Does the Koran’s Verse 5:32 Forbid the Killing of Non-Muslims?
by Archi Medes
After every well-publicized major terrorist attack, Islamic apologists appear in the mainstream media, typically claiming that Islam is a religion of peace. To support their assertion, Islamic apologists often quote a famous line from the Koran’s verse 5:32. This famous line is actually only a small part of the verse, and is not even a complete sentence. Here is the line, as it is usually quoted, clipped and cropped, by apologists:
“…whosoever killeth a human being… it shall be as if he had killed all mankind, and whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind…”
Well, so far, so good. It appears to be a universal proclamation that all human life is highly valuable, and that murdering one person would be a terrible crime – like murdering all of humankind. But as we will see, appearances and apologists can be deceiving! To get a better understanding of the origins of this verse and its intended meaning in the Koran, let’s go through the complete verses 5:32-37 (Pickthall’s translation), starting with 5:32:
5:32: “For that cause We decreed for the Children of Israel that whosoever killeth a human being for other than manslaughter or corruption in the earth, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind, and whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind. Our messengers came unto them of old with clear proofs (of Allah’s sovereignty), but afterwards lo! Many of them become prodigals of the earth.”
See Ibn Kathir’s interpretation of 5:32 at http://tafsir.com/default.asp?sid=5&tid=13723.
I will present evidence that (1) the good part of 5:32 – the part that sounds like a prohibition against murdering any innocent human being – is taken from pre-Islamic sources, and will show (2) that the omitted parts of 5:32, when included, change the meaning dramatically, actually permitting killing of non-Muslims in a wide variety of circumstances.
(1) The good part of verse 5:32 does derive from earlier sources.
In context, the decree doesn’t apply universally to all peoples. The verse refers to the Israelites in Biblical history. The verses just preceding 5:32 discuss the story of Cain and Abel. It is almost certain that the good part of the verse 5:32 is actually of Jewish origin, long predating Mohammad and the Koran. This excerpt, discussing the decree’s origin, speaks for itself:
“When we turn to another Jewish record – the Mishnah Sanhedrin, we find the link between the story and what follows:
‘We find it said in the case of Cain who murdered his brother, “The voice of thy brother’s bloods crieth” (Gen. 4:10). It is not said here blood in the singular, but bloods in the plural, that is, his own blood and the blood of his seed. Man was created single in order to show that to him who kills a single individual it shall be reckoned that he has slain the whole race, but to him who preserves the life of a single individual it is counted that he hath preserved the whole race.’
Mishnah Sanhedrin, 4:5
“Here is a passage from the Mishnah! The Mishnah is a Jewish commentary on the Torah. How did a Rabbi’s commentary make its way into the Qur’an and be quoted as word from Allah? Simple, Muhammad had heard these teachings from the Jews, and repeated them later as he recited ‘revelation’.
“Because the word for blood is in the plural in Gen. 4:10, an ingenious Rabbi invented the supposition that all Abel’s offspring had been killed with him which signified that any murder or life-saving act had universal implications. Clearly Muhammad had no knowledge of the source of the theory set out in the Mishnah but, in hearing it related, simply set out the Rabbi’s suppositions as the eternal decree of God! Just think, some Jewish Rabbi’s thoughts now are comprised in the
This evidence makes it extremely likely that Mohammad (or whoever produced the words for this part of the Koran) did plagiarize or appropriate this quoted commentary of a rabbi. Given that this is a rabbi’s commentary, not the words of God or Allah as conveyed by a prophet, the divine authenticity of this part of 5:32 is all but discredited.
(2) When the omitted parts of the verse are included, the meaning of the verse changes, and permits the killing of non-Muslims under many circumstances.
Now, the argument a defender of Islam might make here, after reading the above excerpt, is “So what? Islam and Judaism have a common source, Allah. It was Allah that guided the rabbi in his commentary, and then guided the prophet Mohammad with a more ‘correct’ version.” (For this interpretation to be acceptable to Islam, one must not assume that the rabbi was a partner to Allah, but simply a believer guided by Allah.) However, this more “correct” version, intended for Muslims, has an addition not found in the earlier source. That main addition is the “corruption in the earth” exception. (We don’t need to deal with the exception for manslaughter here, for this discussion).
