Blogging the Qur’an: Sura 4, “Women,” verses 35-104
posted at 9:00 am on September 2, 2007 by Robert Spencer
After v. 35 recommends arbitration for a quarreling couple, verses 36-42 of Sura 4 enjoin kindness toward relatives, friends, neighbors, and slaves (“what your right hands possess,” v. 36), and denounce pride and miserliness.
Then v. 43 tells believers not to come to prayers while drunk. Ibn Abi Hatim says this was revealed because one of the Muslims began to recite sura 109:1-3: “Say: O disbelievers! I do not worship that which you worship; nor do you worship that which I worship.” But the leader of prayer was drunk, and so he said: “Say, O disbelievers! I do not worship that which you worship, but we worship that which you worship.” 4:43 was revealed shortly thereafter. It was the first stage of the three-stage Qur’anic prohibition of alcohol. First Allah commanded the Muslims not to pray while drunk in this passage; then he told them that alcohol was a “great sin, and some profit, for men” (2:219); and finally there came the revelation that alcohol was “Satan’s handiwork” (5:90), and thus to be shunned altogether. The last of these verses is considered to have abrogated the other two. Muhammad himself became quite stern about drunkenness, saying that drunks should be given three chances and then executed: “If he is intoxicated, flog him; again if he is intoxicated, flog him; again if he is intoxicated, flog him; if he does it again a fourth time, kill him.”
Verses 44-59 are an invective against the People of the Book in general and the Jews in particular. The Jews “traffic in error” and, and wish that the Muslims would “lose the right path” (v. 44). They “they believe in sorcery and evil, and say to the unbelievers that they are better guided in the (right) way than the believers!” (v. 51). They twist Allah’s words, and Allah has “cursed them for their unbelief” — كُفْرِهِمْ, kufrihim, (vv. 46; see also 52).
Says Ibn Kathir: “Allah states that the Jews, may Allah’s continued curse fall on them until the Day of Resurrection, have purchased the wrong path instead of guidance, and ignored what Allah sent down to His Messenger Muhammad. They also ignored the knowledge that they inherited from previous Prophets, about the description of Muhammad, so that they may have a small amount of the delights of this life.” They are called to accept Islam or face terrible punishment, including being cursed “as We cursed the Sabbath-breakers” (v. 47) – that is, being transformed into apes and pigs (2:63-65). Allah will forgive anything except shirk, the associating of partners with him (v. 48). Because the People of the Book are accursed, they shall soon be “cast into the Fire: as often as their skins are roasted through, We shall change them for fresh skins, that they may taste the penalty” (v. 56).
According to Maududi, in saying that “Allah doth command you to render back your trusts to those to whom they are due,” v. 58 warns the Muslims not to make the same mistake the Jews made: “One of the fundamental mistakes committed by the Israelites was that in the time of their degeneration they had handed over positions of trust (i.e. religious and political leadership) to incompetent, mean, immoral, corrupt and dishonest people.” Maududi, a foremost exponent of political Islam who was writing in the mid-20th century, is implying that Muslims have gone astray by putting up with authoritarian regimes that do not govern according to Islamic law, rather than implementing full Sharia government. Another 20th century theorist, Sayyid Qutb, writing in a similar vein about the same verse, adds that jihad is “a fulfillment of a specific trust.” A third, Maulana Bulandshahri, explains that contemporary governments in Muslim states have betrayed their trust by allowing their “legislative assemblies to make laws” instead of “following the guidelines of the Qur’an and Ahadith.”
The believers, meanwhile, are exhorted to “obey Allah, and obey the Messenger, and those charged with authority among you” (v. 59). To obey Muhammad today is, many Islamic authorities say, to obey his dictates in the Hadith, which some contemporary Muslims wish to disregard and say that only the Qur’an has authority. And Muhammad himself is quite clear about the necessity to obey earthly rulers: “You should listen to and obey your ruler even if he was an Ethiopian (black) slave whose head looks like a raisin.” Verses 60-70 continue the theme of obeying Muhammad, chastising the hypocrites who pretend to believe in Muhammad and Islam but refuse to come to him to judge their disputes. Allah tells Muhammad: “by the Lord, they can have no (real) Faith, until they make thee judge in all disputes between them” (v. 65).
Verses 71-104 exhort the believers to go forth courageously to jihad warfare. Ibn Kathir explains v. 71 in this way: “Allah commands His faithful servants to take precautions against their enemies, by being prepared with the necessary weapons and supplies, and increasing the number of troops fighting in His cause.” A warrior should fight fearlessly, for “whether he is slain or gets victory” he will be rewarded (v. 74) – here again is the promise that has made Muslims fight with such tenacity throughout history. For the contrast is stark: the believers fight against oppression (v. 75) and for Allah, while the unbelievers fight for Satan (v. 76). One will not escape death by declining to fight, for “all things are from Allah” (v. 78). And in any case, Allah will “restrain the fury of the unbelievers” (v. 84). V. 90 is sometimes adduced as proof that Muslims have no open-ended mandate to fight unbelievers, but the Tafsir al-Jalalayn makes clear that this refers only to unbelievers who submit to Islamic rule: “And so if they stay away from you and do not fight you, and offer you peace, reconciliation, that is, [if] they submit, then God does not allow you any way against them, [He does not allow you] a means to take them captive or to slay them.”
Verses 92-3 forbid Muslims to kill fellow believers intentionally; if one kills a Muslim accidentally, he should free a Muslim slave. How is it, then, that Muslims can kill each other with such apparent impunity in Iraq and elsewhere? They pronounce takfir on one another – declare the opposing group to be unbelievers – despite the gentle discouraging of this practice in v. 94. V. 95 says that those believers who stay home and risk no injury are not equal to those who wage jihad.
Passages such as this, which are often overlooked in discussions of the Qur’anic view of jihad, demonstrate definitively that what the Qur’an means by jihad is not an interior spiritual struggle, but warfare. Why should anyone fear death or the fury of the unbelievers, or shorten his prayers in view of an impending attack by the unbelievers (v. 101), in a spiritual struggle? How can one kill a fellow Muslim by accident in a spiritual struggle?
Next week: What really happened at the Crucifixion of Christ.
(Here you can find links to all the earlier “Blogging the Qur’an” segments. Here is a good Arabic/English Qur’an, here are two popular Muslim translations, those of Abdullah Yusuf Ali and Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, along with a third by M. H. Shakir. Here is another popular translation, that of Muhammad Asad. And here is an omnibus of ten Qur’an translations.)