By Maulvi Yahya Nomani
(Translated from Urdu by Yoginder Sikand)
While Islam stresses good relations with people of other faiths, it is also mindful of its distinctive teachings and of the fact that the aim in life of its true followers is not to wallow in worldly comforts. In other words, it does not permit its moral identity and principles to be sacrificed or diluted. It does not allow Muslims to blindly imitate others so that the identity and distinctiveness of Islamic teachings and principles are wiped out. Islam does indeed call for unity and brotherly relations with people of other faiths, but not at the cost of the distinct identity of the Muslims. It cannot allow Muslims to lose their identity by being absorbed into another community.
A Serious Misunderstanding
The question is often raised that while Muslims constantly claim that Islam teaches them to live at peace with people of other faiths and to relate with them with kindness, love and concern, the reality is just the opposite, because, it is alleged, the Quran forbids Muslims from having social or other such relations with non-Muslims and has prohibited friendship with them.
This wrong allegation is based on two basic misunderstandings. Firstly, a wrong conception of the terms ‘wali’ and ‘wala’, which are used in the Quran. Secondly, misunderstanding about precisely which group of unbelievers this prohibition applies to. In this regard, the fact is often ignored that at several places the Quran qualifies its statements so as to indicate that this prohibition does not apply to all non-Muslims in general, but, rather, to only a particular type among them. In fact, at one place the Quran also explicitly mentions that this prohibition applies just to a particular group among the non-Muslims, and that friendship with other non-Muslims is not forbidden. As the Quran very clearly puts it:
God does not forbid you regarding those who have not fought you on account of the Religion, and have not expelled you from your homes, that you should be virtuous to them and be equitable with them; surely God loves the equitable. God forbids you only regarding those who have fought you on account of Religion, and have expelled you from your homes, and have given support in your expulsion, that you should take them for friends; and whoso takes them for friends, those are the wrong-doers.( Quran 60: 8-9)
The First Misunderstanding
The first misunderstanding arises from a misreading of certain verses of the Quran that forbid Muslims from taking disbelievers as their walis. The Arabic word wali has been wrongly taken to be the synonymous of ‘friend’. In actual fact, there is no strict equivalent of the Arabic word al-wali or its derivatives in Urdu and English and many other languages. That is why it is often translated as dost in Urdu and ‘friend’ in English. It is this that causes people to wrongly believe that Islam forbids Muslims from taking non-Muslims as their friends.
The word wali actually refers to a person whom one has a very intimate friendship with. This also connotes helping, assisting and being in solidarity with such a person. Imam Ibn Jarir Tabari, an expert in the Arabic language and a noted Quranic commentator, explains a verse in the Quran which ordains ‘Let not the believers take for friends or helpers Unbelievers rather than believers’ (Quran 3: 28) as follows:
‘In this verse, God has forbidden the true believers from taking the disbelievers as their helpers […] That is to say, they are forbidden from considering them as their supporters, assisting them in their [non-Muslims’] religion, supporting them against the Muslims and the true believers and sharing the secrets of the Muslims with them.’ Commenting on the use of a derivative of the term wali the Quran, he adds, ‘In the Arabic language, the general meaning of the word wali is helper and supporter.’
From this discussion, it is evident that these verses forbid Muslims from establishing secret ties with the disbelievers or assisting them secretly. These verses have nothing to do with forbidding friendship and good relations with non-Muslims in general. This is made even more clear when the Quran explains that the wala or close bonding that it forbids is that which denotes ‘help against the true believers’ (for instance, Surah Al-e Imran: 28; Surah Nisa: 139 and 144). This restriction or specification regarding the phrase ‘against the true believers’ itself indicates that the bonding that the Quran forbids is of that sort that entails helping disbelievers against the Muslims.
