Allah spends most of Sura 5, “The Table,” castigating the Jews and the Christians for their various sins and offenses. If you think he was angry with them in suras 2-4, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
This sura dates from the Medinan period (as do suras 2-4) — according to Islamic tradition, this was the latter part of Muhammad’s career, when his revelations were longer, angrier, and more violent. Allah begins by exhorting Muslims to obey his commands regarding food, religious observances, and sexual morality (vv. 1-11). He permits Muslim men to marry not only “chaste women from among the believers,” but also “chaste women from among those who were given the Scripture before you” (v. 5).
However, he says nothing about 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: traditionally a man takes his wife into his own household, but not vice versa. The prohibition of Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men, and the allowance of Muslim men marrying non-Muslim women, means that the Islamic community will always be in a position to grow, while the non-Muslim community declines.
Then, Allah returns to raking the Jews and Christians over the coals (vv. 12-26). Allah, he tells us, “had already taken a covenant from the Children of Israel” (v. 12), but the Jews broke it. And so “for their breaking of the covenant We cursed them and made their hearts hard.”
Why? Because they have altered the revelations they received from Allah: “They distort words from their usages and have forgotten a portion of that of which they were reminded.” (v. 13) Allah warns Muslims that they will find Jews to be just as treacherous today: “And you will still observe deceit among them, except a few of them.”
Nonetheless, he tells Muslims to “pardon them and overlook. Indeed, Allah loves the doers of good.” (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 portion of that of which they were reminded,” so Allah punished them: “We caused among them animosity and hatred until 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, as it reveals what they have concealed: “O People of the Scripture, there has come to you Our Messenger making clear to you much of what you used to conceal of the Scripture and overlooking much. There has come to you from Allah a light and a clear Book.” (v. 15).
Allah, in several places in the Qur’an, presents himself as the arbiter between these warring Christian sects, clearing up questions that are disputed among them. 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 differ over it are in doubt about it. They have no knowledge of it except the following of assumption. And they did not kill him, for certain.” (4:157) And here the Qur’an declares that those Christians who believe that “Allah is Christ, the son of Mary” have “certainly disbelieved.” The Arabic word used here is kafara, (كَفَرَ); it is a form of kufr, unbelief.
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, Allah directs Muhammad to retort, “Then why does He punish you for your sins?” (v. 18).
Then Allah retells the story of Cain and Abel (vv. 27-34), culminating in one of the most oft-quoted verses of the Qur’an, the one that Presidents Bush and Obama, as well as many other Western non-Muslim leaders, refer to most frequently:
Because of that, We decreed upon the Children of Israel that whoever kills a soul unless for a soul or for corruption in the land — it is as if he had slain mankind entirely. And whoever saves one — it is as if he had saved mankind entirely. And our messengers had certainly come to them with clear proofs. Then indeed many of them, after that, throughout the land, were transgressors. (v. 32)
There is less to this than Western leaders and Islamic apologists claim.
In his 2009 Cairo speech, Obama selectively quoted a pivotal verse damning the Jews. Obama made it seem to be a verse upholding the Western view regarding the infinite value of each life.
First, note that it is not a general prohibition of killing — there are big exceptions for those who kill “for a soul or for corruption in the land.” Second, this is not a general command, but one only for the Children of Israel. Third, “many of them, after that … were transgressors” — so all it is really saying is that Allah gave a command to the Children of Israel and they transgressed against it.
(Meanwhile, some Islamic authorities interpret this passage in a supremacist manner, as applying only to Muslims: Sa’id bin Jubayr explains: “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 many who quote this verse as if it condemns Islamic jihad violence are the caveats above.
Nor do they mention that it is followed by v. 33, which specifies the punishment for the corruption and transgressions of the Children of Israel: “Indeed, the penalty for those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and strive upon earth corruption is none but that they be killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides or that they be exiled from the land. That is for them a disgrace in this world; and for them in the Hereafter is a great punishment.”
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!”
Allah follows that with more warnings of hellfire (vv. 35-40). Amidst them, he prescribes 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: “let the People of the Gospel judge by what Allah has 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.” Allah continues in this vein in vv. 52-60, excoriating the hypocrites and the People of the Book (most of whom are “defiantly disobedient” — v. 59), reminding them that some of “those whom Allah has cursed and with whom He became angry” were transformed into “apes and pigs” (v. 60).
(Revised April 2015)