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The foregoing discussion provide 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 does building  and maintenance of peace reconciles with the concept of “holy war” or Jihad?


The Qur’anic Arabic term Jihad has been commonly mistranslated as “Holy War”. The Qur’an was revealed in Arabic, not English. The Arabic equivalent of the English expression “Holy War” is “ Harb Muqaddasah”, an expression which 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 call it “Holy”, but describes it 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 religious perspectives that the expression “Holy War” is a contradiction of 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 not holy in itself. It may be useful then to find out 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 other 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 which allowed self- defense were not revealed until the early Muslim community 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 God’…” 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 only condition to stop hostilities is not to accept Islam, but simply to stop 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 or other description does not mean that they are to be fought against on account of being non-Muslims. It so happened that these aggressors, historically, happened to be as described. In fact the Qur’an allows fighting against fellow Muslims if they are aggressors and other means of restoring peace and justice fail [49:8-9]. The issue is aggression not religion.


No single verse in the Qur’an, when placed in its proper textual and historical context, permit fighting others on the basis of their faith, ethnicity or nationality. To do so, contravene 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, 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 in differing degrees. There were also some misinterpretations of the concept by some scholars, possibly influenced, at least in part, by the circumstances of the world in which they lived. The fact remains, however, that Islamic teachings are not to be driven by either what some Muslims did or are doing today, or by misinterpretations, past or present.


This paper is not complete without addressing some commonly misunderstood, often misrepresented quotes from the Qur’an. These are dealt with in the next section.


V. Common Questions  & Objections


Question 1. 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]?



A)      To begin with the first verse [9:5] has nothing to do with the people of the book who are distinguished from other non-Muslims. According to the Qur’an [98:1], a clear distinction is made between the people of the book and the idolatrous people “Al- Mushrikeen”, the term used in 9:5.  Furthermore, All these and similar verses have been 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, also by ignoring other verses in the same Qur’an, which relate to the same issues so as to shed light on their true meanings. They have, also, been taken out of their historical context that explains why they were revealed and how they should be applied. All of these verses, without exception, if studied truthfully and honestly, 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 at the time of the Prophet [P]. 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 Hudaybiah by the Makkans. The issue here is not religion, but rather injustice, oppression and aggression. 


B)      There are many verses in the Qur’an that show 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.


C)      If it were true that the Qur’an instructs that any non-Muslim should be killed because of his/her religion, then what explains 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? Truly, Muslims as people were not perfect. Yet, there were times when they had enough power to eliminate almost all non-Muslims under their rule. Yet, they did not abuse this power and the restraint they showed seems to be influenced in the first place by the Qur’anic injunctions against coercion in religion.


D)      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 such a marriage; the closest human relationships characterized by peace, love and compassion [See: Qur’an 30:21]?


Question 2. Is Islam imperialistic?  Are there verses in the Qur’an that say that Islam is the religion of truth and therefore it must prevail over all other religions?



A)      True Islam that comes from its original sources, the Qur’an and sunnah, is not imperialistic at all. Some Muslim rulers throughout history may have been imperialistic, and some people even gave opinions that seemed to be imperialistic, contrary to the total text and spirit of Islam, but Islam is never imperialistic. Historically, those who espoused this argument made a grave error in understanding some parts of the Qur’an and 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.


B)      History bears testimony that Islam spread much faster during the periods of peace not war. When Muslims were not prevailing economically, socially or politically, in the past or now, Islam continued to spread. The beauty and simplicity of its message brought many of those who attacked it to ultimately accept it.


C)      One clear historical and geographical fact that shows that Islam is spread more by peaceful means than by force is to look at the map of the Muslim world today.  One may note that the bulk of Muslims are in countries where there was no fighting, not even defensive fighting, for example 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, but it was the fault of the rulers, not the fault of 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 [P]. 23


D)      Finally, if it were true that Islam allows the use of force to convert people, then how did religious minorities thrive and 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. 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 and need for all of these prescriptions and advice, if those people had to accept Islam or have their heads chopped off?  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?


E)      Verses in the Quran, in Surahs 47 and 61, speak about Allah sending His messenger with Islam, the religion of truth, so that it may prevail. What does prevail mean in this context? Why do we have to understand the word prevail in the narrow context of military power or political power? There have been many tyrannical empires throughout history that prevailed, economically, politically or militarily, at one point or the other. Where are they now? 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.


Question 3. Doesn’t the Qur’an say Muslims should never take Jews and Christians for friends?



A)      This is an incorrect translation in the first place. The Qur’an does not say not to take Jews and Christians as friends. The word used in the Qur’an is awliyaa’, which means overlords or protectors. 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 is about those who mock you when at Muslims when they call for prayers. Would any sane person of any religion take as their defender those who mock them in this way?


