Debating Islam

Is Islam a Religion of Peace?

Sam Shamoun of Answering Islam
Nadir Ahmed of Examine the Truth

A Closer Look at Nadir's "4:90 Standard"

by Glen Reinsford,



Link to the Debate: Is Islam a Religion of Peace

The debate between Christian Sam Shamoun of and Muslim Nadir Ahmed of 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 other’s throat.

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 detailed 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 in part:

“... 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 instead, 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 Nadir himself.  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:

  1. Disregarding the actions (or inaction) of present-day Muslims.
  2. Disregarding the actions of Muhammad’s companions and the early Muslim community.
  3. Disregarding the historical context of the actual passage (what was happening at the time it was “revealed”).
  4. Disregarding the textual context of the verse (that which is provided by the surrounding passage).

Nadir’s residual 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 non-Muslims?

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 question, let’s 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 invention.

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 immortalized in 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 not under attack by the Banu Nadir, but the Jews were actually under attack by them!

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?” 

Not hardly.

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 persecutors!

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 examined.

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 self-defense:

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 find them.”

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

Go back to the List of Islamic Terrorist Attacks


© 2008 All rights reserved.