TOP FIVE MISQUOTATIONS OF THE QURAN by Dr. M. Nazir Khan on Spiritual Perception

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The recent surge in negative sentiments towards Islam and Muslims has resulted in many attempts to depict the religion as inherently violent. This has also resulted in absurd accusations against the Qur’an. What are the five most frequently misquoted passages in the Qur’an? Do accusations of violence stand up to academic scrutiny, or are the verses being distorted to suggest the opposite of what they actually say?


Religion has always been a convenient scapegoat for violence. Genocidal maniacs and extremists throughout history have frequently invoked religion to grant cosmic significance to their earthly conflicts. The political conflicts, brutal dictatorships, and warfare involving Muslim countries in recent decades have lead to the emergence of modern extremist groups attempting to justify violence in the name of Islam. Chaos, instability and prolonged warfare create a political vacuum where power-hungry groups vie for control. Such groups will raise whatever banner draws support for their cause, whether it be the banner of ethnic identity, cultural identity, nationalism, 0r a particular ideological or religious identity.

One should immediately be skeptical of the political instrumentalization of religion by such groups, and of the attempt to shift blame to a religion that has been around for 1400 years and is practiced by almost two billion adherents around the world. Nevertheless, certain verses of the Qur’an have been tossed around by radicals and by islamophobes alike, alleging that there is some Qur’anic support for violent activity. The slightest familiarity with the verses in question would demonstrate that nothing could be further from the truth.

It is fairly easy to misquote a text. All one must do is cherry-pick partial sentences and delete the surrounding context. What makes the five most misquoted Quranic verses so interesting is that the supposed violent nature of such verses immediately dissolves with a quick glance at the textual and historical context. All one needs to do is simply complete the sentence, or read the preceding or following verse, and it becomes evident that the verse in no way preaches violence. In addition, this perspective is further substantiated when one looks at the other passages in the Qur’an and statements of the Prophet Muhammad, which are unequivocal in their condemnation of violence and affirmation of peace. Furthermore, 1400 years of scholarly analysis of the Qur’an dispels the misinterpretations of contemporary radicals and anti-Muslim bigots

Misquotation 1 – Verse 2:191

The phrase “kill them where you find them” is by far the most frequent phrase that is misquoted by ardent Islamophobes and radical extremists. But this battlefield exhortation comes right after the verse which states “fight against those who fight you” and it comes right before the part which states “but if they cease fighting, then let there be no hostility except against oppressors“!

What is the historical context of verses 2:190-3 and who does it refer to? Ibn Abbas, the famous companion of the Prophet and Qur’anic exegete, says that this passage was revealed in reference to the Quraysh [1]. The Quraysh had persecuted the Muslims and tortured them for thirteen years in Mecca. They had driven Muslims out of their homes, seized their properties and wealth, and fought battles against them after the Muslims sought refuge in Madinah. The Muslims were apprehensive about another attack occurring during their sacred pilgrimage when fighting was prohibited. This is why these verses were revealed to reassure them that they would be able to defend against a Qurayshi attack during pilgrimage. Such fighting never ended up occurring between them and Quraysh, for a peace agreement was upheld and the pilgrimage was permitted [2].

The phrase “do not commit aggression” was explained by Ibn Abbas to mean, “Do not attack women, children, elderly, or anyone who is not fighting against you“, and thus harming any non-combatants is deemed a transgression against God Almighty [3]. The erudite Qur’anic exegete Ibn Ashur (d.1393H) states, “If they desist from fighting you, then do not fight them for verily God is Most Forgiving and Most Merciful, and so it is only befitting that the believers show mercy” [4]. In this regard, this verse is very similar to 4:89 which prescribes fighting the enemy but is immediately followed by the statement in 4:89, “So if they remove themselves from you and do not fight you but rather offer you peace, then God has made no way for you to fight them.

