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Can Muslims be friends with non-Muslims?

Can Muslims be friends with non-Muslims?


Assalamu Alaikum Wa Rahmatullahi Wa Barakatuh, brother. I know you are busy, so I’d really appreciate if you can elaborate on, or debunk, the claim that ayah 5:51 tells Muslims that they cannot take Christians or Jews as friends. I’m not sure if you’ve answered this before. I’m sorry to bother you if you already have. Jazakallah Khair.

Wa alykum as-salaam,

I’d like to apologize to everyone that I take so long to reply, but I try to answer as many questions as possible, and I hope you understand and accept my apologies, even though I do not deserve your forgiveness.

As far as the ayah in question, the word that is key here is “awliya” which is translated routinely as “friends.”

Muhammad Asad argues, and I happen to agree with him, that this translation of “friends” is misleading, because it changes the thrust of the ayah, and others like it. So, 5:51, in full is the following:

“O you who have attained faith! Do not take the Jews and the Christians for your allies: they are but allies of one another –and whoever of you allies himself with them becomes, verily, one of them; behold, God does not guide such evildoers.” [5:51] Muhammad Asad

This ayah is talking about macro-level relationships, and according to many commentators, including Tabari, this is not a binary of “Muslims/Jews and Christians,” but rather, the idea that is being expounded is that Christians communities will only extend genuine friendship to other Christians, and Jewish communities to other Jewish communities, and therefore, we must understand this ayah in relation to a larger construct, which is the political reality of The Prophet, where certain tribes were either allies or enemies of The Prophet and the early Muslims, and thus this injunction is to be wary of taking non-Muslim allies, but, this ayah is only a warning, and as we’ll see in others parts of The Qur’an, the idea of being close to non-Muslims politically is acceptable.

Again, we must understand that ayahs like this come from a historical context of The Prophet, that is that The Prophet had to deal with the various tribes and the constant shifts of allegiances of these tribes who had broken agreements between themselves and the early Muslim community.

Therefore to understand this ayah with universal implications is seriously problematic, because there are others ayahs of The Qur’an which underline that there were Christians and Jews (among those known to The Prophet and the early Muslims) who are still believers, specifically in 3:110. A later ayah in the same Surah explicitly states that Christians and Jews will enter heaven: “And, behold, among the followers of earlier revelation there are indeed such as [truly] believe in God, and in that which has been bestowed from on high upon you as well as in that which has been bestowed upon them. Standing in awe of God, they do not barter away God’s messages for a trifling gain. They shall have their reward with their Sustainer — for, behold, God is swift in reckoning!” [3:199] Muhammad Asad

So, again, we’re talking about political levels of interaction, and while we can take some political teachings, that is a different subject matter, because 5:51 refers to a specific set of people, which becomes clear when we look at the following ayah:

“But as for those who have come to believe without having migrated [to your country] – you are in no wise responsible for their protection until such a time as they migrate [to you]. Yet, if they ask you for succour against religious persecution, it is your duty to give [them] this succour–except against a people between whom and yourselves there is a covenant: for God sees all that you do.” [8:72] Muhammad Asad

So this ayah describes Muslims who live in non-Muslim territories. This doesn’t prohibit the necessary alliance with non-Muslims, not only because this ayah is revealed at a different time, but it is still relevant today because Muslims will face different situations which necessitate different actions. The importance of keeping one’s word, i.e. a covenant or alliance, is so important that The Qur’an commands the Muslims to seek non-violent approaches towards securing the rights of Muslims living in non-Muslims lands, should their rights be in jeopardy.

I’d like to underline that this is not a contradiction, but rather illustrates something rather pragmatic about The Qur’an, it provides the Muslim with the ability to use their discretion.

