A while back I visited the clubhouse of my apartment complex. While in the lobby, I noticed some young Arab-American brothers going into the pool area. So I looked out there and saw a whole group of guys with their hookahs, “chillin’” with the ladies in their bikinis, and other guys with their beer! Frustrated, I sought forgiveness from such a sight and looked away. But lo and behold! As I walked out, I noticed a good brother I knew from the Mosque on his way in to the pool party. So I stopped and greeted him, asking how he was doing. He said, “I am going to meet some people out back… and uh… don’t worry they’re Muslims!” So then I smiled and told him I was pretty sure what was going on in there had little to do with Islam, and to be careful. He responded, “Don’t worry, we don’t drink!” So I advised him as a Muslim he should hang out in a better environment and try and make better friends. He smiled and agreed. “Okay, Imam, insha’Allah (God willing),” he said, and then went ahead to the pool party.
As we said in the last article, there are good and bad people from all countries and cultures. Sure these brothers speak colloquial Arabic, they call themselves “Muslims”, they would kiss the Qur’an and swear by Allah, but if I had the choice for my son, I would rather he hung out with more morally observant non-Muslims. Obviously the best company for any Muslim would be other devout Muslims who encourage each other to achieve piety, always hoping to follow the example of the Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him).
That being said, the question has been brought up: can a Muslim be friends with a non-Muslim? When I embraced Islam, I remember reading translations of the Qur’an and hearing people say that having a non-Muslim friend is prohibited in Islam! I am sure we have all heard “religious” Muslims repeat the claim. Is Islam some exclusivist religion, or is it Divine Mercy for the world?
Some scholars have interpreted some verses of the Qur’an to give this meaning. These scholars generally come from and live in Muslim countries that have only a very small non-Muslim minority, if any. My biggest concern is that linguistically, and according to the commentary of the early scholars, these verses are better understood to mean not friends in the personal sense, but political allies or guardians from those who have an agenda against Muslims. Every single verse that seems to give that meaning was revealed in Medina, when Muslims were being constantly plotted against by non-Muslims and Hypocrites, who claimed Islam outwardly, yet secretly worked with the plotting disbelievers against the Muslims.
Why pick the harshest, most alienating and decontextualized understanding of a verse and pass that on in a general fatwa (legal verdict given on a religious basis), to be copied and pasted all over the Internet? And after that major error in scholarship, why do translators of the Qur’an pick that harsh and flawed interpretation to go into a book that will be spread where Muslims are expected to convey Islam as a small minority with little influence in society? Muslims are in such grave need of real, high-quality scholarship with deep and insightful wisdom.
Let us take a look at some verses that are often misinterpreted in that way.
“Believers should not take disbelievers as ‘awliyaa’ to the exclusion of the believers. Whoever does so will have disconnected themselves from God…”” (Qur’an, 3:28)
The Imam of all Qur’anic commentators, Al-Tabari, makes it clear that this verse is to be understood within the context of hypocrisy and betrayal against the Muslims. He says, “This is God the Almighty and Exalted prohibiting the believers from taking disbelievers as political supporters. Muslims should not support disbelievers against other Muslims, exposing the weakness of the Muslims to them. Whoever does so is separated from God; considered as a deserter of faith.”
Clearly, the verse is not talking about having non-Muslim friends in general, regardless how close you are to them. The word which is used here—awliyaa’—is not the word any Arab uses to mean “friend”, even a close friend. Historically, Arabs have used rafeeq, sadeeq or sahib to refer to friends and acquaintances. Awliyaa’, on the other hand, is the plural of waliy, which is usually used in the context of political support or guardianship. God is Al-Waliy, which means the Guardian and Supporter of the believers, not the “The Friend”. The term waliy al-amr means someone’s legal guardian (for example, their parents). When referring to the state, it means the ruler.
It is clear from both context and linguistics that the stronger interpretation relates to the seriousness of hypocrisy in Muslims who take non-Muslims as political allies against other Muslims. The application of this verse to our lives here in the United States, for example, might be not to support the Republican Party or take your information from Fox News. It could also be used as a prohibition against joining the military, given the current policy which does not value the sovereignty of Muslim lands or the sanctity of the lives of Muslim civilians. However, in no way could the verse be understood to prohibit us from making friends with our neighbors, co-workers, or schoolmates.
In another verse from surat Al-Ma’idah, God says:
“Dear Believers! Don’t take the Jews and the Christians as awliyaa’, they are but awliyaa’ of each other. And if any amongst you takes them as awliyaa’, then surely, he is one of them. Verily, God doesn’t guide the oppressors.” (Qur’an, 5:51)
Again, the point is clarified by our great scholars of Qur’anic commentary. Imam Al-Tabari comments on this verse, “The early generations have differed about this verse. Some said it was for all believers, and others said it was specific to a contextual event in the prophetic biography regarding hypocrites and certain treacherous Jews in Medina.” He then cites various evidence from the sunnah (traditions and practices of the Prophet ﷺ) which endorses the latter opinion.