Returning to 2:190-3, the word fitnah in this passage means religious persecution (as used in 85:10) and punishing someone for their faith, and coercing them to disbelieve or commit idolatry. The great Qur’anic scholar imam al-Kisaa’i (d.189) explains that fitnah here means “torture (‘adhaab) because the Quraysh used to torture those who accepted Islam” [5]. Ibn Jarir al-Tabari (d.310H) explains that the phrase “fitnah is worse than killing” means that “to persecute a believer for his faith until he recants it and becomes an idolater is worse and more painful to him than being slain while holding onto his faith” [6]

Therefore, the passage clearly prohibits fighting against those who are not fighting. The particular misquoted phrase describes fighting in defence against perpetrators of anti-religious persecution and torture.

Misquotation 2 – Verse 9:5

The next phrase that is frequently misquoted is quite similar – “slay those pagans wherever you find them”, but again the slightest familiarity with the historical and contextual context would immediately dispel this misquotation. The verse immediately before speaks of upholding peaceful agreements with those who are at peace and never supported enemy warriors against the Muslims – so who is verse 9:5 in reference to? Qur’anic exegetes al-Baydawi (d.685H) and al-Alusi (d.1270H) explain that it refers to those pagan arabs who violated their peace treaties by waging war against the Muslims (nakitheen) [7], and thus Abu Bakr al-Jassas (d.370H) notes that these verses are particular to the Arab polytheists and do not apply to anyone else [8]. These comments are substantiated by what the Qur’an itself says. Verse 13 of the same chapter states, “Will you not fight against those who violated their peace treaties, plotted the expulsion of the messenger, and initiated the fighting against you?” and verse 36 states, “and fight the pagans collectively who wage war against you collectively.” The textual context is abundantly clear that verse 9:5 is not a random instruction out of the blue but relates to the pagan tribes of Arabia, who were in a state of war with the Muslims [9]. Therefore, to interpret the passage in any other way is to contradict the very text of the Qur’an.

Moreover, what is fascinating is that the very next verse (9:6) states that if any enemy warrior suddenly demands protection, one is religiously obligated to provide that individual with protection, explain the message of Islam to him, and if he refuses to accept, escort him to a place of security. This instruction to protect and escort enemy combatants to a safe haven makes it blatantly obvious that this passage in no way, shape or form, can be construed as violent.

Misquotation 3 – Verse 8:60

Another favourite text to misquote is the passage that states, “Prepare against them all you can of power and steeds of war..” but again, the very next verse reads, “If they incline towards peace, then incline towards peace as well” – hardly a violent passage!

Moreover, one must again ask who is being referred to in this citation? The historical context clearly places these verses again in reference to the ongoing war between the Muslims and the enemy forces of the Quraysh of Mecca and their tribal allies [10]. This chapter was revealed in reference to the Battle of Badr which took place between the Muslims who sought refuge in Madinah and the Quraysh who had persecuted them and driven them out of their homes in Mecca. The same chapter describes the pervasive warfare in Arabia and lack of security suffered by the early oppressed Muslim community. “And remember when you were few and oppressed in the land, fearing that people might abduct you, but He sheltered you, supported you with His victory, and provided you with good things – that you might be grateful.” (8:26)

Note also that sometimes Islamophobic bigots cite verse 8:12 from this same chapter “strike above their necks”, somehow completely missing the fact that the verse describes what God said to the angels during the battle of Badr. The first half of the verse reads, “When your Lord inspired the angels, ‘Verily, I am with you, so strengthen the believers…’”. To take a description of God’s inspiration to angels during a historical battle against the Quraysh oppressors and somehow distort that into a generic command for Muslims to attack non-muslims is profoundly dishonest, to say the least.

