Thursday, 11 June 2009

"No Compulsion In Religion" And Other Islamic Apologetics (Part 2)

Following on from Part 1 here.



Even with the theory of abrogation firmly in place, there are other verses in the Qur'an which would seem to advise against warfare and killing.

One of these, often quoted by Islamic spokesmen in the West, reads in part: “whosoever killeth a human being for other than manslaughter or corruption in the earth, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind, and whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind.” (5:32)

These sentiments sound very noble, but unfortunately when analysed in their full context a number of less noble details become apparent. Firstly, this admonition comes within the context of a warning to the Jews not to oppose the Muslims, and is not presented as a universal principle. Secondly, it contains the important exception “for other than manslaughter or corruption in the earth”, which will be examined in a moment. Here is the entire verse, accompanied by the immediately following verse, which provides much-needed context:

For that cause We decreed for the Children of Israel that whosoever killeth a human being for other than manslaughter or corruption in the earth, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind, and whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind. Our messengers came unto them of old with clear proofs (of Allah's Sovereignty), but afterwards lo! many of them became prodigals in the earth.

The only reward of those who make war upon Allah and His messenger and strive after corruption in the land will be that they will be killed or crucified, or have their hands and feet on alternate sides cut off, or will be expelled out of the land. Such will be their degradation in the world, and in the Hereafter theirs will be an awful doom.” (5:32-33)

In its full context, we can see that this passage is actually a threat to the Jews not to oppose the Muslims or they will face crucifixion, mutilation or banishment. The classical commentary of Ibn Kathir and the twentieth-century commentary of Sayyid Abul A'la Maududi (d.1979) confirm the anti-Jewish attitudes present in this verse.

Ibn Kathir:

“This Ayah chastises and criticizes those who commit the prohibitions, after knowing that they are prohibited from indulging in them. [For example] [t]he Jews of Medina, such as Banu Qurayza, Banu Nadir and Qaynuqa [Jewish tribes attacked, expelled and even massacred by Muhammad]...”


“[R]ather than reflect on the causes of their rejection by God, and do something to overcome the failings which led to that rejection, the Israelites were seized by the same fit of arrogance and folly which had once seized the criminal son of Adam [Cain], and resolved to kill those whose good deeds had been accepted by God...Since the same qualities which had been displayed in the wrongdoing son of Adam were manifest in the Children of Israel, God strongly urged them not to kill human beings and couched his command in forceful terms.”

It is also important to understand what this Qur'anic verse means by spreading “corruption in the earth” and waging “war upon Allah and his messenger”. Ibn Kathir sums up the orthodox view of what this means: “oppose and contradict, and it includes disbelief, blocking roads and spreading fear in the fairways.” He also relates that three of Muhammad's close companions, al-Suddi, Ibn Abbas and Ibn Mas'ud, agree that it means “disbelief and acts of disobedience.” Maududi writes: “The 'land' (in verse 5:33) signifies either the country or territory wherein the responsibility of establishing law and order has been undertaken by an Islamic state. The expression 'to wage war against Allah and His Messenger' denotes war against the righteous order established by the Islamic state.”

Thus the Qur'an, according to mainstream interpretation, far from abjuring violence, is actually saying that contradicting the tenets of Islam and mere unbelief are sufficient crimes to merit brutal punishment.

It should be noted that Islam does forbid the killing of innocent people, but only so long as they are Muslims: “it is not for a believer to kill a believer unless it be by mistake” (4:92). The Qur'an doesn't make a similar statement regarding Muslims killing non-Muslims. The early Muslim commentator Sa‘id bin Jubayr explains 5:32 as follows: “He who allows himself to shed the blood of a Muslim, is like he who allows shedding the blood of all people. He who forbids shedding the blood of one Muslim, is like he who forbids shedding the blood of all people.”

This leads to inequality between Muslims and non-Muslims in Islamic law. The Islamic legal manual Umdat al-Salik, which was certified by Sunni Islam's highest spiritual authority, Cairo's Al-Azhar University, as conforming “to the practise and faith of the orthodox Sunni community” in 1991, says that “retaliation is obligatory...against anyone who kills a human being purely intentionally and without right.” However, there are a number of situations in which this ruling does not apply, including the case of “a Muslim for killing a non-Muslim”.

This was part of Iranian legal policy during the Khomeini era. In 1970, the Iranian Sufi leader Sultanhussein Tabandeh wrote A Muslim Commentary on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In it, he states: “Since Islam regards non-Muslims as on a lower level of belief and conviction, if a Muslim kills a non-Muslim…then his punishment must not be the retaliatory death, since the faith and conviction he possesses is loftier than that of the man slain.” Tabandeh's views were instituted almost verbatim in Khomeini's Iran.

Stay tuned for the third and final part, coming soon...

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