In the name of God, Most Gracious, Ever Merciful!
by Ibne Khalid
“O ye who believe! take not the Jews and the Christians for friends. They are friends one to another. And whoso among you takes them for friends is indeed one of them. Verily, Allah guides not the unjust people.” [5:52] 1
I have recently been in contact with a Christian who formerly used to be a Wahhabi Muslim. During the dialogue my Christian friend put forward the idea that Islam is intrinsically against the idea of freedom and he referenced a few verses of the Holy Qur’an in support of this claim. It is my intention to review this specific allegation and present a humble response.
Firstly it must be noted that when reading and quoting the Glorious Qur’an, care must be taken to ensure the correct context is understood of the verse in question, before the meaning is derived. One must also have recourse to the practical example of the Holy Prophet (saw), since that example is regarded unanimously by the Muslim Ummah to be in full accordance with the Holy Qur’an. This idea was confirmed by the Holy Prophet’s (saw) noble wife, Hadhrat Aa’isha (ra) in her famous hadith in which she was asked about the Holy Prophet’s (saw) character, to which she replied: “His character was the Qur’an” 2 i.e. the entirety of the character of the Holy Prophet (saw) is encompassed in the Holy Qur’an.
The verse of the Holy Qur’an given above is from Surah Al-Ma’idah, and has been highlighted by my Christian friend as evidence for the proposition that Islam restricts freedom. Other verses have also been highlighted by my Christian friend that I will attempt to review in separate articles God-willing.
Be “Just” when reading the Qur’an
It has to be noted that when reading any text whether religious or otherwise, it would be considered a grave injustice to take a single passage and present that as an evidence of the views being expounded by the author. The whole chapter and spirit behind what is written should, at the very least, be analysed in order to derive the meaning that the author of the book wished to convey. If you are a person who is predisposed to searching for the truth then you will take this approach. However, if you are only looking for opportunities to attack the author of a book, you will almost always ignore all the sentences that caveat a particular point being made. I hope and pray that all readers of this article are sincere seekers of truth and will take the former approach.
If this particular verse (5:52) is read completely independently then admittedly the idea that Islam restricts freedom may be correct. On the surface this verse seems to suggest that a Muslim should not have anything to do with all Jews and/or Christians. If this is true, it would then naturally lead a Muslim to mistreat non-Muslims whether or not they be Jews or Christians. However, if the whole context of this verse is read, it presents a totally different understanding. I would also like to add here that many Muslims make the same mistake of misunderstanding when reading the Holy Qur’an, which unfortunately gives a negative impression of Islam when those views are presented as the Islamic View. But even though this be the case, it should not prevent one looking at what is actually taught in the Islamic Scripture in order to ascertain what the Sharia says, rather than look upon what is being implemented by so called “Islamic” Governments around the world. These Governments often implement certain policies in the name of Islam in order to meet their own political agenda, whilst ignoring all the other basic commandments set out in the Holy Qur’an. One cannot claim to be implementing the Sharia if one only implements what pleases and benefits them; and especially if the rules only apply to the common man on the street and not to the Legislators.
Returning to the subject in question, if we look at what is written before and after this verse, it will be made very clear that this injunction is particular to only those Jews and Christians that hold a very specific attitude towards Believers, and is not applicable to the entire Jewish and Christian nations. Therefore it is hoped (God-willing) that I can prove that my Christian friend and others with similar views, are victims of a misconception about the Holy Qur’an.
The chapter (Surah Al-Ma’idah) in which this verse is found is the 5th chapter of the Holy Qur’an. However, it is considered by some to be the last chapter to be revealed and most, if not all of it, was revealed at once in Medina. This is indeed the same chapter which contains the verse “…This day have I perfected your religion for you and completed My favour upon you and have chosen for you Islam as religion…” [5:4]
Overall the chapter deals with the refutation of the Christian doctrine of the Law to be a curse as well as other commandments. There is also guidance for the People of the Book to remember their own Scriptures and to abide by the Commandments found therein. It should also be remembered that during the Medinite period of the Holy Prophet (saw), the Muslims were being attacked from various quarters and even those who set up alliances with the Muslims had betrayed them. This is the historical context of the revelation of these verses.
Human Rights, Freedom and Justice
The concept of human rights and freedom are closely linked to the idea of justice; one cannot have freedom without justice. James Cone who is a reputable and influential writer and advocate of freedom for African-Americans is reported to have once stated
“To demand freedom is to demand justice. When there is no justice in the land, a man’s freedom is threatened. Freedom and justice are interdependent. When a man has no protection under the law it is difficult for him to make others recognize him.” 3
The fact that the Holy Qur’an emphasises justice, points to the idea that freedom is an essential element within Islam. From the very beginning of this chapter, justice is an important theme.
