The Koran and Fighting Unbelievers
Professor XXXXX wrote:
“It is my turn to be astonished by Prof. Cole. The following link:
includes 24 passages from the Koran enjoining believers to fight
unbelievers. The one closest to the words I used is no. 21, although, to
be completely accurate, it refers only to Jews and Christians, not all
This argument and this citation are perfect examples of why it is so dangerous to get one’s information from an amateur web site at geocities. The passages cobbled together here are from the 1930s translation by Marmaduke Pickthall, a British upper crust convert who simply was not an academic and often translates infelicitously. The verses listed are a hodgepodge, lacking any context and failing to make any distinctions.
The word usually translated as “infidel” or “unbeliever” in English is the Arabic kafir, pl. kuffar. It literally means “ingrate,” and often refers to human ingratitude in not recognizing the one God or in persecuting the prophet or Muslims. It almost always refers to the Meccan idolators, who are characterized by kufr or the ingratitude of active disbelief. The Koran enjoins Muslims to fight back against the idolatrous Meccans who were attacking Medina.
Ordinary Jews and Christians are not kafirs in this sense in the Koran, but rather are “people of the book” with their own, valid, divinely revealed scripture.
Koran 5:82 says (Arberry): “Surely they that believe, and those of Jewry, and the Christians, and those Sabeaans, whoso believes in God and the Last Day, and works righteousness–their wage waits them with their Lord, and no fear shall be on them, neither shall they sorrow.”
The Koran thus considers Judaism and Christianity true religions, in whose scriptures there is “light and guidance.” It says that Christians are “closest in love” to Muslims. Muhammad made alliances with the Medinan Jews against the Meccans, and some at least of those alliances survived all the way through. It is true that some Jewish tribes fell out with the Muslims, and one appears to have gone over to the Meccan idolators to fight against monotheists. This betrayal caused bitterness toward those specific Jews, but not toward Judaism or Jews in general, who continue to be praised as in 5:82 above.
Anyone, of course, can become an “ingrate” toward God if they do the wrong thing. So Koran 2:105 speaks of “those who committed kufr from among the people of the Book.” The locution of this verse demonstrates conclusively that most Jews and Christians (people of the book) have not committed kufr and are therefore not kafirs or infidels in the eyes of the Koran.
The verse Professor Kaiser refers to most specifically is 9:29-30. Arberry gives it as: “Fight those who believe not in God and the Last Day and do not forbid what God and His Messenger have forbidden–such men as practise not the religion of truth, being of those who have been given the Book–until they pay the tribute out of hand and have been humbled.” The verse cannot possibly be referring to Christians and Jews in general, since as we have seen in verse 5:82, they are considered to believe in God and the last day and to be deserving of recompense with God in the afterlife. The reference is probably rather to Christians or Jews who threw in with the Meccan idolaters, thus effectively resigning from the ranks of the monotheists, or committed other enormities such as to bring into question their status as people of the book.
The great scholar Claude Cahen writes of this verse and the meaning of “tribute” (jizya) here in the Encyclopedia of Islam:
“The word jizya, which is perhaps connected with an Aramaic original, occurs in the Qur’an, IX, 29, where, even at that time, it is applied to the dues demanded from Christians and Jews, but probably in the somewhat loose sense, corresponding with the root, of “compensation” (for non-adoption of Islam), and in any case as collective tribute, not differentiated from other forms of taxation, and the nature of its content being left uncertain (the examples given in the works on the biography of the Prophet are very variable; tribute was adapted to the individual conditions of each group concerned). It is possible that, mutatis mutandis, precedents can be found in pre-Islamic Arabia outside the religious sphere, in the conditions of submission of inhabited oases to more powerful tribal groups, in return for protection; but as a result of their conquests the Arabs, heirs of the Byzantine and Sasanid regimes, were to be faced with new practical problems.”
I actually prefer a Persian origin for the term jizya. And I think it is anachronistic to read back into 9:29 the meaning of “poll tax” that was paid by all Jews and Christians in the later Muslim empires. I think Cahen is closer to the mark when he sees its payment as simply a mark of clientelage or subsidiary alliance in a tribal society. Muslims also paid “tribute” to the Muslim city-state, by the way. The khums or “one-fifth” on certain kinds of income is an example.
I contend that virtually the only Koran verses that commend violence are referring to the need to defend against the Meccan siege of Medina and the machinations of the Meccans’ allies. Since the pagan Meccan civilization no longer exists and since aggressive Meccan polytheism is not a force in today’s world, it is not clear that any of these verses have any relevance whatsoever any more. There are no Koran verses that commend violence against anyone but the Meccan pagans and their allies. Jews, Christians, even the Mandaean gnostic sect of the Sabeans, are all granted freedom to practice and to live in peace.
I would be the first to admit that an abstract understanding of the Koran is different from contemporary Muslim interpretations of it, which are various. (Note, however, that 99.9 percent of Muslims are not falling upon their non-Muslim neighbors). But the latter are not the grounds on which this debate was waged. Rather, it was asserted that the *Koran* prescribes belligerancy toward non-Muslims, including Jews and Christians in general. This allegation is simply untrue. I have been studying the Koran in Arabic for 30 years, and I am saddened that anyone should have held this misconception.