The precise context of these verses, which is clearly evident in the verses themselves, must be properly understood. Without this, their actual import is likely to be misunderstood. The disbelievers that they refer to, whom it forbids Muslims from closely bonding with and helping, were those who were determined to wipe out Islam and were involved in a massive campaign for this purpose. They had even unleashed war against the Muslims. These included the polytheists of Mecca, who had declared open war against the Muslims, as well as the Jews of Medina. Besides provoking war against the Muslims, they were also trying to spread internal dissension, conflict and inter-tribal disputes among them and vilified Islam and the Prophet. At that time, Muslims had blood relatives or friends among both the polytheists of Mecca and the Jews of Medina. They had social relations and dealings with them. A number of hypocrites (munafiqin) among the Muslims also sympathized with the Meccan polytheists and the Medinan Jews, and they were proving to be skilled agents of the opponents of Islam in their conspiracies. The Quran unveiled the dangerous activities of this group of people. These subversive activities had reached such a dangerous point that in the ninth year of the Hijra the hypocrites set up their own centre, calling it a mosque, at Quba, whose aim was to undermine and destroy the polity at Medina headed by the Prophet, instigate dissensions among the Muslims, invite an army from outside to invade the town, and fan internal revolt (Quran 9: 107).
Besides these inveterate hypocrites, there was also a group of people among the Muslims with weak faith, who used to oscillate between the Muslims and their opponents, depending on which way the wind was blowing. The hypocrites were, by and large, under the influence of the Medinan Jews, and were working to fulfill their agenda (see Surah al-Maida: 52). The Quran instructed the Prophet to warn these hypocrites to be ready to be punished in Hell for having established secret relations with the enemies of Islam. It is in this context that the Quran berates these hypocrites for choosing those disbelievers as their walis and leaving aside the true believers, in the mistaken expectation that, in this way, they could acquire respect and power. They sat along with the leaders of the disbelieving foes of Islam in their meetings, where the latter would mock Islam and the Prophet. The Quran says that these hypocrites used to remain in waiting, being neither fully with the Muslims nor fully with their enemies, so that if the Muslims were victorious, they could come to them, saying that they were with them, and that if the disbelievers triumphed, they could go to them, saying that they had assisted them in defeating the Muslims.
This behaviour of the hypocrites is what the Quran refers to when it forbids the believers from taking disbelievers as their walis. As mentioned above, this group of hypocrites was heavily under the social and political influence of the Jews, and was hand-in-glove with them in their scurrilous propaganda against Islam and the Prophet. The Quran refers to this situation (particularly in Surah Ahazab and the Surah Noor). The leaders of the Jews mocked and reviled Islam, and in their meetings some Muslims would also be present. The pagan Arabs were also involved in this. These Jews and pagan Arabs tried to incite ordinary Muslims to disobey the Prophet and revolt against him. It was in this context that the Quran says that those in whose hearts there is a disease, that is to say who are hypocrites, rush towards the disbelievers to join hands with them for fear that otherwise they might fall into trouble.
This is the sort of wala or solidarity (a termed related to the word wali) with the enemies of Islam who are bent on uprooting the faith that the Quran forbids. Obviously, a relationship of wala with such people would be a direct contradiction of one’s Islamic faith, as well as a grave threat to Islam and the Muslims at the political and social levels, too.
The Second Misunderstanding
Another cause of considerable misunderstanding about Islam’s teachings with regard to the possibility of friendship between Muslims and others is that the above-mentioned prohibition of wala, or taking disbelievers as walis, has been erroneously interpreted as applying to all non-Muslims in general. It must be stressed here that, as the discussion of various Quranic verses above has shown, this order applies only to those non-Muslims who are enemies of Islam and who are involved in activities aimed at undermining and destroying it. This point is strikingly brought out in the following verses of the Quran:
O ye who believe! Take not into your intimacy those outside your ranks: They will not fail to corrupt you. They only desire your ruin: Rank hatred has already appeared from their mouths: What their hearts conceal is far worse. We have made plain to you the Signs, if ye have wisdom. Ah! ye are those who love them, but they love you not,- though ye believe in the whole of the Book. When they meet you, they say, "We believe": But when they are alone, they bite off the very tips of their fingers at you in their rage. Say: "Perish in you rage; Allah knoweth well all the secrets of the heart." If aught that is good befalls you, it grieves them; but if some misfortune overtakes you, they rejoice at it. But if ye are constant and do right, not the least harm will their cunning do to you; for Allah Compasseth round about all that they do (Quran 118-120).
These verses specify that the foes that they refer to are those whose hearts burn with enmity and who are engaged in plots to destroy the Muslims. It does not refer to ordinary, well-meaning, kind and sincere people of other faiths. The true import of these commandments can be properly understood from the fact that in a very highly secretive and sensitive matter, the migration of the Prophet from Mecca to Medina, the Prophet not only shared his plans with a non-Muslim, Abdullah ibn Arqad, but also fully trusted him. This fact clearly suggests that these verses forbid taking as confidants and intimates only those non-Muslims who are enemies of Islam and its followers. It is, thus, obvious, and needs no explanation, that a non-Muslim of good character is much better to have as a friend and confidant than a person who is Muslim in name alone and is a hypocrite and an opportunist.
The sort of non-Muslims that the Quran forbids Muslims from taking as their intimate associates is also clearly indicated in the following verse:
O ye who believe! Take not My enemies and yours as friends [or protectors] (wali)― offering them (your) love, even though they have rejected the Truth that has come to you, and have (on the contrary) driven out the Messenger and yourselves (from your homes), (simply) because ye believe in Allah your Lord! If ye have come out to strive in My Way and to seek My Good Pleasure (take them not as friends), holding secret converse of love (and friendship) with them: for I know full well all that ye conceal and all that ye reveal. And any of you that does this has strayed from the Straight Path. If they were to get the better of you, they would behave to you as enemies, and stretch forth their hands and their tongues against you for evil; and they desire that ye should reject the Truth (60:1-2).
Precisely which non-Muslims this Quranic prohibition applies to is an issue that needs to be carefully understood. Conversely, we must also properly understand which non-Muslims this prohibition does not apply to. The Quran very clearly indicates that this prohibition does not apply to the general non-Muslims who relate with peace and goodwill with Muslims. Instead, it restricts this prohibition only to those non-Muslims who are enemies of Islam and the Muslims. Thus, the Quran relates:
Allah forbids you not, with regard to those who fight you not for (your) Faith nor drive you out of your homes, from dealing kindly and justly with them: for Allah loveth those who are just. (8) Allah only forbids you, with regard to those who fight you for (your) Faith, and drive you out of your homes, and support (others) in driving you out, from turning to them (for friendship and protection). It is such as turn to them (in these circumstances) that do wrong (60:8-9).
These verses very explicitly show precisely what sort of non-Muslims the Muslims have been prohibited by the Quran to take as their walis, and, on the other hand, which non-Muslims this prohibition does not apply to. From this discussion, it is clear that Muslims can, indeed non-Muslims who do not bear any enmity against Islam and its adherents and are not engaged in any activities against them as their friends.
Critique of An Extremist Position
The above discussion clearly shows that the arguments of some people who claim that Muslims must never befriend non-Muslims and that such friendship is banned in Islam are completely wrong and absurd. These people have not understood the relevant Quranic verses in their totality. Thus, for instance, Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab [the founder of the Wahhabi movement—YS] even went to the extent of claiming, ‘A Muslim’s faith in Islam cannot be proper, even if he believes in one God and has abandoned polytheism, till he harbours enmity for the polytheists.’