“O ye who believe! be steadfast in the cause of Allah, bearing witness in equity; and let not a people’s enmity incite you to act otherwise than with justice. Be always just, that is nearer to righteousness. And fear Allah. Surely, Allah is aware of what you do.” [5:9]
Kind treatment for all
The chapter goes on to discuss the breaking of the Covenant by the Children of Israel and describes their treacherous behaviour. Despite this however, Muslims are commanded to show forbearance in verse 14.
“So, because of their breaking their covenant, We have cursed them, and have hardened their hearts. They pervert the words from their proper places and have forgotten a good part of that with which they were exhorted. And thou wilt not cease to discover treachery on their part, except in a few of them. So pardon them and turn away from them. Surely, Allah loves those who do good.” [5:14]
This again shows the Holy Qur’an prefers a Muslim to give good treatment to Jews even if they betray any type of covenant they make. It must be noted that all Jews have NOT been tainted with the same brush in this verse i.e. “except in a few of them.”
Further evidence that this chapter inclines Muslims towards good treatment of fellow humans is the magnificent verse which emphatically establishes human rights and freedom within Islam:
“On account of this, We prescribed for the children of Israel that whosoever killed a person — unless it be for killing a person or for creating disorder in the land — it shall be as if he had killed all mankind; and whoso gave life to one, it shall be as if he had given life to all mankind. And Our Messengers came to them with clear Signs, yet even after that, many of them commit excesses in the land.” [5:33]
The above verse is also said to be a reference to the Holy Founder of Islam (saw) who was to be a World Reformer, ordained to bring the eternal Law for mankind whose entire future depended on him and therefore his slaying would be the slaying of the whole of mankind. The advent of this Prophet was foretold in the Bible (Deut. 18: 18-22)
4, and therein it was also announced that God would demand requital of those who did not hearken to this Prophet.5 The quote from the Bible “…from among their brothers…” is a reference to the brethren of the Israelites i.e. the Ishmaelites from who the Arabs claim to be descendents.
Forgiveness for War-mongers and Thieves
The chapter then speaks of those who initiate a war and gives guidance of appropriate but very strong disciplinary actions against war-mongers who intend to take away the peace of a society unjustly; however the ‘harsh’ punishment is only for those who continue to wage war until they are captured. But if they surrender or withdraw, this punishment does no apply to them and they ought to be forgiven as God will look upon them in such a manner.
The chapter goes on to describe the punishment for the thief which in itself is considered controversial and will not be dealt with here in detail, however the cutting of the hand should be understood to be the extreme punishment that should only to be used for exemplary purposes, and not necessarily applied in each case as that would be unjust, since each thief’s personal circumstances must be considered when deciding upon an appropriate punishment. However, it states that “Allah is Most Forgiving, Merciful.” for those who repent, which should be an indication for Muslim jurists on the attitude that must be taken. Forgiveness implies freedom, even for a thief. This again refutes the idea that Islam is against the idea of freedom.
Justice even for Islam’s enemies
The chapter then goes on to describe such Jews that spread falsehood about Islam and that even if the Prophet (saw) (or Muslims thereafter) have to judge them in any matter brought forth, justice must always prevail. This is another indication that Islam supports freedom and universal human rights.
“O Messenger! let not those grieve thee who hastily fall into disbelief — those who say with their mouths, ‘We believe,’ but their hearts believe not. And among the Jews too are those who would fondly listen to any lie — who listen for conveying it to another people who have not come to thee. They pervert words after their being put in their right places, and say, ‘If you are given this, then accept it, but if you are not given this, then beware!’ And as for him whom Allah desires to try, thou shalt not avail him aught against Allah. These are they whose hearts Allah has not been pleased to purify; they shall have disgrace in this world, and in the Hereafter they shall have a severe punishment. [5:42] They are habitual listeners to falsehood, devourers of things forbidden. If, then, they come to thee for judgment, judge between them or turn aside from them. And if thou turn aside from them, they cannot harm thee at all. And if thou judge, judge between them with justice. Surely, Allah loves those who are just.” [5:43]
It must be noted that not all Jews have been accused of spreading lies about Islam in these verses. It very clearly states “And among the Jews…” (wa mi nal-ladheena haadoo) and not “And all the Jews…” and so is referring to a specific set of people from among the Jews that are hostile to Islam.