Killing someone for “corruption in the earth/land” is permitted (see 5:33). “Corruption in the land” refers to the words and/or actions that come into significant conflict with Islam. Some people have previously commented on this glaring problem with 5:32, e.g., see http://www.melaniephillips.com/diary/archives/001351.html. Nevertheless, most people who cite the cropped quote seem to have little concern about what the verse actually says. This is not a trivial matter. Interpreted by Muslims, the verse deals with matters of life and death!
The Koran says that the presence of disbelievers causes confusion and corruption in the land, and therefore Muslims must join together to oppose them (8:73). Ibn Kathir interprets 8:73 to mean that if the Muslims do not join together to protect themselves and their religion from the disbelievers, then “(…there will be Fitnah and oppression on the earth, and a great corruption), meaning, if you do not shun the idolators and offer your loyalty to the believers, Fitnah will overcome the people. Then confusion [polytheism and corruption] will be rampant, for the believers will be mixed with
http://tafsir.com/default.asp?sid=8&tid=20667. (Parentheses and [brackets] in original). Note that fitnah is “‘Trial, testing.’ A term referring to antagonism
toward individual Muslims at Islam’s beginning. Now it is used to refer to threats to the health of the state.”
http://www.answers.com/topic/fitnah. It can refer to civil strife, the presence of disbelievers, disbelief, or the drawing of Muslims away from Islam and into disbelief. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fitna. “Oppression” refers to any words, actions, or institutions that go against, or impede, the full unrestricted practice of Islam (Abul Kasem discusses oppression further: http://www.faithfreedom.org/oped/AbulKasem51205.htm).
5:33 “The only reward for those who make war upon Allah and His messenger and strive after corruption in the land will be that they will be killed or crucified, or have their hands and feet on alternate sides cut off, or will be expelled out of the land. Such will be their degradation in the world, and in the Hereafter theirs will be an awful doom…”
See Ibn Kathir’s tafsir of 5:33 here: http://tafsir.com/default.asp?sid=5&tid=13751.
Those who wage war against Allah/Mohammad and/or cause corruption in the earth will be killed, or crucified, or significantly dismembered (to the point of being permanently disabled), or banished (or imprisoned). (The severity of the penalty would depend on the judged severity of the transgression against Islam). In addition, they will be punished in hell (5:33). Allah punishes those who “make mischief in the earth,” subjecting them to a “painful doom” (2:10; 2:11-14).
Corruption in the land, or corruption/mischief on earth, is a huge category of offenses, violent or non-violent, that significantly go against Islam. Google “corruption on earth” + “death penalty” to get an idea of the range of offenses considered to fit that category today in some strict Islamic countries. These crimes vary widely, including, for a few examples, criticizing or calling for changes in Islamic traditions; practicing “sorcery”; engaging in “charlatanism”; sex between a non-Muslim man and a Muslim woman; highway robbery; destruction of buildings; and terrorism against Muslims.
War against God, mentioned in 5:33 (below), is also the same kind of huge, flexible category that could include a wide variety of offenses significantly against Islamic doctrine or Islamic society. Aqa Mahdi Puya comments: “Waging war against Allah and His prophet means hostility against His chosen representatives; or deviation from His laws by overstepping the boundaries laid down by Him; or letting loose a reign of terror to persecute and frighten innocent people in order to deprive them of their rights; or attempts to undermine the cause of Islam and the overall interests of the Muslims; or activities to enslave, exploit and destroy human beings.” Source: http://al-islam.org/quran/. There are a couple of potentially misleading statements in Puya’s commentary. First, the Koran does call, in jihad, for terrorizing the disbelievers (8:60, 9:5), but never calls for terrorizing believers. Puya’s comments about “innocent people” could refer to Muslims, but the Koran does not consider the non-Muslims to be innocent – far from it (see below). Second, the Koran permits Muslims to have slaves (4:3, 4:36, 23:6, 24:58, 30:28, 33:50). Otherwise, Puya’s commentary is consistent with other accounts. According to Ibn Kathir, disbelief is included in the category of crimes labeled ‘war against God;’ see http://tafsir.com/default.asp?sid=5&tid=13751. What ‘corruption on earth’ and ‘war against God’ have in common is that each is a huge category encompassing a variety of violent and non-violent words and actions considered offenses in Islam. The significant overlap between the two categories involves opposition to Islam, including non-violent opposition.
Scholar and apostate of Islam, Ibn Warraq, does not interpret 5:32 to be a peaceful verse, pointing out that, in light of 5:33, the verse contains a warning to the Jews (i.e., warning them not to commit mischief/corruption). This point is partly in reference to this part of 5:32: “…Our messengers came unto them of old with clear proofs (of Allah’s sovereignty), but afterwards lo! Many of them become prodigals of the earth.” “Prodigals of the earth” is not a compliment. It means that many of the Jews were reckless, transgressing laws in the land, despite having been given clear instructions from the prophets of Allah. Ibn Warraq writes, “The supposedly noble sentiments are in fact a warning to Jews. ‘Behave, or else’ is the message. Far from abjuring violence, these verses [5:32-33] aggressively point out that anyone opposing the Prophet will be killed, crucified, mutilated, and banished!” [brackets added]. (From Ibn Warraq, ed., (2003) Leaving Islam, p. 401. Amherst, New York: Prometheus). This interpretation is consistent with Ibn Kathir’s:
A more direct question is simply, what did Mohammad consider to be acceptable killing? We know from the Islamic texts (Koran, Hadith, Sira) that he had critics and satirical poets assassinated for their words against Islam
(Sources: http://www.answering-islam.org/Muhammad/Enemies/index.html, http://answering-islam.org/Authors/Arlandson/free_speech.htm, http://answering-islam.org/Authors/Arlandson/dead_poets.htm.) The Koran is clear that (male) Muslims must emulate the example of the prophet Mohammad (33:21). Therefore Muslims are obligated to kill (non-Muslim) critics of Islam. If this is acceptable killing according to Islam, why should anyone take 5:32 seriously as a peaceful verse? How can this be a verse of peace when it permits Muslims to kill anyone simply for doing or saying something judged to be against Islam?
5:34: “Save those who repent before ye overpower them. For know that Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.”
See Ibn Kathir’s interpretation here: http://tafsir.com/default.asp?sid=5&tid=13783
Those who surrender to Islam will not be killed nor face the other penalties. They must repent before they are overpowered. Keep in mind that Mohammad was, and encouraged his followers to be, ever wary of hypocrites – those who are merely pretending to repent or submit themselves to Allah. Note that whether or not the person must face the penalties listed in 5:33, including death, depends on whether or not the person surrenders to Islam.
These passages may also be taken as having a wider application than dealing with individual transgressions. However, in battles or raids, the Koran states that captives should not be taken until a slaughter has first been made (8:67). In that case, obviously, many disbelievers would be killed before even being given the chance to repent. That doesn’t sound like a very “merciful” policy! But one must also keep in mind the general Islamic policy of acting hard against the disbelievers but being merciful to other believers (48:29).
5:35: “O ye who believe! Be mindful of your duty to Allah, and seek the way of the approach unto Him, and strive in His way in order that ye may succeed.”
5:36: “As for those who disbelieve, lo! If all that is in the earth were theirs, and as much again therewith, to ransom them from the doom on the Day of the Resurrection, it would not be accepted from them. Theirs will be a painful doom.”
5:37: “They will wish to come forth from the Fire, but they will not come forth from it. Theirs will be a lasting doom.”