In a similar vein, a contemporary Saudi Islamic scholar, Dr. Sahal bin Rafa‘ al-‘Aytabi, who teaches Islamic theology at the Ibn Saud University, Riyadh, claims that ‘Islam has forbidden love for non-Muslims, but, still, instructs them to deal with them with decency.’ He argues this on the basis of his own reading of the following two Quranic verses:
Thou wilt not find any people who believe in Allah and the Last Day, loving those who resist Allah and His Messenger, even though they were their fathers or their sons, or their brothers, or their kindred. For such He has written Faith in their hearts, and strengthened them with a spirit from Himself. And He will admit them to Gardens beneath which Rivers flow, to dwell therein (for ever). Allah will be well pleased with them, and they with Him. They are the Party of Allah. Truly it is the Party of Allah that will achieve Felicity’ (58-22) and
‘O ye who believe! Take not My enemies and yours as friends (or protectors)― offering them (your) love, even though they have rejected the Truth that has come to you, and have (on the contrary) driven out the Messenger and yourselves (from your homes), (simply) because ye believe in Allah your Lord! If ye have come out to strive in My Way and to seek My Good Pleasure (take them not as friends), holding secret converse of love (and friendship) with them: for I know full well all that ye conceal and all that ye reveal. And any of you that does this has strayed from the Straight Path’ (60:1).
It is obvious, however, that Dr. al-‘Aytabi’s argument and reasoning is faulty. Neither of the above-mentioned two verses deals with non-Muslims in general. The first verse refers only to those non-Muslims who have waged war against God and His Prophet and are enemies of the religion of Islam. The second verse also refers to the same sort of people. Besides, the general context of these two verses also clarifies that it is only this sort of non-Muslims, and not all non-Muslims in general, that the verses refer to. This point is made clearer when we recall that the Quran makes the Prophet declare:
‘Say: "No reward do I ask of you for this except the love of those near of kin." And if anyone earns any good, we shall give him an increase of good in respect thereof: for Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Ready to appreciate (service) (Quran: 42: 23).
On the basis of this verse, can anyone at all argue that it meant that the Prophet was demanding a one-sided love from these people, and that, in return for this, he hated them instead of loving them for being his near relatives? Of course not! Can any one claim that the Prophet hated his uncle, Abu Talib, who had protected him [Unlike Shias, Sunnis believe that Abu Talib, father of Imam Ali, did not accept Islam although till his death he provided protection to the Prophet from his Meccan opponents—YS]? Not at all! No one can make such a preposterous claim. Undoubtedly, the Prophet loved his uncle Abu Talib very dearly.
It is true that Islam is sternly opposed to polytheism and infidelity. But, this certainly does not mean that Islam commands Muslims to hate all non-Muslims. It certainly does not order Muslims not to love, on the basis of their common humanity or common nationality, those non-Muslims who are peaceful and well-meaning. From the above-quoted verses, it is evident that the Quran orders Muslims to deal justly and kindly with the non-Muslims who wish to live at peace with them and who do not oppress them. The Quran instructs Muslims to entertain good and noble feelings for such people, to be concerned, and to work for, their welfare, to be compassionate towards them and to help them in times of need. For, as the Quran says,
God does not forbid you regarding those who have not fought you on account of the Religion, and have not expelled you from your homes, that you should be virtuous to them and be equitable with them; surely God loves the equitable. God forbids you only regarding those who have fought you on account of Religion, and have expelled you from your homes, and have given support in your expulsion, that you should take them for friends; and whoso takes them for friends, those are the wrong-doers (Quran: 60: 8-9).
The words of Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab that I earlier quoted, which drip with extremism, are echoed by another Saudi scholar, the late Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz bin Baz, in a letter that was a response to an article by the former rector of Al-Azhar, Shaikh Jad ul-Haq, where the latter had sought to justify good relations between Muslims and others and inter-religious dialogue and cooperation. Shaikh Jad ul-Haq had written, ‘Muslims consider the followers of Judaism and Christianity as believers in God and Divinely-revealed religions. There is no difference among them as regards the basic principles of their Divine message.’
The Shaikh’s argument can be critiqued, because it denies the basic difference between Islam and other religions, which is not permissible. Furthermore, today’s Christianity and Judaism have departed from their true, original forms, and so cannot be said to be the same, in their basic principles, as Islam. Bin Baz pointed this fact out, but he went to another extreme by wrongly claiming, ‘Undoubtedly, God has made it incumbent upon the believers to hate, and to be enemies with, the disbelievers and has forbidden them from loving them.’