B)      It is not appropriate to take these verses in isolation since there are many verses that talk about peaceful relationships that have to be developed with non-Muslims.


C)      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 treat her with peace, love and compassion.  Does it make sense that a Muslim would be permitted to marry a non-Muslim, but not befriend one?


Question 4. Why does the Qur’an refer to Jews and Christians as kuffar or infidels? What kind of respect and tolerance is that?



A)      Again, here is a big mistake with translation, one that is sometimes committed by Muslims too. If you look at the English dictionary meaning of infidel, it means someone who does not have a faith or does not believe in Allah. Does the Qur’an say that the Jews and Christians do not believe in Allah? No. Surah 29, verse 46, says that the God of Christians, Jews and Muslims is one and the same. The word infidel is an inaccurate translation of the word kafir in this case.


B)      The term kafir, referring to a person, or kufr, referring to an act, is used in the Qur’an in a variety of ways. This is why I hesitate to use even the word non-believer or disbeliever for the translation, as is it is not clear from these English terms disbeliever in what? I prefer the term non-Muslim as it applies to all categories of Kufr, rejection of Islam or unawareness of the correct and authentic message of Islam. Following are example of the varying ways in which Kufr is used in the Qur’an:


C)      Kufr is sometimes used in a positive sense. A good believer can also be a kafir. How? The Qur’an says, “Faman yakfur bil- taghut wayu’min billah.” (whoever rejects taghut and believes in Allah) (2:56). Anyone who believes in one thing is a kafir (rejecter) of its opposite.


D)      Kufr can be used in a neutral/ benign sense as the origin of kufr in the Arabic language means to cover up. So the farmer who is putting a seed in the ground and covering it up is performing kufr.


E)      The word kufr can, also, be applied to a Muslim when he is doing something wrong, but not necessarily something that would disqualify him from Islam. For example, a Muslim who is able to go for Hajj but does not go, without denying the need to go, would be committing an act of kufr, in a sense of ungratefulness to Allah [3:96-97].


F)      Kufr is used in Qur’an as the opposite of shukr, to be grateful [e.g. 31:12]


G)      Kafir is used in the Qur’an not only for Jews or Christians, but also those who periodically rejected their prophets and denied the existence of God. It has been used to refer to the people of Noah and the people of Abraham. It has, also, been used to refer to those who denied prophethood and the existence of Allah altogether, which obviously is not the case with Christians and Jews.


H)      It can be used in a more serious sense, but with a variety of meanings. It refers to the rejection of Islam. It describes one who knows the truth, but rejects it out of pride or vanity. This is someone who knows the truth in his or her heart and deliberately rejects it. Nonetheless, we cannot assess this. The Prophet [P] gave Muslims very clear instructions, after one incident when people assumed to know why someone professed belief in Islam. He asked them whether they had opened up his heart, i.e. did they know whether what was in his heart was sincere. The bottom line is that we have to leave it to Allah; only Allah, who knows the sincerity of a particular person’s acceptance. Allah is All-knowing, and he is the only Judge of all of us. 


Question 5. Why does the Qur’an speaks 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 in enmity to the believers  [5:85] . Isn’t that confirmed by the Prophet massacre and persecute the Jews in Madinah?



A)      It is incorrect to say that the Prophet [P] was anti-Semitic because he was actually Semitic. The public, especially in the West seems to understand “anti-Semitism” as the monopoly of the Jewish people. This is a common myth. Many Arabs, including Palestinians are Semitic people. Yet, no one speaks about the “anti-Semitism” against him or her in the brutal and nearly genocidal ways in which the Israelis treat them.



B)      Why should the Prophet Muhammad [P] be anti-Jewish when the Qur’an mentions the name of Moses [P] and other Israelite prophets with great praises. The Qur’an describes the original Torah revealed to Moses [P] as giving light and guidance, and demands respect of the rights of all peacefully co-existing people, including Jews. The 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].


C)      What is very clear, historically, about Muhammad’s dealings with the Jewish tribes in and around Madinah, is that as soon as the Prophet [P] migrated to Madinah, he established the constitution of Madinah or ‘Sahifa’. As Dr. Hamidullah described it, it was the first multicultural, multi-religion constitution in the world that gave everyone equal rights, including the Jews. It gave 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. There was no problem, and 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, it was the other way around; other parties committed acts that were contrary to the agreement. This occurred on more than one occasion, but whatever penalty was applied, was only applied to the specific group of people who committed the offense, not to all. If it was applied to all, you might suspect group bias, such as anti-Semitism, but it was only to the offenders. Furthermore, the punishment was always proportionate to the offense that was committed. Uncovering a Muslim woman was different to conspiring to kill the Prophet [P], and such actions were handled in different manners. The ultimate betrayal occurred in the Battle of the Trench, when a group of Jews from Madinah contacted the enemy, 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 moment, many say the Prophet [P] massacred Jews, but this is a distortion of the historical facts. In fact, it was not a sentence by the Prophet [P]. The people of Banu Quraizah had their own arbitrator. He ruled 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.