Vie, then, with one another in good works
The chapter then goes onto to describe some of the commandments given to the Jews, how Jesus (as) came to judge according to the Torah, and how the Jews and Christians should identify the truth of Islam as per their Scriptures. This is necessary because the Holy Qur’an has been sent down fulfilling what has been revealed previously and if they reject what is clearly prophesised in their books, they will be counted amongst the rebellious. The Holy Qur’an has also been described as a “guardian” (Muhaiminah) over the previous Scriptures, in the sense that it has preserved all that was true and permanent in them by embodying the same in itself, and has left out what lacked the element of permanence and failed to meet the needs of all mankind at all times.6
“…And if Allah had enforced His will, He would have made you all one people, but He wishes to try you by that which He has given you. Vie, then, with one another in good works. To Allah shall you all return; then will He inform you of that wherein you differed.” [5:49]
Verse 49 indicates that God does not wish to force all people to become Believers, but rather people should work together in good works for the establishment and promotion of truth, and ultimately only God will decide and inform us who was on the right path. This further supports the idea that the Holy Qur’an is a book of justice and freedom since the final judgement about people’s faith is left with God alone.
Verse 50 warns against those who wish to cause problems and issues as a result of their evil inclinations and hatred for Islam and that God’s punishment will be on them. However, it clearly states that many men (or large number of) are disobedient i.e. not all men. Therefore the punishment of God is not applicable to every single member of the Jewish and Christian nations but only those deserving…since God is the All-Knowing Judge, He will decide who ultimately deserves punishment.
Does the Qur’an really tell Muslims not to take disbelievers for friends?
Now comes the verse in question.
“O ye who believe! take not the Jews and the Christians for friends. They are friends one to another. And whoso among you takes them for friends is indeed one of them. Verily, Allah guides not the unjust people.” [5:52]
As can be seen from the chapter up until this point, the Jews and Christians who are actively hostile to Islam have been warned about their conduct, and Muslims have been warned to stay on their guard against them. This verse seems to be a continuation of that theme. The word Aulia (friends) signifies not only friends but helpers and protectors also, and may thus be rendered as “protecting friends”; and surely Muslims cannot take Jews and Christians as their protecting friends. Their only protecting friends are God and His Prophet as well as their own brethren in faith (see 5:56). The expression, They are friends one to another, means that Jews and Christians forget their own differences and become united in their opposition to Islam and the Holy Prophet (saw). Truly has the Prophet said “All disbelief is one community” i.e. all disbelievers, however inimical to one another, are like one community when opposed to Islam.
7 This is quite obviously true even today if you look upon the hostility shown in the media to Muslims in the West. Jews and Christians tend to forget that their beliefs are quite strongly opposed to each others and unite against Muslims. This occurs even though the fundamental beliefs of Muslims and Jews are more aligned than with the Christians.
Before looking at the rest of Surah Al-Ma’idah, chapter 60 Surah Al-Mumtahanah should also be read, which was revealed earlier than Surah Al-Ma’idah in Medina and warns Muslims not to take the hostile enemies of Islam as friends and then goes on to say:
“Allah forbids you not, respecting those who have not fought against you on account of your religion, and who have not driven you forth from your homes, that you be kind to them and act equitably towards them; surely Allah loves those who are equitable.” [60:9]
After reading 60:9 and 5:52 together, any person who suggests that the Holy Qur’an requires Muslims to cut off all relations with Jews and Christians will be committing a grave injustice to Islam; and any Muslim that adheres to the same belief should be considered ignorant of Islamic teachings. People need to read the Holy Qur’an objectively without any preconceived ideas and perhaps the actual message of the Holy Qur’an would become manifest.