A disbeliever is anyone who doesn’t believe in the one Allah (with no partners or rivals), Mohammad’s validity as a prophet, the eventuality of the Last Day, or who significantly transgresses Islam. The disbelievers are non-Muslims, including non-religious people generally, anyone who strongly questions, criticizes, or mocks Islam, and generally people of all other religions (Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, etc.). They are doomed to hellfire, and there is nothing that can be done about it – except, of course, to convert to Islam exclusively, before it’s too late. Verse 3:85 says that Islam (the “Surrender”) is the only acceptable religion. Those who deny Mohammad’s revelations are evil (7:177). Over 250 separate verses in the Koran condemn non-Muslims to hell-fire/eternal torture and doom.
The worst possible crime is disbelief in or denial of Allah (10:17, 11:18-19, 18:15, 32:22). It is considered an act or state of aggressive defiance against Allah. The Koran is quite explicit that disbelief is a persecution worse than warfare (2:217) or slaughter (2:191) that involves death of Muslims. (For a discussion, including tafsir, of 2:191, see http://www.faithfreedom.org/faq/70.htm, by Ali Sina). Murder of a Muslim is a crime that is penalized according to the law of life-for-life retaliation (5:45; i.e., death penalty), but disbelief is a worse crime! Remember the apologist’s quote, that killing one person is like killing all humankind? If we assume that’s true, then disbelief in Islam is a worse crime than killing all humankind! This sounds like a far-fetched interpretation, but it is a simple logical deduction from what the Koran says. The Koran does not say “disbelief is the second-worst crime, and murder is the worst.” Rather, the Koran clearly and repeatedly states that disbelief is the worst crime.
Think about this for a moment. Why do some Muslims in some parts of the world go on a rampage, killing people over rumors that a Koran has been damaged? Why do some Muslims kill people who merely criticise Islam or make fun of the prophet? How is it that so many thousands of Muslims demonstrated so violently, calling for the death of Salman Rushdie over some words of fictional characters in that author’s novel? Why do some Islamic countries still officially implement the death penalty for “blasphemy”? Why do some Muslims kill people if women are dressed in bikinis for a beauty contest? Unfortunately, this far-fetched interpretation that I just mentioned is accepted with deadly seriousness, and in accordance with Islamic law in many jurisdictions, by millions of Muslims today. This far-fetched interpretation has been widely accepted by Muslims for nearly 1400 years. Belief in Islam is more important to some Muslims than is human life. And that’s what the Koran says: Disbelief is worse than killing.
Non-Muslims, according to the Koran, are not considered innocent civilians. They are “guilty” of disbelief (45:31, 83:29) – the worst crime. The Koran says that non-Muslims are against Allah (25:55); on the side of the Satan and are fighting for him (4:76-77); “evil” (16:27, 2:91, 2:99); the “wrong-doers” (2:254, 5:45); the “enemy” and “perverted” (63:4); “wicked” (80:42, 9:125); hypocrites (4:61); “unclean” (9:28). As for whether non-Muslims are civilians, the Koran is not even clear that non-Muslims are fully human. Instead, the disbelievers are the “worst of created beings” (98:6); “miscreants” (2:99, 24:55); “the worst beasts in Allah’s sight” (8:55), “apes” and/or “pigs” (2:65-66, 5:58-60, 7:166), and so on. Verse 60:4 says followers of Allah will hate the disbelievers forever, unless the disbelievers come to believe in Allah only. Think about this thorough demonization of disbelievers, together with the conception of disbelief as the worst possible crime. Now think about how easy it would be for a Koran-believing Muslim to find a non-Muslim guilty of corruption on earth or war against God. Keep in mind that much of the words, deeds, and customs of the non-Muslims happen to go against Islam.
Killing disbelievers is not, in itself, a crime. This is confirmed in Tabari, e.g., “Killing disbelievers is a small matter to us…” Tabari IX:69. In fact, many verses in the Koran order the killing of various kinds of disbelievers (33:61, 4:76, 4:89-91, 8:12, 9:41, 9:5, 9:29, 61:11, etc.). Believers must honour their duty to Allah and fight the disbelievers in battle, or be punished in hell (2:216, 8:15-16, 9:39). Although the Koran explicitly forbids the murder of Muslims (4:93), the Koran does not contain a similar statement that forbids the killing or murder of non-Muslims. Where there are benefits to Islam in letting the non-Muslims live, there could be some minimal protections for the non-Muslims. They could be spared as slaves to be bought or sold; they could become dhimmis (subjugated second-class citizens); they could be ransomed; women captives could be taken forcibly as wives or sex slaves; or captives could be set free depending on the personal discretion of the Muslim captor. Abul Kasem has cited and discussed Ibn Kathir’s interpretation of 5:32, indicating that non-Muslims are not protected by 5:32; only Muslims are protected. http://www.faithfreedom.org/oped/AbulKasem50808.htm.
