Following is the set of verses in Surah al-Baqarah, Chapter 2 of the Quran, that is often cited to highlight the so-called ‘controversial’ and potentially violent character of the Quran:
2:191: And slay them wheresoever you come upon them, and expel them whence they expelled you, for strife is worse than slaying. But do not fight with them near the Sacred Mosque until they fight with you there. But if they fight you, then slay them. Such is the recompense of the disbelievers. 2:192: But if they desist, then truly God is Forgiving, Merciful.
Many exegetes have suggested that these verses were revealed against the backdrop of Treaty of Hudaybiyah when many Muslims feared an attack from the Meccans. So these verses laid out the guidelines for a prospective combat. For instance, even though fighting was forbidden in and near the Sacred Mosque, Muslims were enjoined to fight back if they were attacked near the Mosque. It has also been argued that these verses are describing the limits of warfare by emphasizing 2:194: “So whosoever transgresses against you, transgress against him in like manner as he transgressed against you…” as a reminder that this is an authorization for a commensurate response to aggression, rather than a license for inordinate carnage. Aforementioned verses also appear strikingly similar to another set of verses from Surah al-Nisa:
4:89: They wish that you should disbelieve, even as they disbelieve, that you may be on a level with them. So take them not as protectors till they migrate in the way of God. But if they turn their backs, then seize them wherever you find them, and take no protector or helper from among them. 4:90…. If they withdraw from you, and do no fight you, and offer peace, God allows you no way against them.
Arguably, these verses were also revealed in a very specific context when a group of ‘hypocrites’ in Medina acted like war traitors, and thus their alliance was to be avoided. Again, the qualifier in 4:90 reiterates that if these deserters are not fighting against the Muslims, then peace should be extended.
Since these verses were revealed in very specific contexts, breach of a treaty or the imminence of a war, they have no universal import and hence they cannot be invoked during times of peace in order to justify the initiation of aggression. However, these ayat remain problematic because of what Lesley Hazleton refers to as the “yellow highlighter” version of reading the Quran: cherry-picking of isolated verses leading to misunderstood perceptions causing fear of Islam on one end of the spectrum, and the abused, de-contextualized misunderstanding of the text to justify violence, on the other. These are particular context-based verses which arguably come in contradistinction with the more universal principles such as the sanctity of human life (5:32, 6:151). This observation gives rise to questions about any measures taken by the traditional Quranic exegetical sciences to resolve tensions when a universal principle comes in conflict with a particular verse. Moreover, the presence of such verses also highlights the possibility that scripture in general, not just Quran, can be a dangerous text if approached without formal instruction, adequate interpretive tools, or historical background. As Huston Smith aptly notes in his ‘World’s Religions’ that Quran is not the kind of book that you would just casually decide to curl up and read by the window on one rainy evening. Traditionally, Suyuti (d. 911/1505) listed 12 disciplines that must be mastered for an individual to be considered qualified as a Quranic exegete: 1. Lexicology 2. Grammar 3. Morphology 4. Etymology 5. Semantics / Linguistic Pragmatics 6. Imagery and Figurative Language 7. Rhetorical Embellishments 8. Modes of Recitation 9. Theology 10.Legal Methodology 11.Circumstances of Revelation 12.Abrogation. This makes one wonder to what extent a modern, novice reader of this text is qualified to interpret its intricacies with the only tool at his disposal being prejudiced ignorance and unapologetic hubris.
In this context, it also needs to be asked whether or not can the Protestant idea, of everyone being entitled to access the scripture individually on their own and interpret it for themselves, be extended to Quran as well.
I argue that the role of supplementary exegetical guidance is absolutely indispensable for Quranic readers, Muslims or non-Muslims, if they are seeking to develop any meaningful understanding of it or its so-called ‘controversies’ that do not live up to their 21st century sensibilities. The sciences of fiqh have developed stipulations such as asbaab (causes), shuroot (conditions), mawaana’i (restrictions), rukhas (licenses), and azaayem (firmness) to determine whether or not a decree in the Quran holds applicability in any given situation: khitaab-al-wada (the situational discourse). The necessity of these complementary interpretive tools ought to be all the more imperative when it comes to studying the Quranic decrees widely held ‘controversial’ because they highlight the historical character of the so-called ‘verses of the ‘sword in the Quran as well as the restrictions on their applicability outside of the context of their revelation.
Interesting, Quran itself seems to acknowledge the idea that the readers of the text can use it to do both good and evil; that the same message can both guide and mislead. 2:26: “… He misleads many by it, and He guides many by it, and He misleads none but the iniquitous.” So, without the informed historical context and well-developed interpretive tools, most readers are likely to insert their own values, biases, and motives into the text, ending up potentially misguided and misguiding.