Imam Al-Qurtubi is another giant in Qur’anic commentary. He was born in Cordoba, Spain and during his life made many non-Muslim friends on various occasions. In his own explanation of the verse, he cites the same difference of opinion yet again and he gives a detailed preference to the evidence from the cause of revelation and the context of application mentioned in the sunnah.
“This is referring to the Hypocrites. The understood meaning is ‘O open claimants to faith, yet who secretly support the polytheists by informing them of the internal matters of Muslims.’” He then goes on to give many examples from the biography of the Prophet ﷺ.
Some modern commentators and translators—attempting balance in their approach—claim that one is not allowed to love or have an intimate relationship with non-Muslims. This claim is baseless in the classic scholarly commentary of the previous verses. Such a claim is very hard to substantiate when you consider that in the 5th verse of surat al-Ma’ida God permits marrying Jews and Christians and in surat al-Room God defines marriage as based in loving affection and compassion. Supporters of this erroneous claim rely on the following verse:
“You will not find a people who believe in God and the Last Day having affectionate love for those who have enmity to God and His messenger even if it be their parents, sons, brothers or other family members…”(Qur’an, 58:22)
The various commentaries noted that this verse was revealed after the battle of Badr, when Abu Ubaidah bin al-Jarrah killed his father. Again, there is a big difference between one who says they respectfully don’t believe in or follow Islam and one who has openly declared themselves an enemy of Islam, outwardly expressing hatred and enmity towards Islam and Muslims.
Admittedly, a famous axiom of Qur’anic commentary states that the meaning of a text should be considered in its generality, and not in the specific circumstance in which it was revealed. However, scholars have argued that this axiom cannot apply to all things, as this would create much strife and iniquity, particularly in regards to verses dealing with a just war. That is not to say, of course, that verses of the Qur’an were only revealed for specific situations and are thus void of benefit thereafter; that would negate the purpose of revealing it in a book of universal guidance. The correct position is that understanding the context of a verse helps in understanding its proper future application.
Even disregarding the context of the above-mentioned verses, it is clear to the observant reader that they do not prohibit us from having non-Muslim friends. The contextual traditions merely serve to solidify the point and give clarity for future applications of the laws.
So what does Islam teach about having non-Muslim friends? The following three verses will help clear away any confusion regarding the topic.
“Perhaps God will bring loving affection between you and your enemies as God is Omnipotent. God is Forgiving and Merciful. God would not prohibit you from dealing good and fair with people who have not expelled you from your land or fought against your religion. He only prohibits you from any loyalty to those who have fought your religion and worked to expel you from your land. Whoever would have loyalty to such people are undoubtedly the iniquitous.” (Quran, 60:7-9)
To my knowledge, all scholars are in agreement that the first of these verses is a miraculous prophecy, giving hope to the Muslims in early Medina that many of the leaders of the anti-Islam campaign from Mecca will embrace Islam. The second verse clarifies that the reason behind the enmity between Muslims and the tribe of Quraysh was because these people had abused, tortured, humiliated and ultimately expelled the Muslims from their homeland on account of their religion. If they had not done that, there would have been no enmity, rather mutual peace and respect.
As a rule of thumb, verses of the Qur’an that mention non-Muslims in harsh or severe terms refer only to those non-Muslims who have fought against Muslims and have openly expressed enmity towards them.
That being said, we continuously hear that America is fighting a war against Muslims, and so we should beware of its evil intentions toward Islam. However, the fact is that America is not fighting a war against Muslims. There is a military policy enforced by our representative style government known as a republic. The congressmen and the president’s administration have a complex policy on its “war on terror”. The policy has many sincere supporters who honestly think they are doing good in ridding the world of terror and threats to humanity. In many cases time and time again, they do this on false or faulty intelligence. Much evidence shows that the possible source of such faulty intelligence is a more sinister element in our government, that serves to defend imperial political ambitions and exploit natural resources of Muslim lands. Such a group is not representative of America any more than heretical jihadist groups represent the Muslims. It is completely unfair to judge all Americans by the corruption of a small group among them.
Surely one of the best ways to combat the bad image of Islam in America is through devout Muslims befriending their fellow countrymen among non-Muslims. Then they will come to know the truth of Islam by experiencing it firsthand. We should be strong in our faith and not feel threatened by people with different values. If we remain reclusive in our homes, mosques and restaurants, then we leave the media and those working against us to define us to the masses.