By Malik Ibrahim
In a recent interview in the Washington Post, a representative from the LGBTQ Muslim community appealed to Surah 5:32 to demonstrate that the attacks in Orlando were not inspired by Islam[i]. This is one of the most oft-quoted verses by Muslims to demonstrate that Islam is a peaceful religion which rejects violence against innocent people, yet it is usually done so without respect for its context. The verse reads, “On that account: We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person—unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land—it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.”[ii] This verse is the culmination of the story of Adam’s two sons, most likely Cain and Abel. The account begins in v. 27 and much like the biblical story in Genesis 4 it recounts how Cain slays Abel. Verse 32 appears to be the moral lesson of the narrative, reminding Muslims that whoever murders an innocent person “it would be as if he slew the whole people,” conversely, if someone saves the life of an innocent person “it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.”
Abdullah Yusuf Ali in his own translation of the Qur’an comments on 5:32,
To kill or seek to kill an individual because he represents an ideal is to kill all who uphold the ideal. On the other hand, to save an individual life in the same circumstances is to save a whole community. What could be (a) stronger condemnation of individual assassination and revenge?[iii]
Shelia Musaji, an American Sunni commentator, while trying to explain the violent language of Surah 5:33 emphatically states,
It is quite shocking to see how many Islam-haters will place this verse under the heading of “inciting Muslims to kill and wage war,” whereas the verse commands nothing of this sort! In fact, it comes directly after a verse prohibiting murder and likening the unjust murder of a single individual to the slaughter of humanity.[iv]
Even Syed Abul A’ala Maududi, whose religious writings undergird the development of modern day Pakistan, wrote this concerning 5:32,
This means that the survival of human life depends on everyone respecting other human beings and in contributing actively to the survival and protection of others. Whosoever kills unrighteously is thus not merely guilty of doing wrong to one single person, but proves by his act that his heart is devoid of respect for human life and of sympathy for the human species as such. Such a person, therefore, is an enemy of all mankind. This is so because he happens to be possessed of a quality which, were it to become common to all men, would lead to the destruction of the entire human race. The person who helps to preserve the life of even one person, on the other hand, is the protector of the whole of humanity, for he possesses a quality which is indispensable to the survival of mankind.[v]
But the question must be asked, do these interpretations of Surah 5:32 represent how Muslims have traditionally understood this verse? In answering this question we will take a look at the historical context which gave rise to Surah 5, as well as a more traditional understanding.
Surah 5, along with Surah 9, are considered by many scholars to be the final two chapters given to Muhammad before his death. The last year of his life was marked by raiding, the swearing of allegiance to him by whole Arabian tribes, as well as forced conversion to Islam. The conversion story of the city of Najran which was a Christian territory at the time is of particular note here because it demonstrated Muhammad’s new policy towards Christians. As Ibn Ishaq, Muhammad’s earliest biographer, recounts he sent emissaries to Najran inviting them to accept Islam or to be attacked by the Muslim forces. After considering this offer for three days the inhabitants of Najran agreed to embrace Islam. Commenting on this event Sahaja Carimokam, a Christian-Islamic scholar, writes, “It may well be the first instance of a direct Islamic subjugation of a Christian group and indicates that Muhammad now regarded his faith as demanding the subjugation of Christians.”[vi]
Regarding Arabia as a whole, Muhammad’s final words to his followers were, “Let no two religions be left in the Arabian Peninsula.”[vii] This attitude is most certainly reflected in Surahs 9 and 5 of the Qur’an. Carimokam points out that “these final two chapters constitute a clarion call to establish God’s Kingdom on earth by means of coercive violence.”[viii]
Surahs 9 and 5 also give more detail on Muhammad’s views of the People of the Book. Here the only tolerance to be shown to Jews and Christians is if they convert to Islam or agree to pay the poll tax which will protect them from a Muslim attack. This also simultaneously served to strengthen the economic might of the Muslim army. Carimokam’s conclusion on Surah 9 aptly fits Surah 5 as well, “Muhammad is pointing his men in the direction of an ongoing jihad that really has no end until the world is ruled by Islam.”[ix]
Now that we have located Surah 5 in its historical context, let’s take a look at what some other Qur’anic commentators have to say about verse 32. Ibn Kathir, the 14th-century Sunni commentator writes, “Said bin Jubayr said, ‘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.’” He continues, “He who kills a believing soul intentionally, Allah makes the Fire of Hell his abode, He will become angry with him, and curse him, and has prepared a tremendous punishment for him equal to if he had killed all people, his punishment will be the same.”
After establishing the historical context that gave rise to Surah 5:32, as well as an exegesis of the chapter, Carimokam concludes,
This verse really only affirms the tolerance of Muslims toward other Muslims. Those who resist the message of the Messenger may be duly slaughtered as the next verse affirms: ‘The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and his Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: Execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land’ (verse 33). In other words, a non-Muslim who resists the political hegemony of Islam may be duly executed, crucified, mutilated, or driven out of the country. To resist the hegemony of Islam is, in the Quran’s view, to wage war against Allah and his Messenger. This is hardly a verse that shows the Qur’an’s high view of the value of human life, only the value of Muslim human life.[xi]
It is in many ways commendable for Muslims commentators in the modern age to strive to present Surah 5:32 in a peaceful light. After all, peaceful religions are much better for our pluralistic world where people from multiple creeds and ethnicities live side by side. However, as our study points out, it is extremely difficult to get such an interpretation when looking at the historical context and traditional Islamic sources. The majority of Muslims are struggling to create a peaceful version of Islam. Yet this struggle highlights their own desires for peace both in society and in their personal lives. This is where we as Christians can step in and proclaim and embody the life of the Lord Jesus Christ, the true Prince of Peace. It is only in him that our Muslim neighbors will find the peace for which their hearts so desperately long.
[i] Janell Ross, “What You Should Know About LGBT and Muslim, From A Leading LGBT Muslim Group”, Washington Post https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/06/20/what-you-should-know-about-being-lgbt-and-muslim-from-a-leading-lgbt-muslim-group/?postshare=4911466453531130&tid=ss_fb (accessed June 20, 2016)
[ii] Abdullah Yusuf Ali, “The Meaning of the Holy Quran”, Islam 101 http://www.islam101.com/quran/yusufAli/QURAN/5.htm (accessed May 18, 2016).
[iii] Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Holy Quran: Text, Translation and Commentary (Elmhurst: Tahrike Tarsile Qur’an, Inc., 2002) 252 n 737.
[iv] Shelia Musaji, “Quran 5:33 Commentary”, The American Muslim (TAM). http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/quran_533_commentary (accessed May 18, 2016).
[v] Syed Abul A’ala Maududi, “Towards Understanding the Quran”, Islamic Studies http://www.islamicstudies.info/tafheem.php?sura=5&verse=33&to=34 (accessed May 18, 2016).
[vi] Sahaja Carimokam, Muhammad and the People of the Book (United States: Xlibris, 2010), 443.
[vii] A. Guillaume trans., The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah (Oxford: Oxford Press, 2004), 689.
[viii] Sahaja Carimokam, Muhammad and the People of the Book, 447.
[ix] Ibid., 450.
[xi] Sahaja Carimokam, Muhammad and the People of the Book, 465.