The attitude to be adopted has been practically demonstrated by the Holy Prophet Muhammad (saw). During his time in Medina a treaty was signed between the Muslims and the Jewish tribes. A section of the treaty states the following:
“Between the Prophetsa of God and the Faithful on the one hand, and all those on the other, who voluntarily agree to enter…The Jews who join this covenant will be helped by Muslims. The Jews will not be put to any hardship. Their enemies will not be helped against them… If a common enemy attack Medina, the Jews will side with the Muslims and share the expenses of the battle.The Jewish tribes in covenant with the other tribes of Medina will have rights similar to those of Muslims. The Jews will keep to their own faith, and Muslims to their own. The rights enjoyed by the Jews will also be enjoyed by their followers. The citizens of Medina will not have the right to declare war without the sanction of the Prophetsa…The Jews will bear the expenses of their own organization, and Muslims their own. But in case of war, they will act with unity. The city of Medina will be regarded as sacred and inviolate by those who sign the covenant… Parties to this covenant will not have the right to enter into any agreement with the Meccans or their allies. This, because parties to this covenant agree in resisting their common enemies. The parties will remain united in peace as in war. No party will enter into a separate peace. But no party will be obliged to take part in war. A party, however, which commits any excess will be liable to a penalty.” 8
History bears witness that the Muslims always adhered to this treaty which encouraged freedom to live in accordance with your faith and beliefs. Another example of freedom of faith exercised by the Prophet (saw) is when he permitted a Christian delegation to offer their prayers within the confines of the mosque. These are practical examples of the fulfilment of the teachings of the Qur’an that cannot be dismissed, which sadly are not being implemented by the modern day ‘Muslim’ nations. However it must be understood that the actions of today’s ‘Muslim’ leaders cannot be taken as a basis to understand Islam. The Qur’an and its Prophet (saw) are the sole basis that must be taken.
The expulsion of the Jewish tribes from Medina was due to those tribes breaking their treaty with the Muslims and actively assisted the Meccans who brought war on the Muslims in Medina…a clear violation of this treaty, therefore any action against such a group cannot be cloaked as evidence of Islam’s attitude against freedom of non-Muslims. If such a treaty was broken by any Nation today, it would be seen as an unforgiveable breach of trust and strong action would be taken.
A warning against a loss of faith
Following verse 52, Surah Al-Ma’idah states:
“And thou wilt see those in whose hearts is a disease, hastening towards them, saying, ‘We fear lest a misfortune befall us.’ Maybe, Allah will bring about victory or some other event from Himself. Then will they become regretful of what they concealed in their minds. [5:53] And those who believe will say, ‘Are these they who swore by Allah with their most solemn oaths that they were surely with you?’ Their works are vain and they have become the losers. [5:54] O ye who believe! whoso among you turns back from his religion, then let it be known that in his stead Allah will soon bring a people whom He will love and who will love Him, and who will be kind and humble towards believers, hard and firm against disbelievers. They will strive in the cause of Allah and will not fear the reproach of a faultfinder. That is Allah’s grace; He bestows it upon whomsoever He pleases; and Allah is Bountiful, All- Knowing.” [5:55]
Regarding 5:55, the verse lays down an infallible sign of a true and living religion which is that the number of its followers is never allowed to fall or decrease permanently. If one individual goes out of its pale, God brings in a number to take his or her place. If the followers of a religion are found to be steadily and perpetually decreasing with no arrangement for recovery, that religion must be dead and truth must have departed from it. The words “kind and humble towards believers” means that the true believers whom God will bring in place of apostates will be susceptible to the influence of brother believers, will be lenient in their dealings with them, will be ready to forgive and forget their faults and will love and be kind to them. The expression “hard and firm against disbelievers” means that they will not be afraid of disbelievers nor will they be susceptible to their baneful influence. In fact, the above are the two main characteristic qualities of a rising people who love God. 9
“Your friend is only Allah and His Messenger and the believers who observe Prayer and pay the Zakat and worship God alone. [5:56] And those who take Allah and His Messenger and the believers for friends should rest assured that it is the party of Allah that must triumph. [5:57] O ye who believe! take not those for friends who make a jest and sport of your religion from among those who were given the Book before you, and the disbelievers. And fear Allah if you are believers; [5:58] And who, when you call people to Prayer, take it as jest and sport. That is because they are a people who do not understand.” [5:59]
These verses make it quite clear that the Holy Qur’an wishes Muslims to be wary of those who are actively hostile to Islam or who scoff at and make jest of Islam, for they will never become a Muslim’s heart-felt (protecting) friend. In fact an alliance with such people will only diminish a Muslim’s own faith and loyalty to Islam. It also reminds Muslims that they must always have firm faith in God and remember that He is Master of all things and must not rely on alliances they develop in this world. Muslims are only exhorted to cut off relations with such enemies of Islam, and any punishment is left to God.
Islam – defender of all faiths!
In order to further advance the premise that Islam is a religion of freedom of faith and conscience, referenced must be made to chapter Al-Hajj:
“Permission to fight is given to those against whom war is made, because they have been wronged — and Allah indeed has power to help them [22:40] Those who have been driven out from their homes unjustly only because they said, ‘Our Lord is Allah’ — And if Allah did not repel some men by means of others, there would surely have been pulled down cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques, wherein the name of Allah is oft commemorated. And Allah will surely help one who helps Him. Allah is indeed Powerful, Mighty. [22:41]
According to the consensus of scholarly opinion this is the first verse which gave Muslims permission to take up arms in self-defence. The next verse gives further evidence of this as it refers to the Muslims being driven out of their homes which is established was the reason for the Muslims going to Medina. The verse lays down the principles according to which Muslim may wage a defensive war.
10 It must also be remembered that prior to this, Muslims faced ceaseless murderess persecution for 13 years in Mecca yet they did not retaliate violently. This in itself is an indication for Muslims on how to behave in a nation where there is not a Muslim Government, in fact it demonstrates Muslims must not partake in rebellion against a Government that persecutes them, but if the persecution exceeds all bounds, Muslims should leave for a better place. This is an excellent practical demonstration by the Prophet of Islam (saw) on how to maintain peace in even the most trying of circumstances. This is further evidence that Islam prefers non-violence and is an attitude that perhaps the Muslims of today need to take note of and adopt, otherwise it is a clear contradiction of the practice of the Prophet of Islam (saw). Even after the Muslims left Mecca, they were still being stalked by their persecutors who followed them to Medina. Furthermore, there were a number of hypocrites within Medina that the Muslims had to contend with at the same time. The Muslims were therefore in a very weak state compared to when they were in Mecca and in order to survive there was no choice but to take up arms in self-defence.
The verse goes on to describe the object and purpose of wars in Islam. The object was never to deprive anybody of their home and possessions or to deprive whole peoples of national freedom or compel them to submit to foreign yoke under the garb of making them civilised as Western nations do, or to explore new markets and gain new colonies. It was a fight in self defence and to save Islam from extermination and to establish freedom of conscience and liberty of thought. It was also to defend places of worship belonging to different religions against desecration or destruction. The Qur’an in the present verse has enjoined upon Muslims to defend, even with their lives, all the places of worship – the churches, synagogues, the temples, the cloisters etc. This subject also finds echo in 2:194; 2:257; 8:40; 8:73. Thus the first and foremost object of wars of Islam was, and will always be, to establish freedom of belief and worship and to fight in defence of the country, honour and freedom against an unprovoked attack. Could there be a better cause to fight for than this? 11
In total there are 121 verses in Surah Al-Ma’idah so I will end this discourse here. It is clear from the context of the whole of Surah Al-Ma’idah that the Holy Qur’an does not support the premise that ALL Jews and Christians are to be boycotted. The strong terminology has only been used for those who are actively hostile to Islam. When read in conjunction with Chapter 60 Surah Al-Mumtahanah, and various other sections of the Holy Qur’an, it is obvious that Muslims are clearly permitted to maintain relations with those non-Muslims, whether or not they be Jews or Christians, as long as they are not hostile to Islam and are not attempting to drive them out from their homes. In fact, the emphasis that Surah Al-Ma’idah places on justice and equitable dealings is vast and if read alongside what are considered the “strong” terminology, a Muslim who attempts to understand and implement this teaching will be prevented from crossing any limits, provided of-course that they are God-fearing.
Therefore, I hope that the above clarifies any misconception held by any readers. Islam is an inclusive religion and does not call for the boycott of any nation or people. Some Muslims may even use this verse to emphasise their hostility to all Jews and Christians due to the actions of the State of Israel and other Western nations, however as has been made clear that would be mis-representing the intention of the Holy Qur’an and against the practice of the Prophet (saw). I am sure that if other verses of the Qur’an that are presented in a negative light by our non-Muslim friends should be read in a similar fashion, their doubts will soon evaporate and evidence of the freedom and peace loving nature of Islam will emerge, God-willing. May God enable all nations to live in peace together, Amen.
From a humble servant of Islam
2 Tafsīrul-Qur’ānil-‘Aẓīm, By Abul-Fidā’ ‘Imād-ud-Dīn ibni Kathīr, Volume 8, pp. 206-207, Tafsīru Sūratin-Nūn (Al-Qalam), Under the verse “Innaka l‘alā Khuluqin ‘Aẓīm”, Dārul-Kutubil-‘Ilmiyyah, Beirut, Lebanon, First Edition (1998)
4 “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers; I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account. But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded him to say, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, must be put to death. You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?” If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.”, Holy Bible, New International Version, 1984
8 Life of Muhammadsa, pg 81-82, Hadhrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmad