Sura 5, “The Table,” dates from the Medinan period (as do suras 2-4). Verses 1-11 exhort Muslims to obey Allah’s commands regarding food, religious observances, and sexual morality. V. 5 permits Muslim men to marry not only “chaste women who are believers, but chaste women among the People of the Book.” However, nothing is said of Muslim women being permitted to marry non-Muslim men, and indeed, this is prohibited in Islamic law. This is part of the subjugated status of the dhimmis, the “protected people,” in Islam: since traditionally a man takes his wife into his own household, but not vice versa, the prohibition of Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men, but the allowance of Muslim men marrying non-Muslim women, means that the Islamic community will be in a position always to grow, while the non-Muslim community declines.
Verses 12-26 return to castigating the Jews and Christians. Allah, we’re told, “did aforetime take a covenant from the Children of Israel” (v. 12), but the Jews broke it. And so they are now cursed by Allah, for they have altered the divine revelations they received, and also because they are deceitful; nonetheless, the Muslims are told here to “forgive them, and overlook (their misdeeds): for Allah loveth those who are kind” (v. 13). According to Allusi in his Ruhul Ma’ani, this forgiveness should be extended only to those Jews who become Muslims or agree to pay the jizya and accept subservient dhimmi status in accord with 9:29. Tabari, on the other hand, suggests that v. 13 was abrogated by the commands to wage jihad against the unbelievers that came later in Muhammad’s career.
The Christians, meanwhile, “forgot a part of that whereof they were admonished,” so Allah “stirred up enmity and hatred among them till the Day of Resurrection” (v. 14). Thus as far as the Qur’an is concerned, the divisions among Christians demonstrate the falsity of the religion – a proposition for which Jesus stated the obverse: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Says Ibn Kathir, “Indeed, the numerous Christian sects have always been enemies and adversaries of each other, accusing each other of heresy and cursing each other….Each sect among them will continue to accuse the other of disbelief and heresy in this life and on the Day when the Witnesses will come forth.” The Jews and Christians should accept Islam (v. 15).
The Qur’an in several places presents itself as the arbiter between these warring sects, clearing up disputed questions. Thus when asserting that Jesus was not crucified, but someone who looked like him was crucified in his stead (a position held by some Gnostic Christian sects), Allah says “those who disagree concerning it are in doubt thereof; they have no knowledge thereof save pursuit of a conjecture; they slew him not for certain” (4:157). And here the Qur’an declares that those Christians who believe that “Allah is the Messiah, son of Mary” are “unbelievers.” Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s translation says that those who believe this are “in blasphemy,” but the Arabic word used here is kafara, (كَفَرَ), is a form of kufr, unbelief. Of course, in Islam there is a fine line between unbelief and blasphemy in any case, but the passage does refer to unbelief, not blasphemy. It is noteworthy that Islamic spokesmen in the West frequently assert that the Qur’an never refers to Christians as infidels or unbelievers, when in fact this verse is quite clear that those who believe in the divinity of Christ are unbelievers indeed. To those Jews and Christians who claim to be God’s children, Muhammad is directed to retort, “Why then doth He punish you for your sins?” (v. 18).
Verses 27-34 retell the story of Cain and Abel, culminating in one of the most oft-quoted verses of the Qur’an, the one that President Bush refers to most frequently: v. 32, which contains the admonition that some who kills a human being, “unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land, it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.” Sa‘id bin Jubayr explains 5:32 this way: “He who allows himself to shed the blood of a Muslim, is like he who allows shedding the blood of all people. He who forbids shedding the blood of one Muslim, is like he who forbids shedding the blood of all people.”
Never mentioned by the President or any of the others who quote this verse as if it condemns Islamic jihadist violence are several important facts: it comes within the context of a warning to the Jews, and is not presented as a universal principle; it contains the important exception “unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land,” and it is followed by v. 33, which specifies the punishment for that mischief: “The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter.”
Thus this passage is explaining what must be done with Jews who reject Muhammad, not dictating lofty moral principles. Ibn Warraq sums it up: “The supposedly noble sentiments are in fact a warning to Jews. ‘Behave, or else’ is the message. Far from abjuring violence, these verses aggressively point out that anyone opposing the Prophet will be killed, crucified, mutilated, and banished!”
Verses 35-40 warn again of hellfire and prescribe amputation of a hand for theft (v. 38). Said Muhammad: “Let there be the curse of Allah upon the thief who steals an egg and his hand is cut off, and steals a rope and his hand is cut off.”
In verses 41-60, Allah consoles Muhammad for the Jews’ and Christians’ rejection of him, and he and his message are again presented as the crown and completion of the messages brought to them by their prophets. But the Christians are told to “judge by what Allah hath revealed therein” (v. 47), which seems to suggest that Muhammad was assuming that the Christian Scriptures were not corrupted in his day, although today it is common Islamic teaching that the New Testament as we have it is not the original, but has been altered by wicked Christians to reflect their false doctrines. Thus Muslims are not to befriend Jews and Christians (v. 51); Ibn Kathir explains: “Allah forbids His believing servants from having Jews and Christians as friends, because they are the enemies of Islam and its people, may Allah curse them.” Verses 52-60 continue in this vein, excoriating the hypocrites and the People of the Book (most of whom are “rebellious and disobedient” – v. 59), reminding them that some of “those who incurred the curse of Allah and His wrath” were “transformed into apes and swine” (v. 60).
Next week: The curse that came to the Jews for saying, “Allah’s hand is tied up.”
(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.)