Misquotation 4 – Verse 47:4

This is perhaps the most outrageous of all misquotations. A phrase in the middle of a passage about battle is ripped out of its context and presented ludicrously as, “When you meet disbelievers, smite their necks.” To even the most casual reader who bothers to glance at the passage, the verse is talking about a meeting in mutual battle between warriors (Ar. “fi’l-muharabah” as al-Baydawi explains [11]) that comes to an end “when the war lays down its burdens” as the verse itself states. This verse is specifically discussing mutual battle with those disbelievers engaged in warfare as noted by Ibn Jareer al-Tabari [12]. This is clear from the opening line of the chapter which states, “Those who disbelieve and prevent people from the path of God“, which as Ibn Abbas has stated, is in reference to the pagans of Quraysh [13], who oppressed the believers by denying them the freedom to practice their faith and then went to war with them to exterminate their community.

With respect to the phrase, “until the war lays down its burdens“, imam Qatadah (d.117H) explained it saying, “until the enemy warriors lay down their burdens” – a phrase that was echoed by many scholars throughout history, including Ibn Qutaybah al-Daynuri (d.276H) [14]. Note also that this verse provides Muslims with only two options for prisoners of war – unconditional release, or acceptance of ransom. The verse mentions no other option, and indeed scholars have pointed out that this is the general rule, for the Prophet Muhammad only punished those war criminals guilty of treachery or gross violations, but otherwise he almost universally would pardon people even his most ardent opponents, as he did with the war chief Thumamah ibn Uthal, Abu Sufyan ibn Harb, Habbar ibn al-Aswad, Ikrimah ibn Abi Jahl, Umayr ibn Wahb, Safwan ibn Umayyah, Suhayl ibn Aamir, and the list goes on.

Misquotation 5 – Verse 9:29

One of the most interesting citations is 9:29, along with the claim that it instructs Muslims to fight people of the Book “until they pay the jizya and feel subdued”. But this verse as well has a historical context that is neglected. The very early exegete, Mujahid ibn Jabr al-Makhzumi (d.104H) explained that this fighting was revealed in reference to the Prophet Muhammad’s campaign against the Byzantine empire [15]. The Prophet Muhammad sent al-Harith ibn Umayr al-Azdi as an emissary to the Byzantine vassal state of the Ghassanids, but the chieftain Shurahbeel committing the shocking crime of tying up the emissary, torturing him, and murdering him [16]. When an army was dispatched to confront the Ghassanids for their crime, the Vicarius Theodorus summoned a large force of Roman soldiers to engage in war against the Muslims in the Battle of Mu’tah.

Thus, this verse was revealed in regards to fighting within an existing war against an enemy political entity, namely the Byzantine empire, which lead to preparations for the expedition of Tabuk. The hostility of the group in question is mentioned in the this very Qur’anic passage itself, which goes on to state (9:32) that this instruction refers to those “who attempt to extinguish the light of Islam with their mouths“, which al-Dahhak (d.105H) stated meant “they wish to destroy Muhammad and his companions.” [17]

As history went on, imperial conflicts continued between the Byzantine empire and the subsequent Muslim empire of the Umayyads. Many writing within the historical setting of imperial conflict assumed that this verse characterized a generic state of perpetual warfare with opponent political entities. However, as noted in Tafsir al-Maraghi, all of the Qur’anic conditions of warfare mentioned earlier still apply to this verse. Thus, the verse means, “fight those mentioned when the conditions which necessitate fighting are present, namely, aggression against you or your country, oppression and persecution against you on account of your faith, or threatening your safety and security, as was committed against you by the Byzantines, which was what lead to Tabuk.” [18]



The Qur’an is a message to humanity that repeats 114 times, “In the Name of God the Most Compassionate the Most Merciful.” The Qur’an instructs Muslims to show goodness to those who do evil (41:34), to speak words of peace to those who are hostile (25:63), to call to the way of God with wisdom and beautiful preaching (16:125), to treat peaceful non-muslims with the utmost kindness and justice (60:8), to be the best of people towards other people (3:110), and to respect freedom of religion (2:256, 10:99). There is simply no plausible way to understand the Qur’an in a manner bereft of mercy, compassion or peace. Any sincere and reasonable person looking at these passages must necessarily recognize that the Qur’an stands for mercy, not for destruction and violence.

