Alliance with Christians and Jews:
A commentary on verse 5: 51 of the Qur’an
As Muslims, we have been taught from a young age how to pronounce the letters of the Qur’an. However, we are rarely, if ever, taught to really understand its meaning. Our lack of understanding sometimes leads not only to strained relationships with other people, but also deficits in our connection to our Lord.
One example of an often misinterpreted verse is 5:51, which seems to warn believers against taking Jews and Christians as friends. The best interpretation of these kinds of verses can be found in Said Nursi's commentary on the Qur'an. Nursi had addressed this particular verse of the Qur'an in Volume II of his writings on page 1944. (Unfortunately, this volume has not yet been translated into English.)
First of all, if we have good intentions it is obvious that we cannot understand a text unless we take the author’s main purpose for writing into consideration. This is particularly essential for us when we read the scriptures which intend to educate us in a certain belief system. We should understand everything in the text within the context of its overall teachings.
For example, Jesus (peace be on him) came to teach his people to be honest with the text in their hands: the Torah. Muhammad (pboh) came to teach the people to be extremely vigilant not to interpret the creation or any scripture in that way that may lead to deviation from belief in the absolute Oneness of our Creator, God.
The main purpose of the teachings of the Bible and the Qur'an is to express to us the oneness of God. No verse in these scriptures can be interpreted in a way that contradicts this teaching. Rather, each meaning derived from the texts must confirm the oneness of our Creator.
Now, when we read, for instance, Matthew 10: 34-36, it says:
"You must not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man will find his enemies under his own roof." (Similar verses can also be found in Luke, 12: 51-53).
No one can claim, after reading these above verses, that Jesus' sought to bring conflict into the family and cause dissension in society. Why? Does not the verse clearly state that he has come to bring sword rather than peace?
The answer to this claim is strictly, "No!" We can not interpret the text without regard to its central purpose. Jesus taught with the goal of bringing peace. But this "peace" was misinterpreted in the society and was exploited in order to further the ambitions of certain groups of people such as religious scribes, kings, rulers, tax collectors, or pigeon sellers at the Temple.
So, "peace" must be for all, and it must be freed of all misinterpretations and exploitations. To establish this, all people, including Jesus (pboh), have had to struggle. "Sword" is needed to draw the lines of distinction between truth and falsehood. Thus, people were expected to take their part, regardless of their tribal or family connections. They had to stand for the truth (as exemplified by the teachings of Jesus) with no excuses.
This interpretation is not arbitrary. When we read the whole Bible, or, at least, the other related verses, we see that this verse cannot mean that Jesus (pboh) was asking people to become enemies of their kinsman. Read, for example, Matthew, 5: 39-48:
"But what I tell you is this: Do not resist those who wrong you, If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn and offer him the other also. If anyone wants to sue you and takes your shirt, let him have your cloak as well... Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors... If you greet only your brothers, what is there extraordinary about it? There must be no limit to your goodness, as your heavenly Father's goodness knows no bounds."
It is obvious from understanding the totality of the message that the person who brings life to these verses never encourages the least amount of dissension in the family or in the society at all.
We need to interpret all of the passages within the context of the fundamental teaching of the text. If we succeed in understanding the parts through understanding the whole, we will have uncovered the true meaning of the text instead of a biased or apologetic corruption.
Muslims and non-muslims alike have forged controversy and even hatred out of their misunderstanding of the Qur’anic verse 5:51. It warns:
"O believers! Do not take the Jews and the Christians for your allies: they are but allies of one another- and whoever of you allies himself with them becomes, verily, one of them; behold, God does not guide such evildoers."
When we read any text, we must remain conscious of its central purpose. The main goal of the Qur'an is to establish a firm belief in the Oneness of God. We should avoid any actions which compromise this foundation. Another point we need to take into account is this: most verses, including this one, do not specify any certain people, but only the attributes of the people. This particular verse addresses the state of being a Jew or a Christian. As a result, the alliance which is banned is not with the people as such, but rather with their attributes; that is, elements of Jewishness or the Christianness.
The Qur'an bans the believers in the Oneness of God from establishing alliances with (i.e. adopting) Jewish or Christian qualities. “Why?”, we may ask. After all, there is obvious beauty in the personal faith of many Jews and Christians. However, certain tenants of belief held by some sects of Judaism and Christianity compromise the oneness of God. We must avoid any action that leads us away from our Creator, no matter how beautiful it may appear.
The Qur’an advises all who fully accept the oneness of God not to compromise their belief by adopting any views of various Jewish or Christian sects which may lead them away from understanding the unity of their Creator.
How can we be certain that the Qur’an is speaking about the qualities of some Jews and Christians rather than the people themselves?
1- One of the primary goals of the Qur’an is to establish peace in the society and to unite people rather than divide them. It strongly urges the believers to counter any evil action with an act of goodness. Read, for example, the following verses:
(23: 96) “Repel the evil [which they commit] with something that is better.”
(13: 22) “…and [who] repel evil with good. It is these that shall find their fulfillment in the hereafter.”
(41: 34) “...But [since] good and evil cannot be equal, repel your [evil] with something that is better – and lo! Your conflict with another person may turn into true friendship.
However, the Qur’an as a whole warns us against compromising our affirmation of the oneness of God for the sake of unity.
2- The verse addresses the "believers." The Qur’an does not use the word “believers” to refer exclusively to those people who identify themselves as “Muslim.” Rather, everyone who believes in his or her sustainer with an emphasis on the Oneness of God is a believer.
3- The words, "Jews" or "Christians" are attributes and not proper names pointing to particular persons. These references cannot be taken to mean people themselves.
4- In practical life of the Prophet Muhammad, we find many examples of good relationships and of the signing of peace treaties with Jewish and Christian communities during his Prophetic life.
5- According to the Qur’an (5:5) a Muslim man can marry a Jewish or Christian woman while she retains her identification with that faith-group. Can two people love each other and develop a deep relationship without establishing an alliance?
6- The Qur'an also teaches us not to judge a person based on one or two qualities which are in need of improvement. Rather, we can disapprove of a particular negative attribute while still respecting and loving the person who possesses those qualities. This is a central principle of Islamic jurisprudence. (See Qur’an, 6: 164; 17: 15; 35: 18; 39: 7).
7- Lastly, if we want to grasp the basic position of the Qur'an on Jews and Christians, we can read the following verses. These passages confirm that our interpretation of this verse is in harmony with the whole message of the Qur’an rather than an apologetic excuse.
A few lines after the verse we have been discussing (5:51), we find 5:69 which reads:
"Those who believe, as well as those who follow the Jewish faith, and the Sabians, and Christians -all who believe in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds - no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve."
In the same vein, Chapter 2 verse 62 confirms the salvation of the people who believe in God and in the hereafter, regardless of their affiliation with a particular faith-group. We can clearly see that our most important attribute is our connection with our Creator rather than a simple label which we apply to ourselves.
"Verily, those who believe, as well as those who follow the Jewish faith, and the Christians, and the Sabians - all who believe in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds -shall have their reward with their Lord; and no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve."
If we interpret the verse in question (5:51) as a prohibition of friendship with the people who identify themselves with Judaism or Christianity, we are contradicting the central teachings of the Qur'an. By contrast, if we embrace the fundamental guidance of the Qur’an, it can help us to make friends of our enemies if we counter their evil done to us by doing good to them (41: 34). Most significantly, however, the true fruit of our understanding of Qur’anic verses (and the relationships they open for us) is that we can develop an ever-deeper connection with our Sustainer.
5:51 O YOU who have attained to faith! Do not take the Jews and the Christians for your allies: they are but allies of one another and whoever of you allies himself with them becomes, verily, one of them; behold, God does not guide such evildoers.
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُواْ لاَ تَتَّخِذُواْ الْيَهُودَ وَالنَّصَارَى أَوْلِيَاء بَعْضُهُمْ أَوْلِيَاء بَعْضٍ وَمَن يَتَوَلَّهُم مِّنكُمْ فَإِنَّهُ مِنْهُمْ إِنَّ اللّهَ لاَ يَهْدِي الْقَوْمَ الظَّالِمِينَ (5:51)
In any interpretation of Quran you have to pay respect to God in being just and merciful. If you find your interpretation is against these two main attributes to God you have to reconsider your interpretation. In this verse God talks clearly about the Christians and Jews who are allies to one another. They are already made their alliance to one another and very likely a political alliance. I doubt it to be a religious alliance and if it is so it will be likely temporary.
In any case we Muslims should not run to this alliance. However, if they want to ally with us, meaning that we are not giving in our political or religious rights God allowed us to do that since he did not call it off. So as Muslims we have to state well our principals and welcome them if they to ally with us. Many times they ally against us on choosing our leaders and oppressing our masses and having web sites to mock Islam and block people from converting to Islam.
God warned us that we will suffer from the non-believers and the people of the book. If we are as Muslims to take the high moral ground and political power we will prevail. If we take the violence and emotional roads we will make their point. Islam spread in the world by the wisdom of conveying its message and how to absorb the anti-Islamic rhetoric.
At personal level Muslims are encouraged to have good relationships with their Jewish and Christians neighbours and coworkers.