Issues Facing Missions Today 27: What Does the Quran Say about Treatment of Jews and Christians?
The Quran seems to offer different advice on what to do with persons of other faiths. Those of us accustomed to reading ancient texts know that there are legitimate issues of interpretation that need to be considered. At times, such issues lead us to a different understanding of texts that, on first reading, appear to be saying something else. There are, for example, issues of translation (and Muslims insist that the Quran cannot accurately be translated from Arabic), the importance of the original context, a possible trajectory of meaning of some sort (such as when the holy war narratives in the Old Testament give way to the pacifism of the early Church due to the teaching and example of Jesus Christ in the New Testament), matters of rhetoric (is extreme language actually hyperbole and not to be taken literally?), and so forth. Thus, the following identification of texts is mainly offered to identify which texts need some sort of explanation as one attempts to understand what the Quran says about the treatment of Jews and Christians.
How might someone explain the apparent contrast of views in the Quran? On the one hand, Surat 2.257 says: 'There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion.' On the other hand, Surat 9.5 says: 'And when the sacred months have passed, then kill the polytheists wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they should repent, establish prayer, and give zakah [a payment showing appreciation for Allah’s blessing], let them [go] on their way. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.' Surat 9.12 goes on to say to 'fight them (polytheists) that they may cease.’
The Quran distinguishes between Jews, Christians, and polytheists, but it also sees them as three groups over against Islam: 'Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but he was one inclining toward truth, a Muslim [submitting to Allah]. And he was not of the polytheists’ (Surat 3.67). So, what does the Quran say about Jews and Christians? Surat 5.51 sees them as allies of one another and opposed to Islam: 'O you who have believed, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies. They are [in fact] allies of one another. And whoever is an ally to them among you - then indeed, he is [one] of them. Indeed, Allah guides not the wrongdoing people.'
Similarly, and apparently in reference to the Jews (see Surat 4.46), Surat 4.89 says: 'They wish you would disbelieve as they disbelieved so you would be alike. So do not take from among them allies until they emigrate for the cause of Allah . But if they turn away, then seize them and kill them wherever you find them and take not from among them any ally or helper.' Surat 9.123 says: 'O you who have believed, fight those adjacent to you of the disbelievers and let them find in you harshness. And know that Allah is with the righteous.' Surat 4.47 contains a direct threat of death to Jews and Christians rejecting the Quran: ‘O you who were given the Scripture, believe in what We have sent down [to Muhammad], confirming that which is with you, before We obliterate faces and turn them toward their backs or curse them as We cursed the sabbath-breakers. And ever is the decree of Allah accomplished.’
Conversion from Islam carries an ominous threat of punishment: ‘Or lest you say, "If only the Scripture had been revealed to us, we would have been better guided than they." So there has [now] come to you a clear evidence from your Lord and a guidance and mercy. Then who is more unjust than one who denies the verses of Allah and turns away from them? We will recompense those who turn away from Our verses with the worst of punishment for their having turned away’ (Surat 6.157).
Fighting in the cause of Allah means a great reward: 'So let those fight in the cause of Allah who sell the life of this world for the Hereafter. And he who fights in the cause of Allah and is killed or achieves victory - We will bestow upon him a great reward’ (Surat 4.74). Much is made about fighting for Allah (especially in Surat 2)--and a higher reward goes to the one engaged in warfare--see Surat 4.95: 'But Allah has preferred the mujahideen [those who strive and fight] over those who remain [behind] with a great reward.'
Jews and Christians are unequivocally said to be headed to hell: ‘Indeed, they who disbelieved among the People of the Scripture and the polytheists will be in the fire of Hell, abiding eternally therein. Those are the worst of creatures’ (Surat 98.6). Yet the matter does not end there, even though the Quran gives evidence of people of different religions living in the same region. Instead, fighting against Jews and Christians is advocated. Surat 9.29 says: ‘Fight those who do not believe in Allah or in the Last Day … who do not adopt the religion of truth from those who were given the Scripture [Jews and Christians] - [fight] until they give the jizyah [tax on non-Muslims] willingly while they are humbled.’ Those causing Muslims to turn from their religion are promised a painful punishment: ‘Indeed, those who have disbelieved and avert [people] from the way of Allah and [from] al-Masjid al-Haram [the sacred mosque in Mecca], which We made for the people - equal are the resident therein and one from outside; and [also] whoever intends [a deed] therein of deviation [in religion] or wrongdoing - We will make him taste of a painful punishment’ (Surat 22.25).
Texts such as these from the Quran raise questions about how they are to be understood and applied in the present age. For those of us who are not Muslims, the matter is primarily about how such texts are interpreted, not how we think they ought to be interpreted. Yet the beginning of the problem for those outside Islam is that most people are ignorant of such texts in the first place, and they stand confused about how a religion purporting to be peaceful can lead so many to acts of such extreme violence. To be sure, Christians have at different times behaved horribly too, although many would contend—as would I—that in such cases the practice of the Christian faith was completely at odds with Holy Scripture. Such an argument is not difficult to make once one has read the New Testament—after all, did Jesus not say,
Matthew 5:44-46 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?
In closing, the question with which we are left is, ‘Is there any room at all for interpreting these texts in the Quran differently from what one might understand as the simple meaning of the text?’ If so, then perhaps certain advocates are correct when they insist that the extreme acts of Islamic terrorists we see today are not characteristic of ‘true’ Islam. If not, then perhaps ‘radical Islam’ is actually not radical at all but the real thing, not some aberration.