Quran Quote of the Day on Peace
The Muslims say “hello” with the phrase “as-Salamu `alaykum”– “peace be upon you.” Once the pagan, polytheistic Meccan tribes started attacking the Muslims and trying to wipe them out, the question was raised of how to repond when a pagan not connected to the Meccans greeted a Muslim.
The instinct was to refuse to accept the sincerity of the greeting, “peace be upon you,” which was also a pledge of non-violence toward the person greeted. That tendency was reinforced by greed, since if the Muslims fought these pagan strangers and won, they would legitimately be able to demand loot from them. (This was a tribal, often nomadic society, and that was the custom when tribes raided each other).
The Quran settles this dilemma. It says that Muslims are not to taunt pagans who greet them with “peace be upon you” by shouting, “You’re not a Muslim!” They are to accept the sincerity of the greeting, and are not to get so greedy for spoils that they let it affect their judgment of others. When you are offered peace, take it.
. . . Do not say to one who offers you peace, “You are not a believer,” seeking the spoils of this life. For God has abundant treasure. You used to be like them, after all, and then God blessed you.
Neither 4:94, nor 4:90, quoted on Friday, imply that pagans must give up their paganism in order to be at peace with, and treated well by Muslims. Rather, the Quran takes a two-track approach. As a monotheistic scripture, it condemns idol worship and warns its practitioners of hell-fire in the afterlife. But as a matter of everyday, this-worldly practice, the Quran commands Muslims to live in peace with pagans who do not make war on them and who approach them in peace.
This is the answer to the reader who asked about the Quran’s attitude to atheists. The Quran condemns unbelief as spiritually wrong and as leading to perdition in the next life. But the Quran says Muslims should live in peace with nonviolent pagans in this world, if the pagans are inclined to coexistence with the Muslims.
Readers asked me about the long list of militant verses collected by polemicists against Islam. The answer is that those verses refer to the Meccan power elite in the 620s AD, who were waging a determined military, political and economic war to defeat the Muslims holed up in nearby Medina, and wipe them and the new religion out. It is frankly dishonest to take a verse about, say, the battle of Badr against the militant Meccan pagans (“unbelievers”) and imply that it refers to contemporary American Christians or American atheists for that matter. What was objectionable to the Quran in practical terms about the Meccan unbelievers was their murderousness toward Muslims, not their attachment to their star goddesses. Muslims are instructed to be nice to unbelievers who don’t share that murderousness.
Note that I am explicating the Quran itself. Later Muslim commentators have interpreted it in many ways, and much Muslim law and practice are based on later customs and traditions. I am here deploying the technique of the hermeneutical circle, using texts from the book to illuminate other texts from the book. This strategy makes sense because we don’t have any works we can be sure are as early as, and contemporaneous with the Quran. The biographies of the Prophet were produced nearly two centuries later and more.
Much later Quran interpretation was done by persons who lived in militaristic, feudal societies, or who lived in empires where Muslims were a ruling caste, and their interpretations were shaped by these circumstances. They also tended to lack the techniques of contextual and causal thinking typical of contemporary academic writing. The Quran was produced at a time when the Muslims were a small group, and persecuted by the richer and more powerful Meccan pagans, and the Quran is not picky about the beliefs of the friendly tribes willing to be at peace with the Muslims.