Islamic Perspectives

Qur’an on the relationship with People of the Book

Prof. Zafarul Islam Islahi


In the present world, relations between Muslims and non-Muslims have become a subject of discussion among people in general and academics in particular. The importance of the issue is evident from the fact that this is being examined from different angles. While discussing Muslims’ relations with the Ahl-i-Kitab, particularly Jews and Christians, in the light of the Qur’an, the verse 51 of Surah al-Maidah is frequently quoted. This is interpreted in English as: “O you who believe! Take not the Jews and Christians as auliya (friends, protectors, helpers). They are but auliya of each other. And if anyone amongst you takes them as auliya, then surely he is one of them”. With reference to this verse, sometimes it is assumed that Allah forbids Muslims from having any kind of relationship with Jews and Christians in daily life. This is a misunderstanding which emerged out of incorrect interpretation of the word “wali” (pl.auliya). The verse has to be understood in the light of the literal and technical interpretation of the word wali. Here, an attempt is made  to examine the interpretation of the above verse ( particularly, explanation of the connotation of wali/auliya) by the well- known Urdu mufassirin (commentators of the Qur’an) in the subcontinent.

It  seems necessary to point out that one of  the distinctive features of the Arabic language is that many of its words have varied meanings and these include wali/auliya. According to Arabic lexicographers, “wali” means:Al- Sadiq,Zidd al- Aduw, Al-Naasir, Al- Nasir, Al-Muin, Al-Muaawin, Al-Muhibb, Al-Taabi. This is translated into Urdu as “rafiq, dost, habib, halif,hami, sarparast, mutamad, mahram-i-raz, karsaaz. A glance through a number of Urdu translations and commentaries of the Qur’an brought the surprising finding that in most of them the term wali was translated simply as dost or rafiq, which means friend, companion or associate.

No doubt, these meanings may be considered literally correct. However, keeping in view the background of the above strict prohibitive command of the Qur’an and inimical activities and nefarious designs and conspiracies of Jews and Christians against Muslims in the period of revelation of the verse, rendering wali simply as dost or rafiq seems to be incorrect. Obviously, it was not the matter of normal social relationship or usual friendship that was in question, but that of close relationship /intimacy with them or treating them as Muslims’ supporters, helpers, confidants which was, of course, not in the interest of Muslims, and thus was prohibited. Many commentators and translators of the Qur’an (even those who translated wali as dost or rafiq (friend/associate) pointed out in their explanatory notes that what is prohibited in the verse is close relationship with Jews and Christians due to their inimical behavior and treacherous activities in relation to  Muslims. These exegesists included Maulana Abdul Haq Haqqani, Maulana Sanaullah Amritsari, Maulana Mufti Muhammad Shafi, Maulana Amin Ahsan Islahi and Maulana Salahuddin Yusuf. This interpretation of wali is further substantiated by the verse coming after four verses of the  one under discussion, wherein this is proclaimed by Allah Taala (addressing the believers) that “your wali are Allah, His Prophet and all those who are Mominin. It was also made clear to the believers in verse 82 of the same Surah that they would find Jews and polytheists hardest of the people in their enmity to the muminin.

It means that they would not leave any stone unturned in causing harm Muslims. The maslihah or rationale behind the prohibition of maintaining close relationship with Jews and Christians becomes more clear in view of exposition of their ideological, moral and practical deviations (inhirafaat) by the Qur’an at different places. These included: concealing truth, hypocrisy, breach of faith, violation of covenant and pacts, lust for wealth, habit of using unlawful sources of income or ill-gotten wealth without hesitation and taking interest in creating disturbance (fasad). It was in this situation that the Muslims were barred from maintaining close contact with and consider Jews and Christians their confidants and supporters, because they never would be faithful or well-wishers of Muslims. It is also important to note here that most of the commentators are of the view that in spite  of the fact that the immediate addressees of the verse weremunafiqin (hypocrites), who had close and secret relationship with the Jews of Madinah, although the address (khitab) in the verse is of  general nature. It was also clarified by them that the prohibitive directive with regard to Jews and Christians is applicable in every period. Some of them clearly stated that the Qur’anic ruling in the above verse is enforceable in the present days also, because their inimical behaviour and maligning propaganda against Islam and Muslims is not only continuing, but also growing. It is an open secret that they have formed a united block against Muslims and have also persuaded other opponents of Muslims to join them for attaining their common goal. The tone and tenor of the verse and nature of its ruling shows that if a Muslim person or Muslim state acts against this Qur’anic directive, he cannot escape its adverse consequences (wabaal). Today this may be seen in case of certain Muslim countries.