Attempts to portray the Qur’anic text as preaching violence do not stand up to academic scrutiny, and in fact, can be dispelled by simply reading the entire sentence and the immediate context. Dishonesty abounds in the selective chopping of sentences by both Islamophobes and radicals alike. Knowledge of the historical context of these verses clearly demonstrates that all of these passages without exception relate to fighting against those engaged in warfare. A careful examination of the scholarly analysis of these passages provides abundant statements clarifying the meaning of these verses.

At this point, it should be obvious that one of the best ways to combat misuse of scripture is by propagating the voluminous evidences which necessitate an understanding of scripture that is peaceful, merciful, and tolerant, and empowering those who advance this understanding. To insist on characterizing the religion as inherently violent is to play right into the hands of extremists on both sides who wish to incite hatred and perpetuate war.

See Asbab al-Nuzûl by Al-Wahidi (d.468H)  Ibn Abbas explains that when the Muslims went to Mecca in 6 AH intending to perform pilgrimage, they were prevented from doing so by the Quraysh and agreed to turn around and go home after a peace treaty was made permitting them to return the following year. However, they were apprehensive to return again, fearing that they would be slaughtered while in a state of pilgrimage as the Quraysh had plotted to attack them at that time. These verses were revealed to assure them they would be able to defend themselves from such an act of aggression in the sacred precincts of Mecca. In the end, no such fighting took place at all and the Muslims were able to perform their pilgrimage in peace (al-Wahidi, al-Samarqandi, al-Tabari). See Tafsir of Ibn Jarir al-Tabari (d.310H) and al-Tha’labi (d.427H). Also, the famous early Muslim scholars Abu’l-Aliyah, SaEid ibn Jubayr, and Ibn Zayd all explained that aggression here means “fighting anyone who is not fighting you”. The famous Umayyad caliph and religious scholar Umar ibn Abdul-Aziz was asked about this verse and he stated that it prohibited any fighting against those not engaged in warfare. This has been taken as a legal maxim by Muslim scholars prohibiting harming any non-combatants. Tahrir wal-Tanwir 2:192. Multiple early exegetical sources explain that the phrase “if they desist, then verily God is Most Forgiving, Most Merciful” means if they cease fighting you and desist from their warfare against you, including Tafsir Muqatil b. Sulayman (d.150H), Tafsir al-Samarqandi (d.375H) and Tafsir al-Tha’labi (d.427H).  Reported by al-Tha’labi and al-Tabarani (d.360H). Some may wonder if scholars like imam al-Kisaa’i were contradicted by the statement of some later Qur’anic commentators who said that fitnah means disbelief or idolatry. However, Ibn Jareer al-Tabari (d.310H) and others demonstrate that there is no contradiction as “coercing Muslims to commit disbelief/idolatry” is also intended by the verse as a form of persecution of Muslims. As the eminent early Qur’anic scholar, Makki ibn Abi Talib (d.437H) notes, “Fitnah linguistically means a trial, so a trial that causes one to lose faith is worse than being slain.” Ibn Jareer al-Tabari states the same (see next footnote). Moreover, we have the irrefutable evidence of the companion Abdullah ibn Umar related in Sahih Bukhari. Ibn Umar was asked to justify his pacifism during the war in the time of Caliph Ali, especially when the Qur’an states “Fight them until there is no more fitnah.” Ibn Umar replied that when the persecution of Muslims for their faith has ceased and the tortures and killing had subsided, there was no longer any fitnah (وقاتلوهم حتى لا تكون فتنة قال ابن عمر قد فعلنا على عهد رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم إذ كان الإسلام قليلا فكان الرجل يفتن في دينه إما يقتلونه وإما يوثقونه حتى كثر الإسلام فلم تكن فتنة).  Jami’ al-Bayan ‘an Ta’wil ay al-Qur’an (2:190-193)ofImamal-Tabari states:

