Islamic Apologetics and the Qur’an’s Most Misquoted Verse (5:32)

Critics of Islam have noted that sura 5:32 of the Qur’an is taken by many Muslim apologists to demonstrate that the Qur’an offers a peaceful teaching, which in this case condemns killing and encourages saving others. 

The popularity of this verse is apparent in its many citations to condemn modern acts of violence committed by religious extremists. But the purpose of this entry is not to make any commentary on religious extremism and its connection or lack thereof to the Qur’an. Rather, this entry intends to show that sura 5:32 is misquoted to serve contemporary sentiments relating to violence rather than letting the Qur’an speak for itself. Let us consider the verse in full,

“For that cause We decreed for the Children of Israel that whosoever killeth a human being for other than manslaughter or corruption in the earth, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind, and whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind. Our messengers came unto them of old with clear proofs (of Allah’s Sovereignty), but afterwards lo! many of them became prodigals in the earth” (5:32, emphasis added).

As the sura teaches, this is a law that was given to the people of Israel and not to Muslims or to all people. Further, the apologist’s interpretation of Q5:32 condemning all killing does not appear consistent with the following sura. In Q5:33, the reader is informed that those “who war against Allah and His Messenger and (diligently) endeavor to do corruption in the earth… should be (all) massacred or crucified, or that their hands and legs should be cut asunder alternately or that they should be exiled from the land”. According to this sura, under certain conditions (such as non-Muslims causing “corruption” in the land), the Qur’an allows Muslims to kill others

One is led to inquire concerning what “corruption” refers to? A respected Hadith text uses the term “mischief” instead of corruption (Sunan Abi Dawud. Book 39, Hadith 4359). The tafsir literature goes into more detail concerning what spreading mischief is. Ibn Kathir’s tafsir informs us as follows,

“(“Do not make mischief on the earth”), that is disbelief and acts of disobedience. Abu Ja`far said that Ar-Rabi` bin Anas said that Abu Al-`Aliyah said that Allah’s statement, (And when it is said to them: “Do not make mischief on the earth,”), means, “Do not commit acts of disobedience on the earth. Their mischief is disobeying Allah, because whoever disobeys Allah on the earth, or commands that Allah be disobeyed, he has committed mischief on the earth. Peace on both the earth and in the heavens is ensured (and earned) through obedience (to Allah).” Ar-Rabi` bin Anas and Qatadah said similarly” (emphasis added).

The tafsir continues,

“Ibn Jarir said, “The hypocrites commit mischief on earth by disobeying their Lord on it and continuing in the prohibited acts. They also abandon what Allah made obligatory and doubt His religion, even though He does not accept a deed from anyone except with faith in His religion and certainty of its truth” (emphasis added).

According to Ibn Kathir’s tafsir, mischief means disobeying Allah or telling others to disobey Allah and committing prohibited acts. According to the Qur’an, mischief means disputing that truth comes from Allah and rejecting the belief that there is no God but Allah (3:60-63).

As previously noted, the Qur’an teaches that those who commit mischief must be “massacred or crucified, or that their hands and legs should be cut asunder alternately or that they should be exiled from the land.” The implication can be frightening because it commands that these violent punishments should be applied to unbelievers. Non-Muslims would qualify as committing mischief because they do not accept the claims of the Islamic religion, or do not believe that Allah is the one God who reveals the truth. 

A further insight is worth noting, which is that Q5:32 was taken from a Jewish text, namely the Talmud. One can discern this upon a closer look at Sanhedrin 37a, 

“For thus we find in the case of Cain, who killed his brother, that it is written: the bloods of thy brother cry unto me: not the blood of thy brother, but the bloods of thy brother, is said — i.e., his blood and the blood of his [potential] descendants. (alternatively, the bloods of thy brother, teaches that his blood was splashed over trees and stones.) For this reason was man created alone, to teach thee that whosoever destroys a single soul of israel, scripture imputes [guilt] to him as though he had destroyed a complete world; and whosoever preserves a single soul of israel, scripture ascribes [merit] to him as though he had preserved a complete world. Furthermore, [he was created alone] for the sake of peace among men, that one might not say to his fellow, ‘my father was greater than thine, and that the minim might not say, there are many ruling powers in heaven” (emphasis added).

A critic will point out a few issues. First, the Qur’an took this story from the Talmud and included it in its own text, which suggests that the Talmud contains content inspired by Allah, or that the Jewish rabbi who wrote the text received revelation from Allah. Further, it suggests that Muhammad (or the author of the Qur’an) mistakenly thought that Sanhedrin 37a is from the Torah, which is why he included it in the Qur’an.

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