Muslim and Non-Muslim Relations

Reflections on Some Qur'anic Texts*

By: Jamal Badawi, PhD April, 05, 2005.

Humanity lives today in a “global village,” where no people or nation can live in isolation from and indifferent to what goes on elsewhere. Our world is so interdependent and so interrelated that peaceful dialogue has become an imperative. In spite of the general erosion of commitment to “religion,” however interpreted or misinterpreted, religion still plays a pivotal role in shaping people’s attitudes and influencing their behavior. In spite of serious instances of abuse of various religions by some of their claimed followers so as to justify or instigate acts of brutality and bloodshed, there are positive and helpful common themes in these religions. Therefore, peaceful and candid intra-faith and inter-faith dialogues are important tools in working for such goals. This paper is a humble contribution to that dialogue from one perspective within a major world religion that is the professed faith of nearly one fifth of the human race; one that is more misunderstood than any other faith, sometimes, even, by some of its followers.

This paper examines the nature and parameters of the normative relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims. It is based mainly on an attempt to understand the Qur’an in its own textual and historical context. To do this, it is necessary to begin with the methodology and assumptions that underpin the paper.


The basic methodology and assumptions of this paper are summed up as follows:

As a religious faith, normative Islam is not identical with the actions of its “followers.” Like other religions, followers or claimed followers are imperfect, fallible human beings. There are times when their actions conform, in various degrees, to the normative teachings of their faith. But there are also times when their actions are either independent of or even in violation of such normative teachings.

Outsiders may see these offending acts as part of the practice of faith. Sometimes, these acts are committed, falsely, in the name of faith. These claims are made as a result of ignorance, “sincere” misinterpretations, or even deliberate misrepresentations that are intended to provide sanction and authority for such acts. Examples of that include attempting to justify or explain the killing of innocent non-combatants by making out-of-context references to the Qur’an. Similarly, there are those who justify bombing abortion clinics or killing and dispossessing the Palestinian people by making selective or out-of-context references to the Bible. The history of various religious communities is replete with such aberrations, even as it is replete also with successful implementation of the norms of their faiths. Human successes or failures are not always identical with ideal norms.

To evaluate whether a given act or argument conforms to the normative teachings or not, there must be some criteria of such evaluations; how are these norms to be identified? In the case of Islam, there is no dispute about its primary sources: the Qur’an and authentic (or sound) Hadith (or Sunnah). The Qur’an, for Muslims, is God’s revelation to His Final Messenger to humankind, Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him). It is an imperative pillar of faith in Islam to accept the Qur’an as the verbatim word of God dictated to the Prophet by Gabriel (Jibreel), the Angel of Revelation.

Being revelation in meaning as well as exact wording, the Qur’an is regarded by Muslims as the highest and final authority in learning about Islam and its stances on various issues and queries. Hadith refer to the words, actions, and approvals of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) in matters relating to the teaching of the faith and its implementation. Hadith is similar to the Qur’an, being a form of revelation and, hence, a primary source of Islam. It is different, however, in the fact that it is a revelation in meaning only. The words of the spoken part of Hadith are the Prophet’s, not God’s.

Furthermore, the Qur’an is fully authentic as it has been meticulously preserved by being committed to memory by masses of people in addition to its preservation in writing from the very beginning. Hadith, on the other hand, may vary with respect to the degree of authenticity (soundness). As such, Hadith must be understood in the light of the Qur’an and interpreted in a way that does not contradict any established Qur’anic principle. On the other hand, Hadith also serve as elaborators, clarifiers, and explainers of the Qur’an. This means that the text of the Qur’an and relevant authentic Hadith on a given topic must be studied in an integrative manner.

Secondary sources of Islam include two generally agreed upon sources as well as debatable sources. The generally agreed upon sources are a consensus of the scholars on a given issue (ijma`), and analogical deduction (qiyas). Secondary sources are not revelatory, even though they are based on interpretations of revelatory sources. While ijma` and qiyas are more generally accepted, they are themselves dependent upon the primary sources for their authority and reasoning. Interpretations involve human judgment; they may vary and are fallible as well. This implies that a sound argument based on the Qur’an and Hadith cannot be rejected on the grounds that the opinion of a scholar is different from it or inconsistent with it. Errors of understanding and interpretations are possible and do occur. Yet errors cannot be attributed to Allah and His Revelation.

