The tension between Muslims and non-Muslims, in particular Jews and Christians, as a result of the events of September 11, 2001 and beyond has made the world of ours far more intolerant and insecure than it was before. Many political, social, economic, and religious causes have been attributed to this alarming tendency. One important religious cause that has been justifiably claimed to have contributed in the deepening of tension between the two groups is the alleged urging to the believers in the Jewish and Islamic religious texts to treat non-believers differently because of their difference in faith. One such claim in the Islamic text is the alleged Qur’anic teaching that that Muslims cannot have non-Muslims as their friends. Since this claim of Muslim scholars is based on a few Qur’anic passages, it is important that it should be refuted on the basis of the same text or else devout Muslims would continue to consider non-Muslims as people who cannot be befriended. This paper is an attempt to show through the Qur’anic text the author’s conviction that the holy book of Muslims does not expect its followers to not consider non-Muslims for friendship because of their non-conformance with the faith of Muslims.
2) The Traditional Muslim Point of View
The following is a translation of one of the verses on which the popular Muslim view is based:
"O believers! Take neither Jews nor Christians as your protecting friends (auliya): they are only protecting friends of one another. Whoever of you disobeys this commandment will be counted as one of them. Surely God does not guide the wrongdoers." (Qur’an; 5:51)
A respected Muslim scholar of India has explained the above-translated verse thus:
"Aulia is the plural of wali. Wali means a friend, some one who is close, and a helper. What it means is that Muslims are expected not to make Jews, Christians, and all other disbelievers (kuffar) their protecting friends, as has been clarified in Surah Nisaa1. However, to deal with them with justice, politeness, generosity, and decency is another matter. If believers feel it to be necessary, they can have agreements of peace with all disbelievers, as has been mentioned in verse 8:61.2 Justice is meant to be done in case of all humans, whether Muslim or non-Muslim. The attitude of politeness and decency can be demonstrated for those non-Muslims who are not antagonistic towards Muslims. However, as far as Muwalaat (i.e. confidence of friendship and brotherly help and support) is concerned, no Muslim is allowed to establish it with any non-Muslim."3
There is another passage of the Qur’an that is often quoted to support the above view. "Let not the believers take for friends or helpers unbelievers (Kuffar) rather than believers; if any do that in nothing will there be help from Allah; except by way of precaution that ye may guard yourselves from them. But God cautions you (to remember) Himself for the final goal is to Allah." (Qur’an; 3:28)
3) Critique of the Traditional View
There are several reasons why, in my opinion, the traditional view on Muslims’ relations with non-Muslims is incorrect. I will mention the more prominent ones in this section.
i) Qur'an allows Muslim men to marry Jew and Christian ladies: "Likewise, marriage with chaste free believing women and also chaste women among the People who were given the Book before you is made lawful for you."(Qur’an; 5:5). While mentioning the closeness of the husband-wife relationship, Qur'an says: "And of His signs, another one is that He created for you mates from among yourselves that you may find comfort with them"(Qur’an; 30: 21) The book of God also says "They (your wives) are an apparel for you and you an apparel for them." (Qur’an; 2:187) It is unimaginable how a good Muslim would be able to have very close relations with his non-Muslim wife on the one hand and yet be able to maintain the caution that the conventional point of view would like him to observe with non-Muslims. A lady is either your wife or she is not.
As a result of his marriage with a non-Muslim lady, a Muslim is going to have in-law relatives. Qur’an says: “He (God) is the One Who has created man from water, then made for him blood relationships and that of marriage relationships, your Lord is indeed All-Powerful.” (Qur’an; 25:54) Should Muslim men treat all in-law relatives with the same mysterious and unclear attitude -- which is neither friendly nor frank -- that traditional view suggests? Moreover, as a result of the Qur’anic permission for Muslim men to marry non-Muslim women, some Muslim children will have non-Muslim mothers. In view of the conventional understanding on the issue, should the Muslims be required to not have any informal frankness with their mothers?
ii) The conventional view on the subject has not attempted to consider all verses relevant to the subject together. It is based on an atomized understanding of a few verses taken out of their context. Consider the following Qur'anic passage:
"God does not forbid you to be kind (tabarru: noun, birr) and equitable (tuqsitu: noun, qist) to those who had neither fought against your faith nor driven you out of your homes. In fact God loves the equitable. (60:8) God only forbids you to make friends (wali) those who fought you on account of your faith and drove you out of your homes and backed up others in your expulsion. Those who will take them for friends are indeed the wrongdoers." (60: 9)
In the verse 60:9 above, Qur'an is requiring believers not to make friends those non-Muslims "who fought you on account of your faith and drove you out of your homes and backed up others in your expulsion." In the previous verse, Qur'an allows Muslims to be kind and equitable to those "who had neither fought against your faith nor driven you out of your homes." The question is: Where is Qur'an requiring Muslims not to make friends such non-Muslims who had neither fought against their faith nor driven them out of their homes? When the categorical statement made is that only those "who fought you on account of your faith and drove you out of your homes and backed up others in your expulsion" can't be made your friends, how can we add anything else in this category? The above-quoted passage was the most appropriate occasion for the purpose of clarifying the Muslims relations with the non-Muslims. If Qur’an doesn’t clarify that Muslims cannot make even good non-Muslims their friends in this passage, then there is no reason why the assumption of the traditional view should be accepted.