Are non-Muslims’ lives protected under other circumstances? Some non-Muslim groups could be protected by temporary treaties with the Muslims, if this was deemed beneficial to Islam. However, even these treaties could be broken at any time (e.g., see 9:1-17) to serve the larger goals of Islam (see below). For a discussion of this broken treaty mentioned in Sura 9, see Ali Sina’s commentary at http://www.faithfreedom.org/debates/Waqasp3.htm. In that article, Sina also cites 8:58, which allows Muslims to break treaties even if they only suspect or fear treachery from the other side. The treaty violation revealed in Sura 9 illustrates the Islamic jihad policy, as pertaining to the condition where Muslims are in a strong position militarily, e.g., Muslims should not call for peace when they have the upper hand (47:35). Another reason to seriously doubt the validity of such treaties, regardless of the relative military strength of the Muslims, is that the Koran refers to non-Muslims as liars (e.g., 2:10, 9:42, 16:39, 16:105, 59:11), and thus implies that Muslims should not trust the word of non-Muslims. Thus, because the Koran says disbelievers are liars, Muslims at any time can claim they fear treachery from the other side (8:58) and can therefore make an excuse for breaking a treaty! Historically, treaties have been interpreted by Islamic scholars to be merely temporary tactical manoeuvres that could be overruled within the overriding long-term strategic, global jihad.
Intentional killing is a crime (i.e., murder) when one of Muslim humankind is the victim (4:93). More precisely, taking the rest of the Koran into account, 5:32 may only protect strict, Koran-adhering Muslims, or “single-minded slaves of Allah.” Many verses suggest that weak, casual, or mere nominal Muslims may not be protected. This is strongly suggested by Sura 9, which has harsh warnings to those Muslims not willing to kill or be killed in the jihad. Nevertheless, killing a believing Muslim in a terrorist attack could constitute corruption on earth and war against Allah. On that interpretation, because such terrorists (e.g., bin Laden, Zarqawi, et al.) have also killed Muslims (not just inadvertently, but deliberately, e.g., attacks in Saudi Arabia), those terrorists could be penalized in accordance with 5:33. (Fighting between different sects, such as between the Sunni and Shia, has been justified by each side claiming that the other are not true Muslims; hence killing of the others is considered permissible).
Quoted fully, in light of the subsequent verses, and the overarching message of the Koran, verse 5:32 was never intended to forbid the killing of disbelievers. Verses in the Koran must always be understood within the context of the ultimate goal of Islam. Allah sent Mohammad (and his followers) to conquer all other religions (9:33, 48:28, 61:9). To achieve this ultimate goal of vanquishing disbelief, Muslims must convert, subjugate, or kill all non-Muslims until all religion is for Allah (2:193, 8:39; also see 9:5 and 9:29; also see ). This must always be kept in mind. This ultimate goal is the context which contains and overrides all contexts in Islam. If killing a non-Muslim is necessary for the advancement or the defence of Islam, then it must be done.
1. Verse 5:32 is almost certainly derived from earlier Jewish sources – actually a rabbi’s commentary, not the revelations of a prophet of God/Allah. Mohammad (or someone) added the “corruption on earth” exception, changing the original concept in order to permit the death penalty for significant violations against Islam.
2. In the Koran, verse 5:32 offers no protection for the lives of non-Muslims. Even if we assume the verse is authentic, corruption on earth is so broad a category that almost anything that disbelievers say or do that is judged to be significantly against Islam could be used as grounds for administering the harsh penalties – including death – described in 5:33. In other words, 5:32 permits what most non-Muslims would consider to be murder. Indeed, the verse grants Muslims licence to kill non-Muslims under a surprisingly broad range of circumstances. Those apologists who present 5:32 to non-Muslims as though it were a good verse are either naïve or are knowingly engaging in deception.
