Does Islam Preach That Infidels Be Killed?

It does not. A reader asked me this question in 2004 on my old, now defunct, blog, and despite my dislike for how it was phrased, I kept it as-is because it is in the minds of many. My conclusion today is the same as it was then. Actually, as I continued to study Islam in-depth, I became ever more convinced that Islam not only forbids such forms of violence; rather, it preaches quite the opposite.

An imam and Muslims participate in the fourth World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi, on Oct 27, 2011. Derivative of a photograph of Stephan Kölliker under CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

An imam and Muslims participate in the fourth World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi, on Oct 27, 2011. Derivative of the original photograph of Stephan Kölliker under CC BY-SA 3.0.

I am aware that some articles on the Internet argue otherwise. They say that Islam’s primary sources, the Quran and the Sunnah, prohibit Muslims from living in harmony with people of other faiths.

Islam’s primary source, the Quran, contains verses that command the believers to “not kill a soul that God has forbidden, except in the course of justice.”1The Quran 17:33 It applies to everyone, regardless of their religion, race, sex, etc. And the phrase “except in the course of justice” keeps the door open for a state to administer capital punishment for major crimes.

When the Prophet Muhammad was preaching in Arabia in the seventh century, he attracted many enemies who, at the peak of their opposition, even conspired to assassinate him. Even then, the Quran’s words spoke highly of the pious from among “the people of the book” (that is, the Jews and the Christians):

But they are not all alike. There are among the people of the book some who recite the revelations of God all night long and pray, who believe in God and the last day, who enjoin justice and forbid evil, and strive with one another in good works. These are from among the righteous people. They will not be denied whatever good (deeds) they do. God knows those who are conscious of Him. — The Quran 3:113-5

How, then, does one make sense of the verses that seemingly require Muslims to fight the infidels? For that, we ought to look at audience of those verses. A verse could have addressed an individual believer, a state, or specifically the Prophet Muhammad and his companions. Usually, the addressee can be established from the content of the verse or the textual context within which it appears. Consider, for example, the Quranic verse 9:14, which tells believers to “fight them, God will punish them through your hands.” Those who present this as an example of violence say that the pronoun them refers to all non-Muslims, and that Muslims are encouraged to fight them.

I see multiple problems with this line of argument, but let me explain only the most obvious one. The preceding verse asks Muslims why they refuse to fight those “who broke their oaths, attempted to expel the messenger (i.e., the Prophet Muhammad), and attacked first?” Consider both verses together (emphasis added by me):

Why would you not fight the people who broke their pledges, and drove the messenger out, and attacked you first? Do you fear them even though God is more deserving that you fear Him if you are believers?
So fight them, God will punish them through your hands, bring them to disgrace, and He will soothe the believer’s hearts. — The Quran 9:13-14

The Prophet’s early life was spent in Mecca, where he lived for thirteen years after proclaiming prophethood. It was only until his opponents in Mecca had planned his assassination that he fled with many other Muslims to another city, Medina. A few years after arriving there, and after a few wars had been fought between the two sides, Muslims entered into a treaty with the Meccans that was later broken by the latter group.

After referring to that historical context, the verse 9:14 encourages the companions of the Prophet to wage a war with their opponents, stating that the reason was their excesses and for attacking the Muslims first. Therefore, these directives are not general precepts. They were time-specific directives for the Prophet and his companions that cannot be applied now.

One also finds similar opinions for this verse in the classical commentaries of the Quran. For example, Al-Tabari (d. 923 CE) and Ibn Kathir (d. 1373 CE) stated that the reference in verse 9:14 is directed at those idolators who broke their oaths with the Muslims and expelled the Prophet.2Al-Tabari’s commentary for verse 9:14; English translation of Ibn-Kathir’s commentary for verses 9:13-15. Al-Tabarani wrote that the Muslims were asked to fight the Meccans in this verse. Other scholars went even further and identified a specific tribe that had violated the treaty.
But the verse 17:33 that I presented earlier is a general commandment that forbids believers from killing anyone without due course of justice.

And do not kill a soul that God has made sacred, except in the course of justice. We have given authority (of recompense) to the heirs of the one slain wrongfully. So let him not (exceed limits) in (retribution) for the murdered. He is helped. — The Quran 17:33

Notes   [ + ]

1. The Quran 17:33
2. Al-Tabari’s commentary for verse 9:14; English translation of Ibn-Kathir’s commentary for verses 9:13-15.