وقد بـينت فـيـما مضى أن أصل الفتنة الابتلاء والاختبـار فتأويـل الكلام: وابتلاء الـمؤمن فـي دينه حتـى يرجع عنه فـيصير مشركا بـالله من بعد إسلامه أشدّ علـيه وأضرّ من أن يقتل مقـيـماً علـى دينه متـمسكاً علـيه مـحقّاً فـيه 

Anwar al-Tanzeel wa Asrar al-Ta’weel (9:5) of imam al-Baydawi and Rooh al-Ma’ani (9:5) of imam al-Alusi. Such statements by exegetes are given authority because the are in agreement with the text of the Qur’an itself. When reading the comments of various classical figures, it is important to note the historical context of their comments. Many exegetes lived in the era of rival empires vying for control against each other. Often, people in those times saw imperial conquest and political expansion as the only means of conveying the message of truth to other communities who lived under hostile political entities, and so some of them attempted to reinterpret such passages in order to permit a broader scope of application. However, such interpretations are refuted by the textual and historical context of the Qur’an. Moreover, those figures themselves stated that the ultimate goal was to establish the security of the Muslim lands (see Bidayatul-Mujtahid of Ibn Rushd) or communicate the message of the faith to other people, and thus by the principles of Islamic law political expansion as a means of propagation becomes irrelevant in the digital age of mass communication and globalization. Abu Bakr al-Jassas states, “صار قوله تعالى: {فَاقْتُلُوا المُشْرِكِينَ حَيْثُ وَجَدْتُمُوهُمْ} خاصّاً في مشركي العرب دون غيرهم.” Note also that verses 9:8 and9:10 characterize the referents of these verses further by stating that those intended are the ones who “observe neither pact nor kinship in their dealings with believers”. The importance of understanding the general state of tribal Arabia cannot be understated. Today, a person can walk down the street fairly confident of not being mugged for their personal possessions, and can simply call the police should they feel their security threatened. But in seventh century Arabia, there was no police, no law, no order, only tribal protections. And these tribes were in a state of constant warfare with each other and would conduct perpetual raids. The Qur’an itself alludes to this environment, saying “Do they not then see that We have made Mecca a sanctuary secure, while men are being snatched away and ravaged from all around them?” (29:67). Wandering in the desert was a certain guarantee that one would be either killed and robbed, or worse – sold into slavery. In fact, that is precisely what happened to several of the individuals who became companions of the Prophet, including Suhaib al-Rumi, Salman al-Farisi and Zaid ibn Harithah. It is impossible to read chapter 9 without understanding this background context to appreciate the consolidation of order and rule of law that was being established in war-torn Arabia. Zad al-Masir (8:60) of Ibn al-Jawzi (d.597H) and Nadhm al-Durar (8:60) of al-Biqa’i (d.885H). Anwar al-Tanzeel wa Asrar al-Ta’weel (9:5) of imam al-Baydawi (d.685H). Jami’ al-Bayan ‘an Ta’wil ay al-Qur’an (47:4) of imam al-Tabari (d.310H). Ma’alim al-Tanzeel of imam al-Baghawi (d.516H). Likewise, the same is stated by Ibn al-Jawzi:  ” وصَدُّوا } الناس عن الإِيمان به، وهم مشركو قريش” Zad al-Masir (47:4) of Ibn al-Jawzi (d.597H). ” حتى يضع أهل الحرب السلاح” as cited in Tafsir al-Samarqandi (47:4). Jami’ al-Bayan ‘an Ta’wil ay al-Qur’an (9:29) of imam al-Tabari, also al-Kashf wa’l-Bayan (9:29) of imam al-Tha’labi. Kitab al-Tarikh wa’l-Maghazi of imam al-Waqidi (d.207H), p. 755. Recorded by Ibn Abi Hatim (d.327H), as cited in Fath al-Qadeer (9:32) of imam al-Shawkani (d.1250H). Tafsir al-Maraghi vol. 10, p.95


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