Link to the Debate: Is Islam a Religion of Peace
The debate between
Christian Sam Shamoun of Answering-Islam.org and Muslim Nadir Ahmed
of ExaminetheTruth.com is a lively and
entertaining exchange that examines the topic of whether Islam is a
religion of peace. The event picks up steam quickly and by
the end of the Q&A session both participants are nearly at each
As the editor of
I am posting this debate per Nadir's request and would sincerely
encourage others to watch it when they have the time. Although
I have no history with Sam Shamoun, Nadir and I have exchanged
several e-mails and one phone call. He has previously
challenged me to a debate, and I have also tried to engage him
(unsuccessfully) in both public and private dialogue.
Although I don't know
him well, my impression of Nadir is that he is a sincere person who
honestly believes what he says. He tells me that he accepts
the Sira (biography of Muhammad) and the Hadith. If so, then
this is certainly to be applauded, since most other Muslims I have
known prefer to exist in a state of denial over the
less-than-flattering details of their prophet's life.
In addition to posting
the link to this debate, however, I wanted to also offer a more
commentary on the specific portion of Nadir's presentation that he
claims his opponent ignored. This would be his opening argument that terrorism and killing are
denounced by Islam by virtue of verse 4:90 of the Qur’an.
In fact, Nadir relies almost exclusively on this verse , which reads
“... So, if they hold aloof from
you and wage not war against you and offer you peace, Allah alloweth
you no way against them.”
Nadir argues that everything relating to killing in the Qur'an (and
Islam) should be passed against this last part of the verse.
He proposes that violence in Islam is only justified when it meets
the “4:90 standard" of self-defense.
Much to Nadir’s frustration, Sam Shamoun does not appear to respond
directly to this verse. Instead, Shamoun proposes that there are
three stages of Islamic behavior based on the three phases of
Muhammad’s life as a self-proclaimed prophet. Each stage relates to
the power that Muslims have relative to the broader community. When
they are weak, then tolerance and peace are the rule. But when
Muslims gain the power to dominate, then this is what they should do
based on Muhammad’s example. Shamoun implies that verse 4:90 belongs
in the transitional stage, in which the Muslim community is gaining
strength, but not yet ready to announce its full intention.
As we shall later see,
Shamoun's argument - that Islam's standards vary according to the
balance of power - is fully validated by groups like CAIR and even
The immediate underlying issue, however, is the validity of plucking
Qur’anic verses from their context and treating them as universal
truth, as Nadir does with 4:90.
In fact, to make his case, Nadir
isolates the verse by openly or implicitly:
- Disregarding the actions (or inaction) of present-day Muslims.
- Disregarding the actions of Muhammad’s companions and the early
- Disregarding the historical context of the actual passage (what
was happening at the
time it was “revealed”).
- Disregarding the textual context of the verse (that which is
provided by the surrounding passage).
interpretation, that Islamic war should be waged only in
self-defense (as the fragment suggests), is a reasonable conclusion
under these conditions. But doesn’t this actually beg the question?
How necessary is context filtering when it comes to other, less
peaceful, Qur’an verses? Certainly if we applied Nadir’s rules to
verse 9:5, for example, he would howl in protest. It reads, in part:
“Slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them (captive),
and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush.”
What would preclude a
devout Muslim from taking this verse to heart as Nadir does with verse 4:90? Why should
infidels not be killed merely on the basis of their status as
It would appear that we have just made the case for context.
Let’s now go a step further and see how context resolves the
contradiction between verses 4:90 and 9:5. Are Muslims commanded to
kill only when they are under physical attack by others, or is there
a mandate to establish Islamic rule by force? To answer this
apply the four categories of context to each verse and see which
interpretation is more consistent.
First, there is the action or inaction of present-day Muslims. Does
the Islamic world truly act outraged that dozens of innocent people
are slaughtered somewhere on the planet each day explicitly in the name of
Allah? Do Muslims lead the fight against terrorism as Nadir
insists that their Qur'an tells them to do?
This is an easy one, since even Nadir concedes that Muslims do not
act as if killing for the purpose of furthering Islam is any great
crime relative to more pressing issues - such as headscarf bans or Muhammad
cartoons. Of the thousands of effigies that have gone up in smoke
across the Islamic world since 9/11, for example, not a single one has been
of Osama bin Laden or any other terrorist.
Secondly, we apply the context of the actions of the early Muslim
community to verses 4:90 and 9:5. Did Muhammad’s own companions act
as if killing was only justified when they were under physical
assault from a warring party, or, like today's Taliban, did they
also kill for the purpose of
establishing Islamic rule?