D)      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. 




We certainly live in a world where individuals groups and governments commit various forms of violence and terror. Such violence is committed in the name of ideology, narrow forms of nationalism or religion. Counteracting violence with more devastating violence is only enhancing that vicious cycle. Huge resources have been devoted to fighting violence, usually by equally violent means or even worse. Little attention has been given to finding out the root causes of violence such as gross injustices and dehumanization of others. A fraction of these resources coupled with a sense of honor, justice and human equality may deal with most violence in a constructive way. While religion has been abused to justify senseless and unnecessary violence, they can be constructively invoked to stem the tide of violence. The common values of revealed religions, in particular, can contribute immensely in that endeavor. It is a duty of religious clergy and religious scholars to clarify these values and clarify misinterpretations of scriptures not only to others but also for their own people. Intra-faith dialogue is, as much needed as inter-faith dialogue. I hope that this humble contribution may a step in that direction.


Thank you and may the peace, mercy and blessings of Allah be with you. 



1.       Parts of this paper were presented under different titles. It has not been published before in this form

2.       It is sometimes argued that more people were killed “in the name of God” than any other name. That statement should be corrected to read “…killed, falsely, in the name of God”. Many millions perished in the name of other secular ideologies or other worldly reasons. The problem in my view is that people have a tendency to justify their evil deeds. If ideology is convenient, it is invoked and if religion [any religion] is convenient, it is also invoked.

3.       [P] stands for “ peace be upon him”, a formula commonly used by Muslims to invoke prayers of peace whenever a name of a prophet is mentioned.

4.       This verse deals with a historical incident when some Makkan tribes were preparing to attack the Muslim community at the time of the Prophet [P]. These tribes were referred to as “Al-Naas” which literally means humankind. Yet, in the present context; it definitely refers only to a subset of humankind and not all.

5.       There are different meanings of “Muhkam” and “Mutashabih”. The terms are used here to mean definitive versus probable meaning.

6.       See Al-Saleh, Sobhi, Mabaahith Fi Ulum Al-Qur’an, Dar Al-`ilm Lilmalayeen, Beirut, 14th ed., 1982, pp. 272-274. Also  Al-Judai`, Abdullah Bin Yusuf,  Al-Muqaddimaat Al-Asaasiyyah Fi  Ulum Al-Qur’an, Mu`assasat AL-Rayyan, Beirut, 2001, pp. 215-217.

7.       There are numerous references in the Qur’an and Sunnah, which deal with kindness to animals, preservation of vegetation and wise use of resources. In one instance, Prophet Muhammad [P] described Mount Uhud as a “mountain that love us and we love it”.

8.       See for example, Qur’an; 59:23, 6:127, 13:26, 10:10.

9.       The term Allah is the identical term used by Arab Christians to refer to God. It appears in the Arabic Bible and is strikingly similar to the Aramaic term for God “Alaaha”.

10.     The Qur’an does criticize wrong beliefs [like worshipping idols or humans] as it criticizes wrongdoing irrespective of religious affiliation. Muslims understand that as part of God’s right to clarify truth in his last and final revealed book. Muslims were not free from criticism and correction either.

11.     While Muslims are instructed to avoid boasting about one Prophet versus the other, Allah did place some prophets in more prominent position than others. See for example, Qur’an; 17:55; 2:253, 17:21.

12.     Qur’an, 95:4

13.     Ibid, 2:43

14.     Ibid, 2:30

15.     Ibid, 31:20

16.     Wehr, Hans, Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic [edited by J.M.Cowan], 3rd Edition, Spoken Language Services, Inc, 1976.

17.     Qur’an, op. cit. 55:5-9

18.     Ibid, 7:28; 16:90

19.     Ibid, 57:25

20.     Narrated by Al-Tabarani, quoted in  Al-Ghazali, Muhammad, Khuluq Al-Muslim, Dar Al-Bayan, Kuwait, 1970, p.254.

21.     Sahih Al-Bukhari [translated by Muhammad Muhsin Khan], Maktabat Al-Riyadh Al-Hadeethah, Riyadh, 1982, Vol. 8, Hadeeth # 42, pp. 26-27.

22.     see for example, Ibid, Vol. 4, Hadeeth # 689, p. 456



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