

The Interpreters’ Views

The majority of the Quranic interpreters took the word kafireen in the second part of verse 191 to mean the Idolaters of Quraysh as a whole. Other interpreters took the word kafireen to be those who incurred violence within the Holy Shrine of Ka’bah from amongst Quraysh.

Dr. Fathi Othman in his book The Concepts of the Quran is one of those who took this approach. Dr. Othman’s approach seems to be the more accurate one, since the requital of killing is made to the subject in the second part of the verse 191, those who ‘disbelieved in the sanctity’ of the Inviolable House of Worship.

In either case, the word disbelievers in verse 191 cannot be taken to mean Christians nor Jews or any disbeliever other than Quraysh. Thus, the claim that Islam teaches violence is proven false.

On the contrary, many see these two verses as ground for Islam’s quest for peace. Such that even when Muslims were commanded to fight in self defense, they were instructed to practice war-morality: Do not start a fight. But fight in the cause of God those who initially fight you, but do not transgress limits thereby expanding the circle of war.

The word “limit” is interpreted by the majority of scholars as “limiting enemy’s loss only to their own.”

Any more loss beyond that is considered transgression. Thus, the verse teaches Muslims not to start hostility and to use hostility-stopping techniques if war ever started.

Causing more damage to the enemy is an invitation to more violence. Furthermore, the Quran commands Muslims that if the opponents inclined towards truce, they are to seek an end to hostilities. God said:

But if the enemy inclined to peace, then incline to it. (Quran 8: 61)

Reflecting on this Islamic fundamental teaching, Karen Armstrong in her book, Muhammad, A Biography of the Prophet stated:

“The Quran teaches that war is always abominable. Muslims must never open hostilities, …but, once they have taken a war, Muslims must fight with absolute commitment in order to bring the fighting to an end as soon as possible.” (209)

Studying the Quranic verses in the light of its historical context is an ever important matter in understanding Islam, its people and their culture.

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About Faysal Burhan
Faysal Burhan works for the Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the dual roles of bringing the true message of Islam to the public, as well as finding common ground between all Muslims, Christians, and Jews.