It is pertinent to add here that in the exegetical notes with regard to the last part of Surah al-Fatihah, the eminent scholar Maulana Sayyid Sulaiman Nadvi pointed out that “Maghdub ‘alaihim” is to be applied to Jews, and “Dallin” to Christians. In the same context, he rightly observed that “the fitnah of both is so severe (ashadd) that Muslims should be extremely careful (chaukas) in relation to them till Qiyamat (Doomsday)”. However, it must be also made clear here that among the Jews and Christians there had been groups or sections of noble persons, unbiased and justice loving people in the period of revelation of the Qur’an, as pointed out by this Most Sacred Book about them in terms of Ummat Muqtasidah (Al-Maidah: 5/66). Of course, saner elements amongst them exist today also. They must be appreciated, encouraged and supported. However, it cannot be overlooked that  the rule about any group or community is laid down on the basis of behaviour and practices of majority of them.

 In the same context, it is necessary to clarify that the directive of the verse under discussion does not mean that Muslims are barred from maintaining normal socio-economic relationship with Jews and Christians in daily life, or that showing brotherly, kind and just treatment of them is prohibited in Islam. Conversely, the Qur’an clearly directs the Believers to have gentle, kind just relationship even with their opponents and toughest enemies  (Al-Maidah 5/ 2, 8; Al-Mumtahinah 60/8). It is also relevant to point out that some of the modern mufassirin, particularly Maulana Abdul Majid Daryabadi observed (with reference to the above verse) that “there may be three kinds of relationship of Muslims with the Ahl-i- Kitab: (a) gahira talluq/qaribi dosti (close relationship or intimacy), (b) husn-i-suluk (gentle/kind behaviour) (c) musaalahat wa muaamaalt  (peace/truce and mutual dealing).” In his view, the first is prohibited and the second is obligatory in case of every person and the third one depends on the maslahah of the Ummah or Muslims in general. The last point was explained by Maulana Shabbir Ahmad Usmani thus: If Muslims consider it expedient, they may conclude a truce, agreement/pact with any unbeliever within the parameters of the Shariah. Some of the commentators are of the view that ifmuwalaat (close relationship/cooperation) with the Ahl-i- Kitab or Jews and Christians is in the interest of Muslims or at least, this does not go against Islam or Muslims, there is no harm in it. In course of the explanation of the meaning of the verse, a modern commentator (giving the background of the revelation of the verse and comparing that time’s situation to the present one) raised the relevant point that if the Jews and Christians had earlier  considered Islam and Muslims a common danger for themselves and had formed millat-i- wahidah (a single, united community) to resist them ( as this situation prevails in today)  so, it is desirable for all Muslims to become a millat-i- wahidah against them and break all relations with them that are based on close friendship and  confidence.

 Lastly, it may be emphasised that no mufassir or exegete of earlier or later period is against maintaining normal socio-economic relationship with the Ahl-i- Kitab and other non-Muslims.  Rather, all of them have made a strong plea for gentle, and just treatment of them, irrespective of whether they are supporters or opponent/s, friends or foes of Muslims. Significantly, this point has been emphasised by almost all the commentators while interpretating of the  verse. 

The author teaches in the Dept. of Islamic Studies,

Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh.