The Qur’an is poorly understood. Few non-Muslims have even read it, let alone know anything about the life of Mohammed. As is often the case, people’s ignorance does not stop them from claiming that Islam is a violent religion. This claim is often supported by selective readings of its verses, such as the following:
And kill them wherever you overtake them and expel them from wherever they have expelled you, and fitnah is worse than killing. And do not fight them at al-Masjid al-Haram until they fight you there. But if they fight you, then kill them. Such is the recompense of the disbelievers.Verse 2:191, Qur’an, Translation: Sahih International
The Qur’an is less allegorical than The Bible, and its directness sometimes belies the context in which they were ‘received’ by the prophet. There is also the matter of translation and the difficulties that it presents. The meaning of the verse hinges on the concept of ‘fitnah’, which can be translated as ‘test’ or ‘trial’, but scholars tend to agree that it means ‘oppression’ here, an argument made in relation to the historical context of the life of the prophet: the oppression of which the verse speaks is the oppression of Muslims in Mecca by the Quraysh, the most powerful of the city’s pagan tribes, and guardians of the Kaaba.
The Kaaba has been a sacred site for more than two thousand years: there is mention of it in Ptolemy in the 3rd century BC. Before the birth of the prophet, it was home to the pantheon of gods worshipped by the Quraysh, who believed that the very stones and trees and mountains around them were imbued with their power. The Kaaba housed such a sacred stone, the Black Stone, and later, an idol of the moon god Hubal, which the Quraysh placed there following their victory over the Christian King Abraha, who had previously controlled much of the Arabian peninsula. It was at this moment that the tribe became the de facto guardians of the Kaaba. The keys to the doors of the shrine are held to this day by the descents of the Quraysh.
It was into this tribe in about the year 570 AD that the prophet Mohammed was born. The historians tell us that, after he began to receive the revelations from Gabriel, he fell into a state of depression. He knew that his newfound monotheism would not be popular amoung his fellow Qurayshi: the Kaaba was a pagan shrine, and one that had made them rich and powerful.
His concerns turned out to be well founded: while Mohammed himself was afforded safety due to his kinship, the Qurayshi ruthlessly oppressed his followers. He began to send them abroad. Some went to Abyssinia, where its Christian king offered them sanctuary and protection. Others left with the prophet on his voyage to Medina, referred to now as the hijra.
It is this context that we must read, ‘fitnah is worst than killing’: in other words, the oppressed have the right to kill their oppressors insofar as they do so in self-defence. This view is reinforced by other verses. Consider 2:193: “Fight them until there is no [more] fitnah and [until] worship is [acknowledged to be] for Allah. But if they cease, then there is to be no aggression except against the oppressors.” Self-defense prescribes the limits of permissible action here as well.
There are episodes in Medina that demonstrate that Mohammed was a man of reason and restraint. Soon after arriving there, he was asked to resolve a dispute between Christian and Jewish tribes. Mohammed told them that the cycle of violence would never end if they continued to exact vengeance upon each other. He suggested that they needed an independent arbitrator to decide between disputes. They requested he fulfill the role.
There is also his return to Mecca. After ten years in Medina, he departs with ten thousand of his followers. Upon hearing their approach, the Quraysh deploys 200 of its cavalry to intercept them. Mohammed manages to evade them and sends out emissaries to treat with the them. Mohammed agrees to delay his return for one year and in return, the Qurayshi agree that they will not oppose him when he does. Both parties honour the arrangement and a year later, Mohammed and his followers return without incident. Mohammed also demonstrates his restraint by forgiving even those pagans that had ruthlessly oppressed his followers.
The idols at the Kaaba are removed… all but one, the Black Stone, whose story was retold in monotheistic terms: it becomes an object brought from heaven by the angel Gabriel and attached to the shrine.
Islamists now claim that Muslims are oppressed by western powers such as the US. Such is the current state of ‘fitnah’. It follows (in their view) that doing violence against the forces of oppression is Allah’s will. The current struggle thus finds its parallel in the ancient struggle of Mohammed against the pagan forces of Mecca.
The above argument conflates the ‘forces of oppression’ with ‘pagans’ or unbelievers more generally. Verse 2:191 only permits violence against those responsible for oppression or violence. Muslims were oppressed by the Qurayshi, but not by all of them. It directs Muslims to do what it takes to end oppression, but no more.
Islamists today fail to make the distinction between those directly responsible for oppression, i.e. government representatives and corporations, and the population more generally. What has a child on the streets of Paris or Ankara done to cause oppression? Yes, a great deal of westerners may be ‘pagans’ or ‘unbelievers’. Yes, the Qur’an is scathing in its judgement of them, however, this judgement is God’s alone, and it is not the task of Muslims to exact punishment on his behalf.