Again, this is an easy one. Within the first decade after Muhammad’s
death, Muslim armies attacked Persia, Syria (the Byzantine empire),
Africa and many other places outside of Arabia for reasons that had
nothing to do with self-defense. Within a few more decades, they had
managed to wage war against every major world religion at the time:
Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism.
Not only did Muhammad’s own companions put to the sword followers of
other religion, but they even fought each other. Thousands of
Muslims were killed in the Ridda wars, which were waged merely to
keep Arab tribes from following their desire to leave Islam. The
caliph who authorized this campaign was Abu Bakr, who also happened
to have been the only one of the first four caliphs not to be
murdered. His own son wound up killing the third caliph, and the
fourth was murdered by the fifth. Muhammad’s favorite daughter and
favorite wife even marched armies against one another in a precursor
to the violent split between Sunni and Shia.
If the very people who walked with Muhammad believed in violence as
a means of establishing Islamic rule over people who were not
attacking them, then the “4:90 standard,” against which Nadir insists
verses like 9:5 are to be passed, is quite likely a more recent
Now we move to Nadir’s third condition: that the direct historical
context of verse 4:90 be disregarded. This is necessary because the
fourth chapter of the Qur’an was “revealed” in the midst of a
conflict between the Muslims at Medina and a local Jewish tribe
called the Banu Nadir. The Jews were eventually attacked and driven
from their homes by Muhammad, who personally confiscated the tribe’s
wealth (based on a handy “revelation” from Allah that is
the Qur’an to this day).
The historical account is sharply at odds with any interpretation
that Muslims are required to be under physical assault before
killing in ‘self-defense.’ Not only were Muhammad’s people
attack by the Banu Nadir, but the Jews were actually under attack by
Several Jews had already been assassinated on Muhammad’s order,
including a Banu Nadir leader named Ka’b al-Ashraf, who was stabbed
to death in gruesome fashion. Ironically, Muhammad laid siege
and evicted the Jews
after hearing (from Allah) that they were
planning to assassinate him in retaliation! (Islam has never been
accused of extending the same consideration to others that it
demands for itself).
But what of verse 9:5? Is the command to slay unbelievers for the
purpose of advancing Muslim rule also weakened by the historical
context in which it was “revealed?”
Verse 9:5 authorized violence at a time when Muslims had complete
power in Mecca, having just conquered the town by sweeping in with a
dominant army that encountered no real opposition from a local
population that was not at war. Muslims were not under persecution
at Mecca. Instead, they were busy destroying the idols of the local
religion and banning people of other faiths from performing the Haj
(pilgrimage). In other words, Muhammad’s people were the
This is true even by the
Qur'an's own standards. When
Muhammad said in the second chapter that “persecution is worse than
slaughter,” he was explicitly referring to the ban that the Meccans
had in place against him from performing the Haj. Yet, when he took the
city ten years later, the first thing that he did was to prohibit
anyone who wasn’t Muslim from doing the same thing! (Again, Islam
has never been accused of extending the same courtesy to others that
it demands for itself).
So the historical context of verses 4:90 and 9:5 is that Muslims
were engaging in violence against those who were not physically
attacking them. As 9:5 (and the entire ninth sura) implies, the establishment of Islamic rule by
force is its own justification.
Finally, we come to the issue of textual context, which refers to
the meaning provided by the surrounding passage in which the verse
exists. This is perhaps the most important, since it is obvious that
nearly anything can be derived from a larger volume if just the
right phrase is extracted.
Nadir’s thesis, that verse 4:90 means Islam condemns killing for any
reason other than self-defense, did not hold up well when we relaxed
his other three stipulations, so it should be no surprise that his
derived interpretation suffers just as poorly when textual context is
Consider the two verses that precede 4:90:
What aileth you that ye are become two parties regarding the
hypocrites, when Allah cast them back (to disbelief) because of what
they earned? Seek ye to guide him whom Allah hath sent astray? He
whom Allah sendeth astray, for him thou (O Muhammad) canst not find
a road. They long that ye should disbelieve even as they disbelieve,
that ye may be upon a level (with them). So choose not friends from
them till they forsake their homes in the way of Allah; if they turn
back then take them and kill them wherever ye find them, and choose
no friend nor helper from among them. (4:88-4:89)
Ay, Caramba! This passage isn’t telling Muslims to kill in defense
of their lives and property, but rather to kill in defense of their
religion. Suddenly 4:90 takes on a whole different meaning.
The verses obviously address a situation in which there is
disagreement within Muhammad’s burgeoning community over the
befriending of the unbelievers referred to as “hypocrites.” Had the
Muslims been under physical attack at the time, then there would
surely have been no controversy (ie. "two parties"), since one is not inclined to be
friendly towards an attacker. Instead, the threat at Medina was more
subtle. It was ideological.