It should be noted, however, that some traditional scholarly opinions (ijtihad) may be rejected, not because of a methodological error, but because of the fact that such opinions were partly shaped by the special circumstances and historical setting of their times. Such circumstances may differ significantly from those in today’s world. In all cases, opinions are to be judged by the primary sources, not the reverse. It may be helpful to note that there is no single person or authority in Islam whose interpretation of any debatable issue is seen or accepted as the only valid one, let alone being viewed on a par with the texts of the Qur’an and Hadith.

In interpreting the primary sources of Islam, a number of essential and universal rules must be observed. They include the following: 

The realization that the Qur’an has been preserved in the original language in which it was revealed (Arabic). In the process of translation into other languages, nuances of the original language may be lost or not fully communicated. Outright mistakes in translation do occur. Therefore, deep knowledge of the Arabic language is a must for any scholarly interpretation. It should be noted that certain terms used in the Qur’an carry differing meanings depending upon the context. For example, the term Ahl Al-Kitab or “People of the Book” is sometimes used to refer to Jews, other times to Christians, and in other instances to both. Likewise, the term al-nas is used sometimes to refer to all humankind, when the context deals with Allah as the Creator of humankind as in Surat An-Nisaa’ 4:1, Al-Hujurat 49:13, and An-Nas 114:1-6. In Aal `Imran 3:173, however, when the same term al-nas is used, it obviously refers to a subset of humankind, not all. The same applies to terms like Jews or Christians. Such terms may refer only to some but not all Jews or Christians.

The Qur’an explains itself. Since the Qur’an is not ordered by topic (like textbook chapters), it is necessary for a scholar to be thoroughly familiar with other texts in the Qur’an which deal with the same topic or relate directly to it. Failure to do so may lead to selectivity, which may distort the overall message of the Qur’an concerning that topic. In fact, other texts in the Qur’an may be highly significant in determining the true meaning of a given text.

In addition to the overall Qur’anic context, consideration should be given to the section in which a particular verse occurs. One of the most common serious mistakes is to quote only a part of a verse or one verse in an interrelated section of a surah (chapter) in such a way as to change its meaning.

Consideration of the occasion of revelation (asbab al-nuzul) of certain verses, if known and authentic, affects the interpretation of that verse.

If there is an authentic hadith dealing with the same topic as the Qur’anic verse, the hadith takes precedence over mere opinion or speculation


Keep in mind that some Qur’anic verses were revealed to deal with certain historical challenges facing the emerging and besieged Muslim community affects interpretation. Some of these challenges may not be present today, and if they are, they may take a different form. Some verses revealed to deal with such situations should not be unnecessarily generalized. For example, referring to verse 5 in surah 9 without any regard to its historical context may give the misleading impression that the Qur’an condones the killing of all idolatrous people, rather than only those who committed or conspired with others to commit murder in violation of their treaties. A fuller explanation of this verse is discussed later in this paper.
The few texts must be interpreted in the light of the many texts. For example, the Qur’an repeatedly affirms the freedom of conscience and rejects compulsion in religion. However, we encounter some verses in the Qur’an which allow fighting non-Muslims. To understand these later verses as permitting fighting against others because of their rejection of Islam or in order to force or coerce them to accept Islam is to disregard many Qur’anic texts that are inconsistent with that interpretation. The question then, is whether the permission to fight is because of their faith choice or because of their aggression and/or oppression, with religious choice being incidental, not the cause of fighting. 
Even an authoritative and authentic text of the primary sources of Islam may have more than one possible meaning (mutashabih) and must be interpreted in the light of the more definitive text (muhkam), not the reverse. 

Any claim of naskh (abrogation, or more correctly supercession) must be carefully examined. The entire Qur’an is definitively authentic (qat`i al-thubut). Any claim of naskh must be definitive, not based on mere opinion or speculation. It should be noted that earlier Muslims used the term naskh to refer also to takhsees or specifying and limiting the ruling than abrogating it.

This issue is of paramount importance, since the Muslim heritage includes writings that went into unreasonable excesses in their claims of naskh. While a few scholars claimed that hundreds of verses were abrogated, the great majority of scholars rejected these unsubstantiated claims. For example, Jalal Al-Din Al-Suyuti narrowed down the number of “abrogated” verses to 19. Other scholars, like Shah Waliyyullah Al-Dahlawi and Sobhi Al-Saleh, even narrowed them down to smaller numbers. The fact that there are legitimate disagreements about the number of abrogated verses in the Qur’an is itself an indication that some if not most of these claims are far from definitive, if not mistaken, based on strong evidence.

Guided by the above methodology, we move next to review the Qur’anic values and precepts, which represent the underpinning of Muslim/Non-Muslim relationships. 


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