The following ayah underlines how conducting politics with honor and integrity is of the utmost importance, where The Qur’an says:

“With all this, [remember that] those who are bent on denying the truth are allies of one another; and unless you act likewise [among yourselves], oppression will reign on earth, and great corruption.” [8:73] Muhammad Asad

Again, this issue, which connects to the original ayah in question, 5:51, is political and deals with the concepts of statecraft, therefore it is incorrect to assign universal application of 5:51, and when read and understood in conjunction to the aforementioned ayahs makes this particularly clear. Muhammad Asad affirms this in his famous Tafseer on 8:73 which he connects to 5:51 by writing, “This refers, of course, to relations between communities, and not necessarily between individuals.”

The proof of this argument is in the practices of The Prophet and his successors.

When the early Muslims were persecuted viciously by the Quraysh, where did they go? They went to Abyssinia, where it was the Christian King who sheltered the early Muslims, where two groups of Muslims went to Abyssinia in separate migrations.

Furthermore, in The Constitution of Medina, which was created by The Prophet, we have Article 16 which states: “Whoever of the Jews follows us has the (same) help and support (as the believers), so as long as they are not wronged (by him) and he does not help (others) against them.”

The Prophet also famously issued what has been called “Prophet Muhammad’s Promise to Christians,” which was sent to the Monastery of St. Catherine, the full text of which is the following:

“This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them. Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them. No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries. No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses. Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God’s covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate. No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight. The Muslims are to fight for them. If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray. Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants. No one of the nation (Muslims) is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day (end of the world).”

This openness to others is illustrated by an incident cited Abu Zahrah, where an elderly Christian woman requested an audience with Caliph Omar, who responded favorably and afterwards invited her to embrace Islam. She refused. Omar became anxious because he feared his invitation would be construed as compulsion to faith, he then said: “O my Lord, I have not intended to compel her as I know that there must be no compulsion in religious,…righteousness has been explained and distinguished from misguidance.” This story, related by Hashim Kamali, underlines the respect for people of other faiths, which underlines again, that the above ayahs do not reflect inter-personal relationships, but rather, political considerations, in certain situations.

Furthermore, in Abu Yusuf’s work Kitab al-Kharaj we can see that Caliph Omar drafted the “Charter of Rights” which states the following:

“In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate. This is the security which Omar, the Servant of God, the Commander of the Faithful, grants to the people of Aylia. He grants to all, whether sick or sound, security for their lives, their possessions, their churches, and their crosses, and for all that concerns their religion. Their churches shall neither be changed into dwelling places, nor destroyed, neither shall they, nor their appurtenances, nor any of their possessions, be in any way diminished; nor shall any constrain be put upon them in the matter of their faith; nor shall any one of them be harmed.”

The Caliph Ali also underlined this distinction, where he was noted as saying that “they [non-Muslims] only entered the covenant so that their lives and properties would be [protected] like our lives and properties.” This may sound cynical upon first glance, but it proves, rather conclusively, that non-Muslims purposely entered into Muslim lands because they knew they would be treated fairly, which clearly illustrates that there is a distinction between individuals and political forces. 

Another example is when The Prophet fled Mecca to go to Medina, he trusted a non-Muslim pagan as his guide, Abdullah ibn Urayqit, because that man was the best guide. Imagine how important this job was, and it was entrusted to a non-Muslim, which further underlines that this ayah in question does not refer to individual relations, but again, is simply one piece of advice by The Qur’an for certainpolitical situations.

Finally, if we are supposed to administer Dawah, how would we do this without being friends with those who are non-Muslim? I’ve never understood those who posit that we cannot be friends with non-Muslims, who then urge Muslims to administer Dawah. It makes no sense.

So, I believe by using The Qur’an and the historical precedence of The Prophet, his successors, and history, we clearly see that if you take the word “awliya” to mean “friends” this is a simplistic and incorrect notion, and that through looking at the aforementioned sources (The Qur’an, et al) it becomes clear that this injunction is political and constrained to an option for political choice, but not individual choice.

I hope this answered your question, and if you, or anyone else has a question on this, or any other topic, please do not hesitate to ask me, insha Allah.

I pray this reaches you and your families in the best of health and Iman, insha Allah.

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