If the claim that Muslims can't make even good non-Muslims their friends was correct, Qur'an should have said something to this effect:
"God forbids you to make non-Muslims your friends. However, he does not forbid you to be kind (tabarru, birr) and equitable (tuqsitu, qist) to those who had neither fought against your faith nor driven you out of your homes. In fact God loves the equitable." However, had that been the statement in the verse, the immediately following verse wouldn't have been consistent with the rest of the passage: "God only forbids you to make friends (wali) those who fought you on account of your faith and drove you out of your homes and backed up others in your expulsion. Those who will take them for friends are indeed the wrongdoers." (60: 9)
Imagine you are telling someone the following: "You can't make thieves your friends; as for honest people, you can be good to them." How can it be claimed that this statement is requiring that honest people too can't be made friends? If there was another category of people who were required not to be made friends, that category should have been mentioned along with the mention of thieves.
On the basis of this understanding, I believe that the claim that Muslims are urged not to make Jew and Christian friends irrespective of the latter’s attitude towards Islam and Muslims is incorrect.
iii) Another problem I have with the traditional understanding is that if you go by what it says, Islam seems to be promoting tension and hatred amongst humans, whereas when you read Qur'an, you find that the Almighty wants humans to come close to one another as a family. If there is any differentiation in the eyes of God it is on the basis of piety. Qur'an says: "O mankind! We created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes that you might get to know one another. Surely the noblest of you in the sight of God is he who is the most righteous. God is All-Knowledgeable, All-Aware." (49:13)
It is on the basis of the high status Islam attaches to piety and God-consciousness that Qur'an praises non-Muslims in several verses. For instance, Qur'an says:
“Among the people of the Book (Jews and Christians) there are those who if you trust them with a treasure, will return it to you; and among them there are those who, if you trust them with a dinar, will not return it to you, unless you keep standing over them.” (3:75)
“They are not all alike. Among the people of the Book there is a party who stand by their covenant; they recite the Word of God in the hours of night and prostrate themselves before Him. They believe in God and the Last Day, and enjoin good and forbid evil, and hasten to vie with one another in good works. And these are among the righteous.” (3:113)
“And surely among the People of the Book there are some who believe in God and in what has been sent down to you and in what was sent down to them, humbling themselves before Allah. They trade not the signs of God for a paltry price. It is these who shall have their reward with their Lord. Surely God is swift in settling account.” (3:199)
How can it be considered a correct view that while Qur’an is praising the people of the Book on the one hand and yet is desiring its followers to not befriend them?
iv) The following is another verse on which the traditional view is based: “Let not the believers take for friends or helpers unbelievers (Kafirin) rather than believers; if any do that in nothing will there be help from Allah; except by way of precaution that ye may guard yourselves from them.” (3:28) The basic problem with the traditional interpretation of this verse (and many other similar verses) is that the word Kafir (plural: (Kuffar, Kafirun, Kafirin) has been understood to mean all non-Muslims. However, the correct understanding of the word Kafir is that he is a person who denies the message of God despite knowing that it is from Him. If we accept that all Jews and Christians are Kuffar, then it will have to be accepted that they are all the worst of all creatures according to Qur'an. The Book of God says: "Surely those who disbelieve (i.e. those who are Kuffar) from among the people of the Book and the Mushrikin (the polytheists) shall be in fire of hell, to dwell therein forever. They are the worst of all creatures." (98:6) Why is Qur'an requiring Muslims to be kind and equitable to those (non-believers) who had neither fought against their faith nor driven them out of their homes, when they were worst of creatures? Why have some of them been praised so lavishly in the verses mentioned in point three above? Clearly, there is only one acceptable answer: The traditional understanding that all Jews, Christians, and other non-Muslims are Kuffar is incorrect.
4) The Correct View
I believe that the correct view in this regard is that Muslims are required to maintain cordial and friendly relations with all good people, whether Muslims or non-Muslims, on the basis of their character and their behaviour towards Islam and good Muslims. If there are some such so-called Muslims around who are making fun of Islam, Muslims are expected not to be friendly with them too. On the other hand, if there are good non-Muslims who, apart from being good humans, are respectful to Islam, there is no harm in making them friends. In fact, Muslims should be friendly with them also with the purpose of bringing them closer to Islam.
