Kill them wherever you encounter them. (2:191)

Even if you have never open the Qur’an before, I would bet you’ve heard that line before.  Type it into Google and you end up with almost 4000 hits, many coming from the blogosphere where people quote only those six words from this passage (and sometimes a handful of other passages similarly taken out of context; we will deal with them as we come to them) to support their depiction of Islam as a hate-driven, homicidal religion of terrorists.  The belief is that jihad is the norm and that any and all Muslims are responsible for 9/11, the wars in which we are presently mired, the delays in our airports, ethnic friction in Europe, the fear we live with each day — well everything short of global warming!

But would we want people to come along and rip six words from the Bible and build an entire characterization around them?  How about these six, well, eight verses:

You must purge the evil from among you. (Deuteronomy 17:7)

I think it is so important that we treat this Qur’anic passage correctly that I am narrowing my focus to only six ayahs and reprinting them all here from Abdel Haleem’s translation:

Fight in God’s cause against those who fight you, but do not overstep the limits: God does not love those who overstep the limits.  Kill them wherever you encounter them, and drive them out from where they drove you out, for persecution is more serious than killing.  Do not fight them at the Sacred Mosque unless they fight you there.  If they do fight you, kill them — this is what such disbelievers deserve — but if they stop, then God is most forgiving and merciful.  Fight them until there is no more persecution, and worship is devoted to God.  If they cease hostilities, there can be no [further] hostility, except towards aggressors.  A sacred month for a sacred month: violation of sanctity [calls for]  fair retribution.  So if anyone commits aggression against you, attack him as he attacked you, but be mindful of God, and know that he is with those who are mindful of Him.  Spend in God’s cause: do not contribute to your destruction with your own hands, but do good, for God loves those who do good.  (2:190-195)

Let’s only try today to hear what this passage actually says. 

We know from Islamic tradition and the direct context that this concerns the unprovoked persecution that the Muslims were experiencing when they went to the “Sacred Mosque” or Ka’ba in Mecca to worship.  That is the first thing to notice: the “them” is specific and time-bound — the polytheists of Mecca who had caused the Muslims to migrate to Medina and who rejected the teachings of Muhammad.  It is totally irresponsible — whether you are a militant Muslim extremist or a conservative talk show host — to apply this to Jews or Christians past or present or to Americans or anyone else living today. 

Second, it is crystal clear that these words — undeniably harsh and prickly — are spoken in the context of self-defense.  The Muslims were being “driven out.”  They were only to fight aggressors who started the hostilities.  People pushing paper in office buildings and riding on commuter trains and living in quiet neighborhoods should never be targets for hostility, when the Qur’an is understood correctly even by its own devotees.     

Third, there are limits to how far one should go in exacting retribution even against aggressors.  Keep it out of the Sacred Mosque to whatever degree it is up to you.  If an aggressor relents, stop fighting in return.  In the most astounding part of this passage, the Muslim is even taught to model the mercy of Allah to one who turns from his persecution. 

Fourth, there was a goal for the fighting: worship.  The Muslims were being barred from worshiping in the Ka’ba, thus their religion was being persecuted.  The goal was to be able to freely worship again.  These ancient Muslims were not savages who indiscriminately killed. 

Fifth, there is a time for fighting back, even to the point of killing.  Better to stand up for the freedom to worship Allah than to remain a subjugated people whose praise is silenced. 

Bottomline, if we think the presence of this passage in the Qur’an means every Muslim looks with disdain upon people who are not like them plotting either to convert or kill, then we probably ought to read this passage again.  Are there some Muslims who use passages like this one to support their hate, for sure.  Just as there are non-Muslims who use this same passage to validate their own hatred of Muslims.  But maybe if we started seeing things differently, others might in return.