Praise be to Allah, Lord of the worlds, and the most honorable prayer and peace be upon the master of the first and the last, our master, Muhammad, the chosen, the trustworthy, and upon his pious and pure family, his faithful companions, and those who followed them in goodness until the Day of Judgment, may Allah Almighty be pleased with them all.
It is widely known, at least as Muslims allege, that there is no compulsion or coercion in Islam. Allah says in the Qur’an: “There is no compulsion in religion. Righteousness is now distinct from error. He who disbelieves in the idol and believes in Allah has grasped the firmest tie that will never break. Allah is Hearing, Knowing” (Surah 2, Ayah 256). Moreover, He says: “Had your Lord willed, whosoever is in the earth, all would have believed. Would you then constrain people until they believe?” (Surah 10, Ayah 99). Compulsion and coercion are against the principle of self-responsibility propagated by Islam. Islam gave full liberty to human beings to choose their path, and thus be responsible for that choice. If that choice was compulsory and was taken through coercion, then that person could not be held accountant for his/her choice. As Allah says in the Qur’an: “Indeed, We have guided him to the path, he is either grateful or ungrateful.” (Surah 76, Ayah 3). In addition, He says: “and guided him on the two paths (of good and evil)” (Surah 90, Ayah 10).
Now, with all these Qur’anic ayahs, which shows the presence of free choice and the absence of coercion, how can we fathom a hadith, which is apparently propagating for a different view? Prophet Muhammed, Peace be upon Him, said: “I have been commanded (by Allah) to fight people until they testify that there is no true god except Allah, and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, and perform prayer and pay zakat. If they do so, they will have protection of their blood and property from me except when justified by Islam, and then account is left to Allah” (Bukhari and Muslim). This hadith is causing some misunderstanding for ordinary Muslims, who do not have the sufficient knowledge to solve the apparent contradictions. Some non-Muslims might be confused when they read such sacred texts. This discrepancy is only apparent, so, I will try to solve it in this article.
The core issue is the interpretation of the word “people”. What does that word mean? Does it mean all people in the world? Does it refer to a different meaning?
The epistemological approach to handle this important issue is to understand the reference of the word, mainly “people”, within its context and by applying other occurrences in the same book, the Qur’an in our case, to have an overview of the semantic reference of that word. This methodology can be derived from authentic books of Qur’anic interpretations, explanations and exegesis. These books, which prominent Muslim scholars wrote hundreds of years ago, put forward an excellent methodology to interpret the Qur’an. This methodology can be cut short into three steps, they are:
- To find other occurrences of the word in the Qur’an and see what is the reference intended in those examples.
- To find other occurrences of the word in Sunna, the tradition of Prophet Muhammed Peace be upon Him.
- To find the meaning in an Arabic monolingual lexicon.
If we implement the first step we will find that the word “people” is used in the Qur’an and its meaning was not always ‘all the people’. A good example of that is the ayah: “Those to whom the people said: ‘The people have gathered against you, therefore fear them, but it increased them in belief and they said: ‘Allah is Sufficient for us. He is the Best Guardian’” (Surah 3, Ayah 173). The story of this ayah was that after the Muslims were defeated in the battle of Uhud, they regrouped and chased away the army of Quraish, who supposedly won the battle, but they ran away after the partial victory, and there were no prisoners of war and no spoils. During the chase, the Muslims stopped to rest for a while and then a convoy of a tribe called ‘Abd al-Qais’ was passing by in a place called ‘al-Thahran’ near Mecca in their way to Medina to buy food and drinks. This convoy had only a few people, and some narrations say there was only one man. This convoy told the Muslims that the army of Quraish has stopped in a place called ‘Hamra’ al-Asad’ and was gathering supporters. Therefore, the portion of the ayah “Those to whom the people said” is talking about a few people, not all the people. The portion “‘the people have gathered against you, therefore fear them” does not mean ‘all people’ as well, as it definitely means the army of Quraish and the supporters they managed to gather. Another good example is when Allah ordered Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham), Peace be upon Him, saying: “Proclaim the pilgrimage to the people. They will come to you on foot and on every lean camel, they shall come from every deep ravine” (Surah 22, Ayah 27), as ‘people’ here does not mean all people in the world, but only believers.
In Islam, people in general are categorized into five parts, Muslims, Thimmis (non-Muslims living in Muslims land), contractors (with whom Muslims have peace treaties), trustees (people with whom Muslims have war, but are granted a peace assurance to come in Muslims lands) and the fighters (with whom Muslims are in war). The blood and money of all the first four parts are haram (forbidden). Any Muslim who sheds the blood of any individual of these categories will be doomed, and there are many sacred texts, which make this clear. Thus, if we apply the correct epistemological method, when Prophet Muhammed, Peace be upon Him, said “I have been commanded (by Allah) to fight people” we have to acknowledge that all four parts of people, i.e. Muslims, thimmis, contractors and trustees are not included. Therefore, the only category that the word ‘people’ in the hadith can refer to is the fifth category, i.e. the fighters who are at war with Muslims. This makes perfect sense and solves all the confusion and misunderstanding which may occur while reading the sacred texts.
One more issue regarding the hadith mentioned above. Some may misunderstand it as starting the war by aggression. In Islam, no aggression is allowed, and Allah made it clear in the Qur’an, as He said: “Fight in the way of Allah those who fight against you, but do not aggress. Allah does not love the aggressors” (Surah 2, Ayah 190). Aggression is to start a war on peaceful people who did not start a fight or violate the peace treaty. I hope this solves the issue and praise be to Allah the Lord of the Worlds.