Qur'an has clarified the reason why some Jews and Christians can't be made friends in the following passage:
"O believers! Do not make your protecting friends those, from among the people who were given the Book before you and the unbelievers, who have made your religion a mockery or pastime, fear God if you are true believers. When you call for Salah (prayers) they make it as an object of mockery and pastime; this is because they are a people devoid of understanding." (5:57-58)
It is the same instruction the Almighty has given to Muslims regarding the hypocrite fellow-Muslims as well. Qur'an says "He has already revealed for you in the Book that when you hear Allah's revelations being denied or ridiculed by people, you must not sit with them unless they change the topic of their talk, otherwise you shall be considered guilty like them. Rest assured that God is going to gather the hypocrites and the unbelievers all together in hell."(4:140) "What is the matter with you, why are you divided into two groups concerning the hypocrites, while God has cast them off on account of their misdeeds? Do you wish to guide those whom God has confounded? Whomever God has confounded you cannot find a way for them to be guided." (4:88)
Thus Qur'an has mentioned the question of friendship to be decided only on the basis of the merit of an individual's conduct and character rather than on a person's apparent religious attachment. If a believer's faith is in jeopardy while in the company of a bad Muslim, he should avoid his company, while if a believer's character and faith are safe and secure in a non-Muslim's friendship which can moreover result in that non-Muslim's better understanding of Islam, that Muslim would do well to continue to make him his friend. The Almighty wants us to avoid the company of only such people whose "... real wish is to see that you become a disbeliever, as they have disbelieved, so that you may become exactly like them. So you should not take friends from their ranks unless they immigrate in the way of God..." (Qur’an; 4:89) The Qur’an clarifies in another passage that such devious people are only a few and not all the people of the Book. The Qur’an says: “O believers! If you were to obey a group of those who were given the Book, they will turn you back from belief to unbelief.” (Qur’an; 3:100)
Like in all other issues, Islam wants its followers to deal with the question of making friends too on the criterion of merit. A good Muslim can have friendship with all other good humans, whether Muslims or non-Muslims, so long as they respect his beliefs and not be a cause of threat to his spiritual and moral life4. He must avoid the company of those Muslims and non-Muslims who have dubious character and who make fun of his religion.
The traditional Muslim understanding that requires Muslims to maintain a distance with the non-Muslims is based on an incorrect understanding of the relevant Qur’anic passages on the subject. The erroneous interpretation has stemmed from two basic mistakes committed by the traditional interpreters:
a) They have assumed that since one of the verses of Qur’an requires Muslims to stay away from making friends “the Jews” and “the Christians” (al-Yahud wa al-Nasaraa) their friends, it should be concluded that all Jews and Christians of the world were included in that category. The truth of the matter is that the context of the verse (as already explained) clearly suggests that the people referred to were a particular group of Jews and Christians. The words used for the purpose (al-Yahud and al-Nasaraa), if correctly translated, mean “these Jews” and “these Christians” i.e. who are creating the mischief mentioned in the relevant verses of the passage. The prefix “al” in Arabic is used for many purposes somewhat the same way as the definite article “the” in English. Like in a particular context the expression “the Muslim” would mean a particular group of Muslims, “the Jews” and “the Christians” (al-Yahud wa al-Nasaraa) means the particular group of Jews and Christians who were making fun of Muslims and were conspiring against them.
b) They have assumed that the word Kafir means all non-Muslims of the world. I have explained that the expression means only those people who deny the message of God despite knowing unmistakably that it is from Him. After the discontinuation of direct communication of God with man through Divine Revelation as a result of God’s declaration that Muhammad5 is His last prophet, there is no way man can know whether or not a certain individual or group has rejected a message knowing it to be from God.
The fact is that Qur’an has declared that success in the hereafter shall be made available not only to Muslims but also to the well-meaning non-Muslims who were not Kafir: “Rest assured that Believers (Muslims), Jews, Christians and Sabians - whoever believes in God and the last day and perform good deeds - will be rewarded by their Lord; they will have nothing to fear or to regret.” (Qur’an; 2:62) How can the book that is giving the good news of everlasting success to a certain group of people ask some other people to not make them friends because they were [supposedly] not worthy of it?
1. Chapter 4 of Qur’an.
2. “If the enemy is inclined towards peace, do make peace with them, and put your trust in Allah. He is the One Who hears all , knows all.”
3. Usmani, Shabbir Ahmed; al-Qur’an al-Hakim; Karachi: Taj Company Ltd; 1959; p. 154.
4. Of course, to make friends is a matter of an individual’s personal choice. It is not necessary that all good people would make all other good humans they come in contact with their friends. The requirement of Islamic teaching is negative: A good Muslim shall not make a bad human his friend. The teachings are not – and cannot be – requiring him to make all good humans his friends by all means.
5. God’s mercy be on him.
(Dr Khalid Zaheer is the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences of University of Central Punjab since July 1, 2009. Prior to joining UCP, he was the Director Education, Al-Mawrid, which is an NGO established to promote research and education on Islam. Prior to joining Al-Mawrid in September 2006, he was an Associate Professor of Islamic Studies and Ethics at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). He has a teaching experience of more than 20 years)