Remember that when Muhammad preached at Mecca, there were few Jews
there to contradict his claim of being a Jewish prophet. At Medina
however, there were many Jews and most rejected his contention
because it was based on a flawed understanding of the Torah. Muhammad’s response, of course, was to arbitrarily declare his own
version of truth as the standard and to allege that any deviation
was a corruption.
There is no evidence that the Jews ever altered their scriptures to
preclude Muhammad’s prophethood, however. Confronted with the full
story from their non-Muslim friends (some of whom were of the Banu
Nadir), certain Muslims were turning away from their faith in
Muhammad. Like any successful cult leader, Muhammad knew that his
follower’s credulity in his divine claims could only be salvaged by
driving a physical wedge between them and their non-believing
friends and family.
In verses 4:88-89, Muhammad teaches that killing
is a legitimate
means of defending Islam from ideological challenge. This not only
places the next verse – Nadir’s beloved 4:90 – in proper context,
but it also explains the disconnect between himself, a peaceful
Muslim, and the Islamic terrorists who regularly kill “in the way of
Allah” (as other verses of the Qur'an advocate).
According to the full textual context of verse 4:90, therefore,
Muslims are justified in killing those who resist Islam regardless
of whether or not the Muslim community is under physical assault. Those who are protected from Muslim aggression
in 4:90 are only those who
pose no threat to the advancement of Islam (such as dhimmis).
Along the same lines, the full textual context of verse 9:5 proves
that Muslims are commanded to kill for reasons other than
Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters
wherever ye find them, and take them (captive), and besiege them,
and prepare for them each ambush. But if they repent and establish
worship and pay the poor-due, then leave their way free. Lo! Allah
is Forgiving, Merciful. (9:5)
The “sacred months” refer to the four-month period of the Haj. If
Muslims were under physical assault at the time, then they would
certainly not have waited four months to defend themselves,
particularly since they had already been give permission to fight
during the sacred months (in the Qur’an’s second chapter).
The justification for attacking unbelievers is found in the last
part of the verse. It is their unbelief. No other reason is given. The non-Muslims are to be killed and taken captive until they
convert to Islam, as outwardly demonstrated by adopting the zakat
and salat (prayer and charity are pillars of Islam).
We see now that Nadir isolates verse 4:90 to avoid the textual,
historical, and logical contradictions that are otherwise introduced
by the context of the verse. At the same time, no such games are
necessary with verse 9:5, the command to “slay pagans wherever ye
It is also important to note that verse 9:5 would have to take priority
over 4:90 in the event of a conflict, since it is a later
“revelation.” According to the Qur’an, Allah “substitutes”
revelations when a better one comes along (16:101). On this basis
alone, it is therefore more honest to pass verse 4:90 against the
“9:5 standard” rather than the other way around.
Unfortunately, the format of a debate is simply not conducive to
academic analysis, nor would it hold the attention of much of the
audience. The time that it takes Nadir to throw up verse 4:90 in
defense of his position is hardly worth comparing to the time that
it takes to refute it.
Perhaps for this reason, Sam Shamoun appears to cede Nadir’s narrow
interpretation of 4:90, while arguing against its broader
application. He does a marvelous job of quoting from many different
Islamic scholars, and from Muhammad as well, to prove that Muslims do
have rules that vary according to their relative position of power.
So infatuated is Nadir with verse 4:90
and his own position, that he does not appear to
offer the slightest counterargument to Shamoun's. He clings tenaciously to his
contention that “terrorism” is condemned by Islam merely because one
fragment of one early verse tells the Muslims of that time not to
kill those who aren’t "making war” on them.
Groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)
and individual Muslims like Nadir himself
routinely confirm Sam Shamoun’s argument that the actions of Muslims
toward non-believers are governed by the balance of power.
CAIR, which has become the face of Islam in America, uses
the Western principles of religious freedom and tolerance to justify
Muslim demands in the US, which include the right to evangelize.
At the same time, the organization not only ignores the persecution
of religious minorities in Muslim countries, but it has openly
denied the same rights to them that it demands for itself!
For his part, Nadir is also living proof
of Islam’s varying standards. Although he vehemently insists that
Islam be debated in the West, Nadir has never shown the slightest
interest in seeing that the free exchange of religious ideas is extended to
the Muslim world, where criticizing Islam is always banned by law.
Again, there is one rule for Muslims when they do not have power and
an altogether different one for when they do.
Link to the Debate: Is Islam a Religion of Peace
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