 The Hanbali jurist Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) wrote that captive non-Muslim non-combatants, including women and children, could be executed if they merely engaged in verbal or written opposition to Islam:
“As for those who cannot offer resistance or cannot fight, such as women, children, monks, old people, the blind, handicapped and their likes, they shall not be killed unless they actually fight with words [e.g. by propaganda] and acts [by spying or otherwise assisting in the warfare]. Some jurists are of the opinion that all of them may be killed, on the mere ground that they are unbelievers, but they make an exception for women and children since they constitute property for Muslims.”
(Source: Ibn Taymiyya (1996). al-Siyasa al-Shariyya. (Translated by Rudolph Peters). Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam. (pp. 44-54; see p. 49). Princeton NJ. Markus Wiener Publishers). First, the policy of killing any non-Muslim who wages verbal war against Islam (e.g., criticizing the prophet) is consistent with Mohammad’s conduct described in the Hadiths. Second, the prophet’s conduct in killing non-Muslim women and children in jihad was deemed acceptable in analogous military circumstances. For example, Averroes (d. 1198), the Maliki jurist and philosopher, wrote that
“Most scholars agree that fortresses may be assailed with mangonels, no matter whether there are women and children within them or not. This is based on the fact that the Prophet used mangonels against the population of al-Ta’if.”
Likewise, Al-Ghazali (d. 1111), a revered Sufi theologian, claimed that in jihad
“…one may use a catapult against them [non-Muslims] when they are in a fortress, even if among them are women and children. One may set fire to them and/or drown them…”
(Source: Al-Ghazali (1979). Kitab al-Wagiz fi fiqh madhab al-imam al-Safi’i, Translated into English by Dr. Michael Schub. (pp. 186, 190-91). Beirut. Cited in Bostom (2005), see below).
Finally, note that even in cases where the the Muslims’ non-Muslim slaves or dhimmis committed no word or overt act against Islam, if they were killed by Muslims, the penalties to the Muslims would be minor (e.g., several lashes with a whip). The penalty would not be for killing the non-Muslim person, but for destroying the Muslims’ property or source of revenue.
A recent edited volume by Andrew Bostom documents the history of the killing and mass slaughters of non-Muslims in the expansionist imperialistic Islamic jihads: (Bostom, Andrew G. (ed.), with foreword by Ibn Warraq, (2005). The Legacy of Jihad: Islamic Holy War and the Fate of Non-Muslims. New York: Prometheus Books).
 Generally speaking, the classic jihad policy involves giving non-Muslims a choice: (1) convert to Islam, or else (2) remain a non-Muslim but become a (subjugated) dhimmi and pay the jizya “protection” tax to the Muslim authorities, or else (3) be put to death. The chief basis for this policy is most clearly captured in verses 9:5 and 9:29:
9:5: “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.”
9:29: “Fight against such of those who have been given the Scripture as believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, and forbid not that which Allah hath forbidden by His messenger, and follow not the Religion of Truth, until they pay the tribute [jizya tax] readily, being brought low.”
This policy is still accepted in the Shafi’i Sunni manual “Reliance of the Traveler,” which is officially endorsed by Sunni Islam’s most respected authority in the world, the Al-Azhar University in Cairo. The manual states that jihad is “a communal obligation” to make “war against non-Muslims.” It states that “…the caliph makes war upon Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians…until they become Muslim or else pay the non-Muslim poll tax…” Moreover, “The caliph fights all other peoples until they become Muslim.” The jihad must be carried out even if there is no caliph. (Source: Ahmed ibn Naqib al-Misri (1999). Reliance of the Traveler (‘Umdat al-Salik): A Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law. (Translated by Nuh Ha Mim Keller). Amana Publications: Beltsville, MD. See law numbers o9.0, o9.1 , o9.6, o9.8, and o9.9).